SPONSORED CONTENT NOTE: I attended the winemaker’s dinner described in this post as a guest of Interbrands Denmark. View, opinions and strange metaphors are entirely my own!
Champagne is a breathtaking creation. No other drink in the world evokes quite the same feelings of luxury, splendor, hedonism, sex, beauty and sin in quite the same way as the golden-hued sparking elixir of life from Northern France. I love Champagne. In any way, shape or form. Young Champagne, old Champagne, vintage or non-vintage, Champagne cocktails or even Champagne desserts. If I could drink but one alcoholic beverage for the rest of my days, Champagne would, without the shadow of a doubt, be it.
Which is why my senses peaked a little more than usual when into my inbox dumped an email from a relatively new acquaintance of mine. “If but a few of your taste buds remain after all that chili and red sauce you’ve stuffed your face with,” she wrote almost flirtingly, referring to my Instagram love for Sriracha and hot peppers “maybe this will be of interest to you?”
Attached was a personal invitation to attend a tasting of several Cuvées of Champagne from Charles Heidsieck along with a selection of dishes to match the wines. Moreover, the event was to take place at Restaurant Niels at the newly opened Nobis Hotel in the heart of Copenhagen which despite its somewhat peculiar name – Niels being a rather out of season Danish boy’s name – has already generated some buzz, mainly because of chef de cuisine, Casper Sundin. Casper has gathered a lot of praise for his focus on superior, local and seasonal ingredients coupled with a sharp focus on depths of flavor and complimentary tastes and textures.
Exciting expressions of Champagne, food pairings from an up and coming star on the Danish chef scene? I promptly hit reply on the email and with a few well-picked words sparked what would be the beginning of a beautiful friendship with a beautiful blonde: “You had me at Champagne!”
Fast forwarding a few hectic weeks, I suddenly found myself heading down a sunny street in Copenhagen where completely randomly, I bumped into an old, familiar face in the shape of Mads from Madsvin.com who had received an invitation much to the tune of mine. Together we made our way through the lush hotel lobby, down a grand staircase and into the open reception area of Restaurant Niels where a couple of waiters briskly but politely led us through the restaurant, hooked us up with some beautifully crested Charles Heidsieck Champagne glasses plus our first pour of bubbles for the evening.
We were then shown into the back courtyard where several prominent members of the Danish restaurant scene and a selected group of food writers were already gathered, sipping Champagne and exchanging tall tales.
Scanning the scene, we noticed several familiar faces including that of Frederik Kreutzer, product manager at Otto Suenson and wine blogger at vinkreutzer.dk. We shook hands, clinked glasses and were just about to get started on some very serious (ahem) tasting business when we were un-rudely interrupted by a giddy Anne Køster whose PR services had been at play in the making of this event: “My blogger boys,” she chirped, “fascinating product, fascinating company and fascinating history, isn’t it? Have you had a chance to look at the background information and history, I sent you?”
At this point, at least three different yet equally creative versions of “my dog ate my homework” ensued, but had we actually done so, the story would have sounded a little along these lines…
Champagne Charlie and the Hollywood Bombshells – The Story of Charles Heidsieck
Maison Charles Heidsieck was founded in 1851 by…. wait for it… Charles Camille Heidsieck, a true gentleman of his time and one of the first to understand the potential and importance of emerging markets outside of France and continental Europe.
Charles was, as the British would say, a dandy fellow – a charmeur and a gentleman – and quickly became part of the establishment and nightlife of both Paris, London and eventually New York. So popular became Charlie and his elixir of life that he is single-handedly credited with, if not introducing, then certainly popularizing Champagne and Champagne consumption in the United States. From New York City to New Orleans, Louisiana and beyond during the 1850’s and 60’s.
Of course, the only minor problem with a production relying largely on a developing market in the United States in the 1860’s was that on April 11,1861, a few guns went off in Vicksburg and the once United States of America became “engaged in a bitter civil war testing whether a nation so conceived and so dedicated could long endure.” – as Abraham Lincoln would later so famously put it.
Now, when people in the know say that a war is good for the economy, I think it’s safe to say that they’re not talking about the luxury wine economy. Not only did the outbreak of war create a massive slump in Champagne consumption, it also brought a pretty effective halt to the trading of luxury commodities and the paying of bills thereof.
Desperate times call for desperate measures and Charles, being more of a gung-ho businessman than the types we know today, chartered a boat to America to clear things out. Here, he was met by his American agent who spun some tale about how the Union/Confederate trade embargo somehow relieved him of his financial obligations towards Charles. In a you can’t make this fucking shit up sort of fashion, he then managed to smuggle himself deep into Confederate territory to seek payment for outstanding invoices in the City of New Orleans. Now, had Charlie checked his Twitter feed before departure, he would have probably known that he would arrive to find a city close to surrender and his customers flat-out broke.
Given the tides of the war, Champagne Charlie now found himself not only devastated and broke, but also trapped under a Union blockade of Louisiana and any trade routes leading to and from it. Questionable decisions were made and Charles soon found himself in possession of some diplomatic papers courtesy of the French consul in Mobile, meant to possibly, maybe, sorta, help him find a diplomatic route back to France.
At this moment of our story, put yourself for a minute in the shoes of Union General Benjamin F. Butler as a shady looking French-speaking gentleman stumbles into New Orleans and into a Union checkpoint sporting a stack of diplomatic papers detailing the sales of uniforms from French textile merchants to the Confederate army and a cover story which mostly revolves around smuggling yourself by way of the Midwest into one of the most heavily guarded confederate strongholds, looking for money that people owed you for terribly expensive wine… What would you do? The general was not in doubt, he quite simply threw Champagne Charlie in jail on suspicion of being a spy – and a really lousy one at that! Again, you can’t make this fucking shit up!
Following four months of imprisonment and a notable diplomatic crisis between France and the United States of America officially known as the Heidsieck Incident, Charlie was eventually released and able to return to France, a broken, miserable man in the deepest of debts with a business in shambles.
Charles and his family teetered on the brink of bankruptcy for years until, in another twist of you can’t make this shit up, Charlie was contacted by the brother of his former US agent. So bad did the man feel about the fate that had befallen Charlie that he wanted to make amend for his brothers failure to pay. Having no money, the man bestowed upon Charlie a few deeds he had for some plots of land on the outskirts of a village named Denver, Colorado…
The money that was eventually gained from the sale of these plots helped Champagne Charlie not only rebuild his Champagne empire, but helped him massively expand it as well. An expansion that continued after Charlie’s death in 1822 and eventually peaked at some 8 million bottles produced per year, much of which was exported to the United States and became the go-to Champagne for the jet set and Hollywood night life as well.
And if you think this all sounds a lot like a Hollywood B movie, it’s because it is! Someone actually did make a horrible movie adaption of this true story staring Hugh Grant.
“Man, I just plain don’t care about history,” admitted present day Frederik at this point, “what I care about is how things are done here and now and how they will evolve in the future”. Whether or not you subscribe to Mr. Kreutzer’s views on the importance of history, he is right in some aspect: for us, the lovers of taste, decadence and life, the magic lies perhaps not in the history but rather in the making of Charles Heidsieck champagne, specifically their non-vintage “basic” wine Charles Heidsieck Brut Réserve.
Intensity and depth: Crafting a less than ordinary non-vintage Champagne
Non-vintage Champagne is usually the show piece of many Champagne houses. Many will have their more expensive vintage Champagnes and much more expensive prestige cuvées like Moët & Chandon’s Dom Perignon or Louis Roederer’s Cristal. It is, however, the non-vintage Champagne that is the calling card of the Champagne house, the unique, familiar preferred blend that people fall in love with and that keeps them coming back year after year.
And creating a unique, familiar tasting experience that is the same year after year is by no means an easy feat in the wine business where conditions, grape potential and a multitude of other factors change year by year.
To make Champagne, one makes a base wine from the current year’s harvest. This wine can be made from any mix of one of more grapes from one or more plots throughout the region. These wines are then mixed with so-called reserve wines, wines that have been aged in the cellar for years, not only to add depth but also to help achieve the same taste and style year after year. The resulting wine is then bottled, topped with liqeuer de tirage, essentially a mix of yeast and sugar, and stocked away in the cellar to develop bubbles and flavors through a secondary bottle fermentation. After a given amount of time, the bottles are removed from the cellar, the yeast and residue removed, they’re corked and labeled – and you essentially have Champagne.
It’s a terribly complex and lengthy process in itself (and you can read more about it here), but at Charles Heidsieck it’s even longer and even more complicated.
The mere base wine that goes into Charles Heidsieck, for example, is a complex puzzle of rather epic proportions. First and foremost, it’s made of an equal blend of all three acceptable grapes in Champagne: Chardonnay for freshness and spine, Pinot Noir for fruit and warmt, and Pinot Meunier for added body.
The wines, however, are taken from a staggering 60 different plots, vinified separately and fermented in steel tanks. They are then mixed with the reserve wines which at Charles Heidsieck really live up to their names by carrying a median age of 10 years; some younger, some much older.
The final blend is then, in the style of the region bottled and aged sur lie, on the yeast, not for the 18 months that tradition and specifications demand, but for three years before they’re disgorged, corked and ready to be enjoyed at such festive occasions as a Tuesday evening at the Nobis Hotel in Copenhagen.
The result is a style they call Charles’ style, that promises to be richer, deeper and more complex than other non-vintage Champagnes.
And thus, finally, iur first taste of Charles’ extravagant style came in the most beautiful of ways – in a sun-drenched courtyard in inner Copenhagen from Charles Heidsieck’s own beautifully crested signature Lehman glasses that truly allowed the reserve wines to breathe, resulting in rounded notes of nougatine, vanilla and cream as a bed for more fresh and pungent expressions of ripe fruit and a vibrant acidity.
We sipped, smiled, sipped again and made no complaints as our glasses kept refilling for the next hour or so.
Champagne: the perfect wine for food?
As the sun started its slow and lazy descent across the brilliant summer sky, we moved from the outside courtyard to the comforting walls of Restaurant Niels whose mix of upscale New York eatery and wood-framed Nordic cool seemed a perfect match for what was about to transpire: a meeting between some of the classic Champagnes from France and a re-invented Nordic cuisine drawing on seasonal ingredients.
A representative of Maison Charles Heidsieck presenting wines during dinner at Restaurant Niels. Photo credit: Levemand Photo, used with permission.
The purpose of this dinner: to explore not only various expressions of Champagne, but also how different expressions of Champagne paired with different expressions of food. An activity, I’m not going to lie to you, that I’ve been looking forward to for weeks. In my mind, you see, Champagne, luscious and lovely as it is, is probably one of the most underrated of wines when it comes to food pairings.
Champagne is something we tend to enjoy on its own as an aperitif or as a companion to hors d’oeuvres, snacks or appetizers. And peace be with that, there’s nothing I love more than a glass of Champagne because… Saturday… But there’s so much more to this beauty of a wine than its abilities as a pre-dinner companion. Champagne is, perhaps, the most versatile style of wine for food pairings.
I mean, think about it. Champagne is about as diverse as they come. It’s fruity, acidic, often slightly sweet, bubbly, mineral-driven, crisp, sometimes even rich and fatty. It’s basically nearly every expression any wine could possibly have all rolled up into one. If that’s not diversity for you, I don’t know what is, and I don’t think of any wine that could possibly in the same way match basically any flavor or aroma note you could possibly throw at it in one way or another as an either complimentary or contrasting note.
Granted, some pairings are more obvious than others: Champagne and oysters, for example is a classic hit, as is Caviar, lobster and several other less expensive seafood options. Some are less obvious but make perfect sense: Gruyere cheese and well-aged Champagnes would be one such match, while others are completely surprising: Champagne and red meat, for example. But try it, it works!
As a matter of fact, some of the most surprising, interesting and extravagant dining experiences I’ve enjoyed have consisted of popping a double magnum of Champagnes (as one does) and enjoying them to a well planned, multi-course dinner. Not all matches will be perfect, but you will be surprised at how versatile of a food pairing, Champagne can be. Champagne and béarnaise? I’ve tried it and it was fucking sexy!
Ahem, I digress, onto the subject of Champagne and food. For the purpose of this séance, I managed to amass a motley crew of highly opinionated tasters: Mads from Madsvin.com, an absolute geek into taste and composition, Frederik Kreutzer, in my mind one of the leading Danish authorities on wine, Michael, restaurant manager from the famous fish restaurant Krog’s plus one of his cohorts and Anne Køster, a brilliant columnist, PR-ninja and all-out smiling lover of life. All of us seasoned tasters and frequent restaurant-goers, we were sure to leave no micro greens unturned on our plates or the slightest tasting note left in the glass.
Pairing Champagne and Food: Champagne Charlie and Restaurant Niels
From the very first serving, the cuisine of Casper Sundin hit us with several shades of visual beauty. Cured, raw scallops served with paper-thin strips of kohlrabi, white currants and a slightly tangy, slightly funky bright green sauce made from fermented granny smith apples. A visual masterpiece, to put it mildly and a largely fresh and suble serving comprised mostly of complimentary under-played flavors of crisp Danish spring, beautifully stirred up by zingy notes of apple and gooseberry.
The first pairing of the night was our favorite, served this time in a narrow, typical flute glass which sadly did little for the complexity of the wine, but rather served to emphasize the citrussy and mineral notes while dampening a lot of the complexity, making it seem slightly one-dimensional and tart.
Led by Frederik Kreutzer, we politely asked our waiter for a white wine glass which gave the wine some much-needed room to breathe, creating a much better pairing that added body to the delicate notes of the scallops, danced playfully with the sharper bite of the kohlrabi and found a perfect match in the slightly funky, slightly apple-y sauce.
The only thing in this pairing that worked out less than perfectly were the white currants which, when working in unison with the acidity of the wine painted an all-together overly acidic picture in need of extra balance.
Beef tartare and Rosé Champagne
Next order of business was one of my favorite things about spring and early summer: frothy, sparkling and perfectly salmon pink rosé champagne served to the tune of a beautiful blonde laughing at my incredibly bad jokes about being a mighty, swashbuckling pirate.
Notes of strawberries, raspberries and wild roses filled our nostrils and we were all but taken aback for a few minutes before our evening was further enriched by the arrival of a perfect spring pair: lumpfish roe and white asparagus served atop a chunky, creamy and silky veal tartare along with gooseberries and cress. The very essence of your carnal desires wrapped within a deceivingly sexy package.
Gone were any remaining traces of subtlety from our first starter and in their place was a bombardment of surprisingly sweet, fatty, intensely rich and creamy meaty flavors mixed with pockets of briny salinity and a herbaceous crunch, all perfectly intermingled with the dangerously quaffable Rosé Réserve whose straight-forward red fruit, nip of ginger and toasted brioche notes wrapped lusciously around the primal undernotes, crisp, briny accents that dominated the tartare.
Egg yolk ravioli and 2006 vintage Rosé Champagne
Next came, without comparison, the most intensely flavored dish since my truffle extravaganza at Bror Ditlev earlier this year and one of the more skillfully crafted and executed dishes I’ve seen in years. A warm yet completely velvety, oozy egg yolk wrapped within an over-sized and perfectly al dente ravioli served with an air of hay-smoked cheese, morel mushrooms and salt-cured lemons.
A rich, decadent umami-bomb bursting with creamy intensity dominated by the velvety egg yolk and funky, heavy notes of the cheese, hay and smoke… All beautifully balanced by the intense citrussy, briny and lightly sour notes of the lemons.
On the side, another expression of rosé, this time the newly released 2006 vintage rosé which displayed a warmer, richer color and more mature, preserved fruit flavors laced with butter and wrapped in fragrant spices from the subcontinent including cardamom, mustard seeds and nutmeg. The spices in particular played well with the lemon notes of the dish while the elegant fruitiness, the still vibrant acidity and the rather high dosage proved a nice match for the sheer intensity and umami in the dish in front of us.
Cod, new potatoes, green rhubarb and 2006 vintage Champagne
“The cod really pulls the Champagne together, does it not,” said Frederik Kreutzer in an effort to silence a discussion between food bloggers. I quite liked the opulent, more powerful style of the Brut 2006 vintage that had flown into our glasses amidst whiffs of toasted nuts, baked brioche and whereas Mads found it quite his stile, perhaps finding it a little too heavy and clumsy with its notes of autolysis, I’m guessing.
Fair be it to say, though, that the second main course of the evening – perfectly cooked cod with new potatoes asparagus, pickled potatoes, green rhubarb and an intense blanquette sauce made from heavily smoked fresh cheese – did, in the immortal words of Frederik Kreutzer, pull the Champagne together by sort of leveling the playing space through its creamy notes of smoke, cheese and seafood, all mixed up on a bed of Danish spring flavors and herbs.
The dish, in itself another masterpiece from the kitchen, served quite to make the wine more harmonious and pleasantly drinkable and showed once again that Champagne, especially older more robust Champagnes, can play up to even quite rich and intense dishes.
Cheese and 1995 Blanc de Blancs Champagne
Have you ever had a wine pairing that made you forget about the dish, you were eating?
Even with a hefty dining budget like mine and Champagne consumption bordering on addiction, the days in which you are served a house’s prestige cuvee are few and far between. The days in which you are served prestige cuvées with a bit of age to them are truly rare. And so it was with a somewhat hastily beating heart, I watched the popping and pouring of several bottles of 1995 Blanc des Millenaires, Charles Heidsieck’s top wines made entirely from Chardonnay from six of the finest plots, the beautiful area that is Champagne has to offer.
Harvested in 1995, a year largely overshadowed by the colossal popularity of the vintage that followed, the wine had led an impressive 23 year life and seemed eager to escape the bottle. On a backdrop of expected notes of butter, mushroom, vanilla, cream and yeast soared the magic of Champagne: white flowers, citrus and stewed tropical fruitiness and a surprisingly vibrant and youthful mix kept wonderfully in check by a still crisp, acidic spine.
As for the food pairing, a selection of three Danish cheeses, it was the only pairing of the evening that was decidedly off for me. A gruyere-style hard, aged cheese full of crispy salt crystals worked exceedingly well with the well-aged Chardonnay, while the two others, a creamy blue cheese and a white mold cheese – lovely cheeses on their own, I might add – threw me off entirely when paired with the wine.
No matter, though. With a wine like that, who needed a pairing? Well-aged Blanc de Blanc Champagnes simply get me every time. They’re like massive White Burgundies with bubbles and an extra layer of sensuality and charm about them and the 1995 Blanc des Millenaires was no exception. At 23 years of age, the impressions were certainly those of a well-aged wine, coupled with an astonishing freshness, vibrancy, fruit and, well, life. Vintage champagne from top producers, like the beautiful women in my life, age incredibly well and gracefully – as the next bottle of the night would prove…
Tasting history: Charles Heidsieck 1989 Brut Vintage
Following the final dish of the evening, a general sense of upheaval ensued as people gazed at watches, looked at train schedules and pondered the work day that lay looming on the horizon.
For those of us unwilling to part with the experience and our half-finished glasses of Champagne, however, a treat awaited. Following dessert and a bit of chatter, we were treated to one last piece of fireworks as a truly spectacular sight hit the table in the shape of a treasure from the cellars of Charles Heidsieck: a Jeroboam (double magnum) of 1989 Brut Vintage stored under perfect conditions. A deafening silence and air of respect filled the room as this treasure of the ages was slowly and meticulously presented, popped and poured for us. What followed was an intricate combination of contemplation, rapid instagramming and conversation…
How does one adequately describe the sensation of drinking a glass of 29-year-old Champagne? Words like smooth and creamy yet elegant come to mind. One could mention notes of stewed fruits, vanilla, smoke, chalk and preserved lemon that were prevalent to me. Again, one could go on to speak about the completely unexpected liveliness and playfulness about this gem or the sparkle of its golden hue – but in no way whatsoever does that suffice to describe the sensation…
The experience goes beyond the wine, which is, in itself experts would argue, no longer perfect, but perfectly imperfect. Diamonds and Rust. Like watching the exceptional and only ever so slowly fading beauty that is Joan Baez singing songs of her stormy youth with Bob Dylan at the age of 70 (performance here). There is an air of fading beauty and a slight quiver in the higher notes, but the charisma, the warmth, the character and heart beat is still here – fortified by decades of seeing life pass by.
More so, the experience is about the moment: the people, the mood, the light, the smells and the sounds and the heartwarming laughter associated with tall tales shared over entirely too many glasses of Champagne… It’s about the luxury, the privilege and completely priceless experience of seeing an incredibly rare 3 liter bottle of Champagne, perhaps one of the few remaining bottles in the world, being popped in front of you and being poured the first glass to see the light of day since it was disgorged and capped some 18 years ago, at the time already a teenager after 18 years of aging on the lees.
“A genoux,” as the French would say, thank you for this incredible gesture!
Epilogue: Of Champagne and happiness
It’s coming up on midnight and dinner guests are starting to scatter when a night cap to remember hits the table: an ice bucket holding a few bottles of the newest addition to the Charlest Heidsieck family, the 2004 vintage of their top cuvee Blanc des Millenaires.
Joining our hosts and a few new friends from the restaurant scene, I grab a glass, close my eyes and give it a whirl, a sniff and a taste. Compared to the 1995 its fresher, more vibrant with more straight forward fruity notes, citrus and minerality. Notes like butter, vanilla, mushroom and brioche are considerably more underplayed and pure focused citrus fruit dominates… With a sharp, slightly as of yet unpolished bite. An acidity and a bit of a rough, unshaped note that seems to whisper something along the lines of “you may think I’m gorgeous now, but leave me be and I will only get better!”
Sitting there, quite blessed, comparing Champagnes ranging in age from 14 to 29 years, we slowly ponder the question on everybody’s mind…
Charles Heidsieck wines: Which is better?
As the good Frederik Kreutzer pointed out in his writeup of the evening, labeling a Jeroboam of 1989 Champagne the best of the evening would be entirely too easy. And if I’m honest, while easily the most memorable, breathtaking and extravagant bottle of the evening, it probably wasn’t my favorite.
Charlest Heidsieck showed an impressive quality across the array of bottles across the evening and fully proved why they are considered by many an underrated player amongst the bigger Champagne houses:
Their grape quality, grape selection and cellar work – from top to bottom cuvées – is exceptional and their current range of vintage Champagnes are outstanding: powerful, rich and fruity with a long line ahead of them owing to the years and years they’ve spent laying dormant in the ancient chalk cellars owned Maison Charles Heidsieck before release.
The prestige cuvée, Blanc des Millenaires, is pure luxury and bliss. It’s everything a prestige cuvée should be: fresh, approachable and memorable at release with promises of great things to come for those patient enough to wait: structure, roundedness, ripeness and developed fruit as expressed in the 1995 vintage of the same wine. Not necessarily as complex, gorgeous and long-lived as it’s more famous brethren like Dom Perignon, perhaps, but at half the asking price of a well-aged Dom Perignon 1996 (review here), who really cares?
Most surprising and, in a way, breathtaking, however, was probably the basic non-vintage wines. The gorgeous rosé with its prevalence of fresh, ripe, red fruit and wild roses and, in particular, the house signature: Charles Heidsieck Brut Réserve. The meticulous blend of grapes, the prominent use of (old) reserve wines and the extended aging on lees creates a base wine that is at one time fresh and lively, yet complex and mesmerizing and trumps many of its competitors in complexity and expression.
Yeah, that’s about it, I say to myself after about one hour too many at the hotel bar with the lone survivors of an epic Champagne-related evening. I then get up, exchange hand shakes and pleasantries and walk back up the stairs, out the door and into the mercifully cool Copenhagen night air.
Charles Heidsieck Rosé Réserve. Photo credit: Levemand Photo, used with permission
As I walk the streets of Copenhagen in search of my hotel, I’m walking through the experience in my mind. How much Champagne did we have again? Three glasses to get us started? A glass and a half for each course? One glass of the ’89… The beautiful ’89… A couple of glasses of the 2004 Blanc des Millenaires… A tipple of Scotch that came flying out of nowhere and a glass for the road… “Why am I not drunk out of my mind,” I wonder. “Champagne,” I reason. Champagne doesn’t exactly get you shitfaced, Champagne simply makes you happy…
I pause outside my hotel. “Champagne is the stuff that miracles are made of,” I scribble on the back of my menu print-out right beneath the words “the cod really pulls the Champagne together, quote: Frederik Kreutzer” that were written in equally poor hand writing hours earlier. I then walk inside, drop by the reception, buy a canned a beer I’m probably not going to drink, then take the elevator up to the 11th floor, lock myself into my room, pull back the curtains and open the window to let the cool night air in.
In an hour or the sun will be up. In a few hours more, I’ll wake with a heavy head, gaze out over the rooftops of Copenhagen from the 11th floor, clear my raspy throat and mutter something along the lines of “Curse the beautiful women in my life and the situations they get me in…” then I’ll smile to myself, shrug and correct myself: “you know what, bless the beautiful women in my life and the situations they get me in!”
Thank you, Charles Heidsieck and Interbrands Denmark for an evening most memorable!