REIMS, France — Regis Camus was already something of a legend when he arrived at the state-of-the-art Heidsieck compound in 1994, where he joined another legend, the late Daniel Thibault, to form something of a dream team in the world of Champenois winemakers.
The two men had a mission: to restore the great name and reputation of the historic Champagne houses of Piper-Heidsieck and Charles Heidsieck, which had been purchased in the 1980s by the prestigious drinks firm Remy-Cointreau.
The project was already well underway, including construction of a modern winemaking facility and a renewed commitment to the core wine of Charles Heidsieck, its non-vintage brut, when Camus and Thibault joined forces. Thibault had previously undertaken the task of shoring up stocks of reserve wines to bolster the quality of the non-vintage Charles Heidsieck, which had been renamed Brut Reserve and rolled out to great acclaim.
In his 1999 book "Champagne for Dummies," author Ed McCarthy wrote: "Thibault's goal was to make a rich, aged, non-vintage Champagne, containing 40 percent reserve wines. The non-vintage Champagne was renamed Brut Reserve, and it has become a total triumph — in fact, one of the great Champagne success stories of the 1990s."
Camus inherited the much more difficult task of resurrecting the image of Piper-Heidsieck, which, though much larger than Charles Heidsieck, was on the verge of irrelevance after decades of lackluster performance, with the exception of its always outstanding tetes de cuvee, Rare.
"Regis knew that just as Daniel had done with Charles Heidsieck, he had to rebuild the stocks of reserve wines for Charles Heidsieck," Christian Holthausen, communications director for the two houses, told me as he served as interpreter for Regis during an extensive tasting of new base wines and older reserve wines at the Heidsieck complex earlier this month.
He got a bit of help from conditions on the ground when the vintages of 1995 and 1996 turned out to be sensational, and then again when the harvests of 2002 and 2004 produced outstanding vintages nearly back to back. Camus succeeded Thibault as chef de cave in 2002, following Thibault's death, and he continued the commitment to "reconstitute" the library of reserve wines.
Of course, holding back great base wines from exceptional vintages makes for less vintage Champagne production, and that creates a problem of its own.
"This decision doesn't make the marketing people very happy because there is a clamor for vintage Champagne, and it is easy to sell," said Holthausen.
If there were any who doubted the wisdom of Camus at the time, and his obsession with Heidsieck's reserve stocks, they've most likely gone into hiding. The Charles Heidsieck Champagnes have continued to improve under his stewardship, and it's probably safe to say that the Piper-Heidsieck non-vintage brut Champagnes are the success story of the years 2002-2011 in much the same way Charles Heidsieck's Brut Reserve was the success story in the Champagne region through the 1990s.
The International Wine Challenge in London, one of the oldest and most prestigious wine competitions in the world, has named Regis Camus Champagne Winemaker of the Year five years running — 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010 and 2011.
His role as chef de cave at two important houses — in Wine for Dummies McCarthy ranks both Charles and Piper Heidsieck among the top 25 Champagne houses — is somewhat unusual, but perfectly reasonable given the nature of Champagne.
Each house hews to a style that is its own.
"One isn't better than the other," Camus says of comparisons between Piper and Charles.
"One time, it is a Piper moment. Another time is a Charles moment. The sharp, fruity, mineral style is Piper, the fleshy, generous, pastry style is Charles. They are for different occasions, but equal."
Camus explained that he believes Piper is more of a party wine, very convivial and easy to like, while Charles has a more serious side.
"When Regis became chef de cave, he said he wanted to give Piper more of a soul, Charles more youth," said Holthausen.
Each vintage Camus and his winemaking team taste through the new base wines looking for the characteristics that define the two styles. For Piper, he is seeking wines with what he calls "crunchy" fruit, such as apple and pear. For Charles, he is looking for richer flavors, more flesh and perhaps a bit more complexity.
When he tastes a base wine, Camus said, he considers four options: one, it can be a "Charles" wine; two, it can be a "Piper" wine; three, it can go into either Piper or Charles; and four, it could be a wine that he will set aside for the reserve library.
He used the recent harvest of 2011 to make his point. It was the earliest harvest on record in Champagne, and quality was spotty. To make a non-vintage brut that is up to the renewed standards of both Charles and Piper, he will likely use generous amounts of wine from the reserve stocks to maintain the standard of excellence that recent releases of the multi-vintage non-vintage brut Champagnes have come to represent.
While many in the wine business, particularly critics, have noticed the tremendous improvement in the wines of Charles and Piper-Heidsieck, the market has yet to catch up. That reality is a beautiful thing for the consumer who has Champagne taste, but a beer budget. I find the Charles Heidsieck Brut Reserve all over for $35 or so, while I can usually snag bottles of Piper-Heidsieck for well below $30.
If your holiday plans call for Champagne and you are among the many who are sensitive to the soaring price of this rare and delicious sparkling beverage, you would be hard pressed to do better than the non-vintage Champagnes of Piper and Charles Heidsieck.
Follow Robert on Twitter at @wineguru.