BEST CHAMPAGNE had the pleasure to meet Frédéric Panaïotis, Chef de Caves of RUINART, the oldest established Champagne House founded in 1729 by Nicolas Ruinart.
His uncle Dom Thierry Ruinart, a visionary Benedictine monk contemporary of Louis XIV, understood the promising future of the “wine with bubbles” produced from the vines of his native Champagne and passed his intuition to his nephew.
After a glorious past and a number of vicissitudes, RUINART has joined the LVMH luxury group and is managed by President Frédéric Dufour. Since then it has become one of the most appreciated and respected champagne brands in France.
RUINART champagnes are characterized by an unusually high percentage of Chardonnay in the blends, resulting in a fine freshness and elegance, with a certain power.
Panaïotis, a sharp mind and an eclectic spirit, totally matched the House’s DNA. With his own words, he highlights the key moments in the history of the RUINART that have most shaped its identity, and he explains the Maison’s idea of champagne, that is expressed in its distinctive style.
He also shares some of the “secrets” that make RUINART so appreciated and prized by anybody who tastes it. Read on and enjoy, with a glass of RUINART if you can.
Prior to joining RUINART Panaïotis was oenologist at VEUVE CLICQUOT.
BEST CHAMPAGNE: The royal edict of 1728 propelled champagne by allowing it to be bottled and hence shipped around the world while keeping its effervescence. Can you guide us through the history of champagne and RUINART from that point?
FREDERIC PANAIOTIS: The best way to understand the history of champagne is by looking at the famous painting “Le Déjeuner d’huîtres” by Jean-François de Troy in 1735, which is the first known graphic representation of a champagne bottle.
[The painting was a special order of King Louis X, a great fan of sparkling wines of Champagne, and used to embellish the castle of Versailles. The painting is currently held at the Condé Museum in Chantilly near Paris.]
We can presume with confidence that the wine depicted is actually champagne because of the cork flying out in the air, clearly indicating that the wines consumed in the scene are effervescent.
We can also notice streams of bubbles and foam in the glasses as well as ice buckets to keep the wine chilled.
The bottles used in those times were onion shaped but in the painting, the shoulders and neck are longer, probably to make them more elegant, and are very similar to the bottles that we currently use at RUINART.
Taking in consideration that in 1735 there were only three Champagne Houses [the other being Chanoine Frères founded in 1730, and Taittinger founded in 1734], it is likely that the champagne served in the scene was RUINART.
RUINART was actually established on 1st September 1729, one year after King Louis XV signed the decree on May 25th, 1728 that finally allowed the Champagne region sell its wines in bottles. Burgundy and Bordeaux could do it already, but not Champagne, and the likely reason was tax.
Prior to the decree sparkling champagne was actually produced, but still wines from Champagne were more popular and the best ones that people in Paris could get because they were easily shipped in barrels via the Marne river [that passes through the Champagne region and is a tributary of the Seine river in the east and southeast of Paris].
This is why they were called vins de Rivière (wines of river). Meanwhile, the wines of Burgundy and Bordeaux were probably not that available in Paris.
So at that time the best wines that were accessible in Paris, in good quantities, were those of Champagne.
They were shipped in barrels to be easily spotted and taxed. Bottles were easier to smuggle, in small quantities: hence the prohibition to bottle the wines.
But sparkling champagne would not keep its fizz (limited at that time) in the barrels, only in the bottles.
Seeing this new opportunity for sparkling champagnes, RUINART was established in 1729, becoming the very first House to produce and commercialize sparkling wines of Champagne.
BC: CHAMPAGNES AT THAT TIME WERE WHITE, MADE OF BLACK GRAPES. HOW AND WHEN RUINART SHIFTED ITS FOCUS TO CHARDONNAY?
FP: Much later in the history of the House, during WW1, the RUINART building was totally destroyed by the bombings.
Then the 1929 crash and the prohibition in the US, an important market for us, heavily impacted on the House.
In WW2 Otto Klaebisch, the German Nazi in charge of the wines of Champagne (the so-called Weinführer) turned out to be really found of RUINART, looting almost everything from our cellars.
In 1946 there were only 10,000 bottles left in stock, and only two customers, in Paris; RUINART was on the brink of disappearing. In the same year Bertrand Mure, a family member, took over and started rebuilding the House and the brand from scratch.
The House had 20 hectares of vineyards left. This is when Mr. Mure decided to refocus on Chardonnay.
The first Blanc de Blancs Ruinart is the vintage 1947 and 12 years later in 1959 the very first Dom Ruinart [the House’s Blanc de Blancs prestige cuvée] was crafted and released in 1966.
I had the chance to meet Mr. Mure and ask him why this choice for Chardonnay, to which he replied that he wanted to make wines that are lighter and fresher.
He actually told me “I like my champagne from 9 am until 9 am the next day” and for this Chardonnay is the best variety.
At that time Chardonnay only represented about 20% of the whole Champagne vineyard, which was just about 20,000 hectares [Chardonnay currently represent 30% of 34,000 hectares].
Chardonnay was mostly planted in the Côte des Blancs and in few parcels of the Montagne de Reims, but not as much as today, and was completely absent in other subregions of Champagne where it is now present.
As more producers wanted to include the desirable freshness and elegance that this grape brings to champagne, the demand for it grew and a number of villages switched from Pinot Noir to Chardonnay, like Trépail, and Villers-Marmery where I am from.
These villages in the heart of the Montagne de Reims are facing east and south-east, which we know today is the best for Chardonnay.
Possibly in the future Chardonnay will become the second most planted grape variety after Pinot Noir [38%] but before Meunier [31%].
Today Chardonnay represents 40% our non-vintage cuvée R de RUINART, sourced from different subregions.
BC: HOW WOULD YOU DESCRIBE THE RUINART STYLE AND HOW DO ACHIEVE IT?
FP: The Ruinart style is based on the idea or aromatic freshness, with floral notes, fresh fruity notes, notes of fresh spices like ginger and cardamom, as opposed to strongly yeasty, buttery, creamy, oxidative characters, which can also be very interesting but not in line with our style.
Our aromatic freshness is obtained by controlling the amount of oxygen that reacts with the wine [using reductive winemaking].
This is why in all the processes of winemaking, being pumping, transferring, bottling, disgorging etc., we try to protect the wine against the oxygen intake.
Of course, we only use stainless steel vats and no barrels or oak, as it doesn’t fit out style.
However, oak is a very interesting topic. Most of the time oak is oxidative but some producers are actually able to use it in a reductive way, like in Burgundy white wines. So we may possibly try the use of oak in the future. Why not?
However, our reductive style is gentle because the process needs to be reversible.
By doing so, not only the Chardonnay but also the Pinot Noir, and the Meunier that is usually seen as grapes not meant for aging (because it ripens earlier) can bring freshness and aging potential in our cuvées.
BC: HOW THE USE OF RESERVE WINES FITS IN YOUR DISTINCTIVE AROMATIC FRESHNESS?
FP: The more consistent you want to be in your House style, the more reserve wines you need to use. However, reserve wines also bring maturity. This is why at RUINART we have a quick rotation of [relatively young] reserve wines.
To keep our distinctive freshness our wines do not age that long. For me, drinkability is the most important quality of any wine, not just champagne.
Typically, our R cuvée will be a blend of 3 harvests; the current one is based on the 2014 harvest with the addition of reserve wines of 2013 and 2012, that’s it. We do not go back much in time because it would be counterproductive to our style.
BC: WHICH OTHER ‘PRECAUTIONS’ DO YOU USE TO MAINTAIN YOUR STYLE?
FP: We do not use grands crus and premiers crus only, that need longer time to age, and include normal crus that age faster.
The idea is for our wines to be palatable, to have this softness, roundness without playing with the sugar (dosage). A higher dosage goes against the current trend for drier taste, for super sharp wines.
In the old days, higher dosage was also used to mask some faults in winemaking as not all the processes were mastered. Nowadays we have all the tools in the vineyard and in the cellar to make super clean, beautiful and precise wines, meaning we do not need as much dosage.
So, to avoid higher dosage why undergo full malolactic fermentation (MLF) every year for all our wines. However, there is no trace of MLF aromas in our champagnes. This is deliberate and it is something we worked a lot on to achieve.
BC: WHAT DO YOU THINK OF THE CURRENT TREND FOR “TERROIR CHAMPAGNE” MADE OF SINGLE PARCELS, MOST OFTEN BY SMALL GROWERS?
FP: Tastewise, champagne today offer a more diversity than ever in the past, and I see this as a continuing trend.
There are many different styles, more identities, intimate cuvées produced in small volumes, and Champagne Growers are taking the lead on that. And this is great as it brings a lot of excitement and buzz on our region.
But the art of the assemblage, of using a wide palette of wines [from different grape varieties, subregions, and vintages of the Champagne region] to make better champagnes, remains in the hand of the great Champagne Houses and is firmly at the core of champagne making.
The greatest “secret” of champagne is that we can play with our wines to overcome the climatic challenges of certain vintages, resulting in consistently great wines.
This is why Champagne is the only French wine region and one of the few in the world, after Porto and Jerez, that produces more nonvintage than vintage wines.
BC: WHAT ELSE DO YOU DRINK APART FROM RUINART?
FP: RUINART is the perfect fit for me because I like its wine style. In my cellar at home, besides champagne, I have German Riesling wines. They are clean and precise on the fruit and these are the wines I like.
I also have a fair number of bottles of red and white Burgundy and Northern Rhône, as well as some red from Piedmont.