Champagne is our favorite wine. A bottle of the bubbly turns an average dinner into what seems an occasion, and it pairs well with just about everything. The lighter flavor makes it a good match for fish and seafood—particularly caviar—and the effervescence gives Champagne the personality and strength to stand up even to a steak. Champagne works just fine with fancy food as well as totally un-fancy food, like fried chicken and French fries. Champagne is remarkably versatile.
Don’t know what to bring to a holiday dinner? You cannot go wrong with Champagne.
A few months ago, we visited Pops for Champagne in River North, a Chicago spot we’ve been visiting since they first opened down the street from us on Southport decades ago. Wine director Michael Seward—who you will find on Instagram @ChampagneJesus—talks us through some sips, and with the holidays upon us, it seems like the right time to ask questions about selecting the right bub for the holidays.
When you’re in the market for a good Champagne, what do you look for on the label?
I look for the words Grand or Premier Cru. These are vineyard ratings, and the vineyard or village must have been rated this status in order to legally put those words on the bottle. Also, I tend to go for brut or extra brut, because I prefer a dry rather than a sweet sip. Dates (vintage, base harvest, disgorgement date) can help in understanding the origin of the wine.
What’s a common mistake that people make when selecting Champagne?
A common mistake people often make is to select only from familiar houses they have had before; they don’t consult their wine merchant about exploring a new wine for a new experience. Champagne is expensive and that can lead us to select something we have confidence in instead of trying something unfamiliar. Consult an expert and take a chance on something new.
Are there any California sparkling wines that you feel are as good as—or even better than many—French Champagnes?
I don’t think it’s fair to compare apples to oranges, but I do love a bunch of California sparkling producers. Hugh Davies wines at Schramsberg are always a favorite and have competed in blind tastings against some of the elite wines of the Champagne region. They are delicious.
Some years ago, we started hearing about “grower’s Champagne,” the product of small Champagne makers who may not produce enough volume to interest large distributors. What are the advantages of grower Champagnes?
An advantage of being a grower is your ability to be small in comparison to larger houses. Most large houses secure grapes from all over the region to blend, but some growers are capable of representing time and place in a much more specific way. Producing single vineyard or village wines is typically something you don’t see from the powerhouses in Champagne, but almost all growers have those wines in their repertoire.
What are the top Champagnes at Pop’s, and why do you think these are so popular?
The top sellers at Pops for Champagne are always directly related to what is being poured by the glass at the time. We typically offer about ten glass pours daily and they change often. We are currently pouring Vadin Plateau Renaissance; with recent events at the winery, everyone is choosing what they think may be the last of this great domain.
What are three reasonably priced Champagnes that you would recommend, and why do you like them?
- Andre Heucq Blanc de Meunier is a wonderful expression of one-hundred-percent Meunier mostly from Cuisles and its magnificent green clay soil. This laser-sharp rendition of all Meunier is a great example of the unique terroir from the Marne valley.
- Suenen C&C is still pretty affordable and is part of Aurelien’s collection de terroir series, featuring one-hundred-percent grand cru Chardonnay from Cramant and Chouilly. This wine is pure bliss and beauty with rich notes of developed Chardonnay. A gem from a producer for whom the sky is the limit.
- Guillaume Sergent Les Prés Dieu blanc de blanc is also a terrific—and affordable!—two-vineyard/two-village Champagne. Guillaume is the first generation winemaker from a multigenerational grower family who sold to large houses. A must-have!
Postscript: if you’re in need of a worthwhile new year’s resolution, resolve to call sparkling wine “Champagne” only if it comes from the French region of Champagne. Sparkling wine from parts of the world (California, Spain) can be very good, some no doubt “better” than a random bottle from Champagne, but sparkling wine from other parts of the world are not, and can never be, Champagne.
Dining and Drinking Editor for Newcity, David also writes a weekly food column for Wednesday Journal in Oak Park and is a frequent contributor of food/drink and travel pieces to the Chicago Tribune, Plate Magazine and other publications. David has also contributed chapters to several books, including Street Food Around the World, Street Food, and The Chicago Food Encyclopedia. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org