Winter trips to Champagne can be a bit nippy. Perishingly cold, actually (cue: violins). And tasting dozens of vins clairs, the region’s sharp, thin, still wines assembled for blending in the Spring, is a tooth-rattling experience (more violins). But the real trial of a trip of several days or more is the lack of drinkable still wines (OK, so the violins are looking a little outraged at having to play to this).
You invariably eat extremely well when visiting Champagne houses – there could be an element of competitiveness involved – and you taste and drink some fabulous Champagnes, but still wines, if served, rarely extend further than red Bordeaux, classed growths admittedly, or, if you’re less lucky, some light, red Coteaux Champenois. Mostly, the Champenois serve their Champagnes with meals.
They make a great effort with the pairings (you can imagine the selfless trial-runs with Michelin-starred chefs) and they often succeed in showing how well good Champagnes, especially Blanc de Blancs, vintages and rosé, go with a wide variety of ingredients and dishes. The question is whether you want to drink fizz all the way through a meal. Or several. At risk of being dropped like a stone from various guest lists, I find that, unless they’re intended as an academic exercise, dinners pall when course after course is accompanied by a series of Champagnes. It’s the build up of bubbles and acidity. Lunch is fine, not least because it’s shorter.
I was reminded of this last month at what turned out to be a revelatory tasting in London. It was a Champagne tasting with canapés – beautifully matched, but for once Champagne wasn’t the only wine. That was the point. Frédéric Panaiotis, chef de caves of Ruinart, had chosen some of his favourite Chardonnays from around the world to show alongside Ruinart Blanc de Blancs (NV) and Dom Ruinart Blanc de Blancs 2004 and 1998. It was called the Ruinart Lighthouse tasting, because it was set in the Ruinart Lighthouse art exhibition, but it could have been called the Ruinart light-bulb tasting.
There were some lovely wines (full list in menu below), among them Bret Brothers Mâcon-Chardonnay, Neudorf (New Zealand), Giaconda (Australia) and a Premier Cru Meursault from Château de Puligny-Montrachet. In each case, the Champagne was as good a match for the food as any of the still Chardonnays and usually it was better. Which just goes to show that the Champenois should let their wines get out more, let them mix with the best of the rest of the world’s Chardonnays and they shouldn’t be afraid of admitting that still white wines can be quite good with food, too.
with Sea Bass Ceviche - with chilli, lime and tortilla crisp:
Ruinart Blanc de Blancs (magnum)
Bret Brothers Macon-Chardonnay 2013
Neudorf Chardonnay 2010, Nelson
with Ginger-poached Lobster - with salmon keta and silken avocado:
Dom Ruinart Blanc de Blancs 2004
Giaconda Estate Vineyard Chardonnay 2012, Beechworth, Victoria
Jean-Paul et Benoît Droin Chablis Grand Cru Grenouillle 2013
with Truffled Guinea Fowl - with wild mushrooms and lemongrass-infused sweetcorn:
Dom Ruinart Blanc de Blancs 1998
Château de Puligny-Montrachet Meursault Premier Cru Les Poruzots 2009
Peter Michael Cuvée Indigène Chardonnay 2006, Sonoma County, California
Photograph by Joanna Simon