"One of the great pleasures of giving dinner parties is not only to make people happy, but to introduce them to new things." So says Mireille Guiliano, president of Clicquot, Inc., which has a portfolio of wine and Cognac that includes Veuve Clicquot Champagnes. She has one particular New Thing in mind: bursting the myth that Champagne belongs only before or after a meal. In fact, Champagne is one of the most food-flexible of wines. Serving it with a multicourse dinner not only creates a celebratory mood, it makes good culinary sense.
Mireille and her husband, Edward, a professor at the New York Institute of Technology, entertain year-round with Champagne. As she says, "We subscribe to the rule that there are no rules about what wines go best with what foods. Openness can lead to some unexpected, winning combinations--like Champagne with pizza or steak."
The Guilianos put their beliefs to the test with a New Year's Eve dinner party for eight at their Greenwich Village penthouse: hors d'oeuvres plus four courses paired with four different Veuve Clicquot Champagnes.
The wine is the key to making these matches work, of course. Veuve Clicquot, with its signature Halloween-orange labels, is a true Champagne--meaning a traditionally made sparkling wine from the Champagne region of France, about 90 miles northeast of Paris. The Champagne area has a history of strong women taking charge of family businesses, among them the veuve, or widow, Clicquot. The formidable Nicole-Barbe Ponsardin Clicquot inherited her Champagne house in 1805, at age 27, upon the sudden death of her husband. La Grande Dame guided the firm to glory through turbulent times, opening trade with Russia and preserving the family fortune.
Today, the 225-year-old House of Veuve Clicquot is an affiliate of luxury goods giant Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton, but the wines retain their distinctiveness. From the nonvintage brut (about $40) to the La Grande Dame prestige bottling (about $100), the Champagnes of Veuve Clicquot occupy the more powerful, fuller-bodied end of the Champagne spectrum, in the same range as Bollinger and Louis Roederer. (Other great Champagne producers include Charles Heidsieck, Taittinger, Moët & Chandon, Pol Roger and Perrier-Jouët.)
The Guilianos greet their New Year's Eve guests in the 15th-floor foyer of their multilevel home, where the lights of lower Manhattan and vistas of the Statue of Liberty fill a 30-foot wall of glass. The evening will wind its way through several other floors, with the main meal served back on the 15th. "Our parties are literally moveable feasts," says Edward, "with food on different floors. We'll start with drinks in the living room and end, at midnight, with Champagne on the terrace four floors above."
Mireille kicks off the festivities with a bottle of La Grande Dame 1988 and offerings of osetra caviar, Niçoise olives and chunks of freshly cut Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese. "These are three examples of great marriages with drier, brut-style Champagne," she says. "The acidity of the Champagne cuts through and counterpoints the richness of the caviar and olives and balances the sharpness of the cheese."
The first seated course this evening is an oyster stew served with more La Grande Dame 1988. "Cream dishes can sometimes not work with Champagne," notes Mireille, "but this one, with half-and-half, isn't too heavy, and it has a sensuous feel with the Champagne and the cooked oysters."
The next course, Pacific Rim-inspired salmon with lime and ginger, surprises some of the assembled friends, who are accustomed to the Lorraine-born Mireille's French dishes. "You need something between the oysters and the Cornish hen to wake the taste buds, to make them kind of ... wow," she says. "Citrus works very well with many Champagnes, particularly full-bodied ones like the 1988 Rosé Réserve," she adds. "You don't want to overpower the dish or the wine with any single flavor--the lime should come out, the ginger too, but in balance."
She chose another rosé, the 1985 Rosé Réserve, for the main course: Cornish hens stuffed with brown rice, herbs and nuts. "More than the hens, it's the savoriness of the stuffing and the chicken stock that make this so appealing for the Rosé," she explains. "And you have pine nuts and hazelnuts in there, which always work well with Champagne. A lot of times when you see tasting notes for older Champagnes, you will see descriptions like 'walnuts, almonds, hazelnuts.'"
The cap to the meal is a deceptively simple Pear and Almond Tart, served with a Veuve Clicquot Demi-Sec, a dessert-style Champagne. (Demi-sec, literally half-dry, indicates that the wine is half-sweet.) Most desserts really demand this kind of sweeter style Champagne, or a sweet sparkler, like a well-made Italian spumante. A drier, brut wine will, sad to say, taste almost sour--and certainly less nuanced and pleasurable--with sugary desserts.
"This tart has almonds, which go so well with Champagnes. So does the pear," notes Mireille. "Different Champagnes have flavors that tasters compare to fruits. Some are more like peaches, but with Veuve Clicquot some of the most common descriptions are apple and pear, so I like to serve desserts with those fruits. This dish is not too sweet, and the combination of fruit and nuts works very well with the Demi-Sec."
After dinner, the guests repair to the 16th-floor solarium to bask in the glow of the evening and at midnight, to the terrace for, well, one more glass of Champagne. What else would you raise to toast the New Year?
Richard Nalley is a New York-based wine columnist.