Charles Heidsieck Brut Réserve Vinothèque
The Collection
The Charles Heidsieck cellars. Photo: PolBaril-HDrvb
Wine The Collection 20 January 2021

Charles Heidsieck Brut Réserve – Champagne’s ‘Mis en Cave’ cuvée

It has gained a reputation as the best value non-vintage Champagne, but Charles Heidsieck’s Brut Réserve has a complex backstory. As a special edition of the wines is released, Essi Avellan MW delves into its past and present, and reviews the latest bottlings
Introduction and recommendations by
Essi Avellan MW

Champagne’s most acclaimed non-vintage cuvée came into the world through the consummation of Rémy Martin’s generous resources with erstwhile chef de cave Daniel Thibault’s renowned blending mastery. The spirits group (since renamed Rémy Cointreau) had owned Krug since 1969, and expanded its Champagne portfolio in 1985 with the acquisition of Charles Heidsieck. Its simple, if ambitious goal was to create nothing less than the world’s best brut non-vintage.

Thibault’s route to achieving said goal was to massively increase the percentage of reserve wine in the blend. The jump from youthful reserve wines making up 10% of the brut non-vintage to Thibault’s target of eight different vintages making up 40% was quite a leap. Part of the vinous vision most likely came from sister company Krug, whose triumphant multi-vintage recipe was similar. But the scope was much biggerin the mid-80s, Charles Heidsiecks sales exceeded three million bottles, with the NV cuvée making up the vast majority. As Thibault went about sourcing the best grapes to build a formidable library of reserve wines, no expense was spared.

Charles Heidsieck Brut Réserve – Charles Heidsieck Mis En Cave
Charles Heidsieck Mis en Cave was launched in the early 1990s, with the year indicating the year the bottle was laid down for ageing in the cellars

Smooth performer

On its inaugural release in the early 1990s, the new cuvée received instant recognition. A blend of wines from some 100 villages, with a hefty dose of reserve wines and a lengthy, three-year-plus maturation on lees, it was a formula that Thibault repeated meticulously year after year. The combination of 40% Pinot Noir, 40% Chardonnay, and 20% Pinot Meunier was crowned by a seductively ample dosage, today at around 10g/l. The Brut Reserve NV cuvée became known for its signature, seamless marriage of mature toasty-and-sweet-vanilla complexity with younger freshness. One of its most charming features was –  and still is –  the velvet-smooth texture that comes with just enough invigorating liveliness.

Up until the 1990s, non-vintage Champagnes were ‘ageless’, which is to say there was no way of tracing down their base year or disgorgement information. But as the cuvée’s reputation grew, Thibault was eager to communicate the details and age-worthiness of its precious contents. In the mid-1990s, the wine was relaunched, introducing the Mis en Cave concept, whereby the front label revealed the year the bottle was laid in the cellars (as the French term literally states) for second fermentation and ageing. Three different Mis en Caves were released at the same time, allowing consumers to compare the different editions and to appreciate the elegance provided by the extra ageing.

Alas, the concept was not easy to grasp, its complexity a source of confusion to consumers and trade alike (as it remains today). How were consumers to deduce that the wine’s base vintage was actually the year preceding the one indicated on the label? A bottle of Mis en Cave 1992, for example, actually contained base wine from 1991 plus reserve wines. Then there was the question of having a year on the label at all, which led many to believe the wine was a vintage rather than non-vintage Champagne. Eventually Heidsieck got the message, and after a decade of heads banging against a brick wall, the mis en cave information was discreetly transferred to the back label to accompany the disgorgement data.

A new-look Mis en Cave was introduced to the world in 2012. A string of awards, accolades – and sales – followed

By the new millennium, Krug had been sold to LVMH and Charles Heidsieck took its place as Rémy Martin’s Champagne crown jewel. But the spirit giant’s distribution structure was not suited to selling premium Champagne and the brand’s decline steepened. In the 15 years before Rémy Martin finally gave up on Charlesin 2011, sales had dropped by 90%. When Thibault passed away prematurely in 2002, his long-term right and left hands, Régis Camus and Thierry Roset, took over.

When the French luxury group EPI acquired both Charles Heidsieck and Piper-Heidsieck in 2011, the keys to the Charles cellars were given to Roset, who introduced a new-look Mis en Cave to the world in 2012. A new bottle shape, based on the outline of one of the chalk pits in the Heidsieck cellars, was launched with a contemporary chic label. The number of crus in the blend was dropped from 120 to 60, and the age of the reserve wines pushed further, to span 10-15 years. It was a winning recipe, and a string of awards, accolades –  and sales –  followed.

Charles Heidsieck Brut Réserve – Charles Heidsieck Cellars
Charles Heidsieck's chalk cellars, The Crayères, are located 30 metres below ground and house several million bottles of Champagne. Photo: PolBaril-HDrvb
Charles Heidsieck Brut Réserve – Charles Heidsieck Chef de Cave Cyril Brun
Charles Heidsieck's Chef de Cave Cyril Brun was recruited from Veuve Clicquot

Introduction of oak

Rosets stint at the helm was also cut short, however, and after his untimely death in 2014, the company recruited the great technician and passionate communicator Cyril Brun from Veuve Clicquot. So drastically had EPI been able to turn Charles Heidsieck’s commercial situation around in the intervening years that Brun was soon facing a new task. With the public having developed a new thirst for Charles, quantity, not quality, was suddenly the priority. In 2019, Charles Heidsieck bottled two million bottles of Champagne (in total), twice the number of a standard year.

With its extended ageing, the Mis en Cave cuvée’s greatest asset had always been time. Suddenly, Brun was short of it. His solution? The introduction, in 2016, of oak barrels to the cellars. Even if a notably oaky tone is not the hallmark of Charles, barrels added another element of complexity to the cuvée, and aid in balancing out the somewhat shortened lees-ageing time (which, due to sluggish sales, had at times crept up to over 60 months, making the Brut Réserve the greatest bargain in Champagne). Brun cut the average age of the reserve wines but, to compensate, increased their share to as high as 46% for the Mis en Cave 2017 (the cuvée currently on sale and the first where we can sense Bruns new vision in the glass).

Such an exercise was not without risk, as in recent years the world has become luxuriously accustomed to Brut Réserve with extended lees aging. As Brun had to launch his cuvée with only three years on the lees, a lot of the decadent generosity was missing initially. But over time, the wine is gloriously taking on the richness of its predecessors.

Charles Heidsieck Brut Réserve – Charles Heidsieck Cellars
Evaluating Charles Heidsieck's Brut Réserve Mis en Cave
Charles Heidsieck Brut Réserve – Charles Heidsieck Cellars
The outline of Heidsieck's crayères, which date from the 3rd century, inspired the bottle shape of the Brut Réserve. Photo: PolBaril-HDrvb

A vertical tasting of eight iterations of Brut Réserve Mis en Cave late last year was testament of the cuvées pedigree and age-worthiness. Even if the wine is consistently great, each edition is unique. The Mis en Cave 2008, for example, is drinking perfectly now, being hugely complex yet perfectly energetic. It’s a reminder of how the Brut Réserve greatly rewards even short cellaring, and excels with just five to 10 years on it. But it’s also a wine that can go on for very long periods of time – the most monumental experience came from the seemingly immortal Mis en Cave 1990.

And it’s not only Brut Réserves of great base vintages that are worth cellaring. Thanks to the high proportion of reserve wines and the in-house blending wizardry, unexpected cuvées can excel. The tasting’s biggest surprise came via the Mis en Cave 1988, based on the modest 1987 vintage, which proved itself to be on a par with wines from much greater base years.

 

Below are tasting notes for a selection of the Charles Heidsieck Brut Réserve Mis en Cave. The 1990, 1995 and 2000 Mis en Cave wines are newly available through a special release of a selection of Brut Réserve editions from the Heidsieck cellars as part of its Collection Crayères (£410, The Finest Bubble). Other bottles are available as detailed, sometimes as part of a package with other Heidsieck cuvées. 

Eight editions of Charles Heidsieck’s Brut Réserve Mis en Cave

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