Tucked away in the northern limits of wine grape growing ability, in the acclaimed region of Champagne, France, an adolescent young man is crushed seeing how much of his family’s grapes were decimated by hail as it was the second hail storm within two months. It was a tough growing season – frost during the spring, initially killing off some of the buds that would potentially become grape bunches, the cold weather lasting until June but then abruptly becoming very hot with back to back storms. As a child, the vineyards were always a magical place and no other job on the earth seemed to be as wonderful but now, approaching adulthood, the backbreaking work and feeling of helplessness as Mother Nature dictated the future of the harvest made it an overwhelming job that had its moments of despair. But for this young man there was no other path as unlike the top Champagne houses, who were the buyers of their grapes and had an image of a luxurious lifestyle and global reach, the family grape growers had a simple farmer’s life and for generations that was the only option for those born to growers.
That vintage ended up producing concentrated grapes due to the low yield as well as containing high amounts of freshness due to the long periods of cold weather and today it is being released 50 years later by Piper-Heidsieck as a special edition bottling called Hors-Série 1971 – only 2021 bottles available. This is the first offering of a new collection created by their chief winemaker, Émilien Boutillat, who took over in 2018 for award winning winemaker Régis Camus, who is purely focusing on Piper-Heidsieck’s tête de cuvée Rare Champagne, but Émilien is also the son of the Champagne grape grower who remembers the 1971 vintage like it was yesterday.
One Foot in the Old, One in the New
At 34 years old, Émilien Boutillat has already accomplished so much more than his father could have ever imagined. He left Champagne to go to university in the South of France to receive two degrees, one in winemaking and one in viticulture, and then after university he worked at Château Margaux in Bordeaux and in the region of Châteauneuf-du-Pape before he leaped off to the rest of the world with time spent in New Zealand, California, Chile and South Africa; each experience giving him more knowledge that included varying techniques in the vineyards and wineries as well as learning about various cultures and languages.
After his time in South Africa he decided to come back to Champagne without any prospects but he wanted time to figure out where he wanted to ultimately build his winemaking career. After being jobless in Champagne for a while, he was offered a job in Chile that would allow him to establish himself as a head winemaker there but then that downtime at home with his family, the place where he grew up, made him think that although it was a great opportunity, one that he might regret passing up on, that he wanted to come back home for good and take his chances in Champagne. He found himself working for a couple of Champagne houses and he even became cellar master of Champagne Cattier until in October of 2018 when he was offered the job of chief winemaker and cellar master at Piper-Heidsieck. The team at Piper-Heidsieck thought Émilien was the ideal choice as he has a deep respect for the traditions of Champagne which pulsed through his blood but he also has an open-minded approach backed up with a tremendous amount of different experiences that will make it possible for him to guide Piper-Heidsieck to the next level.
And certainly Émilien has big shoes to fill as his predecessor, Régis Camus, won the title of Sparkling Winemaker of the Year eight times by the International Wine Challenge and has been a part of bringing another level of complexity to Piper-Heidsieck with the use of a high portion of reserve wines (older wines kept in Champagne houses to blend later) and seeking out special vineyards, even if not officially designed Grand or Premier Cru, that bring an overall elegance and balance to each cuvée. But Émilien already has a great start with winning the 2021 title of Sparkling Winemaker of the Year by the International Wine Challenge earlier this year.
Piper-Heidsieck has given Émilien the freedom to explore the past and future of Champagne with a new collection that he has created called Hors-Série that is the French name used for a magazine’s special edition and the wines from this collection will be extraordinary – each in its own unique way. The first offering of this collection is the 50-year-old 1971 vintage that has aged on its lees (particles that precipitate out during the second fermentation in bottle resulting in more complexity and texture) for over 49 years. As Émilien was talking to the Piper-Heidsieck team he discovered that the 1971 was a vintage that could be in a great spot currently as it was displaying vibrant and bright fruit notes in the past as they would taste the bottles in their cellar throughout the years. And Émilien himself was shocked at the “freshness” of the wine when he first tasted it and so he knew this would be the ideal first offering to pay respect to the past, honoring the other winemakers who each had a role, the winemaker who made it and the other two who have tasted it through the years with both deciding to hold onto it until it was in its ideal state as well as all the vineyard growers who grapes went into that bottle during that difficult vintage.
Émilien personally contributed to the wine by choosing a 2019 Chardonnay that did not go through malolactic conversion of tart acid into softer lactic acid to top off each bottle after they lost some wine once the lees were extracted during disgorgement. But his modern day slight adjustment as the current winemaker is another wink to the past as the rule for Piper-Heidsieck back in the 1970s was to only make wines that blocked malolatic as opposed to today with some lots being allowed to go through the conversion while others are not depending on what will give that particular lot of wine balance.
The Hors-Série collection will not only release back vintages but it will release wines that are considered unique in some aspect and may show recent blends with stronger winemaking choices, or display how they are combating climate change with rising temperatures, in future releases. Émilien notes that the Hors-Série collection is “a wild card” for him and he has carte blanche to do with it what he wants as long as he is respecting the characteristics and style that is important to Piper-Heidsieck.
When Émilien is asked if it was ever in the back of his mind that he would eventually come back to Champagne and become cellar master for a Champagne house, he says he could never imagine that as it was really about just taking it step by step, just feeling fortunate that he had opportunities that his father and previous generations didn’t have in the past. He could have just as easily ended up on the other side of the world helping to shape a completely different winemaking region. But in that moment of rest and reflection, when he came back to Champagne after working all over the world, he knew he needed to stay for a bit to see if it was possible for him to become a chief winemaker for a Champagne house, something he couldn’t envision when he was younger. But today he is not only the chief winemaker and cellar master for one of the top Champagne houses but he is spearheading them into the future – the son of a grape grower who all those years ago seemed limited in his life choices and what he could offer for his children’s future.
***This article originally appeared on Forbes: https://www.forbes.com/sites/cathrinetodd/2021/10/16/top-champagne-house-releases-50-year-old-vintage-onto-the-wine-market/
The packaging is just as unique as what is in the bottle of the Hors-Série 1971 as the label is traditionally styled yet the cap on top has colors that point to the era of the 1970s when there was a lot of experimentation and exploration of thinking outside the box going on around the world. Each gift box is made out of 100% oak and so the colors and grain are different for each of them and Émilien notes that even though the 1971 was blended and bottled at the same time, kept in the same place and eventually disgorged at the same time, each bottle has subtle differences because the long aging time brings out varying nuances with each bottle and so that is why such a gift box is fitting. But he also assures that each bottle has been checked to make sure it is not oxidized before release as those that were found to be faulted were discarded.
Piper-Heidsieck, Hors-Série 1971: 50% Pinot Noir and 50% Chardonnay from 12 different vineyards from 12 different Cru in Champagne, mainly Grand Cru and Premier Cru vineyards from the Montagne de Reims and Côte des Blancs sub-regions of Champagne. Aromas of citrus blossoms with dried white flowers and flavors of lemon custard mixed with fresh lemon peel, brioche, hints of nutmeg and an underlying note of chalky minerality with a creamy texture and fine bubbles that has lots of vitality and energy on the long finish. Disgorged in February 2021 with only 2021 bottles on the market, each individually numbered; suggested retail price: $499.