Whenever we think of Champagne we immediately associate the bubbly beverage with the feminine world. Glamorous women in beautiful dress holding chilled flutes, taking dainty sips while laughing flirtatiously. In the intoxicated world men are usually pictured with their amber liquids — smoky single malts, heady rums and rich cognacs. Men’s drinks. Straight up and strong. Even the most elegant of brewages should deliver a hard punch. But what if I told you that real men drink Champagne? That real men, devoid of any reason to flaunt their macho bravado, understand and embrace all the beauty and eloquence that goes into Champagne? That some of the greatest men in history not only enjoyed but also lived by the Gallic effervescence?
“Champagne is the wine of civilization and the oil of government,” Winston Churchill once said. It seems that Champagne is the liquid that states are made of. It was the preferred drink of the greatest statesmen, diplomats, and even Napoleon Bonaparte was known to have it during the most important moments in his imperial career: “I drink Champagne when I win, to celebrate… And I drink Champagne when I lose, to console myself.” His soldiers made popular the delightfully festive act of “sabrage” — opening the bottle with one ceremonious swoop of a saber.
On the other side of the Rhine some years later, Otto von Bismarck was known to have refused to drink German sekt at a dinner in Potsdam with Kaiser Wilhelm II; the latter had the intention of serving the German bubbly as a patriotic act. Bismarck replied, as dryly as his beloved Champagne, “Your Majesty, I am extremely sorry. My patriotism stops short of my stomach.”
One other such man was Winston Churchill, who told the troops, “Remember, gentlemen, it is not just France we are fighting for, it’s Champagne!” Churchill’s military and political career was not always without criticism; however, his formidable will to pummel through eventually earned him the label of the Greatest Briton. At the dawn of the Second World War he found himself once again prime minister and played a crucial role in fighting and winning against the Axis forces. Even during these trying times his beloved Champagne was always in his heart, declaring that “in success you deserve it and in defeat, you need it.”
After the liberation of Paris at a luncheon given by the British Ambassador to France, Churchill happened to meet the charming Odette Pol-Roger and a lifelong friendship was forged over delicious bubbly glasses of their 1928 vintage. Ever since then, Pol Roger was his Champagne of choice; he even named his winning racehorse after the prestigious maison. In homage to this exemplary man, Champagne Pol Roger created their Prestige Cuvée “mindful of the qualities that he sought in his Champagne: robustness, a full-bodied character and relative maturity.”
A family affair
Not too long ago I had the opportunity to discover this rather fascinating cuvee in the presence of Hubert de Billy, the fifth generation of the Pol Roger family of winemakers. He’s a fascinating man himself who is just as effervescent and elegant as the cuvees they produce, anchored and formed in tradition but completely immersed in the present. Before our enjoyable, luxurious and leisurely lunch we had the opportunity to discuss at great length the impact of the Internet and social media on sales and market visibility. Many family-owned wineries need to adapt quickly with the times, rethinking their strategies, especially if they want to remain visible and relevant compared to flashier and larger winemakers that have deep pockets and corporate machinery behind them. It seems that Pol Roger’s principle follows their family values and the long, prestigious history of the people who drink it (it is the official Champagne of the British Royal Family!)
“As a family company we want to maintain this family spirit so we try to choose our importers carefully around the world. Even if our production is quite small, we produce 1.6 million bottles a year, and our goal is to find the right importer in each country.” Plainly said, they want to find people who are passionate about the wine and not just the sales and who can target the right market with a truly appreciative palate.
Likely and unlikely partnerships
That intimate lunch was proof that the Antique Wine Company was their perfect partner as they gathered round some of the country’s top food writers and wine aficionados for an unusual yet successful pairing in their sister company’s newly opened shop, Txanton. Held in one of their private tasting rooms, the menu was simple yet flavorful, focusing on quality ingredients and highlighting their star product: jamon bellota.
We started with a selection of four kinds of jamon bellota, followed by scallops wrapped in bellota fat, then a lapu-lapu with honey and rosemary, finishing with a wonderful dessert of fresh cheese with raisins stewed in sherry.
Unlike usual pairing menus where one wine is paired to one dish, we were served all four kinds of Champagne at once — Brut Reserve, Blanc de Blancs 2008, Brut Rosé 2006 and Cuvee Sir Winston Churchill 2004 — and were left to our own devices to experiment and see which worked best.
One of my favorites was the Blanc de Blancs with the scallops. What really stood out, however, was experiencing the four kinds of jamon bellota and the four cuvees, mixing and matching. It really is untraditional and most Champagnes are drowned out by the bold, nutty flavors of the jamon. But this out-of-the-box combination underlined the unique masculine qualities of some of the cuvees, notably the Sir Winston Churchill, whose exact blend is a family secret.
This sort of choose-your-own-adventure wine pairing allowed us to explore the flavors and sensations of each Champagne, showcasing Pol Roger’s strength of character yet also its versatile and adaptable qualities. I have to say, though, that the clear crowd favorites were the Brut Rosé and the Sir Winston Churchill. The former is an absolute delight of red fruit mellowed by a touch of vanilla yet with a balanced tartness, while the latter has delicious round toasted almond and butter notes, complex and lingering without being too heavy. Both are equally captivating and would be best described as two very different yet equally alluring men in whose company and conversation you’d love to be prisoner to for an entire evening.
I have always described Champagnes as women and yet I find that difficult to do for Pol Roger. The winemaker’s overall personality is one of bold character yet with that learned finesse of fine breeding and tradition. This is definitely not the type of guy or wine that Kanye in a club in flashy clothing would be spraying onto his booty-shaking Kim.
No, Pol Roger Champagne has all the qualities of a true, well-bred gentleman. That isn’t to say he is boring; far from it. Some cuvees like the Brut Reserve are flirtatious and confident, the Blanc de Blanc oozes with charisma, the Rose is full of intrigue and mysterious charm while the Winston Churchill is delightfully imposing and important with an incomparable aura destined for greatness, just like its namesake. Either way an encounter with any of them will make you feel like the luckiest girl in the room. And isn’t that the desired effect of any man?
Ditch the broody and moody whiskeys and rums, because real men don’t buy the Champagne just to show off to their ladies; in the traditions of Napoleon, Bismarck and Churchill, they savor it themselves.
***this article first appeared in The Philippine Star***