Of course it’s always a pleasure taste fine wines, and I recently sampled two excellent non-vintage Champagnes when I participated in a meeting with Cyril Brun, the Chef des Caves of Charles Heidsieck. On offer were the non-vintage Charles Heidsieck Réserve Rosé Champagne, and the Charles Heidsieck Brut Réserve Champagne.
But tasting is just one aspect of the never ending journey towards understanding wine: all the reading, studying, classes, travelling and of course talking to winemakers and agents are at least as important. And while that journey is certainly about gathering factual backgrounds and information, it’s also about gaining insights and making connections that are more than a mere accumulation of facts.
It’s particularly rewarding when facts that you might have known for years suddenly coalesce in a way that makes you think “Aha … that’s what’s going on!” I had one of those “Aha” moments as I tasted these wines, and thought about the impact of the winemaking process that Cyril described. My insight wasn’t groundbreaking or earth-shattering, but it’s another step towards understanding these lovely wines. I’ll tell you about it in a moment.
Maison de Champagne Charles Heidsieck has a storied and romantic history that you can read about here. Compared to the large Champagne brands, their production is relatively small, with less than 1 million bottles produced annually — roughly 80,000 nine-litre cases. This is overshadowed by the 2.2 million cases sold annually by Moët & Chandon, or even the 520,000 cases sold by its historical relative, Piper-Heidsieck (numbers for 2011 from The Drinks Business). But its current reputation for fine quality far exceeds its smaller size.
An important component of this high quality is illustrated by their search for complexity, and three factors stand out as key drivers. The first factor, shared by the best non-vintage Champagnes, is that the wines spend a rather long time on lees in the bottle, much more than the minimum 15 months from the date of tirage for non-vintage wines, and even more than the minimum of 36 months for vintage-dated wines. Both examples here were based on grapes from the 2008 vintage, and had been disgorged in 2014 (the Brut Réserve) and 2015 (the Reserve Rosé) . This means that the wine was on lees in the bottle for about five and six years respectively. I checked with Cyril, and he said that they expect to start selling the non-vintage wines based on the 2009 vintage toward the end of 2017, so this plan for aging the wines on lees is a very established, ongoing process.
Of course you can taste the consequences of this type of aging: the expected creamy texture, followed by brioche, toast and nutty elements. In addition, I found some apparent maturation of fruit, but still with a core of freshness and only a very limited oxidative character.
The second factor, a more subtle consequence of this aging process, is that the wines are disgorged on a regular schedule a full year before shipping, to give the wine an opportunity to recover from the oxidative shock of disgorgement. The effects of this additional step in aging are harder to pinpoint in the glass, but one observation was the very seamless and almost hidden presence of the 11 g/l of residual sugar in both bottles — of course masked by the high acidity, but also fully embedded in the texture and taste.
The third factor is their extensive use of reserve wines. While in both cases the base vintage was 2008, the Brut Rosé has 20% reserve wines averaging about five years of age, while the Brut Réserve has approximately 40% reserve wines that are even older, averaging about ten years, with some as much as 15 years old. The Réserve Rosé has a richness, depth and complexity from the reserve wines that supplements, but does not dominate, the fresh, bright and still almost youthful wine. But with the Brut Réserve, a major effect of 40% reserve wines that are much older is to add weight and depth to the palate, surrounding and almost dominating the fresher fruit-driven components with layers of non-fruit evolution.
It’s this latter element of complexity from the use of reserve wines — differing in both quantity and average age — and being able to taste and compare the resulting differences, that was such a revelation. The use of reserve wines is one of the first things you learn about Champagne, and is in fact the core concept behind non-vintage releases. However I’ve never before had the opportunity to directly compare two wines with essentially the same lees aging and the same residual sugar (11 grams/litre for both), but with very different use of reserve wines. Here the known difference in quantity and average age of the reserve wines must largely account for the profound differences between these wines — Aha!
Neither of these wines is currently available through Vintages/LCBO in Ontario, although they have been in the past. But they are available from the agent, Breakthru Beverage Group, through the LCBO consignment program, and the Brut Réserve will also be released through Vintages in the coming months. Here are my formal tasting notes.
CHARLES HEIDSIECK RESERVE ROSÉ CHAMPAGNE AC
Vintages #409342 • $74.95 • 750ml. • WD Score 93/100This rosé is based on the 2008 vintage, with 20% reserve wines, including red Pinot Noir from the village of Les Riceys in the very south of Champagne, across the border from Burgundy. The wine was disgorged in 2015 — six years aging on lees in the bottle — and so has spent a year resting in bottle prior to shipment. The wine is light coppery-pink in hue. Subtle aromas of strawberries, raspberries and cherries combine with lemony citrus, overlaying light toast and brioche, with hints of white chocolate and caramel rising as the wine warms in the glass. A whisper of sweetness takes the wine away from full dryness, although the brisk acidity almost masks this. There is a pleasant creaminess on the palate that balances a real freshness that remains in the fruit, and the finish dries as tart fruit lingers. Quite lovely. This wine is in consignment from the agent.
Tasted October 17, 2016 • • Find it at your nearest LCBO • Share Review
CHARLES HEIDSIECK BRUT RÉSERVE CHAMPAGNE AC
Vintages #36962 • $69.95 • 750ml. • WD Score 93/100Here is a very high quality non-vintage Champagne at a very competitive price. The wine is made with grapes from the 2008 vintage, supplemented by 40% reserve wines that averaged about 10 years in age. It was disgorged in 2014, implying at least five years on lees in the bottle, and it shows. The wine is a deep yellow-gold, rich with autolytic character of brioche, toast, caramel and nuts, although ripe yellow and lemon-citrus fruit are still prominent and show a measure of freshness. The wine reads as rather dry on the attach because of the high acidity, while the 11 grams/litre of residual sugar emerge on the palate as a richness in taste and texture rather than as direct sweetness — creamy, but still focused and precise. The reserve wines add layers of complexity and depth. The finish is lightly toasty, with a tart and mineral core that rises and lingers. Currently available through consignment in Ontario, this will reappear in Vintages shortly.
Tasted October 17, 2016 • • Find it at your nearest LCBO • Share Review