Champagne is often reserved for a special occasion. But as I was having lunch recently with Dom Perignon Chef de Cave Richard Geoffrey at Michelin three-star restaurant Per Se in New York, the thought occurred to me: I don't drink enough Champagne, especially with my food. This revelation came to me as we inhaled the bubbles from the winery's 1973, 1976, 1990, and new 1998 vintages while enjoying master chef Thomas Keller's white truffle risotto, among his other sublime dishes.
Champagne, like BMWs and regular spa treatments, has been experiencing a surge in consumption. Over 300 million bottles left the cellar doors of Champagne houses in 2004, according to their trade body Comit? Interprofessionnel du Vin de Champagne (CIVC). That's a rate surpassed only in 1999, at the peak of the dot-com bubble -- or should we say "bubbly." Sales are on track this year to top last year's. An embrace of Champagne by nightclub-goers (especially the hip-hop crowd), women drinking more sparkling wine, and a rising tide of restaurants promoting sparkling wine with dinner are all driving sales.
Most people, however, still consume their annual take of bubbly between Thanksgiving and New Year's, often defaulting to a familiar name or whatever's on the end-of-aisle display at the liquor store. But there has been so much activity in sparkling wines -- especially Champagne -- over the past few years that it's worth exploring different possibilities for holiday toasts as well as meals.
Dom Perignon, with its extraordinary brand recognition, has naturally benefited from the growing interest in sparkling wines. Like Mercedes-Benz, the brand might raise the question of whether its popularity and wide acceptance cover up a mediocre product. Certainly some years are better than others, and the weather has more to do with that than wine crafting. But Dom has earned its status because of the winery's longstanding obsession with balance and structure felt on the tongue -- achieved through the careful blending of chardonnay and pinot noir grapes -- and a strong, long finish. The just-released 1998 vintage ($115 to $130) doesn't disappoint. It stands up perfectly as an aperitif. Creamy with bright citrus flavors, it was also an ideal accompaniment to chef Keller's lobster. The smokier 1976 vintage ($776) went well with pumpkin soup dotted with a tiny, tender Brussels sprout. The 1990 ($365), fatter and more buttery than the others, was matched with oysters, caviar, and pearl tapioca.
Good Champagne is always worth toasting. For that, flute or tulip glasses are suggested. But some winemakers and sommeliers suggest pouring in chardonnay glasses if you're drinking Champagne with food to get the full nose of the wine over the course of the meal.
The widest choices tend to be at French and Asian restaurants, especially good sushi places. At The International Bar and Restaurant in London, 8 to 10 Champagnes are always on hand. Dom Perignon's Geoffrey says he regularly goes to Asia to meet with chefs. "[They] are influencing me more than anything else." During a recent lunch in Manhattan, chef de cave at G.H. Mumm & Co. Dominique Demarville paired his new release of Brut Champagne Grand Cru N.V., $56, with sea bass. Mumm's Carte Classique N.V. ($35), he says, "is a more logical accompaniment to many spicy Asian foods than a white still wine." At Unicorn, an Asian restaurant in Berkeley, Calif., I paired Henri Billiot Ros? Champagne ($65) with my lemongrass-roasted quail.
A TOAST FOR TWO
Ros? champagne, for a long time little more than a curiosity, has grown in popularity, especially with younger drinkers, and Champagne houses have been upping production and offerings. Generally ros? Champagne is made by adding a bit of red pinot noir or pinot meunier juice to the white base wine. Occasionally it's made by allowing brief contact with red wine skins while the grapes ferment. Some theorize that ros? is an aphrodisiac, making it ideal for a toast for two, but the only thing certain, based on sales, is that it appeals to women more than men.
Ros? Champagne is serious business, and good bottles are getting easier to find. Consider that Dom Perignon's 1990 Ros? sells for about $950, more than twice the price of its white Champagne of the same vintage. Veuve Clicquot Brut Ros? Champagne Grand Dame 1995 ($230) is excellent, with notes of raspberries and black pepper. Laurent-Perrier Brut Ros? Champagne Grand Si?cle Alexandra 1997 ($95) is sweeter, with big mineral and strawberry tastes and a long finish.
The rush to bubbles is helping producers outside central France. California, Australian, and Italian makers are getting more aggressive in their marketing and better in their craftsmanship. Taittinger's Domaine Carneros Le R?ve Carneros 1999 ($59) and Schramsberg Brut Blanc de Blanc 2001 ($24 to $33) are among the California sparklers turning heads. Italians such as Bellavista Gran Cuvee ($49) stand up well to the French. The Australians sell mostly below $30, but many such as Seaview Brut N.V. ($10 to $17) are better than its price tag would indicate.
With competition and quality from other regions on the rise, it's no wonder that Dom Perignon's Geoffrey says: "I've always felt that the best work comes from great pressure." That's about what you would expect a Champagne maker to say.
By David Kiley