Why you should be drinking champagne in winter, too

Krug champagne paired with suckling pig sausage rolls at Bennelong in Sydney.
Krug champagne paired with suckling pig sausage rolls at Bennelong in Sydney. Photo: Nikki To

Word association time. OK ... "champagne", go! 

Spring. Oysters. Celebrations. Blinis. Chilled. Sunshine. Brunch. Flemington. Moet. Veuve. Lobster. Caviar. Prawns. Salmon. France. Fizz. Flute. Flowers. Birdcage. Day-drunk. Bed.  

John Noble: 'French fries are one of the best combinations with champagne.'
John Noble: 'French fries are one of the best combinations with champagne.' Photo: iStock

These champagne associations are prominent in Australia, especially "spring" when the racing calendar kicks off and sparkling sales soar. Now, gosh knows I don't want to throw shade on the concept of lobster and champagne by the ocean in summer – that's what God gets up to on his or her rostered days off – but here are a few words that aren't often associated with champagne but really should be.

Winter. Lamb. Sausages. Pies. Dumplings. Pyjamas. Scotch fingers. Cheds. Cheezels. Vegemite. Veal. Raclette. Chips. Roasts. Ragu. 

Here's the jam. Champagne (that is, fizzy wine produced in the Champagne region of north-east France) is tremendously delicious and versatile stuff. By only drinking champagne during the AFL off-season, many Australians are denying themselves the full spectrum of its rich and buttery rewards. 

Leanne Altmann, of Melbourne's Andrew McConnell restaurant group.
Leanne Altmann, of Melbourne's Andrew McConnell restaurant group. Photo: Kristoffer Paulsen

Champagne pairs tremendously well with many winter foods, even if the concept at first seems less appealing than toothpaste-spiked orange juice. 

"Visit the Champagne region and you'll notice everyone drinks it with everything," says Glen Goodwin, sommelier at Sydney's Monopole wine bar and restaurant. "It's not just an aperitif to have with oysters – although oysters are great in winter." 

Leanne Altmann is beverage director for Andrew McConnell's restaurants in Melbourne, including Marion, Cutler & Co. and Supernormal. She was also a Vin de Champagne Award winner in 2018, one of the most coveted prizes in Australian wine.

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"One of the things I love most about champagne is how diverse the styles are," says Altmann. "We tend to put champagne in this box of celebration and aperitif and it doesn't get the attention it deserves at the table. It's a wine full of savoury flavours – I love serving champagne with Supernormal's veal tartare, for example."

Sommelier and wine director at Carlton's Masani Italian Dining and Terrace, Kara Maisano, says matching food with champagne year round is about "ruffling up the establishment" and playing with flavours you might not expect to work. 

"Initially people might find the idea of champagne and food matching abrasive, but once they get their groove on and explore different vintages and styles where one champagne might have more pinot or more chardonnay than another, for example, it becomes a lot of fun," she says.

Sommelier Amanda Yallop suggests serving spanakopita with champagne.
Sommelier Amanda Yallop suggests serving spanakopita with champagne.  Photo: Marcel Aucar

"One of my favourite things to eat with champagne are olive oil-roasted potato wedges, which are essentially just really good chips."

Sommelier Amanda Yallop is all about making champagne fun and frivolous. The wine director of Fink Group (owners of Sydney fine-diners Bennelong and Quay) says you can have it with a cheese and Vegemite toastie. 

"When you open a bottle of champagne at home, it's often to cheers someone at a celebration, but you can also drink it with a loved one and a toasted sandwich and it's super fun. Champagne is also my go-to wine with battered fish and chips and it's fantastic with spanakopita in winter. Anytime you have butter, salt and champagne, it's awesome."

Kara Maisano, sommelier at Masani in Melbourne.
Kara Maisano, sommelier at Masani in Melbourne.  Photo: Simon Schluter

Something piquing Australian consumer interest in champagne is the category of grower champagne, says Yallop.

"Grower champagne refers to the category of champagne producer who makes and markets champagne under their own label," explains John Noble, director of the Champagne Bureau of Australia. 

"The grapes are sourced exclusively from their own vineyards and processed on their own premises. A 'grower' is officially categorised as a 'recoltant manipulant' whereas, in comparison, a 'negociant manipulant' is licensed to produce champagne from their own vineyards as well from grapes sourced from other growers in the Champagne region. All the big houses are categorised as negociants." 

Rabbit tortellini matched with champagne at Masani.
Rabbit tortellini matched with champagne at Masani. Photo: Simon Schluter

Does this mean smaller-yield grower champagne is "better" than wine from large houses such as Moet & Chandon, Veuve Clicquot and Mumm that make up 97 per cent of champagne exports into Australia? Not necessarily. 

"For me, the line is a bit blurry between grower and house, because there are good growers and there are really average growers," says Altmann. "Just because they own the grapes doesn't make their wine good and it doesn't make their farming technique good. There are also large producers trying to make their wine as accessible and sustainable as they can, and big houses just in it for the cash."

Yallop says many people love the idea of grower champagne because it has a sense of connection and minimal intervention behind it – "a hands-on touch".

For Noble, it isn't a question of better or different regarding grower champagne and house, only consumer preference.

"In 2018 there were 125 different growers and 110 houses exporting their champagnes to Australia and each of these producers create a different style of wine, depending on where they are located in Champagne and their winemaking techniques. 

"There are almost limitless choices for consumers to make when selecting their preferred cuvee. In reality, the most critical decision any Aussie can make when choosing a bottle of champagne, at any time of the year, is deciding which friends to share it with."