By Jeffrey M. Kralik, Ph.D.
For most people, champagne “season” has just ended: it started with Thanksgiving, went through the winter holidays, and culminated on New Year’s Eve. Many people have purchased and consumed a large portion of their yearly sparkling wine consumption to celebrate the season.
In fact, celebrations of one sort or another are responsible for roughly 2/3 of all sparkling wine consumed in the U.S. and a good portion of that is consumed during the month of December.
While there is no doubt that the marketers of sparkling wine (led by Champagne) have done an incredible job promoting bubbly as the perfect way to mark a special occasion or the dawn of a new year, they have seemingly neglected the fact that sparkling wine is perhaps the most versatile style of wine when it comes to food pairings.
Just like any wine type, there are several different styles of sparkling wine. In fact, sparkling wine is likely the most varied of all wine types. There are several reasons for this variation, perhaps none more significant than the blend used to make the wine. In Champagne, the vast majority of wines are made from three main grapes (Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier)* and the proportions that are used can largely affect the style of the wine.
Roughly speaking, Chardonnay adds elegance, finesse and delicacy; Pinot Noir adds more backbone, resulting in a fuller bodied wine; and Pinot Meunier adds more floral and fruity aspects to the champagne.
In other regions, there may or may not be restrictions on the varieties used, but like in Champagne, the style of the wine is based largely on the varietal blend.
Sparkling wine producers strive to make a consistent “house style” from year to year for their non-vintage brut (and their vintage wines when possible—but the style of vintage wines is more reliant on the vagaries of the given year). Roughly speaking, these styles can be grouped into three basic levels according to the relative “body” of the wine: light, medium and full.
While most sparkling wines will excel as an aperitif, like all wines when pairing sparklers with food, a particular style can be better suited for certain dishes. Similar to still wines, it is best to try and pair sparkling wines with dishes based on the attributes of both. What many people do not realize is that since champagnes and sparkling wines are high in acidity, they are capable to take on a variety of dishes.
Here are a few basic pairing suggestions for sparkling wines based on the style of the wine:
Lighter bodied sparklers
Usually, lighter bodied wines are either dominated by, or made strictly from, white grapes (the latter being called a Blanc de Blancs). Since, by definition, these wines have less body, the wine relies on its brightness (acidity) to match the food. Of course, the natural position for lighter bodied wines would be with appetizers such as nuts, olives, shrimp, and oysters. Lighter bodied sparklers could also hold up to some main dishes, but this is usually the case for wines of higher pedigree, particularly vintage or prestige cuvées. Think lighter pastas or seafood risotto.
Medium bodied wines
With the addition of a bit of body (usually this is done by blending in white wine made from “black” grapes), the range of accompanying dishes broadens a bit. Again, most well-made sparklers have an abundance of acidity, but the
additional “backbone” in medium bodied sparklers opens up more pairing possibilities. While the more delicate appetizers might fall off the list, medium bodied wines can handle the addition of “meatier” ingredients such as aged hard cheeses (gruyère is ideal), or dishes with chicken or a wide range of fish. The same holds true for the main course where medium bodied sparklers will pair quite nicely with mushroom risotto, creamier pastas, and grilled chicken.
Full bodied wines
At the other end of the spectrum from the lighter bodied wines, full bodied sparklers are
some of the most versatile wines in the wine world. These wines either made from amajority of, or completely from red or “black” grapes (the latter being called a “Blanc de Noirs”). Again, with all the requisite brightness to pair with some delicate starters, but they can handle so much more. If you are one to break out the caviar, reach for a fuller bodied wine. Once you get into the fullest bodied sparklers, the rosés, pairings can go almost all the way up to some of the biggest meals, up there with all but the biggest red wines.
- Charles de Cazanove
- Bruno Paillard
- de Castellane
- Heidsieck Monopole
- Charles Heidsieck
- Moët & Chandon
- Pol Roger
- Paul Bara
- Veuve Clicquot
- Louis Roederer