Brut force and ignorance: Champagne and food

Richard Woodard

13 July 2015

For over a decade now, the Champenois have been trying to get us to embrace the idea of fizz and food. But is it working? Richard Woodard analyses the fruits of 10 years’ hard labour

Did you ever have the deflating experience of ‘discovering’ some obscure new band and enjoying that frisson of anticipation as you waited to play their music to your best mate – only to discover that he or she thought they were crap?

I’ve come to the conclusion that pairing champagne with food in restaurants is like that. No matter how convinced – and convincing – the wine trade may be about its best-thing-since-sliced-baguette status, the punter ain’t listening. I’d say it’s like trying to sell Riesling – except that some people do actually buy Riesling of their own volition.

Too cynical? Maybe, but it’s all about theory and practice. In theory, champagne and food are great together. ‘When you try it with food, that’s when the wine comes alive,’ rhapsodises Andrea Briccarello, wine buyer for Galvin Restaurants, recalling a match of Laurent-Perrier Demi-Sec with a dessert involving strawberries, thick cream and shortbread. ‘It works absolutely brilliantly.’

And in practice? ‘Realistically, it’s not easy unless you force people to drink it,’ he admits. ‘How many people enjoy a bottle of champagne with their food? It’s probably once every blue moon.’

Or, as consultant Martin Lam puts it, pairing food with champagne is ‘something that’s more the province of the minds of sommeliers and champagne producers than the public at large’.

So, come on then producers, convince us. How can we make food and champagne work in the real world of restaurants?

‘I don’t think there is a strict rule,’ says Diane Gonzalez, Champagne Jacquart’s UK business development manager. ‘The need is to look at the menu and work on what could be the perfect match and then make it more visible – seeing is selling. We often think a prestige cuvée can only be a perfect match with a very complex dish, but sometimes something very natural and uncomplicated can work perfectly.’ Offering different cuvées with each course, she adds, can pique customer interest.

Strategic pairing
Then there is the tasting menu. Jonathan Simms, brand ambassador for GH Mumm and Perrier-Jouët, believes this can be an effective way to change the customer mindset, noting that it has now spread beyond its Michelin heartland to local restaurants around the country.

But, counters Christine Parkinson, group head of wine at Hakkasan, tasting menus can entrap champagne and food in a kind of ghetto. ‘Matching champagne to a dish on a tasting menu is lovely, but it doesn’t encourage people to risk trying champagne with other dishes – quite the opposite,’ she argues.

Simms believes the answer lies in the tactical use of champagne and food, whether that be tasting menus, grouping appropriate starters and mains together to highlight and align with relevant champagnes – or brunch offerings, which he says work well in Dubai and elsewhere overseas, ‘and [are something] we can make more of in the UK’.

We have plenty of wines to sell already, and champagne is much easier for staff to sell as an aperitif

Christine Parkinson

‘Tactical’ just about sums it up. Marinel FitzSimons, brand manager for Louis Roederer at Maisons Marques et Domaines, is planning a dinner at Galvin at Windows in September with six Roederer cuvées matched to a six-course menu.

Similarly, Champagne Bruno Paillard has just started a collaboration with London’s Sushisamba, matching nine of the house’s champagnes to the restaurant’s eclectic mix of Japanese, Peruvian and Brazilian influences. The pairings range from the expected – crispy yellowtail taquitos with Blanc de Blancs 1996 – to an adventurous prestige cuvée Nec Plus Ultra 1999 and Kobe beef match.

‘If the sommelier is convinced and has embraced the concept, then he can persuade the diner,’ insists François Colas, key account manager at Champagne Bruno Paillard.

‘It would be most likely to succeed with less-understood or familiar styles such as a demi-sec or zero dosage, as customers often appreciate food pairings can work, but would require some guidance,’ FitzSimons adds. ‘For these a tasting menu or specific food matching would be effective.’

High-end costs
But barriers remain – not least the price factor. ‘The biggest problem I think is the fact that champagne is still seen as a premium drink,’ says Briccarello. ‘Because of the price and status, it’s an occasional drink to celebrate. You might sit down in front of a movie with a glass of wine, but I don’t think people would do it with champagne.’
This shuts the door on champagne and food matching for neighbourhood restaurants and gastropubs.

‘It’s a tough one at the coalface, away from the white tablecloth poncery,’ says Kate Hawkings, from Bell’s Diner and Bar Rooms in Bristol. ‘The more serious, complex champagnes that are better suited to food are so expensive; most people, certainly outside London, would choose to spend their money on good wine instead. I know I would.’

We’re back to that gap between theory and practice. Briccarello recalls a recent visit to Laurent-Perrier, where they served their rosé champagne with lamb and game. ‘They treat it almost like a red wine,’ he says. ‘But I’m not sure how the customer would react in a restaurant if you offered them a glass of rosé fizz with their venison.’

Lam racks his brains to find a way to make it work. ‘At the moment, the restaurant world is divided into relaxed dude food – have what you want, down and dirty, drinking out of jam jars and all that nonsense; and serious eating, 12-course tasting menus, matching this, that and the other – put on headphones and listen to the sea crashing on the rocks while you have your fish course.

If the sommelier is convinced and has embraced the concept, then he can persuade the diner

François Cola

‘Champagne fits into that side of things more because it’s expensive and high-end – but a paired champagne menu means spending a lot of money.’

In the end, his best suggestion is the arena of small-plate, less formal dining in venues such as 10 Greek Street, ‘where the quality of the food and the handling of the cooking is undeniable, but it’s much less formal. Then you might be able to say: “This champagne with that dish goes really well”’.

But isn’t it a bit too much like hard work? Parkinson thinks so. Asked how to change the consumer mindset, she responds: ‘At the risk of being shot at dawn, I wonder if restaurants should even try to do this? We have plenty of wines to sell already, and champagne is much easier for staff to sell as an aperitif.

‘Far more people nowadays are willing to have a glass of fizz to start with, and I think that’s a really positive move, as it reduces the dependence on selling champagne for special occasions only. Champagne is becoming mainstream because people choose to start with a glass of it.

‘I think that we should encourage this, and allow people time to realise that they can also drink it with food. Then focus on the versatility!’

The case for the defence: Andrea Briccarello’s warm glow of idealism

‘I still think there is an opportunity,’ insists Andrea Briccarello, wine buyer for Galvin Restaurants. ‘I like to break rules and be non-conformist. I believe [we can] enjoy certain things in another way. I think champagne should be treated exactly like a normal wine.

‘It’s a bit like sherry. Sherry and food are amazing. Why bother? Because it’s an exciting drink and it can go amazingly well with food – it opens the door to a thousand different combinations. It’s the same thing with champagne, if you bother to make an effort and push the boundaries a little bit.

‘You need to get people to open their eyes. If you have a wine dinner with 20 people and five of them are willing to try it again, then that’s your job done.’

The case for
the prosecution: Martin Lam’s cold blast of reality‘Often, champagne is just served as an expensive fizz and people don’t pay a lot of attention to it,’ says Martin Lam, consultant and former owner of Ransome’s Dock. ‘You can put some pretty good stuff in front of people and they’ll just glug it back.

‘One New Year’s Eve at Ransome’s Dock I served an expensive vintage champagne as an aperitif – and I wished I hadn’t. A good non-vintage would have been more appropriate for all the attention it got – and it ate up a lot of my wine budget for the meal.

‘The least successful wine dinners at Ransome’s Dock over 15 years were the champagne dinners. They were just much harder to sell to people. Although people think champagne is lovely, you could sell a Rhône dinner twice over, but you’d struggle to get a full house for champagne – unless you have still wines as well.’

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