Most of the houses which we visited on the scholarship trip of March 2013 were delightful, small, family concerns. There were no grand buildings, no famous names, and no paid staff to show you around. But our visit to Ruinart was an exception on several counts. First, of course it is a grand maison, with a chateau-like building to match, a proud history (founded 1729 – ‘plus ancien maison de Champagne’ above the door to reinforce the point), and all the trappings of success. So this was the moment for our small group to have its photo taken – left to right: Matt Glyn of Bibendum, Daisy Christie of the Champagne Bureau, London, Janet and I of www.winefriend.org. We made for a very good little team and easy travelling companions with complementary interests. The time flew by on days which started with breakfast together at 8 and went on without a break until the car dropped us back at 10 at night to our great address on the Avenue de Champagne tired but thrilled with all we had seen, tasted, learnt, eaten and drunk.
Champagne itself is of course is a great contributor to the art of good company. What big concerns like Ruinart can offer is not just history and prestige but reliable quality. Behind the scenes they work tirelessly with growers and in their wineries to ensure that every single bottle is something genuinely special, reliably the same style and which will always complement the occasion. They hold huge stocks of wine to come as close as they can to maintaining the style and the quality from year to year in a marginal climate for viticulture where vintages can vary markedly in size and quality. The completely different approach between the small growers’ champagne (which can revel in difference from year to year if they wish) and the relentless pursuit of continuous perfection by the big houses is just one of the things that make Champagne a great vinous landscape to explore.
But before we get to the wines we should note Ruinart’s other marvel, the 24 chalk pits and underground tunnels (eight kilometres in all on three levels) which it uses for cellar space. The biggest caves or pits are elongated pyramid spaces underground connected by a series of tunnels. Many of them date back to Roman and then medieval times with successive generations enlarging and using them. They are vast and impressive, with large volumes of bottles being dwarfed by the space above them. To give some idea of the scale, the largest single stack (of which there are many) contains 46,000 bottles. That would keep most of us in Champagne for some time.
Impressive though the caves and the house are, the real stars of the show are the wines. The broad theme for our set of visits was ‘to oak or not to oak’. All the other companies which we visited use oak barrels in one way or another to mature their wines and give them additional complexity. By contrast Ruinart is strictly non oak. The wines are vinified and matured only in stainless steel and then in their final bottles. Complexity, roundedness and softness have to come from the quality of the fruit, putting the still wines through malolactic fermentation, extended time in the bottle on the lees, the use of reserve wines and then the final dosage.
NV Blanc de Blanc – 100% Chardonnay of course from Premier Cru vineyards, with 20-25% of reserve wine, three years of ageing in the bottles in those cellars, 9g of residual sugar. Elegant finesse on the nose, ripe apple and floral notes and classic chalky, Blanc de Blanc touches. The palate is more assertive with peach, lemon, brioche and vanilla flavours, a good length and a rich finish but balanced with zesty acidity. A remarkable for the wine for the basic NV.
Dom Ruinart 2002 – there is more than one Benedictine monk in Champagne history and folklore with this one’s name gracing the 100% Grand Cru Chardonnay finished with 6.5% grammes of residual sugar. Pale gold in colour, with markedly stony, mineral entry on the nose before nutty, yeast and spice notes. Perfect balance with impressive intensity, honey and honeysuckle, packed fruit, softened acidity on the palate, very long, excellent.
Rosé NV – 45% Chardonnay and 55% Pinot Noir of which 18% is still red wine with the same ageing as the NV white. Pale salmon in colour; strawberries, cherries and cream, with a fruit driven palate. Very good indeed.
Dom Ruinart Rosé 1998 – a spectacular wine especially after 20 minutes in the glass, made from 85% Chardonnay, all Grand Cru, and 15% Pinot Noir still red wine. Residual sugar 5g. Pink to copper onion skin in colour with aromas of roses, dried apricot, a subtle red fruit note and mushroom overtones. After that time in the glass the Pinot really shines through with the red fruit notes. Refreshing acidity gives structure and complements the rich palate with a dry, refreshing, long finish.
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