Festive days tend to fall into a predictable arc of food and wine: the day starts bright and light, but, as the light fades and the curtains are drawn, plates and glasses get weighed down with heavier loads. By the evening, when the Port decanter is being sluggishly passed around, might a few of us find ourselves wishing we had kept things bright and light for longer?
What if this descent into density and opacity can be fought off by sticking with Champagne from dawn (or at least lunchtime) until dusk? Can Champagne really keep up, and how can we lend it a helping hand with our choices?
The opening act
Whenever your first shots are fired, seafood is likely to be involved. Sarah Miller, owner of top London fishmonger and wine shop Oeno Maris, suggests looking to classic seafood dishes to match with Champagne: dishes that are ‘simple, not overpowering, but easy to prepare despite a certain level of decadence,’ she says . Miller recommends serving Champagne with the rich and timeless dish of oysters Rockefeller (where they are baked in a buttery sauce and topped with breadcrumbs), as Champagne’s inherent acidity is more than able to maintain pace with the creamy opulence of this dish.
Miller is also a fan of the straightforward process of home curing sides of salmon, avoiding the overt and Champagne-killing smokiness of bought-in packets. ‘The base is 50/50 Maldon salt and sugar. You can really play with the cure – for example clementine zest and bay leaf work really well with Champagne,’ she suggests.
Miller points out that high-quality farmed salmon from a reputable fishmonger is a tastier and more environmentally sound purchase than wild, and that you can achieve the same with high-quality freshwater trout (such as the UK’s Chalk Stream Trout).
For those ordering ahead or without a good fishmonger nearby, Miller is a fan of salmon, mackerel or even herring roe, which she prefers to caviar at a fraction of the price. ‘It just has more pop!’
While hot-smoked fish can be overpowering for Champagne, Miller highlights that salt cod (or bacalao, native to northern Spain and Provence) can be made into a simple and eminently Champagne-friendly brandade (puréed salted cod and potato, with olive oil and garlic) to have on hand for toasts and nibbles.
Oily fish tends to take better to Champagnes with a higher percentage of Pinot Noir, or even rosés. Eric Zwiebel MS of The Samling Hotel recommends brut nature Champagnes with fish such as salmon or tuna ‘to cut the richness of the texture’. Citrussy flavourings will pair better with Chardonnay and blanc de blancs (such as Delamotte Blanc de Blancs, which comes with a real quality boost in magnum if you have more than a few glasses to fill).
Creamier or richer dishes pair best with Champagnes with more age (such as Taittinger’s Prélude Grands Crus), while smokier fish dishes should be good matches for Champagnes that incorporate oak (such as the Paul Déthune Blanc de Noirs from the grand cru village of Ambonnay).
Your keynote dish
When it comes to the main course, Christmas dinner’s traditional trimmings can be Champagne killers – sweet/sour cranberry sauce and a mouthful of youthful blanc de blancs will not be kind to either. Zwiebel recommends a brut style or once again a rosé. ‘Turkey is a neutral meat, it’s more about the trimmings, the gravy, the bread sauce,’ he says.
The main meal is tailor-made for Champagne’s deep and dark rosé de saignée, such as Rémi Leroy’s stunning Les Crots Rosé de Saignée from the Côte des Bar. You could even try one of Champagne’s rare still rosés, such as the beautiful Rosé de Riceys La Fôret from Alexandre Bonnet. The acidity will cut through the richness, while the tannins and body will match up to the sauces – the intense fruitiness will even keep pace with the sweeter condiments, and the bitterness and tannin can take on Brussels sprouts.
Finishing on a high
As the light fades and Christmas puddings, trifles and mince pies enter the equation, even the most optimistic Champagne advocate has to accept defeat; no sparkling wine will survive such onslaughts of sugar, alcohol and spice. ‘The cheeseboard, though, is a fine time to double back,’ says cheese and wine pairing specialist Jessica Summer of Mouse & Grape.
‘Consider the age of the cheese with the age of the Champagne,’ says Summer, suggesting a beautiful pairing of a young Comté-style goat’s cheese from Dorset called Rachel with a non-vintage Champagne, such as Bruno Paillard Blanc de Blancs Grand Cru.
‘Go for medium-age cheese – probably no more than 24 months,’ she says, and avoid very pungent cheeses.
Don’t be afraid to experiment, though: ‘A Gorgonzola dolce – there’s even one that’s truffle infused – is a showstopper with rosé Champagne. The saltiness of the cheese brings out the fruitiness in the wine; you really get strawberries and cream flavours coming through,’ she says.
But what is the ultimate spot for that special bottle? The leftovers. When all the bustle of the big day is done, there’s no better way to ride out the come-down than by opening a showstopper. Fine vintage rosé Champagne (the Charles Heidsieck Rosé Millésime 2012 is on my menu) with a turkey sandwich – complete with a smudge of cranberry sauce and cold stuffing – is a match that threatens to throw everything else into the shade. Best, then, to make sure there are a few days’ worth to play with.