Friday, 24 March 2023

Champagne tour 2023 - Charles Heidsieck

This is the second post from my series on my February 2023 Champagne tour (you can read the first post on our visit to Billecart-Salmon here).  

We chose to base ourselves for our trip in Epernay, but I was adamant that we would head over to the other big centre in Champagne - Reims, as I had not been there before. Reims is a short train ride (c. 30 minutes) from Epernay and is a bigger and more built-up city than sleepy Epernay. It has a long history - Reims was an important Roman town and is actually named after one of the two brothers that according to Roman legend founded Rome (Remus, with the other brother, Romulus giving his name to Rome itself).

‘Champagne Charlie’  

In Reims, I was very excited that we were able to visit Charles Heidsieck - another name that is completely intertwined in the history of champagne. The history of this particular house is really fascinating. Charles Heidsieck came from an important Champagne family - which is why you might also know of the brand Piper-Heidsieck which was founded by Charles’ uncle. Charles set up his own house in the 19th century and was early on committed to trying to open up the American market as he felt there were great possibilities there. On his third visit to the States in 1862 he was actually arrested as it was during the American civil war and he was suspected of being a spy! Indeed, in order to get himself released from prison he had to get Napoleon III to intercede by writing to Abraham Lincoln - talk about friends in high places…! Charles’ exploits in the states earned him the nickname ‘Champagne Charlie’ and the eponymous late Victorian song cemented his fame. After his experiences of incarneration, Charles was understandably reluctant to go back to the states - however, America did help him out greatly, as he later was notified that he had inherited half of Denver from an old business colleague who wanted to recompense him from an earlier wrong. This gift allowed him to raise funds which he then used to buy property and, importantly, a network of vast underground chalk caves - crayères - which would allow him to age his wines.

Indeed - it was these crayères that will be my abiding memory of visiting Charles Heidsieck. We descended from a pretty little garden through what looked like a hobbit house down a large number of stairs. I was not prepared for the scale or grandiosity of these magnificent underground cathedrals. At their greatest depth they are 30m deep. Take another look at the photo at the top of this page to get a sense of the grandeur. 
These pits were dug out by hand during Roman times and create a perfect environment for ageing wine - cool temperatures and a naturally high level of humidity all year round. The crayères for Charles Heidsieck have enough space to store their reserve stock of 1.4 million bottles of wine (and to be honest they had space for a lot more than that!). The crayères really are a wonder - I particularly loved exploring some of the house’s vaults of old vintages of wine going back to 1955. In fact, one of the passage ways through the crayères even inspired the Charles Heidsieck bottle shape - check out the photo on the right! 

Tasting the wines

After our tour of the crayères we went to a beautiful pavilion that the house has in its grounds which can host tastings. There our guide (Melissa) took us through a tasting of five of the exquisite wines from the Charles Heidsieck range. 

We started with a NV Blanc des Blancs (75% 2018 vintage, 25% reserve wine) which was lovely and fresh with some notable floral notes on the nose, and just a hint of butteriness on the palate. Next up was the NV Rosé Reserve (available from Hedonism Wines for £59.90/bottle), which is made of 1/3 each of Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay, which had a little more bite and edge to it, but that softened a little after it had spent some time in the glass. The NV Brut Reserve (available from Petersham Cellars for £45/bottle) was a step up in quality - the colour itself sat as a gentle gold - it is made up of 50% wine from 2017, but the other 50% is reserve wine going back up to 20 years. This reserve wine really gives the wine a more generous, rich profile. On the palate it had notes of lemon meringue pie, but it unfurled in the glass to develop further. I certainly liked this wine as I bought it in magnum!

It was now time to get into the vintage wines! First up we tried the 2012 Brut Millesieme (disgorged in 2021) which is blended from 10 of their top village producers and is made of 60% Pinot Noir and 40% Chardonnay. The profile was really interesting - tropical fruit notes complemented against butterscotch and brioche, with plenty of layers to it. This was an elegant and complex wine with a long life ahead of it. Available from Hedonism for £105/bottle.
After this we tried the 2007 Blancs des Millenaires (100% Chardonnay), this is only the 7th edition of this wine which they only make when conditions are perfect. The wine was taut and linear with beautifully pure green apple notes. I also felt like I detected a fair amount of salinity and minerality which gave the wine a real tension. In truth, although this is 15 years old, it is probably only just hitting its drinking window and will have a long time ahead of it yet where it will soften and depeen. Available from Hedonism for £194/bottle.

These were truly spectacular wines and I feel that having tried them so close to where they lay when they were developing that it gave the tasting even more resonance.
Charles Heidsieck is not open to visits for the public, so I am hugely grateful to Simon for arranging our trip.

Tuesday, 14 March 2023

Champagne tour 2023 - Billecart-Salmon

If you were looking to go somewhere for a few days to celebrate a special occasion as a wine lover then think most of you would agree that a trip to Champagne is a rather splendid idea. This is exactly what I did last month as we went away to celebrate my sister-in-law’s 40th birthday. Champagne’s reputation as a wine for celebration is long-held and has been carefully crafted over the centuries, so we were very excited for this trip.

This I the first post in a series where I will take you through some of the highlights from our trip as we were lucky to visit some fantastic champagne houses and drink some truly memorable wines. I won’t, however, go over specific information about the Champagne production process here - if you are interested in this then I would recommend checking out this post from Difford’s Guide.

A champagne institution

Situated in Mareuil-sur-Aÿ is the legendary Billecart-Salmon and touring this house with our tour guide Jerome, you were struck with the weight of history and tradition that surrounds this august Champagne house, which can trace its lineage back to the merging of two extant houses when Nicolas François Billecart and Elisabeth Salmon married in 1818. They are commemorated in many ways by the House today with portraits which you can see their portraits in the picture on the left, as well as some of the wines being named after them. The House still belongs to the Billecart-Salmon family, with 7th generation of the family, Mathieu Roland-Billecart, running the company today.

The House produces c. 2.5m bottles per year, which makes them a small-to-medium sized producer (in Champagne House terms). To do this they grow on 200ha of their own land and buy in fruit from a further 100ha. Beneath the streets of Aÿ they have 2km of underground tunnels that they use for storing their wines in - exploring these tunnels was a real highlight of the tour. You really appreciate how perfect the conditions there are for storing and ageing wine - a stable temperature of c. 12 - 14 degrees Celsius all year and c. 90% humidity. It really is impressive as you walk through their subterranean tunnels seeing all the bottles laid out and ageing gracefully.

In Billecart-Salmon they really focus on developing wines with extra complexity and character. Their NV wines are aged on lees for a minimum of three years, with their vintage wines having at least eight years. Jerome did show us one of their vineyards directly next to the winery (Clos St-Hilaire, which is the photo at the top of this post) where they produce a super small-batch wine, made according to biodynamic principles, which has 12 years on lees - they have only just released the 2005 vintage! 
In the winery they utilise cold temperature fermentation (at 13 degrees Celsius) which is about as low as you can go. This increases the amount of time you need for primary fermentation - it takes six weeks, as opposed to the standard 15 days. The result is that the wines retain more freshness and elegance. 

If you want an indication of the importance that champagne plays in the daily lives of people who live in this region, Jerome told us that when he was baptised as a baby as well as having the holy water sprinkled on him, he was also baptised with some champagne. He tells us that he only found out from his family after he started his current job that the champagne they used was Billecart-Salmon!

Tasting the wines

For our tasting we were taken to a beautiful room in the family house, which was decorated in exquisite, yet under-stated style. We tried three wines, each of which were utterly charming and showed the high quality that the House clearly aims for. 

The first wine was a special release, the ‘Rendez-vous No. 3 edition’, a NV Extra Brut with 2g/l residual sugar and made from 100% Pinot Meunier. It was fresh and clean with a really balanced finish. It had spent five years on the lees, which gave it a little tinge of waxiness. This bottle can be bought from Hedonism wines for £74/bottle.

The 2008 Louis Salmon Blancs de Blanc Grand Cru (disgorged in October 2020) was beautifully heady and expressive. As all good aged BdB wines it had developed those brioche flavours on the nose, but on the palate it was still taut and mineralic, with great poise. This bottle can be bought from Berry Brothers and Rudd for £210/bottle. 

Our last wine was the 2009 Elisabeth Salmon vintage rosé (55% Pinot Noir, 45% Chardonnay), which was light, floral and elegant. The notes were largely crisp red fruit (cherries and strawberries). Compared to the previous wine this felt a but more approachable right now, but that is not to say that this wine will not also benefit from giving it a bit more time. This bottle can be bought from Berry Brothers and Rudd for £178/bottle.

The quality of these wines really shone through for me. I think this was helped by the atmosphere in the magnificent tasting room and Jerome’s naturally considered and reflective style. I also thought that the Billecart-Salmon wines were all really gastronomic wines - yes, they could be sipped and enjoyed as an aperitif, but with their complexity of flavour and texture I really felt that all would really sing when poured to pair with some exquisite food, which is I guess why their wines feature on so many high-end restaurant lists.

I would like to thank Charlie and the team at Billecart-Salmon for organising this magnificent tour and tasting. In particular, I would also like to thank Jerome for his tour and sharing his evident passion and deep love for Champagne with us. Tours can be arranged through the Billecart-Salmon website here - I would highly recommend visiting them.

Look out over the coming days for more posts as I share most of the fabulous things we experienced in Champagne!