Updated: Jun 5
Champagne and all sparkling wine, really, have been synonymous with celebration for as long as anyone can remember. In fact, the whole celebratory label placed on sparkling wine was done so by royalty in the 18th century. Back then, the effervescent drink was expensive (and some still are today) and seen as a status symbol, so it would only be brought out at celebrations like coronations.
Kolleen M. Guy, associate professor of history at the University of Texas at San Antonio and author of When Champagne Became French, states that
After the French Revolution, it became a part of the secular rituals that replaced formerly religious rituals. You could 'christen a ship' without a priest, for example, by using the 'holy water' of champagne
Fast forward to today, we carry on the tradition of opening a bottle of bubbly on special occasions; marking a new year, weddings, birthdays, and so on. While some may think the title of the Grand Vino of Celebrations would be a good thing, I argue that the title gives sparkling wine an air of unnecessary aristocracy and unapproachability.
There once was a time where I, too, would only have a bottle on hand for special occasions. This was my sparkling wine approach until I realized how well it paired with a ridiculous amount of foods from a bevy of cultures! Not every fermented drink can say that. Nonetheless, this was an 'ah ha' moment for me! It was like if the clouds from above disappeared and the rays from heaven bestowed upon me. What was I doing all this time? What was I thinking? How many meal pairings have I missed out on because I was holding my sparkling wine as a coveted beverage that no one, I mean no one, could touch until a calendar event came around! Well, we live, and we learn as they say...
Let's now look at why sparkling wine proves itself to be a killer food pairing.
The most significant reason sparkling wine and Champagne work so well with food is its high acidity, and acidity works as a palate cleanser.
Champagne is the northernmost wine region in France, and because of that, the climate is far cooler. The cooler climate means that the grapes do not ripen as much as the grapes to the south, and you end up with a grape that is more acidic than it is pumped with natural sugars from ripening. Early Champagne was known to be highly acidic and dry until winemakers started adding 'dosage' (sugar) to the wine before corking it to give it a sweeter taste. (You can read more on dosage in the Balancing Spice section.)
We owe the early Champaign profile for the crisp acidity found in most sparkling wines today, even those made in warmer climates.
Cut Through the Fat
Yep. Back to that acid again. Acidity in wine is excellent when eating fatty, fried, or rich foods as the acidity helps balance the heaviness you feel on the palate from dishes such as these. It is important to note here that acidity also helps to balance salty dishes. All of a sudden that salted cod will appear to be not so salty on the palate, after a sip of sparkling wine.
Several things are happening in your bottle of sparkling wine that makes it a formidable pairing for spicy dishes. I am going to start off with dosage, as it was already introduced in our first point.
To further explain, Dosage is a mixture of the base wine and sugar, and it is added to Champagne to enhance drinkability. Winemakers play around with the sugar content of the dosage to give you either a Brut, Extra Dry, Sec, Demi-Sec, or Doux wine, with each level increasing in the amount of sugar. In the end, you have a bottle of sparkling wine with an element of residual sugar, and that plays a big part in why many sparkling wine pairs nicely with spice. The bubbles also help create texture on the palate, and that too aids in balancing spice notes from foods. Lastly, during second fermentation, sparkling wine spends some time on its lees. I am not going to get into what lees aging is, but I will tell you the result of it gives the wine nutty, baked bread aromas and on the palate a light creamy sense, and this too helps to temper and balance spice.
Sparkling Wine Pairings Not to Be Reckoned With
Fried Chicken: I like to pair this with Cremant d'Alsace, following the Cutting Through the Fat rule, and of course, who doesn't love wines from the Alsace region.
Ackee and Saltfish: I like the sparkling rosé pairing with this, mainly because the fruit-forward palate and aromatic nose pairs wonderfully with the spice generally found in this dish.
Oysters (could not leave this one off the list - this is an oldie but goodie): brut or extra dry sparkling wine. The briney nature of an oyster not only benefits from the acidity in sparkling wine, but also the mouthfeel you get from lees aging.
Potato Chips: I like to pair this with Blanc de Blancs sparkling wines. Blanc de Blancs simply is an indication that the wine was made from Chardonnay grapes only. Note that three main grapes are used to make Champagne: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier. A winemaker can use all of the designated grapes or just one. A sparkling wine made purely of Pinot Noir is called a Blanc de Noirs.
Fish and Chips: My go to here is Cava.
What's good is that today the quality of sparkling wine continues to improve and act as viable replacements for the pricier Champagne. In some markets, Ontario included, you can find delectable sparkling wines in the sub $30 category. Ontario wineries do a fantastic job in the production of sparkling wine, and the wines are highly affordable. If you have the chance to try a bubbly from Ontario, I highly encourage it.