Charles Heidsieck – For those who know
”Excuse me, what was that?”, is a frequent question I hear, when I list my top 5 champagne houses and mention Charles Heidsieck. It does not seize to amaze me how this house of impeccable quality, belonging to the important Rémy-Cointreau group, remains so scarcely known. Its wines gather trophies in wine competitions and are applauded by experts. Charles Heidsieck Brut Réserve even won the FINE Champagne Magazine’s Best Non-Vintage in 2011. Instead of attracting the attention of the general wine public, it has remained as a hidden treasure of those who know. However, I have a feeling Charles Heidsieck is finally on the verge of a real breakthrough.
One must admire the long-term vision and commitment of Rémy-Cointreau, or Rémy Martin at the time, when they acquired the champagne house of Charles Heidsieck from Henriot family in 1985. Few years prior to the purchase, the cellar master of Henriot, Daniel Thibault, had started to gain reputation as a winemaking and blending genius. At the time of the acquisition Rémy Martin saw an opportunity knocking and kidnapped Thibault from Henriot.
The change of houses was a dream come true for Thibault, too, as Rémy Martin showed him green light and guaranteed him the resources for building what aimed to be the best non-vintage cuvée on the market. The capital tied to the process was massive. Thibault started collecting an enormous stock of reserve wines. When most houses’ reserve wines account for 20 percent of the non-vintage cuvées, the Charles Heidsieck ideal style required 40 percent. The wines held back for future blends were also to be much older than the usual 1-2 years, averaging 4-5 years. The oldest wines that go in the blend may be as mature as 12 years old.
It is these reserve wines that allow Charles Heidsieck to graft their non-vintage cuvée into a rich, seductively toasty, honeyed wine of great depth. Its toasty nature fools many to think there is oak involved in the manufacture. But the wines see only stainless steel and are kept extended times in the vessels on the lees, which brings the richness of flavour and texture to them.
Ahead of their time
Daniel Thibault’s visionary and perfectionist nature brought about another innovation, the “Mis en Cave” concept. Against common practise, Thibault considered showing the age of the non-vintage wine on the label essential, as both time on the lees and post-disgorgement evolution are important indications of the wine’s style and maturity to the consumer. In 1997, Charles Heidsieck re-launched its non-vintage as Brut Réserve Mis en Cave with the bottling year indicated on the label. For instance the Mis en Cave 1992, was crafted of 1991 fruit plus reserve wines, and bottled in 1992.
Despite the fantastic intentions, the concept was found confusing by both consumers and trade. Charles Heidsieck pushed ahead with the concept for a number of years but finally gave in and settled to mentioning the cellaring and disgorgement times on the back label. In retrospect, they were ahead of their time.
Charlie steps aside
Daniel Thibault certainly left his mark in Charles Heidsieck history. For a reason not quite clear to me, under his guidance the house seized production of the previous prestige cuvée Champagne Charlie, the last vintage being 1985. As replacement, Thibault crafted Blanc des Millénaires blanc de blancs starting with the 1983 vintage. Despite my admiration for this creamy, toasty, velvety wine, I still think Champagne Charlie was a great wine with a great name and pedigree. Maybe it will be revived one day?
Today, all the pieces in the Charles Heidsieck puzzle are finally finding their place. Rémy Cointreau acquired the house of Piper Heidsieck in 1990, and since then a merging of the two houses has taken place. The company is now P&C Heidsieck, with all vinification and cellaring taking place under the same roof by the same qualified hands.
And quite a winery it is. The companies left the crowded ancient cellars in the heart of Reims and moved to more spacious surroundings on the outskirts of the town in 2008. The new ultramodern design winery has all the latest winemaking equipment as well as fantastic touristic facilities.
However, nurturing two brands in one winery evidently poses some problems. At P&C Heidsieck differentiation is managed by separating the house styles and brand images. The flashy-red marketing driven brand Piper’s champagne is fresh, vibrant and easy to drink. The wines for the more restrained and classic Charles are rich and evolved, very much a crafted for the gastronomy.
When I visited the cellar at blending time, I was given an interesting tasting exercise. I sampled a dozen still wines from all three grape varieties and altering villages. My task was to decide whether the base wine should go to Charles of Piper depending on the style. The aspired styles for both houses became crystal-clear to me when I was picking structured wines for extended aging for Charles and lively fruit-forward samples for Piper.
The winemaking hands at P&C Heidsieck belong today to Régis Camus, who took over in 2002, when Daniel Thibault passed away unexpectedly. Fortunately, Camus had worked together with Thibault for years. Consequently, the change has not brought about drops in quality or alterations in style. Even though replacing someone as legendary as Thibault is not easy, Camus has shown his capabilities as a great blender especially via the steadily rising quality of Piper Heidsieck and the numerous trophies earned by Charles Heidsieck Brut Réserve and Brut Rosé.
The secret is out. If you have not yet encountered Charles Heidsieck, now is the time to get to know Charlie!