Charles Heidsieck: Keeping something in reserve

Peter Ranscombe explores the use of higher proportions of reserve wines in Charles Heidsieck’s range of Champagnes.

Walk along the aisle of any bottle shop or take a quick glance at a decent wine list and the choice of Champagne brands appears almost endless. It’s easy to dismiss France’s flagship sparkling wine as simply being one amorphous category – high in acidity, crackling with orchard fruit flavours and offering a fizzy sensation in the mouth.

Yet dig below the surface and there’s a world of variety within Champagne. How long did the wine age in the cellar before being released? From which of the sub-regions within Champagne did the grapes come?

What combination of Chardonnay, Pinot Meunier and Pinot Noir was used to make the blend – or did some of the region’s lesser-known varieties make it in too? Were the lees stirred, was any oak used in the ageing process, how much sugar was added in the dosage at the end… for every winemaker and Champagne house, there are a plethora of choices to be made along the way.

When it comes to the taste in the glass, one of the most interesting questions is what proportion of reserve wines were used in the final blend? Non-vintage Champagnes are blended using wines made over a series of years – as opposed to vintage Champagne, which comes from a single year named on the bottle – and the liquids from previous years are known as reserve wines; they’re literally held in reserve in the cellar and used when needed.

Ultimately, it comes down to personal preference: I enjoy the refreshing acidity of Champagne – especially as an aperitif or as a pairing for oily smoked salmon – but, ideally, I want that tang to be balanced by concentrated fruit flavours. Adding more reserve wine to a non-vintage blend is one way of enhancing the flavour concentration.

‘Champagne Charlie’

Reserve wine is at the heart of the Charles Heidsieck story. Since the Champagne house was founded in the 1850s, it’s focused on ageing its wines for longer, creating a market for older fizz.

Heidsieck himself was the original “Champagne Charlie” and was given the nickname while travelling through the United States during the civil war years. Today, ageing wines is still at the heart of the business, with its brut reserve laying claim to being the longest-aged non-vintage Champagne on the market.

The Brut Reserve NV (£39, Aitken Wines) is made using 40% reserve wines – with a minimum age of five years, an average age of 10 years and including some 20-year-old wines – while the base is formed from grapes harvested in 2008. Before being released, the wine spent seven years ageing on its lees, the sediment from the yeast that created the bubbles in the bottle during the second fermentation and which add body and flavour to the mix.

On the nose, it’s full of red apple and quince aromas, along with a doughy bread note from the lees ageing. The acidity is balanced by concentrated pear and red apple flavours, leading into more rounded baked apples on the long finish.

Age appropriate

It’s not all about blends though; the vintage Brut Millesime 2005 (£58.67, Find Me That Wine) spent nine years ageing before going on sale, which shows in the orange marmalade, patisserie and nuttiness on the nose. There’s a richer creaminess on the palate, which is joined by marmalade, wholemeal bread and profiterole flavours, all matched by refreshing acidity.

The ultimate expression of Charles Heidsieck’s dedication to older wines is the Blanc des Millenaires 1995 (£112.40, Exel Wines), which is a “blanc de blancs”, meaning it’s made using only white grapes, in this case Chardonnay. After spending 20 years ageing on its lees, the wine has taken on a deeper colour, with intense peach, lemon and red apple aromas on the nose developing into orange-centred flavours on the palate. It’s the acidity that’s most impressive though – for an older wine, it still has plenty of liveliness.

Dine Edinburgh, the restaurant above the Traverse Theatre, has recently launched a Champagne Charles Heidsieck outdoor terrace and is serving both the non-vintage brut and the 2005 Millesime. The brasserie’s wider wine list is worth exploring too.