Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Besserat de Bellefon: Champagne Made For Food

That's an intimidating scientific formula yet it's important to understanding the nature of Champagne. Fortunately, you don't have to solve or even understand this formula as there are others who will do it for you. You can just benefit from their learning. Essentially, the formula helps determine the size of the bubbles in a bottle of Champagne, which is related to the pressure within that bottle. And the size of the bubbles also relates to how well the Champagne pairs with food, which is something you should know.

Recently, I attended a media lunch at L'Espalier, hosted by the Champagne House Besserat de Bellefon and their importer, Winesellers, Ltd. The primary purpose of the tasting event was to show how well their Champagnes pair with food. As was said, "Many Champagnes are good with food, but only one was made for food." Besserat de Bellefon doesn't just make Champagne. They produce   Champagne which is specifically intended to be paired with food and the size of their bubbles is indicative of this intent.

Godefroy Baijot, the Export Director for Besserat (as well as part of the family which now owns the House), was the main speaker during the event, providing us some history of the House, information on their production methods, notes on the specific Champagnes we tasted, and more.

The House was founded over 170 years ago, in 1843, by Edmond Besserat. In 1920, Victor Besserat,  one of the grandsons of Edmond, married Yvonne de Méric de Bellefon, the daughter of a noble Champagne family, thus creating the House of Besserat de Bellefon. The path of the House was set in 1930, when they accepted the challenge set forth by a famous Parisian restaurant, the Samaritaine de Luxe. The restaurant wanted someone to create a Champagne that could accompany an entire meal, pairing well with every course. Besserat de Bellefon accepted the challenge and succeeded in winning, creating a Champagne which thoroughly impressed the restaurant. Bessaret then decided to direct all of their efforts to producing Champagne which worked great with food.

Their Champagne line was initially known as Crémant des Moines, paying homage to the Benedictine monks who first mastered the techniques of producing Champagne. Eventually, this line was renamed the Cuvée des Moines ("blend of the monks"). The term "Crémant" once referred to Champagnes made with less pressure, giving them a creamier texture, and a number of Houses made Champagnes in that style. However, the use of this term died out around the 1980s with the creation of a number of Crémant appellations, which partially changed the older usage of the term. For example, the Crémant appellations do not require those sparkling wines to have lesser pressure.

The entire portfolio of Besserat de Bellefon Champagnes is made with a lower pressure. Other Houses may produce a single Champagne with a lower pressure but Besserat may be the only House that does so for all of their products. This lower pressure leads to smaller bubbles in the bottle, which brings us back to the formula at the top of this article. Using that formula, Gerard Liger-Belair, Professor of Physics of the University of Reims, determined that: "The bubbles of the Cuvee Des Moines are 30% finer than those of a traditional Champagne." The pressure within the bottle is about 30% less as well.

These smaller bubbles make the Champagne taste creamier, more unctuous, and lighter, which works well with a variety of foods. Godefroy said that it is "most important what you feel in the mouth." This lesser pressure and smaller bubbles is accomplished by using less liqueur de tirage, a smaller dosage. This causes the secondary fermentation to be lighter and also means there is less sweetness in their Champagne. This is not the only production method though that sets Besserat apart from most other Houses.

Besserat de Bellefon does not engage in any malolactic fermentation, a rarity in the region. Before the 1980s, malolactic fermentation was rare in the Champagne region however change came because of the American palate. Americans wanted their Champagnes to be more buttery and less acidic and because of the importance of the U.S. market, French producers started appealing to their preferences, using malolactic fermentation. Godefroy stated that malolactic fermentation will decrease acidity quickly but it isn't natural. For them, the natural way to reduce acidity is to age their Champagne, which is more costly but is the "real taste of Champagne." A lack of malolactic fermentation also allows their Champagnes to retain their purity and freshness over time, increasing their cellaring potential.

As aging their Champagnes is very important to them, they have chosen to age them much longer than the minimum times required by law. For example, non-vintage Champagne must be aged for at least 15 months while Besserat let's it age for at least three years. Vintage Champagne must age for at least three years while Besserat chooses to age theirs for at least seven years.

You might not realize that the term "Cuvée" on a label legally entails that the producer is using the first press to make their Champagne. Thus, you know that Besserat uses the first press, considered the best juice, for their Champagnes. Godefroy also mentioned that "Champagne is a story of blending," a sentiment I have written about before, noting how blending is truly an art in the Champagne region. For their reserve wines, Besserat actually uses a solera method, such as used in the Sherry region, which blends wines of different vintages together.

Godefroy believes that the disgorgement date, the time when the lees are removed, is the "beginning of life," a very important event and that date is listed on each of their bottles. Their Champagne bottles also have a special shape, which was created in 1991, to help indicate that they produced their own Champagne. Some companies purchase Champagne bottles from other producer and just slap their own label on them. As no one else uses the bottle shape of Besserat, then you know  they are the only ones to make their Champagne.

Besserat de Bellefon is currently a family owned, medium-sized House located in Eparnay. They produce about 500,000 bottles made each year, with about 3 million bottles in their cellars. The House owns about 30 hectares of their own vineyards, primarily located in the Marne Valley, and purchase the rest of their grapes. 60% of their production is consumed within France and the rest is exported, with the United Kingdom and the U.S. being two of their top markets. Besserat is also the official Champagne of the Musée d'Orsay and the Musée du Louvre.

Admiring the Mona Lisa with a glass of Besserat? That would be like drinking Champagne with art, which is "food for the soul."

Godefroy stated that it is a "fight to get people to eat with Champagne." Champagne is seen as a celebratory wine, a luxury which people don't consider when choosing a pairing for dinner. It is not only a problem in the U.S. but also in France and the rest of Europe. Even though more Europeans drink wine with their meals, that commonly does not extend to Champagne. This is especially disconcerting to Godefroy as Besserat is specifically designed to accompany food. It is thus important to him to travel and promote the idea that Champagne and food should go together.

Yesterday, I encouraged people to Drink Champagne With Dinner and I would also strongly recommend that you consider drinking the Champagnes of Besserat de Bellefon with food. After tasting through their portfolio, I found their Champagnes to generally possess a creamy texture with good acidity and delicious flavors. They were well-structured, elegant wines with plenty of finesse. The bubbles were tiny and fine, refreshing and cleansing. And with our lunch, each course was enhanced by the addition of the paired Champagne.

We began our lunch with the NV Besserat de Bellefon Cuvée des Moines Extra Brut ($60), a blend of 35% Chardonnay, 20% Pinot Noir, and 45% Pinot Meunier. They added the Extra Brut to their portfolio in 2009 and it has a low dosage of 3.5 grams of sugar per liter. I found this Champagne to be bone-dry, with lots of acidity and strong lemony notes. It was creamy with a backbone of minerality and briny hints. It was clean and elegant, and went well with the lush fattiness of a Salmon sashimi skewer. This certainly would be an excellent accompaniment to a Sushi dinner or a plate of raw oysters.

Next up, we tasted the NV Besserat de Bellefon Cuvée des Moines Brut ($45), a blend of 35% Chardonnay, 20% Pinot Noir, and 45% Pinot Meunier. This is their flagship wine, which accounts for about 55% of their total sales. It is not a traditional Brut but rather a Prestige Cuvée, with a dosage of about 4.8 grams. You should note that this wine, as well as the Extra Brut, has a high percentage of Pinot Meunier, which is uncommon for many Champagne Houses. This wine also was creamy and elegant, dry with good acidity, and with tasty flavors of lemon, pear and salted nuts. It was paired with a crude of lubina (sea bass) with pickled vegetables & a citrus foam. Again, it was a very good pairing and the Brut would work well with sushi and oysters too.

The NV Besserat de Bellefon Cuvée des Moines Blanc de Blancs ($75) is made from 100% Grand Cru Chardonnay from Cotes des Blancs. This style was added to their portfolio in 1999. Creamy, dry and crisp, this Champagne presented an appealing and complex blend of flavors, including light toasty notes, bright citrus and honey elements. Plenty of chalky minerality and some floral accents, with a lengthy and pleasing finish. It was paired with a grilled Maine lobster with West Coast morels, faux gnocchi, ramp creme, seaweed-mushroom jus and Burgundy truffle. This champagne cut well through the richness of this dish.

The Vintage 2006 Besserat de Bellefon Cuvée des Moines Brut ($80) is a blend of 54% Chardonnay, 15% Pinot Noir, & 31% Pinot Meunier. This is their current release and they don't always produce a vintage Champagne each year. This Champagne possessed a bright gold color and reminded me of the Brut except at a higher level, with more intensity and complexity. It was still elegant, yet with more restrained power. Crisp and dry, creamy and delicious. A beautiful and harmonious melange of flavors, including apple, pear, almonds, spice and brioche. There is so much going on in the glass. This was paired with roasted squab breast , Berkshire pork belly, a buckwheat pancake with balsamic syrup, walnut and portobello circles. This was a heartier dish and the Champagne was up to the task, making me think it will do well with other grilled meats as well.

One of my favorite Champagnes of the event was the NV Besserat de Bellefon Cuvée des Moines Brut Rosé ($70), a blend of 30% Chardonnay, 30% Pinot Noir, & 40% Pinot Meunier. They started producing a Rosé in 1972 and it has become very popular in the U.S. With a rich salmon color, this is a compelling Champagne, with bright red fruit flavors, a mild smokiness, peach & orange zest notes. It is crisp and clean, elegant and dry. This is a Champagne I could easily drink all night. It was paired with a couple cheeses and was a very pleasing companion. I think this would be a versatile Champagne for food pairings and I'd happily drink it with pizza or a burger.

Look for Besserat de Bellefon Champagnes at your local wine shop or while dining out at a restaurant. Champagne pairs well with food and you should be drinking it more with meals, but the Champagnes of Besserat go even better with food than many others. And they are simply delicious as well.

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