New Year’s Eve has come and gone, and memories of popping midnight bubbles may now feel as hazy as last year’s resolutions. But Champagne—although a famously celebratory drink—doesn’t have to be relegated to the realm of holidays and birthdays.
At Valhalla, a new fine dining concept by chef Stephen Gillanders that opened at Time Out Market Chicago last September, diners can augment their meal with a wine pairing option composed entirely of Champagne. Not run-of-the-mill sparkling wine, or Cava, or Prosecco, or Cremant: real, capital-C Champagne, grown and bottled in the French region of the same name. It’s the only pairing option of its kind in Chicago, designed to function as both a luxe tasting menu accompaniment and a deep dive into one of the world’s most illustrious winemaking hubs.
“The Champagne region has so many different styles, and so many different expressions,” says Jelena Prodan, Valhalla’s sommelier and service director. “I don’t think there’s a region that’s so thought-provoking like Champagne, because it starts a conversation. ‘Why is this special? Why is this so different?’”
Known for its chalky soil and cool weather, Champagne’s adversarial growing conditions, coupled with France’s notoriously strict wine laws, produce highly prized (and highly priced) wine. Big-name Champagne houses like Moët & Chandon and Perrier-Jouët garner lots of attention, but Valhalla’s program spotlights mostly grower Champagne, a label applied to wine that’s grown and bottled by the same producer. Compared to their more renowned counterparts—which blend grapes from across the region for a consistent taste—grower Champagnes have a wilder flavor profile, distinct to the land and farmer and liable to change from year to year.
Because of their small-scale production size, grower Champagnes are oftentimes difficult for consumers to purchase directly in the U.S., and Prodan works with a direct importer to source the bottles she selects for Valhalla’s pairing. The list shifts based on availability and what’s currently being served in the restaurant’s tasting menu. Surprisingly, it also includes a handful of non-bubbly options, like a toasty, velvety-soft fortified wine from Rilly-la-Montagne that’s served alongside dessert.
“Is it cheating if I showcase still wine?” Prodan says. “No, I don’t think so. Rather, it’s a showcase of the region as a whole.”
The wine service itself functions as a miniature lesson in history and geography of the region, and Prodan is happy to field questions about each producer and their methods. Such attention to detail makes sense: At $298 a head, Valhalla’s Champagne pairing isn’t exactly a budget option. Still, given the region’s propensity for producing expensive bottles of wine, you’re liable to taste real gems among the ever-changing selection of wines on the pairing list. On a recent evening, Prodan poured a 2018 blanc de blancs Cedric Bouchard wine that retails anywhere from $400-$500, with all the headiness and gossamer threads of effervescence you’d expect from a wine in that price range. Matched with black truffle biscuits and huitlacoche madeleines nestled in a savory pastry basket, the bubbles bloomed into notes of crème brulée.
The exclusivity of certain bottles is likely to increase as Champagne, like many other winegrowing areas, grapples with global warming’s ever-growing threat. As the region suffers the effects of a warming climate, growers have already been forced to contend with increasingly unpredictable harvests, further driving up prices and stymieing distribution for small-scale vineyards. By exploring Champagne in a dedicated tasting, Prodan says, diners get a rare glimpse into the region’s complex and fragile ecosystem.
“The idea is that you get to transport yourself to a different world,” she explains. “Even though you’re sitting in Chicago, you get to go through Champagne and see what’s out there.”
Valhalla, located inside Time Out Market Chicago (916 W Fulton Market), is open Wednesday through Sunday from 5-10pm.