Following the insulting, exorbitant and profoundly distasteful lunch at the Hôtel Costes, the 2012 Prodigal Run was in a serious funk. While Straight-Six fumed and fingered his derringer from behind the wheel of the roaring Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG, the Prodigal Fool was all too quiet in the passenger seat. A pursing of lips and a long exhale were all that indicated the Fool was still on the Run as we parted the Paris traffic with AMG strum und drang
Was there any hope of recovering from this debacle, we wondered? Fortunately, the answer lay a mere 90 minutes from bustling Paris, in the revered town of Reims down a small and innocuous side street. So innocuous was it that we drove right by the entrance to the Champagne house of Piper-Heidsieck. Twice. Yes, this may have had something to do with us wanting to once again deafen bystanders with the immense sound of the SLS exhaust reverberating off weathered stone walls. Well, wouldn’t you?
Eventually, a gate was opened by a smiling and most elegant lady named Sophie, who was to be our guide for the afternoon visit to the famous, and by invitation-only, Gallo-Roman chalk cellars, or crayères. As we pulled the SLS into the immaculate drive, the perfect backdrop provided by the Art Nouveau building known as the “Pavillon des Crayeres”, where tastings are held for the privileged few, freed us from our dark memories of the worst France can offer in the hopes this might be something approaching the very best.
There was something surreal about just the three of us walking into the glitter and glamour of the Pavillon des Crayeres. In fact, we felt a little like we’d wandered into the film Inception, unsure who’s dream we were invading. Let’s be clear: we’ve been to more than a few wine tasting rooms with most being entirely forgettable through their banal and predictable take on luxury. However, this was formerly the house of “Charles Heidsieck” and designed by Alphonse Gosset. Its decoration absolutely works, whatever your first impressions of our photos may be; we’d almost argue the restraint of the actual building could withstand the equivalent of a decorative thermo-nuclear device. Iin this case, it’s enough to reflect the reality that champagne was destined for celebration and festivity – something we’re always ready to indulge in.
You should be aware that Piper-Heidsieck is one of the oldest and most prestigious Champagne houses, founded in 1785 by Florian Louis Heidsieck who moved to Champagne from Germany during the 1700s. It was entirely appropriate to learn that Champagne Heidsieck was a favourite of Marie Antoinette’s at Versailles, given the presence of the Prodigal Guide on this fine day…
Furthermore, Piper-Heidsieck is one of only five Champagne houses to house and age its wines in chalk cellars that are some 2,000 years old, more recently having been used during World War II. It’s down in these white, muted cellars that the wines lay dormant in constant temperatures of 10C-12C and 90% humidity. The perfect environment, as it turns out, for champagne.
The entrance to the cellars is agricultural, and entirely non-descript. But you have only to look at the staircase that descends 28m underground to realise another world – quite literally – lies beneath the magic and sparkle of the tasting room above. Huffing and puffing our way down, we were treated to a 30 minute tour around the various alcoves that house Piper-Heidsieck’s formidable collection of wines – young and old. For luck, we even traced the initials of this website on the side of one of the sleeping bottles. Speaking of bottles, we not only had to recalibrate our eyesite to the dim light, and button our jackets to keep the the damp, fresh air, but we were left gasping at the sight of thousands of bottles of a substance we’ve been known to push women and children aside for. In other words, we were having to exhibit a restraint entirely foreign to us both.
Dark, slumbering bottles are one thing, but it was behind a locked gate in one of the numerous alcoves that the real treat lay: the Crayeres tasting room. With shelving and tasting table mad entirely out of chalk – smooth and sleek to the touch – and similarly-styled lighting to the above-ground tasting room, this was the only place we’d ever ask to be buried in. Alive. The pics don’t do it justice, folks, and it ranks as the most refined room we had the privilege of spending time during the entire Run.
After several speechless minutes had passed Sophie decided to grab a bottle of 1985 Rare and hustled us back to the light of the surface to start the festivities.
If you’re expecting a detailed breakdown of the tastings that followed, given our hazy memory, please get your behinds over to a professional wine-tasting site. What we can share with you is that we started with the 1985 Rare, alternating with a 2002 Rare. We then compared a standard Brut to a Rose. Now, while Six has visited Champagne houses before and truly loves the nectar, the Fool honestly just isn’t a fan; he never has been. But it was only a matter of minutes before a large smile was writ large across his face and his cheeks began to darken with the pink of pleasure and good grape. You should read into this.
Meanwhile, Six couldn’t stop crowing about the power and depth of the 1985 Rare and the purity and intensity of the 2002 Chardonnay and Pinot Noir blend which is matured for at least seven years in the chalk cellars. But we lacked references for champagnes such as the 1985, so it was through the standard Brut that we really began to appreciate just what Piper-Heidsieck has managed to accomplish of late. We recall having sampled their Brut many years ago and were unimpressed by the sheer ferocity of the attack and lack of appeal. Turns out that with one Régis Camus becoming cellar master at Piper-Heidsieck in 2002, the tide turned and their standard offering has improved. Signficantly. Even the Rose Sauvage managed to bring out a little animal in us. Ahem!
It was dark by the time we called it an evening at Piper-Heidsieck. In truth, we could have spent the rest of the Run in that most special of places, savouring glass after glass of their finest. But there were highways to rape and 571 horses to liberate across the remainder of Europe. Tearing ourselves from the warm, motherly embrace of Sophie – who took to calling us “mes enfants” during the tasting session, while we responded with “oui, maman?” - was honestly heart-rendering.
You may argue that the champagne no doubt coloured our view of the place and the entire experience. But the photos don’t lie. This delicious experience not only deepened our understanding of champagne and brought Piper-Heidsieck to the fore, it also reminded us of why many argue France is indeed the greatest country on Earth.
The sheer cool of Piper-Heidsieck’s chalk cellars
The Prodigal Run 2012 leaves the horror of Hotel Costes in a cloud of tire smoke and heads for the heaven below ground that are the chalk cellars of the Piper-Heidsieck Champagne House. Pop your bottles…
Eric (AKA Straight-Six) had a proper job as a journalist for Dow Jones before lowering himself gently into the warm, forgiving waters of The Guide. He’s our resident fanatic: he relished detailing his BMW M3 for two full days at a time before crashing it at Eau Rouge in the wet; he spends insane amounts on his home-cinema system and has thrown tens of thousands of euros at vintage Rolex sports watches. The little fool simply does not understand the concept of restraint or the meaning of excess. He also – following a legendary "heavy" lunch – once nibbled (yes, like little dogs do) a dear lady friend of ours.
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