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.
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.