Driving south towards Épernay along the famous Avenue de Champagne requires navigating an ever busy roundabout, Rond-Point de Champagne, on the outskirts of Reims. On a sunny day in June, rather than following the popular Route Touristique du Champagne and continuing on in the direction of Épernay, we took the first exit north-west, passing the gleaming glass offices and cellars of Bruno Paillard, along the quiet Allée du Vignoble, where, standing tall and proud, a quite remarkable golden structure cuts a striking figure across the flat landscape.
As the name indicates, the road is lined on either side with urban vineyards. The chalk headstones on the roadside tell us most of the vines are owned by Champagne Taittinger, but that’s not who we’ve come here to see. Reflecting the last of the evening sun’s rays is the recently built Piper-Heidsieck HQ, just one of many buildings that constitute the extensive premises of the EPI group’s three champagne houses.
Christopher Descours, head of the French luxury goods firm EPI, acquired both Charles Heidsieck and Piper-Heidsieck in 2011 (both had been under the same ownership of Rémy Cointreau since 1988). Although Charles has its own luxurious garden pavilion hidden away in the centre of Reims, the Heidsieck siblings share vineyards, buying contracts and the production warehouse on Allée du Vignoble, from where all the champagnes are blended, produced, bottled and exported.
The facility however, is divided into separate units and it is the contemporary golden palace of Piper-Heidsieck that first greets visitors through the gates. Designed by architect Jacques Ferrier, the glass building is encased in a see-through shell which, constituting a pattern of hundreds of small square metal plates that dematerialise as they rise, attempts to recreate the effervescence of champagne bubbles. The refection of the sky through the resulting pixelated mesh is a further effort to recall the grandeur of fizz.
However, our destination on this occasion was the building behind. Tucked away in one corner of the vast establishment is a modern reception, tasting and dining venue which serves as a Piper-Heidsieck shrine. Almost everything is branded – pillows, deck chairs, bean bags, parasols – and there is even a museum/trophy room downstairs. The chic dining room looks onto an open-plan kitchen; home, that evening, to a talented member of the Assiette Champenoise team, who worked tirelessly to satiate our appetites with subtle and elegant gastronomy.
Before dinner though, we shared a memorable tasting dedicated to the wines of Rare Champagne. In 2018, Rare – the prestige cuvée champagne of Piper-Heidsieck – was carved off as a separate entity (thereby forming the third champagne house in the EPI group). Veteran chef de cave Régis Camus went with it, and it was with Camus and Benoît Collard (global executive director of both Piper and Rare) that we met in June.
|Villers-Marmery 2018 | Chardonnay | Premier Cru
Has a freshness and purity; the crunch of the village. This is really fresh, pineapple, white floral flowers and minerality. Lots of ripe apples with tropical notes and pear. Vivacious and crunchy.
|Verzy 2018 | Pinot Noir | Grand Cru
Bright red fruits dominate, cherry and dried raspberry, with a big mouthfeel and these have really evolved since we tasted the vins clairs in spring 2019.
|Villers-Marmery 2009 | Chardonnay | Premier Cru
A lot of rich fruit, very precise citrus richness and power of pineapple. Really vibrant palate and racy acidity with real energy.
|Verzy 2008 | Pinot Noir | Grand Cru
Those red fruits of redcurrant and blackcurrant leaf really dominate, some dried raspberry and concentrated peach. This is really bright and fresh and has that Pinot Noir crunch character.
Explaining the separation, Collard told us that Rare has “always been very different from Piper in style … it was always seen as a tête de cuvée, or super vintage, so we felt that it should be seen as a house in itself.” Certainly, it’s always had a distinct image, sold as it is in a slightly protuberant gold-embossed bottle that exudes luxury and status. The main markets for Rare are apparently Japan, UK and the USA.
According to Camus, “Rare is a style with lots of freshness because we want a wine for long ageing.” To demonstrate its construction and show where this freshness comes from, the team had prepared a few still wines from different vintages that originated from two of the dominant Rare Champagne crus: Chardonnay from Villers-Marmery, and Pinot Noir from Vertus.
The Rare blend is always roughly 70% Chardonnay and 30% Pinot Noir, however the ingredients change with each vintage. “If we think we’ll make a Rare, we select the Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, usually the same crus … but I never choose 100% from one cru,” Camus explained. A measure of Chardonnay from Villers-Marmery usually features in each blend, “bringing minerality and freshness”, yet it was the 2008 Pinot Noir from Vertus that really had Camus in rapture. Very light, almost clear white in colour, its appearance was indistinguishable from the Chardonnays, but its seductively smokey and reductive character was what earned it such lofty praise as “the spirit of Rare”.
The current release, Rare 2002, is a vintage with “lots of richness, but with classic 2002 characteristics”. Stocks are apparently just coming to an end and they decided to bottle the last commercial disgorgement with Mytik corks, to “ensure consistency”. That means the next vintage, Rare 2006, is on the horizon, and we were fortunate to taste a bottle that evening. From a “very solar vintage”, Camus sees the same freshness in 2006 as in the Verzy 2008 base wine, a similarly warm year.
The older vintages we sampled, Rare 1988 and Rare 1979, were both produced by the previous winemaking team. For Camus, these treasures conjure images of old libraries, leather armchairs, cigars, and ashes leftover from the night before; characteristics that are typical of 25-year-old Rare vintages and an evolution cycle he expects Rare 2002 and 2006 to reproduce.
Rare Rosé, a champagne launched just two years ago with the inaugural Rosé 2007, has now moved onto its second release. “The biggest challenge is the colour and the aromas on the nose,” said Camus, adding that he is “looking for a very light, almost blueish colour to the rosé.” The colour, which comes from the celebrated Pinot Noir of Les Riceys, is much lighter in the new Rare Rosé 2008, and will “remain as it is forever”. Camus expressed an unexpected fondness for the new rosés in the range, stating, “I dream of a rosé vertical [tasting] in 20 years.”
As always, the mischievous pairing had a surprise or two up their sleeves that were unveiled over the course of our meeting. The first was a seriously delicious mystery champagne, disgorged on the morning of our tasting without dosage, the identity of which Camus refused to reveal until release. The second was a little harder to disguise; a gigantic 6L Methuselah of Rare 2002 (that’s 8 x 75cl bottles!), just twelve of which were produced in May 2016. By our count, there are now less than 10 left, one of which we are proud to be the sole distributor of in the UK.
|Rare 2002 | 17.5+/20
70% CH, 30% PN | Lees Ageing: 15 Years | Disgorged: January 2018 | Dosage: 9.5 g/l | Post-Disgorgement Ageing: 18 Months
The nose is quite tight on this, typical of the Mytik cork versions of this champagne. The palate is all there and all those tropical fruits, pineapple and guava and hints of spiciness. On the end you taste the spice with hints of lychee and coffee.
|Rare 2006 | 18/20
70% CH, 30% PN | Lees Ageing: 11 Years | Disgorged: December 2018 | Dosage: 10 g/l | Post-Disgorgement Ageing: 6 Months
Last time I tasted this was from magnum; this is almost as good. Some of the 2006s seem to get a little clumsy with age, but this one is very pricise and has lots of tropical fruit, that sweet rich pineapple, ripe apple and salinity. The texture from 11 years lees ageing has kept is so fresh. Finishes fresh and clean. From a solar warm sunny year and you can taste the ripeness in the grapes, while still very elegant. One of the last 2006s on the market and it is great to see how long lees ageing has really helped build layers into the champagne.
|Mystery Champagne | 19+/20
Disgorged the morning of tasting without dosage. The first impression is one of youth and vibrancy; this has a very pure and precise structure. Has a lot of that buttery pastry and is fresh and zesty with so much power and weight of fruit. Super intense fruits, tropical notes, citrus and ripe apples. There is freshness, elegance, a creamy texture and great potential. We are not being told what this was, but it must be a preview of a future release currently on the lees. I look forward to learning from Régis in a few years time what we tasted!
|Rare 1998 Magnum | 18.5/20
70% CH, 30% PN | Dosage: 9.5 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 | 19/20
70% CH, 30% PN | Lees Ageing: 8 Years | Disgorged: 1997 | Dosage: 10 g/l | Post-Disgorgement Ageing: 22 Years
Loads of lanolin and lime and how much texture and creamy character this has! Smoky and roasted nuts and wow the freshness is still there loads of salinity and some ashes and cigar. For a bottle this champagne is ageing well, it has great textural pleasure and richness yet is fresh and lively. This is the best bottle I have tasted of Rare 1988.
|Rare 1979 | 19+/20
70% CH, 30% PN | Lees Ageing: 6 Years | Disgorged: 1986 | Post-Disgorgement Ageing: 33 Years
A very rich colour and that deep golden richness with all that lovely lime and lanolin and power of roasted nuts. Also some tobacco leaves, chocolate and freshness. This could be drunk for many years. Again a great example of how well these champagnes age when stored well.
|Rare Rosé 2007 | 17.5/20
56% CH, 44% PN | Dosage: 9.5 g/l
The biggest challenge is the colour, Régis wants lots of almost blue pink, like the colour coming through a stained glass church window late at night. Has plenty of redcurrant fruit and the red wine is Les Riceys giving the juicy blackberry, cherry and rose petals notes. On the palate you get more of the red fruits and this is quite vinous, but there is enough freshness and hints of salinity on the end to keep it fresh. Almost meaty. Drink now to 2030.
|Rare Rosé 2008 | 19/20
70% CH, 30% PN | Dosage: 8.5 g/l
At present this has hints of smoke and some reductive notes. The red fruits really come forward, wild strawberry and redcurrants and this has the 2008 stamp of acid freshness, though enough fruit and lees texture to not let it overpower. The peaches and tropical notes come out on the palate. Very young at present and has both weight of fruit yet lightness and delicacy. A great follow up and finer rosé than the inaugural 2007. Drink now for several decades.
|Rare 2002 Methuselah | 19+/20
70% CH, 30% PN | Lees Ageing: 13 Years | Disgorged: May 2016 | Dosage: 9.5 g/l | Post-Disgorgement Ageing: 3 Years
This is quite the show-off! Impressively full-on aromatics, with huge power of fruits, predomaaintly ripe tropical fruits, like mango, pineapple and grapefruit. On the palate the texture is so fine and silky, that chalky character and those saline hints combine with a nice refreshing balance from the acidity. Length just seems to go on and on and on.