Brut Force: The Powerful Finesse of Grower Champagne

We mix Grand Cru bubbly with a five-course meal to create an elegant dinner party with plenty of fizz.

Travel to Italy and it seems that every meal but breakfast begins with a flute of Prosecco. In Spain, Cava rinses away the day before supper. As for France, champagne is not merely the go-to aperitif, but an engine of leisure, luxury and decadence. Yes, sparkling wine’s high acid awakens the stomach and whets the appetite for a meal, but its reputation as a mood enhancer is as legendary as its compatibility with food. Whatever your favored country of origin, bubbly deserves billing beyond special occasions. If you’ve only enjoyed it as a prelude to dinner, your palate has suffered neglect from not registering, for example, the delightful mix of some champagnes’ creamy apple tartness with pork, or the nose-tingling, tongue-cleansing marriage of CO2 and custard. If you’ve never sipped and supped in such effervescent fashion, allow us to expand your senses.

We opted to showcase five grower champagnes—selected by Tom Bjornsen, portfolio sales manager at Roanoke Valley Wine Company—with an elegant five-course meal, using dishes that showcase the wines using mainly common ingredients and methods.

Nowadays, when it comes to the provenance of meat, cheese, produce and herbs, localism is heralded. Yet why stop with food? Virginia wines are improving, to be sure, but you don’t have to sacrifice artisanal quality just because you’re not drinking domestic vino. The utmost expression of this idea is grower champagne—that is, “champagnes made by individual growers exclusively from fruit they grow themselves,” explains Bjornsen, whose company distributes hand-crafted wines and imports seven grower champagnes.

France currently counts 84,016 acres in the wine-growing areas of Champagne. To generalize about the region as a whole, however, pays short shrift to the many tiny villages where gems hail from one side of the road but not the other. Napa Valley is barely half the size of Champagne, but it’s parceled into ever smaller AVAs (American Viticultural Areas: St. Helena, Yountville and Carneros, to name three) that denote a more specific sense of terroir. Likewise, Champagne is not one giant wash bin of fruit but a collective of discrete domains. Of the 324 vine-growing crus in Champagne, 43 are designated ‘Premier Cru’ and only 17 are ‘Grand Cru.’ Thus, while the grapes are indeed culled from the same trio of varietals—Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier, Chardonnay—from whence and whom they came are far more important.

The large houses, or Grande Marques (e.g. Veuve Clicquot, Perrier-Jouët, Moët et Chandon), use grapes purchased from all over the region, Bjornsen explains, “and in some cases, it’s actually co-op champagne”—meaning volume-market wine made by a huge cooperative that’s finished and labeled by a luxury brand. Grower champagnes are different; before they work their magic in the cellar, grower families are involved in every aspect of viticulture, from care of the soil to pruning of the vines to harvesting at ideal ripeness. In sharp contrast, large houses trade terroir for tonnage, paying legions of growers for fruit brought to loading docks and dumped into vats for crushing. In fact, nearly half of Champagne’s 300 million bottles produced each year are made by just 10 large firms, while grower champagnes are restricted by law from using a single cluster not ripened in their own vineyards.

Beyond price, how do you discern quality? According to Vincent Gasnier, a wine consultant and author who became the youngest Master Sommelier ever when he earned his MS in 1997 at age 22, “A sparkling wine should be clean, subtle, vinous and refreshing.” The telltale mark: “Small bubbles, constant from the bottom of the glass to the surface, spreading out to form a circle at the top.” On the tongue, he says, they should feel “creamy and subtle, not like Coca-Cola.” Then comes the finish: “The length should last more than 6-8 seconds; if it disappears, it’s lesser quality.”

One sip from Bjornsen’s portfolio, however, and you’ll discover that the antidote for a short finish is wine that indeed grows on you, especially when married to the right menu.

Bjornsen: “We Got Lucky”

Virginia Living asked Bjornsen a few questions about his champagne:

How did RVWC choose these growers?

Months of research, e-mails and translation, and then two trips to France in the dead of winter to taste wines and meet producers. In all honesty, we got lucky … at the start, we were wondering if there’s anything worth buying. By the end, the chore was figuring out what not to buy.

Virginia’s locavores have taken full advantage of the surge in neighbor-grown everything from veggies to Viognier. How does grower champagne fit into an epicure’s diet?

Think of grower champagne this way: You need a tomato. [Do you] head for some mega-retailer and buy an industrial hothouse tomato grown thousands of miles away and sprayed within an inch of its life, or do you visit your local farmers’ market and buy an organic heirloom tomato from the farmer who grew it himself on the same farm that his father, grandfather and great-grandfather grew their tomatoes?

What’s the biggest misconception Americans have about champagne?

That it’s expensive and for special occasions only. Most great champagnes, when compared to the same-quality wines from the other classic regions, are a screaming bargain. You can drink great champagne for a fraction of the price of great Burgundy or Bordeaux. And champagne does not need an event to make it special … it makes every event special.

As it turns out, grower champagnes are typically 10 to 20 percent less expensive than large house champagnes thanks to fewer hands in the supply chain taking a cut. RVWC buys these wines from the producers and sells them directly to retailers and restaurants, unlike co-ops that sell to négociants who deal with huge import firms that turn to local distributors before the wine ever reaches a restaurant or retailer.

Label Able

Common terms for navigating Champagne

Brut = dry.

Extra Dry = slightly less dry than Brut.

Demi-sec = half-dry.

Cuvée = a blended batch of wines.

Doux/Dolce = sweet.

Mousse = head of bubbles.

NV = non-vintage, blended from multiple vintages, not one particular year. Allows producers to maintain consistent style while saving you beaucoup dollars—vintage quality comes at a premium.

Blanc de Blancs = made from Chardonnay grapes. According to Vincent Gasnier, Blanc de Blancs are “creamier, more feminine in style, great with seafood.”

Blanc de Noirs = made from black grapes, typically Pinot Noir. “A much firmer style, complex, most austere, more refreshing,” Gasnier says.

Bjornsen adds, “Champagne from Pinot Noir can be quite aggressive; it’s often surprising how well it does with filet mignon and pork. If there is not a lot of fat, champagnes do very, very well.”

Menu and Pairing Notes

Amuse Bouche

American Caviar with Melba Toast Points

Chapuy Blanc de Blancs Extra Brut Grand Cru NV

Straw tones with a yeasty nose. Clean and flinty with notes of pear and lemon. In Oger, near the geographic center of Champagne, Father makes it and the daughter sells it, but it’s only available in two or three U.S. states.

Salade with Ahi Tuna

Dehours Grand Reserve Brut NV

Golden color with hints of green. Very austere, from just west of Epernay. Apricot and biscuits on the nose presage a lean palate brimming with grapefruit. House style prominently features Pinot Meunier.

Potage St. Germain

Seasonal Green Pea Soup

René-Henri Coutier Brut Tradition NV

Grandfather was the first to plant vineyards in the Grand Cru village of Ambonnay. Known for wines of finesse, supple fruit and length, the wine beguiles with complex aromas of figs and framboise.

Pork Tenderloin with Poached Pears and Pomme Duchesse

Voirin-Jumel Brut Blanc de Blancs Grand Cru NV

A soft, round palate with touches of oak, yet ample chalk and mineral from Cramant, just southeast of Epernay. Alice Voirin, a fourth-generation winegrower, insists there is nothing better with caviar.

Frozen Eggnog Custard

Michel Arnould Grand Cuvée Brut Grand Cru NV

In Verzenay, the northernmost Grand Cru village in Champagne, fifth-generation vigneron Patrick Arnould makes big, voluptuous wines with aromas of hazelnuts and wet stones and an elegant palate.

Epicures can replicate the meal at home, or bring their appetites to 1 North Belmont for the Grower Champagne Dinner on Thursday, January 15, as Huntjens and Bjornsen reprise this bubblicious feast. 1NorthBelmont.com

The Recipes

American caviar with melba toast points

Farm-raised North Carolina trout caviar

 (1⁄4 to 1⁄2 ounce per person)

white bread

Remove crust and slice bread into small triangles. Toast until crisp and spoon caviar on top. Garnish with microgreens for added color (extra greens can be added to the salade).

Salade with ahi tuna

1 box mache

6 ounces arugula (1 ounce per person)

3 6-ounce slices ahi tuna

butter—clarified or olive oil

salt and pepper to taste

Dressing

1⁄3 cup regular olive oil

1⁄6 cup white champagne vinegar

1⁄6 cup Dijon mustard

2 tablespoons chopped parsley

salt and pepper

Season tuna with salt and pepper. Heat saucepan, add butter, and sear tuna on both sides. Allow tuna to rest, then cut in slices. Place washed mache and arugula on plates. Arrange tuna slices atop each. Drizzle dressing over salade and tuna.

Potage St. Germain

(Seasonal green pea soup)

1 48-ounce can chicken stock

1 48-ounce can veal stock

1 1⁄2 pounds fresh peas, 2 10-ounce bags frozen tiny peas (thawed), or 1 pound dried green peas (soaked overnight in water or a bottle of beer)

1 green leek, washed well, chopped

1 sweet onion, chopped

2 cloves garlic, peeled, crushed with knife blade and chopped

1 small carrot, chopped

2 small green onions, chopped

1 stalk celery and leaves, chopped

1 cup heavy cream

1 teaspoon salt

1⁄4 teaspoon pepper

2 tablespoons butter

Sauté onions, celery and carrot in a deep saucepan. Add chicken and veal stocks. Cover and simmer for 15–20 minutes. Add peas, green onion and garlic. Cover and simmer for 15–20 minutes. Season with salt and pepper. Transfer in batches to a food processor and puree until smooth. Return to pan, blend in heavy cream and heat. Serve hot or cold, garnished with croutons and bacon.

Croutons

3 slices white bread

few ounces of soft goat cheese

sprigs of parsley, chopped

applewood-smoked bacon, 6 slices

Spread goat cheese and parsley mixture on bread. Cut bread into croutons and brown for 5 minutes at 375. Chop the bacon, and pan-sear it in a tiny bit of butter. Place croutons and bacon at bottom of each bowl, and pour the soup around it.

Pork tenderloin with poached pears and pomme duchesse

6 6-ounce pork tenderloin cuts

all-purpose flour

salt and pepper

clarified butter or olive oil

Salt and pepper the tenderloins and roll through flour. Heat butter in saucepan. Cook over medium heat, until done.

Pears

6 Anjou pears, peeled and cored

water, enough to cover pears

1⁄4 cup lemon juice

1 cinnamon stick

Heat water, lemon juice and cinnamon stick in a saucepan until simmering. Place pears in poaching liquid, turn off heat, cover pan, and poach for approximately 10 minutes.

Pomme duchesse

2 1⁄2 pounds Idaho potatoes, peeled

1 egg

2 tablespoons butter

1⁄2 tablespoon nutmeg

Parmesan cheese to taste

salt and pepper

Boil the potatoes in lightly salted water until easily pierced by a fork. Rice the potatoes, and mash after adding butter, egg, nutmeg, cheese, salt and pepper. Place mashed potatoes in piping bag with a large pastry tip. Pipe near-full circles on a baking sheet sprayed with cooking spray. Brown for several minutes in oven .

Sauce

1 48-ounce can veal stock

1 teaspoon tomato paste

1 ounce chocolate

1 ounce Madeira wine (dry)

salt and pepper

Pour Madeira in saucepan and burn off alcohol. Add veal stock, tomato paste and chocolate. Whisk until smooth. Reduce by 1⁄3. Add salt and pepper to taste

Vegetables

about 5 Brussels sprouts per person

about 3 garlic cloves per person (peeled, left whole)

olive oil

Clean and wash Brussels sprouts and cut a cross in each stem. Heat oven-proof pan, and sauté sprouts and garlic in olive oil. Cover with foil and roast in oven for approximately 20 minutes at 350.

To serve: Pour a small puddle of sauce on each plate. Place a pear in each puddle. Slice the tenderloin, and fan it on the plate. Arrange a few Brussels sprouts and garlic cloves on each.

Frozen eggnog custard

1⁄2 cup sugar

1⁄4 cup water

3 egg yolks

1⁄4 cup Bourbon

1 cup heavy cream

Garnish

roasted walnuts, chopped

6 cherries (if not available fresh, maraschinos will suffice)

6 mint leaves

The day before dinner: Slowly boil sugar and water over medium heat until it reaches 245 degrees on a candy thermometer. Remove from stove. Whip eggs slowly in mixer until they begin to thicken. Add the hot sugar syrup and whip until mixture is thick and cooled to room temperature. Add Bourbon and combine. Pour heavy cream in mixing bowl and beat until it forms soft peaks. With a spatula, fold the cream into the egg yolk mixture. Divide among 6 serving dishes and freeze overnight.

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