Charles Heidsieck: World’s Most Underrated Champagne

8th August 2014

Charles Heidsieck Champagne

One year after he founded his Champagne house in 1851, 29-year-old Charles-Camille Heidsieck took the unusual step, at that time, of journeying to the United States to sell his Champagne.  In fact, he was the first Champagne producer to visit the U.S.A.  Champagne Charlie, as he became known, a gracious gentleman and a born salesman, personally sold 300,000 bottles of his Champagne in the U.S. in one year!  He made three more visits to the U.S. before the Civil War broke out in 1861, and became a celebrity in this country, with his picture in many of the newspapers.  In the following years, Champagne Charlie and his descendants also did well in Europe and the Far East, establishing new markets for their Champagne.

With a beginning like that, you would think that Charles Heidsieck would be a big-selling, well-known Champagne in the U.S. and throughout the world.  But it is not.  Instead, Moët & Chandon (including Dom Pérignon), Veuve Clicquot, G.H. Mumm, Nicolas Feuillatte, and Charles Heidsieck’s sister-house, Piper-Heidsieck, are the dominant sales leaders, both here and throughout the world–along with Lanson, Pommery, and Laurent-Perrier in Europe.

Champagne Charles Heidsieck’s journey has been a difficult one since its brilliant start with its founder.  In the 20th century, the house had several changes of ownership.  The first turning point upwards in its fortunes took place in the late 1970s, when Joseph Henriot purchased Charles Heidsieck; both houses are inter-twined through marriage (Champagne Charlie’s wife was an Henriot).  Joseph Henriot hired Daniel Thibault, Champagne’s most highly-regarded winemaker, as cellarmaster.  But when Joseph Henriot took over as top man of Veuve Clicquot, Charles Heidsieck was again rudderless, going through three more sales.  In 1985, Rémy Martin Cognac (a.k.a. Rémy-Cointreau) purchased both Champagnes Charles Heidsieck and Piper-Heidsieck (it had purchased Champagne Krug previously).  Rémy-Cointreau’s first move was to re-hire the brilliant  Daniel Thibault in 1986 to be Chef de Caves for Charles Heidsieck.  Four years later, Thibault also became winemaker of  Piper-Heidsieck.

The improvements in both Charles Heidsieck and Piper-Heidsieck were remarkable under Thibault’s guidance.  Charles Heidsieck became the premium Champagne of the two, and Piper-Heidsieck (always a big seller but of average quality before Thibault) improved immeasurably.

Thibault insisted upon using an extraordinary amount of older reserve wines, 40 percent, in Charles Heidsieck’s flagship Champagne, its Brut Réserve.  Despite this expensive move, Charles Heidsieck’s Brut Réserve remained as reasonably priced as other non-vintage Champagnes.  (Only Krug’s Grande Cuvée, more than three times the price of Heidsieck’s Brut Réserve, uses more reserve wines, up to 50 percent).

I noticed an amazing improvement in Charles Heidsieck’s Champagnes, particularly the Brut Réserve, around 1990, and began singing its praises in my articles, as did many other writers.  Charles Heidsieck became an insiders’ Champagne, appreciated by the cognoscenti, but still not recognized by consumers.  In the U.S. particularly, Champagne sales have been so dominated by the few big Champagne houses that few other Champagnes have caught on.

The use of 40 percent reserve wines has made a huge difference in Champagne Charles Heidsieck’s Brut Réserve.  You first notice the color, a deeper gold that most other NV Champagnes.  Next, the aroma, a much toastier, yeastier bouquet than you would expect from an average-priced non-vintage Champagne.  Also, the weight of the Champagne on your palate is much more full-bodied than you would expect.  And finally the long, complex finish, which lingers on the palate.  It is no wonder that Charles Heidsieck’s Brut Réserve has become the favorite NV of many of us who love Champagne.  Champagne Charles Heidsieck uses the same traditional blend of varieties in its Brut Réserve:  One-third Pinot Noir, one-third Pinot Meunier, and one-third Chardonnay.

Tragedy struck Champagne Charles Heidsieck in February, 2002, when Daniel Thibault , six times awarded the designation Winemaker of the Year in Champagne, passed away at the age of 55.  Fortunately, Thibault was followed as Chef de Caves by his long-time assistant, Régis Camus, who has ably carried on, keeping the high quality of both Charles  Heidsieck and Piper-Heidsieck.

Meanwhile, Rémy-Cointreau–who had previously sold Champagne Krug to LVMH in January, 1999, because of declining sales of its cognac in the Far East–decided to sell both Champagne Charles Heidsieck and Piper-Heidsieck in May, 2011, because they were not profitable enough for the spirits company.  Fortunately for the Heidsieck houses, Rémy-Cointreau turned down a bid from the huge LVMH conglomerate and sold the Heidsieck Champagnes to the family-owned luxury goods company, EPI.

EPI took over July 8th, 2011, closed the Paris office of the Champagne houses and moved all the employees to Reims, where both wineries are located.  EPI then hired Cécile Bonneford as CEO of Champagnes Charles Heidsieck and Piper-Heidsieck.  Cécile was Managing Director of Champagne Veuve Clicquot from 2001 to 2009, and previously was marketing director for several large food companies.  I recently met with Mme. Bonneford, and was impressed with her frankness and honesty, refreshing if unusual qualities for a CEO.  She is very happy to be working for EPI, who she said is genuinely interested in keeping the quality of both Champagnes at a high level and is looking at the long-term picture rather than seeking immediate profits for the Champagnes.

Régis Camus has been promoted to Director of Winemaking for EPI while also retaining the title of Chef de Caves for Piper-Heidsieck.  His long-time assistant Chef de Caves, Thierry Roset (who has been with Champagne Heidsieck since 1988), is now Chef de Caves for Charles Heidsieck Champagnes.

Roset has made significant changes for Charles Heidsieck’s Brut Réserve.  He has reduced the formula for the number of wines going into the Brut Réserve from 120 to 60, all of which he has personally selected.  According to Roset, his aim is to make a Brut Réserve with greater complexity, depth, and richness.

I tasted the new Charles Heidsieck NV Brut Réserve, based mainly on the 2008 vintage, still with 40 percent reserve wines aged from five to 15 years (all of the company’s 10 to 15 year-old reserves are held exclusively for Charles Heidsieck’s Brut Réserve).  The new Brut Réserve was aged 36 months on its lees and disgorged in 2011.  It is smashing, the best Charles Heidsieck Brut Réserve that I can recall tasting, and I’ve had quite a few over the years.  It is a deeper gold color than previous Brut Réserves, it is very dry, with lively acidity, and according to Roset, has “more tension and more minerality.”  By tension, I believe that Roset  is talking about its liveliness.  By the way, my experience has been that Charles Heidsieck’s Brut Réserves age especially well, gaining more depth with maturity.

Charles Heidsieck’s new Brut Réserve also has a striking new look; thebottle is shaped like the entrance to its famous 2,000 year-old Gallo-Roman chalky wine cellar (one of the most impressive ones in Reims).  It really looks like a prestige cuvée, with its new black label and white lettering.  Current Brut Réserves are retailing between $35 and $45, averaging in the $40 to $42 range.  Expect to pay a bit more for the new Brut Réserve.  But you know something?  It will still be a bargain, considering the quality of the product.

Like all Champagne houses, Charles Heidsieck’s non-vintage Champagne, its superb Brut Réserve, makes up between 85 to 90 percent of its production.  But Champagne Charles Heidsieck also makes three other Champagnes.  One is a rather rare Vintage Brut, which, unlike other houses, it releases only in certain years; in the last decade, only the memorable 1990, the 1995, and 2000 were sold in the U.S.A.  Charles Heidsieck did make a tiny quantity of 1996, which it sold only in France.  On a visit to the winery about 10 years ago, I tasted the 1996; it was so exceptional (I rated it “98”) that I ordered a case of it from a local store in Reims and had it shipped back to the U.S.  I still have six bottles left; I am drinking it up slowly, knowing that it will improve with a few more years of aging.

Charles Heidsieck NV Rosé Réserve, along with its new Brut Réserve  come in the same, old-fashioned bottle, but the Rosé has a beautiful pink label.  The new Rosé Réserve is based on the 2007 vintage, with 20 percent reserve wines added.  It is crafted from equal proportions of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier, with 6 to 7 percent still Pinot Noir wine added for color.  I tasted the new Rosé Réserve, which is a light hue of pink, dry, bright, fresh, and so thoroughly delicious that’s it’s difficult to drink just one glass.  Charles Heidsieck also makes a Vintage Rosé on occasion; only three have been made recently, the 1985, 1996, and 1999.  (To honor the occasion of this column, we drank our last bottle of Charles Heidsieck’s 1996 Vintage Rosé on the night that I wrote this.  It was very good, ready to drink, and not as exceptional as Charles Heidsieck’s 1996 Vintage Brut white.)

The next Charles Heidsieck I tasted was an old favorite, the 1995 Blanc de Millènaires.  I participated in two Critics’ Challenge judgings a few years ago, in which this very Champagne won “Best of Show” two years in a row.  It is an amazing Champagne, a blanc de blancs and the House’s prestige cuvée.  At 17 years old, it is still fresh, but definitely ready to drink.  The next Blanc de Millènaires will be the 2004, to be released in 2014.

The tasting ended with a bit of history, the 1981 Champagne Charlie.  This was the House’s previous prestige cuvée; the last vintage of Champagne Charlie was the 1985.  The 1981 Champagne Charlie was unctuous, with quite mature aromas, but with so much complexity of flavors!  I asked Cécile Bonneford if Charles Heidsieck planned to revive Champagne Charlie in the future.  She smiled at me and replied, “You never know! ”  Like all good Champagne producers, they have to keep some secrets.

I left the tasting with two impressions:  That the quality of Charles Heidsieck Champagnes is higher than ever; and that it is bewildering why much of the wine-drinking world has yet to know about this great Champagne.

Shared by Ed McCarthy


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