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Posts from the ‘Drinks’ Category

The Original Champagne Charlie

Some 30 metres beneath the streets of Reims lies a labyrinth of chalk cellars housing millions of bottles of champagne. These ‘crayeres’ – limestone mines originally dug in the 4th century purely for materials – form a natural habitat for storing the French fizz. The caves’ temperature, humidity and tranquility are perfect for holding the bottles while the wine undergoes the secondary fermentation that will turn it into champagne.

Heidsieck, the champagne house that landed on the map when founder Florens-Louis Heidsieck presented his wine to Queen Marie-Antoinette, owns 47 of these chalk pits. Unlike some of the neighbouring champagne houses that own chalk cellars, Heidsieck is not open to the public, so the crayeres have a gentle, ethereal quality, enhanced by the ‘cathedral’ style in which the caves have been dug out.

HEIDSIECK caves.pngEvery corner turned reveals another enticing stack of bottles and magnums. At any one time there are 20 million vessels of champagne stored here. While the legal minimum period for second fermentation is 15 months, Piper-Heidsieck bottles are stored in the crayeres for at least 24 months and its more expensive Charles Heidsieck label (created by a descendant of Florien, nicknamed Champagne Charlie by the Americans) for a minimum of 36 months. Wine maker Regis Camus believes this allows the fruit and body of the pinot noir to fully develop in the blend.

Maison Piper-Hiedsieck is unique in that it has two labels produced by one winery and one wine maker: the award-winning Régis Camus. As the vinification process for both is the same, the different identities (crisp and citrusy for Piper, richer and fruitier for Charles) come through the blending. Which is where Régis’s skill really comes in.

Regis Camus.jpg

The Heidsieck’s winery, a paean to gleaming stainless steel a few minutes outside Reims, is where the blends are created. Shiny vats contains the grapes harvested from one of 200 villages in Champagne that supply the Heidsieck house. Each village grows either pinot noir, pinot meunier or chardonnay grapes, the three varieties – two red, one white – that go into making champagne. Camus explains, “When we build the blend, pinot noir will be the structure, pinot meunier will be the cement and chardonnay the decoration.”

He and his team taste between 20 and 30 of these still wines every day. He can tell which wine is destined to be a ‘Piper’ and which a ‘Charles’ and which has the potential to make a vintage. And he is not making the decision based on how the wine tastes that day, but how he predicts it will taste in the future. “It’s like a teacher taking care of four-year-olds. After a few weeks you have an idea of who is going to be creative, who will be good at maths…” he laughs. Although he does concede when pressed, “It’s the heart of the job and the most difficult skill to pass on to someone else.”

PIPER-CHARLES 07_950.jpgUnusually, and driven by Camus, Heidsieck places a big focus on its regular brut rather than the star attraction vintages. “In my view a champagne house should be judged on the style and consistency of its non vintage,” Camus says. “It is quite easy to produce a good vintage with superb wines, but much more difficult to produce a consistent style in each bottle of non vintage every year.”

Especially tricky when dealing with the nerve-testing wine-growing conditions of the Champagne region. With weather that can involve frost, relentless rain or scorching sun – all of which can ruin the grape crop – having a good year is in the lap of the gods. “People in Champagne pray to St Vincent – patron saint of winegrowers!” smiles Camus. To pre-empt poor harvests, champagne houses need to keep a good amount of wine from their best years. “When you have a lean year you need to beef the wines up. The only way to do that is to use reserve wines,” says Régis. “We have a very large and rich collection of reserve wines which enables us to feel calm in meagre years.”

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[UPDATE This article was first published in 2010. In 2011 Thierry Roset replaced Regis Camus as Chef de Cave for Charles Heidsieck so that Regis could focus full time on Piper-Heidsieck.]

Will El Celler de Can Roca retain the World’s Best Restaurant title tonight?

Jordi, Josep and Joan Roca at the three Michelin-starred El Celler de Can Roca in Girona, who have launched an exclusive dining experience in partnership with American Express Invites® at Felix restaurant at The Peninsula Hong Kong on 3 and 4 June 2016 - their first in the City - offering American Express Centurion Members access to one of the most sought after chef's tables in the world. Copyright David Loftus.

Jordi, Josep and Joan Roca at El Celler de Can Roca in Girona. Copyright David Loftus.

When the World’s 50 Best Restaurants are announced in New York tonight, the Roca brothers will find out if they’ve retained the title for the three Michelin-starred El Celler de Can Roca in Spain. Chopstix met the brothers earlier this month when they held their first dining experience in Hong Kong – an American Express Invites event at The Peninsula hotel.

How did the partnership with American Express Invites come about?
Joan Roca, Head Chef: “At El Celler de Can Roca, we have a long standing relationship with American Express with a great many customers coming to our restaurant in Girona. So when the opportunity arose to do something together in Hong Kong we embraced it.

“Felix at The Peninsula, Hong Kong is an exceptional place and the perfect setting for our work to shine. They clearly put a lot of emphasis on interior design, featuring Philippe Starck interiors and the space itself has a significant effect on the dining experience. The atmosphere is of absolute modernity, which combines perfectly with our understanding of food.”

What inspiration have you had from Hong Kong?
Joan Roca: “Hong Kong is a fascinating city because it encapsulates a sense of modernity and innovation with a unique frenetic energy. Like all chefs, when we travel, we travel with our eyes, hearts and minds open.

“What’s more, Hong Kong is a place where diverse Asian cuisines converge. It is a city with a magnificent culinary culture and a diverse mix of styles and ingredients that we find deeply interesting. We love the challenge of interpreting them through our food, whilst also bringing flavours from our own kitchen to this great gastronomic city.”

 

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Joan and Josep Roca at their American Express Invites event at The Peninsula Hong Kong

Josep, we hear you’re a collector of rare Chinese tea -what are the similarities between tea and wine tasting?

Josep Roca, Head Sommelier: “Yes, it is true that I love the world of tea. I have always said that if I did not devote myself to the world of wine, tea would have become the most important part of my life. Tea has an association with health, history and wisdom. To drink tea is also to drink from a culture within a cup; for me there are many similarities to the world of wine.”

What attracted each of you to your respective roles as chef, pastry chef and sommelier?
Jordi Roca, Head Pastry Chef:  “There is a creative triangle with the three of us; complementing each other. When we work together we understand each other, enjoy ourselves and know that we can go far.

“Each of us work in a different area of the kitchen and restaurant when it comes to creating the menu. I am ‘the sweet cuisine’, the dish that is integrated at the end of the dining experience. Joan is involved throughout the entire menu, even when it comes to the desserts. All our opinions create harmony across the whole menu, providing a structure. Josep is a great expert in gastronomic memory. Drawing on the world of wine, he uses his knowledge to provide us with many ideas for flavours and associations to create the dishes on the menu.

Jordi Roca

Joan Roca, Head Chef at El Celler de Can Roca Members. Copyright David Loftus

“What attracted me most to the world of sweet food is that you can play more, you have more freedom to create. I find myself in that special moment where the customer has just finished dinner. They have been serious and now they are relaxed, with everything that comes after the last savoury dish is fun. I feel comfortable in this role of entertainment, to be able to have fun with our clients through dishes”

[UPDATE: El Celler de Can Roca is number two in the World’s 50 Best Restaurants 2016. Joan Roca has been awarded Chefs’ Choice Award 2016.]

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