Just a little over four years ago, in the first 12 months of a still nascent Good Food Revolution, I scribed a small piece championing the Grower Champagne cause, to accompany some evocative tasting notes provided by Zoltan Szabo.
Two weeks back I was invited to a rather grand dinner at Böehmer restaurant on Ossington Avenue, Toronto. In association with Groupe Soleil, the restaurant had taken to hosting an impressive multi-course menu paired with a selection of Grower Champagnes. Not only did the wines show incredibly well, but for this palate the dinner turned out to be a real tour de force for Chef Böehmer, probably the most enjoyable dishes of his I have had the pleasure of experiencing.
We spoke with Chef Böehmer, General Manager Gordon Adams, and Groupe Soleil’s Stephen Cohen about their personal experiences with Grower Champagnes.
CHEF PAUL BÖEHMER, BÖEHMER RESTAURANT, TORONTO
Good Food Revolution: So Chef, I know that you like your champagne… when did you first hear about
Chef Paul Boehmer: I first heard about grower champagne through Gordon our GM
GFR: I’ve known your cooking for almost 20 years now (when I arrived in Toronto) and that Champagne dinner is probably the most accomplished set of dishes I have ever tasted from you… where did you get the inspiration, as those pairings with the champagne were quite magical?
PB: Actually I have been now cooking for over 30 years here in Toronto. Starting with Michael Stadtlander at Stadtländers on John Street. I had not tasted any of these fantastic champagnes before, so I spent time discussing them with Gordon and researched each house to understand their complexities and how I could create dishes to go with each one.
GFR: Were you purposely showing restraint and reserve with your flavour combinations, as you managed to make the wines really sing?
PB: I wanted to keep the menu simple with a classic twist. At the same time balanced with the champagne.
GFR: What is your favourite Growers Champagne? And why?
PB: To be honest I am just starting to learn more and more about artisan champagne growers so it would not be fair for me to say at this time, but I’ll let you know in a few months…
GORDON ADAMS, GENERAL MANAGER, BÖEHMER RESTAURANT, TORONTO
Good Food Revolution: What drew you to the idea of creating an extended dinner around Grower Champage?
GA: We’ve been mulling over the idea of creating a wine dinner series for a while now, but we wanted to create programming that was a little less typical of what we’ve seen done recently. Paul (Boehmer) and I are both big fans of champagne (I actually love bubbles of all kinds) and how they work with food so teaming up with Groupe Soleil and their offerings seemed a natural choice. Secondly Groupe Soleil owner Stephen and myself are both big proponents of Champagne being consumed with meals regularly.
GFR: What is it that you feel sets Grower Champagnes apart from the regular stuff?
GA: This is going to sound very ‘thrifty’ of me, but the value for $ delivered by grower champagnes is incredible compared to the big houses that are almost all that is available in the lcbo stores. The vast arrays of flavour profiles, style differences and reflection of “Place” or Terroir is also hugely attractive for me.
GFR: And how have your clientele been enjoying them? Perhaps for many it’s a bit of a shock to have Champagne that actually tastes of something!
GA: It’s a ton of fun when we see guests faces light up when they first taste something that they would have never ordered because they do not recognize the producer. It is even more fun when we show our guests the price difference between what they are drinking and the major champagne houses. We’ve actually had a few of our guests who have been hosting parties in their homes who have ordered grower champagnes from some of our vendors instead of making a trip to the lcbo.
GFR: How did you go about selecting the wines for your recent Grower Champagne dinner?… and how closely did you work with Chef Bohmer to design the menu… those were some killer pairings.
GA: Thanks! We chose the wines with a progression from lighter to heavier profiles in mind. We also wanted to showcase different styles (blanc de blanc, blanc de noirs etc.) I know all of the wines fairly intimately, so Paul (Böehmer) and I spent a couple of hours working on the progression and flavours for the menu.
GFR: Did you have a personal favourite match from that night? Something that in your mind worked particularly well?
GA: My favourite was the Cedric Bouchard ‘Val Vilaine’ Blanc de Noirs with the Veal and lobster dish. That being said, the Andre Clouet Rosé with the chocolate dessert was particularly satisfying because everyone thought it wouldn’t work…
GFR: I believe that you are stepping up the wine program a little at Bohmer… what are your plans for the future lists?
GA: We’re having some fun with the list and working on making some good choices for our guests to enjoy. If we find some wines that are a off the beaten path and show good value, we’ll grab them. Our focus is making sure that whether a guest spends $40 or $400 that they are thrilled with what they are drinking and want to come back to try more.
GFR: And I have heard that you’ll be planning more wine dinners in the coming months? Can you give us any clues as to what you’ll be serving up soon?
GA: The next one is going to be fun if you’re into Pinot Noir. We accumulated some fairly hard to find Sonoma Valley Pinots that may change some peoples minds as to what they expect from Californian Pinot. The current plan includes wines from Anthill Farms, Hirch Vineyards, Ojai, Littorai and Sea Smoke.
GFR: Thanks for your time (and your hospitality) Gordon. Much appreciated.
STEPHEN COHEN, OWNER OF GROUPE SOLEIL WINE IMPORTERS, TORONTO
Good Food Revolution: Hello there Stephen. So, since I have known you, you have been one of the greatest of champions of Grower Champagne.
Can you remember your first experience of Grower Champagne? When did you have your Grower Champagne epiphany?
Stephen Cohen: Like it was yesterday. I was in France in 1989 visiting with producers with an agency I was working with at the time. I was invited to a dinner at a well known restaurant in Paris and we started with a magnum of 1959 Clos des Goisses. At that time I represented Mumm Champagne and was totally used to their big round highly dosed cuvees . I was completely blown away and could not believe what I was drinking. All I can remember saying was “Oh my god “ over and over again. Epiphany is actually an understatement. I was changed forever! No going back for sure.
GFR: So what is it that makes Grower Champagne so special for you?
SC: After having represented some of the bigger houses over the last 30 years I always loved the fact that small growers represented the complete antithesis of the larger house philosophy . The large Champagne house takes pride in blending and creating a consistent house style whereas for the small grower it is all about terroir. Large houses have contracts with hundreds of growers throughout all the different regions of Champagne. They then blend these parcels all together to make their signature style. It always seemed a bit what I called Coca Cola like strategy. The beauty of the small grower or RM mentality is to separate your grapes into particular single vineyards or areas and create a product that was very unique to the soil conditions from where the grapes originated.
In a nutshell I mean creating what I refer to as typicity or minerality.
GFR: How do you like to introduce Grower Champagne to the uninitiated?
SC: It’s rather quite easy actually. For people who have enjoyed drinking Champagne from the larger more commercial houses I usually start by saying that once they taste Champagne from small artisanal growers they will never go back to drinking the more commercial names again. It sounds rather pompous and arrogant but once they start discovering these new names it is almost guaranteed that they will decide for themselves that small growers represent something radically different in terms of taste sensation and a much higher level of quality. Even for the novice the palate never lies.
GFR; Now, almost everyone says that they like Champagne, but Grower Champagne is not for everyone… as it actually tastes of something!
Who “gets it”? Who are your biggest customers? If our readers are curious, which restaurants should they be visiting?
SC: Once people taste Champagne from good small growers , 100% of the time they will decide for themselves the quality differences. I often compare Champagnes in a tasting format . Two or Three small growers and a larger house and I sit back and observe.
It is fascinating to see how people react to tasting side by side. It is like they have been used to drinking water and now they are experiencing an incredible new taste . As I said before the taste buds do not lie. Even the novice taster can effectively describe the differences between the two. I love seeing their reactions and I know that they have been changed forever when it comes to Champagne. I have spent the last 7 + years on an educational quest , introducing consumers and restaurants on the wonders of drinking Grower Champagnes.
I really have to say that it has taken off and has been excepted much faster than I originally thought it would take. Restaurants such as Bohmer, George, Canoe, Splendido just to name a few have changed their focus to small unique houses who represent value and quality that have not been seen in this city until now. I really feel that we have such a long way to go and that we have only scratched the surface of the huge possibilities that lie in front of us.
GFR: And will they ever see any of the houses you represent upon the store shelves?
SC: 95% of all the houses I import will never see the LCBO shelves. The LCBO’S purchasing philosophy is to buy on price and ratings. Many of the small houses I import are never rated and production is very tiny often less than 15,000 bts per year. In contrast some of the larger houses produce as much as 30+ million bottles per year. I bring them in for restaurants and consumers who are looking for something radically different than what is available at the LCBO retail level..
GFR: Because of Grower Champagne’s distinctive characters both aromatically and on the palate, I find that they tend to pair better throughout a meal than their generic industrially-produced counterparts.
What are some of the greatest pairings that you yourself have experienced?
SC: We have been doing quite a few Champagne dinners lately where we pair specific Champagnes with the Chef’s creations. Most people have not experienced an entire meal paired with Champagnes. They love the idea and when they experience an evening like this they understand what they have been missing.
The possibilities for pairings are virtually endless. Quintessential oysters with Champagne are always a favorite. If you are a Foie Gras fan than there is no better concert of flavors . Vintage Champagne with a little age can go really well with braised beef with a wild mushroom sauce. A Blanc de Noir pairs wonderful with duck risotto . The possibilities are endless and can deliver delicious results with just about any style and grape variety that is grown in the region.
I bring in a wonderful Champagne from a tiny producer that is made from 7 different heirloom grape varieties which are from a single vineyard, all planted together and crushed together at the same time. The different varieties actually cancel each other out when pressed and what you are left with is a pure expression of the terroir. Mineral heaven! This Champagne I find can be paired with Thai beef or smoked salmon. Endless possibilities. Let your mind explore.
GFR: Well I thought that was truly fantastic. Thanks Stephen.
Edinburgh-born/Toronto-based Sommelier, consultant, writer, judge, and educator Jamie Drummond is the Director of Programs/Editor of Good Food Revolution… And that was a hell of a dinner. Bravo!