Cyril Brun has been chef de cave of Charles Heidsieck since 2015. A solid champagne maker, he was enologist for 15 years in another great house: Veuve Clicquot. A pragmatic man of clear ideas, great knowledge and passion for champagne, he explains what makes Charles Heidsieck and its non-vintage Brut Réserve truly unique, and why assemblage is a crucial element of the specificity of Champagne wines.
How did you become chef de cave of Charles Heidsieck? What is your career path in Champagne?
I was born in Aÿ in a family of vine growers. My parents stopped making their champagne at the end of the 1990s to refocus on viticulture only. So, I grew up next to the vines, the cellar, and the wine. My mother, a hospital practitioner, wanted me to become a doctor but my father advised me to join the wine world, much more enjoyable. I studied enology at the University of Reims, and then finance, business, and marketing in California. On my return, I joined the family business, but things were rather complicated with some generational conflicts.
So, I preferred to discover champagne in larger houses and the ones that always had a special place in my heart were Veuve Clicquot and Charles Heidsieck. Those were our family’s favorite champagnes apart from our own. I applied for a job at both houses and their former chefs de cave, Jacques Peters and Daniel Thibault, invited me for an interview. Both meetings went very well but Peters hired me first. I was enologist at Veuve Clicquot from 2000 to 2015, for my greatest pleasure. Then in 2014, Thierry Roset, chefs de cave of Charles Heidsieck, sadly passed away and the president of the house at that time, Cécile Bonnefond, who was previously president of Veuve Clicquot where we met, offered me the job.
Before landing in the EPI group in 2011, Charles Heidsieck passed hands a few times. What was the state of the house when you joined?
In 2015 the house was in a recovery phase under the EPI group, and I was eager to participate in this rebirth. Charles Heidsieck nearly disappeared at one point, with sales divided by 10 in 30 years (more than 4 million bottles in the 1980s against 300,000 in 2011), with no promotion or communication. But remarkably, this had no impact on its wines that have always remained of exceptional quality throughout the time. This is mainly due to the strong personalities of its chefs de cave, who as “guardians of the temple” have remained independent from the commercial and economic strategies of the shareholders who have succeeded one another, and have not made compromises that could have impacted the quality of the wines.
Is there a typical consumer of Charles Heidsieck?
We do not have a typical consumer profile. I previously had the idea of a “mature” consumer of Charles Heidsieck, given to the moment of glory that our house had in the 1980s and 1990s. But by meeting our customers, I realized that they are rather young as we benefit of a certain curiosity because of our limited size and the fact that we have disappeared from the market for a long time and that we have returned, for a few years now, in a rather assertive way. We are almost seen as a champagne start-up or as a successful grower, although we were founded in 1851. So, we reach relatively young, passionate, curious consumers, who are positively surprised by Charles Heidsieck.
How would you define the style of Charles Heidsieck that made it so famous?
What makes the uniqueness of our style is the duality given by the best of young wines and old reserve wines. We bring together the best of both sides of champagne with the extremely pleasant and refreshing aspect of young champagne, combined with all the power and complexity of mature champagne.
What makes the uniqueness of our style is the duality given by the best of young wines and old reserve wines.
Our Brut Réserve shows such complexity and a texture that put it in a different league of non-vintage champagnes, almost into the vintage champagnes category. For this, we use 60% of base wines and 40% of reserve wines of an average of 10 years of age. This high proportion of reserve wines brings aromatic complexity to the champagne but also a silky, creamy texture, extremely fine bubbles, atypical for non-vintage champagne.
How do terroir and grape varieties contribute to the creation of your style?
Good grapes are essential to make high-quality wine and they result from the perfect pairing of great soil and adequate vine growing. Our vineyard of 60 ha, located in the Marne and the Aube, satisfies 8% of our grape needs and thus the remaining 92% is sourced from our partner vine growers in the vineyards right for our style, and that are properly managed.
Good grapes are essential to make high-quality wine and they result from the perfect pairing of great soil and adequate vine growing.
I want the grapes to be the pure expression of their terroir, so the impact of the vine grower should be neutral. The selection of our partners is based on this principle, on terroirs that are clearly in line with our stylistic needs and with vine growers who know how to express them and nothing more. The technical, viticultural, and enological know-how of our maison is well respected by our partners whom we follow and accompany in their work, generation after generation.
But we continue to expand our vineyard with regular acquisitions, also to better understand the climatic challenges that have increased in the last decade. These are causing an acceleration of climatic disorders that amplify the differences between terroir and vine growers, thus requiring much more effort to obtain an identical result year after year.
We use the three Champagne grape varieties in equal parts for Brut Réserve, with the freshness and elegance of chardonnay, the structure of pinot noir and the generosity of meunier. We source them from 60 different crus and vinify them separately by village and grape variety, in stainless steel vats. But the house style must transfigure the terroir and the grape variety through the assemblage, a specificity at the heart of the Champagne know-how.
What do you think of the current trend to produce mono-cru champagnes?
In my opinion, assemblage makes Champagne a unique sparkling wine region, similar to no other, and these mono-cru wines are not representative of it. Furthermore, if we produce more and more mono-cru champagnes, clos champagnes, and vintage champagnes, this will negatively impact, indirectly, the quality of non-vintage champagnes, subtracting quality material. The best still wines contribute to the complexity of non-vintage champagnes, which account for 80% of all champagne sales, and these champagnes could be impacted if these still wines are not stocked but used only to produce niche cuvées.
Assemblage makes Champagne a unique sparkling wine region, similar to no other, and mono-cru wines are not representative of it.
Consumers’ loyalty to a champagne brand is built on its brut non-vintage. To make good champagne from a single plot in good years is easy, but to make great champagne every year with larger volumes like our Brut Réserve is a challenge. Today, consumers are more open and curious to taste new wines, but it is essential to keep a safe harbor where they will return, and that is represented by brut non-vintage champagne. Personally, the more I drink champagne, the more I drink non-vintages; I find in them a complicity of terroirs and vintages that gives me great pleasure.
There has been a growing trend in creating new champagnes and some houses may have gotten a bit lost in this quest for innovation. At Charles Heidsieck, we have a narrow range of wines and technically nothing prevents us from creating new champagnes; but I do not see the point. In addition, what may look like a market demand today for new champagnes may no longer be there when they are marketed, after the necessary cellaring years. This is not the purpose of our house because our size does not allow us to make mistakes, hence the importance of our brut non-vintage and its consistently superior quality.
It can still gain in complexity after disgorgement, but it also depends on personal taste. If you prefer notes of freshness, it is better to drink it at the time of purchase but if you are looking for additional notes of maturity, you can still age it for up to five or six years in the cellar.
I think that sugar is an ally of champagne, to refine or assert a style if you know how to use it and give champagne the time to incorporate this exogenous element. I’m not a big fan of champagne with no dosage and the only ones that I appreciate are those that have just been disgorged in the cellar, with this sensation of purity, lightness, minerality of the terroir that no-dosage champagnes claim. But this magic sensation is ephemeral, disappears after half an hour, so I find it unrealistic to attempt bottling this emotion and selling it outside the cellar.
I think that sugar is an ally of champagne, to refine or assert a style if you know how to use it and give champagne the time to incorporate this exogenous element.
Do you drink champagnes from other houses?
Of course. There are a lot of houses that work very well, and it allows me to get out of our style and my job. I usually taste non-vintage and vintage champagnes, less frequently prestige cuvées, that I buy or exchange with colleagues. My best moments with champagne are those when I can put aside the technical aspect of my job and dwell more on the emotion, on the hedonistic character of champagne tasting.
What does champagne mean to you?
Champagne is a product charged with emotions that brings the magic.
Champagne to me is conviviality, sharing pleasure and emotions, with this sparkle in the eyes of the person with whom you share this moment of happiness. Champagne is a product charged with emotions that brings the magic. Simply purchasing champagne will make you happy, through its visual element, even before its great taste, and will turn a bad day into a beautiful day.
What would life be like without champagne? Life without champagne would be rather sad, like life without music or painting.