Émilien Boutillat was appointed Chef de Cave of Piper-Heidsieck in 2018. He is a young, self-confident, open-minded gentleman with a witty smile, which seems to be a trademark at Piper-Heidsieck; it must be the effect of the great champagnes they make and drink.
His academic background in both enology and agronomy is uncommon and his experience in winemaking impressive, having made a variety of wines in France and abroad before returning to its native Champagne. His holistic approach to champagne making has earned him the title of IWC Sparkling Winemaker of the Year 2021. In this interview, he talks of champagne as the most natural and technical wine simultaneously, which is true if you look at the efforts required in both vine growing and winemaking to make great champagnes.
Before returning to Champagne in 2014, you worked in other wine regions, in France and abroad. What have you learned from these experiences and how have they enriched your work in Champagne?
I’m lucky to be born in Champagne, an exceptional wine region, and I am very attached to it. I grew up working in the vineyard and the cellar with my father. That said, I wanted to discover other wines and meet other winemakers with visions similar or opposite to that of Champagne and develop a broader vision of what is possible. I could have studied enology in Champagne, but the viticulture aspect was not that present. So, I chose the School of Agronomy of Montpellier, which included both enology and viticulture because you cannot make great wines without great grapes. I became an enologist, but also an agronomist specialized in viticulture.
After my studies, I worked at Châteauneuf-du-Pape (in the Côtes du Rhône) at Domaine de la Solitude to make still white wines but also very powerful red, so the opposite of champagne. Then I wanted to know Bordeaux for its enology but also its viticulture and joined Château Margaux, where we worked comparing traditional viticulture with organic and biodynamic. After these experiences, I wanted to travel further and chose New Zealand, which was my first job abroad. There I joined Mud House Winery, a large structure where I learned a lot about how to streamline processes and details to produce quality wine in large volumes, obtaining the quintessence of the grapes.
Then I moved to California to join Peter Michael Winery, where I found quality requirements close to those of Château Margaux, and where their enologist is also Champenois. I also wanted to discover Latin America and so I went to Chile. I was an enologist assistant at Viu Manent where I had to manage teams without speaking the language. But with a small dictionary, goodwill, and a lot of listening, we quickly understood each other.
After this experience, I returned to the south of France to join Vignobles Foncalieu, a cooperative in the heart of Languedoc, before leaving for the last time abroad: in South Africa at La Motte Wine Estate. For three years, I followed two harvests a year: one in September in the northern hemisphere and one in February in the southern hemisphere.
My experiences abroad thought me a lot in terms of openness. For example, I was pleasantly surprised by the balance of Cap Classique wines (produced in South Africa with the Champagne Method). It is a very hot region where I tasted some superb wines of an unexpected freshness for this climate.
After these trips around the world, I wanted to go back to my routes in Champagne, and use what I learned. Here I worked for six harvests for Cattier and Armand de Brignac before joining Piper-Heidsieck.
Piper-Heidsieck has changed hands in recent years before joining the EPI group in 2011. All along, however, Régis Camus, your predecessor, has maintained and even increased the quality of the wines. How would you define the style of Piper-Heidsieck today? What is your role to play?
I define the style of Piper-Heidsieck as elegant, fine, refined, with a clear reference to fruits.
I define the style of Piper-Heidsieck as elegant, fine, refined, with a clear reference to fruits. For me, the ideal style is the balance between generous fruits and a certain elegance and minerality. Assemblage is the tool that enables us to achieve this balance.
Since the EPI group took over, wine critics and contests have recognized the quality of our champagnes, which has always been there. We are now pursuing a premiumization strategy of our range of wines and are always trying to improve, both in the cellar and in the vineyard. My role as new chef de cave is to make wines in line with the style of our house, but also to participate in our communication by meeting journalists, distributors, restaurateurs, and sommeliers. We explain what we do with full transparency and honesty.
I also have the will and the role to support all of our vine-growing partners to further engage them in sustainable viticulture and more environmentally friendly practices, something that we have already implemented in our vineyards.
If the focus of the Champagne houses in the 20th century was in the cellar, in the 21st century it is in the vineyard. According to you, champagne expresses a terroir or an intention through the work in the cellar?
For me, great champagne is the combination of two main components: attentive viticulture respectful of the environment and reasoned and precise assemblages.
A mix of both. For me, great champagne is the combination of two main components: attentive viticulture respectful of the environment and reasoned and precise assemblages.
My philosophy that joins that of our house is to let the terroirs express themselves to the fullest. This requires a lot of attention in the vineyard, like pursuing sustainable viticulture, carefully choosing harvest dates and other key aspects in viticulture. Then in the winemaking, we do as little as possible. The important thing is to have the quality in the grapes and just translate it into wines expressive of their origins and to isolate them in different vats. Then follow the intention and creativity of the winemaker that are expressed with the assemblage. This step is crucial because that’s where we build and maintain the style of the house.
But if there were only the intention and the idea of the winemaker alone in the blends without any particular attention to the vineyard, we would obtain wines that would probably be inferior. The blends might be good, but not as good as if we got the best of our vineyards in each of our terroirs. Thus, the goal for us is to get the best wines and use them to produce exceptional champagnes.
For that, we are very present in the vineyard. We have total control of our 80 ha where we give a lot of importance to biodiversity without the use of insecticide, and from 2020, no herbicide. Ninety percent of our vineyard is already mechanically weeded and we are reducing the use of fungicides. We replant shrubs to bring back insects and biodiversity to create a new ecosystem in the vineyard that will benefit the vines and the grapes.
We also work hand in hand with all the partners all over Champagne who deliver us their grapes for a wonderful diversity of supplies. Our vine growers know their terroirs perfectly and we have developed long-term relations of trust with them. We can provide advice and financial or technical support to assist them in sustainable viticulture. We have a dialogue about what we want in terms of grapes and wines so that they can get the best out of their vineyards and we can receive exceptional grapes. This partnership is fundamental, hence the time I spend in the vineyard with the vine growers; I know their terroirs but not so well as they know their plots. There is also a link between the vine grower’s personality and the state of his vineyard and therefore the human side of our relationship with them is fundamental. This is one of the reasons I joined Piper-Heidsieck because I identify myself in our wines and their profile but also in the men and women that I meet.
The vine alone does not make great wine, hence the need for the human work in the cellar to guide the fruit of the vine.
This human aspect is also essential during the assemblage because it is the human that decides. The vine alone does not make great wine, hence the need for the human work in the cellar to guide the fruit of the vine. The vast majority of our champagnes are blends of several wines from different terroirs of Champagne that we keep separated by year, grape variety, and vintage in our very large vat room. Then the assemblage allows us to sublimate the expression of these terroirs. It is interesting to taste wines from a single cru or plot because they express a particular place. This allows us to build great blends in which the characteristics of a grape variety and its place of origin are balanced with those of another place, creating a synergy. Our job is to find the right combinations to craft great wines that are superior to their individual form.
Does a grand cru make great wine and is it possible to make great wine with other crus?
The classification in grand, premier and other cru has a real meaning, a real link with their terroir, so with the soil, the sun exposure of the vines, etc. It is a predisposition to make great wines when all conditions are met: namely a perfect climate all year round, controlled yields, the right harvest dates, and the use of the first press only, the so-called cuvée (used for Essentiel, Essentiel Blanc de Blancs and Vintage). But we remain exposed to climatic hazards and a grand cru may not make it possible to obtain its predisposed quality. Similarly, a premier or an ordinary cru, when all the climatic conditions are there, can give exceptional wines. This is why we use ordinary crus that we consider grands or premiers for their quality and consistency.
But again, all this changes from one year to the next. That’s why, with our team of enologists, we blind taste the wines without knowing their origin. It is their intrinsic qualities and our sensations that guide us in the assemblage. Indeed, in exceptional years, we distinguish the grands crus with their individual characteristics. So, there are no fixed rules but predispositions according to the classification, the year and its climate.
Your Cuvée Brut, the first in your range, is the one that best represents your style. How would you describe it?
Cuvée Brut is the champagne for which we are known in the world and our biggest seller. It is a versatile wine in which we want complexity without being complicated; it must be able to seduce wine connoisseurs but also recruit new consumers. On the nose, there are evident fruits like pear and apple, but also some sweet spices like cinnamon and vanilla. In the mouth, there is balance with a distinctive freshness, a certain lightness but also structure. We are looking for balance at each tasting stage. This champagne is marketed and consumed anywhere between six and 12 months after disgorgement because while some consumers prefer it younger, others prefer it more aged.
Pinot noir dominates your blends, but you recently launched Essentiel Blanc de Blancs (100% chardonnay). Why this unexpected champagne?
It is true that the history of our house is linked to pinot noir and that our blends, in particular that of Cuvée Brut, are dominated by this grape variety. But we had the ambition to complete the Essential range. We already had Essential, designed to accompany food dishes and therefore dedicated to wine merchants and restaurants. Because of its very low dosage, this wine receives prolonged aging on lees. In line with our transparency, on the label we include the percentages of reserve wines (35%) in the assemblage, the date of cellaring and that of disgorgement. Essential is a real success in the world of gastronomy to which it is dedicated.
Following this success, we wanted to expand the range, with a blanc de blancs since Cuvée Brut is dominated by pinot noir, and Vintage is 50% pinot noir and 50% chardonnay. But in fact, we had already produced a blanc de blancs in the past, more than 15 years ago, and only in one year. Essential Blanc de Blancs is then a way to surprise our consumers and a throwback to our past. If Essential is a more versatile champagne that can accompany fish in sauce and white meats, Essential Blanc de Blancs is ideal for seafood and raw or grilled fish. So, this new champagne completes our offer of wines for gastronomy.
The blend is dominated by chardonnays from the Côte des Blancs that are complemented with chardonnays from the Montagne de Reims. We find their expression in the aromas of the wine with a marked minerality on the nose, with toasty notes, but also with white fruits and citrus, lime and white flower, so a complex bouquet. The mouth is distinctive with the chalk that is clearly noticeable and typical of the Côte des Blancs. This minerality, freshness and tension are balanced by the roundness of chardonnays from the Montagne de Reims, and the generosity of the reserve wines up to 35% as well as the long aging on the lees. In the Essential range, all extra brut champagnes, we extend the aging to round up the wine, on lees, but also after disgorging. We launched Essentiel Blanc de Blancs in 2018, on a 2013 base, cellared it in 2014, aged it on lees for three-and-a-half years, disgorged in 2017, and then let it age another year with its cork.
What is your approach to reserve wines? Is there a flip side to using a lot of them to enrich, round up, and harmonize champagne?
The reserve wines that we use at Piper-Heidsieck are relatively young, to preserve our style, which is characterized by freshness, elegance and finesse.
The reserve wines that we use at Piper-Heidsieck are, for the most part, relatively young–with an average age of four years. We do this to preserve our style, which is characterized by freshness, elegance and finesse. We also use “spices,” older wines that we include in tiny percentages. The use of reserve wines must take into account the base year. For example, 2018 was a hot year with beautiful wines of great maturity but with less freshness. So, we used rather young reserve wines with more acidity and freshness, with a percentage (25%) in the bend of Cuvée Brut of 2019 greater than usual (10-20%), to get freshness. So, there is no ultimate truth on this subject because every year is different.
What is your approach to dosage?
We disclose our dosages in full transparency, but for us these figures are not important; it is the balance that matters.
Our brut, vintage, and rosé generally receive a dosage of 10g/l, Essential 6 g/l, and Essentiel Blanc de Blancs 4g/l. We disclose our dosages in full transparency, but for us these figures are not important; it is the balance that matters. To add roundness to the wine, sugar is not the only element, as reserve wines and aging also play a role. Balance with freshness is the goal.
The consumption of rosé champagne continues to increase. Yours is unusually intense. Why this choice?
With 20% of red wine in the blend, this champagne is one of the most colorful rosé champagnes. We want consumers to truly grasp the aromatic potential of champagne with a wide basket of red and black fruits. I fully identify myself in this bold champagne. It can be drunk alone very fresh, or with duck, grilled red meats like lamb, and also with dark chocolate. This champagne has a real personality, a strong character with its aromas of blood orange that can be used in cocktails like Sacré Sauvage (a cocktail developed by Piper-Heidsieck with triple sec, bitter, and grapefruit).
Champagne consumption modalities are evolving and the new champagnes that are consumed with ice, such as Piper-Heidsieck Riviera, are proof of this. How do you see the future patterns of champagne consumption, especially in regard to millennials?
I think that my relatively young age has played a role in my selection as Piper-Heidsieck’s new chef de cave, as the house’s strategy is to move toward younger audiences and to think about future champagne consumers and future methods and places of consumption.
In my previous experiences, both in Champagne and abroad, I have generally found that the new generations are in search of transparency and sincerity. They enjoy a wine not only for its intrinsic qualities but also for the image it conveys. If champagne is traditionally associated with luxury and celebrations, the new generations do not necessarily have the same aspirations as their parents. They want to enjoy every moment of life, and why not celebrate an event that may seem simple, just because they are happy to live? I like that and I want the champagne consumers of tomorrow to be completely uninhibited and open a very nice bottle of champagne just because they want to. Champagne remains a rare and exceptional product, but it is up to us to allow consumers to create these exceptional moments.
I want the champagne consumers of tomorrow to be completely uninhibited and open a very nice bottle of champagne just because they want to.
The places of consumption are also changing, with the growing consumption of champagne in gastronomy, and the Essential range meets this demand. Cuvée Brut is rather for the aperitif, and Rivera, sweeter, is for a fun and sun consumption with ice cubes or in cocktails. “Do not close any doors” is also part of the beliefs of many millennials; live fully and freely. We try to answer that by suggesting a more spontaneous way to enjoy champagne. One characteristic of Piper-Heidsieck is that it has been audacious throughout its history and we continue in this direction.
How do you see the future of champagne?
Our challenge in Champagne is how to best build our future by staying rooted in our past that has made our strength, while continuing to improve in viticulture and enology.
I am very optimistic, it’s in my nature. I think that if we want to remain at the top in the consumers’ minds and the world of sparkling wines, it is key that we further develop sustainable viticulture. We have to be leaders and innovators all the time and this is clearly our goal at Piper-Heidsieck. For example, we have invested in a start-up that develops autonomous tractors that allow working the soil permanently and can intervene in the vineyards at any time allowing vine growers to focus on other important tasks. In the future, these tractors will be able to treat vines very precisely and thus reduce the amount of phytosanitary products needed. So, our challenge in Champagne is how to best build our future by staying rooted in our past that has made our strength, while continuing to improve in viticulture and enology. We need to be pioneers in innovation to remain leaders.
What does champagne mean to you?
Origins, homecoming, a beautiful region, incredible luck and potential, but also a need to question oneself permanently. Champagne has deep and powerful roots, but we must always look at the future and not spoil our great luck.