I had the pleasure of going through a 'Vin-Clair' tasting with the worlds most respected Champagne-maker Regis Camus 'chef de cave' at the House of Piper Heidsieck & Charles Heidsieck - in June of this year at the new cellars in Reims, France.
So I thought it would be a good idea to talk through a ‘vin clair’ tasting, as it is something very few wine enthusiasts, even winemakers and wine-writers ever get to experience.
Q: So what is a ‘vin clair’ tasting? - The base wine for Champagne, after the primary / first alcoholic fermentation and malolactic fermentation - but before the blending and secondary fermentation begins inside the bottle.
A select few of the worlds known wine writers typically get to taste a few ‘vin clair’ wines from potential vintage years. They generally don't get the opportunity to sit down and taste all the ‘vin clair’ wines from a non-vintage year, where the winemaker's skill will be employed to blend everything into a house style.
Personally this is more interesting, as with a vintage year, the base wines for say a ‘millesime’ Champagne will be selected to reflect the character of simply that one vintage. Where as with a non-vintage Champagne - you are aiming to re-create the 'house-style' from all the variations that each vintage brings, blending several hundred components and from several years (hence the name non-vintage). I won’t be sharing any detailed notes, because Piper & Charles Heidsieck source and blend from some 160 parcels, so to try and make sense of each individual wine that will represent just a few per cent of any final cuvée would take far too long.
In simple terms - a ‘vin clair’ should be intrinsically out of balance. If a base wine is to achieve balance after a second fermentation, with its additional alcohol, production of CO2 gas, and a dosage of sugar, it is obliged to be out of balance before the process starts.
I was tasting with arguably the best ‘chef de cave’ Regis Camus with both Piper & Charles Heidsieck ‘vin clair’ wines in front of us. To be able to talk through all the different nuances of each vineyard with Regis and discuss how each will support and blend with the other was to say the least - one of the best days' in my wine tasting career.
The first point you learn - is try not to look for the best, I suggest you stand a better chance of finding the wines that you like least. When tasting ‘vin clair’ wines, it is the very basic characteristics, such as structure, weight, and acidity that you should look for, rather than more specific flavour characteristics, which should be far more embryonic than in a still wine.
The first fermentation of a sparkling wine is by necessity far more crude than the one and only fermentation for a still wine. In most ‘vin clair’ tastings I have done in the past, most of the more specific aspects of fruit, elegance, finesse and potential complexity that demonstrate the promise shown by a young still wine are not usually present.
But with all of the samples that Regis his team and I worked through, already you could see the subtleties that will make the two unique styles of Piper Heidsieck & Charles Heidsieck. As you can see in the photo above - we had the current Champagne expressions/styles to compare with when working through these 'vin' clair' samples.
This is not to say that the first fermentation was too sophisticated, having leached out too much of the potential that should be left for the slow enticement of a long, cool secondary fermentation, which itself would wipe out any specific characteristics created by the first fermentation. It simply showed the quality of the fruit and the complete understanding of each vineyard, as to why Regis uses each site to create each unique style of Champagne.
To say it was a most educational and memorable visit to Piper and Charles Heidsieck, would be an understatement - it was possibly the best experience in my wine career to date.