Monday, February 22, 2010

Decanting Champagne with Charles Heidsieck and Riedel Crystal

What’s the best way to drink Champagne? I ask this question because the way that most people answer it remains, for me, one of the most vexing problems in the world of wine. My estimate is that, if you posed this question to 10 people, nine of them would say something like, “Ice cold, and in a flute.”

Unfortunately, this knee-jerk response is the result of what might be two of the most dangerous aspects of consumers’ wine-drinking routines: Habit and misunderstanding.

Indeed, for most people, Champagne is a treat to be enjoyed only during times of celebration. As a result, it’s typically consumed from flutes that, while excellent for maintaining the bubbles’ vivacity, do little for what ostensibly matter most: The aroma and the flavor. After all--and contrary to popular perception--Champagne is first and foremost wine. The problem is that far too many consumers consider it a part of some sort of separate category, one where the typical rules of consumption (appropriate stemware, pairing it with food) don’t necessarily apply.

Fortunately, I’ve noticed a bit of a trend in recent years, especially at better restaurants: The flutes have been growing larger, more bulbous, and therefore capable of affording even the most basic Brut NV its best possible expression. But we’ve yet to get to the point where most customers would feel comfortable drinking, say, older vintage bottlings from white-wine glasses.

Still, any progress right now is good progress, and I have a feeling that, as more consumers become more educated about Champagne, they will grow far more willing to break free from what amounts to a fairly detrimental (or, at the very least, limiting) orthodoxy as it exists right now in regard to Champagne consumption.

And even if the Champagne-drinking public isn’t quite yet at the point where they’re ready to experiment, the groundwork is being laid for when they do get there.

Last autumn, for example, I had the very good fortune to attend an event at New York's Astor Center co-hosted by Champagne Charles Heidsieck and Riedel Crystal, at which I not only had the chance to taste some remarkable Champagnes, but also to learn about an aspect of Champagne consumption that would never occur to most people: Decanting.

(I’m writing about this now because I wanted to wait until after the holidays; these days, deep into winter already, we could all use a pick-me-up, and what better way than with Champagne, that most reliable curative for all that ails us?)

Decanting, of course, isn’t for all Champagne. And it shouldn't’ be done in a standard decanter, either. But mature, complex, and balanced bottlings, when decanted into an appropriate vessel, will absolutely express themselves better than if they had just been poured from the bottle into the glass.

This event was a chance to experience a gorgeous lyre-shaped decanter that Riedel has created specifically with the Charles Heidsieck Blanc des Millénaires in mind. Its ingenious design allows the wine to open up and attain its greatest level of complexity and expression without losing the bubbles.

The difference between the Charles Heidsieck Blanc des Millénaires 1995 from bottle and decanter was astounding. From bottle, it showed perfectly juxtaposed creaminess and acidity, its balance between richness and linearity perfectly pitched. It was amazingly youthful for a nearly 15-year-old wine, its minerality coming through with ringing clarity. From the decanter, however, it was another creature entirely--more mature, richer, deeper, showing a complex well of everything from warm butter to brown-sugar-grilled peaches and even a hint of dates. The texture was different, too: It was softer and creamier, almost silky, and coated the palate with even more generosity. The decanter took what was a great wine on its own and made it even better.

The tactile differences in particular were striking. After all, most of us think about how a wine opens up in terms of flavor and aroma when it’s decanted, but rarely discuss--or even pay attention to--the textural benefits of doing so. This also plays out when comparing more complex Champagnes from flutes and wine glasses; the latter tends to amplify richer, deeper, creamier notes, and brings the bubbles into a greater sense of harmony with the wine itself. (NB: Regis Camus, Heidsieck's legendary Cellar Master, who spoke at the event that day, pointed out that flutes are better suited to Champagnes in the fruitier, brighter register, whereas wine glasses are better for Champagnes that are, as he said, “plus gastronomique.”)

At the end of the tasting and discussion (Maximilian Riedel, CEO of Riedel Crystal North America, also spoke, as did Remy Cointreau USA’s Jennifer Simonetti-Bryan, MW, Master of Wine & Spirits Expert, and Christian Holthausen, the International House Communications Director for Champagnes Piper-Heidsieck and Charles Heidsieck), we had one more treat in store: The exceptionally rare Charles Heidsieck Champagne Charlie 1981, a legend of a wine of which only 2,940 bottles were ever produced. It was, in a word, perfect, possessed of a beguiling deep color and notes of warm buttered nuts, dried apricots, flowers, pizzelles, café crème, hints of lemon creme, and truffles. It was all I could do to keep from chewing every sip in an effort to pull even more from the well of flavors it delivered. Mr. Camus suggested this Champagne at the end of a meal with a cigar. He also pointed out that it will work well with chocolate, which is typically a very difficult partner for Champagne. But for me, it was spectacular simply on its own, and a perfect way to end a singularly eye-opening (and, indeed, fantastically delicious) morning.


Anonymous said...

Will any decanter do the job?

Brian Freedman - on February 22, 2010 at 2:53 PM said...

No--the risk with a standard decanter is that, with all the surface area of the wine's that's exposed, you'll lose the bubbles fairly quickly. That's the genius of this special Riedel one: Its shape allows the wine to breathe and open up without the bubbles being adversely affected. It's really an amazing concept and design.

catenians on March 15, 2010 at 8:26 PM said...

Interesting but how much CO2 is lost through decanting?

CO2 in solution is carbonic acid so removing this acid removes a balance to sugar.

So not surprising that acid is down and sugar is up.

Brian Freedman - on March 16, 2010 at 5:25 PM said...

Warren--thanks for the comment!

As far as CO2, you'd be surprised at how little is actually lost. I was a bit skeptical, too, especially considering that, with older Champagnes, there's already less overt vivacity. But this decanter actually made the Champagne more vinous without its losing its essential liveliness or character, and the balance was even better from the decanter. Amazing stuff...

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