Drink Sweet to Beat the Heat

I’m just back from speaking at my 22nd Food & Wine Classic in Aspen, the annual culinary festival that is widely considered to be the best in show anywhere. While I’m certainly biased because I’m a contributing editor to Food & Wine magazine and have been to dozens of other festivals, few come close. 

I kicked off the weekend hosting a seminar called, “Breakfast of Champions: Sparkling Wine Smackdown!” The gist of the gig was to showcase six classic styles of sparkling wine — all but five of them Champagne — to understand how to read labels and what to expect. 

Unlike most of my other seminars, I asked if we could have food at this one; specifically, the quintessential New York hangover-cure: a ham, egg and cheese on a roll. For a lot of reasons, we decided against the ham, but the egg-n-cheese on a roll was a big hit. Just over 200 guests sat down in front of six pre-poured glasses of bubbly in a half-circle around the foil-wrapped egg sammy, placed alongside ketchup and hot sauce. 

“In my experiences, off-dry wines always pair better with spicy foods…”

I asked guests to wait before they opened their sandwiches so that we could all take a sip of the first wine, N.V. Collet Demi-Sec Champagne, to clear our palates. Then I asked them to take a second sip to measure the balance of the wine. Because it’s a Demi-Sec, it balanced sweeter than most guests expected. I asked for a show of hands to affirm they liked it: about half; the other half weren’t sure or didn’t like it at all. I asked them to unwrap their sandwiches and to squeeze a good amount of hot sauce on one side of the sandwich. Naturally, some guests didn’t want the spicy sauce, but I begged and assured them they’d be rewarded. 

I then asked everyone to take a bite of the spicy side of the sandwich, and then, after they swallowed, to take a sip of the Collet Demi-Sec again. Their reactions were, for the most part, utter surprise, because the heat is moderated by the sweetness in the wine. You see, I’m a big believer in the wine-pairing theory that says, “to beat the heat, drink sweet.” There are countless arguments both for and against this idea, with various sub-arguments citing the level of alcohol, the color of the wine, the grapes used, etc. 

In my experiences, off-dry wines always pair better with spicy foods, while dry wines tend to get clobbered or rendered flat by the heat. With spicy Chinese or Thai food, I love to drink beer (there’s sweetness there that you might not detect), Riesling, Moscato, or Vouvray. I love to pair spicy arrabbiata pasta sauce (which is tomato-based) with off-dry, sparkling Lambrusco. Give it a try!

But back to Champagnes. All Champagnes are labeled with an indication of its sweetness level, which is a reflection of its “dosage” – a mixture of wine and sugar (or grape) is a must that the winemaker adds after the wine’s second fermentation in the bottle. They do this because the acidity level in most Champagnes is very high. Most of the Champagne that we find in stores, or is served at parties, is labeled ‘Brut,’ which I explain below. But there are several other styles to consider, especially when pairing with food. What’s interesting, however, is how confusing the terms can be. Hopefully this helps:

Champagne levels:

Brut Nature Bone Dry

Extra Brut Bone Dry

Brut Very Dry

Extra Dry Fruity

Dry Off-Dry

Demi-Sec Sweet

Doux Sweet

The wines that we tasted:

1. NV Collet Demi-Sec, Champagne, France $48

2. NV Piper-Heidsieck Cuvée Brut, Champagne, France      $43

3. NV Champagne Barons de Rothschild Blanc de Blancs Brut Champagne, France $110

4. NV Gran Moraine Brut Rosé, Yamhill-Carlton, Willamette Valley, Oregon $54

5. NV Egly-Ouriet Champagne Blanc de Noirs Grand Cru ‘Les Crayeres’ Champagne, France $175

6. 2006 Champange Nicolas Feuillatte ‘Cuvée Palmes d’Or’ Vintage Brut, Champagne France $125