Sara Kavanaugh Gives Us the Inside Scoop on Champagne

Sara Kavanaugh Gives Us the Inside Scoop on Champagne

While wine pairings are often suggested on menus at high-end restaurants, champagne is considered a drink exclusive to special events and, as such, is rarely paired with meals in the same manner. Sara Kavanaugh, the Director and Sommelier at The Grill Room, gave us a brief lesson on the types of champagnes and how to pair them with meals for a one-of-a-kind dining experience.

Kavanaugh attended culinary school in 2000 at Charleston, South Carolina, and she spent the first four years of her career working under Chef Craig Deihl at the widely renowned restaurant Cypress, where she was a member of the original crew. She started at the raw bar, shucking oysters. “I was the only girl there, and they were like, ‘Just put her at the raw bar, it’s fine.’ They ended up putting me in the kitchen, and I had a lot of great mentors there that taught me organization when it comes to line cooking.” Eventually, she was presented with an opportunity through school to travel to Europe for a brief period to study wine. Though she enjoyed her time at Cypress, Kavanaugh felt that she’d learned all she could from her time in the kitchen, and so she made the decision to travel.

The Grill Room's extravagant interior
The Grill Room's extravagant interior

When she returned, she started working at the Charleston Grill – a part of the Charleston Place Hotel – underneath general manager (GM) Mickey Bakst and wine director Rick Rubel. “[They were] two of the most opposite people on the planet, but both of them took me under their wing, and I was able to learn both sides of the business,” she explained, “I’d go into work at 10:00 in the morning and work in the cellar from 10:00 to 3:30, and then I'd get on the floor as a server from 3:30 to midnight and do it everyday. It was so great!” The GM of the Grill House recruited her in August of 2008 when he needed someone to take over the restaurant and make some changes. “Subsequently, I not only took over the restaurant – I took over the wine program.”

Champagne levels Extra Brut, Brut, Extra dry, Sec, and Demi-sec all pertain to amount of sugar
Champagne levels Extra Brut, Brut, Extra dry, Sec, and Demi-sec all pertain to amount of sugar

Kavanaugh began her “lesson,” so to speak, by detailing the categories of champagne, and she started with the wine producers. Négociants are large houses that buy most of their grapes, as opposed to growers, who grow most of their own fruit. From here, types are generally distinguished by the variety of grapes: Pinot Noir (red), Pinot Meunier (red), and Champagne (white). Champagnes are also further categorized by sugar levels. The most common labels pertaining to sugar level are as follows (in order from least sweet to most sweet): Extra Brut, Brut, Extra dry, Sec, and Demi-sec. However, as Kavanaugh mentioned, the bubbles in champagne tend to cover up sugar.

Pairings of food with champagne are less about the protein and more about the sauce that brings the dish together. That being said, Kavanaugh noted that there are certain exceptions. She stated, “When I’m looking at red meat pairings, I tend to go towards rose champagnes. Now, that rose champagne needs to have some meat behind it and some body. Depending on the kind [of red meat], it would have to be a pinot noir that was not aged on the skin, so there’s no tannin to it or color.” Generally, though, when faced with fish or chicken dishes, the sauce is key. For a buttery sauce, she mused, “I’d probably do something like a blanc-de-blanc – so, 100% chardonnay [grapes]. Maybe something that’s vintage or aged, so it’s got some body to it.”

One of Pastry Chef Shun Li’s delicious dessert creations
One of Pastry Chef Shun Li’s delicious dessert creations

When asked about desserts, Kavanaugh touted the use of Moscato d’Asti for fruity dishes. “It’s light, it’s fresh, it’s clean. It’s not super sticky or clawing at all…for a light dessert dish, it’s perfect.” However, for a heavier dessert containing deeper flavors (like chocolate), she recommended Brachetto d’Acqui. She noted, “There’s totally a difference between what you pair with fruit desserts and what you pair with chocolate. For chocolate desserts, Brachetto. It’s got these deep, deep raspberry notes in it.”

To experience Kavanaugh’s expert pairings for yourself, set a night aside to dine at The Grill Room. As one of only three four-star or four-diamond restaurants in Louisiana, a dining experience here is truly remarkable. The summer dinner menu features succulent appetizers like a beef tartar and seared scallops, as well as fresh seafood and mouthwatering meat entrées, and you’re sure to find what you’re looking to drink from the restaurant’s wine cellar, which offers over 600 labels and has won the “Best of Award of Excellence” from Wine Spectator. For more information, visit the restaurant’s website.