Making expensive vintage Champagne requires forethought and hope, because between the time the first grapes are picked and the release more than a decade later of the bottles, anything might change, including the company making the wine.
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But in 2006, when he started making the current release of Rare, Régis Camus was cellar master of Piper-Heidsieck. At the time, Rare was more like Louis Roederer's Cristal: the top of the Piper portfolio, but in the same company, which at the time was owned by Rémy Cointreau.
In 2011, while the Rare wine was aging on the lees, everything began to change. Wanting to get out of the wine business to concentrate on more profitable spirits, Rémy Cointreau sold Piper-Heidsieck and Charles Heidsieck to the EPI group. EPI is a privately owned French company that mainly sells luxury clothing, but since buying the two Champagne houses it has also bought high-end Brunello di Montalcino producer Biondi Santi and 49 percent of the Rhône négociant Tardieu-Laurent.
In 2018, EPI decided to treat Rare like Salon, which is a house-within-the-house of Laurent-Perrier. Rare now has its own 164-page press kit (which I'll make fun of shortly), but what gives the brand credibility is its winemaker.
Camus, 66, is one of the most decorated cellar masters of his generation: an 8-time winner of Sparkling Winemaker of the Year from the UK-based International Wine Challenge. He once made all the wines of Piper-Heidsieck AND Charles Heidsieck.
"One day you have to give the place to the young person," Camus told Wine-Searcher. "I will finish my work moment just with Rare."
Rare is a vintage wine, only produced in good years, but like most Champagnes, it's not a single-vineyard wine; Camus says he tastes 300 to 400 different wines from Champagne growers each year and ends up using about 12 in the blend. Because it's a blend, Camus can control what he wants it to taste like.
"First of all, the wine has to have fruits. A fruit nose," Camus said. "When we have a vintage, we have exotic fruit notes and style in the wine. Avec lots of freshness and minerality. We launch the vintages after 10 years in the cellar to have the balance of the freshness and minerality. When they have already 15 or 20 years, they will get a new direction. The freshness of the exotic fruits will become a bit more mature. We will get some richness as well. And tea, spicy aromas, sandalwood, licorice."
For me, the most notable quality of Rare Champagne Brut 2006 was the textural richness. It unfolds voluptuously with plenty of body and great length. It also still tastes fairly young: the bubbles are prolific, and while there are secondary caramel notes, the primary flavor is fresh lemon curd.
"It's really a selection of the different villages, the different cru. We taste all the cru individually, to get this richness," Camus told me. "To blend this together gives something even more rich. And the richness you will have on your palate is the way to explain that the wine is able to age longer."
Rare was only a white Champagne until the 2007 vintage, when Camus decided to make a rosé.
"At the beginning of 2000, rosé (wines) were not that successful. Nobody was really thinking that this kind of rosé Champagne could work," Camus said. "In 2007, things change and the Chardonnay I was tasting had great potential of freshness and minerality, and the Pinot Noir had the structure. I tasted some still wines from Pinot Noir and thought they had the potential to make rosé Champagne."
Camus said the most important part of that first blend was the color. This was prescient because the Rosé All Day movement was still a few years away.
"This color, the pink, nearly red color, needs to be enhanced and might not be the same with the aging," Camus said. "The color will give the first impression to the consumer. For me, the color of the rosé is very important, for Champagne or for other wine. If you have kind of an orange color or an onion skin color, for me this means the wine starts to be a bit aged. Too old. We need to have a shiny color. Twelve years ago, it was more intense. It was nearly aggressive color. To be like that today, at the beginning it was more strong.
"Twenty years ago, the rule regarding rosé, when you were tasting a rosé Champagne, we were not sometimes able to understand it was a rosé. Just a little bit of red fruit, but it was so, so light."
It's not now: Rare Champagne Brut Rosé 2008 has a pretty pink color, as Camus intended. It's juicy and fresh upfront, with a red berry flavor that turns citrusy on a long finish. As with the blanc Champagne, fairly prolific bubbles makes me think I drank this young, but they are small and elegant bubbles, giving it good texture.
"It's real work to have this color, and to have the red fruit aromas in the wine," Camus said. "It's more difficult to make the Rare rosé than the Rare white. All the difficulty is to make a rosé without the tannin touch."
Now that he's only responsible for one brand of Champagne, Camus is branching out a bit in his sudden surfeit of spare time. He has blended a sake in Japan and a sparkling wine in Hungary. And he is hiking more.
"I love the countryside," Camus said. "I love to walk in the forest and mountains. When I have a few minutes I will go into the garden and work. At the same time, I'm smelling all the aromas in the garden to follow the different seasons. I like old cars, listening to nice music and nice books. Music classic. I don't like the music modern. I like the '60 and '70s. I like to meet new people and talk. The sake is nice because you get to meet people around sake in Japan. And of course new challenges. You always need a new project."
He's also happy to leave a legacy for future Rare winemakers, as he has preserved some of the still wine base from the 2006 blanc and the 2008 rosé in stainless steel vats.
"There is a secret place where they keep those vintages, that will be tasted by the future winemaking team," Camus said. "It's a very important legacy for the future of the brand. For the next winemaking team, it's going to be quite good for them to be able to taste what was 2006, what was 2008."
Oh – I promised to make fun of the press kit! A lot of wineries give potential food pairings with their wines. This is mainly for marketing purposes, and Rare is meant to be a luxury product (check out the price of the rosé), but nonetheless I find their pairing suggestions highly amusing.
We were supposed to have the 2006 blanc with one of three dishes: "Tempura of truffled calf sweetbreads with parsnip mousseline with horseradish. Red mullet with squid ink with aubergine ravioli. Fried poivrade artichoke with Roquefort cream." (We didn't.)
Though I was glad to get a chance to sample Rare rosé, I'm glad they didn't send me the 2007 because the pairing pressure would be too immense: "Lobster roasted in pieces with white Soisson beans and tonka cream. Lamb filet with citrus crust, zucchini flower, candied eggplant and garden peas. Peking duck. Victoria pineapple with vanilla."
We had Rare 2008 rosé with pork butt. And it was excellent.