Piper’s ‘new wine’ another Essentiel step to restore image

It’s very hard for a champagne brand to get rid of a negative image. Years of ownership by the Rémy-Cointreau drinks group (they also used to have Krug in their grasp), which better understands the spirits market, did a good deal of harm to Piper-Heidsieck’s reputation, something which in Champagne essentially rests on the quality of your mainstream non-vintage cuvée, likely to account for more than 80% of your sales.

Purchased by the French luxury goods group Entreprise Patrimoniale d’Investissements (EPI) from Rémy-Cointreau in June 2011, along with sister brand Charles Heidsieck, fundamental changes were made to the way the business is run. Firstly, EPI owner Christopher Descours installed former boss of Veuve Clicquot Cécile Bonnefond – who knows a thing or two about promoting champagne’s image – as CEO, in line with its ambition to reposition both brands, setting up some new distribution chains with appropriate agents in the key markets it is targeting.

For Piper, this has involved trying to distant the brand, which has a very good track record on the competition circuit where its vintage cuvées have won many awards over the past decade or so, from the discounting off trade sector, particularly in the UK and French domestic market. In fact, the quality Piper’s regular non-vintage brut has been very decent for over a decade, but during that period it has still often had to suffer the indignity of being heavily discounted in UK supermarkets. To pick one relatively recent instance at random I found recorded on this site, Sainsbury’s had it at £14.25 in late November 2015, in run-up to Christmas.

Piper Heidsieck head winemaker Régis Camus

One further step forward in getting over the message about Piper’s quality credentials – not in doubt among a handful of journalists who have been applauding the wines for many years (I’d include myself and Michael Edwards among these) – has been to launch a ‘new’ version of the regular non-vintage with a lower dosage and longer ageing on its lees under the name Essentiel. I first tasted this wine with head winemaker Régis Camus on a visit to Piper in November 2015 and was immediately impressed. William Grant, which continues to distribute the brand in the UK market since EPI’s purchase, showed it again in November 2016 at the launch of Piper Rare Rosé 2007, but it still wasn’t for sale in the UK market.

However, it is finally available here from next month (September) and it takes a leaf out of Charles Heidsieck’s book in the labelling which reveals the date it was cellared – Mis en Cave 2012 – and thus the harvest base for the wine (2011). [On the back label is actually gives the 2011 base year and notes the 16% of reserve wine in the blend]. Plus the month and year of disgorgement, June 2016 in the case of the bottle I tried.

Showing the month of disgorgement goes a step further than Charles does currently as the Mis en Cave information sadly disappeared from this super wine a few years ago, and unhelpfully only the year of disgorgement is shown on the current release, something which is going to change, but hasn’t yet, winemaker Cyril Brun says.

Essentiel first release back label based on 2010 harvest

Essentiel is an ‘Extra Brut’ style with a dosage of 5g/l (it has to be 6g/l or under to qualify as Extra Brut), compared with the regular Brut’s 9-10g/l and gets 12-18 months more bottle age. So the bottle I tried (pictured above) had about 42 months lees ageing and a further 12 months post disgorgement ageing on the cork before being opened.

This time on the cork is important and certainly helps develop the aromas of almond and ripe yellow fruit, while time also accentuates the silky mid-palate texture. This elegant wine will be sold in the on trade (restaurants, hotels and bars) and in high end merchants with an rrp of £37.99. EPI don’t want the grocers to get their hands on it. It represents another important step in rebuilding Piper’s image.

My WSET tasting looks at styles of Champagne

Earlier this week I ran a Champagne masterclass tasting at the Wine & Spirit Education Trust and promised the participants, many of them WSET diploma students, to publish some of the detailed information about the wines, plus up-to-date statistics on the grape varieties planted in different areas of the appellation.

The idea of the tasting was to explore some of the varied styles of non-vintage champagne, taking wines from eight different sources, a mix of large houses, co-operatives and small-scale artisan producers, spread across the appellation.

The first pair of wines were from two of the large négociants who dominate the Champagne business, Moët & Chandon Brut Impérial & Laurent-Perrier La Cuvée Brut. Picked partly as while they are both three-way varietal blends, they represent opposite ends of the non-vintage spectrum in terms of flavour profile. The Moët is more than two thirds black fruit (Meunier and Pinot Noir), while the relaunched Laurent-Perrier Brut named La Cuvée is a blend that’s even more Chardonnay dominant than its predecessor (for more details about Laurent-Perrier’s changes to its Brut NV see this link: http://wp.me/p4t654-1D1 ).

The Moët is also a great introduction to Champagne in that, as head winemaker Benoît Gouez emphasises at his tastings, it’s a blend that closely resembles the proportion of the three main grape varieties actually planted across the appellation.

The total area of vineyard planted in Champagne — these are 2016 figures — is 34,328 hectares and out of this, 33,805 hectares are in active production. The largest proportion is planted with Pinot Noir (13,142ha out of 34,328 or 38.3% of the vineyard surface), Meunier comes next with 10,689 hectares (31.1%) and Chardonnay third with 10,385ha (30.3%). Other varieties like Arbanne, Petit Meslier, Pinot Blanc or Blanc Vrai as it sometimes called and Pinot Gris (often known as Fromenteau in

The eight champagnes

Champagne) make up the remaining 112 hectares or just 0.33% of the planted vineyard.

The second pair of wines in the tasting were both Blanc de Noirs styles, one from a small family business based in the Côte des Bars region, the second made by one of Champagne’s top co-operatives, which draws most of its fruit from its 200 grower members based in the Montagne de Reims region.

It’s a myth that most of the Pinot Noir produced in Champagne is grown in vineyards in the Montagne de Reims, more than double the number of hectares of this variety is to be found in Champagne’s most southerly region, the Côte des Bars. Here there are 6,692ha of Pinot Noir and it accounts for 82.48% of all plantings, whereas there are only 3,227ha of Pinot Noir in the Montagne de Reims which is 38.2% of that area (the rest is pretty evenly split between Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier).

The first of these two wines is pure Pinot Noir – Blanc de Noirs can be made from a blend of Pinot Noir and Meunier or 100% of either variety — and comes from the small family business of Gremillet which is based in the village of Balnot-sur-Laignes that’s very close to Les Riceys, famous for its Pinot. Les Riceys’ other two claims to fame are that it is the single largest cru in the entire Champagne appellation with 842 hectares under vine in 2016 (Vertus is the next largest with 543 hectares) and it is the only town in France where three different AOC wines can be produced; Champagne, Rosé des Riceys and Côteaux Champenois (white or red).

Les Riceys is located towards the very south-west corner of Champagne, which is physically closer to Chablis than to Reims or Epernay — it’s under 60kms from Les Riceys almost directly west to the town of Chablis itself and from Les Riceys north to Epernay is over 160kms. The Kimmeridgian clay soils found here have more in common with Chablis too than with the chalky soils of vineyards immediately north and south of Epernay.

In contrast Palmer’s Blanc de Noirs is a 50/50 Noir/Meunier blend with longer lees ageing of around four years – it’s based on the 2011 harvest – and is drawn from Palmer’s historical terroirs including the grand crus of Mailly and Verzenay for Pinot Noir with Meunier from vineyards like Rilly-la-Montagne and Ludes, but also Les Riceys and some villages of the Vallée de la Marne.
Details of the other four wines in the tasting will follow shortly. In the meantime here is a list of the eight wines and stockists.

Retail stockists:
Moët & Chandon Brut Impérial: widely available, £35 a bottle or buy three save 25% at Waitrose until 13 June.
Laurent-Perrier La Cuvée Brut NV: £41.99 a bottle, £27.99 Mix Six price Majestic
Gremillet Blanc de Noirs Brut NV: £32.88 a bottle www.christopherpiperwines.co.uk
Palmer Blanc de Noirs Brut NV:  £237.75 per six bottle case (6 x 75cl, equiv to £39.63 a bottle), www.thefinewinecompany.co.uk Ruinart Blancs de Blancs Brut NV: widely available, www.bbr.com £57 a bottle
Berry Bros. & Rudd Blanc de Blancs Grand Cru by Le Mesnil: www.bbr.com £33.99 a bottle,
Philipponnat Royal Réserve Rosée Brut NV, £44.99 down to £39.99 www.simplywinesdirect.uk ; half bottles £29.99 Selfridges.
Drappier Brut Rosé de Saignée NV: https://www.winedirect.co.uk/champagne-drappier-rose-brut-nv £37.95 a bottle.

Laurent-Perrier changes blend and name of its non-vintage

Laurent-Perrier has changed the style and blend of its core mainstream non-vintage champagne renaming it La Cuvée. The new wine, which will initially be based on the high quality 2012 harvest, will have more Chardonnay in it, and according to UK managing direct David Hesketh MW has a different flavour profile. Tasted side by side with the old Brut NV “there’s a clear difference between the two” he says.

New style Laurent-Perrier label from the 2007 Brut vintage

Already the major house with the largest proportion of Chardonnay in its Brut non-vintage style, in the new release the proportion moves from 50 to 55% with Pinot Noir remaining at 35% while the amount of Meunier falls to 10%. It will also get at least an extra year on its lees with the minimum ageing increased from three to four years. In line with long term trends in Champagne the dosage level also falls from 10 to 9gm/l while the proportion of reserve wine increases with up to 30% in the new blend. The wine has the new round label also sported by the just released 2007 Brut vintage (see picture).

Laurent-Perrier chef de cave Michel Fauconnier with Alexandra Pereyre de Nonancourt

Hesketh says the Chardonnay dominant style of the non-vintage has evolved since he started at the company when it accounted for 45% of the blend, still high compared with other large houses few of whom are above 40% (Taittinger Brut Réserve NV is at this level). “Michel Fauconnier our winemaker saw the opportunity of improving the blend as a result of the purchase of Champagne Malakoff and its vineyards back in 2004, which has given him access to more high-quality Chardonnay. The number of crus used in the assemblage nearly doubles to around 100.

The new Laurent-Perrier La Cuvée is gradually going into wider distribution currently and is already stocked by Majestic who have it priced at £41.99 a bottle but with a Mix Six price of £27.99 currently. Interestingly the last blend of Laurent-Perrier Brut is based on the 2010 harvest as they didn’t make any Brut non-vintage based on 2011. Those attending my tutored tasting at the WSET this coming Tuesday (6 June) will be able to taste that 2010 blend.

UK champagne shipments fall 14% in value in 2016

Champagne shipments to the UK in 2016 were down 8.68% in volume, falling from 34.2m to 31.2m bottles and 14.03% in value, dropping from €512.2m to €440.4m, the detailed figures just released by the Comité Champagne reveal. This was the largest percentage drop in value among all the top ten export markets, only five of which showed any volume growth in 2016, with shipments to the USA rising the most, up 6.33%, although the value of the 21.8m bottles shipped to the USA only rose by 4.9%.

The fairly dramatic fall in the value of UK shipments, Continue reading “UK champagne shipments fall 14% in value in 2016”

Champagne market slows in 2016

Champagne shipments in 2016 were down 2.1% at 306,036,369 bottles, a little over 6.5m bottles below the level reached in 2015, according to the statistics released by the CIVC. This is just above the 304,994,000 bottles shipped in 2013, the poorest recent year, although immediately after the financial market meltdown only 293,331,000 bottles were shipped in 2009.

The French market declined further, Continue reading “Champagne market slows in 2016”

2016 Champagne harvest yield set to produce around 315m bottles

The yield for the 2016 harvest, currently expected to begin around mid-September, has been set at 9,700 kilos per hectare with a further 1,100kgs/ha to be taken from the reserve at the start of February next year. This level of yield will potentially produce around 283m bottles with a further 32m bottles coming from the reserve next February, if appropriate, making a total production of 315m bottles. This compares with worldwide champagne shipments of 312.5m in 2015 and the news that the MAT total for shipments in the 12 months to the end of June 2016 were up just over 2%.

The harvest is expected to start in mid-September
The harvest is expected to start in mid-September

However, after a very difficult growing season in Champagne so far this year with frosts, disease and uneven flowering all reducing the actual potential yield from the 2016 harvest, it seems likely Continue reading “2016 Champagne harvest yield set to produce around 315m bottles”

Krug launches 2002 vintage & changes Grand Cuvée label (slightly)

Bjoern Weissgerber, group executive chef at Zuma restaurants was kind enough to take this picture of Eric Lebel with me at the 2002 launch

Yesterday I had the chance to try the newly released Krug 2002 vintage, along with a group of top sommeliers and chefs, many of whom are Krug ambassadors. One of the last, if not the last, major house to put its ’02 offering on the market, the expectations were high. The wine isn’t a disappointment. Subtle, gentle, harmonious, it has that indefinable quality, that extra dimension, lift and intensity that only the top vintages in Champagne offer with a silky texture and long finish. To put the new wine in context after a mandatory glass of Grande Cuvée, the current release based Continue reading “Krug launches 2002 vintage & changes Grand Cuvée label (slightly)”