Anne Krebiehl MW tastes the new cuvée from Piper-Heidsieck called Essentiel that launches in the UK in September. Talking to chef de cave Régis Camus, she finds that it essentially shows the flagship wine as it is with more age and less sweetness. The bigger picture, however, is that it is another step in Camus’ strategy to move the house away from being a Champagne for nightclubs and one for connoisseurs.
The Essentiel project was started in 2008 due to market demand for something new, less dosed, extra brut. But not completely new….
Régis Camus, chef de cave of Piper-Heidsieck was in London to introduce the house’s latest cuvée called Essentiel to be launched in the UK in September. This, of course, begs the question of what is essential about it?
It is an apt name, as it turns out: Essentiel shows the essence of what the house stands for in a pared-down but all the more convincing way.
Transparency is the new watchword in Champagne and in presenting Essentiel, Régis Camus (almost) bares the bones of the house’s flagship, Piper-Heidsieck Brut NV. It is with this cuvée that the tasting starts.
“The house style of Piper is known for great freshness, lots of structure from Pinot Noir which makes up 50-55% of the blend, citrus flavours of Chardonnay and fruit of Pinot Meunier,” Camus explains. “It has a pleasant personality which is amplified in the mouth by reserve wines.” These make up between 8-22% of the blend which can be composed of grapes from up to 100 villages.
Then follows Essentiel: the colour is just as pale but has the aromatic nose so reminiscent of ripe Golden Pearmain apples, there is a saline hint on the nose that continues on the light-bodied but full-flavoured palate. It is a beautifully balanced wine that repays savouring by revealing glints of salted caramel within its creamy autolytic notes. You simply want to sip more.
“While the Brut NV expresses the style of the house, Essentiel is also a brut non-vintage which is the essence of the house,” Camus says enigmatically.
So what is the wine made of? How is it different? How does it attain its depth?
“Brut NV is already well-respected for its briskness and Essentiel presents it without the artifice of more dosage,” he explains. “Is this about showing wine without make-up?” I ask. “Indeed it is, even though I would not frame it in these terms,” Camus answers.
It turns out that Essentiel is exactly the same base wine as the Piper-Heidsieck Brut NV, but with one further year of lees ageing and less dosage.
The normal Brut NV has between 8-10g/l dosage whereas Essentiel has 5g/l. The current release of Essentiel is based mainly on the 2011 harvest and contains 16% of reserve wines. It was bottled in 2012 and disgorged in June 2016 – which gives it just over four years on lees.*
So it is the same wine, just released a year later? Can every bottle of Piper-Heidsieck Brut NV theoretically become a bottle of Essentiel?
Here Camus smiles: “Ah, that is a choice we make when we look at where in the cellar the bottles are stored. There are certain corners of the cellars, some places where there is something special…It’s like any house, there always is a room where things are just right, where you feel most comfortable.”
So in effect, Essentiel is the same base wine as the house’s Brut NV that happens to mature for longer in a particularly fortuitous place in the cellar – whether that is down to humidity or temperature – who knows. But it explains why the name fits: it shows the flagship wine as it is with more age and less sweetness: what we see is the essence of the base wines and the house.
It both underlines and reinforces the quality of the Brut NV and the house itself.
The Essentiel project was started in 2008, Camus explains, “due to market demand for something new, less dosed, extra brut. But personally I did not want to create something completely new,” he says and explains why.
“When I arrived at Piper-Heidsieck 23 years ago, the qualitative image of the house was poor. It was an image of sour Champagne. But I wanted to make a Champagne that made people smile and gave them pleasure and slowly we arrived at what today is Piper-Heidsieck Brut NV. Within these 20-odd years we went from an unripe, green lemon flavor to notes of Granny Smith and then touch by touch, year by year we went towards today’s juicy, crunchy orchard fruit with that saline touch. We went from a Champagne for nightclubs to one that is chosen and enjoyed by professionals, by sommeliers and independent merchants – a real transformation.”
This is how Camus charts his own work: moving the house style from a mindless drink consumed in noisy darkness to a sophisticated wine to be enjoyed consciously and deliberately in broad daylight.
“This is a great reward, a great recompense,” says Camus. It also illustrates his desire to show the much barer bones, the essential quality of the brut NV via the Essentiel bottling. It is not something new, but something slightly more bare, slightly more authentic, and therefore all the more convincing.
Right now Essentiel represents just 6% of the house production but this is increasing year on year. The cuvée is aimed primarily at the premium on- and off-trade. It has been available in France for a while and in Japan, where subtler tastes are more readily appreciated, it replaces the Brut NV altogether. But Essentiel is also expressive of the zeitgeist.
“Today the majority of consumers, especially the young consumers want something simple, something fresh, something that has structure, something that has complexity without heaviness,” says Camus. His Essentiel certainly and beautifully hits that spot.
* all of this data is on the back label
Essentiel will be launched officially in in the UK September 2017