Frédéric Panaïotis, a Champenois, was appointed chef de cave in 2007. Before that, he was enologist at Veuve Clicquot. A sharp mind and an eclectic spirit, he perfectly matches the house’s DNA. He highlights the key moments in the history of Ruinart that have most shaped its identity and explains the house’s idea of champagne that is expressed in the distinctive style that he crafts. He also shares some “secrets” that make Ruinart so appreciated and prized by anybody who tastes it.
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 early history of champagne and Ruinart?
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 XV, a great fan of sparkling champagne, and was used to embellish the Palace 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 champagne because of the cork flying out in the air, indicating their effervescence. 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 into 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 established on 1st September 1729, one year after King Louis XV signed the decree on 25th May 1728 that finally allowed the Champagne region to sell its wines in bottles.
Ruinart was established on 1st September 1729, one year after King Louis XV signed the decree on 25th May 1728 that finally allowed the Champagne region to sell its wines in bottles. Before the decree, sparkling champagne was already being produced, but still wines of Champagne were more popular. They were 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). Meanwhile, the wines of Burgundy and Bordeaux were probably not readily 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 in the barrels, only in the bottles. Seeing this new opportunity for sparkling champagnes, Ruinart was established one year after Louis XV’s decree, thus becoming the very first house to produce and commercialize sparkling wines of Champagne.
Champagnes at that time were white, made of black grapes. How and when did Ruinart shift its focus to chardonnay?
Much later in the history of the house, during WW1, the Ruinart building was destroyed by the bombings. Then the 1929 crash and the prohibition in the US heavily impacted the house. In WW2, Otto Klaebisch, the German Nazi in charge of the wines of Champagne (the so-called Weinführer) turned out to be very fond 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 ha of vineyards left. This is when Mr. Mure decided to refocus on chardonnay. Our first Blanc de Blancs is the 1947 vintage and 12 years later, in 1959, the very first Dom Ruinart (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 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 ha (chardonnay currently represents 30% of 34,000 ha). 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 some 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 southeast, 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%].
Chardonnay represents 40% of our brut non-vintage champagne R de Ruinart, sourced from different subregions.
Today, chardonnay represents 40% of our brut non-vintage champagne R de Ruinart, sourced from different subregions.
How would you describe the Ruinart style and how do you achieve it?
Our style is based on the idea of aromatic freshness, with floral notes, fresh fruity notes, notes of fresh spices.
Our style is based on the idea of 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. 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 oak barrels, as it doesn’t fit our style. However, oak is a very interesting topic. Most of the time oak is oxidative, but some producers are able to use it in a reductive way, like in Burgundy white wines. So, we may try the use of oak in the future. Why not? But 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, can bring freshness and aging potential to our cuvées.
Our aromatic freshness is obtained by controlling the amount of oxygen that reacts with the wine.
How the use of reserve wines fits in your distinctive aromatic freshness?
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 cuvée R will be a blend of three harvests: the base one with the addition of reserve wines from the two previous years; that’s it. We do not go back much in time because it would be counterproductive to our style.
Which other precautions do you use to maintain your style?
The idea is for our wines to be palatable, to have this softness, roundness without playing with dosage.
We do not use grands crus and premiers crus only that need longer time to age but also include normal crus that age faster. The idea is for our wines to be palatable, to have this softness, roundness without playing with dosage. A higher dosage goes against the current trend for drier taste, for very sharp wines. In the old days, a 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 the cellar to make super clean, beautiful and precise wines; meaning we do not need as much dosage. To avoid a higher dosage, all our wines undergo full malolactic fermentation. 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.
What do you think of the current trend of “terroir champagnes” made of single parcels?
Taste-wise, champagne today offers more diversity than ever, and I see this as a continuing trend.
Taste-wise, champagne today offers more diversity than ever, and I see this as a continuing trend. There are many different styles, more identities, intimate cuvées produced in small volumes, and growers are taking the lead on that. This is great as it brings a lot of excitement and buzz to our region.
But the art of the assemblage, of using a wide palette of wines [from different grape varieties, subregions, and vintages] 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 non-vintage than vintage wines.
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.
What else do you drink apart from Ruinart?
Ruinart is the perfect fit for me because I like its 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 wines from Burgundy and northern Rhône, as well as some red from Piedmont.