Wednesday, January 6, 2016

CHAMPAGNE PIPER-HEIDSIECK ~ Lunch with Chef de Cave REGIS CAMUS

People who know me have heard me say, "If I could drink Champagne all day long, every day, I would." So it should be no surprise that when I had the chance to dine with Piper-Heidsieck's award-winning Chef de Cave Régis Camus, I jumped. On a balmy November day, I joined him and a few other Wineaux at Koi Soho for an incredible lunch, paired with an array of Piper Champagnes.

We began with the ubiquitous red-labelled Piper-Heidsieck Brut NV: notes of brioche and lemon, clean, with a sublime mousse, bright yet rich. 100% malolactic fermentation but still so fresh. ~$45. Lifting his glass, M. Camus said, "The first glass is the best of the day." So true.

Champagne lovers know that a NV wine isn't a "second runner-up" to the vintage-declared bottlings. A NV blend represents the identity of the Champagne house, as it is crafted year to year to achieve the house style using reserve wines and different percentages of the three permitted varietals (Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier,) from a base vintage. When I asked M. Camus if he had favorite reserve wines that he was perhaps reluctant to use up, he said, a tad derisively, "Others want to hold, like museum. The Chef's job is to keep using wines." I took another sip, savoring the generous history in my glass.

Blending also occurs with a vintage wine, but with different varietals and vineyards, not years. The Piper-Heidsieck Brut Vintage 2006 (49% Pinot Noir, 51% Chardonnay) was sourced from 16 Grand and Premier Crus (rated vineyards) during a "challenging yet rewarding" year marked by a wide range of weather. It had a yeasty nose with a strong tangerine element, and was rich and floral with an incredible length of fruit. Vivid, generous, gorgeous minerality, balanced acidity, strong mousse. ~$80. M. Camus called this "The Diplomat," and with a little prodding, I discovered he has nicknames for all of his vintage-designated Champagnes — 2008 was "The Diamond," 2004 was "The Marathoner." Love it! Toasting with the 2006, M. Camus said, "The second glass... is the best of the day." Agreed.

A Champagne house's Tête de Cuvée, or Cuvée Prestige, is its jewel in the crown. For Piper, that is the Rare, and they have only released EIGHT vintages of Rare sine its debut in 1976. As winemaker, M. Camus can take the gloves off and use complete creative freedom to craft a spectacular wine. The Piper-Heidsieck Rare Millesime 2002 (70% Chardonnay, 30% Pinot Noir) has a bold nose of baked lemon and brioche. It is luxe beyond belief, with a creamy mandarin curd finish. Disgorged in 2012, this spent 9 years on its lees, and has the oomph to be cellared for another 20. ~$180. As we raised our glasses, I said, "Let me guess: the third glass…" and we all chorused: "is the best of the day!"

Most of the courses at Koi Soho have an Asian flair, and it doesn't take a Master Somm to pair Champagne with sushi... but how about red meat? Well, for a winter lamb chop, look no further than the Piper-Heidsieck Rosé Sauvage NV (55-60% Pinot Noir, 20-25% Pinot Meunier, 10-15% Chardonnay, with some "vin de couleur," or still Pinot Noir, in the mix.) This was a deep, vibrant pink, with very fragrant strawberry notes, candied cherries, grapefruit, and roses, with a subtle mousse. Like the NV Brut, the rosé is blended from a base wine (in this case, 2010,) and a large number of reserve wines. M. Camus implied this rosé is one of his toughest wines to make; the color should be consistent from year to year, Pinot Noir could overwhelm the blend but shouldn't, and some vintages, crops of Pinot Noir don't pass muster for the rosé. But it's worth it; the Piper Heidsieck Rosé is another very striking, yet elegant, wine. ~$60.

Finally, we headed into dessert with the Piper-Heidsieck Cuvée Sublime. (55-60% Pinot Noir, 20-25% Pinot Meunier, 10-15% Chardonnay.) This is a Demi-Sec, which means it has a higher dosage (added sugar) and will exhibit apparent sweetness. But make no mistake, this is not a syrupy, cloying dessert wine. Think of it more like a voluptuous bombshell pin-up! Notes of marzipan, pineapple, vanilla cupcake. Delicious fruit, extremely well-balanced. (My notes have "delicious" again.) It certainly paired well with the dessert course, but would be a heady experience on its own. ~$50.

Although M. Camus has been named "Champagne Winemaker of the Year" by the International Wine Challenge eight times, Piper-Heidsieck doesn't command consumers' attention the way Perrier-Jouët or Möet & Chandon do. What does that mean for you Wineaux? Simple: incredible Champagnes at comparatively bargain prices. Perhaps Piper-Heidsieck doesn't have the reputation of other large houses, but it is a mistake to pass over these incredible wines. The cultivation of the vintage offerings and the high percentage of reserve wine in the NV bottlings belies the price points. In general, the Piper style is bold yet elegant, and who doesn't want that in a Champagne! So go seek some out, and let me know if you agree.

Many thanks to M. Camus and to my friends at Terlato Wines for a delicious luncheon and the unique opportunity to drink gorgeous Champagnes with their Chef beside me. I look forward to tasting with M. Camus again someday (and perhaps inspire a nickname for a future vintage —"The Minx"?!)

Cheers!

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