Sip, savour and tell
The prestige cuvée dinner at the Leela Palace deliciously defined the characteristics, the pairings and the widening repertoire of champagne
Covering a champagne dinner throws up unusual challenges. No. Not the ones you’re thinking of. I’m not floundering through this column from the depths of a crashing hangover. The problem is more, well, intricate. How do I tell a story of a prestige cuvée dinner at the Leela Palace without coming across like a pretentious bore?
Jay Z seems like a good place to start. Don’t roll your eyes, yet. You’ve got to admit, the man has attitude. (And not just because he famously declares “I’m like Che Guevara with bling on,” in his PSA lyrics.) It helps that our host for the evening is Rajiv Singhal, the chirpy Ambassador to Champagne in India. Despite representing the Comité Interprofessionnel du Vin de Champagne (CIVC) (an inter-professional body that brings together all the Houses and Growers in Champagne, defining policy, quality control and protection of the Champagne appellation), Singhal is nonchalantly breezy about the drink. Dispensing with stuffy ceremony in one swift swoop when he cracks a bottle open with a dangerously sharp sword, Singhal chuckles about how it’s a drink for every occasion. “I love it with onion pakoras at home,” he confesses.
As we settle down for dinner at a swish private dining room at The Leela Palace, the waiter pops open a glittering bottle of Armand de Brignac to go with squares of juicy salmon laced with cardamom and green apple. Between the inevitable discussion on the notes, flavours and ‘personality’ of the champagne, Singhal tells us it’s Jay Z’s drink of choice. That seems logical enough — after all, the performer is famously extravagant. He got his daughter ‘Blue’ a custom made diamond encrusted Barbie, for starters. But wait. There’s more. I did promise you a story.
“Cristal was created for Tsar Alexander II of Russia,” says Singhal, holding up the iconic transparent, flat bottomed champagne bottle. Worried about being poisoned, the Tsar wanted to be able to see through the bottle. He also asked for the bottom to be made of crystal, to prevent would-be assassins from planting a bomb in the bottle punt. “Then Jay Z decided to take to it. And Cristal stocks started depleting faster than they expected.” (This champagne is produced in relatively small quantities, only in vintage years.) When asked if the rappers ‘bling-bling set could hurt the brand’, the company’s managing director, Rouzaud was quoted saying: “That’s a good question, but what can we do? We can’t forbid people from buying it.” The swords had been drawn. “Jay Z decided to boycott Cristal,” says Rajiv, adding that there were rumours of bottles of Cristal being emptied into the gutters. “The rats in New York must have been happy!” he laughs.
However, all’s well that ends well. Jay Z and Armand de Brignac found each other. Armand with its flashy ‘Ace of Spades’ logo is a multi-vintage brand, and has the flashiest cellars in the region. “Champagne (the appellation) doesn’t declare a vintage. The winemaker declares a vintage. So the winemakers at Armand said, ‘With current technology and science why can’t there be a vintage every year.’ And that’s what they did,” says Singhal. Of course with a hip hop star at the helm of publicity, marketing tends to be rather ‘non-champagne.’ All this to show that the drink has evolved dramatically from the days when it was perceived to be merely ‘posh.’
Admittedly, this dinner is fairly posh, considering it features eight prestige cuvées. “A prestige cuvee is the top of the house,” says Singhal. “The absolutely most iconic wine that a house produces.” (Roughly 80 per cent of what champagne produces is non vintage.) The line up sparkled with familiar names. Seared scallops on a tart mango mousse, the second course, arrived with Dom Perignon. The buttery foie gras was served with a Drappier Grande Sendrée 1999, which crisply and competently sliced through the terrine. There was flaky black cod with an unexpectedly successful twist — a sticky ginger-tamarind ‘saunth’ sauce, coriander butter and creamy coconut mousse served with Bollinger Grand Année 2002. And, in the same style, lamb with squiggly iddiappam and spicy red ‘kumarokam’ sauce, teamed with a Louis Roederer Cristal 2004, with its signature toasty accents of brioche.
The point of the dinner was not just to prove that champagne goes with everything. The problem of ‘pairing’ gets far less press these days, thanks to the fact that people are finally confident enough to make up their own rules. It was to encourage people to expand their repertoire. “Right now, in India, it’s always Moët Hennessy, simply because it’s a familiar name,” says Singhal, taking about how Indians don’t particularly like experimenting when it comes to luxury (which explains all those Louis Vuitton bags at every kitty party.) Like Jay Z, you just have to find what works for you.