I had the opportunity to try a bottle of pretty high-end Champagne. Specifically, the Champagne Charles Heidsieck Brut Reserve, which typically retails for somewhere in the $60-70 per bottle range.
I was feeling a bit cheeky during a trip to Smaller Wine Store. On a whim, I decided to snag the least expensive bottle of French bubbly I could to do a side-by-side tasting. That bottle was the Veuve du Vernay Brut Sparkling Wine. “Crisp and Fresh” the label read in French and English, right beside its $9 pricetag. I set out to determine whether the premium Champagne was really sixty bucks better than its cheapo country cousin.
My somewhat cynical attempt at an easy column theme didn’t quite work out as planned, but let’s come back to that. First, the wines themselves.
If the name “Heidsieck” rings a bell with you, you’ve probably seen the name “Piper-Heidsieck” on the side of a pricey bottle of Champagne at some point. Piper-Heidsieck was founded by Florens-Louis Heidsieck, Charles Heidsieck’s great-uncle. Charles’ father, Charles-Henri, founded the Champagne house that now bears his name.
You might also know Charles Heidsieck from the fascinating historical case of international intrigue. In the early 1850’s, Heidsieck visited New York and New England with cases of his family’s Champagne. (His father, Charles-Henri, founded their Champagne house in the early 1800’s.) Predictably, his bubbly was a huge hit among the NYC glitterati, and he became known across the country as “Champagne Charlie.”
With the outbreak of the Civil War, Heidsieck ran into trouble. Many of his outstanding debts, especially those in the Confederacy were unpaid. Whether because of legal decisions from both governing bodies eliminating debt owed across the Mason-Dixon, or whether Heidsieck’s American partners were swindling him, the result was the same.
Heidsieck traveled to New Orleans in secret, evading the Union Army by going clear to Kansas, and accepted payment for his champagne in cotton, scarce in Europe because of the North’s naval blockade. His ships attempted to run the blockade, but were sunk. Heidsieck was captured and imprisoned as a Confederate spy as he tried to return to New York. This diplomatic tussle became known as “The Heidsieck Incident” as Napoleon III lobbied Abraham Lincoln for months over his release.
Heidsieck was eventually released and returned to France nearly penniless. (His misfortune was short-lived. One of his other southern debts was paid off with deeds to land – which turned out to be about a third of the property in the newly founded village of Denver, Colorado…)
The Veuve de Vernay has its own little story. The original owner of the winery, Robert Charmat, is the son of Jean Eugene Charmat, the French scientist who developed the Charmat Method – the “other” method of carbonating wine used most often in Prosecco. A widow in the town of Vernay in the Rhone region had bankrolled John Eugene’s work, so Robert named the wine in her honor.
Moving to the present, Champagne Charlie’s signature bottle is a blend of 40% Pinot Noir, 40% Chardonnay, and 20% Pinot Meunier. Of that blend, 40% is made of up wines from Heidsieck’s 10-year old “reserve” wines to add depth and complexity. Each methode Champenoise-carbonated bottle is aged for a minimum of five years. The Veuve de Vernay, carbonated with the Charmat Method of course, is a blend of Colombard, Chardonnay, and Sauvignon Blanc.
To start our comparison, I subjected the Sweet Partner in Crime to a blind tasting of the two wines. Not surprisingly, she was able to discern the two fairly easily. The Heidseck is an austere, elegant wine. The bouquet is a complex combination of yeast, apricot, and apple blossoms. There’s a twisting balance of green apple, nuttiness, and cream on the palate, with an extended, sparkly finish. This wine is clearly crafted with great care, which the pricetag reflects.
We found the VdV much more straightforward in bouquet and flavors. Pear and peach were more in the forefront here, and the palate was much more crisp than creamy. The carbonation didn’t feel as “smooth” as the Heidseck. The finish was fruity with just a hint of sweetness at the very end. That said, though, this is a pretty damned decent bottle of bubbles. For less than ten bucks, this wine is superior to almost any sparkler you’ll find.
We also tried both of them with our dinner. I seared up some sea scallops and put them over some couscous alongside roasted red and orange bell peppers, garlic cloves, and fennel. The VdV was a good accompaniment, but the Heidsieck was culinary ecstacy. Something about those nutty, yeasty flavors next to scallops seared in butter entangled gloriously.
In thinking about doing the comparison, doing an actual apples-to-apples comparison of these wines isn’t fair to either, honestly. The VdV isn’t trying to be a premium wine. It’s an inexpensive bottle of bubbles perfect for cracking with a pizza or fried chicken. On the other hand, the Heidseick is intended to be a sophisticated wine for a sophisticated occasion, whatever your definition of “sophisticated.”
For me, personally, I have a hard time justifying a $70 pricetag for Champagne, since there’s usually a lower-cost alternative that’s nearly as good. However, if you’re really looking to treat yourself – or someone else – and money’s not really your primary consideration, you’re going to be in good hands with the Heidseick. Is it a better wine than the Veuve du Vernay? Absolutely. But I sure as heck won’t make be making a “Heidseick Bellini” anytime soon.