Through a (Champagne) Glass, Lightly

Last week I had the good fortune to be invited to a tasting of Charles Heidsieck Champagnes, to be served, for comparative purposes, in two differently shaped glasses, as well as poured from a decanter. The latter, of course, sounded weird enough to get the attention of some of the city’s major Champagne hounds – after all, wouldn’t that kill all the effervescence? And isn’t effervescence the whole point of Champagne?

Well, the answers to those questions turn out to be no and no, at least according to two people who ought to know – Régis Camus, head winemaker for Piper Heidsieck and Charles Heidsieck, and Maximilian Riedel, the 11th generation scion of the Austrian firm that has made a quasi-science of shaping the glass to the particular wine.

The occasion was a twofer, or even a threefer, with Heidsieck presenting some new-release nonvintage Champagnes, as well as offering tastes of two of its classic older vintages, all in the context of the comparative tasting of different-shaped glasses and Riedel’s presentation of its specially designed Champagne decanter. That’s a lot going on of an early Thursday morning, but most wine journalists regard Champagne as the breakfast of champions, so there were plenty of tasters on hand to test the implicit hypotheses of the occasion and sip a little of the promised 1981 tête de cuvée, Champagne Charlie – all for science, you understand.


Pouring Heidsieck Champagne from Riedel's new decanter

First, the Champagnes. The two new releases were Charles Heidsieck Brut Reserve NV (suggested retail $55) and Rosé Reserve NV – the first time Heidsieck has offered a nonvintage rosé (suggested retail $65-70). These are the basic wines of the house – which doesn’t mean they’re simple wines in any way. “A Champagne house is to be judged not on its tête de cuvée,” Camus says, “but on its nonvintage cuvée.” 

Both these lovely wines led with rich aromas (lots of strawberry in the rosé), followed with lots of toasty, buttery flavors and sensations on the palate (darker and more berryish in the rosé), and finished very long.  (I know what I said in my last post about tasting notes. I intend this as descriptive, not prescriptive: what I tasted, not what you have to.)

Now about the glasses.  Long ago, Champagnes were served in so-called Champagne cups, a glass better used for fruit salad.  Nowadays, both flute-shaped and tulip-shaped glasses have become the norm.  At this tasting, tulips were used, but in their comments Camus and Riedel referred to both simply as flutes, so here that word designates either glass. 

Drunk from tulip glasses, both NVs seemed fresh and bright, with notable acidity and ample effervescence. Tasted side by side in a more conventionally shaped white wine glass, both wines showed – to some surprise but unanimous agreement – less acidity and brightness but greater roundness and softness on the palate, plus much more clearly discernible fruit. Both Riedel and Camus feel strongly that the conventionally shaped white wine glass allows Champagne to give more than the flute does, and in fact all the wines that followed this – that is, the older, vintaged, prestige bottles – were served in white wine glasses, not flutes.

Next came Charles Heidsieck Blanc des Millénaires 1995 (suggested retail $125), a lovely, elegant, almost austerely beautiful wine, 100% Chardonnay. If it were a painting or a woman, it would be Sargent’s Madame X. “Time has stood still for this wine,” Camus said; “it is 14 years young.”  The same wine seemed even finer, poured after reposing 40 or so minutes in Riedel’s lovely, lyre-shaped decanter. The bubbles were still there, and the fruit seemed to have moved forward quite markedly. The aroma seemed richer, the finish longer. All in all, a totally impressive demonstration that decanting Champagne isn’t a bizarre idea. “It is in fact an old process,” Riedel said. “Before modern bottling techniques, there used to be yeast in the bottle, so decanting Champagne to get rid of the yeast was normal.”  He recommends it particularly for Chardonnay – ergo, the 100% Chardonnay Blancs des Millénaires – and he doesn’t think it’s a good idea with very old Champagne.

The 1981 Champagne Charlie – Heidsieck’s tête de cuvée, of which only five vintages have ever been bottled (suggested retail $600) – was served in conventional white wine glasses, which showed well its deepening color and freed its intense aroma of flowers and cocoa and honey. In the mouth, it displayed amazing complexity – dried pineapple and cappuccino, honey and mocha – as well as vigorous life. Camus called it “a powerful wine” and suggested that it be served after a meal, like a cognac, which seems absolutely appropriate to a wine of such distinction.

My own conclusions from all this – in addition to the obvious one that these were some great wines – was that the glass situation is complicated, and not a straightforward yes to wineglasses and let’s all throw out our flutes. If I were serving Champagne as a cocktail or aperitif, I’m pretty sure I’d stick with flutes, precisely because they emphasize the wine’s effervescence, its acidity, and its brightness: those are the traits you want at and in your parties.

Serving Champagne at dinner is a whole different story, and there I’m pretty sure I’d pour my Champagne into wine glasses, precisely because they emphasize all the wine-y characteristics of Champagne, all the aroma and flavor characteristics that remind you that Champagne is close kin to Chablis and the wines of Burgundy – all the qualities, in short, that make Champagne a great companion to food. Unless I hit the lottery, I’m probably never going to be able to afford a bottle of Champagne Charlie, but what works in excelsis for it should also do good things for more modest bottles. At least I can have the fun of testing that theory. God, I love my job.

One Response to “Through a (Champagne) Glass, Lightly”

  1. Oberstminga Says:

    Dear Sir- I stumbled upon the interesting comments while researching vintage champagne labels.
    I very enjoyed the article.
    I would argue there is a very rationale and sensible explanation for4 allowing all bottled beverages to “breathe” via chilling, decanting and preferable served in large mouth containers.
    Thus the brewed fluid (be it wine, beer, whiskey or champagne- fine or not) to “relax” via oxygenation. Oxygen is a vital component that necessity must be removed in industrial production for food preservation & elimination of spoilage.
    Additionally, the chilling relieves the heat stress of the higher temperature (far higher than room temp) distillation, decanting and bottling and transportation. Similarly, it is nonsense that red wine should not be chilled- yes not like champagne- but not warm either- room temp as in the coldest cellar of a draughty French Alsace-Lorraine Chateau- which would be say 4-10 degrees C. If you serve a Tuscan or Florentine a 20 deg red wine- they will spit it out at your feet! Good reason- it is worse than British pub beer!
    In Bavaria- where beer has none of the low-brow connotations it strangely seems to have in the Anglosphere- and lord and knave, dame and wench drink it with equal happy abandon. Beer is common to be served in the finest Michelin star restaurants as a companion drink- for example Munich’s world famous Kaeffer (favourite of the Quantz family who owns BMW) and the nobles von Furstenbergs (Ms Dianne has the fashion label) ) has as extensive a beer list as a wine list- and an excellent beer cellar.
    Bavarians have a folk belief beer is best served in a “krug”- (which means earthenware mug) or strangely called in West a “stein” (which means stone)- tall slightly conical cup. The “archetype German beer mug” is this very mug- though the cap was to keep out insects and keep the cold and bubbles in the beer.
    Similarly, the French originally drank their wines and champagnes from something that looked like a crude coffee mug. Simple reason- they could not afford something so dainty as glass- and the lead from the crystal ware gave wine and champagnes a nasty taste- and the drink stays colder, longer.
    Also- I wish to add- there is something very strange about the Anglophone world.
    In Germany, as in France and Italy- wine & Champagne has no “high-brow” connotation either- you can buy boxes or even pallets of very good and cheap Hautviller, Alsace-Lorraine, Rhineland- or better in my opinion Lindau region (upper Bavaria) etc- even at the local gas station- or our equiavlents of Walmrt and Home Depot.
    And everyone from labourer to Lord will buy it.
    So- the common man was right after all- and the elitist gourmands so eager to distance themselves from the folk who actually makes and tastes it so “a la rusticale”- have shot them selves in the foot.
    Champagne was never meant to be solely for the moneyed elites, or aristocracy- it was meant for everyone- exactly as the brewing monks intended. Or is it my case of sour grapes?
    Perhaps a la rusticale is the nouveau dilettante or goumand? Vive le rusticale-isch!

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