Bubbles and Bites: Chef's Food and Sparkling Wine Pairings

03/05/2014 12:00 AM

03/05/2014 2:52 PM

BIRD CAFÉ

The bite: Beef Bone Marrow

The bubbles: 1999 Nicolas Feuillatte, Brut Champagne

We’re seeing bone marrow on more menus lately, and Bird Café wine director Brian Herman explains why it pairs so well with sparkling wine.

“It’s incredibly rich. It’s mouth-coating. People tend to describe this dish as the most luxurious butter you could have,” he says. “When you have a dish like that, you need something that brings fresh and bright flavors to the table. The richness of the marrow coats your tongue, and the acidity of the bubbly helps reset the palate so that the next bite is just as outrageous as the first.”

We break out the bubbly for special occasions without batting an eye, but area wine experts suggest sparkling wine not be reserved for celebrations.

Drink fizz with food, they say, because sparklers like champagne, prosecco, cava and moscato are the most versatile wines to pair with cuisine, thanks to their minerality and palate-cleansing properties. They can cut through rich and fatty dishes, hold up to ingredients with high acidity and add excitement to a meal in the form of tongue-tickling bubbles.

“You can have it with dessert, seafood or a steak,” says Cef Zambrano, sommelier and owner of Zambrano Wine Cellar. “When I ask customers if they’d like to start with champagne, so many people say, ‘Well, I’m not celebrating.’ They think bubbles are only a celebratory wine.”

Brian Herman, wine director at Bird Café, says there’s a great bubbly available at every price point now.

“It’s certainly great for special occasions. But it’s also great to start a meal and end a meal,” he says. “It doesn’t have to be wrapped up in all this mystery.”

A 17th-century Benedictine monk named Dom Pérignon famously exclaimed he was “drinking the stars” upon his accidental discovery of champagne. Savvy sippers know true champagne only comes from the Champagne region of France, and although its production adheres to a strict, centuries-old process that many connoisseurs insist leads to a higher-quality product, other sparkling wines are becoming increasingly popular.

“There are some California sparkling wines that have similar notes to champagne,” says Eric O’Connor, executive chef and general manager at Winslow’s Wine Cafe. “But prosecco is a big mover for us. I think it’s due to the sweet flavor and drinkability.”

In Grapevine at Winewood Grill, wine director Cody Peters says he has also seen a rise in the popularity of the Italian sparkler.

“Prosecco is slightly sweeter than champagne and even the California sparkling wines,” Peters says. “People prefer a little sweetness but also want the bubbly to be dry, clean and refreshing.”

For traditionalists who won’t stray from true champagne, Herman says grower champagnes — those from wineries that grow their own grapes rather than outsource them — are “definitely where it’s at.”

“What’s old is new again,” he says. “You have legacy houses like Veuve Clicquot and Nicolas Feuillatte that are buying grapes from everybody, and that’s pretty much the norm. But for grower champagnes, it’s less about consistent year-to-year house style and more about the year-to-year changes.”

Whether you adore asti spumante or go gaga for Spanish cava, their festive effervescence provides balance for many dishes. We asked four food and wine pros to share recipes for their favorite pairings of bites and bubbles.

ZAMBRANO WINE CELLAR

The bite: Prosciutto-Wrapped Scallops with Tamari Sauce

The bubbles: Lucian Albrecht Brut Rosé

Many restaurants give a complimentary dessert for customer birthdays. Cef Zambrano gives a glass of port or bubbly, and most folks choose the latter.

“Champagne is the most versatile of all wines,” Zambrano says. “I usually pick a white or a red, but when I get champagne, I always tell myself, ‘Gosh, this is my favorite.’ In fact, it very well may be my favorite wine.”

That’s saying a lot, as Zambrano is constantly tasting wines and pairing dishes at his namesake restaurant, now in its seventh year. He says his recommended French sparkling wine matches well with his meaty and savory prosciutto-wrapped scallops topped with tamari sauce, a thicker, darker, less-salty version of soy sauce.

WINSLOW’S WINE CAFE

The bite: Crab Cakes with Grape Tomato Salad and Chardonnay Beurre Blanc

The bubbles: Billecart-Salmon Brut Reserve Champagne

Winslow’s executive chef Eric O’Connor says sweet notes from jumbo lump crab meat, along with spicy seasonings, balance well with crisp, dry champagne.

“You get a nice contrast,” he says. “Crab cakes are a menu item people at the restaurant really enjoy with sparkling wine.”

Ask for O’Connor’s recommended pairing, Billecart-Salmon Brut Reserve, because it’s not on the restaurant’s wine menu. O’Connor says for its price point and consistency, the bottle is a bargain.

WINEWOOD GRILL

The bite: Jalapeño & Onion Crusted Chilean Sea Bass over Saffron Risotto

The bubbles: Cantine Maschio Prosecco

Cody Peters, Winewood Grill wine director, says his recommended Italian prosecco is one of his bestselling wines. Its sweetness helps settle the spice found in the Grapevine restaurant’s jalapeño and onion-crusted sea bass.

“Recent trends have more people choosing prosecco over French champagne or California sparkling wine,” he says. “Prosecco is typically slightly sweeter than champagne and that seems to be the draw for my guests.”

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