Between the WinesDreaming about faraway places can be as pleasurable as actually going there maybe even more, considering the complications that can unravel real travel. And the most evocative armchair travel includes sipping at a wine whose character and terroir literally a term that refers to the kind of earth and microclimate the vines grow in, but also suggesting a wine's roots in the broader sense matches your fantasy destination. It gives, well, a little spirit to the speculation.
This new column, Between the Wines, is a sort of braiding of several pleasures: reading, travel, and good wine. The books won't always be travel guides in the traditional sense; they might be novels in which a special place is especially well described. They might be vintage letters from abroad, or memoirs. They might even be cookbooks. And we say good wines rather than the more common fine because while there might be a more pricey recommendation from time to time, most of the wines we choose are moderately priced, even bargains. So save this column for a quiet evening in an armchair by the winter fire, in a wicker rocker on the front porch, or wherever your senses and your imagination seem closest to the surface.
February is the month of Valentine's, of course, and that can only mean Champagne the real stuff, the sparklers that made only in the small area around Epernay and the great medieval cathedral city of Rheims. (Sparkling wine from California, Italy, Spain, Australia, even from other areas of France should not be referred to as Champagne. ) So we start with Frommer's Food Lover's Companion to France, a quick guide to the regions of France and their specialties (both liquid and solid), with lists of restaurants, cafes, and simple bistros in each area, shops and markets, primers on types of cheese and charcuterie, translations of popular menu items, and just a bit of history and touring, illustrated in glossy, mouth-watering color. In fact, it makes a fair case for dispensing with traditional travel guides altogether.
The food of Champagne is not, as many people might expect from the wine's witty and sophisticated reputation, light and flowery fare. It fills both the mouth and the nose, rich in mushrooms and truffles, rich but not fatty game birds, cleanly flavored but assertive fish such as pike and trout, wine-based stews (yes, made with those same Champagnes), wild greens, organ meats, pork and woody, resonant herbs. (Only about a 90-minute drive from Paris, Champagne is near Alsace-Lorraine and not far from the German and Belgian borders.) It's intensely seasonal, so that each few months a new set of flavors and aromas arrive, age and mellow, like wine. The people, too, are inextricably aware of the seasons, using the grapevines almost as calendars: Low and gnarly, they first shiver out a pale green, go richer and heavier and darker and then blaze gold and brown and always with a script-like underwriting of stem and branch.
To give you a dreaming taste for the region, you should skip over the aperitif Champagnes, which are floral, witty, and shorter-lived, like cocktail chatter; and linger over one of the more complex, indulgent wines. And you don't need to rob the pension account. While the great vintage champagnes are often expensive, the best of the non-vintage Champagnes which, though not year-dated, usually contain only a small amount of wines from other years can be stunning. In fact, the MÅ¡et et Chandon Brut Imperial, which costs about $35, is the best-selling champagne in the world, and with good reason.
But the less famous Bollinger, at about the same price, is the one to ponder, a robust, toasty Champagne with mellow vanilla-like spices and warm, deep, fully ripe but not nose-pinching fruit. Marcel Proust, had he drunk it sooner, would have been able to remember as many strains of flavor and aroma in it as he did the madeleines. (Remembrance of Things Past would be my truly perfect idea of fireside reading, especially with the bubbly, but I'm old-fashioned that way.)Bolllinger's big-bodied, embracing style fairly mirrors the exuberance of Madame Lily Bollinger, one of the industry's true grandes dames, who declared, I drink Champagne when I'm happy and when I'm sad. Sometimes I drink it when I'm alone. When I have company, I consider it obligatory. I trifle with it if I'm not hungry and drink it when I am. Otherwise I never touch it unless I'm thirsty. Well said, well read.
Eve Zibart is a restaurant critic for the Washington Post.