Champagne! Champagne! Conversation with A.J. Ojeda-Pons of The Lambs Club
While some of us insist that Champagne is an everyday wine, majority treat it as a “special occasion” only. Of course, every day with the name ending in “day” is worthy of a special celebration, but jokes aside, most of us need a good reason to pop the cork on that tickling, gently foaming, playful and refreshing nectar.
Lucky for all “special occasion” folks, one such special occasion is almost upon us. What can accentuate “love and romance” better than a glass of bubbly? Yes, bring the Champagne as Valentine’s Day is only a week away!
To help you celebrate and maybe even answer a question or two which I’m sure you always had, I [virtually] sat down together with A.J. Ojeda-Pons, sommelier at The Lambs Club, one of the popular New York restaurants by the Food Network’s best-dressed star and Iron Chef Geoffrey Zakarian. I need to mention that in addition to being a WSET Advanced Sommelier, A.J. knows a thing or two about style – in 2014, he was the official winner of the U.S. Best Dressed Somm contest by Penfolds and GQ Magazine. And the Champagne? Just take a look at the A.J.’s LinkedIn profile, which says “Drink Champagne Every Day”!
Here is what transpired in our conversation:
[TaV]: Champagne is perfectly appropriate for any celebration, however, it is most often associated with Valentine’s Day – well, after the New Year, of course. When celebrating Valentine’s Day, would you recommend Champagne as the one and only choice of dinner wine, or would you use it just as an opener and then continue with whites and reds?
[A.J.]: Ah! My motto is “Drink Champagne Every Day,” so I often have a whole meal drinking just Champagne. Besides, drinking champagne before a meal is the most civilized thing you could do.
I know that it may be hard for some people to drink bubbles throughout a meal, but if you tailor your menu choices with the champagne that you are drinking, you can have an amazing experience (Think Crudos, Oysters, Fish or Seafood Tartare, Veal, Rabbit or Fish and avoiding red sauces or rich, creamy preparations). Otherwise, if you can’t commit, plan to drink the Champagne for at least half of the dinner and then switch for your main courses. In regards to desserts, champagne could sometimes be a total clash (due to its crispness and acidity) but a nice sorbet or fruit-based dessert will do.
[TaV]: To continue the previous question, just in case you suggested to stay with Champagne all the way, can you make some recommendations for different Champagne or Sparkling wines to complement a three course meal, including dessert? I’m talking not so much about particular producer names, but more about the styles and types of the sparkling wines.
[A.J.]: I like to drink a champagne that has more complexity throughout a full meal, so in that case I would go straight to a vintage champagne, even though it is always more expensive. You will benefit from the extended period of aging, it will have more nuanced layers and complex flavors, and will make it easy to pair with different flavors in various dishes.
[TaV]: Now, let’s actually talk about names. Splitting into three price categories – under $20, $20 to $60 and my favorite, “the sky is the limit”, what are the special Champagne and sparkling wines would you recommend to our readers in each price category?
[A.J.]: For the under $20 category, you won’t find any champagne in the market, unless it is a half bottle, but for that price point you are better off selecting other sparkling wines that are made in the méthode Champenoise. There are not a lot out there, if you can find them, because generally they are not exported or their production is very limited.
For example, from Italy you could try to get Franciacorta from the Lombardy region, from producers like Berlucchi, Il Mosnel or Mirabella. From the Veneto, you could try Il Buglioni spumante, and don’t forget that the Dolomites produce great sparkling, like Castel Noarna and Endrizzi. In Spain you can find great Cava from producers like Gramona, Mestres and Naveran.
If you are really in love with French sparkling, Crémant de [Bourgogne] (Veuve Ambal, Clotilde Davenne), [Jura] (Domaine de la Renardière, Rolet Père & Fils) [Alsace] (Albert Mann, Pierre Sparr or [Limoux] (Tocques et Clochers, Paul Mas) is your answer.
In the $20-60 sweet spot, you’re going to have the majority of Champagne options, from producers like Benoit Lahaye, Laurent Perrier, Dhondt-Grellet, Andre Clouet, Ayala, Billecart-Salmon, Aubry, Deutz, Henriot… open the floodgates!
Sky is the limit… yes, always! Find the Tête de Cuvées from Billecart-Salmon (Le Clos Saint-Hilaire), Pol Roger (Sir Winston Churchill), Charles Heidsieck (Blanc de Millenaires), Krug (Clos de Mesnil) and of course, Moët & Chandon (Cuvée Dom Pérignon).
[TaV]: What do you think of Grower’s Champagne? It is often hard to find, and if you can find it, it usually comes with very little information – is Grower’s Champagne worth seeking?
[A.J.]: Grower Champagne is by far my favorite type of champagne. Yes, they are hard to find at some stores but you can actually purchase quite a few online, if your state allows. Think about it, they ?own the land, they farm it, quite often respecting nature to the T, they produce and sell their own champagne, they don’t sell the fruit to big houses or mass producers. I stock on these a lot.
There are many styles to look forward to and many small producers that just are thrilled to share their farmer love in the language of a great bottle of champagne.
[TaV]: Over the past few years I had a number of delicious encounters with so-called Pét Nat sparkling wines – what do you think of them? Is this a fad, or will we see more of them? Do you offer Pét Nat at your restaurant?
[A.J.]: These are fun and can be quirky, but really excellent options to explore. I don’t think they are a fad, but you will see them more often in natural wine bars. They’re versatile with food, I must say.
We carry a couple at The Lambs Club and we offer on-and-off a choice by the glass depending on the season. I like them a lot. They are approachable, easy drinking and they also have a variety of styles from different countries. My favorite from California: Birichino, New York State: Channing Daughters, and from France: Chahut et Prodigues and Taille aux Loups!
[TaV]: In your opinion, what is the ideal vessel to serve the Champagne in? Is it the ever so popular flute, or should we rather serve and drink Champagne from the standard white wine glasses?
[A.J.]: Avoid flutes like the Black Plague. They are indeed obsolete, although they are alright for Prosecco. A regular white wine glass will be much better and, in fact, many crystal/glass makers have completely changed the shape of flutes to more white wine glass-shaped. You will be able to experience a lot more of the aromas of the champagne. Great champagne deserves a great glass. I prefer larger Burgundy or Bordeaux glasses for Vintage champagne.
[TaV]: What are your most favorite Champagne producers, if you have any?
[A.J.]: I have so many that I will need an extra page (back to my motto and hashtag, #DrinkChampagneEveryDay) but, here’s a few: Dhondt-Grellet, Billecart-Salmon, Agrapart, Savart, Tarlant, Robert Moncuit, Delamotte, Krug, Guillaume Sergent, Pierre Moncuit, Besserat de Bellefon…
[TaV]: Can you share your most mesmerizing Champagne experience, or most memorable Champagne bottle you ever had?
[A.J.]: It was a Heidsieck Monopole 1945. I was working a collector’s dinner and they had brought so many incredibly old vintage champagnes, but this one was my eye opener. All I could think about was ‘drinking this back then when the war finally ended.’ Seriously.
[TaV]: Last question – do you have a favorite Champagne quote? You know, like the famous [supposedly] Napoleon’s quote “Champagne! In victory one deserves it, in defeat one needs it” – do you have one (or more) which you like the most?
[A.J.]: Yes!!! Always a current quote from the poet Paul Claudel: “In the little moment that remains to us between the crisis and the catastrophe, we may as well drink a glass of champagne.”
There you have it, my friends. Hope you will find our conversation interesting, but most importantly – you don’t have to wait for the Valentine’s Day to get some fizz on. Pop that cork already, will you? Cheers!