Champagne, The "Champagne" of Beers: Understanding Bubbly Through Beer
Got Champagne taste on a beer budget? Well guess what? For the price of about ten lattes, you can pick up some truly outstanding Champagne. The truth is that you should probably be more freaked out about the overwhelmingly wide range of nuanced flavors and styles of Champagne than its reputedly steep price. And fortunately, if you, like I do, drink beer, you're already primed to understand and appreciate the many forms in which the bubbly stuff comes.
I came to discover this when Michelle DeFeo, President of Laurent-Perrier U.S., hosted for me a private tasting of LP's six cuvées. In the process, I was able to identify six beers of wildly different styles that share particular qualities with each type of Champagne we enjoyed. Hopefully the following pairings will provide a beer-drinking Champagne hopeful a bit more context with which to dive into the world of sparkling:
55% Chardonnay, 45% Pinot Noir - $74.99
LP's Ultra Brut is as dry as dry gets. So dry, that it's technically a Brut Nature, which is permitted by local regulations to include only up to 3 grams of sugar per liter. Yet Laurent Perrier takes this challenge even further, electing to add absolutely no sugar at all during "dosage" (when a small amount of sugar is added back into the wine before the bottle is sealed). By definition, this stripped down Champagne purely reflects the local terroir, featuring a lively acidity, plenty of minerality, and lovely honeysuckle notes.
I found a Bitburger Pilsner most representative of this bone-dry sparkling wine. The Bitburger is an authentic German lager, nearly 200 years old and still one of the best selling brands in the country. Light, grainy, and incredibly clean, the beer is made with German Noble hops, giving it an instantly recognizable grassy, floral profile. This beer will help you understand what it's like to drink the driest Champagne imaginable from a unique, specific place.
50% Chardonnay, 35% Pinot Noir, 15% Pinot Meunier - $44.99
In the 1960s Laurent-Perrier started aging all its wines in stainless steel and cutting off their contact to oxygen, which can produce a variety of flavors that don’t come from the fruit, in a winemaking style known as reductive. "We try to get the aromatics from the grapes themselves and from the lees (dead yeast); we're not getting them from barrels or oxygen exposure," explains Michelle DeFeo. The Ultra Brut may be the epitome reductive, but Brut is where things get interesting. Here, you get flavors of citrus and white peach from the grapes, and sweet, autolytic, bready notes from the wine being aged for three years on lees
I liken Brut to Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, the crisp, refreshing, Granddaddy of craft beer, with a lemony West Coast hop bitterness reminiscent of the wine's fruit, perfectly balanced by sweet, bready malt that echoes the Brut's yeasty notes. Not to mention, pale ales are a go-to for any new brewery, and Sierra's take on the style has come to represent the American style of brewing, just as Brut represents LP's house – and in many ways, Champagne as a whole.
50% Chardonnay, 50% Pinot Noir - $64.99
Every so often a house will announce a vintage release when a particular year's harvest is worth highlighting. "2006 had really good acid," notes DeFeo as we sip LP's '06 vintage, which spent nine years aging in the cellar. It will continue to do especially well in storage because of the ageability of the higher acidity of Chardonnay grown in a cooler climate. This richer, more robust Champagne features tropical notes of pineapple and banana that develop into apricot and almonds, with more complex, nuanced flavors than the Brut.
I've found a partner for the vintage Champagne in Green Flash West Coast IPA. The beer’s tropical passion fruit and citrusy grapefruit notes echo some of the qualities found in the Champagne (albeit in much lower doses). The beer won't age as well as the wine, but as an India pale ale, its elevated hop and fruit flavor as compared to the Sierra Nevada Pale Ale mirrors the increase in intensity of the angular Brut Millésimé from the more middle-of-the-road Brut.
100% Pinot Noir - $99.99
Light and creamy, with yeasty, nutty aromas, Laurent-Perrier's rosé is made using the controlled maceration method, in which color is painstakingly "bled" from the dark skins of grapes. For the rosé novices out there, that means the wine’s pink hue is achieved by allowing the juice to come in contact with the grape skins for a shorter period of time. Most producers simply blend a bit of red wine with their white to achieve the pink color. LP's rosé is 100 percent pinot noir, resulting in a lively, fruit forward wine featuring flavors of lush strawberries and sour cherries.
The legendary Belgian Cantillon Kriek, a cherry lambic, is made with a traditional, painstaking process similar to that of a saignée-made rosé. Spontaneously fermented with local, atmospheric yeast, the beer comes in contact with fresh cherries for a tart, dry, light bodied, beverage that is almost as crisp (and, admittedly, fruitier, sweeter, and funkier) than LP's rosé.
55% Chardonnay, 45% Pinot Noir - $174.99
Grand Siècle—which means "Great Century"—is always made from a combination of three vintage clusters (one of which may have been '06, for example). Ten years of aging on the lees (more than three times as long as Brut) gives this wine a voluptuous profile, with yeast-driven flavors of toasted brioche, fresh pastry, and hints of gingerbread, followed by waves of butterscotch, toasted almonds, honey, and hazelnut.
To better understand this Champagne, try Rogue Ales Hazelnut Brown Nectar, as the two beverages share quite a few of the same descriptors, and a complexity that takes sip after sip to dissect. Like the Grand Siècle, Rogue's brown ale has a nutty aroma, and a roasted hazelnut flavor. Is the Grand Siècle as sweet and malty as the beer? Mon Dieu, non! But if you're into deliciously bready brew like Hazelnut Brown Nectar, the Grand Siècle offers a similar richness and substance.
50% Chardonnay, 35% Pinot Noir, 15% Pinot Meunier - $44.99
In French, demi-sec means "half-dry" – or, basically, "kinda sweet." L.P.'s Demi-Sec is of the exact same quality as their Brut, but with 45 grams of sugar per liter, it's quite literally four times as sweet. "For me, a glass of this is dessert," DeFeo notes. And while it's undeniably sweeter than the Brut, the Demi-Sec is anything but cloying: its sugar content is perfectly balanced by acidity. Notes of candied fruit, sweet nectarine, almonds, and hazelnut are evident at first. But sit with it a bit longer and you'll start to imagine all types of dessert from marzipan treats, to butter cookies, to struffoli (Italian honey balls).
This brings us to our final pairing, matching this Demi-Sec with Southern Tier Creme Brulee Stout. The 10% ABV beer is significantly heavier and more intense than the wine, but both beverages function as desserts in their own right. The imperial milk stout smells of vanilla and custard, with caramel, brown sugar, and cream on the palate, but like the Demi-Sec, it is deceptively less sweet than its categorization as a "dessert drink" would suggest. Both beverages provide a perfectly balanced closing to a boozy adventure I highly recommend taking...that is, if you can afford it.