BEST CHAMPAGNE had the pleasure to meet Cyril Brun, Chef de Cave of the legendary Champagne House CHARLES HEIDSIECK, the “darling of Champagne”.
Cyril Brun became Chef de Cave of Charles Heidsieck in 2015
Any real champagne connoisseur knows and respects this House and many swear by it.
Founded in 1851 by Charles Camille Heidsieck, this Fench dandy decided to try his luck in the US, becoming the first champagne producer to enter this market.
The success of this showman and his wines was immediate and they became known as “Champagne Charlie”.
After the US, the House’s great success extended to many royal families of Europe.
CHARLES HEIDSIECK style of champagnes, embedded in its Brut Réserve, is characterized by the inclusion of a large proportion of reserve wines (40%), of an average of 10 years of aging.
This brings a unique equilibrium between the refreshing aspect of young champagne and the power and complexity of mature champagne.
The executor of this vision is Cyril Brun, a solid champagne maker who prior to joining CHARLES HEIDSIECK was oenologist for 15 years in another iconic champagne House: VEUVE CLICQUOT.
Brun, a pragmatic man of clear ideas, great knowledge and passion for champagne explains what makes CHARLES HEIDSIECK and its non-vintage Brut Réserve truly unique.
Read on and try it yourself, and you will understand why virtually everybody loves “Champagne Charlie”.
BEST CHAMPAGNE: You are from Champagne. Why and how did you decide to join Charles Heidsieck and the champagne world?
CYRIL BRUN: I was born in Aÿ (grand cru village) in a family of winegrowers. My parents stopped making their own champagne at the end of the 1990’s to refocus on viticulture only.
So I grew up next to the vines, the cellar, and the wine. My mother, a hospital practitioner, expected me to become a doctor but my father advised me to join the wine world, much more enjoyable.
I studied oenology at the University of Reims, and then went on to study finance, business, and marketing in California.
On my return, I joined the family business but things were rather complicated with some generational conflicts.
So I preferred to discover champagne in larger Houses and the one that always had a special place in my heart were VEUVE CLICQUOT and CHARLES HEIDSIECK.
Those were our family’s favorite champagnes apart from our own.
I applied for a job at both Houses and I was received by Jacques Peters and Daniel Thibault, their former Chefs de Cave.
Both interviews went very well but Peters hired me first. So I worked as an oenologist at VEUVE CLICQUOT from 2000 to 2015, for my greatest pleasure.
Then in 2014 Thierry Roset, Chefs de Cave of CHARLES HEIDSIECK sadly passed away and the President of the House at that time, Cécile Bonnefond, who was previously President of VEUVE CLICQUOT where we met, offered me the job.
BC: CHARLES HEIDSIECK had a glorious past, followed by difficult times in the last decades. What was the state of the House when you joined?
CB: In 2015 the House was in recovery phase under the EPI group that acquired it in 2011, and I was very eager to participate in this rebirth.
CHARLES HEIDSIECK nearly disappeared at one point, with sales divided by 10 in 30 years (more than 4 million bottles in the 1980s against 300,000 in 2011), without any promotions or communication. But remarkably this had no impact on its wines that have always remained of exceptional quality throughout the time.
This is mainly due to the strong personalities of its Chefs de Cave, who as “guardians of the temple” have remained independent from the commercial and economic strategies of the shareholders who have succeeded one another, and have not made compromises that could impact the quality of the wines.
BC: How would you define the style of Charles Heidsieck that made it so famous?
CB: What makes the uniqueness of the style of our House is the duality given by the best of young wines and old reserve wines.
We manage to bring together the best of both sides of champagne with the extremely pleasant and refreshing aspect of young champagne, combined with all the power and complexity of mature champagne.
Our Brut Reserve (the most representative champagne of a House’s style) shows a complexity and a texture that put it in a different category of non-vintage champagnes, almost into the vintage champagnes category.
For this, we use 60% of base wines – from 2010 for the current cuvée – and an extremely high proportion of reserve wines (40%), of an average of 10 years of age.
This high percentage of reserve wines brings aromatic complexity to the champagne but also a silky, creamy texture, extremely fine bubbles, atypical for non-vintage champagnes.
BC: How does terroir and grape variety contribute to the creation of Charles Heidsieck’s style?
CB: Good grapes are essential to make high-quality wine and they result from the perfect pairing of great soil and adequate vine growing.
Our own vineyard of 60 hectares, located in the Marne and the Aube, satisfies 8% of our grape needs and thus the remaining 92% is sourced from our partners (independent vinegrowers) in the vineyards right for our style, and that are properly managed.
I want the grapes to be the pure expression of their terroir, which means that the impact of the winemaker should be totally neutral.
The selection of our partners is based on this principle, on terroirs that are clearly in line with our stylistic needs and vinegrowers who know how to express this style and nothing more.
The technical, viticultural, and oenological know-how of our Maison is well respected by our partners whom we follow and accompany in their work, generation after generation.
But we also continue to expand our own vineyard with regular acquisitions, which remains a founding element of our vision.
Having our own vineyard allows us to better understand the climatic challenges that have increased in the last decade.
Global warming is causing an acceleration of climatic disorders that amplify the differences between terroir and vinegrower, thus requiring much more effort to obtain an identical result year after year. So owning more vineyards allows us to better understand.
We use the three Champagne grape varieties in equal parts for Brut Réserve, with the freshness and elegance of Chardonnay, the structure of Pinot Noir and the generosity of Meunier.
We source them from 60 different crus and vinify them separately by village and grape variety, in stainless steel vats.
But the House style must transfigure the terroir and the grape variety through the assemblage, a specificity at the heart of the Champagne know-how.
BC: What do you think of the current trend to produce mono-cru champagnes?
CB: In my opinion, the assemblage makes Champagne a unique sparkling wine region, similar to no other, and these mono-cru wines are not representative of Champagne.
Furthermore, if we produce more and more mono-cru champagnes, clos champagnes, and vintage champagnes, this will negatively impact, indirectly, the quality of non-vintage champagnes, subtracting quality material.
The best still wines contribute to the complexity of non-vintage champagnes, which account for 90% of all champagne sales, and these champagnes could be impacted if these still wines are not stocked but used only to produce niche cuvées.
Consumers’ loyalty to a brand is built on its Brut non-vintage champagne. To make good champagne from a single plot in good years is easy, but to make great champagne every year with larger volumes like Brut Réserve is a challenge.
Today consumers are more open and curious to taste new wines, but it is essential to keep a safe harbor where they will return, and that is represented by the Brut non-vintage champagne.
Personally, the more I drink champagne the more I drink non-vintages; I find in them a complicity of terroirs and vintages that gives me great pleasure.
There has been a growing trend in the creation of new champagnes and some Houses may have gotten a bit lost in this quest for innovation.
At CHARLES HEIDSIECK we have a narrow range of champagnes with a Brut non-vintage, a Rosé, a Vintage and a Vintage Rosé, and a Vintage Blanc de Blancs, Blanc des Millenaires, our prestige cuvée.
Technically nothing prevents us from creating new champagnes but I do not see the point.
In addition, what may look like a market demand today for a new champagne may no longer be there when it is marketed, after the necessary cellaring years.
This is not the purpose of a House like ours because our size does not allow us to make mistakes, hence the importance of our Brut non-vintage and its consistent superior quality.
BC: Brut Réserve enjoys a cellaring on lees longer than the average brut non-vintage. Can it still gain complexity by aging it further after disgorgement?
CB: It can still gain in complexity after disgorgement, but it also depends on personal taste. If you have a preference for notes of freshness it is better to drink it at the time of purchase but if you are looking for additional notes of maturity you can still age it for up to 5-6 years in the cellar.
BC: You do not produce extra-brut champagne. What is your approach to dosage?
CB: I think that sugar is an ally of champagne, to refine or assert a style, if you know how to use it; it all depends on how it is used and how long the wine has to incorporate this exogenous element.
I’m not a big fan of champagne with no dosage and the only ones that I really appreciate are those that have just been disgorged in the cellar, with this sensation of purity, lightness, minerality of the terroir that no dosage champagnes claim. But this magic sensation is ephemeral, disappears after half an hour, so I find it unrealistic to attempt bottling this emotion and sell it outside the cellar.
BC: Is there a typical consumer of Charles Heidsieck?
CB: We do not have a typical consumer profile. I previously had the idea of a “mature” consumer of CHARLES HEIDSIECK, given to the moment of glory of our House in the 1980s and 1990s.
By meeting our customers I realize that they are rather young as we benefit of a certain curiosity due to our limited size and the fact that we have disappeared from the market for a long time and that we have returned, for a few years now, in a rather assertive way.
We are almost seen as a champagne start-up or as a successful grower, although we were founded in 1851.
So we reach relatively young, passionate, curious consumers, who are positively surprised by CHARLES HEIDSIECK.
BC: Do you drink champagnes from other Houses?
CB: Of course. There are a lot of Houses that work very well and it allows me to get out of our style and my job.
I usually taste non-vintage and vintage champagnes, less frequently prestigious cuvées, that I buy or exchange with colleagues.
My best moments with champagne are outside of my work where I can put aside the technical aspect of my job and dwell more on the emotion, on the hedonistic character of champagne tasting.
BC: What does champagne represent for you?
CB: Champagne to me is conviviality, sharing pleasure and emotions, with this sparkle in the eyes of the person with whom you share this moment of happiness.
Champagne is a product charged with emotions that brings the magic.
The purchase of champagne will make you happy, will make a bad day a beautiful day, through its visual element even before its great taste.
BC: What would life be without champagne?
CB: Life without champagne would be rather sad, like life without music or painting.