Charles Heidsieck: Chardonnay, Chardonnay, Chardonnay


Reims is not necessarily a city known for its luscious green space. Home to Champagne – “the King of wines and the wine of Kings” – and with an 800-year-old cathedral in the centre of town that, fittingly, used to be the coronation site for the kings of France, tourists don’t typically visit for the greenery and vegetation.

Charles Heidsieck’s five-acre garden in the heart of Reims therefore, is a quite unexpected secret pocket of peaceful verdure. Tucked away just off the appropriately named Rue des Crayères, the stunningly designed garden promenade was recently revamped by landscape architect Eric Lequertier. It sits above the crayères – a vast underground network of cavernous chalk chambers sculpted from ancient Roman-Gallo quarries – and flourishes with the fragrance of more than 200 flower varieties. At night we are told, the soaring trees are illuminated to stunning effect.

The only indications as to what lies beneath are a series of skylights cleverly disguised by blossoming flowerbeds and a mysterious white door, behind which 106 steps descend down into the dark, damp, humid, cold air of the crayères. A series of underground tunnels connect 47 vast and atmospheric chalk cellars in which some of the house’s top cuvées are stored and aged; including Crayère No. 9, which inspired the iconic bottle shape of Brut Réserve.

Amidst the majestic garden, dotted with centuries-old trees and complete with a fountain dedicated to Bacchus (the Roman god of agriculture, wine and fertility), stands a sleek and airy reception venue. The Pavilion des Crayères, with its enormous bay windows overlooking the flora, is where we met Stephen Leroux, managing director of Charles Heidsieck, earlier this summer.

Introducing our tasting, which turned out to be a banquet of Chardonnay, Leroux told us: “the house is biased by Chardonnay and Blanc de Blancs.” The first traces of a Charles Heidsieck Blanc de Blancs are from 1906, though the house aren’t sure whether the wine produced was a Champagne or a still wine Coteaux Champenois. Regardless, their history is certainly intertwined with Champagne’s dominant white grape variety: from ‘Champagne Charlie’s’ mother, an Henriot with significant holdings in the prized Chardonnay region of the Côtes des Blancs; to Charles pioneering Blanc de Blancs non-vintage production in the 1970s and 80s, stopping only “when it became fashionable”.

There has been a recent spate of producers releasing Coteaux Champenois – the still wine appellation of Champagne – which, with minimal winemaking interference, are considered the truest expression of the region’s unique terroir. Therefore, to reinforce Charles’ reputation as a Chardonnay savant, the house have jumped on the Coteaux Champenois bandwagon, recently releasing four 2017 Chardonnays from top Côte des Blancs parcels.

“We thought we might release all the individual crus that make up Blanc des Millénaires, then we just decided to make what was interesting,” Leroux explained. Their intention is to release a range of Coteaux Champenois annually, though “not the same villages… it will depend upon the year.” The four wines in this inaugural release are from Villers-Marmery, Vertus, Oger and Montgueux. Each were barrel fermented without bâtonnage (stirring of the lees) and underwent full malolactic fermentation.

The four-bottle case is marketed as an educational tool, though the vintage (2017, a particularly good Chardonnay year) is not printed on the label. To demonstrate their Chardonnay roots, Leroux shared an especially old bottle of Coteaux Champenois found hidden in the cellars, that, although impossible to date, was “likely made in the 60s”. It’s gaudy gold label certainly hinted at it’s mid-century origins, however the wine inside was unfortunately even further past it than the label.

 

Villers-Marmery 2017 | Premier Cru | 17.5+/20
Showing a lot of ripe and juicy fruit character, obvious lemon with pineapple, grapefruit and plum richness of the lees. Hint of spice from the barrel ageing works really well.
Vertus 2017 | Premier Cru | 17.5/20
Very different to VM this is more peach fruit with apple, powerful, very refreshing and has a vegetal hint on the end.
Oger 2017 | Grand Cru | 17/20
A mix of different fruit, lots of bright lemon, pineapple and some tropical hints almost that spice and gewurztraminer character. Very intriguing hint of spice from the grape and smoke from the barrel works really well.
Montgueux 2017 | Autre Cru | 17.5/20
Really quite powerful fruit, ripe lemon and loads of peaches and pineapple and guava and such a roundness to the rich lees-y texture.
Grand Reserve des Augustins | –/20
A little tainted by TCA unfortunately, but it has the palate still and a lovely richness; amazing!
Charles Heidsieck Blanc de Blancs NV | 17.5/20
100% CH | Base Vintage: 2012 | Reserve Wine: 25% | Lees Ageing: 4 Years | Disgorged: November 2017 | Dosage: 10 g/l | Post-Disgorgement Ageing: 2 Years
This is beginning to open up; the nose is still quite tight but then the palate is much richer, rounder and fresher. Just 20,000 bottles of base 2012 made.

 

We kick-started our vintage champagne tasting with an original disgorgement of Brut Millésime 2000, which came in the old bottle shape with another now very outdated looking label. Widely considered one of the poorer vintages of the century, Leroux said: “we excused ourselves at the time for producing a 2000, but now we are glad that we did.” Indeed, it is a champagne with a unique character and intriguing evolution, although considerable grape sorting (up to 30-40% of the yield) no doubt contributed to its relative success.

Leroux also generously showed us a few champagnes from the upcoming Collection Crayères, an annual release of old vintages from the darkest depths of the Charles Heidsieck cellars that began in late-2017 (as quick-witted cellar master Cyril Brin says, “we are not a museum”). Originally called Oenothèque – a name ‘borrowed’ by Dom Pérignon, before their late release champagnes evolved into ‘Plénitudes’ – the idea is to showcase a collection of old treasures each year that have been stored under perfect conditions in the crayères.

This September they will launch a range of Brut Millésime 1989, from bottle, magnum and jeroboam(!), and a few older vintages of Blanc de Blancs. The 1989 harvest was an extremely long one, starting on 4th September and not finishing, incredibly, until 2nd November. It was also the fourth largest ever harvest in Champagne, behind 2018, 1982, and 1983. The bottle we tasted was an original disgorgement, while the magnum and jeroboam were both disgorged this year.

While on the theme of vintage 1989, Leroux kindly shared another relic he had rescued from the cellars: a magnum of Mis en Cave 1990. The Mis en Cave (‘put in cellar’) concept was the brainchild of prior cellar master and Champagne legend Daniel Thibault (1947-2002). The idea was that the Brut Réserve non-vintage champagnes would be labelled with the year in which they were blended and bottled (i.e. the year following the base vintage harvest).

Therefore, Mis en Cave 1990 is actually base vintage 1989, blended and bottled the following spring (1990) with 30-35% reserve wines. Leroux wisely pointed out that the average age of the champagne is of course much, much older, considering Thibault and his team would have blended reserve wines from as far back as the mid-1970s. The Mis en Cave labelling eventually phased out in the late 1990s, as the trade found it too confusing (understandably so).

 

Charles Heidsieck Brut Millésime 2000 | 17.5+/20
55% PN, 45% CH | Lees Ageing: 7 Years | Disgorged: 2008 | Post-Disgorgement Ageing: 11 Years
This has a richness and power on the nose and I always describe this wine as laid back and almost lazy. However it has great fruit richness and yes softness of acidity, but that works with this champagne. It shows bundles of apricots, dried fruits and hazelnuts and on the finish you get hints of chocolate. Probably hitting its peak drinking time now and for the next 5 years.
Charles Heidsieck Brut Millésime 1989 | 18/20
70% PN, 30% CH | Lees Ageing: 8 Years | Disgorged: 1998 | Post-Disgorgement Ageing: 21 Years
This is fresher than I was expecting for the year and with very ripe fruits. Has a freshness and and all those secondary aromas are coming out like roasted cashews. Packed with dried fruits like lemon, orange, pineapple and pink grapefruit. The acidity feels soft, but that hasn’t harmed the wine’s ability to age and show very well.
Charles Heidsieck Brut Millésime 1989 Magnum | 18.5+/20
70% PN, 30% CH | Lees Ageing: 29 Years | Disgorged: 2019 | Post-Disgorgement Ageing: 6 Months
Seems less fresh than the bottle, but this is a recent disgorgement and likely needs some time now to settle back down. However the palate is very much there; quite buttery and shows great tension and amazing texture. Lots of nut character with bundles of lime, pineapple and an umami and spice finish. This is very good indeed and with it being a recent disgorgement I would expect it to drink well for the next 20 years.
Charles Heidsieck Brut Millésime 1989 Jeroboam | 19/20
70% PN, 30% CH | Lees Ageing: 29 Years | Disgorged: February 2019 | Post-Disgorgement Ageing: 4 Months
This is super reductive, that charming smoked gun nose is amazing and combines with spicy bright fruits, lots of citrus lemon and lime and then tropical notes, like papaya and pineapple. The palate has great texture, nearly 30 years of lees ageing has really given the texture an amazing boost. The wine is immense with the finish driven by the mineral elements and salinity keeping it light and fresh. Enjoy now and for many decades.
Charles Heidsieck Mis en Cave 1990 Magnum | 18.5/20
60% PN, 40% CH | Base Vintage: 1989 | Reserve Wine: 35% | Lees Ageing: 4 Years | Disgorged: 1994 | Dosage: 10 g/l | Post-Disgorgement Ageing: 25 Years
Paler than the vintage 1989, this seems quite young for a champagne with so much age. Has bundles of lime and nuttiness and a rich, round palate texture. With so much post-disgorgement time it is a wonderful champagne, drinking well now and for the next 10+ years.
Charles Heidsieck Blanc de Blancs 1982 | 18.5+/20
100% CH
A rich nose with lots of tropical fruits; ripe apples and lemon pastries. Really bright and fresh with upfront fruits and what a great texture that gives a rich glycerol roundness with bundles of lime and nuts that give great length. Pure Chardonnay does seem to age very well.
Charles Heidsieck Blanc de Blancs 1981 | 19/20
100% CH
Slightly more held back than the ’82 which is very forward, this has more subtlety with a lot of ripe fruits that are going more dried fruits like lemon and lime and dried pineapple. Great freshness on the palate, hints of the minerality and chalk give it a great lift up on the finish. Very elegant and majestic. Drinking fine currently, with no rush for a decade or two to drink.
Charles Heidsieck Blanc de Blancs 1979 | 18/20
100% CH
Has some less expected aromas like spicy Gewürztraminer added to the dried fruits. Has real freshness on the palate and power of the vintage. Great length and freshness. Going back the nose really opens up, you get creamy and spicy characters as well as dried fruits. How wonderfully this has aged and though this is likely at the top of its development, expect it to hold for at least another decade or two.

The newly renovated Pavilion des Crayères, as seen from the garden

 

The new Charles Heidsieck Coteaux Champenois 2017 is available as a four-bottle collection case

 

A Coteaux Champenois “probably from the 1960s” that Leroux found in the cellar

 

The old bottle shape and label design of Brut Millésime 2000

 

This year’s Collection Crayères release includes bottles, magnums and jeroboams of Brut Millésime 1989

 

Blanc de Blancs 1982, 1981 and 1979 from a previous Collection Crayères release