Following the recent release of Rare Le Secret, the 20-year clandestine project of Rare Champagne Chef de Cave Régis Camus, we were invited to a vertical tasting of past Rare Champagne vintages – dating all the way back to 1979 – with the secretive cellar master himself.
Rare Champagne, the prestige cuvée brand of Piper-Heidsieck, have released just ten champagnes in their history: 1976, 1979, 1985, 1988, 1990, Le Secret (1997), 1998, 1999, 2002 and Rosé 2007. It was first produced in response to the atypical season of 1976, during which an unprecedented heatwave struck France. The winemaking team began to wonder: could it be possible to create a cuvée given the remarkable conditions?
Taming the natural forces was no easy task and when assemblage was complete and the final blend bottled, the team were so proud of the final product, they called it Rare. A testament to exceptional vintages where nature unleashes its unstoppable forces, Rare cuvées are only produced in supernatural years, hence the scarcity of vintages.
Rare Champagne Vertical
All blanc vintages of Rare are a blend of 70% Chardonnay and 30% Pinot Noir, with the Crus that contribute grapes changing year-on-year to reflect the strengths of each particular vintage. Rare vintages typically have lots of tropical fruit, like mango, kiwi and pineapple.
Asked to pick a favourite, Camus commented: “The 2002 is the definition of what I am looking for. This means maturity… but also youthfulness with precision, complexity and delicacy. Rare 2002 has the minerality and freshness which should be the house style.” Although the dosage for the original disgorgement of Rare 2002 was 9.5 g/l, Camus made the decision to reduce the dosage for the latest disgorgement to 9 g/l. “I tend to add one extra gram to my personal taste… for 2002 it was 11 g/l on first bottling, now it’s 9 g/l,” he explained.
For Rare Le Secret, Camus made the decision to not add any dosage – the first time in the history of Rare Champagne. “The wine didn’t need any dosage,” was the simple justification. Of the year, Camus noted that “1997 wasn’t considered the best vintage”, however they “had some great Chardonnay and Pinot Noir”, hence he decided to experiment with these secret magnums. “This fits the philosophy of Rare… it isn’t always produced in the great years… in the harder years, you get some small parcels of great grapes.”
The oldest two vintages were both late harvests (1988 in late-September and 1979 in October!). Camus shared his tasting experience with these champagne; which involves an old library in Ireland, a burnt-out fire, cigars and cognac. Indeed, the colour suggests the champagnes are more like still wines, yet both seem incredibly racy and youthful. Plenty of life left in both.
Finishing with the only rosé in the Rare Champagne portfolio, Rare Rosé 2007, Camus spoke of the importance of the red wine. “In 2007, the cellars were full after the lovely run of 2002, 2004 and 2006, yet despite the difficulties in 2007, there were some good Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes. Most important is the colour, which comes from the red wine – and the Pinot Noir from Les Riceys was great in 2007.”
With 10% Pinot Noir still wine added to the blend, the colour is a seductive coppery-gold. “We look for purple and blue notes in the copper colour after 10 years,” Camus added. Producing a rosé champagne with such a high percentage of Chardonnay (56% Chardonnay, 44% Pinot Noir), is a daring move that really works; the aromatics have just started to lift off and this is perfect for drinking now.
The next two vintages will be Rare 2006 and Rare Rosé 2008.
|Piper-Heidsieck Rare 2002 | 19/20
70% CH, 30% PN | Lees Ageing: 15 Years | Disgorged: January 2018 | Dosage: 9 g/l | Post-Disgorgement Ageing: 10 Months
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.
|Piper-Heidsieck Rare 1999 Magnum | 18+/20
70% CH, 30% PN | Lees Ageing: ~7 Years
Initially some reductive notes like burnt butter. It grows on you after being in the glass for a while and then the texture comes out.
|Piper-Heidsieck Rare 1998 Magnum | 19.5+/20
70% CH, 30% PN | Lees Ageing: 14 Years | Disgorged: 2013 | Dosage: 9 g/l | Post-Disgorgement Ageing: 5 Years
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 Le Secret | 18/20
Vintage: 1997 | 70% CH, 30% PN | Lees Ageing: 19 Years | Disgorged: September 2017 | Dosage: 0 g/l | Post-Disgorgement Ageing: 1 Year
Some of those floral notes, jasmine and hints of tea like earl grey. A lot of peach and honey, dried figs and apricots. On first impression the palate has a delicacy but weight with refreshing acidity and no dosage, but feels balanced with a great finish. Has an energy and freshness, plenty of roasted almonds and dried fruits.
|Piper-Heidsieck Rare 1988 | 18.5/20
70% CH, 30% PN | Lees Ageing: 9 Years | Disgorged: 1998 | Dosage: 10 g/l | Post-Disgorgement Ageing: 20 Years
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.
|Piper-Heidsieck Rare 1979 | 19.5+/20
70% CH, 30% PN | Lees Ageing: 10 Years | Disgorged: 1990 | Post-Disgorgement Ageing: 28 Years
Has hints of lanolin. Such richness, power and freshness and great elegance. The nose has a mix of dried fruit and shows some evolution. Lots of coffee, dried fruits, pineapple and mango from the iodine character at the end.
|Piper-Heidsieck Rare Rosé 2007 | 19/20
56% CH, 44% PN | Lees Ageing: 8 Years | Disgorged: June 2016 | Dosage: 9.5 g/l | Post-Disgorgement Ageing: 2 Years
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.
Vintage 2002 Horizontal Tasting
We also recently tasted the Rare Champagne range with Jancis Robinson MW. To set the scene, we blind tasted the most recent Rare release, Piper-Heidsieck Rare 2002, alongside other prestige cuvées from the same vintage – notes from which can be found below. Although Dom Pérignon 2002 came out on top, the difference was marginal, with all four champagnes spread between 18/20 and 18.5+/20 – a testament to the enduring quality of the vintage.
|Dom Pérignon 2002 | 18.5+/20
51% CH, 49% PN | Lees Ageing: 6 Years | Disgorged: July 2009 | Dosage: 6 g/l | Post-Disgorgement Ageing: 9 Years
Bright colour and lots of bubbles. Apples and pears on the nose and what great texture! Seems quite balanced, fresh pear, some hints of lees and beautiful texture. Good length.
|Piper-Heidsieck Rare 2002 | 18.5/20
70% CH, 30% PN | Lees Ageing: 7 Years | Dosage: 9.5 g/l
Some dusty chalk character. Lemons, apples and pears. Quite soft on the palate, some roundness from the dosage and has that bitter kick at the end. Some reductive and toasty notes come forward after some time in the glass.
|Louis Roederer Cristal 2002 | 18.5/20
55% PN, 45% CH | Lees Ageing: 4 Years | Disgorged: 2007 | Dosage: 10 g/l | Post-Disgorgement Ageing: 11 Years
Full, rich and creamy nose with lots of tropical notes. Lots of fruit, quite tropical and soft texture on the palate.
|Billecart-Salmon Nicolas François Billecart 2002 | 18/20
60% PN, 40% CH | Lees Ageing: 14 Years | Disgorged: Spring 2017 | Dosage: 4 g/l | Post-Disgorgement Ageing: 1.5 Years
Quite broad palate. Some hints of oxidative character, some banana and some richness. Probably more pleasing on the palate than nose.