As the summer draws to a close, some of our team headed to the beautiful and historic city of Reims in Northern France. Famed not only for its towering gothic cathedral, but its setting in the Champagne-Ardenne region of France, renowned for its sparkling white wine (Champagne). Here our team spent a day tasting at the Charles Heidsieck winery led by head sommelier Guillaume Kaczmar, following his introduction of the new L’Ortolan House Champagne by the legendary Wine House.
The Wine House – established in 1851 – has a colourful and remarkable history, mainly owing to its founder Charles Camille Heidsieck (also known as Champagne Charlie, a French Dandy who was the first to promote Champagne in the US back in the 19th century), who had a strong passion and confidence that he translated into his wine making. His concentration centred around the producing and ageing of wine, a legacy that remains today. Heidsieck has an outstanding number of accolades, having been named Sparkling Winemaker of the Year thirteen times in the International Wine Challenge (IWC), in addition to a number of silver and gold medals at the IWC.
Our team enjoyed a tour of the 2000 year old chalk cellars built by the Romans at 30 metres deep (they used to be chalk quarries). Today there are only five Champagne houses using those white, muted cellars for the wines to lay dormant in, at a constant temperature of 10C-12C and 90% humidity; the perfect environment for Champagne ageing. They were then met by Thierry Roset the Maitre de Cave ‘whose humility, devotion and dedication to his work are as pure as the chalk of Reims cellars’. He has been at the helm of Charles Heidsieck for 25 years, and dedicates his work to injecting the original spirit of the Wine House into his creations. Spending two hours with the wine connoisseur he shared his passion, spirit and secrets behind the craft of the unique Champagnes with the team. The team finally finished the afternoon with a tour of the vineyards around the Montagne de Reims – high places concentrating most of the Grand Cru of Pinot Noir production in Champagne.
‘Our guide was very informative and told us about the difference of
soils and climate, all those little details that French often refers to with the word ‘Terroir’.’
A variety of champagnes were tasted by our team including a number made from Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Pinot Monier and Rosé. Depth and texture are stated as the key characteristics that Charles Heidsieck champagnes should embody, demanding refinement at each stage of the process, and our team certainly concurred with this.
The first wine to be tasted was a still 2013 Chardonnay, harvested in October it is described by our team as delicate and smooth, with a fruit finish. Followed by the Pinot Noir from the Ambonnay region, an ideal complement to the warmer months in Spring and Summer due to the ripe, fruity notes the wine possesses. This very rare opportunity to sample the wine is its still state, provided an interesting tasting in the art of Champagne blending. With Guillaume stating, ‘For a Sommelier it’s fantastic as the wines are still, and you are able to focus simply the flavours and structure of the wine without having the bubbles that often are a third dimension that can change the tasting experience a lot.’
Next on the list included three Chardonnays from ’99 ’98 and ’96, which due to their long ageing process in the maze of forty-seven chalk cellars beneath Reims, and having been kept at a constant temperature allows for a distinctive development in taste and quality. They are described as complex with a long finish, specified as having the ‘texture of butter – creamy’, with the ’96 maintaining a warmth and woodiness with a hint of freshness. This is a ‘Vertical’ tasting of the Chardonnay (Vertical standing for the same wine on different years). Once again a master class with Thierry to understand the importance of the climate on the final quality of the wines.
One of the oldest Champagnes sampled was the ’95 Blanc de Millenaires, a Chardonnay distinguished by its floral and candied citrus notes, remaining fresh even with the creamier notes of almond and dates. Sixty carefully selected crus are chosen for this blend, with a minimum of three – ten years in the cellar. Vigilance and a sense of awareness are vital at every part of the process in order to produce a Brut that has its own personality and set of characteristics.
The pièce de résistance, however, was the Champagne Charlie from 1981 of which there are only a few bottles remaining, and was a privilege and delight to sample.
‘It was a perfect way to conclude the tasting, so that all the team could understand the evolution and the potential of such great wines and that Champagne is much more than a name and a luxury symbol.’
‘A Champagne made by kind hearted and generous people, for Champagne connoisseur or casual wine lovers….’
Guillaume commented, ‘When thinking about Champagne the first cliché that comes to mind are about strass and gold, celebrations, bubbles, and quality times. However, a Sommelier always looks at it as any other wine (because yes people tend to forget that Champagne is part of the big wine family), I always look for the honesty, the love and the passion behind the bottle and inside the glass.’
The pursuit of excellence that Charles Heidsieck strive to achieve is evident in their carefully nurtured sparkling wines, and the intense flavours created. Left in clay cellars to bring their style to perfection, they are highly regarded as one of the finest sparkling wine makers, and this is illustrated by the extremely positive response from our team. Maciej Chorazyczewski our assistant restaurant manager remarked, ‘It was truly a memorable experience about which I will most certainly share to all my friends, colleagues, and guests’.