Friday, 24 March 2023

Champagne tour 2023 - Charles Heidsieck

This is the second post from my series on my February 2023 Champagne tour (you can read the first post on our visit to Billecart-Salmon here).  

We chose to base ourselves for our trip in Epernay, but I was adamant that we would head over to the other big centre in Champagne - Reims, as I had not been there before. Reims is a short train ride (c. 30 minutes) from Epernay and is a bigger and more built-up city than sleepy Epernay. It has a long history - Reims was an important Roman town and is actually named after one of the two brothers that according to Roman legend founded Rome (Remus, with the other brother, Romulus giving his name to Rome itself).

‘Champagne Charlie’  

In Reims, I was very excited that we were able to visit Charles Heidsieck - another name that is completely intertwined in the history of champagne. The history of this particular house is really fascinating. Charles Heidsieck came from an important Champagne family - which is why you might also know of the brand Piper-Heidsieck which was founded by Charles’ uncle. Charles set up his own house in the 19th century and was early on committed to trying to open up the American market as he felt there were great possibilities there. On his third visit to the States in 1862 he was actually arrested as it was during the American civil war and he was suspected of being a spy! Indeed, in order to get himself released from prison he had to get Napoleon III to intercede by writing to Abraham Lincoln - talk about friends in high places…! Charles’ exploits in the states earned him the nickname ‘Champagne Charlie’ and the eponymous late Victorian song cemented his fame. After his experiences of incarneration, Charles was understandably reluctant to go back to the states - however, America did help him out greatly, as he later was notified that he had inherited half of Denver from an old business colleague who wanted to recompense him from an earlier wrong. This gift allowed him to raise funds which he then used to buy property and, importantly, a network of vast underground chalk caves - crayères - which would allow him to age his wines.

Indeed - it was these crayères that will be my abiding memory of visiting Charles Heidsieck. We descended from a pretty little garden through what looked like a hobbit house down a large number of stairs. I was not prepared for the scale or grandiosity of these magnificent underground cathedrals. At their greatest depth they are 30m deep. Take another look at the photo at the top of this page to get a sense of the grandeur. 
These pits were dug out by hand during Roman times and create a perfect environment for ageing wine - cool temperatures and a naturally high level of humidity all year round. The crayères for Charles Heidsieck have enough space to store their reserve stock of 1.4 million bottles of wine (and to be honest they had space for a lot more than that!). The crayères really are a wonder - I particularly loved exploring some of the house’s vaults of old vintages of wine going back to 1955. In fact, one of the passage ways through the crayères even inspired the Charles Heidsieck bottle shape - check out the photo on the right! 

Tasting the wines

After our tour of the crayères we went to a beautiful pavilion that the house has in its grounds which can host tastings. There our guide (Melissa) took us through a tasting of five of the exquisite wines from the Charles Heidsieck range. 

We started with a NV Blanc des Blancs (75% 2018 vintage, 25% reserve wine) which was lovely and fresh with some notable floral notes on the nose, and just a hint of butteriness on the palate. Next up was the NV Rosé Reserve (available from Hedonism Wines for £59.90/bottle), which is made of 1/3 each of Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay, which had a little more bite and edge to it, but that softened a little after it had spent some time in the glass. The NV Brut Reserve (available from Petersham Cellars for £45/bottle) was a step up in quality - the colour itself sat as a gentle gold - it is made up of 50% wine from 2017, but the other 50% is reserve wine going back up to 20 years. This reserve wine really gives the wine a more generous, rich profile. On the palate it had notes of lemon meringue pie, but it unfurled in the glass to develop further. I certainly liked this wine as I bought it in magnum!

It was now time to get into the vintage wines! First up we tried the 2012 Brut Millesieme (disgorged in 2021) which is blended from 10 of their top village producers and is made of 60% Pinot Noir and 40% Chardonnay. The profile was really interesting - tropical fruit notes complemented against butterscotch and brioche, with plenty of layers to it. This was an elegant and complex wine with a long life ahead of it. Available from Hedonism for £105/bottle.
After this we tried the 2007 Blancs des Millenaires (100% Chardonnay), this is only the 7th edition of this wine which they only make when conditions are perfect. The wine was taut and linear with beautifully pure green apple notes. I also felt like I detected a fair amount of salinity and minerality which gave the wine a real tension. In truth, although this is 15 years old, it is probably only just hitting its drinking window and will have a long time ahead of it yet where it will soften and depeen. Available from Hedonism for £194/bottle.

These were truly spectacular wines and I feel that having tried them so close to where they lay when they were developing that it gave the tasting even more resonance.
Charles Heidsieck is not open to visits for the public, so I am hugely grateful to Simon for arranging our trip.


  1. Lovely write-up, Tim. So glad you could visit the magnificent cellars and learn the history of Charles Camille Heidsieck. 🥂

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