The 2012 vintage in Champagne was expected to be a disaster – as bad as 1984, and that's saying something. There was winter frost, spring frost, torrential downpours, a poor flowering, hail and cool, cloudy summer days. Inevitably, growers battled against mildew and the threat of botrytis. Then in mid-August the skies cleared, the sun came out, temperatures rose and it stayed like that with scarcely a break until the harvest in mid-September – late by today's standards.
By then there was cautious optimism: the grapes were ripe and, against the odds, yields were fairly generous. Even so, after such a roller-coaster year, growers were expecting to have to do a lot of sorting to eliminate unhealthy berries. They didn't have to: the fruit was about as healthy as it could be.
Many houses have already released this vintage but Charles Heidsieck never rushes things. The first batch of Brut Millésimé 2012 (about a year's supply) was disgorged in April last year and arrives in the UK in mid July. MD Stephen Leroux expects the 2012 Charles to be on the market for about three years, which is good news because it really is a superb Champagne. There are around 75,000–80,000 bottles and some magnums, way more than there were of 2008.
Charles Heidsieck's perfect crayères: 8km of second-century Roman-built chalk cellars, 30m below the city of Reims. Cyril Brun, chef de caves, pouring me a glass of extraordinarily youthful 1998 vin clair in a vineyard in Cramant in 2018
Stylistically, 2012 is between 2008 and 2006, according to chef de caves Cyril Brun. Not as opulent and generous as 2006 but not as austere and closed as 2008. He'll drink his 2006s first, then his 2012s but will start on his 2008s before they're finished. Sounds like a plan – and a well-stocked cellar.
The blend is the usual 60% Pinot Noir and 40% Chardonnay from Grands and Premiers Crus in the Montagne de Reims and Côtes des Blancs, including Aÿ, Bouzy, Ambonnay, Ludes, Tauxières, Verzy and Verzenay for Pinot Noir and Oger, Cramant, Avize and Vertus for Chardonnay. What is different is the dosage: lower than usual at 8g/l. This is not to follow the trend, says Cyril, but to match the profile of the vintage. Two other innovations are Mytik corks and using jetting, a micro-injection of water to expel oxygen from the neck of the bottle before the final cork is inserted.
Aromas of almond praline, toasted pecans, a suggestion of crème brûlée and acacia honey, then a smoky flinty note and lovely purity of fruit – white peach, Mirabelle, crystallised lemon and orange. The overwhelming first impression on the palate is the creaminess: rich, generous and enveloping, but exceptionally fine (like a goose-down duvet). And it continues, with tangerine acidity flowing through and seamlessly taking in a hint of cinnamon toast, an echo of the acacia honey and some smoked almond on the way. It's drier than most vintages I’ve tasted, but perfectly in balance. Vibrant, complex, polished, complete – an unalloyed pleasure now (even though Cyril Brun thinks it’s three to four years off its peak) but with the depth, structure and vitality for it to be a joy any time over the next decade. Probably longer.
Importer: Liberty Wine
Photographs by Joanna Simon