The Art of Assemblage at Charles Heidsieck

By Martyn Zemavicius

Regular readers will know how much we at Clos & Cru love Maison Charles Heidsieck (see My Top 3 Estate Visits).

So I was excited to attend their recent masterclass in London focusing on the art of blending, known by the French term assemblage.  Held in a lovely light-filled room at the English National Opera, the class was presented by Stephen Leroux, executive director of Charles Heidsieck. Stephen comes from a long line of champenois, going back generations. (His great-grandfather – a champagne negociant in Aube – was an organiser in the Champagne Riots in the early 20th century.)

The Vins Clairs

The creation of champagne begins with the raw material known as vins clairs. These are still wines from the latest vintage made from single varieties and parcels. They can be very high in acid, as they contain no dosage and have not yet undergone their second fermentation and maturation in bottle. Stephen joked that cellar masters consider their vins clairs like children. They want to watch them grow and develop, and are always reluctant to part with them.

The mature vins clairs are called ‘reserve wines’. Adding them judiciously to a blend, the winemaker can add nuance and complexity, just as a chef uses herbs and spices to season a dish.  Some of the reserve wines available for blending would have been made by a previous cellar master from years ago, and there may be very little left.  To use up the last of a particularly rare reserve wine can be a bit of an emotional separation for the chef de cave.

Champagne Charles Heidsieck Brut Reserve

Samples of Vins Clairs

We began the class by tasting single-cru vins clairs from the 2015 vintage.  The Chardonnay from Oger was very mineral, yet also fruit-driven.  The Meunier from Verneuil had a beautiful floral, rose petal quality, with notes of apricot.  

Then we tasted three different vins clairs from Pinot Noir.  The first sample, from Ambonnay, had an opulent raspberry earthy nose and an elegant grapefruity palate that could easily have been mistaken for Chardonnay. The second sample, from Ay, was powerfully fragrant, with a luscious red fruit juice character and some discernible tannin.  The final sample of Pinot Noir came from Verzy. Beneath its aromas of earthy dark fruit, it had a steely minerality.

Next we tasted a mature reserve wine, a 1996 Chardonnay from Cramant.  This was stunning for its length and its aromatic freshness, almost muscat-like but with grapefruit notes. It illustrated the complexity that can come with ageing a great vin clair in tank for a decade.

That was followed by our first blend of the day – the final blend vin clair of the Charles Heidsieck Brut Reserve.  The blend consisted of roughly equal parts Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Meunier, with 60% from the 2015 vintage, and 40% reserve wines from 1996-2009.  The nose was stunning, with plum and floral aromatics.  And the complex flavours on the palate included grapefruit, plummy cherries, and an earthy minerality.

The Finished Champagnes

We ended the class by tasting finished champagnes from across the range (full tasting notes & scores below), including a vinotheque release of the 1985 Blanc des Millenaires that can only be described as heavenly.  

One bit of news we can share for fans of Maison Charles.  Stephen confirmed that the house is preparing to relaunch its vinotheque range of champagnes.  The relaunch is scheduled for late this year or early next year, with new packaging and branding. Coinciding with the launch will be a big auction of vinotheque champagne at Christie’s – an event that collectors will certainly want to look out for.

Charles Heidsieck Rose Reserve NV (2008 base)
Roughly equal parts Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Meunier from the base year, with 20% reserve wines and 5% still red wine, of which 95% comes from Les Riceys. Disgorged in 2015.
On the nose elegant raspberry, floral violets and chocolate notes.
Palate is elegant, so delicious, powerful but with finesse at the same time. Long finish, amazing. 93 pts

Charles Heidsieck Brut Reserve NV (2008 base)
Roughly equal parts Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Meunier from the base year, with 40% reserve wines. Disgorged 2014.
Nose: lemon tart, almonds, brioche, earthy chanterelle mushrooms.
Palate is amazingly complex, lemon tart, brioche, rich texture, long finish. 93+ pts

Champagne Charles Heidsieck Brut Rose Millenaires

Charles Heidsieck Millesime 2005
60% Pinot Noir, 40% Chardonnay.  11 village crus were used to make the final blend for 2005 (including Mailly and Ambonnay for Pinot Noir; and Oger, Avize, Vertus and Cramant for Chardonnay).
Nose: Salty caramel, bruised apple, freshly cut field mushrooms and lemon tart.
Palate has a pleasant and creamy texture, ripe sicilian lemons. Something a touch artificial, but in a nice way. 90 pts

Charles Heidsieck Blanc des Millenaires 1995
100% Chardonnay from 4 Grand Cru villages (Avize, Oger, Mesnil-sur-Oger and Cramant) and 1 Premier Cru (Vertus).  Disgorged 2014
Complex nose with honey, mineral notes, gunpowder, apricots, orange blossom, jasmine, apple, pear. Mind-blowing nose!
Palate is pure, elegant, fruity, honey, nutty with almonds. So long. 95+ pts

Charles Heidsieck Blanc des Millenaires 1985 (Vinotheque)
Disgorged in late 1998 or early 1999 for the millennium. The 1985 vintage had a terrible winter, with temperatures of -15C for a month. 20% of the vines were killed, leading to a very small harvest.
Nose: Incredible depth of aromas, with honey, nuts, brioche, forest mushrooms, rye bread with sunflower seeds.
Creamy texture on the palate, and very complex: walnuts, sultanas, dry apples and amazingly long. Champagne sent from heaven! 98 pts

Charles Heidsieck Champagne Stephen Leroux

Martyn with Stephen Leroux

Our Thanks

Thanks again to Stephen and his team for liberating those samples of vin clair from the cellar! A most informative tasting. Only a generous soul could have shared that heavenly Blanc des Millenaires 1985.

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