Last month, Piper-Heidsieck announced the appointment of Émilien Boutillat as their new Cellar Master. We were lucky enough to meet Boutillat just 10 days into the job, during a visit to Reims last weekend. Boutillat generously shared his thoughts on the 2018 vintage, what makes Piper-Heidsieck unique and what the future holds for champagne winemaking. We also tasted a glass of something special, although we’ve been sworn to secrecy for now.
TFB: How many years have you been involved in Champagne?
EB: I was born in Champagne to a winegrower, so I grew up pruning vines and working in the vineyard and winery with my father. When I was older I wanted to see something different, so I studied oenology and agricultural engineering in the south of France, before working on vineyards all over the world – in New Zealand, Chile and South Africa. I did six vintages here in Champagne, working mainly for Cattier and Armand de Brignac, before joining Piper-Heidsieck.
TFB: What drew you to Piper-Heidsieck?
EB: The huge stock of reserve wines were part of what attracted me to the brand. Working on these reserve wines, keeping a huge diversity of quality, of different crus etc, is very important. I have already tasted all of the reserve wines and the 2018 wines – they are very special.
TFB: Do you have a favourite reserve wine?
EB: I like the unique ingredients and characteristics of the Piper-Heidsieck style of reserve wines, rather than favouring one area. However, the 1996 Cramant is very special… it is like a treasure, for me and for the brand.
“Being innovative is in the DNA of the brand” – Émilien Boutillat
TFB: What is your impression of the 2018 vintage?
EB: Weather wise, 2018 was perfect. It is too early too tell if it will be an exceptional vintage, however it is certainly unusual to have such a huge amount of fruit of such good quality. When we talk about the ‘ideal vintage’, we talk about the quality of the year overall – some plots are good, some plot are bad. With 2018, there is no bad wines at all. In the coming weeks, we’ll be able to tell if it’s an exceptional year.
TFB: Which past vintage would you compare 2018 to?
EB: To have both high yield and high quality is rare. Some vintages in the 80s were similar, but had way less maturity than 2018. I have not seen a vintage like 2018 in my lifetime and neither has my father, who has worked in champagne for 60 years!
TFB: Many houses are now moving towards technological corks and jetting. What do you see as the next development?
EB: Yes, Piper-Heidsieck were one of the first to move to technological corks and to jetting… being innovative is in the DNA of the brand. It is hard to say where the next innovation will come from, but for me, the vineyard is key. Talking about the quality of winegrowing is important. Piper-Heidsieck is already HVE 3 certified [a French Ministry of Agriculture certification which assesses environmental performance on issues of biodiversity, fertilisation and treatment of vine diseases] and we intend to commit more permanently to sustainable viticulture.
TFB: Many houses are moving towards winemaking that is sympathetic to the soil. How do you encourage people to farm organically/biodynamically?
EB: It is important to experiment and demonstrate that wine produced using environmentally-friendly practices is better. Whilst working at Chateau Margaux a few years ago, I studied the difference between classic, sustainable, and biodynamic farming, something that is important to me. Ultimately, doing better for the environment will make the wines better; so we have to try.
TFB: We often see a difference between champagne poured from a bottle just opened, and champagne poured from a bottle that has been open for an hour or two. How long should a bottle be open before you drink it?
EB: I normally open and taste it straight away. I think “okay fine, its big”, wait a bit and then come back. The wine will warm up and become more oxidative… I love it. I like to see wine change in my glass, to ask guests, “can you feel it, its different”.