Champagne Charles Heidsieck, which was founded in 1851, was the first producer to bring Champagne to the United States. Cyril Brun, who was senior winemaker at Veuve Clicquot for the past 15 years, moved to Champagne Charles Heidsieck last May to fill the position left vacant in the wake of cellarmaster Thierry Roset’s sudden death in 2014.
“The use of 40 percent reserve wines has made a huge difference in Champagne Charles Heidsieck’s Brut Réserve,” wrote my colleague Ed McCarthy in his Wine Review Online column a couple of years ago. “You first notice the color, a deeper gold that most other NV Champagnes. Next, the aroma, a much toastier, yeastier bouquet than you would expect from an average-priced non-vintage Champagne. Also, the weight of the Champagne on your palate is much more full-bodied than you would expect. And finally the long, complex finish, which lingers on the palate. It is no wonder that Charles Heidsieck’s Brut Réserve has become the favorite NV of many of us who love Champagne.”
I recently interviewed Cyril about his life and his upcoming move to become senior winemaker at Charles Heidsieck.
Marguerite Thomas, Q: Both your father and grandfather were winemakers in the Champagne region. At what point in your life did you know that you wanted to follow in their footsteps?
Cyril Brun, A: While I was growing up it was fascinating for me to observe them enjoying their work! I felt like they were very connected to nature and to vineyards. This is a job with a lot of diversity: You work with the vines, make the wines, and then you promote them. There’s a lot of versatility in this work. By the time I was a teenager I was fully convinced that I wanted to follow in their footsteps.
Q. Can you briefly describe what your responsibilities at Charles Heidsieck are going to be?
A. As the senior winemaker I am in charge of many different aspects of creating the wines for the House Charles Heidsieck. So it starts with selecting the best possible components for our blends and then, several years later, promoting those wines. The entire process involves many people, with many various skills, to focus all our efforts in making our Champagne. Time, of course, is the other major component in the equation.
Q. Champagne has traditionally been made from fruit from many different vineyards. Am I right in thinking that you will continue this practice, and if so, from approximately how many different vineyards are you likely to source your grapes?
A. I make the wines from 3 different grape varieties : Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier (red grapes) and Chardonnay (a white grape). They each have a very unique profile, and this profile will vary a lot depending from where the grapes are sourced. So the magic is to find out how to capture the essence of each plot of land and to make sure all the plots being blended will work together to recreate the perfect signature of our style. I can use up to 60 different crus [villages] from the entire champagne region. At the end of the day, we use the diversity of our region to bring together and maximize the individuality of anywhere from 2 to 300 hundred different lots This process of creating harmony requires both precision and intuition.
Q. Zero dosage Champagne has become somewhat trendy lately--what is your feeling about these bone-dry wines?
A. I am not a big fan, as very few wines of that type offer the profile of balance I like. Most of them lack flesh and are too aggressive. Sugar is not the enemy of Champagne, it is a simply a component that should be used to amplify certain facets of the wine. It also helps the wine to age for years.
Q. An increasing number of producers in Champagne seem to be fermenting their must in oak, though most grapes are still being fermented in stainless steel. What is your feeling about this?
A. At Charles Heidsieck, a hundred percent of the wines are fermented and aged in stainless steel tanks. I do think that the use of oak is potentially a source of complexity for the wine when used in a minor way. I might involve oak very marginally in the future.
Q. From what sort of glass do you most enjoy drinking Champagne?
A. I tend to use a pretty large glass, either a champagne glass or white wine glass. I like to give the wine space to express itself properly. I like to swirl my champagnes without ruining my shoes….
Q. Some people seem to feel that decanting Champagne (especially demi-sec) is a good idea. Do you see an advantage (or disadvantage) to this?
A. Apart from sweet champagne, I am not a big fan of decanting champagne. To come back to the previous question about glasses, I prefer to use large ones, swirl the wine if necessary to open it up, and most important: Take the time to enjoy it. This gives you the positive aspects one can expect from decanting wine without the negative aspects such as low effervescence or opening too fast.
Q. Scenario: You have been stranded on a desert island. The good news is that food is not going to be a problem--it will be as plentiful and varied as you wish. The bad news is that only 2 wines will be available, but Champagne is not an option. Which two wines do you choose for your stay on the island (which might be for a very long time!).
A. I would choose probably a German Riesling from the Mosel and a red wine from the Northern Rhône. They both offer great complexity and long ageing potential, and more important you do not get bored sipping them.
Q. I’m sure you’ve thought about changes you might be bringing to the new job. Can you talk about any of them at this point?
A. Charlie was the legendary wine from Charles Heidsieck for many years, having had its glory days in the 80’s, but it has been discontinued since 1985. It would make a lot of sense to bring it back.
Q. What is your idea of a perfect vacation?
A. With my family on a tropical island or ski resort depending on the season.
Q. Do you like to listen to music while you are working, and if so what type?
A. Music is a source of inspiration. I have pieces of music I have listened hundreds of times but, as with some great wines, you never get bored with them. Depending on my mood, it can be the “Goldberg Variations” played by Glenn Gould; “Kind of Blue” from Miles Davis, or “Wish You Were Here” from Pink Floyd.
Q. Scenario: February is the month of Valentine’s Day, so since love is in the air you are planning an ultra romantic meal for two. You will serve a first course, second course, cheese (if you wish) and dessert. What will you eat, and what will you drink with each course?
A. This is what my wife and I had for lunch on Valentine’s Day. I cooked some crab cakes as a starter, and served the Brut Reserve from Charles Heidsieck (actually, we had cracked open the bottle while preparing the crab). The main course was monkfish that I cooked with a bit of Thai influence (green curry and coriander), and paired with Blanc des Millénaires 1995 from Charles Heidsieck (we saved half of the bottle for the next day). Then, we had a selection of blue cheeses with a glass of Tokaji Aszu 6 Puttonyos 2007 from Dobogo. No dessert. Pure self-indulgence….