Want some top starting points on how to match champagne and food? Or how to smash it out the park when it comes to doing it competitively and under pressure, with a glittering prize tantalisingly within your reach?
Of course you do! And we figured there’s no better place to start for either of these points than asking Joshua Castle, the winner – with chef Myles Donaldson – of last year’s Gosset Matchmakers competition.
And with a good few Sommelier Collective members probably considering their entries for this year’s Matchmakers competition right now, the timing could hardly have been better. Lucky coincidence, huh?
So sit back, take a few notes, pop a bottle of Grande Reserve if you have one, and prepare for instant success!
So where do you begin when it comes to matching champagne? With the flavours? The texture? The acidity?
I think you’ve almost got to take one step back away from the food. So in the case of the 2020 Matchmakers Competition first of all I listened to what Gosset had to say about their wine. A lot of champagne and food pairings have been born out of changing styles of champagne, with slightly warmer base vintages, and wider, more gastronomic wines.
But Gosset described their Grande Reserve Brut Rosé as a very ‘winey wine’, which I really agreed with. It wasn’t the richest rosé, but certainly it had this freshness – this gastronomic side. I think understanding the wine is step one.
So you start with the wine. What next?
Next I’d look at the pairing in general and see how the food might link in with it. So acid, tannin – in a rosé at least there might be some of that, dryness, autolytic character, aromatics. How does all that translate onto the palate and how does it combine as a texture? Then you can think about ingredients that will interplay really nicely with those.
But you can also go one step beyond that and think ‘how would I put this dish in a dining setting? Is it an aperitif-type a dish, and is the wine an aperitif wine?’
What’s the hardest element when you’re matching with champagne?
Champagne is such a cool thing to pair. It can be a really intelligent thing to use in the right context. It’s true that you’re contending with high acidities, but the thing that is most tricky to me is allowing the delicacy of the champagne to not be overpowered by a dish.
Sure the flavours can be very concentrated in high quality champagne – and they certainly are in Champagne Gosset. But there’s also very delicate parts of it. There has to be room on the stage for the Champagne.
Your dish was ‘calves’ brains seared in brown butter, with Lardo di Colonnata, Kentish Cob Nuts, Champagne vinegar and watermelon radish’. How did you come up with that?
I’d been doing a bit of research into German wine that week and I’d been coming across all these amazing old venues from ships and hotels in New York at a time when German wine was as expensive as Chateau Margaux. One of the recipes was for larded sweetbreads.
Basically the idea is to combine sweetbreads or offal – so not a particularly fatty cut – with lard, so you’re basically substituting the lack of fat in the cut. Lardo di Colonnata is basically pork fat aged in these marble sarcophagi, and it develops this amazing nutty earthy flavour. It goes sort of translucent when it’s warm and the fat melts. The idea sort of stemmed from there: something that is textually and visually very interesting.
So I was playing around with a couple of ideas in reference to that with champagne. And I thought ‘imagine ordering larded sweetbreads in this amazing regal dining setting, and having it with something that is texturally, really bright’. I thought: that’s a killer pairing – that’s really cool!
So how did you see it working with the wine?
You could easily go for a richly textured white wine – like Burgundy – with a dish like this. But here I wanted something that is going to make your palate sort of ‘pop’.
Brains are texturally hard to describe, but they’re not very filling, and we wanted to bring an element of acidity, that was not overwhelming to the wine, so we added a little champagne vinegar.
If you think about it, it’s a really simple dish: protein, acid, and then we kind of had to work around texture, which we achieved through these really cute little watermelon radishes. They kind of bled ever so slightly into the vinegar, giving it this pinky hue. We hadn’t expected that, but it really worked!
You’ve mentioned that your dish was really simple. Do you think entrants need to beware of trying to do too much on the plate?
Yes and no. We were pretty blown away by our competitors; some of the dishes that they were putting out were technically phenomenal and visually really blew ours out of the water. But I think that represented who they were as sommeliers and chefs. If you can achieve that technically in that period of time, then go for it!
But the core of it has to be a wine and food pairing. The dish doesn’t have to be complex as long as it represents you – and we had a nice story behind it as well. It felt like something that we would put up in the restaurant, and it was collaborative between me and the chef. It felt natural.
The competitor dishes looked great…
But a watermelon radish pink tinge…
and superb matching skills won out
So a final ‘in a nutshell’ bit of advice?
It’s important to remember that this isn’t a cooking competition. Simple and repeatable is good – particularly if it has a nice story behind it.
You need to ask whether the cooking is being done for the sake of it, or whether it’s a means to an end – which is matching the wine.
The Gosset Matchmakers competition is now open to all chefs and sommeliers with less than five years experience. More information – including entry form – is on the Sommelier Collective website here. Entries must be received by Monday 31st May, 2021.
In the UK, we call them ‘growers’. In Champagne they are officially known as a Recoltant-Manipulant – with a little RM on the label. These are producers who make Champagne from grapes sourced from their own vineyards, though they are allowed to buy in 5% of grapes.
What makes Champagne’s growers so fascinating is their experimentation, such as using solera system base wines in the blend, a high percentage of reserve wines or super-extended lees-aging. All these factors significantly increase the complexity and depth of Champagne in your glass.
Because their vineyards are usually next to their house, or within the same village, there’s a regional focus, too, that makes their wines very different to the big houses. And while it’s not always the case, it is highly likely that these grower’s vineyards will be classified as Premier or Grand Cru.
Over the last few years I’ve been lucky enough to visit a few of them to see all the process of production and found these people to be super-modest, friendly and generous.
In 2018 I visited Paul Déthune during the World Cup and they disgorged a bottle of their Ambonnay Grand Cru for us which had been on its lees since the last time France won the competition in 1998. The fact that their vineyard is just outside of Krug’s Clos d’Ambonnay gives you an idea just how special the wine was.
Arthur Larmandier Bernier, meanwhile, went to the cellar, picked a bottle of 1985 vintage and disgorged it just for us.
Especially at the Grandes Marques ‘Eurodisneys’!
My first contact with grower champagnes was in Chez Bruce at the end of 2016 when I started working there. The house champagne at that time was a Guy de Chassey from the Louvois Grand Cru which had just beaten 25 other producers (including a very popular big house) in a blind tasting conducted by the Head Sommelier with the team. This despite the fact that it in was 30% cheaper than most of them.
I decided there and then that I had to explore more growers since they seemed to be the best way of delivering value for money, provided I could find a style my guests would like.
It’s true that most guests like to see famous names on a champagne list. But experimentation is fun for them, too – they can come out of their comfort zone a bit and explore new things. And provided you explain clearly what is on offer, the reasonable prices and different styles actually make grower champagnes an easy sell – and one that never fails to put a smile on people’s faces.
Three Great Growers to explore
I’m going to pick three wines from these guys.
The Grand Cru Brut Nature (£30.37 ex VAT) comes from Bouzy and Ambonnay and its base wines are a 50/50 split from the 2013 and 2014 vintages. It’s a blend of 60% Pinot Noir and 40% Chardonnay with nearly 5 years on the lees. There is no malolactic fermentation, and despite prolonged lees-ageing it has a superb freshness and racy acidity, balanced by a pronounced intensity of ripe orchard fruits and citrus fruit on top of white truffle, brioche, almond biscuits and sous bois character. Some guests say it reminds them of Krug Grand Cuvee but at a quarter of the price – just £32!
The Brut Tradition Grand Cru is even cheaper (£26.68 ex VAT) and worth every penny as well. It has more roundness with 8 grams of residual sugar and, in my experience, tends to be preferred by ladies. Any richer tapas like tuna nigiri on potato croquet or tuna in soy sauce with scrambled eggs and truffle fits this one perfectly well.
The Rosé Grand Cru (£30.37 ex VAT) is absolutely unbelievable. It has 20% of Bouzy Rouge in the blend, which adds richness, depth and a firm structure with a hint of tannin on the palate. Flavour-wise, it is a charming mix of wild strawberries, morellino cherry, pink grapefruit, red roses petals and a bit of nuts, toast and biscuit. The structure makes it really food friendly, and it’s a perfect match for wagyu beef poached in rendered beef fat sprayed with kombu dashi on crystal bread or salmon sashimi with pickled rhubarb, ginger, white soy and creme fraiche.
Their Grand Cru Brut is 70% Pinot Noir and 30% Chardonnay and comes exclusively from their 7ha vineyards around Ambonnay. They produce only 50,000 bottles a year as they sell part of the grapes to Veuve Clicquot for La Grande Dame. This one you can have for a quarter of that!
Flavour wise, it’s a combination of ripe golden and red apple, yellow grapefruit with toast, brioche, biscuit and honey. It really is charming particularly for only £25 ex VAT from Thorman Hunt. Because of the ripeness and roundness of this champagne it goes well with slightly spicy iterations of seafood such as Dénia prawns in tikka spice.
What makes it special is that they use a really high amount of reserve wines – 50% comes from their réserve perpetuelle (like a solera system) which gives the champagne real depth. Thirty months on the lees adds further complexity and roundness.
This Premier Cru in the Côte des Blancs is where you can find the steepest vineyards in Champagne with slopes up to 45 degrees. Larmandier Bernier specialise in Blanc de Blancs focusing only on Chardonnay with a tiny amount of Pinot Noir used solely for their Rosé de Saignée. All the base wines are aged in a mixture of casks of different sizes. They also started experimenting with concrete eggs and clay pots . When I visited there was one particularly oddly-shaped specimen that was a gift from Tuscany and would easily have fbeen just as at home in a museum as a wine cellar!
Their entry level ‘Latitude’ is very good but the one I find particularly great value for money is ‘Longitude’ 1er Cru extra Brut (£32.61 ex VAT). It’s only a few pounds more, but has really impressive depth and is still really well priced. It’s very citrusy and floral with lemon zest, grapefruit, golden apple, white blossom and acacia. It’s also pretty toasty with almonds and brioche. On the palate it is super mineral with a saline, chalky character, as if it’s crying out for oysters!
I also love their vintage Chemins d’Avize Grand Cru Extra Brut 2013 (£59.89 ex VAT). With more time on the lees and stronger oak influence it has more vanilla and nutty flavours and a superb concentration with a finish that goes on for ever. It’s simply amazing with hard cheeses like Gruyère, Etivaz or Challerhocker. (note: 2011 currently available)