Cheers to Champagne & Chocolate

1st June 2017


Sipping a glass of sparkling wine before nibbling on a rich carré of Belgian chocolat noir … Whoever said you can’t pair chocolate with Champagne?

Taste habits have unquestionably evolved over time. Modern gastronomy trends and palate preferences are a far cry from the sweet tendencies of 50 years ago. Today’s taste is drawn to Brut, low-sugar styles—even zero dosage Champagne (Brut Nature), which contains no added sugar. Flavor preferences naturally differ by country and region. While seventy-five percent of modern Champagnes are fashioned in the Brut style, most Russian and Dutch consumers still prefer sweeter varieties.

The taste of Champagne—which, in scientific terms, is mere sparkling wine and yeast that undergo a transformative, in-bottle, double-fermentation process—is influenced by numerous factors: grapes, soil, blending process, etc. Dosage (sugar level) is determined during fermentation (when sugar or liqueur may be added), resulting in a Demi-Sec, Doux, Brut, Extra Brut, or Brut Nature varietals.

The primary grapes (cépage) used in Champagne production are Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier. Pure Pinot Noir Champagnes, for example, contain more structure and body; whereas, Pinot Meunier is used more than any other grape, but is seldom seen alone. Champagne fashioned of all black grapes (Pinot Noir) is called a Blanc de Noirs; Champagne with all white grapes (typically Chardonnay) is called a Blanc de Blancs. Blanc de Blancs are characterized by their fruitiness, elegance and refined qualities. Rosé Champagne’s delicate hue is typically achieved with the simple addition of red wine juice. To achieve palatable balance in effervescent rosé, 98 percent of rosé Champagnes use red wine juice; using red grape skins (not only juice) is a rarer method to transform tone.

Soil and climate also alter flavor.

There are eight official types of soil within the Champagne region. Blending grapes harvested from the various soils is characteristic to each house; each is renowned for a signature style. The letters NV, meaning ‘non-vintage’, inscribed on bottles indicates that the wine was made using grapes blended from various harvest years. Most Champagnes are NV mélanges, whereas, vintages are limited to grapes harvested within the indicated year. Environmentally, the greatest enemies of Champagne are light and heat (why production is limited to the coldest region of France).

The vigernon, or winemaker, relies on temperature to perfect the taste of each bottle. Temperature and sunlight exposure varies between pockets of the Champagne region. More sunlight equates to higher sugar and acidity; serving temperature also alters flavors and fragrances. For example, chilled bottles lose five degrees when opened …

France’s national seal of authenticity, the A.O.C. label (appellation d’origine contrôlée), protects the distinctiveness of Champagne’s production region. The A.O.C. assures that only sparkling wines produced from the chalky limestone terroir in the Champagne region can truly be called Champagne.

But the concept of terroir is far more than the earth from which artisanal comestibles originate. It comprises the complexities of various environmental factors, including the people and the savoir-faire required to craft each bottle. There are numerous definitions, but I consider terroir a ‘taste of place’. It is intangible, sensory, emotional, arguably imaginative and extremely difficult to characterize.

Curiously, because of Champagne’s distinct terroir, it is challenging to produce organic varieties. Many houses are instead beginning to produce Champagne under viticulture raisonée, which means using as few pesticides and man-made products as possible.

Charles-Eric Vilian Alexandre XIIII, oenologist and owner of Alex & Alex Lifestyle Events with Good Taste carefully selects Champagnes whose flavor profiles can stand up to chocolate’s bold notes. While chocolate and Champagne may not have been a common ensemble in the past, people soon change their minds.

At an event at Hilton Paris Opera the pairings began with Champagne Autréau, a Brut Premier Cru from Champillon, which would make an excellent apéritif for its dry, yet crisp, fruity aftertaste. Next was a Champagne Blondel Premier Cru Blanc de Blancs Brut made entirely from Chardonnay grapes, which provided light freshness and soft balance. The first two Bruts were paired with small savories, including a smoked salmon amuse-bouche with herbs, green apple, celeriac, beet, and mustard purée, garnished with edible flowers (a crowd favorite).

The sound of air slowly releasing from the Champagne bottle when de-corked is called ‘the whisper of love’. To hear this noise, place your thumb on the muselet, the wire cage that fits over a bottle of Champagne, and gently turn the bottle left. (Under pressure, the longer a cork stays in the bottle, the smaller and more narrow it becomes.)

Charles-Eric insisted that serving glass also effects flavor aromas. Curiously and contrary to popular belief, the flute is not the best way to serve bubbly. Tulip-shaped (or special tasting) glasses enable aromas to better circulate.

Champagne Deveaux followed: an elegant Blanc de Noirs fashioned primarily from Pinot Noir. Alex & Alex’s dark chocolate with dried raspberries, fashioned with 75 percent Asian cacao, plus cacao beans from Beirut, offered rich accompaniment to the Brut’s sharpness.

To further recognize the distinctive intricacies of the Champagne terroir, we sampled a Fuga Cava Classic Brut Rosé from Spain, which came paired with milk chocolate from Brazil with sea salt. But the crème de la crème of the evening was Champagne Desruets, Maison Fondée in 1888 Hautvillers, France Cuvée Limitée Brut: a 40% Chardonnay, 40% Pinot Noir. A limited-edition Premier Cru Brut Champagne, La Bacchus specially released 3,120 bottles fashioned using traditional methods. We tasted number 1,720 with Alex & Alex’s matcha green tea dark chocolate. A rare experience and truly exceptional moment, the Millésime vintage was aged for more than five years in the cellar to achieve complexity.

Thanks to Charles-Eric, we learned that chocolate is just as, if not more, complex than Champagne. As with Champagne, fabrication drastically alters flavor. There are countless cacao bean varieties, just as there are grape varietals. They require fermentation and are influenced by time and region.

Shared by Catherine Caldwell

Glass of Bubbly

Executive editor of news content for the website Please enjoy the articles that we share - We hope you find our love for Champagne & Sparkling Wines both interesting and educational.