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Swap wine for Champagne on your holiday table

Let The Lambs Club's AJ Ojeda-Pons change your mind about saving Champagne for special occasions with his tips on how to pair it with a holiday feast.

If you only think of Champagne on special occasions, then AJ Ojeda-Pons is celebrating most days of the year.

“For the longest time, I had a motto: Drink Champagne every day,” says the sommelier, who mans the wine list at Geoffrey Zakarian’s The Lambs Club. “Champagne is not just a celebratory item, it’s really a very versatile wine.”

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How versatile? Ojeda-Pons sips a glass of bubbly to start many of his meals, whether that’s a cheese plate with fruit, a burger or even a bowl of popcorn while watching TV. Though all Champagne is grown in one small region of France (anything else is sparkling wine), “there’s so many houses, there’s so many vintners, there’s so many styles of it, from very, very dry to very, very rich,” he explains. “There’s always something that I can find to drink.”

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Besides bringing its own aroma and flavor, Ojeda-Pons describes Champagne’s effect as adding “an extra layer” that changes the texture and character of food.

While we ponder splashing a little New Year’s Eve on our Wednesday night usual (read: Szechuan chicken), Ojeda-Pons gave us some ideas about using Champagne to enhance Thanksgiving dinner.

To welcome guests, Ojeda-Pons suggests something on the lighter, crisper side such as a blanc de blanc made with 100 percent Chardonnay. It doesn’t have to be in anticipation of a toast — just an easy, no-fuss way to welcome guests. “In lieu of a cocktail, which is more elaborate to make and you have so many people arriving, Champagne is always perfect.”

Two to try:

Doyard-Mahe Blanc de Blancs Premier Cru Brut
“fantastic” ($30)
Billecart-Salmon Blanc de Blancs
“my No. 1 ... it comes from the grand cru side, oh my god, it’s so elegant and pristine and bright.” ($83)

Once you start serving food, ramp up the complexity of the Champagne, but stick with ones that don’t blend their grape varieties. “For the starters, I would go for a blanc de noir,” says Ojeda-Pons.

Two to try:

Fleury Pere et Fils Blanc de Noirs Brut
“a great one made with pinot meunier [grapes]” ($35)
Jean Michel Vintage
“There’s a current vintage of blanc de noir from Jean-Michel, it’s 1974 if I remember correctly, which you might think is really old but it’s so bright and lively, it’s just great.”

To stand up to the strong, earthy flavors, he recommends “something really complex and intense, like a vintage Champagne, not too old.” Something produced between 2007 and 2009 should do it. The vintage bubbly will complement the food while still standing on its own.

Two to try:

Heidsieck & Co Monopole Blue Top Brut
“a richer style of Champagne” ($33)
Pol Roger Cuvee Sir Winston Churchill
“it’s only made in special years, it’s out of this world” ($171 for the 2004 vintage)

“Champagne used to be a sweeter beverage when it was first famous,” but that style has fallen out of favor for drier varieties, he explains. “That’s why, historically, you’d have Champagne with your wedding cake, but Champagnes are so dry now that if you put it with something sweet sometimes it can be a big contrast.”

An extremely sweet dessert like pecan pie can leave a modern Champagne tasting metallic. He recommends going for a rose Champagne with dessert, in the demi sucre style which has more residual sugars.

Two to try:

La Caravelle Champagne Cuvée Niña
“beautiful aromatically” ($36)
Savart Premier Cru Bulle de Rose Brut
“very elegant” ($56)

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