Le Comité Interprofessionnel du Vin de Champagne (CIVC), is probably the most important and influential French regional wine board. Its “champagne only comes from Champagne” campaign forever changed the way that producers of sparkling wine from across the world are allowed to represent their brands on labels. No one can any longer “borrow” the term.
The committee has taken its efforts beyond wine, too. In 1993 it succeeded in having the “Champagne de Yves Saint Laurent” perfume removed from elegant Parisian boutiques; and last year it even took on Apple when it was leaked that the company was introducing a “champagne-coloured” iPhone.
Yet for all that regional unity to protect its integrity, champagne is very far from being a homogenous product. Rather, each house has its own history, style and philosophy and for grower champagnes – those who do not buy grapes – their own distinct terroir, too.
Several of the larger champagne houses belong to companies which sell other luxury goods from high fashion to fast cars. As with other luxury products, consumers “buy into” and identify with the brand.
As an example of how a brand defines itself, let’s take the household name of Piper-Heidsieck, a champagne which gained notoriety when Marilyn Munroe, having declared that she wore nothing but Chanel No 5 to bed, said she woke to a glass of Piper-Heidsieck. That glamourous association continues. This year was its 21st as champagne of choice at the Cannes Film Festival.
In 2011 the house was sold (alongside Charles Heidsieck) by drinks giant Remy Cointreau to the Descours family, owners of Entreprise Patrimoniale d’Investissements (EPI), a fashion-led luxury goods company. They appointed Cecile Bonnefond as CEO. She had run uber-brand Veuve-Clicquot for eight years. Bonnefond said that her vision was to ensure the house reflected its heritage, which dates back to 1785 when the first member of the Heidsieck family arrived in Champagne.
Last year, the house’s winemaker and chef de cave Regis Camus was named sparkling winemaker of the year at a dinner hosted by the International Wine Challenge. He has won this award for seven consecutive years. At the same event, his inaugural Piper-Heidsieck Rare 1998 was named the winner of the Daniel Thibault Trophy for champion sparkling wine. How does a brand set itself apart and achieve such accolades?
Something very particular happened some years back. We know that champagne is blended from a large number of cuvees, some crafted in warmer years and some from less exciting harvests. A champagne has a consistent “house style” because the chef de cave is a master blender of these cuvees. Piper-Heidsieck decided during one period that it would sell less finished wine in order to build up stocks of more and more cuvees. This means that Camus has a vast number of wines to call upon, and is thus able to finely nuance his end product – and get it noticed.
Piper is generally considered a “pinot” house, meaning that in particular for the non-vintage, the Cuvee Brut, it would use a higher percentage of the two pinots over the white chardonnay. This champagne drinks beautifully alone, but also complements dishes centred on, for example, scallops.
The house also makes a fabulous blanc de noirs, Rose Sauvage NV, a robust champagne of surprisingly deep colour with distinct characters. Its aroma is reminiscent of chianti, and the champagne shows much deeper cherry rather than sweeter strawberry characters. It’s big enough to be paired with Peking Duck, and all kinds of rich sauces. It would also be interesting to try it with desserts based on dark chocolate and red fruit.
The aforementioned Rare, though, is made with a high proportion of chardonnay. The award winning 1998 demonstrates the delicacy that chardonnay can deliver. Do try and get hold of some of the Rare 2002, comprising 70 per cent chardonnay which, unusually for this grape, comes from around the city of Reims.
This vintage is only the eighth release of this “rare” wine. That makes it even more exclusive than the Rolls-Royce label, Salon. It is a prestige cuvee in the same way as Dom Perignon, but one which can definitely be appreciated by everyone. It has an ultra creamy and buttery texture, and beguiling aromas of ginger. This is delicious with white meat but also with mushroom-based dishes. For the ease of travellers, the Rare 2002 can be purchased on board Cathay Pacific flights.