Many people like Champagne, but only a few of us, I have observed, actually enjoy Champagne throughout dinner. I love to have Champagne with dinner, and have found that it really complements most of the foods that I enjoy. Granted, if you're having steak, roast beef, lamb, venison, etc., or any dish with acidic ingredients such as tomatoes or tomato sauce, your better choice with dinner would be a bottle of red wine.
Apart from those cases, I recommend Champagne with all kinds of fish and seafood; with pasta--other than tomato-based--and risotto, especially risotto with mushrooms; with most poultry dishes, including game birds; with most vegetable dishes; and even with white or pink meat dishes (more on that later). But full-bodied Champagnes are a better choice to accompany these foods than lighter ones--the one exception being that a lighter-bodied Champagne might do well with a light fish entrée.
Before I name the full-bodied Champagnes that I suggest to accompany dinner, I must mention something that will probably annoy many readers: You can really only appreciate good Champagne, especially full-bodied, complex Champagnes, in large, wider glasses, such as the tulip-shaped glass, or even a good white wine glass. Flutes, which I know many of you own--or even worse, the so-called trumpet-shaped glasses--are truly poor glasses for Champagne, especially complex, full-bodied Champagnes. Neither glass allows any room for the development of aromas. I own some flutes, but only use them for inexpensive sparkling wines; their only merit is that they do a decent job keeping your bubbly cold. Other than that, they're not worth a damn.
I had dinner a short time ago in a New York City restaurant with Ghislain de Montgolfier, head of the family-owned Champagne Bollinger (Ghislain is a great-nephew of the indomitable Lily Bollinger). I was there to taste all of Bollinger's current releases. But the restaurant had only flutes (a problem in most restaurants)! Montgolfier stated unequivocally that Bollinger (a very full-bodied Champagne) would not be poured into flutes, and asked for white wine glasses. In a stroke of brilliance, the sommelier recommended glasses that the restaurant uses for Burgundy and Barolo; the glasses were not the typically apple-shaped, wide Burgundy type, but more trapezoidal. All of the Champagnes showed beautifully (review notes on this week's WRO Reviews page)! And, by the way, the sommelier kept the Champagnes perfectly cold (but not ice cold) throughout the dinner, which was a big plus.
Now on to my full-bodied, dinner Champagne recommendations: I've composed a group of eight Champagne Houses, plus three Grower-Champagnes. Of the eight houses, only three make all of their Champagnes in the full-bodied style:
• Salon (makes only one Champagne!)
Champagne Bollinger's non-vintage Brut, Special Cuvée, is one of the most reliable, consistently fine NV Champagnes produced. Made with 75% black grapes (Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier), and with reserve wines of up to 15 years of age added to the base wine, it is very dry, full, complex in flavor, and toasty, especially with a little age. And it ages well; you can keep it (in a cool place) for ten years or more without a problem (about $50-$55, average retail price). Bollinger's magnificent 1999 La Grande Année is about double the price of the Special Cuvée, while the 1999 Grande Année Rosé and 1996 R.D. are three times the price. Bollinger is now introducing its first NV Rosé, which will retail for $90.
Champagne Krug produces only Prestige Cuvées, and so Krug is more of a special-occasion Champagne. Krug's NV Grande Cuvée--which the house prefers to call 'Multi-Vintage'--needs aging nowadays when you buy it (I've had several recent bottles which have been too young). With some age, it's incredible: So dry and powerful, so winey! But a good retail price for Krug Grandé Cuvée today would be $160, for a 750 ml bottle, that is. Krug's superb, dry, full-bodied onion skin-colored NV Rosé retails for about $375 (ouch!). Krug's other-worldly 1996 Vintage Brut--best since its 1928--retails in the $340 to $375 range, and don't even ask about Krug's Blanc de Blancs, 1996 Clos du Mesnil (all right, I'll tell you: average retail price, $1300 a bottle, if you can find it. I know it's crazy, but this wine is in demand!). In the realm of 'Completely Nuts,' Krug has released a small-production 1995 Blanc de Noirs called Clos d'Ambonnay, which you can buy for about $4,000. How many bottles do you want? (I've tried it; it's superb; very concentrated. I didn't buy any, needless to say.)
Salon is a tiny Champagne House (now owned by Champagne Laurent-Perrier) in the village of Le Mesnil-sur-Oger on Champagne's fabled Côtes des Blancs slope, south of Epernay. Salon produces one magnificent, very full-bodied Vintage Blanc de Blancs Champagne, and only in good vintages. Salon ages extremely well, and in fact needs at least 15 years from the vintage to really develop; a good retail price for Salon 1996, its current vintage, is $300.
I recommend five Champagne Houses for some but not all of their Champagnes--in terms of being full-bodied, dinner wines. They are Gosset, Louis Roederer, Veuve Clicquot, Philipponnat, and Pol Roger. Champagne Gosset's better NV Brut, Grande Réserve (not its NV Brut Excellence) is one of the great, full-bodied NV Bruts available. Gosset Grande Réserve, made solely from Grand Cru and Premier Cru grapes, is a dry, robust Champagne with complex flavors, and it ages very well. Grande Réserve is about the same price as Bollinger's NV Special Cuvée, perhaps a few dollars more ($50 to $60), and it certainly rivals the Bollinger in quality, being just a little less toasty. Gosset's Grand Millésimé 1999 Brut, about $88, is also made in the full-bodied, dry style and is perfect with dinner, as is Gosset's NV Rosé (about $70 -$75). Ironically, Gosset's ethereal Prestige Cuvée, Vintage Célébris, is lighter-bodied and elegant, an excellent apéritif Champagne.
All of Louis Roederer's Champagnes are made in the full-bodied style except for its renowned Prestige Cuvée, Cristal, which is medium-bodied and elegant, with exquisite balance, but which really needs a good 15 years to develop. I'm a particular fan of Roederer's Vintage Rosé, a lusty, flavorful Champagne that would really complement salmon or pork entrées; and Roederer's Blanc de Blancs is certainly made in the hefty, Roederer house style (both about $70).
Regarding the famed Champagne Veuve Clicquot, I can recommend only its Gold Label Vintage Reserve Brut (current vintage is 1999) and its Rosé Reserve Vintage Brut (current vintage, 2002). Both of these two Clicquot Champagnes are still excellent, made in the rich, full, traditional Clicquot style. I have been disappointed with Veuve Clicquot's NV 'Yellow Label' Brut for many years now, a victim, I believe, of over-production or not enough aging, or both. Veuve Clicquot's Prestige Cuvée, La Grande Dame, has also left me underwhelmed lately, except in great vintages such as 1988 and 1996. Speaking of 1988, I just recently had a 20-year-old 1988 Veuve Clicquot Rosé Reserve that was totally delicious, which proves that this wine can age well in good vintages.
Champagne Philipponnat makes one great, full-bodied, very dry Champagne, its Prestige Cuvée, Clos des Goisses, a connoisseur's favorite, from an incredibly steep vineyard overlooking the Marne River in the town of Aÿ. The current 1999 vintage costs about $150, a reasonable price for a Champagne of this quality. (The even-better 1996 Clos des Goisses is about $80 more.) Champagne Pol Roger also makes one memorable, full-bodied bubbly, its renowned Pinot Noir-dominated Prestige Cuvée, Sir Winston Churchill. (The current SWC vintage is 1998, about $200, but try to find the incredible, long-lived 1996 Sir Winston Churchill, also $200.)
Three Grower Champagnes I recommend that are made in the full-bodied style are Champagne Paul Bara, Champagne Henri Billiot, and Champagne Pierre Peters. Both Paul Bara and Henri Billiot produce powerful, dry, Pinot Noir-dominated Champagnes that age very well. Champagne Pierre Peters makes stunning Grand Cru Blanc de Blancs Champagnes from old vines that rival Champagne Salon in quality, at a considerably lower price.
A final word about pairing full-bodied Champagnes with some meat entrées. First, with pork or veal dishes, I've had the following Champagnes that have worked wonderfully:
Bollinger (NV Special Cuvée or Grande Année Vintage Brut)
Gosset (NV Grande Réserve or Grande Millésimé Vintage Brut)
Krug NV Grande Cuvée
Philipponnat Clos des Goisses (Vintage)
Pol Roger Sir Winston Churchill (Vintage)
Louis Roederer Vintage Brut
Salon Le Mesnil (Vintage)
Veuve Clicquot Gold Label Vintage Reserve
With ham, I recommend a full-flavored Rosé, such as Louis Roederer's Vintage Rosé Brut or Charles Heidsieck's Brut Rosé. Lamb can be tricky, especially if it's gamy. With young lamb, not too well done, try one of Bollinger's Rosés (Vintage or NV), or, for a big splurge, Krug NV Rosé.
Just a reminder: two reasonably priced, full-bodied, dinner Champagnes that will not let you down are Bollinger NV Special Cuvée and Gosset NV Grande Réserve. A Santé!