Champagne is unquestionably ideal as an apéritif, and indeed, it’s practically mandatory at the beginning of a proper dinner. It is also an extremely food-friendly wine, of course, and if you would like to serve champagne throughout the course of a meal, its diversity of styles, varieties and weights make it possible to find a candidate to match nearly anything. But usually one ends up drinking a multitude of other wines. (Yes, I know it’s a shock, but there do exist some wines other than champagne that are worthy of drinking. Not many, but you can find a few.)
Champagne, however, is also highly agreeable at a later stage in the meal. For many years, my friends and I have practiced what we call the “champagne interlude”: a bottle of champagne placed after the main course, before moving on to salad, cheese, dessert, madeira, or whatever else is to conclude a multi-course extravaganza. This has the happy and magical effect of refreshing both palate and spirit, especially if there has been an excessive quantity or diversity of wines preceding it. (Us? Excess? Never.) And besides, it’s delicious. Oftentimes a mature champagne is perfect for this, and since mature Burgundy is most frequently our red of choice, a mature champagne seems particularly appropriate to follow the refinement and complexity of such a wine. Sometimes, though, a youthful champagne can also be adapted according to the situation and the preceding wines, if it has sufficient personality. Regardless, the champagne interlude has become an indispensable element of our gastronomical lives, and we are attempting to spread its practice in civilized society.
But what if you have had a particularly heavyweight lineup of red wines? You need a champagne that is refreshing, yet you don’t want it to appear insubstantial or impotent after the power and weight of the wines before it. You also have to find a complement in character, as you want the transition to be harmonious rather than jarring.
Last night was a perfect and thrilling case in point. At a dinner for seven, we began with champagne and white wines before moving on to an array of Barolo: a confidently post-adolescent and virile 1982 Francesco Rinaldi and a mature, leather-scented 1974 E. Pira, followed by a superb 1965 Bartolo Mascarello in magnum, a contender for wine of the night with its aristocratic refinement and its gorgeous interplay of still-primary fruit and truffley, floral background flavors. It made a perfectly delicious 1967 Borgogno seem a little coarse and clumsy, although the 1958 red-capsuled Borgogno was as outstanding as ever, combining a powerful intensity and depth with breathtaking refinement and balance. Its majestic and authoritative presence even overshadowed the normally transcendent 1947 Borgogno, although admittedly our bottle of this last night was not quite up to the astonishingly high level of others that we’ve previously tasted. Not that, you know, it sucked or anything.
So as the array of decanters was slowly being emptied, the time for a champagne interlude was approaching. But what champagne to follow 60-year old Barolo? It turned out, as pure coincidence, that we had the perfect wine already sitting on ice: the 2004 Saignée de Sorbée by Bertrand Gautherot. Pungently fragrant, possessing both weight and elegance, it had the vinosity to stand up to the reds while its clarity and complexity of fruit provided both complement and counterpoint, especially after decanting it to better release its depth of flavor. Its acidity and minerality were delightfully refreshing, and it even showed a little light tannin that echoed, unobtrusively, that of the previous wines. I could not have found a better choice, and the wine was a joy to drink.
We closed the evening with a stupendous bottle of La Bota de Manzanilla Pasada #10, generously provided for us by the graciously hospitable folks of Castagna, and which turned out to also be ideally placed in its own way, with its marvelous finesse and character. Now to attempt to recover this morning, aided by a green pu-erh from La Maison des Trois Thés, so that we can do it all over again tonight...