Here’s a pop quiz for fellow wine geeks. Champagne (that is, the real stuff from France) is allowed to contain which grape varietals? I’ll give you a hint: there are more than three of them. What are “the other” champagne grapes? Read on …
I love learning about wine and wine production. Whether it’s geeking out reading scientific papers or trying to decipher documents detailing French rules of production, or going to seminars and tastings. But by far the best way to learn about wine for me is to talk with our producers.
Every visit to one of First Vine’s wine producers is a learning experience. Many of them come from a long line of grape growers and wine makers. Not only are they attuned to making wine, but to the history of their regions.
For many of my producers, their ancestors or the people who owned their land in the past helped make history. And in other cases, they’re trying to preserve the region’s farming and winemaking history by continuing old techniques and planting older grape varietals.
Back in July I wrote about my visit with Bernard and Christiane Mante. Bernard makes champagne in the Marne Valley, and is definitely a history buff. He has a collection of old postcards showing his village — Trélou-sur-Marne, and surrounding villages before and after World War I, and also showing how champagne grapes were grown and harvested in the early 20th century.
But as I found out during my visit, Bernard is also trying to preserve some of the agricultural history of the region as well. He’s growing four varietals of grapes that were historically used to make champagne: Arbanne, Petit Meslier, Pinot Blanc, and Pinot Gris.
Pretty much everything I’d read about champagne listed only Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier as being the three grapes used in wine called “champagne.” But Bernard told me that wasn’t the case. He said that the original documents setting out rules for champagne production referred to “Pinot” as a designation. While growers today take that to mean Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, it also means that Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris could be used in making champagne.
These two grapes are used to produce Alsatian wines. Alsace isn’t far from Champagne, so it’s not surprising to see that they’d have been used in making champagne. But I didn’t know anything about Arbanne or Petit Meslier, so I did a little research.
Petit Meslier is the more interesting of the two, because it apparently retains high acidity even when grown in hotter-than-normal weather. Grapes lose acidity in really hot weather because it diffuses through the grape skins. While Champagne produces grapes with higher acidity because of the (relatively) cool climate, it’s not difficult to see how Petit Meslier would have been blended into champagne in hotter years to keep the typical acidity level. It apparently tastes like apples, which reminds me of Mauzac, the grape used to make sparkling wines in southwestern France. Arbanne is also highly acidic, and has a flavor that one taster described as green peppercorns.
Bernard told me it was difficult to get seeds or plants of Arbanne and Petit Meslier anywhere in the Champagne region. He has planted a row of each of them, along with single rows of Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris. He’s not growing enough of each to make wine or champagne from them. At least for now, he’s just interested in preserving a bit of history.
[An editing note here: you’ll notice that the letter “c” in champagne is used in both upper and lower case. When I first started writing about champagne I didn’t know which to use, so I asked Christiane. She told me that upper case is used when referring to the Champagne region, while lower case is used for the actual wine.]
While I’m all for serving champagne with meals, I have to admit that I primarily serve it as an aperitif or with dessert. Not because I don’t like it with non-dessert foods. It’s just that I think butter and especially nuts taste particularly good with champagne. This week’s recipe has both.
Every year I ask Cy what flavor or style of cake he’d like for his birthday. This year, he left it up to me with the proviso that it be a showstopper. I’m afraid I dithered about it. In my defense, we were busy and we went out of town for his birthday weekend. I had good intentions of making a lovely cake when we got back, but then came Valentine’s Day and before I knew it, it was March…
We decided that we’d have a dinner party for Nov Rooz, Persian New Year, which is on the first day of spring. Cy (gently) reminded me that no birthday cake had yet shown up, and suggested that I make a cake with pistachios to celebrate both occasions. I started looking for recipes. Rather than a typical layer cake that had some pistachios in it, I wanted something that was a little more like European tortes. I found one in Jamie Oliver’s magazine, created by Anna Jones (one assumes it’s Jamie-approved if it appears in a magazine with his name on it, but I like to give credit where it’s due).
Ms. Jones’s recipe included an elderflower liqueur soak and used some in the icing as well, but I thought something with rosewater might be better with a Persian meal so I re-engineered them. And while there are proper weights given for each ingredient since there’s baking involved, there’s still that Jamie Oliver cavalier quality in listing them (can’t make it seem too rigorous, after all). Ms. Jones calls for butter. I used unsalted butter and decided the recipe needs salt. And one of the ingredients is “polenta,” which might be used interchangeably for cornmeal — except that you can also buy polenta-grind cornmeal. That’s what I did, and the cake was a little bit more toothsome than I’d like. Also too crumbly. So now I use finely ground cornmeal instead.
You’ll find Champagne Bernard Mante on our Fizz and Finales page. We carry six different varieties and they’re all very good with most desserts. But since there’s rosewater in the dessert, why not try the rosé ($42)? No Arbanne or Petit Meslier in it, but it does have a little red Pinot Noir wine added for the color and a lovely flavor.
Serves 8 to 10
17 tablespoons unsalted butter (two sticks plus one tablespoon), at room temperature, plus extra for greasing the pan
1-1/4 cups plus 1 tablespoon granulated sugar
1-1/4 cups shelled, roasted, unsalted pistachios, 150 grams or 5 ounces (see note on pistachios), coarsely chopped, plus a little bit more for decoration
1-1/2 cups finely-ground cornmeal
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons almond flour or almond meal
3 tablespoons Greek yogurt
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
3 large eggs, at room temperature
The juice and finely-grated zest of one large lemon
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Cut a piece of parchment to fit the bottom of an 8-inch springform pan. (You can use a 9-inch pan, but you’ll need to reduce the baking time slightly. Also, if you don’t want to take the cake off the springform bottom, you don’t need to use the parchment). Butter the bottom of the pan, then fit in the parchment circle, and butter the paper and the sides of the pan. Set the pan aside.
Beat the 10 tablespoons of butter and the sugar together using an electric mixer. Beat until the mixture is light-colored and a little fluffy. This takes 6 minutes or so. Add the dry ingredients plus the yogurt and beat until thoroughly combined. Beat in the eggs, then the lemon juice and zest.
Scrape the batter into the prepared pan. Bake 45 to 50 minutes, start checking after 40 minutes by sticking a toothpick in the cake near the center — it should come out clean when the cake is done. Remove the cake from the oven and let it cool until just barely warm.
1/2 cup water
2 tablespoons honey
2-1/2 teaspoons rosewater
Heat the water and honey in a small saucepan to dissolve the honey. Let the mixture cool slightly, then stir in the rosewater. Taste the syrup — you can add a little more rosewater if you want more of that flavor. Reserve 2 tablespoons of the syrup for the icing
3/4 cup Greek yogurt
3 tablespoons confectioner’s sugar, sifted to remove any lumps
2 tablespoons rosewater syrup
Whisk the yogurt, sugar, and syrup together until completely mixed.
To assemble: Unlock the springform and remove the ring. Gently place a lightly-greased cooling rack on top of the cake, then turn the cake over, taking care not to squeeze the cake and rack together. Remove the pan bottom and parchment, then put a second rack on the bottom of the cake and turn it right-side up. Set the cake on the rack over a rimmed baking sheet or large plate. Make a few small holes in the cake top with a toothpick and brush the rosewater syrup on the top and sides of the cake, making sure it’s absorbed. You may not need to use all the syrup on the cake.
Pour and spread the icing on top of the cake and decorate with some chopped pistachios, if desired. Gently lift the cake and transfer it to a serving plate. Serve slightly warm or at room temperature. The cake keeps in an airtight container for a few days at room temperature.
Note on pistachios: It can be difficult to find shelled roasted unsalted pistachios. If you can only get the salted ones, put them in a strainer and rinse them under running water for a few seconds. Then spread them on a baking sheet and bake at 350 degrees F for 5 or 6 minutes. For this recipe, you can chop them before you rinse and bake them — just be sure to let them cool completely before you use them in the cake.