Charles Heidsieck Champagne Charlie: A Man, A Bottle, A Legend
by Ken Gargett
I suspect that even most teetotalers have heard of “Champagne Charlie” (the man rather than the wine), even if they have no clue who he was or what he represents.
There have been several who have claimed or received the nickname, including various politicians and footballers, but it is Charles Heidsieck who is the real deal. His life has been celebrated in song and film, including a French-Canadian drama from the 1980s starring Hugh Grant (no disrespect to Mr. Grant but it seems curious casting at best).
Born in 1822, Charles Camille Heidsieck founded the famous firm of Charles Heidsieck in 1851 (it is the youngest of the three Heidsieck houses; the family tree and history of these entwined maisons is extremely complex), and these days it is almost universally acknowledged as the pick of the trio.
His father, Charles-Henri, was just as famous and flamboyant, riding into Moscow on a white stallion in 1811 in advance of Napoleon with both champagne and an order book – he was happy to take orders from whichever side proved victorious.
Charles-Henri was the nephew of Florens-Louis Heidsieck, who founded Piper-Heidsieck. His cousins established Heidsieck Monopole, and Charles himself was married to Amelie Henriot from yet another famous house.
It was the work of Charles in America that earned him the famous moniker and where he became a regular at the very best social gatherings, elevating his profile on the international stage.
It was not all positive. Heidsieck was imprisoned during the American Civil War as a suspected French spy, something to which the soldiers did not take kindly. He had traveled to the South in secrecy to seek repayment of unpaid debts, accepting payment in cotton. Unfortunately, both ships were sunk smuggling the cotton back to Europe.
The French consul gave Charles a diplomatic pouch to help facilitate his passage home, but the pouch also contained documents about Confederate business and orders for supplies. Prison it was, for seven months. Napoleon III petitioned Abraham Lincoln for his release, but by the time he was back home, he was broke.
A few years later, the brother of one of the debtors who had avoided payment contacted Charles and sent him deeds to land as an apology. The lands turned out to be around a third of the small town that was Denver in its early days. Sales of the land covered all his debts and allowed him to reestablish his champagne house.
Recent Charles Heidsieck history
I mentioned that this was the pick of the Heidsieck houses. We should go further, much further. This is unquestionably one of the very finest of all champagne producers. Its non-vintage is exceptional. The vintage champagnes are exquisite and the prestige, the Blanc des Millenaires, is a champagne we have already featured.
Cyril Brun is the man in charge, and I suspect he must be sick and tired of two questions: why did you get rid of the former prestige cuvée Champagne Charlie and will it ever be revived?
In fairness to Brun, it was not his decision to cease production of the former prestige cuvée. That was done under the reign of former chef de cave, Daniel Thibault.
The house has been blessed with a succession of extremely talented winemakers, of which Brun is just the latest.
Thibault was considered a genius who sadly passed away far too early, in 2002 at 55. He joined Charles Heidsieck in the mid-1970s at the age of just 29 (coincidentally, the same age as the original Charles Heidsieck founded the house). It was he who was behind the amazing 1995 Blanc des Millenaires (indeed, the Blanc des Millenaires program).
Quite why he/they made the decision to dump such a stellar wine celebrating the life of the founder is a bit of a mystery – although the last vintage of Champagne Charlie coinciding with new owners – Rémy Cointreau (who subsequently sold to Christopher Descours’ EPI, a luxury goods group, in 2011) – may have played a role.
Rémy had Krug in the stable as well, and this was considered the flagship. Other wines needed to fit into less distinguished niches. Could that really have been the reason?
Although the house has a history of blanc des blancs champagnes, it was also a bit special when it came to blends such as the Champagne Charlie. Curiously, Blanc des Millenaires and Champagne Charlie overlapped for two vintages – 1983 and 1985 – disproving suggestions that there was simply not enough quality material to allow the production of both.
Blanc des Millenaires has been a roaring success, as was Champagne Charlie. The Mis en Cave program (meaning the year the bottle went into the cellars) was an excellent idea in theory, but a bit of a train wreck in practice.
But this is a house that does things a little differently and makes decisions that might seem strange at the time, only for the wisdom of them to emerge at a later date.
Charles Heidsieck Blanc des Millenaires and Champagne Charlie
Case in point, the Blanc des Millenaires is now considered one of the greatest of all blanc des blancs in Champagne – hardly a bad thing. Also, the decision not to make any vintage champagnes around the turn of the century, eschewing such stellar years as 2002, seemed beyond bizarre.
It allowed Charles Heidsieck, however, to replenish its stocks of reserve wines for use in the brilliant non-vintage and it is now reaping the rewards.
Champagne Charlie was Thibault’s creation. Only five vintages were ever made: 1979, 1981, 1982, 1983, and 1985. All were considered reasonable to stellar vintages.
A 1981 vintage was skipped by many houses as it was seen as one that would take a very long time to come around; 1982 and 1985 were the two stars of this range, but very different with 1982 a very large crop of classic wines with some superb chardonnay on display.
1985 is often overlooked because it was such a tiny vintage, handicapped by extreme cold, but it offered wines of sensational quality. Pinot noir was the star. In the early days, there was a distinct black cherry note to many of the wines.
The house also put a tiny allocation of these wines through its Oenothèque program (extended time on lees for even greater complexity). These are wines, whether you come across them from this program or their original release (assuming well cellared), that should be on every bucket list.
Charles Heidsieck Champagne Charlie: up and running again
There is, however, even better news. The program for the production of Champagne Charlie is again up and running. Try as one might to find out, though, they are not giving away when we might see the first release or even which vintage it might be. We have no idea how many subsequent vintages are in the works, if any.
However, Stephen Leroux, executive director of Charles Heidsieck, has confirmed that the blend is already in existence. This is exciting and welcome news. Fans will just have to be patient.
Those five Champagne Charlies are now somewhat legendary. Cyril Brun has been quoted elsewhere as saying that Champagne Charlie was, “a wild animal, aiming to encapsulate something unique. Sometimes it contained more chardonnay or more pinot noir, sometimes very different components, but it was always the product of the intuition of the chef de cave.”
Charles Heidsieck is very fortunate, then, to have men of the ability of Brun and Thibault.
On the very rare occasions these wines come up for auction, they bring high prices. The 1985 goes for around €800 per bottle. Now, I will confess I had no idea of that when I found one in the depths of my disorganized cellar. A special lunch with friends was on the horizon and I was allocated champagne.
Given our previous meeting saw wines like the 1989 Rayas and Madeira from the nineteenth century, standards were high. So I thought it perfect.
Finding out the cost gave me a bit of a shock, but it raises that old chestnut about when do you drink wines, especially those that might have had significant and rather unexpected increases in value.
One friend insists that as soon as a wine hits his cellar, he considers it worth zero dollars and so has no hesitation to pull it out when he feels like it. Another is the polar opposite: wines that escalate in price are destined for the auction house, and he uses the funds to replenish the cellar.
But no matter. I was committed, so fingers crossed it steps up (and, yes, I’ll confess to having written all of this section without tasting that bottle – I’ll add the notes below after drinking it).
The 1985 Champagne Charlie is a blend of 55 percent chardonnay and 45 percent pinot noir. The originals seem to have spent eight to ten years on lees.
As mentioned, this was a seriously cold vintage with temperatures as low as minus 27 for several days, with around 3,000 hectares destroyed. However, the harvest was exceptional. Early finesse and elegance pointed to eventual complexity and opulence.
So how did the 1985 Charles Heidsieck Champagne Charlie perform?
This was an original, not one later released under the Oenothèque program, and it was outstanding.
Certainly mature – based on this bottle, no real need to leave them in the cellar any longer. The bead was on its last legs, but the wine was still very much alive.
Very complex. Stone fruit and lanolin. Honeysuckle and a hint of vanilla, marmalade, and even a slight note of a creamy coffee character. Still had underlying acidity. Incredible length.
Just a brilliant champagne and a pleasure and a privilege to drink. I have talked with others who have seen it in more recent times. It seems some had very similar bottles while a few had a slight mushroomy note creeping in – no sign of that here.
It does make it even more bewildering as to why the program stopped. Loved it. Score? 98 if you are playing the Grinch; 99 if you’d rather be Santa.
The sooner Champagne Charlie is back with us as a regular release, the better. Every time I see a champagne from this house, I am reminded why Charles Heidsieck should be a must for everyone’s cellar.
It is, quite simply, one of the truly great champagne houses.
For more information please visit www.charlesheidsieck.com/en/house/champagne-charlie.
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