FAMILIES PLANNING get-togethers or open houses over the holidays could find that champagne is one of their most important allies. Champagne is not only for celebrations, it also is a perfect companion for food.
An air of mysticism and high prices kept many away from champagne for years. But now the price is the same as for a good premium wine.
Champagne can hold its own with spicy or salty dishes, and it serves as a palate freshener between courses. What else goes so well with foie gras or stir-fry dishes, smoked oysters or pasta, salmon or prime rib?
Many cookbooks have recipes for entrees that go with champagne, but they were scattered about and hard to locate until Hilde Gabriel Lee wrote "Serve With Champagne" (Ten Speed Press, 330 pages, $17.95).
In this book, Mrs. Lee interviewed food consultants from 10 of America's leading champagne winemakers to pull together 275 recipes for appetizers, light entrees, main courses, side dishes, breads, salads and desserts.
Paging through her book is a mouth-watering experience. There are recipes for hors d'oeuvres such as Stuffed Smoked Salmon, Almond Phyllo, Shrimp in Blanc de Noir and Smoked Oyster Pate.
For an appetizer, she offers Tiny Smoked Salmon Tarts, Chicken Terrine, Angel Hair Pasta With Fresh Tomato Sauce and Hot Crabmeat in Pastry Shells.
Champagne goes well with Lobster Bisque, Cream of Zucchini Soup, Gazpacho or Vichyssoise. After a Champagne Sorbet, try some Black Bean Chili, Herbed Crepes or Smoked Salmon Hero Sandwiches.
Especially suitable for the holiday season are some of the dessert recipes listed in the book: Lime Angel Pie, White Chocolate Mousse in Almond Cookie Shells With Dark Chocolate Sauce or Gingerbread With Apricot-Sherry Glaze.
One of the greatest services Mrs. Lee provides to hosts is a section on brunches; champagne has become an integral part of most brunches at home or in restaurants.
Sparkling wine was a curiosity until the middle of the 1600s. Before then, it was the result of poor winemaking. Unfermented sugar produced carbon dioxide that made the wine bubbly. The only trouble was that the wine was undisciplined and produced murky solutions known as vin de diable.
It was not until bottle making and the rediscovery of the cork that commercialization of such wine was made possible.
Real champagne comes only from France's Champagne District where the wine is bubbled and bottled in the methode champenoise system. Others can use the champenoise system but they are not allowed to call it champagne. Spain makes cava, Germany, sekt, and Italy, classico. Most nations recognize a treaty that protects the word "champagne."
Although the United States considers the word a generic term, many American wineries now label their products as sparkling wine or blanc de blancs.
A growing number of European champagne houses have been setting up plants in California, among them Domaine Chandon, Piper-Heidseck's Sonoma operation, Freixenet's Gloria Ferrar, and Codorniu's plant near San Luis Obispo. Other French firms following are Taittinger, Roederer, Deutz, Laurent Perrier, Lanson and Mumm.
New York State has a unique position in making sparkling wine. It has climate and soil that contribute the best conditions for growing grapes suitable for sparkling wine. A high acidity gives the wine backbone that imparts freshness.
Among New York's leading sparkling winemakers are Great Western; Hermann Wiemer Vineyards, with an unusual Johannisberg Riesling sparkler; and Glenora Wine Cellars, which recently won double gold honors at the Empire State Wine Classic competition for its 1987 Blanc de Blancs and its 1989 Johannisberg Riesling.
Other New York wineries making exceptional sparkling wines are Woodbury Vineyards of Dunkirk, Chateau Frank of Hammondsport, Mark Muller of Benmarl Vineyards on the Hudson, Pindar Wines of Long Island and Knapp Vineyards in the Finger Lakes.
Have a question about wine? Write Bill Murray in care of The Buffalo News, P.O. Box 100, Buffalo, N.Y. 14240. Questions of general interest will be answered in his column.