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Berger on wine: Champagne not just for toasting

Many food experts at this time of year suggest that the best libation to serve at parties and other celebrations is Champagne or any dry sparkling wines.

It’s for toasting, they say, and people like it. But most never mention Champagne’s greatest raison d’être: pairing it with food.

I suppose we are all creatures of habit when celebrations are planned. such as year-end parties, graduations, promotions, and retirements. We launch ships by sacrificing a bubbly on the bow as the ship is named. And some people mistakenly give the parents of newborns a bottle of Champagne to hold onto for the scion’s 21st birthday. (Almost all will be about 20 years too old at that point.)

The idea of Champagne and sparkling wines being so widely regarded being essential on festive occasions has been around for decades. But I always see it as a symbol. If a restaurant patron orders anything with bubbles (cava, prosecco, sekt) waiters often ask, “What’s the occasion?” Need there be one?

French Champagne makers don’t like talking about the subject since they have year-round issues, such as: How to market bubbly in the seven months that celebrations decline? The celebratory months are June and the last three of each year.

The celebrations-with-bubbles thing is based also on sound. The well-known “pop” of the cork and the sounds coming out of the glass signify happiness.

“They love to hear the pop and the fizz,” said one salesman to me 30 year ago.

As such, the quality of the sparkling wine rarely is an issue for infrequent bubbly consumers. Most people wouldn’t know the difference between Dom Perignon and a $3.99 brut from Arkansas. And wouldn’t care.

Some French folks I’ve met have pointed an accusatory finger to “you Americans,” who they indicate are daft to ignore the best reason to drink Champagne: serving it with food. When it is good or great, pairing bubbly with food can be an amazing wine experience. A key reason is that most bubblies usually have better acidity than most table wines.

When I mentioned this supposed American penchant for drinking Champagne only at celebrations about 20 years ago to the New York-based head of the now-defunct Champagne News Information Bureau in New York, he said, “It’s not just here. Even in France, we have forgotten how good it is with food.”

Champagne has always been an iconic luxury wine, but about 25 years ago, the category hit some speed-bumps on the road. In the late 1980s, at a blind tasting I staged of moderately priced Champagnes, a number of professional tasters challenged the authenticity of one highly popular French house.

I called the U.S. representative of that brand to relay our suspicions about that wine, and asked for a comment. The rep ardently defended the company - but has never communicated with me since. The bottle was clearly not worth a premium price.

Shortly before that, stories in some French newspapers alleged chicanery (including discovery of some fake Moët bottles being seized and, later, the discovery of some tainted Champagne).

Events like this have slowed the rapid growth of French Champagne sales here. But they recovered. Between 1983 and 1986, American wine buyers, spurred by a wave of recently flush younger buyers, doubled their consumption of Champagne.

Part of this growth must be attributed to the early popularity of what had to be one of the surprise successes of 1984 TV, “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous,” on which host Robin Leach would virtually shriek about the “good” life” and “Champagne dreams and caviar wishes.” As younger wine buyers began to discover other wines, Champagne remained a symbol of good living, celebrations, and promotions. Then sales again slowly declined.

Today, from various random bottles of true French Champagne I have tasted, some of the region’s most popular brands are turning out some of the best “normal” Champagnes in years. The drawback is that prices for some of these so-called luxury brands are quite high.

Mumm Cordon Rouge Brut and Ayala Brut Majeur are nearly $40 a bottle. Moët et Chandon Brut Imperiale and Taittinger Brut La Francaise are closer to $50. Bollinger Brut Special Cuvée is $55. And these are not reserve-level or vintage-dated wines.

As great as Champagne can be with its unique aromas that include hints of brioche, excellence in high-caliber bubbly can be had from at least a dozen U.S. projects, many owned by European-based bubbly specialists. Most sell for between $13 and $22 and the quality of these can be sensational.

In the $8 and $20 range you can find Spanish cava, German sekt (pronounced Zekt) and Italian prosecco. Quality of these ranges from good to excellent.

Discovery of the Week: NV Champagne Moutard Brut Rosé de Cuvaison ($33) - Rosé Champagnes are some of the most popular sparklings around these days, partly as a result of the popularity of pink anything. This soft, strawberry-scented Blanc de Noirs-style wine is charming and not as austere as many such wines. Soft enough to serve as an aperitif, but with a solid mid-plate of fruit, it works nicely with semi-soft cheeses and lighter meals.

Dan Berger lives in Sonoma County, where he publishes “Vintage Experiences,” a wine newsletter. Write to him at winenut@gmail.com.

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