The Case for Pairing Champagne With Peppers—and How to Do It at Home
Cassidee Dabney, executive chef at The Barn at Blackberry Farm, thinks Champagne gets pigeonholed, and this unexpected pairing proves it.
When I think of Champagne, special occasions come to mind, predictably—sparkling flutes served with a plate of oysters at cocktail hour, or bottles popped alongside cake at an engagement party. However, all it took was a bowl of grits at Blackberry Farm to shatter that illusion. I visited the Tennessee resort in May to celebrate the latest installment of Krug’s single ingredient program—this year, it's the humble pepper, with egg, fish, mushroom, and potatoes as past honorees. The brand celebrates one ingredient each year to recognize the individual plots of vines, which are "ingredients" in their own way, that contribute to its signature Champagne.
Cassidee Dabney, executive chef at The Barn (Blackberry’s fine-dining restaurant), was one of several chefs to participate in this year’s single ingredient program, planning two days-worth of meals infused with peppers that were each paired with a specific Champagne. There was wood grilled guinea hen with garden bolts and hazelnut romesco, accompanied by rosé; pinto beans and charred cabbage came together with foie gras, smoked chicken broth, pepper oil, and herbs to pair with a Krug 2004. However, the aforementioned grits were what really sold me on the marriage of Champagne and pepper.
With crispy hominy on top, preserved pickled vegetables (such as lunchbox peppers and green tomatoes), and fennel pollen, Dabney’s garden grits were perfect with a Krug Grande Cuvée 167th Edition—the acidity of the peppers was matched in the Champagne, and also drew out a sweetness. As it turns out, Dabney says older vintages work especially well with pickled and fermented peppers, since they’re both a bit funky (and putting them together cancels out said funk). Unusual pairing aside, I never would have expected a warm, comforting, stick-to-your ribs dish like grits to work with a delicate Cuvée, either. But within minutes, my plate was clean and my glass empty.
Dabney told me she was initially skeptical about Champagne and peppers together, but after trying out several different varieties while she sketched out the menu, she too was sold on the unexpected pairing.
“Flavor-wise, they have a lot of similarities,” she says. “A lot of times, peppers are a little bit sweet, a little bit acidic, and so is Champagne. And then in place of effervescence, you get this spice, and heat. And they kind of balance each other out in a way that was completely unexpected for me.”
If you're inclined to try the pairing at home, we got some of Dabney’s key tips, including recipe ideas and other unexpected Champagne pairings she loves (you’ll never look at movie night the same way again). Check out what she had to say below:
Pepper recipe ideas
“If you had some really fun peppers from the farmer’s market, or your garden, and you just simply grilled them,” she suggested. “Just kind of gently put the smaller guys on the fire, and then you can drizzle them with honey, and a little bit of extra chile flakes. Or my favorite thing, fennel pollen. And [have them as] some grill snacks while you’re enjoying some Champagne on your back porch or your back patio. That would be really, really great.”
Dabney says fried chicken with a little chile honey and peppery hot sauce would be "pretty dank" served with rosé Champagne. The fattiness of the chicken and the heat work well together.
“Fried rice with grilled cabbage and a little chile garlic oil drizzled on top of it, with a whole bunch of herbs. Cilantro, and maybe some pork belly. That’s a meal, and it’s fun, it’s a little unexpected,” she says. “I just think Champagne gets pigeonholed into this place where it doesn’t need to be.”
“It’s peach season, we just started getting peaches here and I’m kind of freaking out about it,” Dabney says. “But just some sliced peaches—again, not to say chile honey over and over again, but chile honey with whipped vanilla crème fraîche, something kind of light like that. Or, you can put a little chile in your crème fraîche. That would be good. I don’t think anybody’s getting mad about that. A smoked chile, with crème fraîche and vanilla, and just some sliced peaches with a pinch of sugar.”
Pairing peppers with specific Champagnes
Dabney likes smokier peppers with rosé Champagnes, since the sweeter wine and the smoke of the peppers bring a bitter-sweet profile to the table. The pickled peppers, as previously mentioned, are great with vintages; the Grande Cuvée 167th Edition, specifically, goes well with sweeter flavors like lunchbox peppers and paprika, she says.
Working with peppers at home
“I always keep a box of latex gloves around the house, just in case I’m touching something that’s either a super spicy pepper, or raw meat, or something like that,” Dabnee says. “I always keep that around. You don’t want to get ahold of a hot pepper and then accidentally touch your face.”
Dabnee also mentioned that if you’re buying peppers fresh from the farmer’s market, you need to pay attention to the weather. A drought means spicier peppers than normal, since peppers love dry conditions, she says; if it’s been raining heavily, you’ll find the peppers could be bland. The same rule applies to tomatoes, which come out the best in drier weather.
Other unexpected Champagne pairings
Dabnee says she loves Krug with buttered popcorn, which is certainly one way to upgrade your next movie night—overall, she feels that if you like the food and you like the Champagne, you’ll probably like the pairing too.
“You could sit down with a bowl of french fries and some Champagne, of course, and be very happy,” Dabnee says. “Or pizza, it’s just like when you’re drinking soda with a pizza and you have that cleansing of the palate, that effervescence that keeps every bite of your pizza like the first bite.”