People often ask me what champagne they should buy as a present, when it really has to be something special and of course definitely worth the money. Well, my personal choice would be Rare (click for pronunciation) and this is the reason why...
In 1885 Piper-Heidsieck created a very exclusive cuvée to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the house, and it was presented to Queen Marie Antoinette of France. The bottle was designed by the great Fabergé - jeweler of Tsar Nicholas II and famous for his intricate jeweled eggs. It was a majestic bottle dressed in white gold, diamonds and lapis lazuli gemstones. The first Rare cuvée was launched 100 years later. It was a vintage 1976 and the bottle’s ornamentation was designed by the Parisian jewelers Van Cleef & Arpels. It was clearly inspired by the original Fabergé design. Later editions were designed by Arthus Bertrand who gave Rare a less exuberant but still eye catching and stylish appearance.
Rare is the result of selecting the best crus, including Oger, Avize, Trépail, Chouilly and Villers-Marmery for Chardonnay; Verzy, Ambonnay, Ludes and Rilly la Montagne for Pinot Noir and for the Rosé 2007 they use colored wine from Les Riceys. The Rare wines burst with energy and they have an exquisite crystalline citric acidity, expressive fruit, exotic spices and mineral complexity. Rare champagnes are driven by Chardonnay, which gives them a remarkable purity. In the winemaking process there is never wood involved and because of long ageing on the lees you get a lovely toastiness and richness of aroma and flavors. Rare is only made in vintages that were excellent for the house. Vintages 1976, 1979, 1985, 1988, 1990, 1998 (Magnum), 1999, 2002 and the 2007 rosé have been on the market thus far.
The head of the winemaking team Régis Camus has been crowned Winemaker of the Year so many times that it’s almost no surprise anymore when his name pops up as the winner. He has an extraordinary comprehension of terroir, the art of blending and of course a passion for fine wines, gastronomy and besides that he’s also a true japanophile making his own saké. Tasting still wines with Régis is one of the most enriching experiences I’ve had in Champagne. Séverine Frerson will be following in the footsteps of Régis. The decision has been made to have Rare as a standalone brand like Dom Pérignon from Moët & Chandon. This means that in the future it will no longer be Piper-Heidsieck Rare but just Rare.
At first I was quite surprised that Régis had chosen vintage 2007 because quite some growers were not satisfied with their 2007 wines. After having recently tasted some excellent wines from this vintage (notably exceptional Chardonnays), I was more than confident that it would be yet another masterpiece. The 2007 vintage had a mild winter that led to an exceptionally warm spring. Flowering came a month too early and there was the constant threat of rot due to the high humidity. Summer was warm but rainy, and most houses and vignerons started their harvest shortly after. So yes, creating a prestige rosé wine from this vintage was a risk where only the most adventurous cellar masters - like Régis - could succeed in making great champagne.
The Rare rosé 2007 is made of grapes from 11 crus including Avize, Vertus and Villers-Marmery for Chardonnay; Ambonnay and Aÿ for Pinot Noir and Les Riceys for colored wines. This rosé has a light but intense salmon pink color with a rose golden hue, a very refined effervescence and soft mousse in the glass. The nose seduces you with cherry blossom, passion flower, guava, forest strawberries, lychee, high mountain Oolong tea and a noble yeasty base note. A swirl of the glass releases lovely citrus Chardonnay tones with a mild smokiness, together with cured ham, rich yeast, a hint of salmon fat and wafer biscuits. The mouthfeel is light and elegant. On the palate you get strawberry liqueur, rose oil, passionfruit and pomegranate grenadine with subtle yeastiness. On the mid palate you get a bitter touch of sun dried tomato and it spices up with pink peppercorns and saffron. Candied lemon with salt, honeycomb and exotic spices linger on the long, creamy finish. This is one of the most exciting rosés you can buy.
The champagne vintage 2002 is in general already one of the most legendary years.
I’ve tasted the Rare 2002 numerous times and everytime it feels like a completely different experience. When I last tasted it with Régis I had the impression that it was even younger and also more complex than before.
Rare 2002 is made of 8 crus of which include Avize, Villers-Marmery for Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from Verzy. The dosage is 9.5 grams. This wine has a bright and intense yellow golden color with a mild and refined effervescence and a soft mousse in the glass. On the nose we get sea shells, lychee, persimmon, yellow kiwi, candied orange, cinnamon, fresh vanilla, fig and lemon. After a while, we get young Comté cheese, beeswax, jasmine flowers and white tea with mineral overtones and slate. After still a longer while in the glass, the lovely aroma of butter baked fennel and cedarwood emerged together with a luxurious smokiness. The mouthfeel is very dynamic and perfectly structured - call it athletic, but at the same time it has a delicate silky coating to it. On the palate we get candied lemon, crushed rocks, clementines, unripe mango, papaya, pineapple and cold sour cream. On the mid palate we get smoke, blueberry, caramel, young Comté cheese, veal stock and a sniff of cocoa powder, all this combined with a refined autolytic yeastiness and even a hint of smoked Sardo Pecorino cheese. The finish is huge with an extraordinary acidity of lemon, lime, kumquat and Cape gooseberry, along with a complex minerality, white pepper, chalkiness and a fabulous salinity. Give this wine a lot of time and it becomes more smooth and rich - or Romantic if you want - with waxy overtones and luscious candied citrus, ripe tropical fruits, a hint of chinese ginger syrup and oily nuts. This wine already made history but will age like a charm.
1999 was in general a warm year. Rainfall was higher than usual but didn’t affect the health of the grapes. Budding began after a warm winter. The summer was hot which led to an excellent ripening of the grapes. Some very lovely prestige champagnes were made in 1999 -- I’m thinking of Bruno Paillard’s Nec Plus Ultra, Nicolas François Billecart, Mumm Lalou, Alain Thiénot --but Rare 1999 is for me the most expressive powerful and tropical-laced wine I’ve ever tasted from the vintage.
This wine has an intense golden yellow color with a modest effervescence and lovely tears in the glass. In the nose, we get sweet speculaas, essential oil of sandalwood, beeswax, dried orange peel, pineapple, persimmon, mango, pistachio, nougat, lemon and smoke. After a long time in the glass come earth tones, marzipan with orange blossom, old leather and truffle. The mouthfeel is sensual like, if it can be imagined, drinking pure liquid silk. On the attack we get nutty caviar with a nice saltiness. On the palate we get citrus, honey, bergamot, herbal tea, barley, rye, dried morels, grape, Reine Claude plums, sharon fruit and a slight bitterness of quinine. The mid palate is spectacular with the purest saffron you can imagine. The finish is huge with roasted nuts, pippali pepper and mild cigar smoke with vanilla notes. It’s of course best enjoyed out of a bigger champagne glass. A true masterpiece!
I love 1998 vintage champagne in general. Many great prestige champagnes all share that touch of darkness and a touch of mystery. Spring and early summer were rainy and windy but in August there was a heatwave along with rain. This made the grapes to swell and they predicted that the level of acidity would be rather low. In September the weather calmed down and grapes were harvested around the 15th.
The 1998 has a luminous golden color with a refined effervescence and a soft mousse in the glass. In the nose we get a pronounced stony minerality followed by bergamot, earl grey tea, pomelo, candied pineapple, orange blossom, roses, Mimolette cheese, yellow raisins, dried apricots, dried lemon, sandalwood and yeast. After a longer while in the glass the smell of browned butter, gingerbread with lots of ginger, cappuccino and cigar box emerge. The mouthfeel is vinous, focussed and quite dry. On the palate we get a mineral attack followed by yuzu, mango, blackberry, apple, plum, smoke, yeast and hazelnuts, florality and mushroom. On the mid palate we get tangerine and grapefruit with zest together with lovely pastry notes. The long finish is a true fruity delight with mirabelle, greengage plum, lemon, minerality, soft toast and noble yeast. When tasted at a warmer temperature it shows animal and XO cognac notes along with a hint of Périgord truffle. I predict that bottle-age will make this wine richer and even more complex. I’m so glad that the choice was made to release this in Magnum. This wine is made to age and an absolute must for your cellar.
Vintage 1990 is considered an exceptional vintage but many vintage 1990’s did let me down. They do tend to have a vibrant acidity but I often miss complexity and depth.
The first bottle that Régis opened was faulty (smelled like sour mushroom soup and cork). Fortunately the sommelier of the house could present us another bottle of the 1990 in the blink of an eye. Régis started smiling so I knew that bottle would be great. The Rare 1990 is not the most complex one but it’s a very rich, opulent and seductive wine. The color is intense golden with a very fine effervescence. On the nose you get crême brulée with cognac, wax, baba au rhum cake and flambéed pineapple. The mouthfeel is like drinking pure silk. The mid palate has that old Montrachet character that I really love. On the finish you get dried figs and a mild toastiness. There is so much beauty in this wine. To me this was very atypical Piper because this wine was more mellow (less vibrant) but it was a privilege to taste this vintage which is now a true rare find.
In 1988 the weather conditions were mild, nothing exigeant but the vintage delivered structured wines with a rather austere - call it serious - character. Piper Rare 1988 is without doubt the most incredible wine that I tasted from this year.
Golden color with a mild and tantalizing effervescence. Tremendously complex nose of fern, lily, porcini mushroom, beeswax, papaya, candied plums and dried apricots. After swirling the glass, we get the aroma of leather furniture and the smell of an old library, hay and fireplace ash. After longer in the glass it starts showing warm meringue Italienne, cappuccino, currants and wonderful old rum tones. The vegetal notes return with grilled sage, verbena tea and eucalyptus along with autumn leaves and cornflower. The mouthfeel bursts with energy, it makes you forget that this wine is 30 years old. On the palate we get Boskoop apple, cognac tones, smokiness, sandalwood, leather, white truffle and grilled pineapple. On the mid palate we get mocha tones and hazelnuts. It finishes with a perfectly rounded but mouth-watering acidity and a touch of white pepper. The aroma and flavors expand with time. This wine is tremendously complex and layered. An unforgettable experience and one of the best champagnes I ever tasted.
In Champagne, the year 1985 knew a very harsh winter and in spring there was hail. Summer was calm. Harvest began in Octobre and the grapes seemed to have optimal sugar level and acidity. An excellent vintage with balanced wines and a touch of austerity.
This 1985 has a deep golden color with a very modest effervescence and nice tears on the glass. The first nose is a bit dusty that evolves to dried apricot, lokum (Turkish delight), candied citrus and sea breeze together with mature honeyed tones and faint grilled pepper. The mouthfeel is vinous and velvety. On the palate you get the impression that this is pure Chardonnay with candied citrus and honeyed overtones together with a hint of cappuccino. On the mid palate you get salted lemon and an umami soy-like element. This is a delicious wine but I’m missing a bit harmony and complexity. I can see this pairing perfectly with a nice porcini risotto.
1979 knew a cold winter followed by an even colder spring with extreme frost in May. Summer was mild and reasonably sunny. Harvest started rather late in the season and the grapes had an optimal maturity.
It’s been 4 years ago since I tasted this vintage at a press tasting in Brussels organized by the Champagnothèque. Amber golden color with an extremely mild but mouth-caressing effervescence and fat tears on the glass. Lovely spiced aroma of potpourri, asafoetida, honey, bruised apples, blueberry cream, tamarind, tobacco, earth and wax. The mouthfeel is silky and mature. On the palate we get candied lemon, tarte tatin with calvados, rhubarb, quince, ripe figs and gingerbread. On the mid palate we get cigar smoke, a mild nuttiness and a whiff of smoky whisky. It finishes with a pronounced acidity of napoleon lemon candy and gooseberry, along with a touch of sea saltiness, tobacco and woody spices. This wine contains all the romanticism and fun you would expect from a vintage like 1979, but the acidity here is incredibly youthful. A wine for hedonists.
1976 was a very dry year and quite problematic for many vignerons and houses. Most ‘76 wines are too bold and lacking acidity and freshness. At Piper they have managed to create a Rare that has harmony, mineral complexity and freshness.
This wine has a deep gold color with a very modest effervescence. Mature aroma of English orange marmalade, crystallized fruit (pâte de fruits), syrup of exotic fruit (like lychee, pineapple, persimmon), a hint of armagnac, fresh porcini mushrooms with earth, nougat and smoky flint overtones. On the palate this is very rich and slightly oily. It shows a lot of tropical fruit like ripe rambutan, lychee syrup, pineapple, tamarind as well as soft caramel, milk chocolate and licorice. On the mid palate it is earthy and spiced with coriander seeds and asafoetida. There is still enough acidity to balance the wine. The finish is long with a trail of almond creme and pleasant alcohol warmth.