Champagne: A holiday tradition

Holiday cheer and Champagne go together like presents and giftwrap. For those who drink Champagne, chances are they will indulge in bubbly at least once during the holiday season.

While a small number of Champagnes seem to dominate the market, some of the lesser known brands can often be better for a particular holiday event or circumstance.

Jacques Scott Wines & Spirits offers many different kinds of Champagne, all of which have different taste profiles. A five-brand Champagne tasting over lunch at Calypso Grill demonstrated just how different the world’s most famous sparkling wine can be.

Champagne 101

All Champagne is sparkling wine, but not all sparkling wine is Champagne. To be real Champagne, no matter what the label might say, the wine must be produced in the Champagne region of northern France.

Champagne is generally made from a blend of two well-known grapes – Chardonnay and Pinot Noir – plus one not-so-well-known grape – Pinot Meunier.

Champagne’s bubbles are from carbonation produced by a secondary fermentation process that occurs inside the bottle when a little sugar and yeast has been added.

Champagne was sweet when it was first invented, but different levels of sweetness started appearing from the 1870s. There are now six levels of Champagne sweetness, from driest to sweetest: extra brut, brut, extra dry, sec, demi sec and doux.

Champagne should be served cold and preferably in a flute – a tall, narrow glass that minimises the size of the carbonation bubbles and keeps it from going flat quickly. Flutes should ideally be filled no more than two-thirds with Champagne, so the beverage inside can be consumed at a comfortable pace without losing its bubbles or becoming too warm.

Most Champagne is non-vintage, or NV, meaning it is a blend of Champagne from various years. This type of Champagne is intended to be consumed relatively soon after it is released by the producer. Vintage Champagne is produced from a single harvest and uses wines with characteristics that have aging potential. It can age a decade or more and is therefore more expensive than non-vintage Champagne.

Different tastes

Just like wine, different Champagnes have different tastes.

One style of Champagne is Blanc de Blanc, which means it is made entirely from Chardonnay grapes. Billecart-Salmon Grand Cru Brut Blanc de Blanc ($89.99) is an elegant Champagne that is a blend of two harvest years. It has delicate bubbles and refreshing acidity, making it a good Champagne to drink during cocktail time before dinner or with seafood such as caviar and oysters.

At lunch, it was tried first with Calypso Grill’s cracked conch, which owner James Mason said the restaurant had just started serving again days before when conch season reopened.

“It will become our best selling appetiser for the next four or five months,” he said. “I was going to do ceviche, but I thought it would be too acidic to go with the Champagne.”

Because of its high acidity, Champagne is one of the few wines that could have stood up to the highly acidic flavours of ceviche. Thanks to its bubbles, Champagne is also is the best wine for fried seafood – like cracked conch or calamari – as well. While the Billecart-Salmon Brut Blanc de Blanc was a little too delicate for the cracked conch, Louis Roederer Brut Premier ($54.99) was better, even if it is still a delicate, elegant Champagne.

Made from 40 per cent each Chardonnay and Pinot Noir and 20 per cent Pinot Meunier, Louis Roederer was this day’s tasting favourite of Jacques Scott Wine Marketing Manager Lee Royle, who liked its balance. Jacques Scott Managing Director Peter Dutton agreed.

“For milling around before dinner, with canapes and the like, the Roederer is the choice,” he said.

With heavier food, however, other Champagnes worked better. A trio of sautéed mushrooms – shiitake, enoki and hedgewood – served over crostini paired very well with Pol Roger Reserve ($65.99), a blend of 33 per cent Chardonnay, 33 per cent Pinot Noir and 33 per cent Pinot Meunier. Popularly known as ‘White Foil’, Royle said Pol Roger was the house Champagne of the Fairmont luxury hotel and resort chain, and was also the favourite of Sir Winston Churchill.”

Rich with a good depth of flavour and with what Royle called “more weight”, the Pol Roger was a winner with mushrooms.

Next served was duck with cranberries in Grand Marnier sauce. With this dish, the full-bodied Gosset Grand Reserve Brut ($77.99) paired best. The blend of 43 per cent Chardonnay, 42 per cent Pinot Noir and 15 per cent Pinot Meunier had similarities in taste to that of a vintage Champagne, with aromas of wheat, dried fruits and yeast.

“It’s like someone opened the bakery door,” Royle said.

Gosset Champagnes are made for the table and would be a good choice to accompany the flavours in a Christmas dinner.

Of course, red is a traditional Christmas colour and any holiday table would look more festive with flutes of Taittenger Brut Prestige Rosé ($68.99), a blend of 70 per cent Pinot Noir and 30 per cent Chardonnay.

Although Calypso Grill is famous for its sticky toffee pudding, Chef George Fowler chose a different dessert route to pair with Champagne – warm chocolate bread pudding. With its plentiful bubbles and aromas of red berries, the Taittenger Rosé with the pudding was a fitting end to an immensely satisfying lunch.

Why Champagne

Champagne is the beverage of celebrations and, unlike many other alcoholic beverages, is a favourite of both men and women.

It is used to toast rites like weddings and baptisms; to mark momentous occasions like engagements, graduations or company mergers; or to celebrate winning big sporting events like auto races or football league championships. A bottle of Champagne is also often used to launch boats.

With the popularity of Champagne increasing, it is not surprising it has become part of many people’s holiday traditions.

Dutton said part of his family’s tradition drinking Champagne and eating mince pies while wading knee-deep in Frank Sound close to his home.

Even though Cayman’s economy is still struggling to recover from tough economic times, Royle said sometimes people just need to splurge.

“Despite all the negative stuff … it’s Christmas.”