The Champenois like to tout the food friendliness of their extra brut champagnes. But how would they cope with a broad range of Asian dishes? Julie Sheppard gathers an intrepid team of somms to find out
Just how dry is ‘dry’ when it comes to cham-pagne? Bottles labelled ‘brut’ can actually contain up to 12g/l of sugar according to the appellation’s rules, which, to be honest, isn’t that dry at all really. But an increasing number of producers are now making champagnes that go beyond brut to extra brut, ultra brut or zero dosage; genuinely dry wines.
In part, this is a response to climate change, with warmer vintages leading to riper fruit and therefore less need to balance out high acidity by adding dosage. But consumer trends also play a part. Increasing awareness of healthy drinks has created a demand for ‘skinny champagne’ with no sugar. Plus sparkling wine shaking off its ‘special occasion only’ shackles has resulted in more people drinking champagne with a meal and, therefore, more opportunities for food pairing.
Indeed, ultra brut styles are often touted to (and by) sommeliers as being ideal for food matching.
Certainly they can bring a point of difference to your wine list – and with names like ‘ultra’, ‘extra’ or ‘pure’ appearing on labels they do add a certain touch of luxe.
So for our Luxury Special, we decided to put a selection of these drier-than-dry fizzes to the test with food. Any sommelier who knows his or her stuff would be able to pair this style of champagne with oysters, but Imbibe likes to push the boundaries.
So we threw in a bit of kimchi. And miso. And ponzu, shiso, ginger, yuzu and chilli… Would ultra bruts be able to deliver decent matches with a range of Asian dishes? Read on to find out…
Fernando Carocha Teixeira, Social Wine & Tapas; Sue Jones, The Harrow
at Little Bedwyn; Chris Losh, Imbibe; Adam Michocki, The Glasshouse;
Jelena Prosevic, NOPI; Julien Sahut, Sexy Fish; Julie Sheppard, Imbibe
How it works
We called in seven samples of low- or no-dosage champagne, ranging from 3g/l residual sugar to 0g/l. The panel tasted these wines without food initially, then paired them with a range of pan-Asian dishes. All prices are RRP for 75cl bottles.
Ayala Brut Nature
This blend of 40% Chardonnay, 40% Pinot Noir and 20% Meunier spends four years ageing on its lees. ‘Yeasty aromas with bruised apple, ripe red apple and biscuits. Smooth, rounded and textural. Very well-balanced acidity and flavour,’ AM.
£30, Mentzendorff, 020 7840 3600
Devaux Ultra D NV
Made from 60% Pinot Noir and 40% Chardonnay, the blend uses 40% reserve wines, a quarter of which come from two perpetual soleras, started in 1995 and 2002. After bottling, the wine is aged for five years on its lees. ‘Floral nose with apple blossom, white fruit and lime leaf. Chalky texture on the palate. Taut and linear style; crunchy, sappy, good,’ CL.
£40, Liberty Wines, 020 7720 5350
Drappier Brut Nature
This 100% Pinot Noir is made with malolactic fermentation, unfiltered and bottled with minimal use of sulphur. It rests on its lees for two-and-a-half years after bottling. ‘Dry, crisp and yeasty with a persistent nose. Clean and dry with lifted bubbles, stone fruits and orange zest on the palate,’ FCT.
£30, Berkmann Wine Cellars, 020 7609 4711
Louis Roederer et Philippe
Starck Brut Nature 2009
From a ripe vintage, this second-ever release of Brut Nature is a roughly equal blend of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Meunier, with 25% of the wine vinified in oak and no malo. ‘An intense tropical nose with ripe mango and stone fruit. Rich and intense palate with good concentration,’ JS.
£75, Maisons, Marques et Domaines, 020 8812 3380
Pol Roger Pure Extra Brut NV
Described by the maison as ‘an exercise in house style’, Pol Roger’s Extra Brut is a blend of 34% Chardonnay, 33% Pinot Noir and 33% Meunier, using reserve wines from at least three different vintages. ‘Defined by creaminess, with a rich texture and good length. Yellow fruit and a honeyed note.’ SJ.
£45, Pol Roger Portfolio, 01432 262800
Pommery Cuvée Louise Nature 2004
A variation on Pommery’s traditional Cuvée Louise, this vintage comes from a year with a late harvest that delivered both quality and quantity. The cuvée is a blend of 60% Chardonnay and 40% Pinot Noir. ‘Rounded yeasty nose, with buttery, creamy notes. Shows its age straightaway. Dry and crisp with minerality and a long, warm finish,’ JP.
£90, Justerini & Brooks, 020 7484 6400
Veuve Clicquot Extra Brut
Made from reserve wines from 1988, 1996, 2006, 2008, 2009 and 2010, this is a blend of 47% Pinot Noir, 27% Chardonnay and 26% Meunier. All wines in the blend are aged for a minimum of three years on lees. ‘Lemon citrus aromas, plus stone and red fruits and nice toastiness. Well-structured palate with some salinity on the finish,’ JS.
£70, Moët Hennessy UK, 020 7808 4400
This classic Japanese dish of sashimi also featured yuzu gel, green chilli and truffle oil. ‘The chilli and truffle are challenging here,’ said Julien Sahut, pointing out that the yellowtail on its own would have been an easy match for any of the ultra bruts.
Several of the cuvées changed character with this dish. ‘The Drappier tastes sweeter with the food,’ noted Sue Jones. ‘The truffle oil fattens out the Ayala,’ said Chris Losh. ‘This food is definitely helping the Ayala,’ agreed Fernando Carocha Teixeira.
But the group agreed that Roederer’s Brut Nature 2009 made the best match. ‘This was a great pairing,’ declared Sahut. ‘The aromatic tropical notes in the champagne coped with the spice and the vegetal notes in the green chilli,’ he added. ‘It had the weight for the accompanying dressing, but with enough balance to not overtake the fish,’ agreed Losh.
BEST MATCH: Louis Roederer et Philippe Starck Brut Nature 2009
These pan-fried Japanese dumplings were stuffed with a mix of chicken, snow peas and water chestnuts, and served with a sweet red vinegar dipping sauce. Although on paper red vinegar looked set to cause problems, the ultra bruts were able to rise to the challenge – and the group found several personal favourites when it came to pairing.
‘When you dip the dumpling into the vinegar and try it with the Veuve Clicquot, it’s just the right combination!’ praised Jelena Prosevic. ‘The dumpling is essentially just white meat and greens, but the Veuve gives you a chance to taste the dish, it doesn’t overpower it.’
For Jones, the best match was Pol Roger’s Pure Extra Brut. ‘There’s a honeyed note in the Pol that works with the sweetness of the vinegar. For me this was a seamless match with similar flavours in both the dumpling and the champagne: creamy, aromatic and vegetal,’ she said.
Sahut, meanwhile, voted for Ayala. ‘The apple note in the champagne matches the green note in the dish and balances the chicken flavour,’ he said.
Both Carocha Teixeira and Adam Michocki preferred Devaux with this dish. ‘The Devaux was a better pairing from a textural point of view; with extra time on the lees it was more rounded,’ explained Michocki.
BEST MATCHES: Ayala Brut Nature, Devaux Ultra D NV, Pol Roger Pure Extra Brut NV, Veuve Clicquot Extra Brut Extra Old
Chilli salt squid
Like the gyoza, this Thai dish featured a punchy dip; in this case sweet chilli dipping sauce. ‘Obviously it depends how much sauce you put on, but the Pommery can withstand the flavour of the sweet chilli,’ commented Prosevic.
With the crispy batter of the deep-fried squid thrown into the equation as well, Drappier’s Brut Nature really came into its own. ‘The Drappier is bright and shiny; it feels very clean – you can taste both the food and the drink,’ noted Jones. ‘I like the fact that the Drappier champagne didn’t add any sweetness at all to this dish,’ added Losh. ‘The Drappier was a perfect match,’ agreed Sahut. ‘It balanced both the sweetness and spiciness of the chilli salt squid.’
The group of tasters agreed that pairing fatty snacks like this dish with an ultra brut champagne would make a decadent treat on bar snack menus.
‘Chilli salt squid with a glass of ultra brut champagne would be a special match for someone on a night out,’ concluded Losh.
BEST MATCH: Drappier Brut Nature
Summer vegetable tempura
Given the success of ultra brut with the crispy battered squid, hopes were high for veggie tempura pairings. This dish included tempura aubergine, carrots and shiso leaf; but to throw in a curve ball it also came with a side of Korean kimchi. Would this be a pairing too far, we wondered?
‘Ayala was great with the tempura on its own, but not when you added the kimchi,’ noted Julie Sheppard. However, Bronte’s kimchi wasn’t a massively punchy version of the dish. ‘It’s beginner’s kimchi,’ noted Losh. ‘For me Veuve’s Extra Brut Extra Old was extraordinarily good with the kimchi. It had the weight, and the acidity met the savoury food flavour head on,’ he said.
Jones agreed. ‘The tempura vegetables need freshness and a lift. Add in the kimchi and the Veuve still performs; it keeps its flavour and acidity,’ she commented.
BEST MATCH: Veuve Clicquot Extra Brut Extra Old
Aromatic duck spring roll
Following the ‘kimchi pairs with ultra brut’ shock revelation, it was time for a Chinese classic: spring rolls. Stuffed with rich duck, they were served with a tangy yuzu plum sauce, which proved problematic for pairing.
‘With a conventional plum sauce the acidity of an ultra brut champagne would make a good counterpoint to the fruity sweetness,’ explained Sheppard. ‘But add in the citrus yuzu – and gamey duck – and the dish just becomes too complex for these linear styles of champagne.’
‘The Pommery has the most richness of any of the ultra bruts and it makes the least bad match,’ pointed out Michocki. ‘Without the sauce the Pommery makes a vegetal and creamy match to the spring roll, which brings out quince and apricot notes in the champagne. You need to discount the sauce completely,’ commented Jones.
‘I think we reached the matching limit for ultra brut with duck!’ declared Sahut. ‘This was a match where the lack of fatness in the wines is catching them out,’ concluded Losh.
BEST MATCH: Pommery Cuvée Louise Nature 2004
Miso black cod
The final dish of the day was miso black cod served with a pickled ginger salad. The sommeliers were expecting to find some good pairings here, both to match the silky texture of the cod, but also the umami flavour of the miso and the ginger spice.
‘I like this dish a lot with the Drappier. There’s an oiliness to the fish and the Drappier cuts right through that; it’s very dry, lean and clean,’ commented Carocha Teixeira.
However, the rest were more impressed with Pol Roger. ‘The Pol Roger is great. It complements the richness of the dish and you still get to taste the delicate fish,’ praised Prosevic. ‘The miso brings a lovely umami note to the Pol Roger and then a spicy finish with the ginger salad,’ added Sahut. ‘There’s a warmth and aromatic quality in the Pol that comes through with the fish,’ added Jones.
BEST MATCH: Pol Roger Pure Extra Brut NV
Although it most definitely threw up some challenges, the tasting proved that there is scope for pairing ultra brut with Asian food – dependent on the complexity of the extra dressings, dips and sauces that accompany a dish. ‘We pretty much found a decent match for everything,’ concluded Losh. ‘Even within a relatively small selection there was enough variety of structure, flavours and style for food-matching.’
With a range of potentially good matches, chicken gyoza is a simple place to start if you’re experimenting with your own by-the-glass pairings for ultra brut champagnes.
Sushi and sashimi are a natural partner for ultra brut champagnes. Consider the texture of the champagne for different types of fish.
Offering a by-the-glass pairing of ultra brut with fatty, deep-fried snacks is an original way to up-sell customers on a night out.
Fish is the safest pairing option with a lean style of wine such as ultra brut.
Fernando Carocha Teixeira, Social Wine & Tapas
‘Ninety percent of the champagne we sell at Social Wine & Tapas is zero dosage. I feel the best match for a champagne with no intervention at all is simple food that has no intervention at all.'
Sue Jones, The Harrow at Little Bedwyn
‘There is a lot of potential for ultra brut with food. Asian food has big, complex flavours, which were demanding for this style, but with fresh seafood and shellfish it would be great.’
Chris Losh, Imbibe
‘For me the biggest defining character here was the acidity level, that’s why they all shone with deep-fried food. Fish and chips would be a great match.’
Adam Michocki, The Glasshouse
‘Without sugar in these champagnes, you have to look for cuvées that have natural ripeness. But there’s certainly potential for food matching – particularly with classic French cuisine.’
Jelena Prosevic, Nopi
‘Ultra brut is an interesting style for food pairing, because of the lack of sugar. It can be more challenging, but there were some good matches here, like Pommery with the miso black cod.’
Julien Sahut, Sexy Fish
‘There were some perfect matches here and the Drappier could have worked if you had to pick just one to drink through the whole meal.’
Julie Sheppard, Imbibe
‘Winemaking factors, such as time spent on lees, play a big role in determining the character of individual ultra bruts. There was much more variety within a niche category than I expected.’
Thanks to Bronte for hosting this tasting and to the brilliant team for all of their help on the day.