Now that its late Spring/ early Summer, and strawberries are everywhere I thought I’d take a look at one of the most popular pairings with Champagne. – strawberries and Champagne. Why is this? What makes these two items so complimentary?
This question may have a good answer on a chemical or molecular level, but since I’m a sommelier and not a scientist, I’ll answer it from my experience.
Strawberries and Champagne in their current form don’t actually pair that well together. Strawberries for the most part have become flavorless, hard, and rather boring. There are exceptions to this, particularly the strawberries in Oregon, as well as other places in the world that don’t use the new varieties that are designed to look pretty and have a long shelf life. The old varieties of strawberries aren’t as uniform in shape and size, nor are they as pretty. Their shelf life is horrible, but they are fantastically flavorful. They also tend to have a great deal of sweetness, that is tempered by the acid in the fruit.
Champagne in its current form is also not particularly friendly for this pairing. These days, Champagne tends to be quite dry, if not searingly dry. Anytime you have something that has lots of acid, like Champagne, and you mix it with something sweet, you’ll end up with an unpleasant puckering sensation in your mouth. Think orange juice right after brushing your teeth.
Then how did this pairing come to be? You have to look to history for the answer. In the 1800’s and early 1900’s Champagne was much sweeter. Historically, Brut Champagne didn’t even exist. Most champagne had a dosage of at least 30+ grams per liter of sugar. For the US markets it was higher, and for Russia, they used 200-300 grams per liter of sugar. By comparison, today most Champagne has 6-12 grams per liter. When you combine something sweet with something of equal or greater sweetness, it creates a very pleasant experience.
Beyond the differences in Champagne, historically, strawberries were grown for flavor with less emphasis placed on visual appeal or shelf life. So in older times, they had very flavorful berries with poor shelf life. This means that only the people that grew the fruit and the very wealthy could truly enjoy strawberries due to the difficulty and cost of transporting and storing these delicate fruits. This is where the luxury component of this pairing originates – people had to have significant means to have both fresh strawberries and Champagne at the same time.
Now apply all of this information to this classic pairing. These days the strawberries are boring and pretty but don’t have a lot of sugar or flavor. When paired with modern Champagne, you’ll get that pucker from mismatched sugar and acidity. Which has lead many people to believe this is actually a poor pairing. However when you take very flavorful strawberries, like those from Oregon, and pair them with a sweeter style of Champagne like a extra dry or demi sec, the pairing is profoundly delicious! The sweetness in the berries is fantastic with the sweetness in the wine creating harmony and delight.
Finally, many people like to put the strawberries in the glass with the Champagne. I don’t recommend this for a couple reasons. First the strawberry flavors can over power the Champagne when left together, so you’re essentially neutering this fantastic wine. Second, the berry in the glass gives more surface area for the bubbles to rise from, which will make the wine go flat more quickly. Just have the strawberries on the side and enjoy a bite and a sip together.
Should you want to enjoy this pairing yourself, Ambonnay is currently serving Viridian Farms strawberries with Louis Roederer Carte Blanche Extra Dry NV Champagne.