Last year, Piper-Heidsieck’s prestige cuvée range, Rare Champagne, became an independent brand – to be produced, marketed and sold entirely under its own label, and overseen by previous Piper-Heidsieck Chef de Cave and Champagne veteran Régis Camus. However, as Rare Champagne is still made at the same location under the auspices of a closely knit team, we tasted the base wines at Piper-Heidsieck alongside Rare Champagne, in the company of the winemakers from both brands.
One of Champagne’s most exciting emerging talents, Piper-Heidsieck’s new cellar master Émilien Boutillat has experience beyond his youth. Although born in the Champagne region (coincidentally, his father used to sell grapes to Piper-Heidsieck), Boutillat studied winemaking all over the world, in New Zealand, Chile and South Africa, and in doing so, managed to garner almost a decade’s worth of winemaking experience in half that amount of time – working on 6 harvests in 3 years.
Boutillat’s confidence in his newfound role and familiarity and rapport with the winemaking team around him – whose outward vibe is more that of a friendly family than of work colleagues – were obvious from the outset, and wavered not once as we discussed the trials and tribulations of the 2018 harvest.
“The quality of the grapes was perfect all over the region,” Boutillat began. He was cautious to note however, that early expectations may well have been too high, owing to the fact that they have “only good or very good wines” and “not so many exceptional wines.” That said, Boutillat believes the worst of 2018 is still better than the best of 2017 and his task now is to “look for the exceptional.”
The acidity was quite low in 2018 and the average pH for Piper-Heidsieck was 3.1-3.2. The levels of malic acid were also low, prompting Boutillat to do malolactic fermentation “on 99% of the wines.” He predicts that unpredictable vintages such as 2017 and 2018 will be more likely in the future due to the changing climate.
2018 Vins Clairs
“The wines are already very open and have been since December,” Boutillat told us. Full of fruit and with less acidity than typical, the wines are already quite approachable, and Boutillat described 2018 as “easier to understand than any other year for beginners.”
All the grape varieties performed well, however he believes Chardonnay is “the least strong varietal”, while the black grapes are the best. Pinot Meunier in particular he singled out as “very nice this year, as it keeps the freshness, especially in the coolest regions.”
We tasted two examples of each variety, from a range of vineyards throughout each major region. The Chardonnay from Villers-Marmery, with its delicate finesse and fresh tropical notes, was a particular standout. Rare Champagne cellar master Régis Camus told us Villers-Marmery will likely contribute to the Rare 2018 blend, if it is produced.
Boutillat described the Pinot Noirs as having a “nice crunch and freshness” that matches the Piper-Heidsieck style. His favourite Pinot Meunier was the wine from Festigny, a small village in the Vallée de la Marne which he believes could be “the Grand Cru of the future.”
|CHARDONNAY | Côte des Blancs | Premier Cru: Vertus
A lot of ripe apples and pear, juicy fruit with good texture. Nice balance of fruit and relatively gentle acidity and hints of spiciness.
|CHARDONNAY | Montagne de Reims | Premier Cru: Villers-Marmery
Some tropical notes like pineapple, ripe apples and lemon. Great mouthfeel, quite broad and rich with freshness from the acidity and hints of salinity.
|PINOT NOIR | Barséquanais | Autre Cru: Fontette
Lots of ripe berries, peaches. redcurrants and strawberries. Good texture and acidity. This Pinot Noir seems well balanced. Will probably keep and see how it evolves.
|PINOT NOIR | Montagne de Reims | Grand Cru: Verzy
Lots of strawberry, peaches and raspberry with hints of tropical fruits. Has good freshness, nice lift of acidity and great texture. Quite full and rich.
|PINOT MEUNIER | Vallée de la Marne | Autre Cru: Festigny
Has a very attractive spicy edge to the basket of fruit. Rich and lush with some tropical notes coming through.
|PINOT MEUNIER | Montagne de Reims | Autre Cru: Courmas
Has a lot of red berry fruit and blackberries with great structure. Seems closed on the nose but has power and density on the palate.
The Cuvée Brut NV 2018 blend was completed two weeks prior to our visit, so we tasted it alongside the 2014 blend, which is currently being sold on the market. Boutillat explained that he was looking for freshness with the 20% reserve wine content – which contains almost no wines from 2017 – as he already has the fruit from the 2018 wines. This year’s blend also has slightly more Chardonnay and less Pinot Noir for the same reason: more freshness.
|Piper-Heidsieck Cuvée Brut NV Assemblage | Base Vintage: 2018
45% PN, 33% PM, 22% CH | Reserve Wine: 20%
Lots of ripe fruits; apples and pears and some spicy character. Good balance of acidity for freshness with great texture from the Pinot Noir.
|Piper-Heidsieck Cuvée Brut NV Assemblage | Base Vintage: 2014
55% PN, 30% PM, 15% CH | Reserve Wine: 20%
Seems to be more evolution on the nose. Has a spicy character and good weight of fruit. Great balance of power, freshness and fruit elegance.
To commence our tasting of finished champagnes, Boutillat had prepared an interesting blind tasting experiment. We were served four champagnes completely blind and asked for our predictions. The champagnes all transpired to be variations of Piper-Heidsieck Essential NV – the longer lees aged and lower dosaged expression of Cuvée Brut NV.
The first was base vintage 2014, the new release scheduled to hit the market very soon. The next two were identical – base vintage 2012, the first served from magnum and the second from bottle (although the bottle was disgorged 6 months earlier than the magnum). The final champagne was also base vintage 2012, this time a version that Essi Avellan MW had produced several years ago, with a slightly higher dosage of 6 g/l. Essi was, perhaps unsurprisingly but no less impressively, the only taster to identify each champagne blind. Bravo!
|Piper-Heidsieck Essentiel NV | Base Vintage: 2014 | 17.5+/20
55% PN, 30% PM, 15% CH | Reserve Wine: 20% | Lees Ageing: 3 Years | Disgorged: May 2018 | Dosage: 5.5 g/l | Post-Disgorgement Ageing: 10 Months
Tasted blind. Has lots of rich and ripe fruits; first the plums come forward and then some of the creamy character. On the palate it seems quite dry and has lots of power and freshness. Lower dosage, seems quite mature and soft.
|Piper-Heidsieck Essentiel NV Magnum | Base Vintage: 2012 | 18.5/20
55% PN, 25% PM, 20% CH | Reserve Wine: 20% | Lees Ageing: 4.5 Years | Disgorged: December 2017 | Dosage: 5.5 g/l | Post-Disgorgement Ageing: 15 Months
Tasted blind. Has some of that rare evolution with smoky reductive notes and power of fruit. Lots of richness on the palate, has a dryness so lower dosage? Great texture and juicy fruit. Goes on quite long with freshness, power, weight and density.
|Piper-Heidsieck Essentiel NV | Base Vintage: 2012 | 17.5/20
55% PN, 25% PM, 20% CH | Reserve Wine: 20% | Lees Ageing: 4 Years | Disgorged: June 2017 | Dosage: 5.5 g/l | Post-Disgorgement Ageing: 21 Months
Tasted blind. Some smoky reduction to begin, then some ripe apple and lemons. The texture is right up there, low dosage and lots of ripe lemons, apples, plums and fresh acidity.
|Piper-Heidsieck Essentiel NV by Essi Avellan MW | Base Vintage: 2012 | 17.5/20
55% PN, 25% PM, 20% CH | Reserve Wine: 20% | Dosage: 6 g/l
Tasted blind. Lots of plums, lemon and lime. Great freshness and the dosage is low. Shows hints of oxidation and has some sweetness.
Our final two Piper-Heidsieck champagnes were both new: the first ever Essentiel Blanc de Blancs NV and the latest vintage release, Piper-Heidsieck 2012. The first Essentiel Blanc de Blancs NV is produced mainly from Côte des Blancs Chardonnay, is based on the 2013 vintage with 35% reserve wines (primarily from 2012 and 2010), and the focus is once again longer lees ageing and a lower dosage, this time just 4 g/l.
Likely the only vintage that could successfully follow the hugely popular Piper-Heidsieck 2008 is 2012, and fortunately, Piper-Heidsieck skipped 2009, 2010 and 2011. The new release is quite simply stunning – packed full of delicious fruitiness, oodles of complex lees character, with near-limitless ageing potential – and is expected on the market later this year.
|Piper-Heidsieck Essentiel Blanc de Blancs NV | 17/20
100% CH | Base Vintage: 2013 | Reserve Wine: 35% | Lees Ageing: 3 Years | Disgorged: October 2017 | Dosage: 4 g/l | Post-Disgorgement Ageing: 2 Years
Seems to have some brown apples and some richness to the fruit. Lots of pear, ripe apples and pineapple with a spicy finish. Fresh and ripe, this has a textural flavour of the chalk. The low dosage makes it seem more forward than the other cuvées.
|Piper-Heidsieck 2012 | 18.5/20
52% PN, 48% CH | Lees Ageing: 5 Years | Disgorged: July 2018 | Dosage: 8.5 g/l | Post-Disgorgement Ageing: 9 Months
Has great forward fruitiness combined with hints of smoky character and freshness. The layers are building with the lees character, showing and adding to the texture.
We concluded our afternoon visit with a quite delectable lunch, each course expertly paired with a different Rare Champagne. As always, the range showed fantastically well; the champagnes seeming to taste even better when in the company of their creator. Camus also generously shared samples of the next Rare and Rare Rosé vintage releases and, although under embargo for the time being, we can say with assurance that champagne lovers and Rare aficionados alike will most certainly not be disappointed.
|Rare 2002 | 19/20
70% CH, 30% PN | Dosage: 9 g/l
Lower dosage than the original disgorgement. Has great freshness, loads of apricots and white peaches and some of the lees character with lime and lemon richness and tropical notes. On the palate you get all of them and the lower dosage of this disgorgement seems to sit perfectly – great zippiness, freshness and texture. The 2002 just gets better and better.
|Rare 1998 Magnum | 19.5+/20
70% CH, 30% PN | Dosage: 9 g/l
Lighter in colour and has a freshness “spring-time oriental” was Régis’ comment. Crunchy, exotic fruit. Has lots of lavender, honey and dried apricots; some of that creamy pastry character. On the palate, good weight of fruit, cooked apples and great length. The spicy character comes out on the end with a hint of salinity.
|Rare 1988 | 18.5/20
70% CH, 30% PN | Dosage: 10 g/l
Some hints of creaminess, tropical fruit and cigars. Lots of roasted nuts, dried lemons and mandarin, with good spritz. Has a big, rich texture and interesting white truffle hints to the dried fruit and nuttiness. Lingers very long and savoury. Has lots of tension and freshness because of the lift of salinity on the finish. Very good.
|Rare Rosé 2007 | 19/20
56% CH, 44% PN | Dosage: 9.5 g/l
Great colour and floral notes, some hints of Turkish delight. Lots of lychees and red berries; strawberry and raspberry in bundles. Loads of mineralogy and freshness and has some soft lees character giving it such roundness. Régis suggests it will keep for quite some time.