There are many facets to the role of Chef de Cave in a major Champagne house. At its heart is honouring the house style while at least maintaining or enhancing its reputation. It is not easy and requires the skills of both a technician and artist to work with what each vintage has to offer.
Very occasionally a Chef de Cave is more than a custodian and also has the opportunity to alter a brand’s trajectory through the addition of a new cuvée. Champagne houses almost never substantially change their knitting and make radical shifts. But that is exactly what has recently occurred at Piper-Heidsieck, where Chef de Cave Emilien Boutillat has crafted a number of new releases, the latest a Non-Vintage Blanc de Noirs under their Essentiel label which is due for global release in September.
Despite the ever-increasing global demand and interest in Champagne, Blanc de Noirs, made from the red Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier varietals, remains a relatively rare beast. In contrast, the fame and desire for Chardonnay-based Blanc de Blancs continues to grow at a rapid pace, their purity and vibrancy providing a compelling combination.
It is a brave step for Piper-Heidsieck, a significant player in Champagne, to significantly commit to a style that remains a mystery to many Champagne fans. Yet Blanc de Noirs can be equally compelling thanks to a powerful, vinous and mouthfilling Champagne style. They are serious wines that arguably best illustrate the qualities of great Pinot Noir fruit and vineyards in Champagne. Their more savoury qualities also add intriguing detail, particularly with time in bottle, which has helped to build a small but loyal following which is guaranteed to grow. Piper Heidsieck’s historic reliance on Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier for their Cuvée Brut provides a strong resource on which to base the new wine, which includes Grand Cru vineyards in Aÿ and Ambonnay.
The move by Piper-Heidsieck into Blanc de Noirs is also reflective of a greater general focus on quality at the house since a change of ownership in 2011, as illustrated by the release of the Esssentiel Blanc de Blancs and also the Hors-Serie releases from 1971 and 1982. The technician Boutillat and his team are on-song across the park, pitching their wines well, particularly in relation to blending and dosage. Another component of this change has also included a greater focus on the environment. Piper-Heidsieck, combined with its affiliates Charles Heidsieck and Rare Champagne, are the first houses to achieve B Corp certification, part of which relates to vineyard sustainability while minimising waste and carbon emissions. This is not simply lip-service, with significant effort in particular in the vineyards to improve health, biodiversity and in turn fruit quality.
The NV Piper-Heidsieck Essentiel Blanc de Noirs is a blend of 80% Pinot Noir and 20% Pinot Meunier. While it is labelled as a Non-Vintage, this first release is actually a vintage wine from 2019 as they are yet to build up a bank of reserve wines for blending, which makes it extraordinary value. Aged for three years on lees, and with a low Extra-Brut dosage, it is a modern and controlled Blanc de Noirs expression offering up excellent aromatic volume while retaining brightness of fruit. Layers of spice, toast and strawberry aromas with a chalky minerality are then followed by a generous and textural palate with touches of glacé cherry to finish. It’s an impressive start for what promises to be a wine to watch over the coming years.
93 Points – Drink 2023-2032