All Wined Up

Champagne, Deconstructed:
Identifying the Smells and Tastes of Champagne

Guest Video Post by Mickey Panayiotakis


First, a confession:  I don’t drink champagne.  I don’t mean the I had a bad experience in college kind of “don’t drink”; I mean the Champagne is for celebrations and brunch kind of “don’t drink”. Dinner is generally accompanied by wine or beer (or both). So when I heard about the Champagne tasting with Food Pairing event at DC Wine Week, I was intrigued.  Three courses, from aperitif to digestif, accompanied solely by champagne. And an olfactory experiment to boot!


DC Wine Week, the prodigy of DCeventjunkie and Pivot Point Communications is in full swing by Tuesday, and what a better place to keep the buzz going than Bourbon Steak, in Georgetown. So off I went. But a champagne evening comes at an intellectual cost. A quiz came first: guess that smell.  In front of us sat 8 vials and scenting papers.  Next to us, an answer sheet with 18 possible answers.  Things get complicated before any vials are opened: I can certainly tell the smell of pepper, but the difference between white and pink? Is Citron different than Lemon? How about “White Acacia flower” vs. “Jasmine”?  And is there really flint in that champagne? (Not all answers were that tricky: the Lifesavers Pineapple was a softball.) As it turns out, all 8 scents are aromas present in champagne. (Flint is not.) And after much sniffing, running out of the ability to smell, and sniffing some more; after much drinking and cajoling…Nobody got them all.  I managed to identify 5, didn’t bother with 1, got 2 wrong, and I do believe mine is the only ballot with a write-in candidate.


What was perhaps least evident in the smell-test was the versatility of champagne: Oysters are often paired with champagne, and the clean, crisp kumamoto oyster with sweet beets and juniper was an unexpected match.  But then there were French fries (they’re excellent at Bourbon).  There was a Gnocchi Carbonara with salty smokey bacon and a poached egg with a rich yolk. There was, my favorite, smelly house-made soft cheese with Brussel sprout greens. The champagne held its own, everywhere, bringing out flavors with some dishes and cleansing the palate in others.  This versatility has led me (usually a beer drinker) to dub champagne, heretofore, the Lager of wines.


The champagne for the evening was Ruinart Blanc de Blancs, from the oldest Champagne house in France. The Cellar Master at Ruinart and a Perfumer from IFF (International Flavors and Fragrances) have identified 8 main aromas in the nose of Ruinart Blanc de Blancs, of which we sensed our way through this evening. Our host and guide was Julian Mayor, Sommelier for Bourbon Steak. It was an excellent event and executed as only the Four Seasons knows how!


So now I’ve done it: would I order champagne instead of wine (or beer) next time I go out? Lastly, since I know you’ve been dying to know: Pink peppercorn is not a pepper at all.  While green, white, and black pepper all come from the same vine, Piper nigrum, pink pepper is made from the berries of the shrub Schinus molle. Culinarily, pink peppercorn is purported to have a lighter, sweeter flavor with hints of sweet berries.


Mickey, to date, loves: excellent websites, his boat, snowboarding, awesome new technologies, things sustainable, and eating out.  The list is necessarily growing: he believes people should love more than they hate. Ernesto, his business partner, and Mickey run Infamia. (Mickey cares about, but does not always love, the oxford comma.)