During a three-week stretch this past November, photos of Champagne bottles kept barraging my Facebook feed. The entire New York wine industry, it seemed, was busy popping corks at Marta, the new pizza venture courtesy of Danny Meyers’s Union Square Hospitality Group, which immediately earned a reputation among members of the trade as one of the city’s most exciting destinations for drinking Champagne.
As understandable as Marta’s popularity might be—I mean, who doesn’t love pizza, or, for that matter, Champagne?—the restaurant’s claim to fame can’t help but underscore a subtle irony: For whatever reason, both in terms of fairness of cost and depth of selection, some of the best destinations for Champagne—that quintessentially French invention—happen to be Italian restaurants with otherwise exclusively Italian lists.
At Marta, for instance, the program currently features just eight sparkling wines from Italy, including one Lambrusco, compared to over 40 different selections of Champagne. Similarly, Italian bubbly occupies just half a page on sister restaurant Maialino’s list, with three allotted to Champagne. What are we to make of all this?
While it might seem like a strange break from trend to see Italian restaurants venture beyond the familiar paradigm of serving Italian food with Italian wine, it’s not without precedent. In fact, a closer look reveals not only a history of Champagne “guest starring” on New York’s top Italian lists, but an even older tradition of beverage programs in Italy doing the same.
Although they introduced New Yorkers to a certain “regional” approach to Italian cuisine, which redefined the genre, classic Manhattan forerunners like Babbo and Del Posto always championed Champagne. According to Jeff Porter, Beverage Director of the B&B Hospitality Group under whose umbrella both establishments operate, this intentionally reflects what one might expect to find in similar restaurants overseas.
“Based on my experience of traveling [in Italy], I can say that, across the board, Champagne plays an important role at the dinner table, especially at restaurants,” he mentions. “For Del Posto specifically, but for Babbo too, it’s a core part of the beverage program. Philosophically, the model that [partners] Joe [Bastianich] and Mario [Batali] set out to follow was that of the osteria, and you definitely see Champagne on those lists.”
This observation runs counter to the bias against foreign wines typically found in proud winemaking nations like Italy. As John Ragan, Director of Wine Operations for Union Square Hospitality Group, points out, “There aren’t too many wine lists in Italy where you’ll be able to find Argentine Malbec, for instance, or even Burgundy. The one caveat, though, is that just about every great list over there has a fantastic selection of Champagne.”
The reasons behind this paradox remain difficult to pinpoint. Perhaps the situation reflects the larger ways in which Champagne functions as a global symbol rather than a national one. Despite the growing interest in “metodo classico” wines from Franciacorta and Trento, Italy has also historically lacked a viable indigenous sparkling wine tradition to rival its famous Gallic competitor.
Given its status as a luxury brand, moreover, it makes sense that Champagne might resonate culturally with the same nation responsible for Prada and Gucci, particularly among the fashionable elite in cities like Rome or Milan. “Champagne is a big deal in Italy among people of the governing class,” says wine writer and historian Jeremy Parzen. “There have even been a couple of scandals in the last few years involving politicians celebrating New Year’s Eve with Champagne instead of an Italian sparkling wine.”
Along these lines, it’s safe to say that Champagne in Italy remains firmly tied to certain traditional stereotypes. “For many Italians, Champagne (and other spumanti, like Prosecco and Franciacorta) is still closely associated with celebration, and only a small percentage of drinkers would consume Champagne otherwise,” says Rome-based food and beverage educator and journalist Katie Parla. To her mind, this helps determine the contexts in which Italians enjoy it: “In Italy, well-heeled diners are encouraged to drink Champagne in expensive fish restaurants with crudo, but at a pizzeria the drink of choice is industrial beer.”
As a restaurant like Marta proves, this is far from the case in New York. To that end, if Champagne always factored into the city’s top Italian lists as an homage to Italy’s longstanding fascination with the category, the way that Marta (and others like it) have recently appropriated the trend signals an important shift in attitude.
It’s one thing to encounter Champagne at Michelin-starred restaurants like Babbo or Del Posto. To drink a bottle of Jacques Selosse Rosé Champagne with pizza after work, however, is a very different matter.
“It used to be that the only serious Champagne lists were at fancy restaurants,” says John Ragan. “Now there isn’t the same set of expectations. We’ve had great luck with that juxtaposition of ‘high’ and ‘low.’”
Today, as a more casual style of dining becomes the norm, a growing number of restaurants have adopted this “high-low” formula with great success. No matter how low the markups may be, Champagne tends to signify the “high” part of the equation, and it’s increasingly common to see it pop up in various unexpected comfort food contexts: not just with pizza and pasta, but even hot dogs or fried chicken.
By shaking up the “appropriate” frameworks in which to drink it, we’re potentially establishing a Champagne tradition of our own. “I know this isn’t necessarily an Italian thing,” Ragan concedes, “but it sure is a lot of fun.”
WHAT TO DRINK
NV Emmanuel Brochet “Le Mont Benoit” 1er Cru, $99
Barely marked up above retail pricing, the “Le Mont Benoit” bottling from acclaimed grower Emmanuel Brochet is “the perfect mix of being drinkable and open, while still being serious enough to work very well with food,” according to Maialino Wine Director Jeff Kellogg. Certified organic and sourced from a single six-acre parcel in the village of Villers-aux-Nœuds, just outside Reims, the bottle will soon be available by the glass as well.
NV Egly-Ouriet “Les Vignes de Vrigny” 1er Cru, $88
“The ‘Vignes des Vrigny’ from Egly-Ouriet has the structure to stand up to [rich] dishes like the suckling pig,” says Kellogg. Chewy, full-bodied and full of red berry fruit, it highlights exactly what makes pinot meunier-based Champagnes so food-friendly.
2010 Vouette et Sorbée “Cuvée Fidèle Blanc de Noirs Extra Brut, $96
Showcasing all the depth you’d expect from a classic “blanc de noir” wine, but delivered through the lean, acid-driven frame of its “extra brut” style, this vintage-released Champagne from biodynamic winemaker Bertrand Gautherot epitomizes Champagne’s exciting new wave. Listed at under $100, it also happens to be a serious steal.
NV Bérêche & Fils Brut Reserve, $64
For Marta to request such a miniscule tariff (basically, the equivalent of what you’d expect to pay for a decent bottle of Cava or non-Champagne crémant on most New York lists) for the stunning entry-level wine from Bérêche seems like nothing short of an act of charity. Bright and crunchy, with the family-run estate’s signature mouth-coating nuttiness.
2007 Agrapart “Minéral” Brut Grand Cru Blanc de Blancs, $134
“There are not many Champagnes that show this much transparency of terroir and do so with so much balance,” says Marta wine director Jack Mason. Lean, chalky (as the cuvée’s name would suggest) and chardonnay-based, this is one of three vintages wines in Agrapart’s esteemed (and highly limited) portfolio.
2008 Paul Bara Rosé ‘Special Club’ Grand Cru, $178
“In the world of Rosé Champagnes, there are none that compare to the Bara Special Club Rosé,” Mason offers. From the Grand Cru Village of Bouzy, known for its pinot noir, Paul Bara’s top-of-the-line vintage rosé is earthy and intense. Drinking it with mushroom pizza is the way.