Today’s release of Rare Champagne Millésime 2008 is indeed a rare event. In the 40 years since this prestige cuvée has been produced only 11 vintages have been released. Régis Camus, head of winemaking, explains the selection process that goes into making the wine and why its signature characteristic – minerality – is down to choosing two thirds of the Chardonnay from Montagne de Reims rather than the Côte des Blancs. “These Chardonnays are really like wild horses – you need to take them, keep them and blend them with others just to cool them down – otherwise they will have too much vivacity,” he says. Peter Dean took notes as well as gives a full review of the 2008 and the 2006, which it is was shown against.
“They will speak of this wine in many years to come, it is that good,” says Dean of Rare Champagne Millésime 2008.
Since the first Lockdown in 2020 the drinks industry has coped well in so many ways. From a wine writer’s perspective, this has manifested itself in an almost seamless transition from ‘old world’ real life face-to-face physical tastings and press events, to virtual tastings involving mini-samples and Zoom.
The biggest difference and the biggest plus, perhaps, has been with Champagne and sparkling wines that obviously cannot be sent as mini-samples. Not only has it been joyous to receive full bottles of quality bubbly that very few of us could source or actually afford (to taste them repeatedly, at different times of the day and over a number of days) but it has also enabled us to really do a deep dive with these wines, to really get to understand the ID and DNA of these cuvées.
That we did with Rare Champagne Millésime 2008, newly released today, which is the estate’s flagship release and, broadly speaking, is a 70/30 Chardonnay/Pinot Noir cellar selection from eight different Grand Cru vineyards, and whose signature is significant minerality.
Rare Champagne head winemaker, Régis Camus, explains that what gives this minerality and what is unusual about Rare is that the majority of the Chardonnay is sourced in the Montagne de Reims, and only one third from the Côte des Blancs.
“The choice of Chardonnay from the Montage de Rheims is because of the citrus aromas and minerality you will find from those specific Chardonnays. But you have to be very patient with them and that is why we always say a wine with this high percentage of Chardonnay from the Montagne de Reims needs nine years minimum on the lees,” says Camus.
“These Chardonnays are really like wild horses – you need to take them, keep them and blend them with others just to cool them down – otherwise they will have too much vivacity. Chardonnay from Côte des Blancs will give us the finesses and the refinement we need in the blend but every year the grapes and the wine will be different from the same village because of the vintage,” he says.
Camus is the former chef de cave at Champagne Piper Heidsieck and since 2018 has been solely responsible for the prestige cuvée Rare Champagne* which now represents its own brand, no longer sailing under Heidsieck colours. Rare was carved out as a separate entity in October 2018, thereby forming the third champagne house in the portfolio of French luxury goods house EPI, although somewhat confusingly Rare is still listed as one of ‘Our Wines’ on the Piper Heidsieck website and both houses share the same global executive director in Benoît Collard.
*(He also has a side project where he makes premium sake for HeavenSake.)
True to its name, there have only been 11 releases of Rare in the past 40 years and, even with those, Camus says (almost proudly!) that he never makes enough to satisfy the needs of his commercial department; true to form there is not enough of the 2008 to make any magnums. Although the wine spends nine years on lees and one year in bottle after disgorgement, Camus would prefer 12 years on lees… he explains its painstaking evolution.
“All the Rare Champagne cuvées have the 70/30 Chardonnay/Pinot Noir split but it’s not a recipe, (it varies when it comes to the cru and proportions of crus within that composition).”
Camus explains that the two grapes have a pre-blend around spring.
“After harvest they will check all those different Chardonnays and may be able to do a selection and they do exactly the same on the Pinot Noir side. During spring they will check again this selection of Chardonnay and all the Pinot Noirs and at this moment they will check the capacity of those wines to be part of the blending and then this is when they will marry those two.”
“On the Chardonnay part the selection will be done around the minerality, vivacity and exotic fruit aromas that they will be able to find in the blend of those different Chardonnays. The minerality will usually come from Chardonnay coming from Montagne de Reims, but of course we also have the Chardonnay from the Côte des Blancs. On the Pinot side – it is just the Montagne de Reims crus and more or less all those crus around Verzy.”
The wines then go through full malolactic fermentation, never see a wooden barrel, and spend a minimum of nine years on the lees and a full year in bottle after disgorgement.
So how did Camus find the 2008 vintage?
The previous white vintages of Rare are 1976, 1979, 1985, 1988, 1990, 1998, 1999, 2002, 2006 and now 2008. Only two vintages of Rare Millésime Rosé have been made: 2007 and 2008.
Camus describes the 2008 vintage overall as a fresh one.
“The Winter is quite rainy, cool. Spring is again rainy but quite fresh. Flowers arrive mid June in fresh surroundings. Summer will be sometimes hot but quite fresh the majority of the time. Hopefully harvest will just take place in the best weather ever (in mid-September), it was just great in 2008. Globally we can just express that 2008 was a fresh year. The Chardonnay had a nice tenacity and minerality. The Pinot Noir gives us the structure and fruitiness that we are expecting. And globally the wines coming from 2008 are some that you will forget in your cellar.”
Camus eschews picking favourite vintages, arguing that each have their individual strengths and characteristics. He likes to sum up a growing season, vintage and the final wine itself with one word. For the Rare 2006, which we taste alongside the 2008 it is ‘sunny’.
“And if there is one word to explain 2008 – it is infinite,” he says before pouring a glass.
Tasting the Rare Champagne Millésime 2008
Shiny pale to medium gold; Racy mousse initially, which soon settles down into a steady fine bead; The wine opens with a strong sense of the wine’s mineral core – crushed rocks – you find bracing sea air, green orchard fruit, Poire William, lemongrass, spring flowers, fresh coconut flesh, almond. With time in the glass, the wine adds generosity and greater complexity revealing a promise of just how more magnificent this will become with little hints of ginger and rye crumb.
The first attack on the palate is at once athletic and youthful, fresh, crisp, precise; the balance is sublime and nigh perfect between the linearity, and nervous tension of the wine and a slight oleaginous character; flavours are pixilated with hits of crisp apple granita, mango, green pineapple with a sublime caress of liquorice on the long, elegant finish – all the while that mineral element never seems far away. Not even once. They will speak of this wine in many years to come, it is that good.
Rare Champagne Millésime 2006
As soon as this hits the glass with its shiny mid-gold, showing off tantalising glimpses of its evolution, and developed aromas, you are enticed towards the glass. The nose is astonishing – warm, sunny, complex, decadent – one minute you are in a French patisserie with streams of morning sunlight, wafts of still warm almond croissant and pain de miel, the next you are in the Grand Bazaar spice market where hazelnuts are in the brazier and fresh tea lies next to sandalwood. The wine reveals tropical fruit, papaya, liquorice root, iodine.
The palate is both crisp and rich, with a chalky lemon aspirin front palate, then an undertow of nutty complexity, crystalised mango, a touch of oil. The longer you leave it the more you’ll find, but therein lies the problem if there is one – this is simply irresistible. The glass, once emptied has a distinct aroma of cappuccino foam. Delightful.
Rare Champagne Millésime 2008 is imported and sold in the UK by Liberty Wines.