By the time Charles Heidsieck was born in 1822, his uncle was already running his own Champagne house, Piper-Heidsieck, having moved to Champagne from Germany in the late 18th century and married into the Piper family. Charles grew up in the vineyards and gained experience at his uncle’s business, but his ambitious winemaking philosophy led him to found his own Champagne house in Reims in 1851.
The following year, he made the daring move of abandoning the Champagne-loving countries of Europe and testing the waters in the USA, where he was one of the first to introduce Champagne successfully. His vivacious personality earned him a great popularity and he famously became known as ‘Champagne Charlie’. After an eventful few years – during which time he was imprisoned in Louisiana on suspicion of being a spy during the Civil War, and was eventually freed by President Lincoln himself – he returned to settle in Champagne.
What separated Charles from many of his peers was that he always viewed himself as a blender rather than a grower: instead of buying many hectares of vines, he only invested in a few of his own, and began sourcing the rest of his grapes from a trusted selection of grower families, who had spent generations perfecting the care of their vines. The company now has 60 separate sites to choose from, encompassing a variety of different crus, and some of these plots are cultivated by the fourth or fifth generation of the same family.
Instead of vineyards, Charles invested in 47 underground chalk cellars dating back to the 11th century, and these are still where the wines are blended and aged. The current cellarmaster is Thierry Roset, who has worked at the property since the 1980s, and continues the impressive legacy previously set by the award-winning Daniel Thibault.
The non-vintage Champagne is made with painstaking attention to detail. 60% of the blend is wine vinified that year (using an equal split of the three main Champagne grapes; chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier) and the remaining 40% is a blend of reserve wines – a mixture of chardonnay and pinot noir ranging from between five and 20 years old. There are over 400 to choose from – more than most other Champagne houses – and once the team has decided on the blend, the wine is aged for a minimum of 3 years.
This process is actually much more complicated than the production of their vintage Champagne, although this is still selected from 60 separate possible crus, achieving a majestic complexity. The vintage champagnes are aged for three to ten years before release, and can of course age comfortably for many years thereafter.
Since 2011 the company has been owned by the Descours family – a very positive move, ensuring the company remains familyrun with a long-term vision for the future.