Champagne Charles Heidsieck: The Gastronome’s Bubbly
Riding into Moscow on the back of a horse in 1811, with bottles of his champagne trailing him, Charles-Henri Heidsieck had a brilliant plan to market his wine. Having arrived just ahead of Napoléon Bonaparte’s advancing army, it didn’t matter to him who would be drinking his champagne—so long it was the victor.
Forty years later in 1851, the champagne house of Charles Heidsieck was formally established and has remained very tightly linked to the image of its founder. The man responsible for creating the brand was Charles-Camille Heidsieck, the son of Charles-Henri and his wife Emilie Henriot (of champagne house Henriot). The young Heidsieck, then 29, made the bold step of taking the family’s wine to the US.
“Observing the already crowded European ‘champagne markets’—essentially monarchs, emperors and some well-off bourgeois in those days—Charles-Camille came to the conclusion that West was the way forward. He was the pioneer from Champagne and developed an impressive business,” recounts Stephen Leroux, executive director of Charles Heidsieck.
Charles-Camille made four extensive trips to the US within 10 years and became a legend in his lifetime. Champagne Charlie, as he came to be known, earned himself celebrity status, often appearing in newspapers as the person who single-handedly introduced bubbly to the New World.
The going was far from easy, though, with the financial turbulence of the 1850s and later the Civil War (during which Charles-Camille was arrested by General Benjamin F Butler and convicted of spying for the Confederates. Thrown into jail, he was finally freed in November 1862 by president Abraham Lincoln, whom he had known years before in elegant cocktails in New York). Charles-Camille finally made it back to France, where he continued to develop his business, winning markets and various emblematic awards.
But Champagne Charles Heidsieck’s popularity did not rise on the bubbles of a cult personality alone. Charles-Camille sought to enhance winemaking facilities back home in Reims. As part of his master plan, he purchased 47 cellars in which to age his champagnes. Called crayeres, these cavernous underground cellars 30m below ground level were carved into natural chalk quarries dating back to the great Roman Empire. Today, the crayeres still hold countless bottles of Champagne Charles Heidsieck, where they remain for at least three years before they are released to the public.
“We say three years of ageing, no less, that’s our public commitment,” says Leroux. “In reality our Brut Réserve is held for four to four-and-a-half years, which hardly anyone does for non-vintage (NV) champagnes as time is money.”
The house’s vintages age for the best part of eight to 10 years, and its iconic Blanc des Millénaires (Blanc de Blancs) spend 12 to 18 years developing its strong personality in the cold, dark chalk underground cellars where the temperatures, no matter the season, are almost consistently around 10°C.
Leroux adds, “Using 40 per cent reserve wines is also an ‘extreme’ in winemaking methods, and its our seal of guarantee of consistency in our NV.
“We use the best fruit from the best growers in the Champagne region, and we set aside the best of the harvest for our reserve wine library, with some of them ageing up to 20 years. These are tasted nearly 100 times during their breading before being selected for blending in the NV with wines from the newest harvest. This accounts for Champagne Charles Heidsieck’s superior quality. We stand for differentiation, spirit and character.”
A Toast to Lineage
Charles-Camille was succeeded by his similarly charismatic descendants, who continued in the tradition of carrying “Charles” in their hyphenated first names and wielding the touch of irreverence and wit that the characterised the house and its founder. After going through various ownerships (counting among them Champagne Henriot) through the 20th century, the champagne house was eventually bought by Rémy Martin (now known as Rémy Cointreau) in 1985. Daniel Thibault—one of the most brilliant winemaking minds in Champagne—was appointed chef de caves. During this time, the wines of Charles Heidsieck saw significant improvement.
One of Thibault’s greatest achievements at Charles Heidsieck was to raise the amount of reserve wines used in crafting the house’s Brut Réserve to 40 per cent—a technical decision aimed at creating a more powerful, assertive, structured wine that is unmistakably Charles Heidsieck’s flagship.
In 2011, Rémy Cointreau decided to sell the champagne house. Luxury goods conglomerate LVMH made a bid, but was unsuccessful; Charles Heidsieck was sold to family-owned Société Européenne de Participations Industrielles (EPI), a holding company of the Descours family, which owns a number of French luxury brands.
The entrepreneurial family took it upon themselves to protect and restore the house and its wines, and Charles Heidsieck found new impetus to face the challenges of the 21st century. In addition to new appointments on the team and fine adjustments to the winemaking, the bottles have also received a facelift—they now sport a fresher, vibrant, and more prestigious look. EPI chairman Christopher Descours is “viciously obsessed, in the very best way, about us restoring the glory of this historical Maison de Champagne,” Leroux shares.
Despite its winemaking achievements and renown among champagne connoisseurs, Charles Heidsieck remains a secret hidden in plain sight—but perhaps not for much longer. In November last year at the eminent 45th International Wine & Spirit Competition (IWSC) awards presentation and banquet held at London’s Guildhall, Charles Heidsieck bagged a total of four awards: Non Vintage Champagne trophy for its Brut Réserve NV; Vintage Champagne trophy for its Rosé Millésime 1999; Champagne Producer of the Year; and in what might perhaps be the most sobering manner to remind us of Charles Heidsieck’s outstanding quality—Winemaker of the Year. That same month, after almost a year of talks, Emil Teo, executive director of local wine importer Taste of Tradition secured the rights for exclusive distributorship for Champagne Charles Heidsieck in Singapore.
Emil vaunts Champagne Charles Heidsieck as “the world’s most awarded and most underrated champagne”. With its reputation as an “insider’s champagne”, it has a natural fit with Taste of Tradition’s brand portfolio of fine wines that include celebrated names the likes of Louis Latour, Château de Beaucastel, and Sine Qua Non.
On its current premises at Little Road, off Upper Paya Lebar Road, Taste of Tradition has in-house cellars with capacity for 16,000 cases of wines at any one time. The company observes a strict policy on cold chain logistics—wines are transported chilled, and as soon as they arrive on Singapore shores, they are brought refrigerated to the company’s in-house cellars, where they remain chilled at ideal temperatures up to the point of retail.
“If you’ve ever noticed a slight rancid oil aftertaste to a champagne, it’s because it was not stored properly,” Emil explains. For that reason, Taste of Tradition’s retail partners are also encouraged to keep bottles chilled; customers who buy direct from Taste of Tradition or its retail subsidiary Booze Wine Shop are also advised not to take home bulk orders they can’t cellar.
For very delicate wines, cold chain logistics are particularly critical in keeping the freshness of the wines and ensuring that they lose none of their aromas and tastes. And for a gastronome’s champagne like Charles Heidsieck, it is all the more crucial that it reaches the connoisseur in optimum condition, so that tipplers enjoy the wine the way it was made to be appreciated.
“If you want to host a multi-course gourmet dinner at home, this is the champagne you are looking for,” says Emil. “Why would you want to start the dinner with anything else but Charles Heidsieck?”
Charles Heidsieck Brut Réserve NV, $135
Laid in cellars 2008 and disgorged in 2013, the Brut Réserve NV offers notes of lemon peel with hints of bready toastiness on the nose. The flavours are exquisite and balanced with citric freshness and characters of nashi pear.Charles Heidsieck Rosé Réserve NV, $145
A brilliantly made rosé with an appealing soft copper-pink colour, the wine opens with a bouquet of strawberries and tiny red fruits. It’s rich and voluptuous on the palate, with a fine precise expression and a long, silky finish.