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Gustatory tomfoolery

Published:  18 January, 2007

I am writing this five days before Christmas, and my mountebank of a postman (he insists on consistently delivering to me the mail of a neighbour whose house number is the same as mine) has just thrust into my hands, as I was near the front door when he called, several of the usual festive cards from well-wishers (incredibly, I do seem to have a few) along with the usual bumph from PR companies, the most outrageous example of which is from Laurent-Perrier.

This fatuous press release alerts me to the fact that its Cuve Ros Brut, priced at a nonsensical 39, is not only the secret to an enchanted Valentine's Day' but a perfect partner to... chocolate... or an accompaniment to a sensuous candlelit dessert'.

Now, apart from the inanity of trying to nudge a journalist about a celebratory day in February when the biggest festival of the year has yet to begin, there is the ludicrous suggestion that such a wine goes with chocolate let alone any kind of pudding (candlelit or otherwise).

What is it about Champagne producers that makes them spend so much dosh on promoting their over-hyped piddle as a food wine? True, some Champagnes go with smoked fish, and others with certain shellfish dishes. (I utilise the case of Krug I am sent each year as an ingredient in a series of rather sexy moules marinires, and I can reveal that Pinot-dominated Champagnes are at home with soft-shell Vietnamese crab.) But the Champenois are not content to be reasonable about their marriages and insist on making all sorts of extravagant claims about the compatibility of their wares with dishes that no one in his or her right mind would offer in a lifetime of food and wine matching.

Just prior to receiving Laurent-Perrier's rubbish, I was sent an email from that otherwise sane, civilised and usually quite bright PR outfit R&R Teamwork, about Taittinger. Can you believe what this Champagne manufacturer claims will go with its products? Well, swallow this (if you can). It is the New Year meal promotion Taittinger is sponsoring at Quaglino's for an outrageous 45 a head (with a mere single glass of bubbly per course).

Starter: honey-roasted quail, girolles and noisette jus with Taittinger Nocturne Sec NV. Main course: charcoal-grilled John Dory, cabbage and cockles with Taittinger Prlude Grands Crus NV. Dessert: strawberry crme brle, warm madeleine with Taittinger Brut Prestige Ros NV.

Not to be outdone in such gustatory tomfoolery, the New Year card from Gosset Champagne reckons I'll be on to a good thing if I match scallops and caviar with the Clbris 1998, a mocha-perfumed and balsamic-vinegared foie gras with its Grand Reserve and then fruits in jelly with its Grand Ros.

I grant you, Champagne with a high-Chardonnay content goes well with fish and chips, and if they're Heston Blumenthal's triple-cooked chips so much the better, but so many of the Champagne houses' food and wine matching ideas are totally nuts. I also have great reservations about several glasses of a bubbly wine as an aid to digestion. I would suggest that it has the opposite effect after two or three glasses.

Is all this because we Brits are a little daffy when it comes to this particular wine? This country has long had a thing about Champagne. It began, of course, some centuries ago when the nobles and rich merchant class began to enjoy the tickle of sparkling wines, and deranged French monks indulged their cravings. But, possibly, it was 1897 when the virus really entered the system and ran riot. In his stunning book on the British Empire, author James Morris points out that during the year of the Diamond Jubilee, Britain imported more Champagne than at any time in its history and we have, two world wars apart, never looked back. In just seven years, between 1992 and 1999, we increased our annual guzzling of Champagne in the UK from 14 million bottles to 32 million, and it's anyone's guess how much of a vast increase on that latter figure will be revealed for 2006.

My hope for 2007 is that other sparkling wines, like some of the beautifully sleek New World bubblies such as Pelorus from New Zealand, start to make bigger inroads into Champagne's dominance of snootiness. If nothing else, at least the New World producers don't inundate one with silly menus and trumpet how brilliantly their wines cope with food.