Champagne and Chandeliers: Grand Dining Celebrations by Bernadette O'Shea
'Pleasure without Champagne is purely artificial' - Oscar Wilde.
By Robyn Lewis
Champagne. The name alone evokes such a variety of positive emotions, from pleasure, indulgence and happiness to joy and pure delight. Births, engagements, seductions, graduations, launches, achievements, victories, rescues, contracts, marriages, new years and anniversaries are only some of life’s events made more memorable with Champagne. The very word says celebration.
It is also synonymous with quality – a dual claim no other region on earth can approach, and a precious marriage made in heaven indeed.
Happy? Drink Champagne. Sad? Do the same. So much has been written about this unique wine, by poets, authors and even great politicians (Churchill was moved to name his racehorse after a Champagne house, Pol Roger). But until now, not a book on it that captures so many facets of Champagne, in such a unique way, nor presented so elegantly.
It is fitting that Champagne and Chandeliers by Australian author Bernadette O’Shea was launched on Remembrance Day; the links between Australia and France go deeper than casual observers might expect. Much Australian blood was spilt defending French soil. Many of Australia’s early explorers were French – indeed if it were not for various quirks of history Terra Australis may have been a French colony. But regardless, a vibrant French community exists in Australia today, and O’Shea is the toast of it.
It may be a surprise to some that a girl born and raised in the (then) ‘country town’ of Brisbane should be recently described by Frédéric Heidsieck of the House of Roederer as ‘the Queen of Champagne’ and holds such titles as a ‘Champagne Missionary’, a French knighthood, the Vin de Champagne Award and the rare Ruban Vert prize for her work. A self-confessed dreamer, O’Shea didn’t let the challenges of geography nor the failure to have inherited a Champagne house or even a small plot of vines in an appropriate French village deter her. She had fallen in love, and as we know, love conquers all, especially when accompanied by faith and determination, as in O’Shea’s case.
O’Shea believes that ‘Champagne makes the soul sing’. Her romance began at first sip, and from that moment she vowed to make it her life’s work (and pleasure). Its ‘lively, playful, beguiling, magnificent spirit’ captivated her forever, and launched a career that has lasted a quarter of a century so far, built on her initial training as a floral artist, with a perfumer’s nose that can easily distinguish edelweiss from elderflower and mangosteen from mandarin, and a way with words that is both evocative and poetic.
O’Shea has become a wine consultant and champagne educator, and is one of the judges at the bi-annual Vin de Champagne Awards. Over ten years or more she has collected her mass of Champagne tasting notes, no doubt initially wondering how to craft them into a book that befits the wine – to make them not only palatable to the reader but also entertaining and memorable in themselves. Tasting notes of themselves do not a book of this class make, especially for wines that are hard-to-get and beyond the reach of many, and which cannot be shoehorned into a formulaic style. Instead she has woven them into a book that wine writer Peter Scudamore-Smith describes as a ‘masterpiece of Champagne commentary’.
Are any wine descriptions more evocative than this? ‘I drank… an aged Dom Perignon, the glorious ‘Oenothèque 1971… recently, and its poise, stylishness and strong personality won me over. The nose radiates honeysuckle and tuberoses while the palate has a concentration of ripe fig, orange, glazed apricot and strawberry preserve, followed by whiffs of exotic spicy perfume from cinnamon and saffron. Pineapple and peach steeped in syrup are enticing flavours paired with toffee-covered macadamia nuts, smoked almonds, roasted cashews and fresh ground coffee beans. Ruby grapefruit edges the palate with flower-scented honey, while vanilla cream adds charm and beauty to the finish.’
In O’Shea’s own words ‘Champagne sparkles its way into all the best moments on the world stage – royal weddings, presidents’ inaugurations, nations’ treaty signings – significant occasions instantly recorded in history’. So what better foundation that the menus of these Grand Dining Celebrations (as the book is subtitled)? And chandeliers because not only do they sparkle like the wine, but also grace many of the grand dining halls where these dinners have been held. As do diamonds.
‘In these pages you will join royal celebrities in Copenhagen at the wedding dinner of Prince Frederik and Princess Mary, attend a charity dinner in New York with Princess Grace of Monaco, and watch over President John F. Kennedy’s Inaugural Luncheon in 1961… And not only do we time travel into yesterday, we also slip into celluloid when we take a peek at Babatte’s famous feast … quietly dine with Luciano Pavarotti, and join Karl Lagerfeld on the Great Wall of China for the world’s most extravagant fashion show’.
Most celebrations involve a meal, because dining together is one of the happiest gatherings we know. Although the wines sound good enough to eat, it is O’Shea’s aim to show us the unrivalled food matching potential of Champagne, with each dish – from hors d’ouvres through soups and entrées to desserts - matched to a particular style or indeed vintage and provenance of Champagne. Over 200 wines are presented, many of them readily available today, as well as some ‘rare and iconic ones from the past’ that O’Shea counts herself privileged to drink – ‘great treasures beyond price, as the late great Max Lake put it’.
O’Shea obviously believes that there is a Champagne to go with everything, and after dipping into Champagne and Chandeliers you may well concur. Indeed, budgetary considerations aside, how can there be time or occasion to drink anything else, especially in summer? I wish I had the good fortune to be able to taste a mere fraction of the magnificent wines so beautifully described here.
These are either wines that were served - or in O’Shea’s opinion should have been served - with these grand meals, course by course. And who are we to disagree? All the large Champagne houses are represented, along with some lesser known (to me) and/or ultra exclusive names like Bruno Paillard and Jaques Selosse (matched to a midnight supper shared by The Beatles and Elvis Presley), Salon and Delamotte (matched to the French food of Michelin-starred Japanese überchef Hiroyuki Hiramatsu) and Comte Audoin de Dampierre (as O’Shea retrospectively recommends for the 1997 intimate dinner served to the then Presidents of the USA and China, Bill Clinton and H.E. Jiang Zemin, and their equally notable wives, Hillary Clinton and Wang Yeping.)
Indeed such is the international and aspirational appeal of Champagne that O’Shea’s book will doubtless sell far more in Asia – home of many thousands of connoisseurs and would-be lovers of all fine things French – Russia, Europe and the USA than in the country of its publication. Every house of Champagne with a gift store should also soon have copies, especially with French and Chinese translations underway. The book is not heavy (a drop over 1.5 kg) and would make a welcome souvenir of a visit to the eponymous region, especially in these boringly correct days of inability to carry wines on flights in containers larger than a piccolo.
Champagne and Chandeliers is beautifully illustrated with photographs of Champagnes, cellars and vaults, menus – some hand inscribed and illustrated – historic scenes, dining rooms, banquets, chandeliers (but of course!), sportscars, the rose windows of Reims Cathedral and the flowers at the Danish Royal wedding, and in some cases the sumptuous food. In a beautiful toast to her home state of Queensland, the final image is of a setting for a Champagne dinner on the beach at Lizard Island at sunset.
In O’Shea’s words: ‘it is fitting that nature should have the last word in beauty – and Champagne of course will bubble up to greet its splendour. The first glass is about to be poured. Which will you choose?’
With Champagne and Chandeliers at hand, your knowledge and choice will be greatly expanded, and you’ll be planning your next significant celebration with a glass of France’s finest in your hand, or inventing one as an excuse. Salut! And may your soul sing.
In March 2011, Champagne and Chandeliers: Grand Dining Celebrations won the prestigious Gourmand Award for Best French Wine Book in the world for 2010, which we believe is the first time an Australian book has taken out this award. Congratulations to all concerned. The Gourmand Awards recognise the very best wine and drinks books in the world with a total of 56 countries participating in the Gourmand Awards 2010.
Champagne and Chandeliers: Grand Dining Celebrations by Bernadette O’Shea is published by Hardie Grant (hb, 242 pp; Melbourne and London, 2009) and retails for A$120. It can be purchased online from her website www.ChampagneConsultant.com (postage extra), where you can also read more about the author.
Updated 17 March 2011.
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