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Perfect partners: Champagne and Japanese food

It may not be the most obvious combination but, as Fiona Beckett discovers, Champagne and Japanese food are exceptionally well matched.

We are sitting cross-legged on the floor in Juko-in, part of the Daitoku-ji temple in Kyoto, the historic place where the Japanese tea ceremony was invented. In front of each of us is a red laquered tray with a bowl of soup and a selection of exotically carved vegetables. Solemnly a glass of Dom Pérignon is put down alongside. It seems wildly incongruous except, of course, when you are reminded that Dom Pérignon himself was a monk. Even so, wine, let alone Champagne, is not the traditional accompaniment for Japanese food, shojin ryori, the traditional Buddhist vegetarian cuisine which dates back more than 800 years. Indeed, wine is still comparatively rare in top Japanese restaurants, and the fact that Dom Pérignon is so successful (Moët sells as much DP there as it does Brut Imperial) owes a lot to its chef de cave Richard Geoffroy’s own passion for Japan.

The love affair started three years ago when he invited one of Kyoto’s leading chefs to visit France for a week and prepare a number of kaiseki (haute cuisine) dinners. The trip was a huge success but stimulated rather than satisfied his curiosity. ‘I actually started the wrong way round,’ he admits. ‘I discovered Japanese food in France and in the States, but after this event I realised I had to go back to the purity of the original.’

The meal at the temple is part of the annual Kyoto autumn festival, which is sponsored by Dom Pérignon. Temples occasionally open their doors to honoured guests and this event, in a private room not normally open to the public, is catered by a neighbouring restaurant, Daitokuji Ikkyu.

The Japanese food

There are strict conventions for serving shojin ryori. As Richard Hosking explains in his Dictionary of Japanese Food, a meal should incorporate five colours (green, red, yellow, white and black-purple) and six tastes (bitter, sour, sweet, hot, salty and delicate), the aim being to achieve an overall balance and harmony.

Unfamiliar though the ingredients were, I could still appreciate how the textures and flavours of what we were eating brought out different qualities in the recently released 1993 vintage. Mustard made it taste more toasty, yuzu (a Japanese citrus fruit) accentuated its freshness and tonburi (vegetarian caviar) made it richer and sweeter, so it proved the perfect counterpoint to the subtle bittersweet flavours of a white miso soup with mustard and turnip, a Kyoto speciality. ‘Whatever the colour of miso I’ve found there is a correspondence with Champagne,’ says Geoffroy. ‘I wondered why and concluded it was because both involve the use of yeast.’

Tofu, too, proved to be a great foil, as we found the next day at specialist tofu restaurant Tsutaya just outside Kyoto at Sagana Toriimoto. There they serve the purest tasting, silkiest tofu you can imagine and marrying it with bubbles was inspired.

The pinnacle of the two-day trip, however, was a 12-course meal at Kyoto’s best kaiseki restaurant, Kitcho. Like shojin ryori, kaiseki is based on firmly established conventions. Both the food and the dishes that it is served in must reflect the season, with spring and autumn being particularly important, and the dishes must also relate to the shape of the food. According to Hosking, round pieces of food should be placed on a square dish and square or long-shaped pieces on a round dishThat might sound dauntingly formal but in fact the whole meal was a total assault on the senses, every bit as much theatre as the Noh play we had attended earlier in the evening. One course, for example, arrived wrapped in a bundle of twigs. Inside was a selection of superbly fresh seafish and other delicacies, including karasumi (bottarga), tomburi and crab eggs, although perhaps the biggest surprise was a soft cheese that turned out to be Boursin! Equally dramatic was a dish of charcoal-grilled eel, with Chinese lemon and carrots, served out of a huge, 100-year old maple-leaf decorated bowl, one of only five in existence.

But the highlight was the presentation of the grilled matsutake, a rare and highly prized mushroom (the Japanese equivalent of truffles) which was cooked on a hot rock in the restaurant by chef Tokuyaka and his assistant. He sprayed the matsutake with water, covered them with rice paper, then half-seared, half-steamed them to bring out their flavour. The aroma and sound of sizzling mushrooms permeated the whole room.

It was also matsutake that created the most exciting matches with our magnums of 1990 Dom Pérignon. It appeared in several other incarnations, including a smoked chicken broth topped with a soft quail’s egg which tasted like a wondrously liquid bacon and eggs. However, it was the broth created with a high-quality kombu (seaweed), dried bonito (skipjack) flakes and a soy sauce specially made for the restaurant, which accompanied a dish of smokey aubergine, quail and matsutake, that really got Geoffroy excited. ‘Le bouillon avec le vin,’ he murmured ecstatically. ‘C’est sensational. C’est umami!’*

Combining the wine and food

Geoffroy explained that he’d chosen the 1990 vintage because it was particularly suited to an autumn menu. If it had been a spring or summer event we would have gone for the 1993. ‘We don’t use the rosé right through a meal. We tried it and it doesn’t work.’ Nor does he change wines halfway. ‘With this kind of meal you can’t think in a Western way. You have one wine from start to finish. The reason Dom Pérignon works is its complexity and its virtual lack of tannin. Red wine would be a walking disaster.’

Although chef Tokuyaka didn’t tailor his food to harmonise with the wine (the idea in Japan is that the drink isn’t supposed to alter the flavour of food), he showed an astonishing awareness of what effect the flavours he used would have on it. Another masterpiece was a toro tuna sashimi with fried wild yams – a taste that wasn’t unlike pork fat and which again emphasised the rich depth of the Champagne.

His menu notes revealed how carefully the effect was calculated. ‘Cut the oily fish thinly and gave it a slightly acidic flavour by using balsamico soy sauce followed by mustard. Boosted the taste of the mashed wild yams to make it fresh in the mouth. The fried wild yams have a different feeling in the mouth, which is very enjoyable. The oil of the fish in comparison with that of meat should go well with the crisp and pleasant acidity of Dom Pérignon.’

At the end of the meal he sat down on the floor next to me. ‘Tell me, do you have any criticisms?’ he urged. ‘I don’t want flattering opinions, I want to enhance my ability.’ Well I’m sorry Tokuyaka, but I couldn’t think of a single negative comment – it was quite simply one of the best meals I’ve ever eaten.

*Umami is a Japanese taste, best described as a ‘delicious savouriness’ (Hosking’s Dictionary of Japanese Food, Tuttle, £9.99). It occurs naturally in foods such matsutake, miso and katsuobushi (dried bonito).

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