The Great and The Good, surveyed from the position of a layman Blogger at 67 Pall Mall

Whilst at heart I’m always rooting for some semblance of affordability in champagne, sometimes it pays to check your calibration at the extremes of the spectrum. With that in mind, this was not a lunch invitation to think twice about; a seat at Cellar Master Régis Camus’s table, a tour of some of Rare’s best wines to date and some of the first corks being popped on the new magnums of ‘Le Secret’, all set to a paired menu at 67 Pall Mall.

Until recently Rare has been the Prestige Cuvée of Piper-Heidsieck. As Brand Ambassador Simon Stockton explained, Rare is now flying the nest to become a fully independent label, untethered by the demands of a bigger, slower parent. This makes sense; I imagine it allows Piper more headroom for its vintage wines (or even a new Prestige or one-off Cuvées..?), whilst letting Rare find its own way to navigate the very different waters at the top of the market.

Part of that navigation is the release of one thousand Magnums of ‘Le Secret’,  an exclusive cuvée that came about after Camus squirrelled away some of what would have been the 1997 Rare in his ‘experimental cellar’. This is not just a Magnum of undeclared Rare under another name, though. Tasting it next to the official Rare vintages is a bit like seeing a family photo with the long-lost cousin in the corner; the DNA is there, strongly, but this wine has an energy and balance which is very much unique. The fact that this uniqueness will cost you £1150 per Magnum to experience is bound to raise a few eyebrows, but, as ever, the correct question has to be ‘will people pay it?’. I suspect the answer is going to be yes, especially with the striking bottle designs on offer from jeweller Mellerio.

Aside from Le Secret we tasted a range of Rare wines, including two from before Camus’s time in the cellar. The whole range has a striking continuity since 1998, with vintage variation trying (and failing) to erase the personality emanating from the blending choices and pure winemaking style. The wines are complex, subtle and beautifully pristine, leaning more towards ripe citrus, floral and exotic notes than anything autumnal, heavy or overtly vinous. Palates are chiselled and persistent, yet maintain an element of delicacy of texture. Rare certainly merits its fairly new place at the highest table of Champagne; with the separation from Piper-Heidsieck it may now get the opportunity to put its name on the seat for good.

Rare 1979, for now still displaying the Piper-Heidsieck branding

Champagne Rare 2002
As will all the Rare blancs under Camus, this is 70% Chardonnay and 30% Pinot Noir. Camus’s definition of 2002 is “La Richesse”. First there are bright notes of chalk dust, fresh white flowers and complex orchard fruits. Behind lurk mango and dried yellow fruits just waiting to open up – this wine is still bound up so tightly. Fragrance comes from faint, almost buried sense of anise and mint, with lovely subtle yellow raspberry sweetness from the Pinot Noir. The palate really takes off – a stunning, layered presentation of freshness and development and an effortlessly floating mousse. The acidity shines a lazer-sharp light from start to finish, yet feels completely encased in the structure of the wine. This has miles to go. 96+

Champagne Rare 1998 in Magnum
Immediately more salinity and creaminess here, with a sense of seriousness from freshly-roasted coffee beans and black pepper sitting beautifully alongside the sweet candied grapefruit and discreet caramelisation. This wine showed its exotic side even more than the 2002 or Le Secret, with gentle dragonfruit and lychee fruits beautifully tinged with sweet jasmine and the aniseed tones of Thai basil. Tremendous length to the candied fruits and just a little grip of seville orange. Subtle and totally radiant, with the immediacy of a young champagne still shining behind all the developed complexity. I find it hard to imagine enjoying a glass of champagne more than this. 98+

Rare Rosé 2007

Champagne Rare Rosé 2007
56% Chardonnay and 44% Pinot Noir. Régis explained how, when this wine was made, serious Rosé Champagne was not really in fashion. On top of this, he “didn’t choose the easiest year” in 2007. This, for me, carries more delicacy than the Blancs, with a delicious shade of sweet strawberry and pomegranate syrup colouring the fruit. Just a touch of anise and warm spice. The palate is so airy and fresh, with a lovely blood-orange freshness and a touch of honey developing. Such impressive balance and alignment on the palate, especially for 2007; for me this is ready to drink, but I quite like my Rosés youthful! 95

Champagne Rare 1988
The first of two Champagnes from the ‘old team’. So welcoming with fresh quince and savoury notes of chestnut honey and resin, backed up by delicious dried mango and membrillo. The acidity is fine and clear – really quite brisk. This is just a little looser and doesn’t quite have the togetherness of the others, although it is still very clean and full of lovely flavours. 92

Champagne Rare 1979
Now we’re talking! What a wine – a procession of deliciousness. Distinct from the other wines in opening with some heady lime cordial, giving way to candied peel, pineapple and oiled wood. Barley sugar and marmalade maintain the sensation of sweetness, but there is still enough precision and freshness to keep it from feeling completely dominated by sugared/Maillard notes. The generous sensation of dosage is still there, as is just a little lift of effervescence. Gorgeous. 97

Champagne Rare ‘Le Secret’ (Magnum)
This 1997 cuvée displays such crystalline youthfulness still. Nevertheless, it is recognisable from both the 2002 and 1998, carrying some of those same exotic fruits as well as honeysuckle and anise – there’s just a little more creamy weight. The recent disgorgement and lack of dosage gives this wine a powerful, forthright character right now which is very striking; it feels tighter than the 2002, but the acidity delivers a tremendously long, mineral palate that really hangs together beautifully.
We did not really discuss ageing this wine. For me, this isn’t a cuvée that has another whole life ahead of it, but more of a bold, singular expression whose character is very much tied in to its post-disgorgement youth.  I’m finding quite hard to pin down as it feels like the flavours will really come into focus with a little more age, but I think that period may only be one or two years (and probably under five). Impressive and unique. 93+

Rare with Food 

A final mention needs to go to the food matches chosen by Simon and the team at 67 Pall Mall. Both starter and main played off some of the exotic notes in the Rare wines – I really liked how the gentle aniseed spicing of what I think was Greek Basil in the lobster, mango and lime salad worked with the 1998 and 2002 vintages, and the Rosé was just brilliant with a serious slab of duck which had a gently sweet, aromatic pepper crust. Both dishes rode a subtle level of sweetness and spice which sat with the wines so well, but the Rosé match was one of those where you kept nipping back and forth from plate to glass, trying to work out why it was so good…until both were empty.

Parmigiano Reggiano was served with the 1979 and 1988 Rare; I often find it so heavy on the lactic/sour/umami flavours that it overwhelms any wine, but the older wines are meals in themselves in any case. Le Secret, on the other hand, is a wine I could fully imagine with sashimi and oysters – it needs bone dry, lean-and-clean cuisine, if anything at all.

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