Pop a cork! Getting a taste for the bubbly

Weddings, anniversaries, romantic candlelit dinners– champagne is definitely the drink of choice for special occasions like these. Like caviar and fine chocolate, we tend to associate this bubbly beverage with out-of-the-ordinary celebrations, and would rarely consider "wasting" a precious bottle on a typical Tuesday or a casual Friday. Talk about a faux pas.

But if Didier Simonin has his way, in a few years Charlottesvillians will be popping open bottles of champagne at the drop of a hat. The French owner of the local import house Simon N Cellars, Simonin is the closest thing we have to a champagne ambassador.

"In France everyone keeps bottles of champagne in their fridge in case friends drop by," he says. "One of my goals is to promote the versatile possibilities of champagne here in Virginia."

Simonin is responsible for bringing some of the best and hardest-to-come-by French wines to restaurants and markets around Virginia and D.C.-­ Metro, Fleurie, Ciboulette, The Inn at Little Washington, and Citronelle, to name a few.

"If you want chardonnay or merlot, I can't do anything for you," Simonin says. He'd surely say the same about Veuve Clicquot, Piper Heidesieck, and Dom Pérignon.

A sign of the growing importance of small producers in today's micro-climate, Simonin imports only one French "Premier Cru" champagne– Vve Fourny & Fils of Vertus, France. A family-owned and -run business producing (organically) a mere 8,300 cases of champagne a year– from the fresh, modern Grand Réserve to the more traditional Cuvée "R"– Fourny is already one of the top champagnes in France. Thanks to Simonin– who buys up the majority of the exported cases-­ Virginia is now the top consumer of Fourny champagne in the U.S.

Thirsty yet? If so, this may be the week to slake your appetite for champagne. Why? Because Fourny champagne makers and brothers Emmanuel and Charles-Henry Fourny will be coming to Charlottesville to talk about champagne and small winery operations and, of course, to pop open bottles at two separate tasting events– the first on October 13 at Tastings, and the second the next day at l'étoile restaurant.

This is Emmanuel's first visit to Albemarle. He was here three years ago as a consultant to help Patricia Kluge and local winemaker Gabrielle Rausse create the Kluge Estate SP, a sparkling white wine made with chardonnay grapes in the traditional méthode Champenoise. (Only sparkling wine made in the Champagne region of France can be called champagne).

If you can't make it to these tastings, why not order a glass– or a bottle– the next time you're out to dinner? As Charlottesville's champagne ambassador, Simonin depends heavily on local restaurateurs to help make champagne more of an everyday indulgence.

He certainly has a strong advocate in Vincent Derquenne of Metro, Bang! and Bizou fame. "Champagne is sexy, festive, and fun," he told Dish, "because of its high-acidity and versatility, it is also one of best wines to drink with food. People need to stop thinking 'special occasion' and just enjoy it."

To prove his commitment to bubbles as inducers of relaxation and pleasure, Derquenne says he underprices champagne at places like Bang! where the asian-fusion cuisine just screams "champagne!" Designer cocktails, beware.


Pale Ale's now golden

 In other local beverage news, Starr Hill Brewery certainly has a reason to celebrate this week. Starr Hill's Pale Ale took the gold at the 2003 Great American Beer Festival (GABF) in Denver-­ which is, I'm told, like the Olympics for beer.

Master Brewer Mark Thompson was there to accept the award for the beer he crafted. This actually marks the third gold (and the 7th award) for the four-year-old brewery – Amber and Stout were '99 gold winners.

Thompson appears to be the leader in a local beer Renaissance, continuing in a tradition started by Jefferson himself. "We are the only brewery in the state to win a GABF award," he says, "and this gold will help us give Charlottesville the gift of great beer."