Ruinart chef de cave Frédéric Panaïotis is particularly happy. For two reasons: firstly, the prestige champagne house for which he oversees production has just released two vintages (a blanc de blancs and a rosé); and secondly – at the time of his visit to Hong Kong – he was in the middle of the annual Ruinart Sommeliers Challenge.
Of the latter, a competition whose judging panel he heads, he says: “When we hold this here and in some other places [Australia, Europe and the US], we’re really impressed with the enthusiasm and knowledge of all those taking part. It’s a great opportunity for all the winners, who we eventually host in Reims [Ruinart’s base in Champagne].” He has been at the Hong Kong event since its launch four years ago.
When it comes to the new vintages, he is visibly confident as he talks through them and we taste them together. After all, his and his team’s assessment to disgorge the bottles – a process that expels sediment from a maturing bottle, so that the sparkling wine is completely clear – is not taken lightly. It’s only when the champagne house knows for sure that its bottles from specific vintage maturation have reached the beginning of their optimum drinking window that it conducts this process.
He begins with a sip of the first of the two new vintages, Dom Ruinart Blanc de Blancs 2006. The 100 percent Chardonnay is a blend of grand cru grapes from Reims and the Côte des Blancs. “This tasted well early on [in production],” Panaïotis recalls, “and though it has characteristic Ruinart freshness now, it has less of this and less acidity than you might expect; it’s softer and fuller. Savoury and herbal characteristics make it almost a typical Burgundian Chardonnay.”
His food pairing suggestions for the 2006 are flavours that bring out the vegetal quality of the wine – these include goat’s cheese, seaweed and spring greens. And though poached seafood is also recommended, a light bouillabaisse also works too, he says.
He moves onto the Dom Ruinart Rosé 2004 – a blend of 81 percent grand cru Chardonnay from the same regions as the 2006 blanc de blancs, and 19 percent Pinot Noir from Sillery cru vineyards, just outside of Reims. “This vintage has resulted in a rosé that’s a lot less tannic than some, and its flavours are more lychee and guava than raspberry. It’s refreshing. For me, there’s also some blood orange – it’s citrusy with a bitter finish.”
One suggested food pairing with this 2004 (and Ruinart’s non-vintage rosé) for Panaïotis is pigeon. “At one dinner with the 2004, we had pigeon in a citrus-fruit crust;” he recalls, looking a little like he’s just been moved by a bite he’s taken of it as we talked. “It was fantastic.” He suggests that flavourful fish such as salmon and tuna are also good matches.
As Panaïotis is pleased with these two vintages, released globally last month, and says feedback has been initially positive, how does he see future vintages developing? “Last year was very tough in the vineyard,” he says. “It had a horrible start with much too much rain – this also led to some disease in the vines. And in spring there was frost, which caused some damage. Over all of Champagne, around 20 percent less was harvested. Some houses may do it but for us, there will be no 2016 Dom Ruinart vintage.”
He declines to comment on other vintage releases but does say that he has been planning for a very special release in 12 years’ time. The year 2029 will mark Ruinart’s 300th anniversary. “I’ve been preparing for this for a while, as it will take at least 10 years to mature [this champagne],” he said.
The biggest challenge of his work at Ruinart, the chef de cave says, is keeping on top of the blend and production of non-vintage champagne. Non-vintages, of course, are completely indifferent to whatever the changes in vineyard conditions there may be from year to year – the house style must be replicated annually.
“Non-vintage takes all of our effort, while vintage is a gift of nature,” he says, “but taking the best of the vintage is a challenge. Even in a great vintage year only five percent is put aside for this at Ruinart. The efforts really go into the non-vintage.” Needing in-bottle ageing within the house’s confines for years before being released, the majority in the blend of current non-vintages is from the 2013 crop.
Last year may have been a disaster vintage-wise but Panaïotis said it was a decent business one: “We have been gaining a lot of sales with our [non-vintage] blanc de blancs. And even though the China market was down two to three per cent, our sales internationally were up. Rosé did well for us too; people are taking rosé champagne more seriously now.”
Panaïotis points out that while several champagne houses have been producing it in recent years, Ruinart is considered to be the oldest producer of rosé champagne. In November 2013, archivists were examining Ruinart’s early export movements. It turned out that in 1764 within a shipment of 120 bottles, half were “oeil de perdrix” (eye of the partridge) – which was a reference to pink champagne. Indeed, it’s possible this was the first deliberately produced rosé champagne.
Ruinart engages the consumer with more than its champagne range alone, partnering with international arts events such as Art Basel. It also commissions artists every year to produce a piece or collection of work that is in some way related to the house. This year it’s a sculpture by Spanish artist Jaume Plensa: A male head and torso comprised of what looks like a jumble of letters but are in fact carefully selected from seven alphabets. The piece is a homage to Dom Thierry Ruinart, a Benedictine monk who was scholar, linguist and the uncle who is said to have been an inspiration of the founder of the champagne house, Nicholas Ruinart.