It may not be the cheapest matching, but few food and wine pairings are as loved on New Year's Eve as champagne and oysters. Now a group of Danish scientists may have discovered a link that explains why bivalves and brut work so well together.
According to a paper published in Nature, Scientific Reports by the University of Copenhagen in November, the secret of the matching's deliciousness could lie with the umami found in some types of oysters and champagne.
Champagne analysed in the study – especially vintage champagne aged on dead yeast cells (lees) – was found to contain amino acids responsible for umami, the pleasant, somewhat meaty savoury taste that sits alongside bitter, salty, sweet and sour.
But the amino acid concentrations of all champagnes included in the study were found to be below the taste threshold limit of basal umami. Essentially, the sparkling wines could not elicit umami on their own accord.
When paired with oysters high in umami-causing glutamate, however, synergy occurred and the champagne's savoury notes became more delicious and pronounced. Umami-strong oysters could also enhance a champagne's sweet notes while masking the bitter ones, the Danish scientists found.
Josh Niland, executive chef of Sydney's seafood-championing Saint Peter restaurant, is a big fan oysters with champagne, but notes some bivalves can affect sparkling wine in a negative way.
"Oysters that have a lot of minerality, and that green coriander, parsley taste, can sometimes make champagne taste too sugary," he says. "Everything can start to become too herbaceous, too."
Rock oysters high in umami are common to estuaries in the Macleay and Hastings rivers on the NSW Mid North Coast, Wallis Lake near Forster, and the Clyde waterways around Batemans Bay.
For shucking alongside a glass of French fizz, Niland suggests farmer Shane Buckley's certified organic Wapengo Rocks, or the Clair de Lune and Label Rouge varieties grown by Steve Feletti on the Clyde River.
"The oysters coming out of Batemans Bay, in particular, are very complementary to champagne," says the chef, who partnered G.H. Mumm in November to match a dish of aged yellowfin tuna, tapioca and finger lime with the champagne house's Grand Cordon.
"Steve's oysters are quite buttery without being creamy. Their fattiness works really well with the acidity and bubbles in champagne."
Other food and champagne matches for New Year's Eve
While the popularity of Australian sparkling wine grew in 2020 thanks to consumers keen on supporting domestic producers, French champagne sales also increased.
"Australians are drinking more champagne than ever before, and in a much more casual way," says John Noble, director of the Champagne Bureau of Australia.
"Our latest indicators show exports to Australia throughout the year remained fairly stable and at the end of November were up by just over 10 per cent on 2018."
Noble says the most important thing about matching food with champagne is to have fun.
"During the party season, great champagne pairings are almost always at hand – chips, savoury crackers and crostini, for example. I personally like the good old Vita-Weat cracker. Or any good cracker with some comte cheese, really!"
"There's a great deal of romance and theatre around champagne with caviar," says Lisa Downs, caviar ambassador for fine-food provedore Simon Johnson. "It started after the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 when wealthy Russians settled in Paris and brought caviar to France. Apart from all the romance, the high fat and salt content of caviar loves the acid of champagne. The drier the champagne, the more complementary too. You would never dream of having sweet prosecco with caviar."
"Just because you're a champagne fan, doesn't mean you're a snob", says Noble. "Champagne has a backbone of acidity that marries salt, fat and crunch – key attributes of Cheezels and other snack foods that aren't too good for you."
Salty French fries and champagne are well known to get along great guns. Put those fries in a sandwich and it's close to heaven. "Bread and butter with any pinot noir-dominant champagne is a magic combination," says Noble. "A quality, handmade butter such as Pepe Saya with rye bread will provide a deluxe, silky experience, with or without the chips."
"I love the richness and texture of a non-vintage champagne with pan-fried dumplings," says Noble. "Any good Chinese restaurant with pork and cabbage dumplings on the menu would be great to try this combination."
Goat's cheese and figs
"Crostini with fresh figs and goat's cheese is amazing with champagne," says Kara Maisano, wine director at Masani Italian restaurant in Carlton, Melbourne. "You have the tartness and creaminess of the cheese, offset with the sweetness of the figs. It's especially nice if you're drinking rosé champagne."
"We served fried chicken burgers at our International Champagne Day event last year, and people are still raving about the experience," says Noble. "A chicken schnitzel focaccia and glass of champagne would be a terrific no-fuss lunch for New Year's Day."
"Once you have tried beef brisket pie with a blanc de noirs, you will look at champagne in a new way," says Noble. "It's a combination of the texture of slow-cooked meat and the crunchy pastry that makes this matching a winner." Beef brisket pies may not be the most suitable New Year's snack, so try the pairing with good quality party pies instead.
Seafood purists, look away now. If you really want to enhance an oyster's umami, few things will do it like Worcestershire sauce, bacon, lemon and butter. "Kilpatricks are an old favourite for a reason," says Maisano. "If you keep things light and only use a hint of Worcestershire and a little fresh chili, they will pair really well against a champagne with age to it."