It was over a bottle of a delightful 2002 vintage grower champagne with M. and D. at Peel Street’s Nocturne, when the idea of hosting a vintage champagne horizontal came to me. What better theme for a wine dinner to kick off the holiday season?
Champagne is heavily marketed as a celebratory beverage – fizz and festivity go hand-in-hand – a Veblen good par excellence where price bears more relation to packaging and imagery than quality.
No surprises that when I mooted the idea around, there were many excited and enthusiastic, but more than a fair share of skeptics too….Champagne is fizz, sparkles, an aperitif, a celebration drink, a precursor not the main event. Champagne’s own marketing success seemed to be doing itself some damage here. No surprises as it’s Christmas time and in HK, retailers are bombarding us with “perfect Christmas gifts” – Grand Marques who do a Jeffs Koons packaged release, a Phillipe Starck packaged release etc. etc. No surprises if us lay drinkers get the impression that Champagne is not a “serious” wine for food pairing and certainly not a beverage to pair with Chinese food. I found myself defending Champagne’s foody credentials somewhat.
My first ever wine dinner more than a decade ago was in fact a pairing of champagnes and food, which was thoroughly enjoyable. Certainly many Champagnes on the market are made in a deliberately light bodied style – perfect as an aperitif- particularly many varieties of Non Vintage (NV) Champagnes available on the retail market are of the enjoy-now and don’t-bother-cellaring genre.
Vintage Champagne on the other hand, is quite a different creature: the product of grapes harvested from only one year, it is made in a much richer style than NV Champagnes and it is intended for long ageing to develop complexity, flavor and body.
Vintage Champagnes aren’t made every year, they are made by houses in years where the harvest is above average. And in an outstanding year like 2002, Vintage Champagnes were declared across all major houses. Here you will find only the finest Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes used- Chardonnay for finesse and Pinot Noir for structure, fruit and body. Pinot Meunier, the less illustrious third of the popular Champagne trio, tends to be excluded.
Vintage Champagnes need to be kept for at least 3 years in bottle resting upon the lees before it can legally be released, but many houses are cellaring their vintage champagnes for at least 7-8 years. Bollinger’s 2002 R.D., true to its late disgorgement style, was only released in the first quarter of this year.
Vintage Champagnes are rich, more full bodied and packed with flavor when they are released- great for pairing with food.
The trademark high acidity of Champagne will pair well with oilier foods, such as some types of Chinese food. There are a range of houses producing vastly different styles- perfect for pairing with multi course Chinese meals. For example, the Delamotte Blanc de Blancs 2002 is perfect as an aperitif or with shellfish and seafood starters, while it may struggle against the braised pork belly. On the other hand, I could not imagine the Bollinger R.D. served as an aperitif, but quite the partner to cozy up with braised pork belly.
A quick few words on 2002 in Champagne – close to perfect weather conditions with no disastrous frost, a warmish summer that was not too hot or cold, and dry sunny conditions during harvest time allowing grapes to ripen on the vine for a longer period. The recent outstanding (post 90s) vintages for Champagne have been recognised to be 2002, 1996 and 1995, though individual producers may have different views about their best vintages. 2002s are ripe and more ready to drink than 95s or 96s, which are getting a bit hard to find now and rather expensive.
Here is how Wine Dinner No. 3, the 2002 vintage Champagne horizontal, went down in almost unanimous conclusions amongst 13 diners.
1. Best all round/most balanced
Bollinger La Grande Annee 2002
My notes : gorgeous, rounded, Champagne- structured like all Bollys and full-bodied with evident influence of the 60% Pinot Noir in the blend, but not as imposing as the R.D.; great food wine
2. Most surprising
Delamotte Blanc de Blancs 2002
My notes : surprised to find out how elegant and drinkable; the freshest most delicate of the line-up; very fine mousse
3. Best Value
A toss up between the Delamotte and Pol Roger 2002
My notes : less than half the price of a Krug N.V…..
4. Most full bodied “big” wine
My notes : this is a big big wine, rich, oaky, toasty, deep-coloured, more ‘oxidative’ in style than all the other Champagnes in the line-up; maybe too early- definitely one to keep for the next 10 years)
5. Most toasty
6. Rather of a let down (too much expectation here?)
Dom Perignon 2002
My notes : really a bit of a lightweight this one; disappointing
(i) Parma ham, smoked salmon, asparagus, olive with green salad
(ii) Pan fried Hokkaido king scallop topped with truffle slices
[Pol Roger 2002 and Delamotte Blanc de Blancs 2002]
(iii) Braised Tiger Grouper in Abalone sauce
[Bollinger La Grande Annee 2002]
(iv) Roasted Chicken with Kaffir Lime Leaf
[Dom Perignon 2002]
(v) Braised Pork Belly
[Bollinger R.D. 2002]
(vi) Beancurd thick soup
(vii) Stewed Tianjin Cabbage with Jinhua Ham