Effervescent Good Fun


TORONTO — Budding oenophiles looking to add a little ‘pep’ to their knowledge base but unable to make it to Hart House at the University of Toronto, missed out on the perfect opportunity to learn about the nuanced complexity (and innate joy) of a good glass of sparkling wine.

On Dec. 3, Billy + Bubbles, the final event in Hart House’s annual tasting series, attracted a sold-out crowd. Acclaimed wine writer and charming scamp, Billy Munnelly of Billy’s Best Bottles fame, teamed up with Relais & Chateaux Grande Chef, Jonathan Gushue, from Langdon Hall in Cambridge, Ont., for a near three-hour wine-tasting and food-pairing affair. The event was hosted by Arlene Stein, Hart House’s executive director of events and catering.

“Not enough people drink sparkling wine,” said Munnelly in opening the evening. “There’s too much reverence around it. People assume the moment is never good enough.”

Attendees blindly tasted eight distinct, refreshing and flavourful sparkling wines from regions around the world. Sweet or tart, light or full-bodied, the selections included Ontario sparkling wines, a bottle from Italy, cava from Spain, French champagne and a Mumm, and two Ontario sparkling icewines. The Henry of Pelham Cuveé Catherine ($29.95 at the LCBO) and the Peller Estates Ice Cuveé Sparkling Rose ($32) were standouts. (Well done, Niagara.)

Munnelly prodded the 80 people in the house for their thoughts and feelings about the wines, and after each flute was tipped, the audience chimed in with how the wine made them feel, as well as where and when they’d drink it. “When you analyze and deconstruct wine you miss the essence and the joy of drinking it,” cautioned Munnelly, who’s celebrating the 20th anniversary edition of Billy’s Best Bubbles this year. “Just pay attention to its vibe.”

After three or four boisterous responses it was clear people don’t need a reason to drink the bubbly — they’re happy to have it anytime; as an apero, with dessert or for brunch; on a beach, a boat or in a bath. (Or you can always show up on the set of an extravagant hip-hop video with two magnums of Cristal and be the guy who yells out, “Let’s get it poppin’ in here!”)

As Munnelly explained why certain bottles were better suited for specific situations, chef Gushue discussed his spot-on pairings, which included: oyster and celery geleé, sturgeon caviar, scallop martini; lobster in a beurre blanc with corn pudding, bacon, leeks and Lie de Vin; a “raunchy” parmegano reggiano with cauliflower, pine nut vinaigrette and Buddha’s Hand Gremolata; dark chocolate delice; and caramelized pear and butterscotch tuile. Plates were cleaned, and swiftly.

“When you’re pairing food with wine, you want to contrast the flavours. They shouldn’t taste the same, but they must work well together,” said Gushue. Most of the pairings came easy to the renowned chef, and his take on pairing cheese and bacon was insightful. “It’s the funky umami sensation that makes the dish,” Gushue said. “The rancidity of the pancetta and the parmesan pairs perfectly with the yeast that’s in the wine.”

In closing, Munnelly, barley audible over the clearly drunken crowd, reminded everyone to stop worrying about finding the right moment to pop open a bottle of sparkling wine and just get on with it. “Drinking champagne or sparkling wine isn’t about the moment. It’s about what’s coming after. It’s the tease.”

Image courtesy of Jo Dickins

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