The answer to my “what wine would you drink as your last wine” or “what it your favorite wine” question is champagne. It’s not just a special occasion wine and should be enjoyed often. When Christopher S. Ruhland the author of a new book, Press for Champagne: A Guide to Enjoying the World’s Greatest Sparkling Wine, offered to write a guest post, I was excited to get his perspective. Here is the post from Christopher and toasting to you all for a joyful and happy 2022!
Here’s the best piece of advice I can give about Champagne, the one suggestion that I guarantee will make you a better, more satisfied Champagne drinker almost immediately: drink Champagne whenever you damn well feel like it. That’s all there is to it. Unfortunately, following this advice requires a certain amount of courage. You must be willing to resist social pressure to follow some really dumb customs around the consumption of Champagne. But since these customs are in fact dumb, and because the upside to ignoring them is quite high, it’s worth the effort. Let’s take a brief look at Champagne’s leash and why we should remove it.
Easily the most restrictive idea about Champagne is that it is a wine meant for celebrations – weddings and New Year’s Eve stand out, but something on the level of a minor job promotion will do too. The link between Champagne and celebrations has a historical basis, which those who sell Champagne have been more than happy to catalyze through marketing and promotion. Of course, there’s nothing necessarily wrong with drinking Champagne during a celebratory event, although any particular celebration might naturally call for another wine, or spirits for that matter. I do wonder sometimes whether drinking a great wine during a significant celebration is wise, whether you really want a beverage to steal the spotlight from, say, a 50th wedding anniversary. But for the moment, let’s agree that Champagne unites beautifully with special occasions.
The real problem is that the link between Champagne and special occasions has become so strong that drinking Champagne when you aren’t celebrating can meet with social resistance. I don’t know how many times I’ve ordered Champagne at a restaurant, only to have the waiter ask—with the cool confidence of a professional palm reader—“What are you celebrating?” Well, nothing, but please bring the bottle. Or I’m drinking Champagne at home when a friend stops by and wants to know, “What’s the occasion?” Sorry, there isn’t one. The implication is that I am doing something socially awkward: I’m consuming a beverage under the wrong circumstances. There is this sense of having acted in too grand a manner for the occasion, something akin to wearing a three-piece suit to the beach.
I’m all for complying with social conventions when they make any sense. I won’t walk into a steakhouse shirtless or scream in a movie theater. But there is nothing about Champagne—the product itself—that makes it unsuitable for drinking outside of a celebration. There is nothing about drinking Champagne on any ordinary day that should, for any good reason, cause social disruption. I’m very confident that if wine drinkers collectively rejected the idea that Champagne is only for special occasions, the world would continue to spin without difficulty. Meanwhile, restricting Champagne consumption to special occasions is not merely a pointless deprivation. Once you start exploring Champagne and all of its styles, types, and variations, you soon realize that you’ll never truly understand and appreciate Champagne if you wait around for special occasions to drink it. Becoming the great Champagne drinker you want to be requires tasting broadly through the wide array of Champagnes on the market, and there’s no time to waste. So start today and have Champagne with dinner.
Dinner? Yes, dinner. Here we encounter a second really dumb idea about Champagne: that Champagne is not suitable for drinking with meals. The next time you are at a restaurant with friends, order a bottle of Champagne to be served with—not before—everyone’s meal arrives, and see what happens. Chaos! Someone ordered steak, another is eating pork chops, there’s a mound of creamed spinach to your left, and you ordered a white wine with bubbles?! WTF, mate?
So, you might not want to freak out the uninitiated. But the truth is that—to the extent wine and food pairing is real and consequential—Champagne pairs well with just about any food. I don’t know why this should be surprising. High acid wines, wines made from Chardonnay, wines made from Pinot Noir, wines with a small amount of sugar, wines that are texturally interesting – these are wines that we typically believe work well with food. Champagne ticks these boxes. Plus, the wide range of Champagne styles—from oxidative, rich, fuller-bodied wines, to reductive, light, crisp wines—provides a multiplicity of options for food pairings. Personally, I love blanc de noirs with filet mignon, to take one example. Your preferences might not be the same as mine. But you cannot unlock what Champagne has to offer if you don’t try drinking different Champagnes with different foods. Experiment. Maybe tonight. And one of these days your friends will sit around talking about you, the genius who introduced them to what previously was the unfathomable idea of drinking Champagne with meals.
Finally, for many drinkers Champagne is senselessly time-bound. Champagne is a beverage that’s handed out while everyone stands around waiting for dinner. It’s a wine for the cocktail hour, not before and not after. Much like the idea that Champagne isn’t a good match for a proper meal, the idea that Champagne isn’t an appropriate choice from 8:00 a.m. until bedtime reflects a deficiency in knowledge and imagination. When others are drinking a Bloody Mary or Screwdriver in the morning, there are juicy, fruity rosé Champagnes that do the trick. When the after-dinner crowd is drinking Armagnac or Scotch (and very often I am in this crowd), there are robust, complex Champagnes that cut through the day’s accumulated fatigue. Once again, you only need to explore Champagne broadly and freely to discover this for yourself.
Maximizing the joy you can receive from Champagne does require learning about it, conventionally through reading and drinking. That’s not difficult for most wine drinkers to understand or accept. But enjoying Champagne to the fullest also requires rejecting bogus customs that have no reason to exist today, if they ever did. So let’s unleash Champagne and experience this great wine on our own terms. Drink up.
Christopher S. Ruhland holds the Diploma in Wines & Spirits from the Wine & Spirit Education Trust. He is the author of the new book, “Press for Champagne: A Guide to Enjoying the World’s Greatest Sparkling Wine. He lives in Austin, Texas and drinks a lot of Champagne. You can get the book here.