I’m a sucker for Champagne. I’m a sucker for mature wine. A tasting billed as Old Vintages of Champagne organised by the Institute of Masters of Wine was then made for me. Held at Trinity House and moderated by Mark Bingley MW, the presenters were Stephen Leroux and Thierry Roset of Charles Heidsieck, Export Director and Chef de Cave respectively, and James Simpson MW, Sales Director of Pol Roger. The Champagnes were from the ranges of these two great houses.
You could argue that it might have been a more interesting tasting with greater potential for debate if the houses were less similar in their wine-making philosophy and style but comparisons are as just as valuable as contrasts to the mind of this particular taster when the wines are this good. And in actual fact, it seemed that the tasting was purely about having the opportunity to taste older vintages of quality Champagnes to evaluate development without the need for comparisons between them at all.
Both James and Stephen admitted that theirs were not the most innovative of houses, that they liked other brands to experiment on their behalf which they might (or might not) follow ten years on. Neither use oak nor avoid malolactic fermentation. James informed us that Pol Roger remained ‘gloriously old-fashioned’ and despite the cellar doubling in size twenty years ago, they still employ 4 remueurs.
Charles Heidsieck, (or simply Charles as they prefer to be known) is the smallest of the Grandes Marques, but benefits from the largest collection of reserve wines in Champagne with an average age of ten years. Thierry Roset’s signature on the Charles Heidsieck Brut NV style has been to reduce the number of crus used in the blend by half from 120 to 60, though the reserve wines still make up 40% of the blend.
As controls for this tasting, we began with the NV Brut of each house making it abundantly clear that this was going to be a very pleasant morning indeed. By the end of it, it was also apparent that these houses each have a particular and recognisable style, the same way you’d recognise a Picasso or a Monet. Pol Roger is elegant, refined, polished. Charles Heidsieck is also extremely elegant but with a lighter, fruitier edge to its finesse.
Tasting Pol Roger Brut Vintage wines (2004, 2002, 1996, 1990 and 1973) showed that Pol Roger easily overperforms in the vintage category and because of this they produce a much higher proportion of vintage than the 2% most other houses do in vintage years. It was also clear that the staying power of their vintage wines was strong: the 2004 was very youthful, doughy rather than pastries on the aroma and the acidity fresh as a daisy. The 1996 (disgorged in 2005) was savoury and meaty, needing food while the 1990 (disgorged in 1999) showed its maturity with nutty and dark chocolate notes and beginning to reveal a lovely honeyed and quince finish. The 1973 was a particular treat to taste as Sir Winston Churchill, Pol Roger’s Special Cuvée, wasn’t produced until 1975 so all their very best crus went into the vintage wine 40 years ago.
Three vintages of Charles Heidsieck Blanc des Millénaires (1995, 1985 and 1983) demonstrated that a proportion of Pinot Noir is not essential for quality aged Champagne, being as it is 100% Chardonnay. The 1985 was the top wine of the entire tasting for me in a pretty stylish line-up. Thierry explained what each cru gave to the wine: complexity from Cramant; minerality and citrus notes from Avize; power, texture and finesse from Oger; balance from Mesnil sur Oger and from the 1er cru village of Vertus, a floral lift. Only 60 to 70 thousand bottles were produced so it’s no wonder I’ve been foiled in trying to get hold of any but the almost as delicious 1995 is available, selling at between £110 and £130.
It would be remiss to talk about Charles Heidsieck without mentioning Champagne Charlie especially as the glorious examples we tasted were 1985 and 1979. Described by Shephen Leroux as ‘Vins de Meditation’, these wines are made using only the best crus so the blend ratio varies though usually the predominant grape is Pinot Noir as it is in the 1979. 34 years old it may be, but there’s loads of life left in this creamy, complex, charming wine.
As a tasting, it was not the most technical but for those of us who do not have the opportunity to taste older vintages of Champagne as regularly as they might like, it was perfect. And what was particularly gratifying was to see representatives of three houses (Mark is Fine Wine Director of Maison Marques et Domaines which imports Louis Roederer) work together, answering questions with honesty, clarity and transparency glorying in, as Mark put it, ‘The Englishman’s favourite wine’.
Buy Pol Roger 2004 and 2002 from Nickolls & Perks, Tanners and others (See Pol Roger website)
Buy Charles Heidsieck Blanc des Millenaires 1995 from Slurp and Noel Young Wines