The worldly, daredevil and at times incredible story of Charles-Camille Heidsieck, aka Champagne Charlie, has inspired everything from music to movies. Born in 1822, the legendary figure was also the inspiration, in 1979, for the house he founded to craft a separate, eponymous cuvée. No matter how loved the Champagne Charlie bottling was, however, its story came to an abrupt halt just five vintages later, in 1985. Now, to celebrate the bicentenary of the birth of Charles-Camille Heidsieck, Champagne Charlie – the wine – is being revived.
When Charles-Camille Heidsieck set up his Champagne business in 1851, many markets had already been conquered by his rivals. Aged 29 at the time, Heidsieck decided to look west to the prosperous US market, which was virgin territory for the Champagne trade. During his pioneering trips stateside, he and his wines charmed the country’s elite, soon earning him the nickname ‘Champagne Charlie’.
But American Civil War interrupted his rather ambitious quest, and he lost not only all the stocks of Champagne he had shipped to America, but his entire business. Defying the war, he travelled around the US in somewhat brave – or foolish – fashion, trying to recover his Champagne or payments. Along the way, he was charged with spying for the Confederacy, imprisoned and rescued from execution only by the diplomatic intervention of Napoleon III and Abraham Lincoln.
Heidsieck returned to Reims a poor and ill man, but the ‘Denver Miracle’ revived him. The deal saw his pre-war Champagne debts paid back in the form of deeds for land in Colorado, which, it turned out, covered one third of the fast-expanding city of Denver. With the sale of the land, Champagne Charles Heidsieck was back in business.
Less well known than the story of Champagne Charlie is the historical link between the houses of Charles Heidsieck and Henriot. When Charles-Camille Heidsieck founded his house in 1851, it was together with his brother-in-law Ernest Henriot. Ernest left Charles Heidsieck to return to Champagne Henriot in 1875. Fast forward a century, however, and the families were reunited when Joseph Henriot manoeuvred a merger between the two companies. And even if the merger was short-lived – lasting only until 1985 – the era saw the launch of Joseph Henriot’s brilliant brainchild, cuvée Champagne Charlie.
Only five vintages (1979, 1981, 1982, 1983, and 1985) of Champagne Charlie were made by Charles Heidsieck’s celebrated cellar master Daniel Thibaut before Rémy Martin acquired the house and decided to mothball the cuvée. The reasoning, presumably, was that the group already, at the time, owned Champagne Krug, with its prestigious non-vintage and vintage cuvées. To avoid direct competition it launched the Blanc des Millénaires (a blanc de blancs first crafted in 1983), to take on the role of Charles Heidsieck’s prestige cuvée.
‘Blending helps to capture freshness and to create an identity that is bigger than the identity of a vintage’ – Cyril Brun
A much-loved cuvée that represented Charles-Camille’s original sprit of freedom, intuition and adventure, Champagne Charlie’s demise was mourned not just by its admirers, but also its makers. Current chef de cave Cyril Brun paints a picture of full winemaker freedom in creating the cuvée: ‘Sometimes the wine contained a majority of Chardonnay, sometimes Pinot Noir. Even if Champagne Charlie was labelled as a vintage, it actually contained varying amounts of reserve wine,’
Brun joined Charles Heidsieck in 2015 and was immediately keen to revive Champagne Charlie. ‘We were encouraged to bring it back to life by the historical Champagne Charlie drinkers. But to do so, it was important for me to understand what Champagne Charlie is. What is the message in the bottle? Where does it get its remarkable sensation of youth?’
Having studied Champagne Charlie closely, Brun emerged with a surprise – the new Charlie is a multi-vintage. ‘To me, the real beauty of Champagne is in multi-vintage,’ says Brun. ‘Blending helps to capture freshness and to create an identity that is bigger than the identity of a vintage.’
And so the no-recipe policy continues, with Brun finding inspiration in the vast library of reserve wines the house possesses. The first, 2016-based release contains as much as 80 percent of reserve wines spanning almost two decades. On first taste, the new Champagne Charlie shares stylistic traits with the house’s iconic Brut Réserve, but is richer, mellower and further age-complexed in aromatics. The wine shows notably contemporary notes in its immediately rewarding expressiveness. There is no need to wait for this Champagne Charlie to come around – it readily delivers, which today’s consumer will cherish. The retro look of the bottle, meanwhile, will tap into the Charlie nostalgia of the older drinker.
Fans of Blanc des Millénaires need not worry either, since the two prestige cuvées will happily co-exist. Champagne Charlie is being made most years but not every year. The inaugural release stretches to a mere 5,500 bottles, and future releases will also come in magnums and jeroboams.
To pay homage to Champagne Charlie’s original transatlantic adventures, the first Charlie bottles left the Heidsieck cellars to the US onboard the Grain de Sail cargo sailboat, due to reach New York in time for the bicentenary of Charles-Camille’s birth on June 16. Champagne Charlie is back.
Charles Heidsieck Champagne Charlie NV (Mis en Cave 2017)
Based on the 2016 vintage, this wine builds on its magnificent wealth of reserve wines. There is already high expression upon release, a super complex nose with vanilla, burned sugar, caramel and liquorice meeting tangerine, pineapple, dried apricots and honey. The sumptuously sweet character continues on the soothingly mellow palate oozing reserve wine richness. Here, the 52% Chardonnay and 48% Pinot Noir going back down to 1998 blend harmoniously into something luxuriously textured. Perfectly balanced with its 7g/l dosage. No need to wait – even if the new Charlie has the structure to age too. Drink 2022-2032