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.

In praise of half bottles’ faster maturing

Too few restaurants offer a decent selection of half bottles on their wine lists, though the trend towards listing a number of wines served in 25 and 50cl carafes, now seen in many more casual dining establishments, is to be applauded. Half bottles of champagne are particularly handy, especially if there’s two of you and you plan to have some wine too. Just a glass of good fizz is rarely enough.

While quite a few champagne houses now seem reluctant to produce half bottles, citing quality issues and the fact that they mature more quickly, I see that (speed of development) as an advantage in certain instances. A half bottle of Krug is a welcome Continue reading “In praise of half bottles’ faster maturing”

Pink Champagne for Valentine’s & Mothers’ Day

It’s not so long ago that pink champagne consumption moved up and down like a yoyo as it drifted in and out of fashion. After a couple of years of sales growth, consumer interest would fall away and this discouraged producers from taking the category seriously and making the necessary investment in pink production. Quality was distinctly variable. It’s hard to pin down the specific catalyst for change, but generally warmer summers in France’s most northerly vineyard certainly played an important part. You need ripe black fruit, Pinot Noir Continue reading “Pink Champagne for Valentine’s & Mothers’ Day”

Great offer on some of my favourite fizz

The Wine Society has some great offers on champagne running until the year end. And they have put together a mouth-watering six bottle case you can order up until 27 December for delivery by New Year’s Eve. And they’ve extended the deadline for pre-Christmas delivery to midnight on Sunday (20 December).

The case includes one bottle each of Charles Heidsieck Brut Réserve, consistently one of the best and most complex NV champagnes on the market over the past decade; the Society’s superb barrel Continue reading “Great offer on some of my favourite fizz”

Extra lees ageing produces exciting wines

My tweets about Charles Heidsieck Brut Réserve and how not many other non-vintage champagnes can boast eight years bottle age seems to have aroused quite a lot of comment and interest. The current cuvée of this wine was put in the Charles Heidsieck cellars in 2008, the back label tells anyone who cares to read it, revealing the wine itself is based on 2007 harvest in Champagne. Is also tells us when the wine was disgorged, in this case 2014. There is a plan, I am told, to move towards pinning down the disgorgement date a little more, as Charles used to do when this wine was known as ‘Mis en Cave’, which would be helpful, especially when the disgorgement is relatively recent. For drinking now there is quite a difference between something disgorged in December or January 2014.

A few days later I found myself having lunch in Koffmanns enjoying a bottle of Philipponnat Brut Réserve where the back label informs the drinker of the exact composition of the wine by grape variety; the year of the harvest base; the % of reserve wine in the blend, the dosage (8gm/l) and the month and year of disgorgement – as you ask this was May 2013, so the wine had benefitted, and I use the word advisedly, from around 20 months ageing on the cork after disgorgement. Why can’t all serious champagne producers do that?

Devaux champagnes, which those trying the current Charles Heidsieck range could also have tasted at the recent Liberty Wines event, are trying another approach and giving an age statement on their new labels. Thus the Cuvée D, their premium non-vintage style where the relatively large amount of reserve wine used is partly aged in old oak barrels, has a band around the bottle neck saying ‘5 years’. That’s the minimum amount of time this wine — on impressive form with some character and complexity that only time will bring – ages on its lees. This brand is produced by the go-ahead Côte des Bar, Union Auboise co-operative (so clearly such a strategy has support from within the négoce and the co-ops, not just grower producers).

Another recent weekend tasting treat was the satisfyingly rich and savoury Benoît Marguez 2006 Blanc de Blancs from Ambonnay. Again this helpfully had both the month and year the wine was  cellared (July 2007) and the disgorgement date, spring 2012.

The Champenois are, we are told, trying to introduce some simple reforms to the appellation to increase the minimum amount of time a wine must be kept before it is sold both before (when ageing on its lees) and after disgorgement. These proposed changes are being discussed as part of the 2030 review and while it now looks like there will be some delay before any such meaningful changes are going to be introduced, there is still hope that they will be. This may not be in the interests of the producers geared up to provide European markets with cheap champagne — these are no doubt the producers objecting to the proposed changes — much of which is not worthy of the name, but it certainly is in the long term interests of the region as a whole.

Happily there are already a number of enterprising producers showing the way ahead and it is to be hoped that their numbers will be swelled by the many who adopt such good production practices but don’t necessarily shout about it, further isolating those that cut corners.

My top ten pink champagnes (mostly not sold in supermarkets)

I used to be unenthusiastic about rosé champagne. I have an issue with the fact that it is generally priced at a similar level to vintage champagne, but rarely offers anything like the same emjoyable drinking experience. However I have to admit there are now many more Charles99VintNewLabelwithglass2013-01-22 13.43.06attractive pink champagnes on the market and for Valentine’s Day lots of people will be drawn into buying pink fizz. So what are the best options, outside the supermarket norm but not in the stratospheric price territory (over £200) occupied by the big brands’ rosés, the likes of Cristal, Dom Pérignon, Krug, Comtes de Champagne, Clicquot’s La Grande Dame and Laurent-Perrier’s Cuvée Alexandra?

I am particularly attracted to the more winey, Burgundy style Pinot Noir driven pinks that age really well and work surprisingly well with food, particularly game. In this camp I’d include Veuve Clicquot Cave Privée Rosé, ideally the 1989 vintage which is still available, if in fairly limited distribution. Ten years younger, but both delicious in their different ways are Charles Heidsieck’s 1999 Rosé and Bollinger La Grande Année 1999 Rosé, Closer in style to the Clicquot with powerful rich Pinot Noir from Les Riceys playing a significant role in the blend comes Nicolas Feuillatte’s Palmes d’Or Rosé. I have the 1999, 2004 and 2005 vintages and will probably open the ‘99 myself on the 14th.

More delicate in style, but slightly more expensive is the creamy textured Billecart-Salmon’s Cuvée Elisabeth Salmon 2002. Great value but certainly not inferior comes the delicately fruity, but distinctly classy Joseph Perrier 2004 Rosé. Bruno Paillard Premier Cru Rosé is another winner resonating breeding and, as the best pinks are, very moreish. And Gosset Grande Rosé, which I tried again only this afternoon, is a very desirable, seductive pink that rapidly disappears.

That only leaves two remaining slots to fill and for these I am going to go to the Côte des Bar region to the south-east of Troyes where Michel Drappier makes a charming Burgundy-like pink and bio-dynamic producer Fleury produces something substantial and savoury, that would easily and enjoyably be consumed with an Asian duck dish. Finally I am going to cheat and add an 11th pink that is widely distributed in the supermarkets, that from Veuve Clicquot. This is probably the pink fizz I have tried most often in the past 18 months and has been consistently among the most enjoyable.

Augustin and Leroux in new positions post Bollinger

Two former top Bollinger managers, well known to the UK champagne trade, have started new export orientated jobs. Hervé Augustin, previously Bollinger MD, whose ‘resignation’ as President of Ayala last September surprised many industry observers, has joined Champagne De Castelnau at the Reims-based CRVC co-operative as their export director. And earlier this month, Stephen Leroux, former sales and marketing director at Bollinger, who briefly worked last year on the export side at Louis Roederer, joined the EPI management team under MD Robert Remnant, specifically working on the Charles Heidsieck brand.

Augustin oversaw a complete restoration of Ayala’s fortunes and image moving over from managing Bollinger after the family bought the ailing house in January 2005. The CRVC MD Pascal Prudhomme says Augustin will help them achieve their objective of « reaching sales of 500,000 bottles for the De Castelnau barand by 2016, its 100th anniversary, with 50% sold outside France”. Aged 62, Augustin’s career in Champagne, which spans 37 years, began at Laurent-Perrier working with his uncle Bernard de Nonancourt.

The appointment of Leroux on the Charles Heidsieck brand shows EPI’s determination to build a talented management team capable of restoring this famous marque’s image, positioning it in the same territory as brands like Roederer and Bollinger.