Charles Heidsieck was, until recently, the house Champagne at Oslo’s three-Michelin-starred restaurant Maaemo. That’s where I first got to know this fine sparkling wine. Since then, I’ve enjoyed Charles Heidsieck Champagne at many a great occasion, and it has become one of my personal favorites. The brand, Charles Heidsieck, is highly respected and admired by true connoisseurs, known for the excellent and consistently high quality of its wines. However, in a world where marketing is king, the label is underrated by the general public. That’s a shame, you could argue, but it also means that those in the know can get some great value for their money.
The Brief History of Champagne Charlie
Charles Heidsieck founded his wine company in 1851 and is known for having popularized Champagne in the United States. As a merchant who saw the potential in this market early on, he became highly successful, selling a record of 300.000 bottles one year. The Yankees just called him Champagne Charlie, and he soon wandered the finest and most fashionable societies in New York.
Unfortunately for poor Charlie, the American Civil War broke out, and to make a long story short, he ended up being arrested by General Benjamin Butler (I swear, I’m not making this up), charged with spying and imprisoned by the Union. He was later released, albeit broke and demoralized, but due to a bit of luck and good karma he managed to rebuild his fortune – and the Champagne house. In 1989, there was even a movie made about the famous wine merchant, titled Champagne Charlie, with none other than Hugh Grant portraying Charles Heidsieck.
A Descent Into the 150-Years-Old Chalk Cellars
When old Charlie got back to France after his imprisonment, he didn’t buy up land in Champagne. Instead, he trusted his own talent for selecting and blending wines. Thus, in 1867 he invested in deep underground caves with a series of tunnels, known as Crayères, where he would store his sacred bubble water and allow it to further enhance through aging.
This November, I was invited to the celebration of the 150-Years Anniversary of the Crayères – the chalk cellars of Charles Heidsieck. Since 2015, they’re even listed as a UNESCO’s World Heritage site. That meant I had to fly to Paris, drive to the city of Reims, walk through the gardens of Heidsieck, and join a descent into Charlie’s underworld, only to have a toast in his private wine bar. Sounds like an awful lot of work for a glass of Champagne, right? It was a difficult decision, but as always, I thought somebody has to do it. Thus, I accepted.
The modern-looking entrance, through a glass and steel cube, was a stark contrast to the ancient cellars we were about to enter. Stairs as long as the eyes could see. We walked downwards for what felt as ages. In hindsight, I should have appreciated it more at the time, because the following ascent an hour or so later would prove a much tougher challenge – both for the legs and lungs. The further down we went, the colder and gloomier it became.
What makes these Crayères so unique and ideal for storing wines, is the complete darkness, the perfect degree of humidity, and a constant temperature of 10°C all throughout the year. I couldn’t resist the temptation to touch the walls. My fingers got white and wet from the damp, soft, chalkstone. Once we reached the bottom of the staircase, we continued walking through the tunnels. There are 47 cellars in total, connected by a labyrinth of hallways. Some of the cave openings had been shaped into Champagne bottles. Very clever, Charlie! There was even some entertainment on the way, with an acrobat performing aerial silks.
At last, we arrived in Charles’s secret subterrestrial bar – the Oenothèque. Soon, waiters handed out glasses and filled them up with something yellow and sparkling. Honestly, at that point, I had no idea which Champagne they had just served me. Sure, I noticed the gigantic bottles (jeroboams or jeros is equal to 6 regular bottles of wine, thus holding 4,5 liters), but for all I knew, it could have been a fairly new vintage. Immediately, as I lifted the glass to my face and stuck my nose in there, I knew it was something special, though. A heavy, earthy aroma hit my nostrils. Forest floor and mushrooms, yet, it was refreshing and citrusy at the same time. Buttery biscuits and lemon on the palate. It turned out we were being spoiled with a 1989 Brut. Now, that’s some quality Champagne, right there! Worth the journey alone.
The cave visit ended with each of us selecting a bottle of 2015 Vintage that we got our names attached to, with the promise that we can come to pick it up in 2022 – five years from now. I’ll hold you to that promise, old Charlie … And thank you for a fabulous evening in your Crayères! I know, I’ll be 83 years old, but please invite me back for the 200th anniversary too, okay?
Are you a fan of Charles Heidsieck? I’d love to hear about your other favorite Champagne houses, too. Please, share in a comment below.