A Champagne with a story to tell

Cyril Brun’s (pictured) immediate predecessor, Thierry Roset, died suddenly in late 2014 and Brun arrived at Charles Heidsieck in May 2015. (Photo: Huon Hooke)

Imagine the pressure on Cyril Brun: he has to put the finishing touches to a great wine that was vintaged and blended by his predecessor, 12 years after the grapes were harvested. That wine will be the successor to one of the most celebrated Champagnes produced in our lifetime: the Charles Heidsieck Blanc des Millénaires 1995.

Thibault, recognising the greatness of the vintage, ignored his bosses’ instructions, laying down several times the volume of the wine that they’d requested.

The ’95 is a wine that causes everyone who has tasted it to rhapsodise. And it’s been released and re-released eight times during its life. With each disgorgement, the last at more than 20 years old, it grew greater and greater.

The line was created by one of the legendary winemakers of Champagne, the late Daniel Thibault, and there have only been five vintages, in 1983, 1985, 1990, 1995 and now 2004.

The explanation of why there was so much of the ’95 has entered folklore. Thibault, recognising the greatness of the vintage, ignored his bosses’ instructions, laying down several times the volume of the wine that they’d requested. Time revealed that it was a brilliant coup, and Australians will be reminded of how Max Schubert ignored Penfolds’ orders to stop making Grange in the late 1950s. Both men were inspired winemakers.

Cyril Brun’s immediate predecessor, Thierry Roset, died suddenly in late 2014 and Brun arrived at Charles Heidsieck in May 2015. In November 2016 he began disgorging the 2004 Blanc des Millénaires, which has only recently been released in France and will be released in Australia this month. These bottles will have had 11 and a half years on lees and 20 months on their final corks – ‘time on cork’ being a settling period deemed important by Champagne winemakers.

“You have more pressure when you have to finish something that was started by your predecessor,” Brun admits. “Thierry put the blend together in 2005. I’m holding the reins but I am not in total control.”

Curiously, the Blanc des Millénaires has always been composed of wines from the same five villages. It is a blanc de blancs, 100% chardonnay and all from the Côte des Blancs. The villages are Le Mesnil sur Oger, Oger, Cramant, Avize and Vertus, exactly 20% from each – although not necessarily the same plots of vines each time.

“Oger gives texture and richness, a fleshy, opulent chardonnay profile; Avize is quite rich and tropical/pineapple (too much Avize and it would be a Frankenstein monster); Cramant gives lightness, crispness, elegance and citrus flavours; and Le Mesnil sur Oger gives smokiness, mineral tension and slow aging characteristics.

“Vertus is a big area – the second-largest village in Champagne – and therefore the most variable, so we select the wines from Vertus to fit in with the others. There is a wide choice, so what I take from Vertus depends on the profile of the other four components.”

It works. The wine is miraculous. The bouquet is beautiful, magnificently complex with a lot of the toastiness of aged chardonnay, and in the mouth, it is full-bodied, rich and complex – a real mouthful, but also refined.

Is it as good as the famous ’95? It depends which version of the ’95 – at what age? It’s impossible to say, but it is certainly in the same class.

One thing is sure: it won’t be on the market for as long. Brun estimates it will be on sale for two to three years – not nine!

*There is an assumption in some quarters that the name Blanc des Millénaires has something to do with wealthy people. Aside from the fact that it’s expensive (AUD $430), this is not so. In French, mille means thousand, and a millénaire is anything that’s a thousand years old – in this case the Gallo-Roman chalk pits or crayères underneath the city of Reims which have been used for centuries to store bottles of maturing Champagne.

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