Monday, 5 March 2012

Cuvee des Moines Japanese Dinner Party

Trying to arrange a dinner party with my friends is never the easiest task. Busy schedules and lack of commitment has meant that my idea of throwing a champagne tasting dinner party has taken months to come into fruition. I rabbit on to anyone silly enough to get me started about champagne’s great ability to partner a huge number of different dishes, but it’s far more fun attempting to create great pairings in practice and even more fun if they are slightly outside the established rules. Initially, I didn’t know where to start when it came to deciding what dishes to serve but by chance I stumbled across a short article in the Wall Street Journal which mentioned the synergy between Japanese cuisine and Champagne. It got me thinking about the huge array of beautiful dishes there are in Japanese cooking, from the hundreds of different sushi dishes to light, fragrant noodle dishes. These are the perfect kind of dishes to be trying out with champagne.

My aim was to come up with different courses to go with each of the main champagne styles, a brut NV, a blanc de blancs, a vintage champagne and rose champagne. So, first to choose the champagnes.... I went for Besserat de Bellefon Cuvee de Moines range. Besserat de Bellefon is owned by Lanson International and the Cuvee de Moines was conceived specifically with food in mind so it seemed a good choice. The Cuvee de Moines range was originally called ‘Crémant des Moines’ when it was launched in the 1930's, owing to its delicate mousse*. It is this delicate mousse that allows the champagne to lightly cleanse the palate without overwhelming it with too much fizz, making it a lovely food companion. 

~Menu ~

Aperitif - Besserat de Bellefon Cuvee des Moines Brut NV (£24.95 at

We started proceedings with the Brut NV which is a 35% chardonnay, 20% pinot noir, 45% pinot meunier blend and is aged for 3 years before disgorgement which is twice the minimum aging requirement for a non-vintage champagne. It is light on the palate but has an underlying nutty richness which complements the red apple and ripe, peachy stone fruit. The high proportion of Pinot Meunier in this blend gives it a pleasant, rounded, fruit forward character and the fact that it has not undergone any malolactic fermentation means it has a zesty finish which really wakes the palate up before the food is brought out. Overall this is a good aperitif but I fear its subtle flavours would be lost on anything but the lightest dish. 

Amuse Bouche - Wasabi Bloody Mary

Though this has nothing to do with champagne I would heartily recommend trying a wasabi Bloody Mary. I used Bloodshot Vodka which has most of the Bloody Mary spices infused in it already. The wasabi can be used as a direct replacement for Tabasco but be careful it really makes your nose tingle.  

Starter - A selection of sushi paired with Besserat de Bellefon Cuvee des Moines Blanc de Blancs NV (£29.95 at

The emphasis for the starter was on simple, clean flavours. We bought some beautiful Tuna and Salmon sashimi from the Japan Centre which is just off Trafalgar square and made some nigiri and maki with it. We also fried up some mixed tempura vegetables and had the obligatory edamame as well. With this course we paired the Besserat de Bellefon Cuvee des Moines Blanc de Blancs NV, a 100% chardonnay which, like the Brut NV, is aged for three years before disgorgement without undergoing malolactic fermentation. Now, I confess that I am not really into the business of analysing what a champagne looks like in the glass, I gain far more pleasure from the aroma and taste, but it is very pretty. It almost radiates golden light from the glass so you can’t help but notice. The aromas are the next thing to grab you, there are floral notes of honeysuckle which compliment the bracing lemony style of the wine. A couple of my guests commented that this champagne was ‘a bit sharp’ for them and I couldn't argue with them. I, however, very much see this as a positive aspect, especially when you are pairing it with fish. It had a focused acidity which cut through the fattiness of the salmon and tuna nigiri. Almost unanimously we thought it tasted better with the food and the food most certainly tasted better when washed down with the champagne so this was definitely a pairing which made the total add up to more than the sum of its parts. Success!

Main - Chicken Katsu Curry with a Mooli Salad paired with Besserat de Bellefon Cuvee des Moines Vintage 2002 (£32.95 at

Now to my most eagerly anticipated dish, the main course. I found a lovely recipe for a katsu curry in Gizzi Erskine’s book ‘Gizzi’s Kitchen Magic’. A curry and champagne pairing was a bit more daring than my first course but I really wanted to highlight to my guests how versatile champagne can be. Being my heaviest dish I needed a champagne with a bit of character and body so a vintage or blanc de noir where my preferred options. I went for the vintage option, the Besserat de Bellefon Cuvee des Moines Vintage 2002 to be precise. On paper I think this champagne really delivers beyond its price point. It's aged for 5 years on it lees before release which is a full two years more than required for a vintage champagne. This long aging gave it some aromatic, spicy notes of cinnamon and star anise which picked up on the spice mixture in the garam masala in the curry. It’s worth mentioning that I made the curry very mild so the heat would not clash with the high acidity of the champagne. Despite my initial apprehensions this pairing was very pleasant indeed. Though not an obvious match, the champagne was not at all overwhelmed by the bold flavours of the curry. It cut through the creaminess of the dish and left our palates refreshed and ready for our next bite. This just goes to show that even if you think outside the box with your food pairing you can create some great flavour combinations that go way beyond the established norms.

Dessert - Green tea cheese cake with Besserat de Bellefon Cuvee des Moines Rosé NV (£38 at Oddbins)

Pairing desserts with champagne is very tricky so this was the course I was most wary about. Classically a demi-sec would be the best option but, to be honest, I didn't have a demi sec so why not try something different? We finished with the Cuvee des Moines Rosé NV to go with the cheesecake. Unfortunately, this didn't work at all (perhaps not surprisingly). The cheese cake was very nice but the sweetness just brought out a bitterness in the champagne which was not particularly palatable. When we tasted the rose by itself it also happened to be the least impressive of all the champagnes. It lacked the focus of the blanc de blancs and the simple charm of the brut NV. Perhaps by this stage in the evening our palates were a touch fatigued and our bellies were a bit full.
Overall a fantastic time was had by all. Everyone came away from the evening having been seduced by the champagnes and surprised by it's incredible versatility. I came away with a lot of washing up and a slightly sore head the next morning but a sense of a good job well done.

*The crémant style was originally a low pressure style (typically 4 atmospheres instead of 6 atmospheres) of champagne with a light mousse but this term was banned for use in champagne in 1994 in a bid to save confusion with the sparkling wines from other areas for France such as ‘Crémant de Loire’ and ‘Crémant de Bourgogne’.

Friday, 10 February 2012

Rosés are Red, Violets are blue

With Valentine’s day around the corner it only seems natural to write something about rosé champagne, probably the champagne which we take least seriously in the UK. Usually bought for its pretty colour and often rather tacky association with all things romantic, and not for its merits as a great partner to food and a truly vinous champagne style.

Most rosé champagne is made in a very different way to other rosé wines. It's one of very few appellations to allow blending red wine with white wine. Typically they add around 7-11% red wine in to the blend until the right body, texture and aromatics are integrated into the wine. This type of blending allows the champagne houses to maintain a consistent colour and the consistent ‘house style’ which is oh-so important in champagne.

One of the things I love about rosé champagne, above other champagne styles, is the huge variety of styles that they offer, from the bold structured style of Bollinger's Grande Anne Rosé to the floral elegant style of Laurent Perrier Rosé and everything else in-between.

Here are some of my favourites:

Something to go with your Lobster
Charles Heidseick Rose Reserve NV

This is a great wine to go with you posh Valentine’s dinner. It has beautiful red berry aromatics of strawberry and raspberry and a creamy, silk-like texture on the palate packed with jammy fruits. The red wine in the blend (7%) comes from the great grand cru sites of Ambonnay and Bouzy, giving the blend enough power and intensity stand up to a rich lobster dishes or even lighter game dishes such as Guinea fowl.
Keep it English
Balfour Brut Rosé - £35.99 at Waitrose

This is arguably England’s finest sparkling rosé (though Nyetimber’s Brut Rose and the Gusbourne Estate Rose are fantastic too). It has beautiful stone fruit aromas with peach, nectarine and even a hint of marzipan on the palate. It’s a great aperitif and is very easy to get through a whole bottle with your partner.
On Special
Lanson Rosé NV - £17.99 at Tesco (usually £35.99)

This is £17.99 at Tesco until the 14th February and that makes it incredibly good value for money. If you are looking for the safety of a brand you know at great price then this is the champagne for you. Like the Lanson Brut NV, this champagne doesn’t go through malolactic fermentation and as a result has a racy acidity which is great with smoked salmon blinis and other oily fish dishes. It also has a pure raspberry flavours which would work with sour fruit based desserts like summer fruits and cream. 
Splash Out
Bollinger Grande Anne Rosé 2002 - £85 at Majestic

Quite simply, to my taste, this is the best rosé champagne out there and the 2002 is one of my top 5 champagnes of all time. It’s made exclusively from Grand (77%) and Premier cru (23%) juice and has around 7-8% red wine from La Cote Aux Enfants added to the blend. It has a pretty salmon pink colour and a forest floor charactor on the nose. It’s another full bodied champagne which works great with so many types of food. It is rich enough to stand up to venison with a blackberry jus or an earthy veal and mushroom dish. It also has a lifted fruit-driven finish, which cleanses your palate like no other wine on earth. Go on, treat yourself.

Tuesday, 10 January 2012

The Special Club

No, its not a Marvel superhero collective but they're not far off from becoming the equivalent in Champagne. Created in 1971, the Special Club or 'Tresors de Champagne' is a group of like-minded grower champagnes who all share a common goal, to produce the best expression of their individual terroir that they can. Membership of this club is pretty exclusive. There are currently 25 members who must be Recoltant-Manipulants and must sign up to the strict 'charter' which outlines the clubs ideals and philosophy.
In exceptional years each member is given the opportunity to create a Special Club Cuvee. This is a blend which the grower thinks is the best possible expression of their house style combined with the character of the vintage. But before the clubman can even make a champagne a blend the 'vin clairs' ,which are the still wines produced before the secondary bottle fermentation, must pass a taste test with all the other members. If they are not happy with the quality of the blend then it cannot be presented in the specially created bottle with the special club label. The final champagne will also be tasted before release to make sure it is up to the Special Club standard.

Seeing a champagne presented in this unique bottle is as good a guarantee of quality that you are likely to find in a grower champagne. It's usually the growers 'tete de cuvee' or top champagne. 

Current club members are:

Paul Bara (Bouzy)
Roland Champion (Chouilly)
Charlier et Fils (Montigny-sous-Châtillon)
Forget-Chemin (Ludes)
Fresnet-Juillet (Verzy)
Grongnet (Etoges)
Marc Hébrart (Mareuil-sur-Aÿ)
Vincent Joudart (Fèrebrianges)
Lamiable (Tours-sur-Marne)
Larmandier Père et Fils (Cramant)
J. Lassalle (Chigny-lès-Roses)
Launois Père et Fils (Le Mesnil-sur-Oger)
Joseh Loriot-Pagel (Festigny)
A. Margaine (Villers-Marmery)
Moussé Fils (Cuisles)
Nominé-Renard (Villevenard)
Salmon (Chaumuzy)
Remy Massin et Fils (Ville sur Arce)
Vazart-Coquart (Chouilly)

Past members include Lamandier-Bernier (Reni Rezepi's favourite grower) and Pierre Peters.

Now, these are not easy champagnes to get hold of. They are made in very small quantities but they are well worth hunting down if you can. UK Stockists include The Sampler, Champagne Warehouse, Armit, Berry Bros and Nickolls and Perks.