There are countless ways to break into the world of winemaking. I know of some who started out at a winery doing chores and cleaning equipment and by determination and luck worked their way up the chain of command to eventual leadership positions. Others attend an oenological university to learn all the details of the career in a controlled, but costly setting. And many are born into it and early on are seduced into the life. Emilien Boutillat was born in Champagne. His father owned a Champagne-producing house and the vineyards where the grapes grew, so many of Boutillat’s earliest memories are in the vineyards and the winery right beside papa asking questions.
Boutillat worked and played and learned in the family business, all the while dreaming of oenology school, where he would learn how to bring his own accent and wine knowledge home to Champagne. He went to university in Montpellier in the south of France overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. Upon graduation, ambition took over and he decided to participate in two harvests and two winemaking operations per year. This, of course, requires northern and southern hemisphere destinations. Boutillat started out working at Château Margaux, one of five first-growth wineries in Bordeaux. He spent nine months there, then went to New Zealand, then to California, Chile, California again and South Africa before returning home to Champagne. These professional paid externships must have been at least as important as his university time. In each place there is a unique winemaking style, specific grapes to work with and an opportunity to learn many trade secrets direct from the pros. Upon returning home he relaxed a bit, took stock of all had learned and experienced, and then the phone rang.
Heidsieck Champagne began in 1785, when Florens-Louis Heidsieck, enamored with celebratory bubbles in wine, started production. His nephew eventually took over and invited Henri-Guillaume Piper to partner up to expand and extend the reach of their wines. A century later, with the world at war, the Marquis Jean de Suarez d’Aulan married the heiress of the house. The Third Reich was fond of French wine and occupied much of France. The Marquis hid weapons in the Piper-Heidsieck cellar to arm the French resistance. He learned of his imminent arrest and fled the country for North Africa, where he was killed in combat, fighting Hitler’s army. This alone, is a reason to drink Piper-Heidsieck.
So back to the phone call. It was the Piper-Heidsieck people on the line and they had heard about a local boy with some history and big skills and they offered him the job of head winemaker for the brand, an offer he could not refuse. I had dinner with Boutillat recently in Manhattan and he is, indeed, what you would want in a career winemaker — professional, fun, engaging, multilingual, knowledgeable and young. At age 32 he is responsible for bringing four to six million bottles of bubbly to the market each year. Piper-Heidsieck was looking for someone to maintain the house style — essentially with the same winemaking DNA as his predecessor, Régis Camus, who is still in house making the elite Rare Champagne series and is certainly available for advice.
We began with a Cuvée Brut attractively priced at $45. It showed a lively citrus and a lovely yeastiness, as in fresh-baked bread. Made from 50% Pinot Noir, 30% Pinot Meunier and 20% Chardonnay, it emitted white fruit flavors of pear and apple. Our next glass was Rosé Sauvage, a beautiful and brilliant ruby colored Rosé that tasted of fresh strawberries and raspberries. Boutillat took a taste and exclaimed, “This really is a basket of fruit” — delicious! This Rosé has the same grape percentages as the Cuvée and retails at $60.
Next, we tried the Cuvée Sublime, which had a touch of dosage, or added sugar, to soften and smooth out the bubbles. It tasted of citrus and tropical fruits, specifically pineapple and orange. And there was a frothy mouthfeel not evident in the other Champagnes we tasted. Finally, Boutillat poured the 2012 Vintage Champagne of about half Pinot Noir and half Chardonnay. Golden colored and silky smooth, it showed a creamy tangerine freshness with almond and delightful bubbles. The Vintage Champagne is only produced in a year when all the planets align for perfect grape production.
Piper-Heidsieck uses no oak in any of these wines, so expect a light, just-picked, freshness on a good acidic backdrop. They are certified sustainable, which means they are paying attention to nature and the beneficial insects of agriculture. Each Champagne house is responsible for declaring vintage years when the house thinks the wine of that year warrants it. Piper-Heidsieck declares a vintage wine about three or four times a decade. When no vintage is declared for a particular harvest, the house will blend with other vintages and you won’t find a vintage year on the bottle. Champagne can pair with virtually anything or nothing. It drinks beautifully by itself, the gentle “pop” inaugurating an evening or a party. Pizza, five-star cuisine, with dessert or as dessert: It all works.
Boutillat — through his birthright, through his diligence, through his education and through his passion —has landed himself in the very enviable position of chef de caves (cellar master) of a major Champagne house at a tender young age. I expect decades from now he will still be there, perhaps with a bit of gray and a few kids running around. But by then, with his confidence guiding him, I’m guessing Piper-Heidsieck will give him free rein to establish his own house style.
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