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One on One With Winemakers: Tasting The Stars

January 14, 2018 2 comments

“Come quickly, I am tasting the stars!” – whether Dom Perignon said these words or not is not really important – but if you thought that we will be talking about the Champagne, you got it right! Also, plural mention of “winemakers” in the title is not a mistake – today’s “one on one” post is actually a double-feature.

The story of Duval-Leroy Champagne goes almost 160 years back, to 1859, when Edouard Leroy, wine négociant, met Jules Duval, grape grower – the rest is a history which you can read for yourself here. Today Duval-Leroy farms 200 hectares (about 500 acres) of vines, mostly in Premier and Grand Cru appellations, also using sustainable viticulture – Duval-Leroy is known as a pioneer of the sustainable grapegrowing in Champagne.

In 1785, “Heidsieck & Cie” company was founded with one dream – to create a Champagne worthy of a queen. After tasting the stars, Queen Marie Antoinette became the first “brand ambassador” for the Heidsieck Champagne. I don’t want to try to regurgitate here the rich history of Piper-Heidsieck Champagne, you would be far better of reading it for yourself, but for all these years, Piper-Heidsieck story always included royal families, fashion designers, and movies. The bottle of Piper-Heidsieck was the first Champagne to ever appear in the movie in 1933. Since 1993, Piper-Heidsieck is an official supplier of Cannes Film Festival, and many actors and producers were recognized with the special Piper-Heidsieck Award at film festivals around the world.

Now, let’s get to that double-feature interview I promised. I’m running this “one-on-one” series of the interviews for about 3 years now. Until now, there was always a unique set of questions, prepared specifically for the particular winery and the winemaker. This time, I decided to play it a bit differently – ask the same set of questions of two winemakers – however, in this case, there is a great “common space” between the subjects of the interview – they both make Champagne!

I had an opportunity to [yes, virtually] sit down with Sandrine Logette, Cellar Master of Champagne Duval-Leroy, and Séverine Frerson, Chef de Caves at Piper-Heidsieck, and here is what transpired:

[TaV]: What is your approach to the blending of Vins Clairs? How many Vins Clairs are typically comprising your most standard NV house blend?

[DL]: It is necessary to first think about the flavor profile you would like to achieve: the aromatic notes with its intensity and its descriptors, its mouthfeel, its volume, its angles, its power and persistence as well as the volume: number of bottles to produce, volume of reserve wines to use and volume of wine to save for future ‘liqueur d’expédition’. The vins clairs are tasted several times (at least twice) after the malolactic fermentation to familiarize ourselves with their characteristics. The first approach to blending is always a minimal concept; which is what I call it my ‘accounting idea’. It is tasted, assessed and compared to our first and last blends of this wine made in previous years. The vins clairs are then improved by modifying only one character at a time. The same improvement is repeated as many times as necessary to achieve the best result. We use about 45 to 55 vins clairs to produce our Champagne Duval-Leroy Brut Réserve.

[PH]: We blend over 100 crus to make Piper-Heidsieck’s NV cuvée: the Cuvée Brut. I think of the vins clairs (base wines) as spices stored in little boxes in her mind and I know exactly which boxes/spices (and proportions) I need to add to create the same taste every year.

[TaV]: Can you describe your “house style”?

[DL]: Our goal is to maintain the quality of our Brut  Réserve NV vintage after vintage:

  • A complex aromatic profile showing fruity notes of yellow peach, damson and subtle red berries along with notes of cocoa powder and toasted bread
  • An integrated, round and generous mouthfeel but yet elegant and fresh.

[PH]: Piper-Heidsieck’s wine style is fruity, structured and complex, with lots of deepness. It’s a champagne to treat yourself and to share with your loved ones. Champagne serves as a bridge between people. It triggers and enhances moments of sharing, complicity and joy. And we are the ones who strive to create memorable experiences. It is all truly wonderful!

[TaV]: Somewhat of a continuation of the previous question: I don’t know if you ever experimented with this, but I wonder if a panel of wine consumers (non-experts) would be able to identify your standard NV offering in a blind tasting?

[DL]: We have worked with a panel of French consumers who tasted our Brut Réserve NV. This panel was able to detect the fruity nose without going into details and recognize the roundness of the mouthfeel and the integrated acidity.

[PH]: The goal of our Cellar Masters is to maintain Piper-Heidsieck’s style, and make it recognizable. Our wines are fruity, structured and profound but also well balanced, straight and bright. In the case of the Cuvée Brut, it’s a seductive champagne that you can recognize on your palate right away. What gives it away is its notes of almond and fresh hazelnut that are very lively, subtle and light. It’s a very smooth an pure champagne with notes of fresh pear and apple with a delicate hint of citrus fruits (pomelo). You can also taste the blonde grapes and juicy white fruits that create the lightness of the champagne.

[TaV]: Similar question to the second one, only now for the vintage Champagne – can you describe your house style?

[DL]: Our vintage “house style” is given by the characteristics of that specific year which varies according to the weather, therefore, the quality of the grapes (acid-sugar balance – fruit richness). We do not look for our vintage cuvées to be identical year after year. We make the best vintage with what nature has to offer.

[PH]: The Cellar Masters’ goal when creating a vintage champagne is to put a special year in a bottle. They want to take a snapshot of this particularly great year to keep it as a memory and reward the hard work of our vineyard team without forgetting about the Piper-Heidsieck style. Every vintage is different but they all answer to the Piper-Heidsieck style: wines that are fruity, structured with great depth. Our Cellar Masters took the best grapes from 2008 to put it in our current vintage: Vintage 2008 is a precise, elegant and free-spirit wine that showcases the greatest wines 2008 had to offer.

[TaV]: I would assume all (many?) of the Champagne houses have their “secret stash” of Champagnes which had not been disgorged yet – and the wines are disgorged on one by one basis, maybe for the special clients. Do you have such a “secret stash”? What are the oldest, not yet disgorged wines you have in your cellars?

[DL]: Of course, Duval-Leroy has its secret reserve Champagnes that are not disgorged and waiting in the cellar for that special request. Vintages such as 1979, 1982, 1986, 1988, 1990 … are kept in bottles and magnums (not systematically in each cuvée).

[PH]: We do have old cuvées in our Cellars, our “secret library” contains old NV from 1980 to now and different vintages from 1982 and on.

[TaV]: Are the Champagne styles changing to address the consumer demand? For instance, I would expect that people would like to drink more of Brut Nature/zero dosage and Rosé Champagne. What do you think?

[DL]: The Champagnes’ style may slightly vary depending on consumers demand, but not fundamentally change. Champagne is an Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée which defines production rules and style objectives of quality.
We have seen a greater demand for Champagne Rosé and 5 to 10% sales increase over the past 10 years.
Rosé Champagne is an accessible Champagne, more obvious in terms of taste, festive by its color and more enticing.
The growing demand is also linked to the fact that Rosé Champagne has more personality and a specific identity. It is definitely easier to produce due to warmer weather in recent years.
We find an equally interesting demand for low dosage Champagnes. These low dosages are made possible because of a better integrated acidity naturally due to the wines richness and roundness.

[PH]: We do see some trends in the industry, people tend to be more knowledgeable about what they consume and younger generations like to be more informed. They become more and more wine experts so they ask to question about dosage, disgorgement dates … We have our cuvée Essentiel that works really well with wine experts since they have all the information they need on the label (disgorgement date, bottling date, lot number…) and it’s an extra brut. At Piper-Heidsieck we have a wide range of champagnes to please everyone, we have Rosé Sauvage, Essentiel (extra brut) for wine experts and connoisseurs, our Cuvée Brut, a vintage and Cuvée Sublime (a demi-sec). Our range satisfies all consumers, from non-experts to wine lovers and our entire range has complimentary food pairings.

[TaV]: Champagne seems to enjoy higher popularity overall over the last few years. Do you expect that trend to continue? Are the challenges for Champagne which need to be overcome?

[DL]: Of course we want this trend to continue and Champagne to remain the leader sparkling wine out there. In order to overcome any challenges, the Champagne region needs to continue improving.

[PH]: This trend will continue for sure. As mentioned before, the younger generation tends to be more and more knowledgeable about what they consume, especially for wines. They gain interest and want to develop their palate and their knowledge about wine. With more educated consumers that know the quality of champagne and tend to pair champagne with food more and more often we will keep seeing an increasing popularity in champagne consumption in the upcoming years.

The biggest challenge we will be facing is climate change. The Earth is getting warmer and the climate is changing making it even more difficult for us to ensure the quality of grapes as the years go on. With the unpredictable weather, our vineyard team will have to work even harder to protect our vines and ensure a high quality. At Piper-Heidsieck we already took measures to protect the environment as much as we can with recycling measures, reducing our water consumption and gas emissions. It’s a global concern and a challenge that will affect all industries in one way or another.

Another challenge would be the increasing sales of other sparkling wine, but it’s not too concerning as sparkling wines and champagne are very different products consumed for different reasons. As the consumers are getting more knowledgeable they can tell the difference between sparkling wines and champagne and they consume one of the other at different occasions.

[TaV]: What is your most favorite Champagne you personally or your house overall ever produced and why?

[DL]: My favorite is our Femme de Champagne tête de cuvée and specifically the 1995 and 1996 vintages. Very great vintages with beautiful and precise balance and a great aging potential.

[PH]: I actually don’t have a favorite champagne! It all depends on the moment, when I will open it and with whom! I will choose the Cuvée Brut for a festive aperitif with friends. I love the Vintage 2008 for an intimate dinner and the Rosé Sauvage in the summer with a barbecue.

[TaV]: Champagne rules allow using 7 different grape varieties, yet absolute majority only uses 3 from that list. Have you ever experimented with using any of those 4 leftover grapes? If yes, did you get any interesting results?

[DL]: Since 1998, we regularly vinify one of the old grape varietal of Champagne called ‘petit meslier and produce a specific cuvée: Précieuses Parcelles. Petit Meslier is a white grape varietal that grows well in soils rich in clay (a natural cross between Gouais and Savagnin) in the right bank of Vallée de la Marne.
It is a varietal that struggles to ripen, therefore has a mouthfeel marked by sharp acidity and aromatic notes of rhubarb.
I chose to vinify it in barrels to add some fine oak and spicy notes. Currently, we are working on the 2007 vintage with a low dosage of 4 g / l.
It is a cuvée of curiosity, interesting for its rusticity and for an unusual “Taste” of Champagne.

[PH]: Piper-Heidsieck’s Cellar Masters never experienced with the other grapes, because they only focused on those 3 grapes and developed an expertise in those grapes.

[TaV]: Sparkling wines are produced absolutely everywhere in the world today. Have you tried any of the Methode Classique sparkling wines produced outside of France (Italy, Spain, South Africa, USA,…), and if yes, did you find anything you liked? You don’t have to love them, but maybe you liked just a little, tiny bit? 🙂

[DL]: Fifteen years ago, the Duval-Leroy family contemplated purchasing vineyards in England but decided otherwise. They’d rather stay focused on the terroirs of Champagne.

[PH]: Today sparkling wines are developing, but  Champagne stays the luxurious sparkling wine of reference.
It’s always interesting to discover other regions – for example, I tasted high quality sparkling wines from Italy, Spain and Hungary and even if we are in the sparkling wine category they all had they own style and authenticity!

Time top drink some Champagne, isn’t it?

First, I wanted to try NV Duval-Leroy Rosé Prestige Premier Cru (Chardonnay/Pinot Noir blend) and NV Piper-Heidsieck Rosé Sauvage (50-55% Pinot Noir, 30-35% Meunier, 15-20% Chardonnay) side by side, as both are Rosé Champagne. There was a dramatic difference in appearance and taste profile. Duval-Leroy, in a word, was sublime. Delicate pinkish color, just a light salmon pink, whiff of the toasted bread, vibrant acidity on the palate, touch of lemon – seductive, and yes, sublime. Sauvage, on another hand, means “wild” in French – and that exactly how the Piper-Heidsieck was. Strawberry pink in the glass, fresh tart strawberries and a touch of yeast on the nose, and then generous toasted bread, granny smith apples and strawberries on the palate. Truly different and delicious in its own right.

NV Piper-Heidsieck Cuvée Brut (50-55% Pinot Noir, 30-35% Meunier, 15-20% Chardonnay, 10-20% reserve wines) was, in a word, classic – generous, voluptuous, touch of toasted bread and yeast, full mouthfeel, golden delicious apple sweetness, good minerality, very present and excellent overall.

Three Champagnes, three different wines, each delicious in its own right, each worthy to be a star of a special celebratory dinner or a quiet evening for two. And two conversations about the wines, the passion, the style, the stars. We spoke enough today; if you are still reading this, thank you and cheers!

Top Wines of 2017

January 5, 2018 Leave a comment

And here are my top most memorable wines of 2017. A few days ago, I published the first part of the top wines list, and now the time has come to look at the most memorable wins of 2017. The logic behind the list is explained in the post about the second dozen of the top wines of 2017, so let’s just proceed.

12. 2016 Salabka LA COQUINE Chardonnay Praha Czech Republic (€25) – we finished the second dozen list with Chardonnay, and we are starting this one with  Chardonnay, however, of a very different character. This was yet another surprise during Salabka winery visit in Prague – bright and upbeat, excellent core of acidity surrounded by tropical fruit and apples with a tiny touch of vanilla – a pure delight in a glass.

11. 2010 La Rioja Alta Viña Alberdi Reserva ($16) – I have an unquestionable love to La Rioja Alta wines – didn’t find yet the one I didn’t like. This 2010 Viña Alberdi is a classic, generous Rioja – red and black berries, cedar box, mint, sweet oak, rounded by clean acidity and delicious finish. It was literally my “go to” wine this – I took a number of bottles with me in my travels and the reaction everywhere was the same – “wow, this is a good wine!” – including the dinner at the wine bloggers conference this year.

10. 2011 Fiction Red Wine Paso Robles by Field Recordings ($20) – Field Recordings is one of my most favorite producers. Fiction red was also one of my “convert” or maybe rather a “discovery” wines – tasting the 2010 Fiction made me fall in love with Field Recordings wines. The 2010 Fiction was my Top Wine in 2011.  This 2011 Fiction was almost a revelation this year – I didn’t expect much from the 6 years old screwtop wine, meanwhile – it evolved dramatically, showing delicious berry medley elevated with a dash of cinnamon and nutmeg, and a slimmer of sage on top. A wow wine.

9. 2007 Marchese Antinori Tenuta Montenisa Contessa Maggi Riserva Franciacorta ($50+) – drinking this wine at the old and authentic Montenisa Estate definitely had some effect – regardless, the wine was outstanding, boasting vintage sparkling wine qualities, freshly toasted, yeasty bread, plenty of fruit and beautiful acidity. A treat.

8. 1967 Fratelli Giacosa Barolo DOCG ($65 at Benchmark Wine) – 50 years old wine deserves respect, isn’t it? Still was drinkable with characteristic Barolo plums and lavender. It was showing a bit of an age, but still was going strong. Great example of excellent winemaking and a testament to Barolo’s longevity.

7.  NV Piper-Heidsieck Rosé Sauvage Champagne ($50) – Sauvage means “wild” in French, and this is a perfect name for this champagne. Exuberant, in-your-face, fully loaded with fresh succulent strawberries – there is nothing subtle about this wine, it is very present in every sip you take – but it is unmistakably Champagne, delivering lots of pleasure. Will be definitely looking for this wine again – it will brighten up any occasion.

6. 2012 Gaja Pieve Santa Restituta Brunello di Montalcino DOCG ($75) – if I will say that this was Gaja Brunello – would that be enough of the description for you? Supremely delicious from the get-go, Brunello from one of the best producers in Italy, from one of the best vintages for Brunello. The wine was beautifully showing, fully extracted and powerful, but nevertheless perfectly balanced. Outstanding.

5. 2013 Sandhi Pinot Noir Santa Rita Hills ($35) – Sandhi Chardonnay was mentioned in the second dozen of top wines for 2017, but it was this Pinot Noir which made me say “wow” while discovering Sandhi wines. Unmistakably California Pinot Noir with gentle red fruit in the leading role and violets and sage supporting the bouquet. Luscious, silky smooth, perfectly dense and balanced – the wine which needs to be experienced.

4. 2014 Unionville Vineyards Amwell Ridge Cabernet Franc New Jersey ($28?) – It is interesting how many wines on this top list represent “surprises” ( but then, of course, the surprise factor is what makes the wine memorable, right?). This wine tremendously exceeded my expectations and showed a classic, perfectly balanced, new world Cabernet Franc – blackcurrant, a touch of mint, medium body, perfectly balanced with clean acidity. An excellent wine worth seeking.

3. 2011/2012 La Valle Brut Rosé Franciacorta DOCG ($45) – visiting La Valle winery in Franciacorta and meeting charismatic Stefano Camilucci was definitely one of the main highlights of our trip to Franciacorta. On top of that, this Rosé sparkling wine was yet another highlight – from beautiful presentation of the bottle to the delicious, perfectly clean and balanced, playfully effervescent liquid inside. 2011/2012 is not a mistake – most of the Franciacorta wines are vintage wines; I had both vintages, and they are both excellent. Yet another wine I recommend most highly.

2. 2015 Nevada Sunset Winery Syrah El Dorado County ($20) – I love surprises, and this was a big one! Tiny city winery, officially opened only two months prior to my visit, and then the wine which can be a crown jewel for any winery’s portfolio. Definitely a new world Syrah, but impeccably balanced. Intense dark fruit with chocolate and espresso on the nose, and the same matching profile on the palate with the addition of a touch of pepper – silky smooth, full-bodied, and – did I say it already – impeccably balanced. Wow.

1. 1982 Olga Raffault “Les Picasses” Chinon, Loire ($85?) – for any Cabernet Franc aficionado, Olga Raffault is “the name”, Chinon is “the place”, and 1982 was really a legendary vintage in France (for sure in Bordeaux, don’t know if this can be reciprocated to the Loire, but still). Tasting this 35 years old wine was a pure delight – no sign of age, cassis all the way, complex bouquet, great balance – what else can you wish for in wine?

Here we are, the Top wines of 2017. I could easily double the number of wines here, as lots and lots of well worthy wines were not included – ah, well… Let’s look at the “diversity” as we did for the second dozen. Out of 12 wines, 5 countries, 11 different regions, some of them I bet you never had the wines from such as Nevada and New Jersey – I believe it is an interesting mix and well on par with diversity in the wine world today.

As everything works in life, one list is finished, and the new one is starting right after. Happy wine year 2018! Cheers!