Having established its reputation as one of the greatest of all Champagnes under the stewardship of Régis Camus, the future of Rare looks assured in the hands of new chef de cave, Emilien Boutillat, says Simon Field MW.
Emilien Boutillat has big shoes to fill. His predecessor, Régis Camus, was one of the finest chefs de caves of his generation and was suitably lauded with no fewer than eight trophies for Sparkling Winemaker of the Year from the International Wine Challenge. He was also asked to ensure that the finest wine in the Piper-Heidsieck stable, Rare, merited recognition as one of the greatest of all Champagnes. This he achieved with ease. Like Michel Fauconnet at Laurent-Perrier, he announced his retirement long before it actually happened. Some say he was irreplaceable.
A challenge, then, for Émilien, and one that he readily acknowledges as we celebrate the launch of the 2013 Rare at the 1890 Restaurant in London’s Savoy Hotel. The restaurant is appropriately bijou, its raison d’être an homage to the great French chef Georges-Auguste Escoffier. We are in good hands. And Émilien is far from anxious about the test ahead; he now makes all of the Piper-Heidsieck range, the previously stated ambition of keeping the Rare cuvée visibly distinct thereby somewhat compromised. Having supervised the Armand de Brignac range at Cattier and then the Hors Série project at Piper, Émilien is no stranger to the world of fine Champagne. For now, his task is to curate the fruits of the genius of Régis Camus, fashioned in his pomp. There are worse jobs.
The 2013 is the 13th outing for Rare, its debut, the 1976, released in 1985. Sometimes it is made in magnum only (1978), and sometimes there is a rosé, too (2007, 2008, and 2012, but not 2013); always there is the aspiration, pace Émilien, to “make the best possible wine in limited quantities and only in singular and exceptional vintages”—hence the name. Each release is described with a single word to capture the essence of its appeal; 2008 was Infinite and 2013 is Dazzling. Whether or not this adds much to the sum of human knowledge is debatable, but it does inspire Émilien to indulge in a Keatsian meander: “The 2013,” he tells us, “is dazzling like an October sunrise, capturing the unique light of a cool autumn morning when the leaves start to turn color.”
The wine, in other words, is exceptionally pure and fresh, a feature of the best of the 2013s, a vintage with a late growing cycle and an October harvest date, not repeated since. It is a rarity, therefore, and one that captures the personality of Champagne of old, such is its linear precision and mid-palate focus. Émilien is keen to stress these attributes—the 2013 is far less flamboyant than the 2006 or the 2002, for example, but shares some of the qualities of the magnificent 2008. There is more to it than that, Émilien advises—quite a lot more. The audience is attentive. He describes the “two stages” of Rare: the first, the study in reserve and composure already described, but then, with time in the glass, the transition to a more expressive, generous character, almost tropical, temperamentally speaking. All wines evolve, he says, but Rare has an almost schizophrenic capacity to transmogrify relatively quickly from introvert to extrovert, thereafter maintaining a beguiling combination of the two as chronology cedes to union. A line of rare beauty.
The secret? Émilien stresses that one of the key features is the inclusion of a high proportion of Chardonnay from the northern villages. Alongside the familiar names from the Côte des Blancs, we have significant contributions of Chardonnay from Villers-Marmery, from the less well-known (premier cru) village of Vaudemanges, and also from the Pinot strongholds of Verzy and Ambonnay. (Émilien describes “beautiful islands of Chardonnay in the kingdom of Pinot Noir.”) Finally, from the Aube, there is Montgueux, located close to the medieval city of Troyes. Described as “an oasis of chalk,” this Heidsieck stalwart adds tropical elements to the flavour profile. Chardonnay, as always, makes up 70 percent of the blend, the 30 percent of Pinot Noir coming from the more traditional sources of Verzy, Ambonnay, Verzenay, Bouzy, and Tauxières. Eleven crus have been used in total, seven of which are grands crus. There has been a full malolactic conversion (climate change may eventually alter that, says Émilien, but “not yet”), and all of the must came from the superior “cuvée” pressing. The 2013 was disgorged in December 2022, and Émilien’s contribution was the addition of a dosage of 9g/l—relatively high these days, one might think, but far from intrusive. As for aging potential, we are told that the wine will be “dazzling until 2040, resplendent thereafter.” It is difficult to disagree with the first half of that statement, and hard, given the trajectory of earlier vintages, to challenge its rejoinder.
One may not be immediately seduced by some of the accompanying descriptors, and one may find the shiny filigree labeling less than reassuring in terms of subtlety. Beyond and beneath all of that, however, we do indeed have one of the greatest of all Champagnes. Its ascent has been rapid and self-assured. Émilien walks the walk with great confidence; his shoes clearly fit very well.
Restaurant 1890; The Savoy, London; June 8, 2023
(70% Chardonnay, 30% Pinot Noir; dosage 9g/l; disgorged December 2022)
A confident golden hue, with an equally exuberant effervescence; joie de vivre writ large but then tempered by an aromatic reticence, almost unexpected, with stone fruits and white flowers to the fore. With a little time, the wine unfurls, teasing, complex, and yes, dazzling; notes of kumquat, blood orange, and frangipane, a silky texture, both chalk and cream encountered, amazingly, then a tight, slightly smoky finish. A perfect antidote to any liminal intimation of indulgence. Noble bitterness rather than salinity marks the finely tapered finish. 95–96
(70% Chardonnay, 30% Pinot Noir; dosage 9g/l; disgorged 2021)
A hint of reduction cedes to a charming toasty generosity, dried apricot with the faintest hint of seaweed… iodine, maybe. Thereafter, we flirt with perfection; chalky minerality, citric oyster-bed tension, and a generous, assured finish. A perfect match for an Escoffier signature—sole Véronique with Oscietra caviar. The 2008’s soubriquet is the somewhat gnomic Infinite; on reflection, perhaps they have it just about right. 98
Rare 1998 (magnum)
The least successful wine of the evening, albeit with a bar set almost impossibly high. If the 2008 teases with initial notes of reduction, 1998 appears to follow a diametrically opposite path, its attack both lactic and somewhat gregarious. Once again, with a little time, the true personality is allowed to come through, the initial disjoint assuaged by notes of candied lemon, honeysuckle, and gingerbread. It certainly works exceptionally well with Escoffier’s monkfish. 94
Rare 2012 Rosé
(60% Chardonnay, 40% Pinot Noir; 8% added as red wine)
Only the third outing for the rosé, the others being 2007 and 2008, and a highly accomplished outing it proves to be. The red wine has been added by assemblage and sourced from the hard limestone (almost Chablisien) soils of Les Riceys. Wild strawberries, morello cherry blossom, and shortbread dominate the nose, the color a light amber. The palate is, to borrow from Émilien, “fruity, floral, and spicy in equal measure”—finely balanced, in other words, quietly cerebral, and yet, as it turns out, more than capable of matching another magnificent Escoffier staple, the raspberry Melba. Delicious both. 96