Ever since he vacated the chef de cave seat at Piper-Heidsieck, Regis Camus has devoted his attention between making premium sake and top Champagne cuvée Rare. In London to show off the new vintage, Rare 2006, to Anne Krebiehl MW, he explains why this cuvée is a ‘sunny’ one rather than ‘iconic’ or ‘radiant’; why most of the Chardonnay in the blend comes from the Montagne de Reims rather than the Côte des Blancs; why it is only the ninth white Rare since 1976; and why making Champagne of this calibre requires the maker to have a ‘photograph’ in their mind of each vintage.
“Rare 2006 strikes a richer, rounder note,” writes Krebiehl, “It reveals a creamy, mellow core, an inherent gentleness that alternately shows aspects of yeast and fresh apple flesh and is only underscored by the sinuous, vivacious freshness.”
The Bloomsbury façade was grey. The interior of the chic, contemporary but rather corporate flat in Fitzrovia was also grey – or rather a sea of taupe – and grey were the London skies. It could easily have been a commercial for the latest Farrow & Ball palette if it hadn’t been for the tall and always slightly mischievous presence of Regis Camus, awaiting us in this swish, open-plan flat.
Camus is the former chef de cave at Champagne Piper Heidsieck and since 2018 has been solely responsible for the prestige cuvée Rare which now represents its own brand, no longer sailing under Heidsieck colours. The separation occurred in October 2018 although, confusingly, Rare is still listed as one of ‘Our Wines’ on the Piper-Heidsieck website.
Camus was in London to launch Rare 2006, only the ninth white vintage made of this wine. The previous white vintages of Rare are 1976, 1979, 1985, 1988, 1990, 1998, 1999, 2002 and now 2006. Only two vintages of Rare Millésime Rosé were made: 2007 and 2008 – and we got to taste both of these as well.
Camus explains that the Rare cuvées usually are composed of 70% Chardonnay and 30% Pinot Noir but vary when it comes to cru and proportions of crus within that composition. What is unusual is that the majority of the Chardonnay for Rare is sourced in the Montagne de Reims, and only a much smaller part in the Côte des Blancs.
“This is part of the signature of Rare. Chardonnay from the Montagne de Reims, when it is young, has lots of vivacity, lots of lemon and grapefruit. Chardonnay is tamed by time.”
He also notes that no wood is used at all in making Rare but that all base wines go through full malo-lactic fermentation. “In Champagne, one plus one does not equal two,” Camus cautions. “The magic happens in the blend. It is like a puzzle.” It turns out that Camus’ puzzles are miraculously turned into luminous, colourful images that smash the grey-in-grey tones of that corporate flat and the grey day.
Camus also emphasises that for him “there is no vintage that is better than the other, they are just different. The importance is to have a photograph, an image of the vintage.” To this end, he says, he has just one singular attribute assigned to each of the Rare vintages.
Rare 2002 – Camus attribute: “Iconic”
The rich nose opens with a smoky impression of Golden Pearmain apple and exudes a mellow, powdery freshness. The palate then strikes with utter clarity and slenderness that nonetheless seems like a central shaft of citric light, embedded in a thousand layers of fluffiest, silkiest tulle, shimmering in creamy, golden, sunny yellow and ivory hues. There is something distinctly linear but also something weightless and elusive about this. With more air, a distinct spiciness appears, almost like tingling hints of ginger heat. The overall picture is one of effortless finesse. Camus is right when he remarks that this 17-year-old is remarkably youthful.
Rare 2006 – Camus attribute: “Sunny”
Opening with a nose of caramelised cashew and overtones of hazelnut praline, intensified by a very lively mousse, 2006 strikes a richer, rounder note. It reveals a creamy, mellow core, an inherent gentleness that alternately shows aspects of yeast and fresh apple flesh and is only underscored by the sinuous, vivacious freshness. The nutty highlights continue throughout while the finish tapers towards a lovely, lastingly fresh creaminess.
Rare 1998 in Magnum – Camus attribute: “Radiant”
Whoa: an initial whiff of peach iced tea segues into notes of apricot compote, along with its fleshy fruitiness and the chewier skins. A touch of cinnamon appears as well but the palate is totally straight-laced, vivid. Air reveals further notions of rich spice: think vanilla, ginger, crushed coriander seed – but in all subtlety. This is set off by the body’s wonderfully bracing freshness, still tight, still utterly disarming.
To emphasise the three very different characters of these wines, we get to taste them with three different pairings: the 2006 with a juicy slice of ripe Alphonso mango, the 2002 with a sliver of earthy, salty Bellota ham; the 1998 with truffled Brie. The choices are inspired.
Now it is time to move onto the Rosé wines…
2007 was the first Rare Rosé vintage ever made. Camus hatched the idea in the year 2000, made the decision to go ahead in 2003 as the hot summer had made one thing clear: “that that heatwave rosé was the perfect wine,” he remembers. He says that he likes rosés with an intense colour. He achieves this by blending red wines that were made to have “lively red fruit and colour without astringency or tannin.”
He continues: “For the 2007, I wanted to be provocative with the colour,” and then says how happy he is with the beautiful copper pink hue of the wine: “I am very proud of this colour 12 years after vintage. Initially the colour even had violet reflects, it was like sunlight shining through the stained-glass rosette at the Basilique St Remi in Reims.”
Rare Rosé 2007
Candied blood orange peel on the nose is the parting shot for layers of aromatic richness. The body is very taut and tight, but gorgeously fine, creamy mousse smoothes this over and shimmers with overtones of heady Amarena and spicy maple syrup. There is also a pleasant bitterness that sets a counterpoint to the channelled, smooth but firm generosity of flavours.
Rare Rosé 2008 – Camus attribute: “Precisely Gracious”
This is paler in aspect and the nose is still a little shy, hinting at tart redcurrant notes. The palate is a picture of exquisite slenderness, this is a featherlight caress that enfolds notions of red apple and again a whisper of pleasant bitterness. This is still tightly coiled and needs to unfurl, but it promises to be gorgeous.