Is working for a company with one of the largest Champagne lists in the UK a glamorous job?
If last Friday was anything to go by, then yes! Breaking at 2 pm, we were whisked off to a meeting room wherein we were treated to a mini ‘Champagne Academy’ presented by our very own Margaret Elderfield. With our heads full of facts, pads full of notes and stomachs full of mystery fizz (a few of us were even tricked into enjoying prosecco!) we got onto the main event: A portfolio tasting with Charles Heidsieck’s charming brand ambassador Willem Pincon.
Willem strode confidently into our office, a wheelie case of ultra-cool Champagne was preceded with a stack of branded notepads. We knew that it was going to be a very informative afternoon.
Image of Charles Heidsieck used in Champagne ads in the US during the 1850s.
Before even getting comfortable he had gone through nearly 100 years of Charles Heidsieck’s history. Despite our evident desperation to begin tasting, the history of Charles Heidsieck proved truly remarkable. The whole family is famous in the region, with a number of houses to their name, but it was Charles Heidsieck’s father, Charles-Henri Heidsieck, who famously rode into Moscow in 1811 astride a white stallion to celebrate (and sell his wine to) whichever side successfully won the battle.
Like his entrepreneurial father, Charles Camille Heidsieck quickly realised that the market in Europe was too saturated and competing with the big houses would be impossible. So, Charles struck out for the new world, bringing his champagne to the United States where he gained notoriety as “Champagne Charlie” and opened a thriving export market.
He was, however, not just headline news for his Champagne success. In 1861, on his way into the Southern states seeking remuneration from wayward merchants, he was captured by confederate General Butler, and charged with spying on their forces. Imprisoned for 7 months at Fort Jackson, Charles allegedly fought off crocodiles in his flooded prison cell with nothing but wit, guile and the odd spare brick! His incarceration caused a diplomatic rift between France and America, now known as the ‘Heidsieck incident’. It was only resolved 7 months later after several French diplomats and Napoleon III himself made contact with President Lincoln. After this stint, Charles returned to France, emaciated, demoralised and ultimately bankrupt.
NV Charles Heidsieck Rose Reserve
Fortunately, the story did not end there, and whilst we were immersed in the history of the house (and picturing how he managed to fight off a crocodile with a brick), we were given our first sip of Charles Heidsieck non-vintage Rose Reserve. As Willem described it, this Rose is incredibly complex, perhaps more so than anything we’ve ever tasted. The house secret here, which was to become evident across their range, was in blending. Whilst everyone else in Champagne may use an impressive 30 to 40 different base and reserve wines to create their non-vintage rose, the house of Charles is using on average an absolutely staggering 120 wines from 16 different villages, spanning 8 different vintages and lees-aged for 7 years. The knowledge of blending and patience of this winemaking bring out the wonderful complexity of a Champagne that, although mature and rich, manages to retain an almost impossibly delicate freshness. In the current (and very limited parcel) NV Rose Reserve, 80% of grapes come from the fabled 2008 vintage with 20% of mature reserve wine added. This wine is a true testament to the prodigious skill of their chef de caves and topped a Decanter blind tasting of 99 peers, beating other bottles four times as expensive.
NV Charles Heidsieck Rose Reserve
£210 per 6 bottles in bond (£45.33 per bottle duty & VAT paid)
95 points Richard Juhlin
The second bottle Willem opened for us was the Charles Heidsieck Brut Reserve. This topped even the rose for wine-making pedigree, with 150 different wines spread across 20 vintages dating as far back as 1988. It goes to show, again, the patience of their winemaking and dedication to quality. At Charles Heidsieck, they never limit themselves to young reserve wine. Some 350 different plots are all vinified into individual wines, a herculean feat, which allows them to mature at their own pace depending on how the winemaker perceives the wine and its place in the blend. All of these base wines are kept for a minimum of 7 years, with some spanning 20, and the house retains as much volume of reserve wines as Veuve Clicquot, despite being one sixteenth of their size. I can only imagine how the accountants are reeling from all that tied up capital.
The results, as you can imagine, are sublime. Ripe stone fruit, fresh apple, and mineral flavours dance effortlessly across the palate, followed by a rich fresh dough, finally brought to a close by a burst of vanilla as it slides down your throat.
NV Charles Heidsieck Brut Reserve
£140 per 6 bottles in bond (£31.33 per bottle duty & VAT paid)
94 points Richard Juhlin
Without breaking stride, Willem opened another bottle of Rose, this time the 2006 vintage, whilst detailing the two techniques with which they are made in Champagne (If you are a regular reader, you may have already read about them in “Think Pink”).
We were also lucky enough to have the opportunity to taste Charles Heidsieck Vintages 2000 and 2005 side by side, a fascinating experience which drew many parallels between the harvests, with the 2005 appearing as an almost younger clone of its predecessor. Both offered what can only be described as overwhelmingly intense notes of almond, fresh bread, and ripe yellow apple, which lead onto a honey-like finish, no doubt as a result of the 9 years each spent ageing on their lees.
Charles Heidsieck I feel, more so than any other house, set out to age their wines to the ideal condition before they blend them. Willem did admit that any of the non-vintages would still benefit from a couple of years cellaring, but with the sheer amount of pleasure on offer right now, I admire anyone with the willpower to resist.
As a relative neophyte when it comes to fine wine, I started to get a bit overwhelmed at this point- for the rest of the afternoon all I can recall is reclining with a wonderful glass of golden liquid, and listening to Willem’s dulcet French tones recant the story of a Champagne house so captivating it made it to the silver screen… A TV movie he was quick to dub, in his rich French accent, as ‘crap’!
2006 Charles Heidsieck Rose Millesime
£365 per 6 bottles in bond (£76.33 per bottle duty & VAT paid)
94 points Wine Spectator
2005 Charles Heidsieck Brut
£285 per 6 bottles in bond (£60.33 per bottle duty & VAT paid)
94 points Wine Spectator
Charles Heidsieck’s charming brand ambassador Willem Pincon and team Clos & Cru