Innovating to maintain tradition in Champagne

Émilien Boutillat joined Piper-Heidsieck at a time of rejuvenation. He discusses what's changed and what will never change.

Émilien Boutillat/Piper-Heidsieck
Émilien Boutillat/Piper-Heidsieck

How do winemakers resolve the tension between preserving a famous wine and making necessary changes?

For Émilien Boutillat, chef de caves of Piper-Heidsieck, the goal is to respect tradition.

“I don’t want to change everything, but to perpetuate the excellence,” he says.

The paradox is that the way to maintain tradition, is to keep innovating.

New challenges

Boutillat has only been chef du cave since 2018, a mere moment in Champagne terms. He replaced legendary winemaker Régis Camus, now cellar master for the House’s Rare Champagne, only produced in exceptional vintages. “Régis Camus was elected the best winemaker in the world eight times,” says Boutillat, referring to Camus being named Sparkling Winemaker of the Year eight times by the International Wine Challenge. “I want to walk in the footsteps of Régis. We spent plenty of time together, tasting and talking.”

Boutillat is no stranger to Champagne, having been born there. “I worked with my father pruning the vines and walking the cellar, so I always knew I wanted to become a winemaker.”

Wanting to immerse himself in all facets of wine, he chose to study both winemaking and agronomy in Montpellier. After graduating, he worked at Domaine de la Solitude in Châteauneuf-du-Pape, and then Château Margaux in Bordeaux.

Next, Boutillat headed overseas. “I was able to work in New Zealand, California, South Africa,” as well as doing one harvest in the south of France. “After all those experiences, I was missing my family and my friends – and the wine of Champagne.”

Eventually he returned home to work for Cattier Armand de Brignac, before joining Piper-Heidsieck in October 2018. He now works with “seven winemakers with different experiences: you have young people, less young people, men and women. We have plenty of different experiences.”

Making Champagne is a challenge that requires huge concentration and attention to detail, because the grapes from up to 100 plots are vinified separately. “The winery was built in 1995 and has plenty of tanks,” says Boutillat. “We have probably one of the biggest collections of reserve wines.”

The house emphasis, he says is “freshness. Our Brut and our house is built around Pinot Noir. In the Brut, you will find more than 50% of Pinot Noir in the blend.”
That traditional freshness is, however, being challenged by climate change and preserving it is no easy task. “We want to produce our Champagne as sustainably as possible. We work with growers and are listening to them.”

Piper-Heidsieck vineyards are certified sustainable and its growers are bringing back the old technique of adding small trees to the vineyards, to bring back helpful insects. “We do not use any insecticides,” says Boutillat and from 2020 will no longer use herbicides, thanks to an autonomous robot that walks the vineyards and does the weeding. “When we remove the vines, we leave the land for at least one year to allow the ground to relax.”

The good side of climate change is that there is more choice about when to pick – when conditions are dry, grapes can be left on the vine for longer. 

New wines, new approach

In the wake of the global financial crisis of 2007 onwards, Piper-Heidsieck’s sales dropped. After being hit by losses in its Champagne division, owner Remy Cointreau sold Piper-Heidsieck to French luxury company EPI, in 2011. As owner Christopher Descours told Meininger’s in 2016, he bought the Champagne because he thought it was a “fantastic brand” that just needed to work on its distribution and marketing.

Over the past five years, Piper-Heidsieck has overhauled its distribution strategy and it’s paid particular attention to restoring its luxury image. One result was  Essentiel, a new Pinot Noir-driven wine aimed at the on-trade. Part of its proposition is that it’s completely transparent about how it’s made, in line with Millennial values.

“We wanted a cuvée that is proof of the transparency that we have, so we decided to put on the back label plenty of information that is useful for the connoisseur and the sommelier,” says Boutillat. “The date of base harvest, the disgorgement dates… we are looking at putting even more information. It is quite a success. Sommeliers like this kind of information, though it’s not easy on the technical side, because it means lots of new labels.” He says that one benefit of the new labels is that he personally doesn’t have to remember everything, because it’s all on the label.

In 2018, the company launched a complementary cuvée, the extra dry Essentiel Blanc de Blancs. 

A year earlier, they did something truly ground-breaking for Champagne – Piper-Heidsieck created the “Essential by” program, which allows chefs or sommeliers to come and create their own Champagne, available only through their own restaurant. “People come and spend two days with me,” says Boutillat. “We visit the vineyard and have a long session of tasting, where they can taste and compare. They can adjust the wine to fit to their consumer, according to their cuisine.”

So far, Piper-Heidsieck have created one-off Champagnes for the on-trade in Belgium, the Netherlands, the US and Japan. To participate in the program, the chef or sommelier needs to commit to at least 2,500 bottles.

After sorting out the distribution and creating new brands, “the third step has been to go back to our archives, to our DNA, to find the fundamentals of our brands,” says Boutillat, adding it was a two-year project. 

He adds that all the work that’s been done in the past five years is now beginning to pay.

It’s clear that things move faster in Champagne nowadays than they used to – and Boutillat is clearly enjoying the challenge of using new techniques to maintain the great traditions.

Felicity Carter

 

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