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Champagne Charlie

by Michael Edwards, 08/05

Hindsight is an indispensable aid to understanding. Looking back 20 years, it's quite clear that the foundations of Charles Heidsieck's current reputation as one of the greats of champagne were first laid in 1985. In that year, Remy-Martin, the new owners of the house had the imagination to give Daniel Thibault, their very gifted winemaker, his head to make the best possible Dry (Brut) non-vintage blend.

Remarkably few restraints were placed on the huge investment and expense involved. Seizing the opportunity, Daniel decisively achieved his goal in creating the superb Brut Réserve by building up huge stocks of reserve wines from up to eight previous vintages to add the dimension of vanilla-like richness that was to become the hall-mark of this very intricate blend composed in its '90s heyday of nearly 200 different wines.

In 1997, at Daniel's urging, Charles Heidsieck launched the innovative Mis en Cave versions of the Brut Réserve. Nothing had essentially changed in the make-up of the blends. Quite simply, the date of bottling was printed on the label.

breaking the mould

As all blends are assembled in the spring following the harvest, it was thus possible for champagne buffs to know the exact age of the base wine which makes up at the very least 60 per cent of the cuvée.

  

The first three Mis en Cave releases were 1992 (based on 1991), 1993 (1992 -based) and 1994 (1993-based). These gave the connoisseur a fascinating glimpse of the Brut Réserve at different stages of ageing, from the primary fruit flavours of youth to the autolytic (yeast-influenced) complexities of maturity.

This greater openness about the make-up and age of his wines was typical of Daniel. Lauded as a great technician, even a magician, he would shrug his shoulders, smile wryly and say "Chefs de Caves are not sorcerers. It all comes back to the quality of the raw material, the wines in the blend." He was a very accomplished technician, of course, but so are several other champagne cellar masters. What set him apart from the crowd was that he could see beyond the readings of volatile acidity and pH to the heart and soul of the champagne, doing all in his power to pervade it with the character, distinction and individuality of a great white wine, sometimes almost Burgundian in its opulence yet always checked by an elegance that was truly Champenois.

This is perhaps best seen in his great all-Chardonnay Vintage Blanc des Millénaires. Particularly fine in 1983 and 1990, this is an outstanding champagne that has won over many of those who found Blanc de Blancs too austere. Daniel was also very careful in releasing vintage champagne only when the harvest really merited it. An entirely apt tribute to his memory is that the succulent 1989 Charles Heidsieck was judged International Wine and Spirits Challenge Trophy Champagne of the year in 2004, 15 years after it birth, and an ideal time to drink the greatest bottles.

the king is dead... long live the king

As all the wine world knows, Daniel (top right) died young in 2002. It has to be said that he was an enthusiastic smoker, but though he didn't look after himself as well as he should have done, he cared deeply about succession and made proper preparations for it.

In 1994, he persuaded his friend and talented oenologist Régis Camus (bottom right) to join his team. Born into a farming family in La Thiérache, a region 50 miles north of Reims famous for its Maroilles cheese, Régis knows all about mastering and refining pungent flavours!

More seriously, he was a star student in wine science at the University of Reims and was groomed to be Daniel's successor over a seven-year period.

Like Daniel, Régis has always had a real feeling for growers and the land; he also shares his late master's vision of opulence and elegance in the Charles cuvées.

 

But Régis is his own man, showing an attractive directness in how he sees his role at Charles & Piper Heidsieck. "It seems to me that I belong to the multi-specialist cellar master genus whose members concentrate not only on pure oenology but also on the entire process of winemaking. We have the same kind of reasoning: absolutely everything counts. Style and quality are the result of many subjective decisions taken throughout the process as a whole, from harvesting right through to shipping. Therefore one must be multi-talented, know what one wants and accept no compromise whatsoever as far as quality is concerned."

Régis attaches great importance to what happens before the harvest, to his relationship with the vineyard. In this, he is very much at one with the new breed of omni-competent cellarmasters -men like Dominique Dermarville, the young reforming Chef de Caves at Mumm - who are as much overseers of the quality of grapes on the vine as they are blenders of wines in the tasting room. In the case of Charles Heidsieck which has quite small vineyard holdings relative to its needs, Régis has to rely on as strong a network of grape-growers as he can muster to supply him with top-class grapes. In the 21st century, this is a mounting challenge for any Chef de Caves of a prominent Champagne house. It's a nail-biting scenario, as more and more growers are either having their grapes made into still wines (vins clairs) before offering them to the houses at a higher price, or they are making their own grower-champagnes for direct sale to the consumer.


   Faced with this key issue of grape supply, Régis is upbeat and enlightened. Warming to the theme, he explains his routine with conviction: "I am in permanent contact with the vineyards and growers. At harvest time, I spend a lot of time in the vines. As I was born into a family of farmers, I am lucky enough to have a good knowledge of the soil. Then in February, following the vintage, we taste the still wines together with the grape-growers. They can then appreciate the way in which we work, using the raw materials they supply and thus understand our strict requirements."

His winemaking team also taste the new vintages and cuvées with the growers, just before the champagnes are put on the market. These regular meetings underline the quality of the enterprise and build affinities with the growers who gain an increased awareness of the 'Charles' house style. "A number of them have signed exclusive contracts with us," says Régis, with a mix of satisfaction and relief.


the wines today

My own acquaintance with Charles Heidsieck goes back to the early '90s. So is Thibault's legacy secure? How do the champagnes taste in 2005? With complete candour one can say that the wines in the glass are as hedonistic, rich, ample yet elegant as they always were. However, it seems clear that the winemaking team has had to duck and weave, ceding tactical concessions to the Remy marketing men in terms of presentation. The big change is that the 'Mis en Cave' neck label, citing the date of bottling, has gone, this information now tucked away in small print on the back label. The official line is that parading the date of bottling prominently on the front leads the consumer to confuse this blended cuvée with vintage champagne. This is a little disingenuous, particularly when you learn that the majority of 'Mis en Cave' was earmarked for restaurants, where the modern breed of sommelier had no difficulty in explaining this simple concept to customers. Have the marketing men, with their incurable instinct for a strong brand message, under-estimated the concentration span of the restaurant goer?

Be that as it may, a tasting of the current Charles range in Reims this January was most impressive.

Charles Heidsieck Mis en Cave 2000
Based on the 1999 vintage, this is a splendid champagne. Made from a classic mix of Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay in equal proportions, incorporating 40 per cent reserve wines for extra complexity, it combines mouth-filling volume, freshness and length of flavour with an intriguing boisée nuance that might suggest a luxuriant touch of wood. Actually, no element in the blend had ever seen oak: that sylvan richness coming from the mature secondary flavours of the reserve wines. No champagne better illustrates the craft of the master blender.

Charles Heidsieck 1995
Quite different is this worthy successor to the great 1989, sharing the latter's ripeness of flavour but with a notably fine acidity all of its own, protecting the fresh aromas of white flowers and the butter-laden flavours tinged with touches of chestnut and quince.

Charles Heidsieck Rosé 1996
This wine has a subtlety of evolved colours, scents and flavours. Even the red wine (10 per cent of the blend) that shapes the pastel rose hue tinted with orange comes from the same great '96 vintage; the aromas suggest peonies, cinnamon, white pepper and gingerbread; the palate is an exquisite sensation of wild raspberries softened by the passage of nine years on the cork.
   

All these creations taste as much like fine wines as sparkling champagnes. I am sure that Daniel would have approved.

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