The other day I ordered Piper-Heidsieck Champagne Brut non-vintage by the glass for my wife and myself. The waiter brought us two glasses and set them before us. Then he opened a 187ml bottle, commonly known as a “split,” and poured the contents in my wife’s glass, and opened another for me. The contents just about filled our glasses.
I had been in conversation with my wife and hadn’t noticed the screw top on the bottle until he poured the wine. But it drew my attention.
My first thought: A fresh bottle for every pour? What a good idea!
Next thought: I sure hope the Champagne tasted as good as my colleague Bruce Sanderson’s 91-point review. And indeed it was. The comments I jotted down matched his almost exactly. “Refinement and finesse, vibrant apple, grapefruit and toast,” I wrote. Clearly, the package had worked brilliantly.
I e-mailed Bruce to ask if he knew anything about the closure. “I believe the packaging is not unique to P-H.” he wrote, “My understanding is that the wines are fermented in larger bottles and transferred to 187ml.”
He relayed the request to his contacts at Piper. That’s when things started to get a little weird. The first explanation, from Christian Holthausen of Rémy-Cointreau, described the small bottles but sidestepped the closure: “Harvey is referring to ‘Baby Piper,’ introduced in 1999 in 187ml format. The format was very popular in the early years of the last decade although it now represents a very small percentage of our sales. There are some on-premise accounts that still use it for by-the-glass pours. (Also, the young, fashion-oriented crowd at Selfridges in London loves Baby Piper, so Selfridges sells the format along with the other wines from Piper-Heidsieck.)
“The wine is indeed Piper-Heidsieck Cuvée Brut, but the secondary fermentation takes place in magnums and then the wine is decanted into the 187ml and given a plastic cork," Holthausen wrote. "Once the 187ml bottle is sealed, the wine will obviously have a much shorter ‘second lifespan’ than a 375, or 750 or 1.5. Which is why Baby Piper is only produced upon request and always shipped immediately to preserve its freshness and vivacity.”
Very nice, Mr. Holthausen, but what about the screw cap? His next response: “It's more of a plastic cork but it's close to the screw cap family. It's a 187ml that is made for immediate consumption.”
It almost seemed as if the folks at Piper were embarrassed by someone noticing the closure, even though I thought it was a great idea. I just hadn’t seen it on a high-quality Champagne before.
Unsatisfied with Christian’s explanation, I went back to the restaurant and finally had a chance to study the closure. From the outside it looks exactly like an ordinary twist-off. Inside, though, it had a plug like the business end of one of those plastic corks used on some inexpensive fizz. It felt a bit different, however. Perhaps a bit slicker. My guess is that it is coated with the same type of plastic that lines other screw caps.
In a regular screw cap, that liner actually provides the seal. The cap just holds the liner in place on the lip of the bottle. If this works so well on small bottles of Champagne, I wonder if anyone is testing it on regular bottles.
It’s true that the traditional mushroom cork, being made from a cork composite, is less likely to introduce TCA to the wine than a cork for a still wine. But still, it happens. And Champagne bottles do oxidize, though less often than regular wine bottles do. Could the mystery closure actually be an improvement?
As the fellow from Piper seemed too embarrassed to acknowledge the closure on a “fun” bottling like the 187ml Baby Piper, it might take a while to find out.
Brian Byers — Winnipeg, MB — July 29, 2010 1:02pm ET
Daniel Kaufman — Charlottesville Virginia — July 29, 2010 10:35pm ET
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