Charles Heidsieck Blanc des Millénaires 2006: Champagne Charlie Would Approve
by Ken Gargett
Don and Petie Kladstrup wrote one of the more fascinating wine books of the last couple of decades, Wine and War, which looks at all manner of stories of famous wineries and winemakers during World War II. Thoroughly enjoyable stuff. The Kladstrups then branched out into champagne with a book called Champagne: How the World’s Most Glamorous Wine Triumphed Over War and Hard Times. It details the story of the region through wars and other tough times, so they are certainly not unfamiliar with the world’s most famous sparkling wine.
They have recently released a new book, Champagne Charlie: The Frenchman Who Taught Americans to Love Champagne. If you are expecting a review, I am afraid that I must disappoint. I have not been able to get hold of a copy as yet, but I am very much looking forward to it.
I have touched on the fascinating life of Champagne Charlie in Charles Heidsieck Champagne Charlie: A Man, A Bottle, A Legend as well as the eponymous wine, one of the great prestige champagnes (not surprisingly from the house of Charles Heidsieck), which was sadly discontinued some time ago but is making a most welcome return. In the interim, and continuing on into the future, the house also has the prestige Blanc des Millénaires champagne, a stunning Blanc de Blancs. It is, however, worth a look at the adventures of Champagne Charlie.
The adventures of Champagne Charlie
Charles Camille Heidsieck was born in 1822, a grandson of Florens-Louis Heidsieck (or great-nephew, sources vary on this), the original champagne impresario who established the house of Heidsieck & Co. in 1785, from which Piper-Heidsieck would also arise.
Charles was very much a larger-than-life character in every way, although he had the perfect role model for that style of life. Charles’ father, Charles-Henri, became legendary for riding into Moscow in 1811, just ahead of Napoleon’s army, on the back of a white stallion with cases of his champagne loaded on his packhorse and order book in hand to assist in the celebrations of whichever side emerged victorious. He was just 21 at the time.
In 1851, at just 29, Charles established his own eponymous house (the story of the rather serpentine entwining of the three Heidsieck houses – Monopole, Piper, and Charles – is a matter for another time). He is most famous for opening up the American market to the glories of champagne and did this by almost immediately traveling to the United States to develop the market there as champagne in America was a long way from the beloved drink of today.
He had made briefer forays into both England and Belgium, so it was obvious he saw the future in export markets, much as his father had done.
The United States took to him with great affection and he became a regular on the social scene. He was dubbed “Champagne Charlie” by one of the local New York newspapers and the title stuck. Charles was a flamboyant and, as mentioned, larger-than-life character. He was an impressive 190 centimeters (six feet, four inches) tall, which does make the choice of Hugh Grant to portray him in a French-Canadian television movie on his life seem rather odd.
Charles went into business with a local importer and made a number of trips to America over the next few years, building the business in a way that no other house had managed. Within half a decade, he had built sales to an annual 300,000 bottles, around the amount being sold in the United States by all other producers combined (of course, in those days, it is possible that much champagne was pale red and flat, not the sparkling gems we enjoy today – and it most certainly would have been much sweeter – but it is thought that the wines Charles was selling would have sparkled as we know them to do). By 1859, the United States was champagne’s biggest market.
However, storm clouds were building on the horizon.
Champagne Charlie and the Civil War
These clouds arrived in 1861 in the form of the Civil War. At the beginning, even this seemed likely to help, not hinder, champagne sales. Local civilians treated it as a novelty.
Many, including a number of local politicians, made the 40-kilometer journey south from Washington, D.C. to the railway junction where the first skirmish, the Battle of Bull Run, between the Union and Confederate armies occurred. They brought picnic hampers and champagne on ice, as one apparently does. It was assumed that the Union army would make short work of the rebels, and no one wanted to miss it. Things started well but the determination of the southern troops led by General Thomas Jackson (it was this battle that gave him the nickname “Stonewall”) turned the tide. And so began the lengthy and terrible conflict that almost tore the young nation apart.
Charles was in France when news of the conflict arrived and he immediately set sail to New York to save his business. He was in for some shocking news on his arrival: half his wine had been sold in the South and legal loopholes involving the cotton payments (or perhaps more accurately non-payments) by northerners meant that the southerners no longer were obligated to pay for his champagne, a situation that was very likely to send his business into bankruptcy. He had been ruined by the duplicity of his very own agent in New York (it is estimated that his agent owed him more than a million dollars in today’s terms).
Charles headed south in an attempt to deal directly with the merchants in his debt. It proved not the wisest move as it was here that he first encountered the evils of slavery and was shocked to his core. A prolific and competent writer, he described a slave auction he stumbled upon New Orleans, “As I watched the spectacle, I did not move a muscle of my face. I remained silent and said not a word, but how different was the language of my heart!” That said, there is a view that he was keen to see the South win the war as his sales were doing especially well there.
Charles accepted payment in cotton and, knowing both how popular the material was in Europe and the fact that the Civil War had badly impacted the amount available, saw the opportunity to refill his coffers by shipping it all back to France. He filled two ships with his cotton.
Despite being sent on different routes for safety, both were intercepted and sunk by the Union blockade. Charles made the decision to return France by way of the north, which proved more difficult than anticipated. Instead, he headed to New Orleans where the French consul did what he could to assist. The aim was to travel to Cuba to bypass the war and the blockade, and from there to Europe. The consul gave him a diplomatic pouch to take back to France and provided him with a passport.
Unfortunately, the Union Army was now ensconced in New Orleans and he was no longer the novelty Frenchman sharing champagne with all and sundry. Rather, they saw him as a spy and he was imprisoned at Fort Jackson, a victim of the infamous Major General Benjamin “Beast” Butler of the Union Army. Fort Jackson has been described as a “filthy, disease-ridden, overcrowded prison.” Not really the place a famous champagne entrepreneur would be expected to end up.
Charles always claimed he was unaware of the contents of the pouch but as it rather awkwardly contained orders to textile companies to produce Confederate uniforms, his chances of a release were minimal. His health deteriorated badly, and it was only when Napoleon III himself intervened on his behalf and convinced President Abraham Lincoln to assist that Charles was finally released after seven months’ incarceration. Meanwhile, his wife was forced to sell the family estates to pay his debts and his company was bankrupt.
In a twist that would have even the most gullible scratching their heads in disbelief, the following year Charles was tracked down by an American missionary who had a pile of documents for him, which included a letter from the brother of the very agent who had defrauded him several years earlier. It seems the brother had more scruples than the agent and was mortified by what was done to Charles.
By way of recompense he provided Charles with certificates of property for land in Colorado, more specifically the village of Denver (and even more specifically apparently about half the fledgling city). Denver was about to become one of the richest cities in the United States thanks to an unanticipated silver boom, and by selling the land Charles was eventually able to pay off all his debts and have more than sufficient funds remaining to re-establish his champagne house. You really could not make that up.
When I say “eventually able to pay off his debts,” I mean that it took some four decades, and it was not until eight years after he passed away in 1893 that the company was free and clear.
In the meantime, he was able to purchase the famous crayères (chalk cellars), originally created in the Gallo-Roman era, which now form the company cellars, and are now on the UNESCO World Heritage List.
Charles Heidsieck Blanc des Millénaires 2006
As mentioned, for some time the house’s prestige champagne was the magnificent Champagne Charlie, but several decades ago it was discontinued and replaced by a Blanc de Blancs, the Blanc des Millénaires, admittedly another glorious champagne, the 1995 now legendary (I’ll confess to sharing a bottle with friends a few weeks ago and it is surely getting better and better, even today).
I reviewed the 2004 Blanc des Millenaires some time ago, and the 2006 is now on the market. I’d received some mixed reports – some absolutely loved it while others were less enamored. My first thought was that perhaps it was not quite up to the standard set by previous releases, but I could not imagine this house releasing anything that was not first class. I was keen to taste it for myself and fortunately the opportunity soon came along.
The first Blanc des Millénaires (as mentioned a Blanc de Blancs champagne, meaning 100 percent Chardonnay) was the 1983. It was followed by the 1985, 1990, 1995, and then the 2004. Now we have the 2006.
Champagne vintages are always fascinating: ’85 and ’90 are undoubtedly great years, as are ’95 and ’04; ’83 and ’06 would have more questions to answer, yet amazing years like 1988, 1996, and 2002 did not make the grade.
There can be many reasons for that. Some years don’t suit the style that a champagne house seeks to produce. The grapes may be needed for the reserves to ensure that the NV (non-vintage) is as good as it can be – and few houses make an NV to compare with that of Charles Heidsieck. It may be a commercial decision.
Two thousand six has proved as fascinating as any vintage of late. It was not greeted with the pomp and circumstance that was festooned upon a number of vintages around the time – 2002, 2004, 2008, 2012, and so on – but it was seen as a solid year, ripe and full of flavor, but without the acidity to make old bones.
A generous, decent, and drink-early style. It seems clearly a Chardonnay year (will anything top the 2006 Salon?), but the wines are proving to have much more stuffing and length to them than anticipated. It seems that the team at Charles Heidsieck might have got this one absolutely right.
The grapes sourced for Blanc des Millénaires come from four of the Grand Crus of the Côte des Blancs and one Premier cru: Oger, Le Mesnil-sur-Oger, Avize, Cramant, and Vertus (the Premier Cru). The split is an even 20 percent from each.
Cyril Brun is the chef de cave at Charles Heidsieck, although he was only appointed in 2015, so this wine was before his time (he was at Veuve Clicquot at the time). He remembers the vintage as “really round, abundant, really approachable . . . so round, so balanced, an endless feeling of pleasure.” Basically, good examples from this vintage are a must and will provide pleasure for many years. The lesser wines might be generous and opulent today but are probably better enjoyed sooner than later. This 2006 Blanc des Millénaires is surely among the best of the vintage.
The wine was disgorged in February of 2019 with a dosage of nine grams/liter. Fermentation was in stainless steel and there was 100 percent malolactic fermentation as well. As usual, prices will vary – expect something in the vicinity of £175/AUD$330.
Charles Heidsieck Blanc des Millénaires 2006: tasting notes
And the wine? A wonderful color of a pale, watery sunset. The nose was a mix of ripe fruits, some dry herbs, a hint of fresh pastry, grapefruit, florals, orange rind, stone fruit, and cashews.
The wine is still quite exuberant and has a chalky/minerally backing with a little grip on the finish, entwined with a hint of bitter almonds. The texture does tend to creaminess and the length is seriously impressive. This is a very fine Blanc de Blancs. Have no concerns about its ability to age. This has 10 to 20 years ahead if well cellared. For me 96.
Does it match 2004 or even the glorious 1995? Comparisons with the ’95 are a tall order. With 2004, it is more a case of one’s personal style. I like the focus and finesse of 2004, but I would happily drink this 2006 any time I could. It is undoubtedly one of the best champagnes from this vintage.
For more information, please visit charlesheidsieck.com/en/wines/blanc-des-millenaires-2006.