Located in its stylish pavilion house in Reims, Charles Heidsieck is among the most admired champagne producers. Part of the private French group EPI together with Piper-Heidsieck, they share the same state-of-the-art production site in Reims. But Charles Heidsieck has its own history, chef de cave, and beautiful reception house where I tasted superb champagnes that carry a distinctive winemaking philosophy.
In 1851, Charles-Camille Heidsieck, of the same family that founded Heidsieck & Cie, and that later became Piper-Heidsieck, created at just 29 his Champagne house. An extraordinary individual ahead of his time, a year after going into business he decided to try his luck in the United States, a market still greatly untouched by the champagne trade. There, thanks to his strong charm and entrepreneurial spirit, he became a prominent figure of the fashionable society, and was soon known as “Champagne Charlie.” His wines gained incredible success and he popularized champagne in America.
Having returned to Reims, he devoted all his energy to improving the quality of its wines and consolidating the house’s position in France and Europe. In 1859, his champagne earned its first gold medal at the Universal Exhibition of Bordeaux. In 1867, he ingeniously purchased some crayères to store and age its champagnes under optimal temperature and darkness. The house’s reputation grew among aristocratic circles and it became an official supplier of several royal courts of Europe. At his death in 1893, Charlie left a flourishing business to his heirs. His life was so adventurous and his spirit larger than life that it inspired the movie “Champagne Charlie”¬ starring Hugh Grant.
The house stayed in the family until 1976, when it merged with Henriot (the two families are related), and eventually joined the Rémy Cointreau group that also owned Piper-Heidsieck. It is during this period that Charles Heidsieck further evolved. Chef de Cave Daniel Thibault (also in charge of Piper-Heidsieck wines), an icon in Champagne, decided to employ an unusually high amount of 40% reserve wines in the brut non-vintage to increase its complexity. To build up the stock of reserve wines the house had to reduce its production volumes but gained its high-end positioning. Thibault also introduced the mise en cave label designation, indicating the year when the non-vintage champagnes were put into the cellar for the second fermentation and aging, and when they were disgorged, providing useful information for discerning consumers. During the same period, however, sales fell sensibly, and the house became very discrete.
In 2011, luxury group EPI acquired both Charles Heidsieck and Piper-Heidsieck, to put them back at top of the champagne world. They introduced new distinctive bottles for Charles Heidsieck, shaped after one of the crayères in Reims that Charlie bought. The new more contemporary labeling still includes the cellaring and disgorgement dates, something not that common but definitely useful.
Vineyard and Production
The house owns 60 ha, in the Marne and the Aube, which satisfies just 8% of their grape supplies. They source the remaining from carefully chosen vineyards and vine growers whose work is neutral so that, as Chef de Cave Cyril Brun explains, the grapes carry the pure expression of their terroirs. They vinify the grapes in stainless steel vats by cru–about 60–and grape variety. This portfolio of wines enables them to create very precise blends characterized by the signature addition of bold amounts–40%–of reserve wines, some of which as old as 10 years. The bottle aging is of three years minimum.
Given the unusually high amounts of reserve wines, Charles Heidsieck champagnes are characterized by freshness and elegance with power and complexity, with the refreshing aspect of young champagne, and the complexity of mature champagne.
The range is pretty focused, as they are not much dependent on trends and therefore do not make extra brut or mono-cru champagnes. I admire them for this stance as I see them as the ultimate guardian of the pillars that make the quality and uniqueness of champagne: reserve wines, assemblage, and dosage. Brut Réserve is among the best brut non-vintage champagnes. The non-vintages also include rosé, and blanc de blancs. The vintages include brut and rosé. Their prestige cuvée Blanc des Millénaires (vintage) is among the most iconic blanc de blancs of Champagne. Classically rich and elegant as great old chardonnays are, I once had it with rib steak, for an unusual and rewarding pairing. They are one of the rare houses to produce Coteaux Champenois still white wines.