WHAT: It’s getting to be the time of year when we start thinking about champagne and sparkling wine for the holidays. Of course, I think we should drink sparkling wine all year, but many people save it for special occasions.
Nothing says holidays like real champagne. By law, the only wines that can be called champagne are the sparkling wines made in the Champagne region of France. Those wines are made under rigorous standards, and though they cost a bit more, they are worth it.
I tasted Palmer & Co.’s Brut Reserve and Rosé Reserve ($65), and they are outstanding wines. You could add a lot to your holiday table with either of these wines.
The Brut Reserve is a beautiful bright straw color in the glass, with aromas of pear and baked apple. The flavors are full and round with hints of toast and yeast. It is an elegant, well-structured wine with a long, pleasant finish and a tight pattern of fine bubbles.
The Rosé Reserve is a beautiful deep pink in the glass, loaded with fine, tiny bubbles. Deep aromas of strawberries and black currants lead to fresh and delicate flavors of strawberries and fresh red fruit. There are some spice notes in this delicate, elegant wine.
Fine Champagne houses such as Palmer try to produce a signature style in their nonvintage wines year after year. Some of that is achieved by blending in wines of older vintages. The rosé includes 10-15 percent red wine from a solera that was started 30 years ago, and the brut includes wine from a solera started more than 25 years ago. About 20 percent the harvest each year is held back for the solera.
The brut reserve is 50 percent chardonnay, 40 percent pinot noir and 10 percent pinot meunier. The rosé is 49 percent pinot noir, 42 percent chardonnay and 9 percent pinot meunier.
So why does champagne cost so much? One of the chief reasons is that it is one of the most complicated wines in the world to make. There are multiple steps, two fermentations, blending and aging of the bottles. Blending is tricky because the winemaker doesn’t blend to how the wine tastes at the time, but how he thinks it will taste years later after the second fermentation, after bubbles appear and after a small amount of sweetened wine is added.
The grapes grow on a relatively small patch of chalk soil in a northern region that until recently was iffy for ripening grapes. Each house also has extensive cellars in the chalk soil where they age the champagne for several years. There is no shortcut to making fine champagne.
The competition has been improving, with challenges from prosecco, crément and cava as well as American sparklers. Proseccos usually run $15 or less, and cavas $20 or less. But for the real thing you have to spend $25 or more.
And if you need another reason to drink champagne, scientists at Reading University say drinking at least three glasses of bubbly a week might improve memory and help fight brain disorders such as dementia and Alzheimer’s. I can report that since I started drinking more champagne five years ago, I have remembered more often to open another bottle a couple of times each week.
WINERY: Palmer & Co. was created by an association of seven local growers after World War II. It started when the Société des Grands Crus de la Champagne settled in Avize in 1947. The growers, who had vineyards classified as Premier Cru and Grand Cru, created the Palmer & Co. brand in 1948 in recognition of the quality and unique style of their wines.
Over the years the company grew rapidly, selling one million bottles a year by the mid-1980s.
As the company continued to grow, Palmer & Co. has acquired more facilities in the region, settling in the city of Reins in 1959 in the heart of the Champagne region. The company purchased another champagne house in 1997, giving Palmer two sites with a modern winery and extensive cellars.
Besides the Brut Reserve and Rosé Reserve, Palmer produces Extra Reserve, Nectar Reserve, Blanc de Blancs, Blanc de Noirs, Vintage, Amazone de Palmer and vintages that are kept 20 years or more before release.
GOES WITH: We had the Brut Reserve as a first course at a tasting, pairing it with grilled chicken and pork. I made the chicken breasts with a Chilean spice mix called merquen, which gives a smokey barbecue taste to the meat. It makes a rich, wonderful flavor.
The pork was made with three different rubs. One portion had hot jerk spices, another had regular jerk spices and the third had a Chilean citrus herb chili pepper mix.
I preferred the chicken with the Brut Reserve, but all four meats paired well with it. Champagne is especially good with spicy food that often can be hard to pair with wine.
For the Rosé Reserve, I made grilled chicken breasts rubbed with Morton Nature’s Seasons. I served the chicken with barbecue sauce on the side and with wild and long-grain rice.
The spicy barbecue flavors really paired well with the soft fruit and elegant backbone of the champagne.
Champagne is the ultimate food wine. It pairs well with just about any kind of food, from elegant dinner to fast-food snacks. It is especially good with spicy food such as Asian or Hispanic.