You, like people all over the world, might be popping a bottle of bubbly tonight. My man David-Nicolas will probably pick up a bottle or two of his favorite brand of Champagne, Ruinart. But did you know that not all sparkling wines, or even Champagnes, are created equal?
All Champagne is sparkling wine, like Prosecco in Italy, Cava from Spain, or other French sparkling wines like crémant de Bourgogne. But only two of these sparkling wines – Cava and Champagne – get their bubbles from what we call the traditional method, known in France, bien sur, as la méthode champenoise.
All the same color on the inside
And of course, Champagne is only Champagne if it’s made in the area of France with the same name, not too far from Paris. Traditionally, only three types of grapes are used to make the bubbly: pinot noir, pinot meunier, and chardonnay.
If it seems strange that the juice of two black grapes and one white grape give us a white beverage, it’s only because there’s no contact with the skins of the grapes. I like to tell my students that grapes are a little like humans: it doesn’t matter what color the grapes are on the outside. On the inside, the juice is all the same color.
White from black
You can find out more about the traditional method of making sparkling wine here. Recently, I had the opportunity to explain the traditional method during a wine-tasting on the theme of sparkling wines and Champagne. Among others, we
drank tasted two types of Champagnes most participants hadn’t tasted before: blanc de noirs and blanc de blancs. (The crachoirs, or spittoons, were empty at the end of the tasting, of course.)
Blanc de noirs literally means “white from black” meaning white wine made from only black pinot noir or pinot meunier grapes. Trying to identify the aromas and flavors in the glass was a bit disconcerting, so I asked participants to close their eyes and pretend they didn’t know the color of the wine they were drinking. Could they get it now?
White from white
Suddenly, one person shouted out “Black currants!” Others thought they tasted plums or blackberries. They were right, but their eyes had fooled them into thinking they’d be tasting more typically white grape flavors like peaches, flowers, or citrus.
Blanc de blancs Champagne, or “white from white” is made only from white chardonnay grapes. And they get the full Champagne treatment, including aging on the lees. Lees are the dead yeast leftover in the bottle, and they tend to add what we call “bakeshop” qualities to the Champagne: aromas and flavors of butter, brioche, or even just plain old toast. When I was pouring the blanc de blancs into students’ flutes, it smelled just like a movie theater’s concession stand – buttery!
Golden scallop shells
Champagne, or even crémant, are luxury beverages. (Try telling that to a friend of mine who has a severe allergic reaction to ALL alcoholic beverages except Champagne…) So it makes sense to pair this special-occasion wine with scallops, and the end-of-the-year holidays are the perfect time to buy scallops.
In my book, any excuse to go to my local fishmonger’s is a good one. The owners of Le Saint Pierre, Daniel and Béatrice, are lovely folks, and this year, Béatrice even made a DIY decoration on the shop’s ceiling with golden scallop shells. Sparkling indeed!
Scallops with Champagne cream
This recipe can be served as a first course or a main course. Also, it makes more sauce than you’ll need for the scallops, but it’s tough to cut the recipe in half. Save the rest of the sauce and reheat it very gently to serve with a fish filet, or even some pasta with a few shrimp thrown in.
note: Since Champagne is expensive, I usually prepare the sauce with crémant or any not-too-dry sparkling wine. Just ask your local caviste, or wine-shop owner, for a bottle of semi-dry sparkling wine. If you can only find dry sparkling wine, that’s okay, but you’ll want to eliminate the lemon juice in the recipe since the acidity from the wine will be enough for the sauce.
½ bottle (375ml) semi-dry sparkling wine or Champagne (see note above)
1 medium shallot (about 1 ounce or 30g), minced
20 fresh sea scallops (see this article for buying and cleaning scallops)
1 cup (240ml) fish stock or clam juice
1½ cups (360g) heavy cream
½ teaspoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
½ teaspoon salt
4 tablespoons (½ stick; 60g) high-quality unsalted butter, cut into cubes and well-chilled
⅛ cup minced fresh chervil (or any other herb you like; dill is also good)
for cooking the scallops:
1 tablespoon butter
½ tablespoon olive oil
how to make it:
1. In a small to medium saucepan, bring the wine and shallots to a boil over high heat. Reduce heat to medium, and let the wine boil, reducing for about 25-30 minutes or until there’s almost no liquid left at all. Make sure to stay close by during the final few minutes to avoid burning.
2. In the meantime, rinse the scallops well, and drain. Place them on a plate lined with paper towels. Drying the scallops is important if you want them to sear nicely.
3. Add the fish stock or clam juice to the wine mixture, and bring to the boil again over medium heat. Let the mixture boil for about 5-6 minutes, skimming as necessary.
4. Remove the saucepan from the heat, and slowly whisk in the cream. Bring this mixture back to the boil, and continue reducing (boiling) for about 15 minutes, whisking from time to time.
5. Add the herbs and leave the saucepan in a warm place.
6. Melt the tablespoon of butter in a wide skillet or non-stick pan, or two of them if needed, and when it starts to foam, add the oil. Swirl the fats around the pan, return to heat for about 1 minute, and add the scallops, spacing them generously.
7. After about 3 minutes, check the underside of a scallop – if it is nicely browned, you can turn over all the scallops quickly. Remove the skillet from the heat source entirely, cover the pan well, and let the scallops sit while you finish the sauce.
8. In the meantime, add the lemon juice and salt to the sauce.
9. Remove the saucepan from the heat, and add the butter cubes a few at a time, whisking well as you go.
10. Add the herbs to the sauce and stir.
11. Spoon the sauce first onto slightly warmed plates, and then place 5 scallops on each plate. If you like, garnish with extra herbs.
4 main course servings; sauce makes about 7 ¼-cup servings