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This week, Sparkle & Pop were lucky enough to have a conversation about champagne with Mark Perlaki from New Generation McKinley. New Generation McKinley imports fine wines and spirits into the UK, so Mark is able to apply his extensive knowledge and expertise gleaned from over eight years as Head Sommelier at Hotel du Vin and its sister company Malmaison. He organised countless dining events for discerning guests and travelled the world from South Africa and New Zealand to France and Italy searching for the very best wines in the world. His experience saw him win the regional northern heat of the ACFW Sommelier of the Year competition an astonishing three times.


It is always a pleasure to talk to someone about their passion, and Mark’s love of wonderful wine and exquisite champagnes was infectious. We were struck by his informed and thoughtful yet completely unpretentious approach to choosing champagne. His top tip? It all comes down to being adventurous!


Editor’s note: there are several technical terms used in this interview - you’ll find many of them in our Ultimate guide to selecting luxury champagne.


Sparkle & Pop: Mark, how long did you work as a sommelier, and what made you decide to work in that field?


Mark Perlaki: My decision to work as a sommelier grew organically from my career in hospitality. I was working at a vegetarian restaurant called Terre à Terre in Brighton and it was there that my interest in wine was sparked. As my career progressed and I started to think about my next steps, I knew that I didn’t want to stay in restaurant management - I was more interested in developing my knowledge of food and beverages.


I’d started to hear great things about the hotel chain Hotel du Vin and their sister company Malmaison, who put a big emphasis on their restaurants and the quality of the food and wine. I was offered a role as sommelier at Malmaison in Edinburgh, and quickly became Head Sommelier. I loved managing the cellar and the stock, and learning how to positively impact on the business with the quality of the wine lists, as well as the role of wine in cuisine.


After a few years I moved to Hotel du Vin in Harrogate - and from there, I won the northern leg of the ACFW Sommelier of the Year competition three times. The competition is tough - there are some incredibly talented people, and it comprises three parts: a written paper, a dining room scenario and a blind tasting. If you progress to the final three, you have to demonstrate that you can pour a bottle of champagne over eight glasses, filling each glass up equally without spilling a drop and without revisiting any of the glasses. It’s difficult but very satisfying when you’ve done it correctly!


S&P: What was the best part of the job?


MP: Visiting growers and vineyards all over the world. There’s nothing like visiting the winelands, walking through beautiful vineyards and tasting wines in the context of the local cuisine. You get to meet the families and understand where they stand on the modernity-tradition scale - and all that really impacts on the character of the wine. It’s magical.


S&P: And the most difficult?


MP: British customers! As a nation we tend to jump to conclusions regarding pricing - they’ll question whether a bottle really costs, say, £90. I think that’s where transparency on the part of the restaurant is really important. The cost of the wine doesn’t just pay for the purchase of the bottle - it pays for the rent, the roof, wages, heating - the whole operation. You’re paying for the theatre, for the experience of being looked after - and you can’t get that from a shop.


S&P: Is there anything about Sparkle & Pop that makes it stand out compared to other online champagne retailers?


MP: I met Jasvir [Sparkle & Pop founder] in my current role at New Generation Mckinley, and the first thing that struck me is that she really seeks out the best of the best. She wants to stock the really special wines and champagnes, the ones that come from talented growers and that have limited availability, because she knows that that is what her customers want. She also pays a lot of attention to the details, such as the packaging and presentation - and that’s so important when differentiating yourself from the competition.


S&P: Moving onto champagne itself now - what is it that makes it so special?


MP: It’s all about the prise de mousse [the ‘birth’ of the champagne, when the bubbles are created]. This is how the soil, grape variety and the aspect of the vineyard come together into the bottle and define the character of the champagne itself: each bottle is an education. After all - we don’t get excited about still wines from champagne - it’s all in the bubbles. The diversity of the product is so exhilarating - as are the changes that the region is seeing. We’re seeing the emergence of smaller growers who use grapes from singular estates to create a unique champagne - like Janisson, which is a new house but a fifth generation grower. They’ve got the talent, lineage and the heritage, as well as the Grand Cru vineyards and they’re producing incredible, characterful champagnes.


S&P: And why is it generally considered better than other sparkling wines, such as prosecco, cava or even the English sparkling wines which we’re seeing more and more of?


MP: There are so many facets to what make champagne unique. For me, the most important are the soil, the grape varieties and the climate, and how they translate to the bottle. At a dinner event I once organised John Atkinson, Master of Wines at Billecart-Salmon, described Champagne - the region - as ‘a place of hard chalk and dim light’. That really encapsulates the soil and the cool climate, and is what differentiates champagne from other sparkling wines. In the New World, the best sparkling wines come from cooler places such as Tasmania, but they still don’t have that quality that champagnes do.


Maturation - the time that a wine or champagne spends aging - is important as well. Champagnes have to be aged for at least 15 months - and that rises to 36 months for vintage champagnes. It is this aging that gives champagne its complexity and indicates the care and nurture that the producer has put into it. While some people do prefer the more primary flavours of younger sparkling wines, for me the complexity of a champagne makes it king.


S&P: What is your advice for pairing champagne with food? Does it work as well as wine?


MP: Champagne isn’t just an aperitif! If you choose the right champagne for the right food, it balances the flavours of food so well. In fact, I often start with the champagne and work backwards to the food. For example, if I have a blanc de blancs, which is made from 100% chardonnay grapes, the acidity, minerality and evolution flatter briny, savoury food such as fish and shellfish. A blanc de noirs - which is made using black grapes - can handle bolder, meatier, gamier dishes: lamb, pork, tender venison and rare beef. The champagne should always come out on top - and if in doubt, play safe with the food.


Essentially, champagnes are interchangeable with wine when it comes to choosing something to drink at a meal - but they’re of course more celebratory. You just need to be a bit careful with dessert, but a sweeter demi-sec is great teamed with a fruity pudding.


S&P: How should champagne be drunk? Is there an optimum temperature? Which type of glasses do you recommend?


MP: I’m actually less inclined towards the flute. While it’s good for the mousse and effervescence, it’s not great for the delivery, the experience and the olfactory point of view. It’s important to be able to nose your champagne, but a flute’s narrow opening makes it difficult to get your nose in there! I actually prefer a fine white wine glass, which is wider in the body and tapers towards the top. It provides a much greater surface area, which allows the liquid to aerate and express itself - and in the amount of time it spends in the glass, the effervescence won’t have time to dissipate.


In fact, if I’m serving four people a bottle of champagne, I often ask them if they’d like me to decant it. Don’t forget that champagne spends a long time in its bottle so giving it time to aerate allows its character to emerge - in much the same way that you wouldn’t expect an opera singer to go straight onto stage without warming up! One Christmas I opened a Californian still white wine, and it was very shy and tight. We left it open and came back to it on Boxing Day and it was absolutely sensational - it needed time to be able to sing! If you do decant a champagne, do it very gently into a proper decanter.


When it comes to temperature, champagne should be treated in a similar way to white wine - but not in the way we tend to treat white wine in this country! The UK tends to think that cold is best for white wine, but five degrees - the temperature of a normal fridge - is too cold for anything. Take the champagne out of the fridge and keep it at room temperature for 20 minutes before drinking. About eight degrees is right for a non-vintage champagne and even warmer - about 12 degrees - for vintage champagnes, to really allow them to be relaxed and expressive.


S&P: Are there any common mistakes that people make when choosing or drinking champagne?


MP: The greatest mistake that we make in this country is repetition. We find a brand that we like and we carry on buying it - and actually, that’s how we behave with food and drink more generally. But there is literally a whole world of wine out there - get out and try it! What’s more, your palette changes and develops overtime, so what you liked five years ago might not be right for you anymore.


S&P: What are your thoughts on buying good champagne from the supermarket?


MP: Well, independent stores nurture relationships with the houses but also with independent growers - so if you in turn nurture a relationship with the shop, you’ll discover some really wonderful wines. Retailers like Sparkle & Pop put so much time and effort into sourcing special, interesting wines and champagnes - I can’t see why you need to go to the supermarket for your champagne, unless you’re just after a bargain.


S&P: And now about your personal preferences - do you have a favourite champagne?


MP: For me, it’s more to do with the styles and the houses. There are certain producers that when you discover them, you want to go back to and get behind. And I love trying unusual styles, for example zero dosage (no sugar) and ultra brut, which are much drier than Brut, which is what Brits tend to be used to. Ultra brut was originally popularised by the fashion industry, who equated zero-sugar with zero calories and drank it til the cows came home. It’s very thirst quenching because it’s bone dry, and goes really well with seafood, including oysters, scallops and crab.


S&P: Do you prefer vintage or non-vintage champagnes?


MP: Vintage champagnes do tend to be a bit more special. They have a greater evolution and that creates a complexity and character that is less usual in non-vintage champagnes. I’ve currently got an 06 vintage which I’m keeping for a special occasion - perhaps when Liverpool win the Champions League!


Having said that, there are some very special non-vintage champagnes. Armand de Brignac, which Jasvir buys a lot of for Sparkle & Pop, is made from a blend of three vintages, and is prestige cuvée. It uses the purest, premium juice, as opposed to the taille (pressed) juice used in other champagnes which can lead to a bitter flavour. Huge care is taken in the creation and maturation of this champagne and its complexity and flavours rival many vintage champagnes.


It is this care, this thought and passion that sets champagne apart from other sparkling wines. There is a prevalence of style, nuance, maturation, and that is all communicated in the bottle - that’s why it’s so educational to drink and really understand champagne.


S&PAnd finally… Do you have any favourite champagne facts?


MP: It’s more of an observation, but it’s been really interesting to witness how susceptible champagne is to the vagaries of the weather. A few years ago I was in Champagne in March, and it was 25 degrees - which is really unusual at that time of year. It used to be that the growers could rely on doing everything at the same time every year, but they are having to adapt as the climate changes and becomes more variable. Further south, in Italy and Spain, the weather is hotter but more constant, so there isn’t that adaptableness needed.


***


Speaking to Mark was like taking a whistlestop but very informative and accessible tour around a champagne vineyard. There’s so much more to this drink than simply wine with bubbles - it’s a whole culture and way of life in itself, both in the making and in the drinking. The key lessons that we’ve taken away from our conversation with Mark is that champagne should be explored, tested and most of all enjoyed - have fun with it and the rewards will be great.


A huge thank you to Mark for taking the time to talk to us.








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