There comes a time in every serious relationship when a simple remark can lead to you question the very essence of what that relationship means.
When my husband asked, innocently, if I would mind removing myself and our two very small children from the house so he could watch the 1999 Rugby World Cup semi final in peace, I found myself looking at him through new eyes. Could it be that rugby was more important than family ? Luckily for him, he survived a stare that Paddington Bear would have been proud of and I went off for a walk across Clapham Common secure in the knowledge that one day justice would be served.
I like to think that Emma and I have a strong friendship but we too had that ‘seminal moment’ when I confessed that it wouldn’t bother me if I never drank Champagne again. To say she looked shell shocked would be an understatement. Momentarily lost for words (a rare event), I could see a whole range of emotions run across her face. Anger? Incredulity? But I think, mainly disappointment.
Having grown up in a working class household, with both parents regarding Champagne as something enjoyed by foppish liberals, I wasn’t exposed to the stuff until I worked in a fine wine shop in London. And even then, the owners of the business (who would host junior members of staff to supper each week) would rather have opened a magnum of Chave Hermitage blanc or a fine Alsace Riesling as an aperitif. This is not to say that I didn’t enjoy some great bottles. 1928 Roederer, 1964 Pol Roger in imperial pints, 1969 Krug, 1975 Comtes de Champagne etc etc.
But since arriving into NZ I have drunk more Champagne than ever before. Not the aged stuff, but through hosting Champagne masterclasses for Savour New Zealand, judging wine shows and training sessions for distributors, quite a number of delicious bottles have come my way. So a last minute invitation to attend a Mumm Celebration dinner was one I accepted immediately.
Mumm’s chief winemaker, Didier Mariotti, was on his first visit to New Zealand. A very brief itinerary, Auckland for one day then onto Wellington before flying onwards to Melbourne. After a slightly ordinary patch in the 1990s and early 2000s, it would seem that Mumm is back on track. Not the most exciting of non vintage blends, the nv Cordon Rouge was much better than expected; soft and appealing, little by way of autolysis character but pleasant enough. More interesting was the cremant which, with fewer bubbles, was a good partner to food. I thought the accompanying dish, roasted koura with a beurre blanc, was a great match but Didier looked slightly troubled. In his opinion, cremant is a much more subtle and delicately flavoured style than ‘regular’ champagne and so needs a very restrained dish; sashimi or oysters.
He continued to look disturbed when the main dish arrived; a selection of fine New Zealand seafood, plainly cooked. This was good, he exclaimed, but the presence of roasted beetroot was not so good. The very worst thing to partner with Champagne he cried passionately. Fortunately there was only one teeny baby roasted beetroot on the plate and so it was perfectly possible to enjoy the rest of the dish without sampling the offending root vegetable. The rest of the meal passed off without incident.
I continue to be perplexed by Champagne. There is no requirement to state the disgorgement date for non-vintage wines, although Bruno Paillard and Lanson have now decided to do so. Consequently it is difficult to know exactly what you are buying. Just landed or last shipment stock ? How reliable are wine show judgings? Do distributors submit aged bottles into tastings (a favourite ruse employed by the UK agent for a famous grande marque). How do you know that the wine you purchase is the same stock as the judges tasted ? And though no wine likes to be stored poorly, in my experience Champagne is especially susceptible to its storage conditions; badly kept wine can taste oxidised and flat.
So although Emma and I have enjoyed some damn fine bottles this year, (1998 La Grande Dame and 1998 Winston Churchill amongst them), for what its worth I prefer a bottle of Chablis as an aperitif as to my mind it does the same job but without the bubbles.
ps. For the record, NZ were beaten by France 43-31 in the semi finals which seemed penalty enough at the time. Though had I known then that I’d spend the next decade 12,000 miles away in Rugby Central I might have sought a harsher sentence at the time.