Piper Heidsieck pursues upmarket shift

Piper Heidsieck is stepping up efforts to communicate the quality improvements implemented by chef de cave Régis Camus during almost two decades in charge of its winemaking.

Régis Camus, chef de cave at Piper Heidsieck

The move forms part of an drive by new CEO Cecile Bonnefond to restore Champagne’s third largest export brand to profitability after EPI bought both Charles and Piper Heidsieck from Rémy Cointreau last year for €412 million.

“For the last 20 years we haven’t really talked about the quality of Piper Heidsieck,” Camus remarked as he showed off the house’s recent and more historic styles at a tasting in London.

Soon after his arrival at Piper Heidsieck in 1994, Camus began to take a number of important steps, both in the vineyard and cellars, towards improving quality.

With the opening of a new winery in 1995 came the opportunity to vinify varieties and crus individually, while the same year saw Camus take the long term decision to begin building up the house’s collection of reserve wines.

One significant impact of this step to bolster the quality and quantity of the brut was the absence of any releases between 1990 and 1998 for Piper Heidsieck’s prestige cuvée, Rare. However, with reserve levels now up to the required level, this top expression is set to make more regular appearances, having been released in ’98, ’99 and, most recently, ’02.

As for the likelihood of a Rare from the widely acclaimed 2004 harvest, Camus remained tight-lipped, although the fact that Piper has released a 2004 vintage suggests he is clearly happy with the quality of the year.

While these developments were taking place in the cellars, from a vineyard perspective 1995 saw Camus embark on a “love affair” with the Côte des Bar.

Although this most southerly part of the Champagne region is often viewed as inferior in quality to its more famous counterparts around Reims and Epernay, Camus felt the Pinot Noir grown here could provide a strong fit for the Piper Heidsieck house style.

“I wanted a Champagne with fruit,” he explained of the brut non-vintage, which since Camus took over has seen its constituent grapes drawn from as many as 100 different crus, compared to around 60 previously.

Around 30-35% of the Pinot Noir blended into the brut now comes from the Côtes des Bar, with Camus picking out a citrus fruit character not found in the great Pinot Noir crus of the Montagne de Reims.

One of the first steps taken by Bonnefond upon her arrival on the eve of the 2011 harvest was to mark a clear divide in the management and distribution of Charles and Piper Heidsieck. In the UK, this means that Charles Heidsieck, which is also being repositioned, is distributed by Liberty Wines, while the larger Piper Heidsieck brand is looked after by First Drinks.

To an extent, the difference between the two brands is reflected in their respective approaches to the current hot topic of disgorgement dates for non vintage styles. With its significantly smaller production and more sophisticated image, Charles Heidsieck features this detail on its label, while, for the moment at least, Piper Heidsieck does not.

“It’s complicated,” said Camus of the concept, suggesting that this level of information is firstly less relevant for a non vintage style that trades on its youthful freshness, and secondly, that the house has no wish to risk confusing a consumer base that is perhaps less engaged than the traditional Charles Heidsieck target audience.

Acknowledging the short term impact of Piper Heidsieck’s repositioning, Catherine Curie, international brand ambassador for both Charles and Piper Heidsieck, accepted: “We will lose volumes all over the world.

“We have increased the quality so we increase the price,” she continued, while pointing to a more consistent commercial position for the brand. “Maybe we’ll lose some markets but we will not be on the big Christmas promotions any more,” she promised.

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