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A Sparkling Toast for Every Course

By Karen Page and Andrew Dornenburg
Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Until four years ago, we were used to drinking champagne at 12 -- but at midnight, not noon. Then Ruth Reichl, Gourmet magazine's editor in chief and best-selling author of a trilogy of memoirs ("Tender at the Bone," "Comfort Me With Apples," "Garlic and Sapphires") invited us to an all-champagne lunch. It forever changed the way we thought about sparkling wines.

Around her table, we were joined by a dozen heavy hitters in the food world, including restaurateur Drew Nieporent and designer David Rockwell (who worked on Washington's Rosa Mexicano). At the stove was chef-restaurateur David Waltuck of Chanterelle, which has won James Beard awards for outstanding restaurant, service and wine service. With each of Waltuck's perfectly matched courses, our idea of bubblies as simply the go-to beverage for toasting the new year faded. Champagne became fine wine. We were amazed by the range of styles, and their versatility with food, as we tasted our way through a succession of flutes: from lighter- to fuller-bodied, from drier to sweeter and from delicate to richly flavored.

An entire celebratory evening offers even more opportunities to put these so-called grading principles to work and to pair each successive glass with food that will complement it best. Here are some tips from our life-changing lunch featuring Perrier Jouet champagnes, plus ideas for creating your own simplified all-sparkling countdown to midnight at home:

7-8 p.m.: Start with a light-bodied brut (dry) sparkling wine. These are ideal with hors d'oeuvres. At our lunch: Guests were greeted with bite-size herbed beggar's purses and deviled quail eggs, plus shot glasses of chilled beet soup with creme fraiche -- each topped with copious amounts of Tsar Nicoulai caviar. At home: In lieu of caviar and champagne, consider a good-quality American paddlefish roe (at about one-quarter the price) on your blini with Spanish cava or Italian prosecco. Recommended wines: the crisp and refreshing 1+1=3 Cava Brut ($15) or the fruitier Zonin Prosecco Special Cuvee Brut ($10).

8-9 p.m.: Whether you're planning a sit-down dinner or a buffet, serve a blanc de blancs (100 percent chardonnay) around the time of the first course. At our lunch: We sat down to Crazy Salad of Organic Mesclun, Lobster, Foie Gras and Papaya, created to accompany glasses of 1993 Perrier Jouet Fleur de Champagne Blanc de Blancs. At home: Keep the lobster but skip the foie gras. Blanc de blancs is also our champagne of choice with caviar and oysters. Recommended wines: the steely Domaine Ste. Michelle Blanc de Blancs ($12) or the rich 2004 Kluge Brut Blanc de Blancs ($30).

9-10 p.m.: With the second course, serve a cuvee (or blend of chardonnay, pinot noir and/or pinot meunier). At our lunch: Our Blue Island oysters with fresh white truffles were accompanied by 1996 Perrier Jou¿t Fleur de Champagne (50 percent chardonnay, 45 percent pinot noir, 5 percent pinot meunier). At home: Enjoy one perfect raw oyster, with or without a single drop of white truffle oil. Recommended cuvees: the apple-y 2002 Argyle Brut ($25), elegant NV Champagne Henriot Brut Souverain ($55), creamy Iron Horse Green Valley Classic Vintage Brut ($30) or complex 2000 DVX by Mumm Napa ($55). Recommended blanc de noirs (100 percent pinot noir and/or pinot meunier): the delicate Domaine Ste. Michelle Blanc de Noirs ($12) or richly creamy Gloria Ferrer Blanc de Noirs ($20), especially with roasted or smoked salmon.

10-11 p.m.: Serve your entree with a rose sparkler. At our lunch: Our squab breast with braised wild mushrooms was matched with the 1997 Perrier Jouet Fleur de Champagne Rose (50 percent pinot noir, 50 percent chardonnay). As they were served, Karen chatted with chef-author Cesare Casella, with the aroma from his signature pocketful of fresh herbs only enhancing the match. At home: Roast a quail or two per person to serve with wild mushrooms -- or opt for lamb, pork, salmon or tuna -- alongside your rose. Recommended wines: the strawberry-noted NV Domaine Carneros Brut Rose ($36), cherry-noted 2004 Kluge Brut Rose ($38) or Roederer Estate Brut Rose ($26), cassis-noted 1997 Laurent-Perrier Grand Siecle Rose ($115) or cranberry-noted Schramsberg Brut Rose($24).

11 p.m.-midnight (and beyond): After dinner, and with dessert, enjoy a sparkler with a hint or more of sweetness. Look for sec (slightly sweet), demi-sec (sweet) and doux (quite sweet) styles. At our lunch: Champagne Perrier Jouet Extra Dry accompanied our tart and impossibly light passion fruit souffle with cilantro and pineapple sorbet. At home: Make a cold grapefruit and pistachio souffle the day before (find it at http://www.washingtonpost.com/recipes) to serve with demi-sec champagne. Recommended wines: the alluring Taittinger Nocturne Sec ($75) with dried fruit-based desserts, the honeyed Laurent-Perrier Demi-Sec ($40), creamy Schramsberg Cremant Demi-Sec ($39) or even a sweet Moscato d'Asti, with fruit desserts.

Reichl may be fine with apples, but -- as the unforgettable luncheon she hosted convinced us -- you can comfort us with champagne or another sparkling wine virtually any time, with virtually any food.

How Sweet it Is

Champagne's sweetness classifications can be confusing. Because "dry" typically refers to a lack of sweetness in wine, it's counterintuitive that an "extra dry" champagne tastes slightly sweet, but it does. Wine publications use varying standards, but in general, these are the classifications, in ascending order of sweetness:

Extra brut: 0 to 0.6 percent residual sugar

Brut: less than 1.5 percent sugar

Extra dry: 1.2 to 2 percent sugar

Sec: 1.7 to 3.5 percent sugar

Demi-sec: 3.3 to 5 percent sugar

Doux: more than 5 percent sugar

Andrew Dornenburg and Karen Page, award-winning authors of "What to Drink With What You Eat," can be reached through their Web site,http://www.becomingachef.com, or atfood@washpost.com.

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