Champagne at Piper-Heidsieck

Do you remember the first time you drank champagne? I do. I was thirteen and went with my mum to the opening of a new fashion shop in town. They drank champagne at the reception and it was pink. I only took a few sips but knew instantly that this would be the kind of drink for me when I was old enough. It was many years later before I really drank champagne, but the memory was there.

When I turned eighteen and had finished my first year at university there was reason to celebrate. This time there was a whole 'coupe de champagne' for me. From then on all memories of happy events in my life have been laced with glasses of champagne. Graduation day, turning twenty-one, parents' wedding anniversary, but the most memorable one was 1st January 1997 when I celebrated the new year with friends at a champagne brunch on the highest floor of a chique Melbourne hotel, in the sun!
I never forget special champagne moments and my trip to Piper-Heidsieck in Reims last year is now definitely top of that memory list. Champagne is not an everyday drink, it's one that makes unique memories and it is at Piper-Heidsieck that I have seen that it is also made with unique skill and dedication.

We arrived in Reims late in the afternoon, ready to see the beginning of every bottle of champagne: the precious grapes on the vineyards. The Piper-Heidsieck guide had organised a very special means of transport. There was a sharp eastern wind but the evening sun shone bright when we stepped into the classy black vintage Peugeot 1955, Don Draper style. I have never sat in a car that turned so many heads. Admitted, he drove at a speed where it was possible to see heads turn but still, this car was a dream. As soon as we left the streets of Reims behind us, the skyline first turned yellow with rapeseed fields and then leafy green with vineyards on the hills. This was scenery the Peugeot was made for: cruising along the fields, with a sexy roaring motor, spring blue sky above us and a landscape that stretched out further than you could see.

When we stopped and got outside to see the vineyards you could only hear the sound of nature. Our guide told us how the soil in this area originated millions of years ago, when the sea came this far inland and layers of fossils and shells turned into limestone, the ideal environment to grow vineyards on. Although Reims is not really a place where the sun shines a lot, it is the best area in France to grow the grapes to make champagne from. The combination of a thick layer of limestone and a thin upper layer of clay ground is the secret. The porous limestone holds the rainwater like a reservoir but also lets it evaporate quickly through the thin clay, an environment that allows the grapes on the vines to grow with the right balance of sugar and acidity. Because grapes still need every sunlight possible the vines are planted on the slopes that mostly face the South, which turns the hilly landscape into these beautiful shades of green.

And then the moment of tasting came. The glasses were set in a row, the cork was unfoiled and the bottle was opened with a sigh of content. The sound of bubbles poured in the glass made us all smile in anticipation. Standing there between the vineyards with the wind rustling through the leaves as background noise we said cheers to Piper-Heidsieck and another great champagne memory.

We finished the evening with a lovely dinner at Le Jardin, the Brasserie of the Chateau Les Crayères in Reims. The brasserie is surrounded by the beautiful garden of the chateau and has its own herb garden. It must be great to sit outside on warm evenings and smell the herb-infused air while enjoying your meal. It was a bit too chilly when we were there but the modern and stylish designed interior with open kitchen was warm and welcoming. The menu is French with a contemporary twist. We were there on a Monday night and the place was full. The Brasserie is not as posh and formal as the starred Chateau but still had the perfect class and style to end our first champagne day in Reims.

Day two of our visit at Piper-Heidsieck started a few meters underground in the cellars where a treasure of bottles lies waiting for the day they are ready to be tasted by the world above. The cellars date from Roman times when it was already known that the underground limestone caves were the ideal temperature environment to store wines in. Walking through the corridors I had the same feeling of overwhelming vastness as the day before when I was in the Gothic Cathedral of Reims. It was still morning but the sight of so many bottles of champagne made us want to try a glass and also to finally meet the man who has been responsible for all Piper-Heidsieck and Charles-Heidsieck champagnes since 2002. We had already seen his name on the label of the bottle the day before: Régis Camus. The maître de cave, who had just that week won the title of 'Sparkling Winemaker of the Year' for the seventh (!) time since 2004. A man with supreme knowledge and passion but in the most modest way.

The art of champagne making has a touch of magic for me. Every year Régis Camus and his team start a new quest to find the right combination of wines to create the beautiful Piper-Heidsieck taste. Every year the wines taste different, they differ from vineyard to vineyard, from village to village. Every year the seasons change with different weather circumstances and still every year they know how to find the perfect blend of new wines with the ones they keep in their 'wine' library.

Champagne is made of three grape varieties: the white chardonnay grape, that gives the citrus flavour, the red pinot meunier, that produces a white wine with fruity and warm aroma's and the red pinot noir that creates structure and gives personality to the champagne. We were invited to taste the three varieties from different years and it was surprising how the flavours and aroma's change from year and place. Very exceptional wines become de 'vins de réserve', the ones that go in the library and help during years when the weather gods aren't so helpful. The 'vins de réserve' are also the wines that are used for the exceptional champagnes: the Millésimes. Those are the only champagnes with the year of making on the label, the haute couture of the champagnes. We had the privilege of trying such an exceptional champagne: the 'Rare Millésime' 2002. The flavour and aromas have made such an impression on me that now months later, I can still remember how it tastes like. As soon as you hold your glass to your nose you smell the anticipation of something striking and great. The smell of brioche bread with essences of lemon zeste, mango and pineapple and a hint of meringue and hazelnut. The golden flower design of the bottle reflects the exclusive taste.

The story of champagne being told by the master himself in the most poetic descriptions, I could have listened to Régis Camus the whole day. How he starts from a blank canvas every year again and creates the Piper-Heidsieck flavour from a library of old and new wines. He is not only a master in puzzling wines but 10 years ago he turned the champagne world upside down with his Rosé Sauvage. A pink champagne with a bold character and an abundance of red fruit aroma's coming from the high percentage of pinot noir grapes used. The Rosé Sauvage has an intense pink colour. How difficult it already is to create the perfect champagne blend, for this pink champagne he needs to find the perfect constant colour too.

With the Rosé Sauvage we are back at my first introduction to champagne, pink it is. I couldn’t resist to try the famous Marylin Monroe quote the next day, who in 1953 said that she went to bed every night perfumed with Chanel n°5 and woke up every morning with a glass of Piper-Heidsieck Champagne. In my glass there was a Rosé Sauvage.

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