Champagne masterclass report – dare to be different

Imbibe Editorial

Imbibe Editorial

21 December 2016

It can be hard to take customers out of their comfort zone when it comes to the world’s most famous fizz. Fortunately, our latest masterclass should give you plenty of ideas

It takes something special to get sommeliers out of bed early on a cold Monday morning. But champagne, it would seem, has what it takes. Fifteen luminaries from across the on-trade braved the chilly winter sunshine to head to Sea Containers House for Imbibe’s second champagne masterclass in association with the Comité Champagne.

As well as the chance to be tutored through half a dozen very different styles of champagne by champagne ambassador UK 2010 Laura Clay, it was also a great opportunity to learn more about a category that has been one of the most in-demand in the UK’s bars and restaurants for decades.

How much in demand? Well, let’s allow the figures to do the talking.

The UK is the Champenois’ number one export market, with 34.2m bottles. In second place is the US – with a mere 20m. It is, as Françoise Peretti, director of the Champagne Bureau UK pointed out, testament to the years of good work done by the country’s sommeliers.

But she was quick to add a caveat: while the States does, indeed, buy less champagne than the UK, it actually spends more on the stuff, which suggests that there is still work to be done over here with getting the UK’s consumers to consider the more expensive expressions.

‘The UK understands brut extremely well, but maybe people don’t really understand what vintage is,’ said Peretti. ‘One of the things we should be thinking about is how to get people to buy more vintage champagne.’

The question, of course, is how to do that. Giancarlo Cuccuru from Brackenbury Wine Rooms had a suggestion. ‘Pairing with food could be the answer,’ he said. ‘Incorporate vintage champagne into tasting menus. British consumers are quite traditional, so trying to mix it up is a good idea.’

Demi-sec, too, was felt to be a style that was largely under-used. ‘If people started drinking it with pudding, we’d see a lot more of it,’ said Peretti.

The Montagu Hotel’s Tibor Gal thought that it might be a good serve for that most British of occasions: afternoon tea. Meanwhile Olivier Gasselin pointed out that this was a time when you were not so much matching the wine to the food, as to the consumer, with the sweeter styles often more popular with both his Asian and Russian guests.

‘It’s about knowing your customer,’ he said.

Certainly, once our panel tried the demi-sec on offer, there was no shortage of ideas for how it could be used, suggesting that this really could be a style worth experimenting with (see box).

Peretti, meanwhile, felt that the on-trade could significantly increase its champagne opportunities by looking towards the end of the meal in general, and the cheese board in particular. ‘The rules are simple,’ she said. ‘You concentrate on goat and ewe’s cheese and avoid cow’s milk cheese – except for the Comté style.

Unique style
The sommeliers were asked for a single word to sum up what they felt made champagne stand out from other sparkling wine styles. ‘Vivacity’, ‘complexity’, ‘history’ and ‘freshness’ were all mentioned. But Peretti had an alternative suggestion.

‘The genius of the Champenois is that they have taken a wine that was originally quite simple and made it one of the great wines of the world. And that’s been done through blending,’ she said.

Blending relies on having plenty of reserve wines stored in the cellar, to allow cellar masters to create their house’s flavour profile, whatever the vintage. And since NV champagne must be aged for at least 15 months (though many houses age for far longer), that means holding onto a lot of wine.

There are currently three years' worth of stock ageing in the cold chalk cellars of the region: 1.3 billion bottles. The hope, of course, is that the UK will continue to take more and more of them, ideally by educating British consumers to think outside the box and explore the myriad different styles.

‘And the only people who can do that are you,’ said Peretti.

Can the on-trade accept the challenge?

Do Try This At Home
Our panel tasted six very different styles of champagne – and there was no shortage of innovative suggestions as to how to use them.

Champagne Mumm Cordon Rouge Brut NV: easy-drinking house pour

Champagne Gosset Blanc de Blancs: Dover Sole, tuna steak, eggs Benedict, Thai food, tandoori lobster

Champagne Palmer & Co Blanc de Noirs: Comté, burger, spicy food, hot dogs

Pierre Legras 2006 Blanc de Blancs: mushrooms, cheese, gravadlax, smoked salmon, tempura, tikka masala.

Champagne Janisson Brut Rosé: prawns, charcuterie, summer pudding and cream

Champagne Louis Roederer Demi-Sec: ‘All spicy food’, Christmas pudding, crêpe Suzette, mushroom and blue cheese risotto, Eton mess, sweet and sour pork

The sommeliers

  • Sameer Berry, Gaylord
  • Giancarlo Cuccuru, Brackenbury Wine Rooms
  • Alessandro De Angelis, Butlers Wharf Chop House
  • Tibor Gál, Montague Hotel
  • Olivier Gasselin, Hakkasan
  • Rita Martalena, The Duck and Rice
  • Mattia Mazzi, Lutyens
  • Célia Murat, Union Street Cafe
  • Benedict Norton, Oxo Tower Restaurant
  • Alex Pastrav, Fenchurch Sky Garden
  • Seamus Phillips, St Johns Tavern
  • George Pugsley, Burger and Lobster
  • Desiree Russo, Humble Grape
  • Chantal Serrano, The Cinnamon Club
  • Roberta Stackwell, Duck and Rice


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