Régis Camus, Chef de Cave of Rare Champagne, is one of the most–if not the most–celebrated champagne makers, having earned the title of Sparkling Winemaker of the Year by the International Wine Challenge more than anybody else (eight times)!
Born and raised in the Aisne department of Champagne, Régis earned a scientific degree and planned on a career in teaching before moving to Reims to undertake studies in winemaking. His career in champagne making spans over four decades, half of which at Piper-Heidsieck (and its sister house Charles Heidsieck), which he joined in 1994 and where he became Chef de Cave in 2002. Since then, he has worked to further increase the quality of the champagnes and refine their style. His work and ideas have paid off, and today Piper-Heidsieck is the most awarded Champagne house of the 21st century.
Rare is Regis’ baby, having secretly restarted this sporadic prestige champagne in the late ’90s, and he and this wine are one thing, sharing the same traits: joyful, warm, intricate, witty, always full of good vibes, and both will inevitably make you smile.
In this interview, Regis guides us through some of the most iconic Rare Champagne vintages–although for him none is better than the other–to help us grasp the spirit of this wine, which was declared “Best Champagne of 2020” by Drink Business magazine. Get a bottle when you can to see if you find the recurrent characteristics that Regis mentions, and see if you agree with the magazine. At the end of your tasting, you might well have changed your ideas about what are the top cuvées of Champagne. For sure, you will have had a great champagne time!
Rare Champagne is indeed rare, with only 11 vintages since its inception. How come?
When I joined Piper-Heidsieck in 1994 I realized that Rare had always been developed in somewhat exceptional years.
The first vintage was 1976, followed by 1979, 1985, 1988, under the ownership of the D’Aulan family.
1976 was the year of the drought and we harvested exceptionally early in Champagne, at the end of August. It was a totally atypical and relatively challenging year for the winegrowers. The harvest was small and few vintage champagnes were made, with relatively warm wines compared to other vintages.
1979 was another atypical year with the harvest that began in early October.
1985 was also particular, with winter frosts in the Montagne de Reims and very low temperatures with a record of -35 °.
1988 was also very controversial. There were those who made vintages and those who did not.
So Rare Champagne also came into existence to reward the work of the winegrowers: “the year has been difficult for you, but here is what we can do with your grapes.”
Rare Champagne also came into existence to reward the work of the winegrowers.
When the Rémy Cointreau group took over Piper-Heidsieck in 1988, Rare was suspended (one was made in 1990). I found that a real shame and told myself that we had to relaunch this prestigious cuvée.
In 1997 I started to work on this wine in secret. There were very few vintage champagnes made in 1997. The Champagne region did not communicate much at that time and the journalists decided what were good or bad vintages, by looking at what happened in Bordeaux. But these two wine regions are very different. So, my first Rare Champagne carries with it a provocative side, and eventually gave birth to Rare Le Secret.
I made my first Rare Champagne with its traditional blend of 70% Chardonnay and 30% Pinot Noir. We did the same in 1998, and since then we still use the same blend, with minor adjustments, because it works really well! But only certain wines are suitable for crafting Rare Champagne.
What is the profile of the wines that fit into the idea of Rare Champagne? What is its style?
During the tasting of the still wines, we look above all for wines with a strong personality, freshness, minerality, and great aging capacity.
We look above all for wines with a strong personality, freshness, minerality, and great aging capacity.
For me, the greatest minerality you can find is in the Chardonnays from the Montagne de Reims, in Villers-Marmery, Trépail, Vaudemange, and Billy-le-Grand. These wines have marked citrus notes, especially lemon, in their youth.
There is a provocative side here, too, by using Chardonnays planted in Pinot Noir terroirs. But we also include Chardonnays from the Côte des Blancs, especially from Chouilly and Avize, which also bring minerality. And we also include other crus, whether premier or ordinary crus, because they can add “spices” to the blend. So, we do not preclude anything.
For the Pinot Noir, we prefer those from the Montagne de Reims, particularly from Verzy, for their sheer intensity and powerful silky texture.
What matters is that these wines fit in the style of Rare Champagne: with freshness, minerality, citrus fruits and also exotic fruits, great aging capacity, and of somewhat atypical years. This is also why a bottle of Rare Champagne ages at least 8-9 years in the cellar before being disgorged.
The style of Rare Champagne: freshness, minerality, citrus fruits and also exotic fruits, great aging capacity, and of somewhat atypical years.
Rare Millésime 2006 was declared “Best Champagne of 2020” by Drink Business magazine. What makes it so praised and why do you define it as “Sunny”?
We are delighted with this award. It confirms that Rare Champagne is now among the prestige cuvées of Champagne. But for me, there is no one Rare Millésime better than the other. They all have their characteristics and the best is the one that you prefer.
There is no one Rare Millésime better than the other. They all have their characteristics and the best is the one that you prefer.
Why “sunny”? I like to put a word, an image, on each vintage. And 2006 is very happy, warm, it’s the champagne of party, you can smell the sun.
But 2006 was not an easy year. We had a fairly harsh winter with snow, then a fairly mild spring. On the other hand, summer was very hot, bringing a lot of heat to the wine. So, 2006 is a wine that is very sunny, with a very warm side, but also very lively (see fresh).
In this champagne, we still find that minerality and those citrus fruits typical of Rare. But here the sunny side of 2006 means that the wine takes us to the West Indies, with a whole range of very ripe exotic fruits such as caramelized pineapple and lychee. And on the palate, the wine is super dynamic, never dull. We can meet and enjoy it again in ten years because it is a wine for long aging.
Rare Millésime 2002 won several gold medals at wine and champagne competitions. Why do you define it as “Iconic”?
The year preceding this vintage, 2001, was particularly difficult in Champagne. Mother Nature had been very harsh: it rained all year with grapes that never really ripened.
But everything that nature did not give us in 2001 was doubled in 2002. The vine gave us everything in 2002 with an extraordinary vintage.
This champagne also carries exotic fruits, such as kiwi and passion fruit, which start to be a little candied here. Once again always accompanied by a very nice minerality, this common denominator of all the vintages of Rare Champagne. There is no sign of aging in this champagne that will soon be celebrating its 20th birthday.
Rare Millésime 1998 also won several gold medals and the Drinks Business Champagne Master. Why do you define it as “Radiant”?
In 1998 there were very few vintage champagnes produced as the region was preparing for the strong demand for champagne for the Millennium celebrations of the year 2000. But I nevertheless wanted to make Rare Champagne in this vintage.
From the start, Rare Millésime 1998 had a radiant, springy side. Even its color is radiant. It always has that mineral side so typical of Rare. On the other hand, in this vintage the exotic fruits begin to disappear and give place to the world of sweet spices, like sandalwood, licorice, like in Rare Millésimes 1979 and 1985, a little in Rare Millésimes 1976 and 2006, and incense, as in Rare Millésime 1988. One might think that we are on a spice market.
And the freshness of this champagne is fabulous! It doesn’t get a wrinkle with time, it doesn’t move.
You built your first Rare Champagne in 1997, in secret, to eventually releasing it in 2018 under the name Rare “Le Secret”. Why is this wine only available in magnum and why is it the only Rare Champagne without dosage?
In 1997, I wanted on the one hand to relaunch Rare Champagne but also to work on the magnum format which we did not use at that time. I wanted to see how this blend behaved in this bottle size and so I made my first Rare Vintage 1997 only in magnum, in small quantities. And it became very clear to me that champagne does not evolve the same way in magnum and standard bottles. We have bottled the 1998 and 1999 vintages also in magnum.
I am convinced that champagne needs a little bit of sugar at disgorgement to reach the perfect balance while maintaining its liveliness. Even champagne connoisseurs prefer Brut cuvées, by far. And it is very surprising when you taste a bottle of Rare Champagne that there is a lot of freshness while the dosage is comfortable (8-9 g/l).
But the taste of the clientele has changed and the level of dosage has noticeably decreased. With Rare Le Secret we questioned ourselves, if it needed dosage. In the end, the maturity of the wine, after 22 years in the cellar, allowed us not to add any sugar to this champagne.
I am convinced that champagne needs a little bit of sugar at disgorgement to reach the perfect balance while maintaining its liveliness.
Rare Champagne is now a house in its own right, with its own range, so we included a rosé.
For me, rosé champagne should bring freshness and fruits. In summer, with barbecues, I drink a lot more rosés than red wines. And I like them fresh, with relatively intense color.
For me, rosé champagne should bring freshness and fruits.
Hence, Rare Rosé has a rather intense color, which we obtain using “colored” wines of the Côte des Bars.
I am talking about colored wines and not red wines because the vinification of Pinot Noir to make rosé is not the same as to make red wine.
We are looking for color and fruit scents, and absolutely no astringency and tannins, because we always want champagne to be delicate. And these wines from the Côte des Bars have colors that last over time while remaining fresh, something that is not always found in more powerful Pinot Noirs from the Montagne de Reims.
But we also include colored wines from the Montagne de Reims and maybe in the future we’ll use more. The percentage of red wines that we include varies, as for dosage of Rare: it all depends on the color of the red of the year.
In Rare Rosé Millésime 2008 we find the typical mineral side of Rare Champagne and the exotic fruits, but also red fruits, even black fruits such as blueberries, black currants, or even Napoleon cherries, which come from the colored wines. And a lot of energy, because the 2008 wines carry an extraordinary freshness.
You are one of the very best champagne makers in the world. How would you describe your peculiar job? What’s the best part of it?
What really makes me happy, is to see people with a smile in their eyes when they enjoy Rare Champagne.
Our job takes passion but also a lot of intuition. When we create a champagne we have to keep in mind that it will be released after many years, and since we are not allowed to make mistakes, we need this sense, this intuition. Also, one must have a strong personality to make assertive choices and not go back. My reward, what really makes me happy, is to see people with a smile in their eyes when they enjoy Rare Champagne.