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Greatness by Mistake: a Tale of Champagne and Life

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By Troy Knapp

Troy Knapp is executive chef at Hyatt Hill Country Resort & Spa as well as a certified sommerlier

The holidays are a good time to reflect on the year and to show appreciation for what we have. Far too often we seem to be searching and longing for more, when what we have is really quite special.  The French region of Champagne demonstrates this with its similar history.

In the early 1700’s the winemakers in Champagne, France were focused on making still wine.  They could not understand how mysterious bubbles were ending up in the bottle.  It was learned years later that fermentation was prematurely halted during the typical cool fall season of this northerly region and the wine simply went into “hibernation” for the winter.

After the bottling took place and the spring brought warmer temperatures, the fermentation was awakened, this time around the wine was in bottle and under pressure, therefore trapping the bubbles and creating a sparkling wine.

It was the Benedictine monk, Dom Pérignon, who introduced better attention in vineyard technique as well as significant progress in blending. Even though he is mythically known as the “Father of Champagne”, during his life span the effervescent wine was considered faulty and he was trying to keep bubbles out of the bottles.

A decade later, Madame Clicquot a.k.a. Veuve (the widow) Clicquot discovered methods that resulted in pristine clarity, Champagne was previously full of cloudy sediment.  It was these modern advances combined with the natural progression and understanding of physics that shaped this marvelous and difficult beverage into what it is today.   Can you imagine life with out this wonderfully perfect mistake?

 Every major wine region has its version of sparkling wine and if made by a good producer will typically offer great drinking pleasure. However, Champagne is the role model.  If there is one wine region to read about, Champagne certainly has fascinating history of war and hardship.   Considering all the challenges that plagued the area for centuries and the patience and meticulous detail in creating Champagne in the traditional method, it is amazing that this wonderful sparkling wine ever came to be.

Champagne gains popularity over the winter holidays, however it should not be reserved for this small period of time as it offers versatility like no other wine.  I can always find a reason for a glass of this brilliant wine made by the Champenoise.

Champagne is a beverage of many talents and the range of styles will embrace most occasions with excitement and charm. Breakfast and brunch are well-suited for bubbles by itself or with a dash of freshly squeezed orange juice.  Champagne cocktails come in all sorts and styles, Guinness and Champagne being one of my simple favorites.  Yes, I admit, the first time I heard of this obscure concoction that is referred to as Black Velvet, I was quite leery, that was until my first sip when I was pleasantly surprised.

The range of sweetness levels is another unique trait of Champagne.  Brut Nature (bone dry) styles are quite nice as an aperitif, a “drink appetizer” if you will.  Brut and Dry styles are very complementary to a range of dishes and Doux, which is the sweetest, is wonderful to conclude dinner with or complement a dessert.

When pairing wine with food a few basic rules go far.   Here are a few concepts and their specific relation to the most common Brut and Dry styles of Champagne.

Acid needs acid: Cool climate wines typically showcase higher levels of acidity which pairs wonderful with vinaigrette-based salads, pickled and brined items such as olives, cornichons and especially oysters.  A wine with low acidity would taste rather flat in this setting.  Seeking out a great bottle of Champagne and some really fresh oysters will certainly deliver a wonderful experience!  Obviously quality of both are imperative so making friends with the seafood and wine associate at your specialty grocer is key in your pursuit of dining pleasure.

Yin and Yang:  Opposites complementing each other is the beauty of this pairing technique.   Champagne complements rich dishes as the acidity cuts the fat and leaves the palate refreshed, begging for more.  Most fried food as well as creamy soups (which are typically more difficult to match with wine) finds a great relation with a quality bottle of bubbles, as well as a charcuterie plate of cured meats.

Seafood and Champagne – A match made in heaven.  Briny caviar, cured or smoked salmon, wonderfully fresh sashimi and really most seafood, becomes even better when they are accompanied with a great sparkling wine.  Just as squeezing a slice of lemon on a piece of fish brightens the flavor, Champagne will enhance the experience in the same fashion.  Beautiful relationships like this are what food and wine synergy are all about; not complex, just simple and when done right, dynamic.

Sweet and salty or sweet and spicy.  These natural combinations find a great relation when pairing Demi -Sec (being somewhat sweet) and Doux (the sweetest Champagne category) with either dishes that contain some saltiness or subtle spiciness.

To me Champagne is more than a great wine; its depth and nuance and complexity are reflective of the land in which it hales.  This luxurious beverage did not come easily, so sip slowly and be thankful that “mistakes” do occur in life.

Happy holidays and in the New Year may all of your “pain” be Champagne.


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One Response to “Greatness by Mistake: a Tale of Champagne and Life”

  1. burke says:

    antoher sparkeling article, thank you Chef.