WITH prosecco in particular on a terrific roll at the moment, doomsayers are already predicting hard times ahead for traditional champagne houses.
Living evidence that such conclusions are seriously premature came from Regis Camus, top winemaker at Piper-Heidsieck, when he visited Edinburgh recently.
Three things make his case for him. One is a lifetime’s accumulated experience – this man has been International Wine Challenge Sparkling Winemaker of the Year every year since 2007. Almost as important, though, is his detailed and hugely impressive long-term perspective. Finally, of course, there is the damned good champagne he brings with him.
Long-term thinking is illustrated by the exceptional stock of “reserve wines” Camus has painstakingly assembled. These are accumulated stocks from earlier vintages used for blending with new wine to help preserve a consistent house style. For example, they form over ten per cent of the wine in Piper-Heidsieck Cuvée Brut (£30.99, Sainsbury’s, but down to £23.24 until Tuesday) and play a key part in maintaining its position as a benchmark for accessible, light-coloured but nicely structured champagne. It delivers gentle but crisp grapefruit and pear fruit that is deftly counterbalanced by a slightly savoury and toasty edge.
For a sweeter example of house styles at work seek out Piper-Heidsieck Cuvée Sublime (£32.99, Co-op), which delivers a mellow sweetness with a kumquat-style backdrop freshened up by suggestions of lemon and apple. The extra dosage (the sugar and wine mixture added at the final stages) makes this work well with chocolate or, say, as an alternative to dessert wine with foie gras.
Another aspect of a long-term approach is reflected in the relationship Camus has attentively built up over 30 years with growers. Such is the trust between them these days that he took delivery of a million kilos of grapes during the 2013 harvest – and no one even asked the price. Grape quality can be crucial for higher-level wines such as the newly released Piper- Heidsieck Vintage Brut 2006 (£49.49 from Harrods, but other retailers are expected to stock it soon). This is 51 per cent chardonnay and draws its grapes from 17 grand cru and premier cru vineyards before beginning six or so years in the cellars. The result is golden-coloured champagne with zesty orange and tropical fruit flavours, a nutty depth, fresh and lively bubbles but exactly the right level of acidity.
Camus also owes much of his fame to the “Rare” versions he produces in top years. Admittedly, they are in magnums (which doubles the already substantial price) but they do illustrate the very pinnacle of wine-making. Despite being 15 years old, the first one Camus made – Piper-Heidsieck Rare Millesime 1998 – retains an astonishing freshness that slowly surfaces as a spicy lime and lemon edge, skilfully underpinning the wine’s mouth-burst of flavour and the suggestions of exotic fruits, marmalade and minty dried fruits it contains.
The last made to date is Piper-Heidsieck Rare Millesime 2002 which, like the 1998, is 70 per cent chardonnay and 30 per cent pinot noir. This is a more restrained version with a smooth and creamy elegance to give sophistication to its rich but lively mango and vanilla flavours.
With a quintet as good as this, few can surely doubt champagne’s position as the symbol of style, luxury and success will survive for many years yet.
2012 Blind Spot Semillon Sauvignon Blanc Margaret River, Australia, 12 per cent
A delightfully clean and fresh, unoaked white with textured grapefruit-centred fruit and, then, an appealing lime-based acidic edge that provides terrific concluding zing. Grab it while you can. £7.95, The Wine Society until tomorrow
2012 Signature Côtes du Rhône Villages France, 13.5 per cent
While other parts struggled with the 2012 vintage, the Rhône has done rather well. Here, for example, you can find a skilful blend combining rounded but bright mulberry fruit, some slightly earthy graphite depth, raspberry-style acidity and the customary concluding spice. £5.99, Morrisons