We’re fortunate enough to be exposed to some fantastic experiences in our industry; from great vineyard trips to fabulous lunches and dinners. But being wine geeks at heart, there’s nothing we like more than really getting under the skin of a product, region or producer – or in the best circumstances, all three. It was therefore with my nerdiest, excited hat on that I trekked across London to the English National Opera for a comprehensive tutored tasting of the Champagnes of Charles Heidsieck.
Charles Heidsieck is a producer which has really come into its own over the past five years or so. Freed from the shackles of its lacklustre Remy Cointreau ownership, with a new management team and visual appearance (including a new, carefully researched bottle shape) the Champagnes are finally able to show what they are really capable of. This is where the collapse in sales of Charles Heidsieck between 1997 and 2010 has actually provided a genuine silver lining; the volume of superb reserve stocks available to not only bolster quantity but dramatically raise quality is significant – and boy does this show in their final non-vintage blends. In Tom Stevenson and Essi Avellan’s Encyclopaedia of Champagne and Sparkling Wine, they rate the House at 97 points, putting it second only to Krug (across all Houses): “The style of Charles Heidsieck is generously toasty, rich and evolved... These are just charming, irresistible Champagnes throughout the range. No bad Champagnes leave these doors... Brut Reserve is the best value Champagne on the market and should be lifted to the height it deserves.”
It was with this thought in mind, and a distant backdrop of an impressive brass section in full rehearsal, that we began a detailed, if by no means comprehensive (such is the breadth of wine at their disposal) tasting of the 2015 ‘vin clairs’ or base wines which would go into future Champagnes from Charles Heidsieck. We were to taste five wines from 2015: one Chardonnay, one Pinot Meunier and three Pinot Noirs – none of which will find their way into a consumer’s glass until 2021 at the very earliest – followed by the 1996 reserve wine and the ‘finished’ 2015 base NV wine. It was eye-opening stuff, and not just because of the acidity...
Chardonnay from Oger. Soft, lemony, pure and lightly floral. Very bright acidity on the palate; intense citrus, with just a touch of tropical fruit.
Pinot Meunier from Verneuil, located between Epernay and the Vallée de la Marne. Heidsieck’s former cellar master lived here in the village so he always liked it – and it made its way into the blend, where it stayed! This is rounder and fruitier, with apricot, white peach and just at touch of citrus. Pinot Meunier has a relatively humble reputation but both Heidsieck and Krug are willing to say they use it, so it clearly has real merit. It brings fruitiness and roundness, especially in youth.
Pinot Noir from Ambonnay. A surprisingly light, feminine style almost akin to Chardonnay. Touch of red fruit but mainly citrus and peach. Doesn’t have the overt power you might expect from a Pinot but it has one key feature that makes it a valuable component: a truly intense mid palate, rich with blood orange and grapefruit.
Pinot Noir from Aÿ. This is more like I was expecting from Pinot Noir: dark stone minerality and richer, riper fruits. Muscular. Reductive. Flinty. Powerful acidity, great fruit intensity: ripe red apple, white peach, tangerine. Very Burgundian.
Pinot Noir from Verzy. Incredibly vibrant, lifted and floral with electric acidity. Pure ‘white’, chalky minerality.Incredible contrast to the last wine. Same grape, planted about seven miles apart, and so, so different.
1996 Reserve Wine. Nose of a great white Burgundy. Mature and complex but still fresh – no over-oxidation. Deep and rich, but with a lovely toasted nut hint. Like a premier cru Chablis with a hint of Muscat grapiness. Slightly floral and aromatic and overall, just a lovely wine. You could drink this as it is!
2015 Blend of Base Harvest – essentially this is the NV blend which will go through secondary fermentation and be released around 2021. 40% is made from reserve wines going back to 1996/97. This is truly amazing; having tasted some of the key elements separately, you can really identify all the constituent parts. Top notes of citrus and florality, rich middle notes of peach, red apple and raspberry, underpinned by this fascinating combination of what I can only call ‘dark’ and ‘light’ minerality. Palate is totally harmonious. Driven by acidity but with lovely dry minerality and a generous amount of fruit. Very persistent. The blender’s skill really shows here.
We then moved on to a tasting of the current Charles Heidsieck range.
Rosé NV (2008 base). Lovely red apple nose, touch of redcurrant and raspberry, white peach, tangerine. Mineral and attractive. Made with 5% Pinot Noir from the village of Les Riceys, south of Champagne, closer to Burgundy. Great freshness and good power. Very classy. (93 points)
Brut Reserve NV (2008 base). Deeper, tighter, more austere than the rosé. Toasted lemon, pastry, fresh bread, and a tiny touch of florality without being at all musky or flirty. Great richness. Super balance. Toasty, citrus and green apple. Real weight and power but not at all overpowering and with great precision. Lovely minerality. (93+ points)
2005 Brut. Fruit from 11 villages. 60% Pinot Noir, 40% Chardonnay. Ripe, rich and intensely fruited with touches of honey and buttered toast. Very soft on the palate, rich and voluptuous but still well focused. Slightly less mineral than the 2008 base NV, but everything feels tightly coiled still – this will need, and will last, a good period of time. (94 points)
2006 Rosé. 8-9% red wine from further north in Champagne. Unlike the NV which needs riper red wine adding for immediate enjoyment, this vintage requires a higher acid wine designed to help with longer ageing. This is really brooding and seductive. Musky and sultry with deep rose notes. Seems like a cliché but it’s a very ‘sexy’ wine, alluring, tantalising and a perfect balance of generous and reserved. Tarte tatin. Gorgeous texture. Beautifully rich fruit, great weight, but superb minerality.Knockout. (95+ points)
1995 Blanc des Millenaires. Creamy, toasty, buttery, with shortbread notes. Amazing lemon and grapefruit balanced by raspberry and wild strawberry. This is an amazing Blanc de Blancs, make no mistake. Deep, rich, stunning palate with a huge mouthfeel that somehow remains precise; shot through with remarkable acidity. Great weight and yet deft, nimble. No collapse on the mid-palate. Runs and runs. So refreshing and intellectual. (96 points)
Then a final treat to end on – one of just a few bottles that remain of the great 1985 Blanc des Millenaires.
1985 Blanc des Millenaires. Amazingly deep, savoury, umami nose. Lemon meringue and marmite!? How can this work? Amazing maturity and intensity on the palate. Hugely flattering and complex. Rich, supple, stunning mouthfeel, too many parts to identify but leaps from wet stone to apricot to soy to toasted lemon and fresh garden pea. Immense finish. Just a magical thing. Definitely no spitting! (97 points)
An enlightening experience which will change the way I look at Champagne.
Huge thanks to Willem Pincon and Charles Heidsieck Executive Director Stephen Leroux who hosted the tasting in such relaxed and inimitable style.