Champagne Charlie and the amazing history of Charles Heidsieck Champagne

Champagne Charlie is a phrase so familiar that you wouldn’t stop to give it a second thought, however the origins of the phrase are fascinating and involve a story of frivolity, excess, war and espionage.

Who was Champagne Charlie?

Charles Camille Heidsieck was born in France in 1822. The son of Charles-Henri Heidsieck and Emilie Henriot, Charles-Henri was himself a colourful character and a champagne merchant with family links to the modern day champagne houses Piper-Heidsieck and Heidsieck & Co Monopole, but that is another story. In 1851 Charles Heidseick setup a champagne house in his own name, the champagne is still made to this day and it is the smallest of the grandes marques champagne’s. It was the following year that 30 year old Charles became the first person importing champagne to the USA and it was here that he picked up the Champagne Charlie moniker.

Champagne Charlie The Socialite.

American’s developed a taste for champagne and sales boomed. When Charles Heidsieck returned he was greeted with great fanfare, his charisma coupled with the popularity of his champagne propelled him into the spotlight. A darling of the New York newspapers they christened him Champagne Charlie, he also captivated the east coast high society becoming a fixture of the social scene. He even managed to achieve commercial success in southern states such as Louisiana despite the growing tensions of a divided country.

The Civil War

At the outbreak of war a panicked Charles Heidsieck once more set off across the Atlantic. This time to try and chase down his debtors and recoup huge amounts of money tied up in unpaid bills. This accounted for over half of his companies assets. Unfortunately his quest was ultimately not successful, tenacious Charles ended up in New Orleans and managed to agree to write off some of the debts in exchange for two shipments of cotton. The trade of cotton with Europe was restricted due to the war and Charlie was left to try and smuggle it through the blockades, he failed with two attempts and in both cases his ships were sunk and the cargo lost.

Charles now found himself stuck in the south with no route back to the north and the onward journey back to France. He sought the help of the French consul who gave him a diplomatic mission to New Orleans where he was to deliver some diplomatic documents and could then charter a boat to Latin America. On arriving in New Orleans he was captured by the union army who had recently taken the city. It was discovered that the documents he carried held details of the sale of cotton for the production of confederate army uniforms. Charles Heidsieck was arrested and held in prison in Louisiana, it took the French government to lobby Abraham Lincoln directly to secure his release. Champagne Charlie returned to France in 1862, bankrupt and in poor health.

The Second Coming of Champagne Charlie

Charles Heidsieck was still licking his wounds when he received a letter from America in 1863. It was from the brother of his former agent in the USA, and contained title deeds for land in the then sleepy state of Colorado. In the coming years Colorado would see a huge financial boom as prospectors discovered the mineral deposits contained in the ground. The village of Denver which Charles Heidsieck owned a third of would soon grow into a large city buoyed by the discovery of silver in the hills around the city. Champagne Charlie was able to sell the land and use the money to reinvigorate his ailing champagne house.

Charles Heidsieck Champagne

Often referred to as “Charles” the Charles Heidsieck NV Brut Reserve Champagne is a bit of a hidden gem. One of the 16 grand marques, it doesn’t draw the attention of some of the other houses like Laurent-Perrier, Moet & Chandon or Veuve Cliquot. However it really over delivers for the price.

Grapes are carefully selected from over 60 vineyards across Champagne. Notably Chardonnay from Oger is chosen to add texture, floral notes and ageing ability, Pinot Noir from Ambonnay provides power, vinosity and fruit, and finally Pinot Meunier from Verneuil offers acidity, body and aromatics.

During the wine making process Charles Heidsieck Brut Reserve spends 40 months maturing in chalk cellars before the disgorgement process, this is far longer than the 15 months the wine is required to age for and helps to a champagne with depth and complexity.

Charles Heidsieck Brut Reserve is a pleasing pale golden colour, with fine persistent bubbles. The nose is complex with pastry giving way to stone fruits, greengages,  pistachio and almond. The generous palate is silky smooth, beginning with ripe apricot and melon before developing a subtle spice. Balanced, fresh and utterly delicious!

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