Champagne Days with Christian, Piper and Charles

Christian Holthausen Christian is the International House Communications Director for Maison Heidsieck and he’s usually jetting around the world, so it was incredibly generous of him to take a day of his in-town time to show us around — but then “generous” is Christian’s middle name (his other name is “adorable”).

While wine experts are normally taken into the cellar to taste, we went directly to the newly decorated reception house, an Art Deco building surrounded by woods and “planted” above Heidsieck’s famed chalk cellars, les crayeres. 

Helene snuggled herself into the corner of one of the white leather sofas, declared that she felt very much at home and, seeing that we were all equally comfy, Christian began to pop corks. (Such a wonderful sound!)

We tasted the Piper Heidsiecks and Charles Heidsiecks in tandem, going from the Brut Non-Vintage (BNV), to vintage, to the rarest of champagnes, the tete de cuvee. 

These days, both Piper and Charles (after tasting so many of each, I feel I can call them by their first names) are made by the same winemaker, Regis Camus, whose challenge is to maintain the style of each house in each of the cuvees.

A little (very, very little) lesson in champagne:  Most champagne is labeled Brut Non-Vintage and, in any champagne house, BNV is the least expensive wine in the line and the most difficult to make.  The short reason for this is that champagne is a blended wine and, even though BNV is made from grapes that are harvested from over 100 different land parcels, and even though each year, or vintage is different (it’s what happens when Mother Nature is your business partner), a champagne house’s Brut Non-Vintage must taste the same year after year, no matter the conditions.  This is the cellarmaster’s toughest job and the reason he can succeed at it (aside from talent)  is that he has great wines from past vintages tucked away, so that he can mix these reserve wines into those from each year’s harvest.  Think of the reserve wines as the great leveler of a vintage.  Not surprisingly, the houses with the greatest and greatest quantity of reserve wines are the houses that will be able to make the best wines year after year.

Piper and charles bottles

Christian likened the various types of champagne to fashion, saying:

Brut Non-Vintage is like ready-to-wear;

Vintage is like the collections; and

Prestige Cuvees are like the wedding dress that caps an haute couture runway show.

Yet, unlike at Chanel, the more expensive lines in champagne are the easier ones to create.  Christian reports with a laugh that Regis, the cellarmaster, often says, “Even Christian could make vintage champagne,” and that’s because Piper and Charles, like other esteemed houses, only make a vintage champagne when the grapes from that year (ie, from that vintage) are exceptionally good.  Also because, by definition, vintage champagne has only one year’s worth of grapes in it, it must carry the house’s style, but not a particular taste.  It’s a one-off, so to speak.

Tasting both Piper and Charles BNV and Vintage 2000, it was easy to see how consistent the style of each house was and how different they were from each other.  As Christian described the houses:  Piper has a fresh, springtime register, while Charles’s is rich and autumnal.   

Copy (1) of Piper Rare And the differences held when we got to the Prestige Cuvees.  For Piper, it was the 1999 Rare, a champagne first made in 1976 and only made five times after that.  This latest Rare (so rare that I’m not sure it’s findable any longer) is in a gorgeous bottle, the shape for which was made by Faberge in 1885; the metal lace trim was created by Arthus Bertrand.

We drank the Rare from glasses designed expressly for it by Riedel, making it a double treat, and, as soon as I took my first sip, I had the idea that I should be in a fancy room wearing a long dress, preferably red, fitted through the hips, swirly for the rest of the way down and made from charmeuse, a fabric as smooth and refined as the Rare and just as supple.  The champagne was a wow!

But the wows weren’t over.  We tasted the exceedingly elegant 1995 Blancs des Millenaires from Charles Heidsieck.  Made entirely from chardonnay grapes, the wine is deeply, seriously and unforgettably beautiful.  I had to change from my imaginary red dress into something violet, velvety and more formal.

For the finale — yes, I too thought the Rare and Blancs des Millenaires were finale enough — we descended into les caves, the chalk cellars built 40 meters (about 130 feet) under Reims.  A series of connecting tunnels and “rooms”, almost like cathedrals, carved in Gallo-Roman times, les crayeres remain at a steady perfect-for-wine temperature year-round.  Only five champagne houses have access to these caves — Heidsieck, Veuve Clicquot, Taitinger, Pommery and Ruinart — and I can’t even speculate how envious all the other houses are.

I couldn’t get a picture of the caves — it was too dark, the safety lights were too yellow and my brain was too fuzzy to figure out all the buttons on the camera — and I’m sorry because they’re beautiful and because we shared a special moment there. 

Remembering that I had loved the 1983 Blancs des Millenaires when I tasted it over a year ago at a lunch Christian hosted at Per Se, Christian opened a bottle of that precious champagne and we drank it in the dim, cool caves, toasting our friendship and good fortune and wishing one another “que des bonnes choses”, only good things, for the New Year.

It’s what I wish all of you.  Cheers!


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