Champagne and Sparkling Wine-Lets Not Just Drink It But Cook With It, Too

Monday December 28, 2009

New Years, Birthdays, Weddings, Celebrations of all types call for the crème de la creme of wine—Champagne. Just the word Champagne evokes the feeling and atmosphere of the rarified, the exlusiveness, the privilege.

When Dom Pérignon, the Benedictine Monk who invented champagne in 1670 declared “Hurry! I’m drinking stars!” as he enthusiastically tasted his first finished batch of rendered still wine by inventing the process of champagnization, he couldn’t have possibly known the wonderful future this special wine would have in a world replete with champagne wishes and caviar dreams.  He also transformed the name of his home province into a beverage.  The fresh flavors and frothy bubbles of a sparkling wine is a sensation that cannot be duplicated by any other spirit.  It is the embodiment of luxury and an element that spells special occasion.

Since there is such an abundance of terrific sparkling wines and reasonably priced champagnes now available, I often use them as an ingredient in baking and cooking.  Not only as a perfect accompaniment to a sweet bread as a dessert, Champagne is a wonderful liquid addition to a dough, as a base for sour starters, as well as an ingredient for syrups and glazes.  It is good in stews, as a reduction sauce, as champagne vinegar, fondues, and sorbets. And you don’t have to open a new bottle just for cooking; you can use flat champagne just fine (that means leftover party libations).

"There comes a time in every woman’s life when the only thing that helps is a glass of champagne." Bette Davis in Old Acquaintance

Champagne is the wine produced in the small area of France called Champagne, near Paris. The primary species is Vitis vinifera, and of the thousands of cultivars only around 30 are regularly cultivated, of these only a dozen or so are considered to be premium. The wine of the area has long been some of the best in France, probably served at the crowning of French kings at Reims, the major city of the province.  It is also just next door to Burgundy, another premier wine-growing area.  It is the only sparkling wine that can legally be called champagne and is produced by a traditional method known as méthode champenoise; simply having a second fermentation in the bottle.  Champagne is imported and boasts some wonderfully evocative names like Moët & Chandon, Perrier-Jouet Grand Brut, Pommery, Mumm’s, and Veuve Clicquot.  While other wines can be made by this process, they must be called a sparkling wine since they are not made in Champagne. Finally the situation is clarified.

A sparkling wine has been infused with carbon dioxide gas bubbles created during the fermentation of the grape juice.  California makes superb ones, meant to have a similar character, quality, and finesse as their French relative.  A blanc de blanc, or white from white, is a sparkling wine made only from Chardonnay grapes, and a blanc de noir, white from black, is a sparkling wine from a red grape like a Pinot Noir.  Piper-Sonoma makes a consistently fabulous Blanc de Noir, which is more full-bodied than a blanc de blanc. like Gloria Ferrer and Mumm Napa Valley.

Each sparkling wine is categorized further by the amount of natural sugars and sugar added during the wine-making process.  Extra dry is less sweet and brut is the driest available, like in the domestic and very inexpensive: Cook’s Brut or Tott’s Brut, and the dramatic black bottle of Freixenet Cordon Negro.  Don’t skip these Spanish sparklers for baking, all produced by the method champenoise, the “fermented in the bottle” technique.  There is also Paul Cheneau Blanc de Blancs and Cordorniu Brut Classico.  I seem to have alot of these leftover from parties and keep them for baking/cooking.  Use whatever you have and can afford in these recipes.  There is always a feeling of culinary security knowing you have a few bottles stashed for your cooking a la momento.

My favorite semi-sweet sparkling wine is Asti Spumante, and I call for it in many recipes (its great in fondue).  The name Asti, in reference to the Piedmont region of Italy, and Spumante, which translates to sparkling, is a wonderful tart-sweet wine from Muscat grapes that is low in alcohol, and tastes flowery and fruity like fresh peaches. I always buy the imported Martini & Rossi brand. Prosecco is an Italian dry sparkling wine and was produced during Roman times. Well, it is more popular than ever and a less expensive substitute for champagne due to a slightly different production method. It used to be interchangeable with Asti Spumante, but is now produced either the fully sparkling (spumante) or lightly sparkling (frizzante, gentile) varieties. It is lower in alcohol than champagne. It was the original main ingredient in the Bellini cocktail and in the Spritz cocktail, and it can also replace Champagne in other cocktails, such as the Mimosa.

Surprisingly enough, Champagne should not be paired with chocolate; the fat in the chocolate reacts with the inherent acidity in the wine, affecting the delicate flavor.  Save the red wine, port, and coffee for the chocolate desserts.

Post Script: How To Pop A Champagne Cork

I consider removing a champagne cork a bit of an art. Once I catered an appetizer party and without a bartender, my assistant and myself were left to not only prep the food, but open the Champagne as well. It was like running a race you can’t win with the glasses drained before we could open enough bottles and pour more. Our hands were raw so we used bar towels to hold the cork while turning the bottle, which is a minor physical feat when you are talking a dozen cases. The moral of the story: for a medium to large party, have someone for just opening the bottles and keeping things tidy for there are corks, foil, and wires galore.

You will need bigger hands for opening the larger sizes of Champagne bottles. As you can imagine, the larger the bottle, the more unwieldy it is to open. They make a great impression for special occasions on a shelf or dotting the room, but realistically, they get progressively more difficult to open. The Double Magnum (jeroboams-4 bottles) is about the largest bottle that a non-expert is likely to feel comfortable pouring with style and panache. Large and small bottle sizes do have benefits, but take special handling at the winery. Therefore, they are usually more expensive by volume than a standard bottle. But they are showstoppers for sure.

Technique: Remove any foil and wire surrounding the cork.  Cover the top of the cork with a thick cloth napkin or dishtowel.  Holding the bottle at a 45º angle away from your body and with one hand on the cork, slowly rotate the bottle with your other hand.  Your thumb and forefinger will ease up the cork as you are turning the bottle (not the cork).  Using this method you will hear a dull pop, rather than a loud one, and the wine will not overflow, although I do this outside or over a sink, just in case.  I think this is the same technique for opening all sorts of bottles and magnums

The person who named the different sizes of Champagne bottles must have been a Bible freak since the line up is like something out of an ancient middle eastern Babylonian king’s royal ransom:  jeroboams (four-bottle size), rehoboams (six), methusalems (eight), salmanasars (twelve), balthazars (sixteen), and nebucadnezzars (twenty)*. Good way to learn your history lesson.

Second from the left is a standard bottle

*Historical Key

Magnum (double the volume of a standard bottle. From the latin GREAT—easier to remember: TV private detective, 1980′s).

Jeroboam (Founder and first king of Israel, 931-910 BC)

Rehoboam (Son of Solomon and a grandson of David-and King of Judah, 922-908 BC)

Methuselah (Biblical patriarch who lived to the age of 969 (96.9 solar years), oldest person in the Hebrew Bible and grandfather of Noah of the Ark)

Salmanazar (Warrior King of Assyria, 859-824 BC)

Balthazar (Co-Regent of Babylon, 553BC, son of Nabonidus, who left his throne to worship the moon in the desert, or one of the Three Wise Men)

Nebuchadnezzar (King of Babylon and historic leader in Iraq, 605-562 BC, credited with creating the Hanging Gardens of Babylon).

Special Occasion Champagne Menu

The following recipes are all made in the slow cooker, except for the sorbet, which uses an ice cream maker.

Champagne Fondue

Veal Stew with Champagne

Champagne Risotto with Leeks and Celery

Champagne Pink Grapefruit Sorbet

Lithograph by Alphonse Mucha, one of my favorite artists


Your Comments

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  1. gwen 23/11/2014 at 9:51 pm

    I’m cooking a turkey in champagne. What kind should I use ty

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