In one of the many memorable moments in Garry Marshall’s Pretty Woman (1990), a dapper Richard Gere admonishes a coy Julia Roberts, telling her to sip her champagne slowly instead of gulping it down. He then suggests some strawberries as an accompaniment. “They bring out the flavour of the champagne,” he says with a smile.
“Now that’s a legendary combination,” approves Aishwarya Nair, corporate food and wine consultant, The Leela Palaces, Hotels & Resorts. Unwinding in the hotel’s swish greens, Nair chats about champagne and its flavours with zeal. “The acidity and sweetness of the strawberry and the basic citrus touch of the champagne is a beautiful marriage!” Champagne, a sparkling wine produced from grapes in Champagne in France, must be paired with the correct appetiser, dessert or delicacy to enjoy its flavours, insists Nair. “The key to a beautiful Sauterne (a sweet French wine), for instance, is its refreshing balance of acidity that cleanses one’s palate and highlights its luscious quality. This non-conflicting balance of flavour compliments the cloying sweetness of the dessert,” she says. A dry wine, on the other hand, when paired with sweet, tends to show off its acidity.
It is little details such as these which champagne drinkers must incorporate in their dining rituals. “Food and wine pairing is the science of maintaining the right balance,” says Nair, stressing the three fundamentals: “First, always match the immensity of the food with the density of the wine.” For instance, she says, a rich, intensely-flavoured Chateaubriand tenderloin will pair nicely with a full-bodied wine such as a Cabernet Sauvignon. “Second, match astringent foods with wines that have the same intensity of acid.” Although it is difficult to decipher the astringent quality of foods one eats, Nair suggests you pair wines of equal calibre (in tartness) to what you find sour on your palate. And the third cardinal rule, says Nair, is to “pair tomatoes, vinegar, citrus fruit, tamarind and pickles with acidic wines. This helps bring out the zesty, fruity notes of the wine.”
You could opt for traditional pairing — nothing complements the luxury of champagne better than the opulence of caviar and fresh seafood like oysters and lobsters. “The caviar’s salt balances the citrus of the wine.” Vegetarians can experiment with a tangy pasta in carbonara sauce, or go for a stewed cauliflower in cream.
“The beauty of champagne, unlike most wine, is that it’s very versatile. Its effervescence lends it an ability to transform.”
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For champagne connoisseurs, says Nair, there is plenty to know and learn about their drink. “Champagne is a luxuriant lifestyle, it is history in a glass,” she says. “There is so much culture and romance associated with it.” She points out that while Prosecco (an Italian sparkling wine) and other varieties are produced across different regions, “champagne comes exclusively from the region of Champagne”. What many don’t know, she adds, is that though champagne is white in colour, it is made from two black grapes, along with Chardonnay (a white grape variety). “While the Chardonnay in the champagne adds a backbone to it, the Pinot Noir and the Pinot Meunier add the fruity elegance and the substance respectively. Together, they create a perfect balance.”
While shopping for the perfect bottle of champagne, says Nair, look out for the brand and vintage. “You should choose your wine depending on the sweetness you like — there is brut zéro or brut natural (with no sugar), brut, extra-dry, sec, demi-sec and doux.” If you want a more fruity wine, Nair suggests a doux. “The only way to know is by sipping it slowly, and gauging the nuances of different brands and houses.”
Nair’s romance with champagne and cuisine began in New York while studying at the Culinary Institute of America. “I would go scavenging for good food and good wines,” she says. And during this hunt, Nair sampled the food-paired tasting menus at most restaurants. After years of study, tasting different varieties and scouting for favourites, Nair has built an enviable personal collection with oxidised wines from Bollinger and Pol Roger; she was also gifted a Perrier-Jouët 2002 in a beautiful, handpainted glass bottle. But her favourite is the Krug. “As a brut wine, it offers a beautiful, flawless balance.” She also swears by the Blanc de Blancs – made only from Chardonnay, only a few of these bottles were made and are quite expensive, says Nair. “This wine is more delicate than regular champagne. It is the best aperitif wine available in France.” Blanc de Noirs, another favourite, is made with the black grapes, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. She also adds the Rosé to her list. “This blush Champagne is made with Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grapes. Winemakers add a little red wine during blending, usually Bouzy, a typical Pinot Noir still wine from Champagne.”
Champagne is normally associated with drinking in tons, says Nair. “But the beauty of these wines is that they are so powerful and opulent, that you are satisfied with just one glass.”
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With a growing segment of champagne connoisseurs in the country, the demand for well-curated wine lists has gone up. While she has sampled the extensive wine lists of many famous hotels — Le Royal Monceau in Paris, The Ritz in Moscow, The Claridge’s London —, it is New York, says Nair with a gleam in her eyes, “an unbelievable mecca for beautiful wines” that excites her. “Check out Veritas, a restaurant with an extraordinary list of over 2,000 wines!” Inspired by the exhaustive and exclusive wine lists across the world, Nair is currently busy procuring a rare Clos dámbonnay from the house of Krug which will be available exclusively at The Leela Palace New Delhi for a whopping Rs 4,25,000 a bottle. “I want India to sample the wine and the coveted lifestyle.” Nair was recently awarded a Diplôme d’ Honneur by the Corporation des Vignerons de Champagne and the Comite Interprofessionel du Vin de Champagne (CIVC) for her proposed champagne list at The Leela Palace.
She recounts a memorable champagne-pairing experience in Chicago. While dining with her cousin Rohit Nambiar and his wife Sarah Stegner at their restaurant, Praire Grass Cafe, Nair feasted on a decadent chocolate cake while sipping a Pol Roger 2002 Rosé wine picked out by her cousin. “I questioned the choice of wine initially but I was taken aback at the surprisingly brilliant balance of the two,” says Nair. The trick while indulging in a rich dessert, she says, is to pair it with a wine that’s sweeter. “Even in a sweet champagne, the backbone of acidity is really strong. So you’re matching the acidity of the wine with the sweetness of the dessert.”
Building your knowledge about champagne, says Nair, is like honing your book collection. Incidentally, the opulent bar at The Leela Palace New Delhi, with its classic design inspired by an era of Chesterfield chairs, is called The Library. “You begin with the classics, then experiment with new styles and genres. So what’s your choice — an action, thriller or comedy?”