As often as I extol the virtues of sparkling wine’s place at the table, it’s far from often that I have the opportunity to sit down to a five course dinner paired exclusively with Champagne. That’s just what I did last night, though, courtesy of an invite from Tom Hudson, owner of Wilmington, Delaware’s Domaine Hudson (and a semi-frequent commenter on this blog).
In addition to overseeing the day-to-day activities at Wilmington’s only wine bar, Tom coordinates an occasional series of focused tasting and wine dinner events. This latest shindig paired the food of executive chefs Jason Barrowcliff and Mark Doto with selections from the Champagne portfolio of Terry Theise. Unable to attend himself, Mr. Theise, I’m told, personally selected the Champagnes on offer after contemplating the menu the chefs had designed for the affair. In the absence of Terry or one of his usual representatives, Tom invited Linda Collier, proprietor of Collier’s Wines in Centreville, Delaware, to provide color commentary for the evening’s proceedings. The real stars of the show, though, were the Champagnes that not only spoke for themselves but also spoke, more often than not, in harmony with the food on offer.
Green Eggs and Ham – warm poached egg, herb emulsion, spinach, crispy pancetta and warm shallot compote on brioche
Champagne Brut “Tradition,” Gaston Chiquet NV (Dizy)
The first duo set a tough standard, one of those pairings where everything harmonized really well. The initially reductive characteristics of the Champagne clicked, right off the bat, with the salty, smoky flavors of the pancetta crisp. As the wine warmed, its Meunier dominated flavors became more apparent, showing touches of nut bread, pear and red flowers, all of which flavors were heightened by the richness of the egg protein and sweetness of the caramelized shallots on the plate.
Prosciutto and Arugula with toasted walnuts, fig, shaved parmiggiano and orange-vanilla vinaigrette
Champagne Grand Cru Sec “Cuvée Tendresse,” Jean Milan NV (Oger)
I’m still not a big fan of Milan’s “Tendresse.” I just can’t get my arms around its highly perfumed, slightly confected being. On this night, it was tasting, straight up, like the “liqueur” from a jar of maraschino cherries and that, my friend, wasn’t helping me come to terms with it. All of that said, this was one of those pairings where food helped the wine to make more sense. The Champagne worked with what was essentially a salad course in much the same way as can a Riesling Kabinett from the Mosel or Saar, its combination of delicate sweetness and high acidity playing nice-nice with the notoriously difficult combination of greens and vinegar. The sweetness of Prosciutto certainly didn’t hurt, even if the dish would have been even better minus the insidious influence of a few drops of truffle oil.
Pan Seared Day Boat Scallop with exotic mushroom-goat cheese strudel and herbed truffle-carrot broth
Champagne Premier Cru Blanc de Blancs “Fleuron” Brut, Pierre Gimonnet et Fils 2002 (Cuis)
Truffle oil again… but this time it worked, courtesy of the vinosity and well developed mineral flavors of Gimonnet’s vintage “Fleuron.” At once rich and delicate, the wine showed elements of sandalwood and white chocolate, marrying naturally with the sweetness of the scallops, carrots and mushrooms. As with the Chiquet, “Fleuron” really developed with air, its grippy texture and phenolic concentration becoming more apparent via its upward shift in temperature. Lilacs and baking spices emerged on the nose and the wine displayed excellent length. This time, the Champagne may just have stolen the show, even though this was my favorite dish of the night.
Roasted Barrel Cut Rib Eye with sage-pepper coulis and parmiggiano polenta
Champagne Premier Cru “Sélection” Brut, Marc Hébrart NV (Mareuil-sur-Ay)
Tom admitted to being skeptical as to whether Champagne could hold up to a beef course, a doubt I’m sure he wasn’t alone in holding. I wasn’t among the doubters, though, as I’ve had many a black fruit driven Champagne with more than enough structure to stand up to red meat. As it turned out, Hébrart’s “Sélection” was indeed up to the task. Even if nothing was added via its combination with the steak, it held its own, tasting pretty darn decadent along the way. It was actually the streak of tomato coulis painted down the middle of the plate that threw the wine for a loop, with a zesty tang that was too assertive for the wine to match.
Warm Berry Crisp with vanilla ice cream
Champagne Premier Cru “Le Demi-Sec,” A. Margaine NV (Villers-Marmery)
Well, four out of five ain’t bad. I don’t think even a fully doux Champagne could have withstood the berry crisp’s triumvirate of acidic fruit, high sweetness and tongue numbing, mouth coating frozen dairy product. Margaine’s demi-sec was blasted out of the water. The dessert was actually quite tasty, just not the pairing. Even after finishing the crisp it was tough to discern any detail in the wine. Theise had apparently warned Tom that this might be the case.... I’m generally a proponent of wine following food but here’s a case where it might have been best to tailor a dessert specifically for the wine. Milk chocolate beignets, perhaps? Or a lightly sweet apple tart?
No harm done, though. Just as we can sometimes learn more about someone based on what they don’t like versus what they do enjoy, the occasional awkward pairing is an integral element in learning the ins and outs of the greater food and wine experience.
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