Champagne: Passing the baton

Champagne has been going through a period of fundamental change over the past couple of years.

There’s barely a major brand that hasn’t installed a new head winemaker since the start of 2018 or begun the process of replacing the incumbent. And despite the brand owners’ talk of continuity, even when the new and old chef de caves work together in unison for a while during the handover, this changeover represents a great upheaval. 

The potential for disruption was only too well illustrated by the situation at Piper Heidsieck, part of the EPI group, in the summer of 2018. In early June, Séverine Frerson, who had been working for the winemaking team at Piper alongside Régis Camus for some 16 years previously, was announced as the house’s new chef de cave. By mid-September however, Pernod Ricard was welcoming her to Perrier-Jouët in Epernay as the cellar master in waiting to replace Hervé Deschamps. 

While it’s still not clear why Frerson departed after barely three months running the team at Piper, the timing of her elevation and Deschamp’s retirement at Perrier-Jouët has still not been announced a year later as the 2019 harvest gets underway. 

The situation at Piper Heidsieck was happily settled quickly, with Émilien Boutillat joining in October 2018. Despite his apparent youth, he brings four years’ experience as cellar master at Cattier and Armand de Brignac plus an impressive international CV, working vintages at Mud House in New Zealand, La Motte in South Africa and Peter Michael Winery in California, in addition to a stint at Château Margaux. 

Boutillat looks to be a great acquisition for the brand, judging by his very assured performance at the launch of Piper’s Essentiel Blanc de Blancs this July, speaking confidently and knowledgeably about all aspects of Piper’s range, to which the aforementioned Essentiel looks to be a fine addition. 

With Cyril Brun already looking like an old hand in charge of winemaking at Charles Heidsieck, although he only joined from Veuve Clicquot in May 2015, the future looks bright for the EPI champagne brands. And they have not lost the services of the experienced Régis Camus, although he is one of a group of senior, top-class winemakers, most of whom have just or are about to retire. Camus stays on for the moment to oversee his baby – Rare, formerly Piper’s prestige cuvée but now positioned as a standalone brand in its own right, à la Dom Pérignon. 

In 2018 Champagne lost the talents of François Domi at Billecart-Salmon, Dominique Petit at Pol Roger and Loic Dupont at Taittinger, all long-running if relatively low public-profile servants for their brands. But in the case Domi, who lives near Billecart’s winery in Mareuil-sur-Aÿ, you get the impression his expertise will continue to be called on by the Roland-Billecart family and new winemaker Florent Nye. 

From the same era and after more than 30 years’ service, as we have already reported in DI, 67-year-old Michel Fauconnet is expected to depart Laurent-Perrier by the end of 2020, with Clicquot’s Dominique Demarville joining him to work in tandem from the start of next year before taking over.