Not many of my friends see tasting champagne as work and sampling Ruinart Blanc de Blancs in bottle, magnum and jeroboam is even less likely to qualify in their eyes, though they’d mostly be puzzled to see the point in that – tasting the same wine* in three different formats that is. Add three different vintages of Ruinart’s prestige line Dom Ruinart Blanc de Blancs, including my favourite vintage of the 80s, and even I have to admit it just sounds like an extremely pleasant morning. And it was.
Frédéric Panaïotis took over as head winemaker at Ruinart in 2007 and I knew him for many years before that, when he was one of the main winemakers in Jacques Peters team at Veuve Clicquot. A skilled linguist and very articulate man, with a passion for fine wine outside Champagne, his tastings are always interesting and informative.
Ruinart is the only house within the LVMH stable to make a Blanc de Blancs style other than Krug’s single vineyard Clos du Mesnil. Moët did produce an all Chardonnay single village champagne from the grand cru of Cramant in its Trilogie range, but that was to my knowledge only made twice. The idea behind this tasting was to look at Ruinart Chardonnay and see how it develops, both in the vintaged prestige cuvée Dom Ruinart — a wine that used to be my Christmas morning treat in the days before we had children — but also to see how format size might affect the non-vintage Ruinart Blanc de Blancs.
The first major point of difference between the two styles – apart from the price – is the source of the grapes. Dom Ruinart all comes from grand cru vineyards but unusually from a mix of Côte des Blancs villages, which you might expect, but contrasted with lesser known Montagne de Reims sites. The non-vintage blend uses premier cru sites in the same locations, but also Chardonnay from the slightly warmer Sézannais region which is some 40 or so kilometres to the south-west of the Côte des Blancs.
As the popularity of the Ruinart Blanc de Blancs style has increased, and despite a regular price of around £50 a bottle, it has grown at an extraordinarily fast rate and now accounts for a quarter of Ruinart’s total volume, the main issue Panaïotis has had is sourcing enough suitable Chardonnay in Champagne to keep pace with demand. The Sézannais Chardonnay has become increasingly important in the blend.
We began the tasting with some vins clairs (still base wines) from the just completed 2015 harvest, including a sample from near Sezanne which had a very expressive grapefruit zing to it, as well as some tropical fruit flavours and which Panaïotis described as “perfect non-vintage blending material”. Grand Cru Chardonnay samples followed and he liked the fact that they are “not too lean and show some ‘fatness’,” but he’s wary of calling 2015 ‘the vintage of the century’ as he feels some may have exaggerated its quality. “The 2012 harvest looked perfect but in fact the Chardonnay lacked vibrancy and we didn’t make 2012 Dom Ruinart.”
In the tasting proper we compared Ruinart Blanc de Blancs NV in bottle, magnum and jeroboam. Although the blend for all three was very similar, the harvest base year* for each wine was different, with the bottle 2012 based, plus 27% reserve wine from the two previous harvests (2011, 2010), the magnum 2011 based plus 2010 and 2009 reserve wine, while the jeroboam was built round the 2008 harvest.
The style of this wine is very much fresh, clean and crisp, with a pure fruit character. Dosage is pretty much standard at around 8-9gm/l. Panaïotis wants a certain fleshy, creamy character as that makes the wine very accessible. He once told me it was the perfect aperitif for four people consumed in about ten minutes.
With a little bottle age this is a wine that develops a recognisable toastiness, as the magnum, which typically gets about eight months extra ageing on its lees, showed. Plus more palate texture/mouthfeel and a longer finish. These wines are made in a reductive style and the jeroboam, which had turned quite a rich golden yellow, had the classic ‘struck match’ aroma and still more developed toastiness with hints of mocha too.
We then turned to Dom Ruinart, looking at the current 2004 vintage first launched last year, the 1998 vintage in magnum and lastly 1988, a wine I hadn’t tasted since October 2009 when in Paris. There, in the company of Serena Sutcliffe and Jancis Robinson, the only two other Brits present, I sampled 18 different vintages of Dom Ruinart out of the 21 that had been made (at that time). Then the 1988 was one of the stars of the show (see Ruinart celebrates 50 years of Dom Ruinart, 16 October, 2009).
Interestingly the dosage on Dom Ruinart has come down over the years. Back in 1988 it was 9.5gm/l, by 1998 it had dropped to 7.5gm/l and in the 2004 it is just 5.5gm/l. The 2004 has opened up noticeably even since I last tried it a few months back, when it was still ‘very shy’ as Panaïotis himself said, and quite a contrast to the super concentrated powerhouse of 2002 which preceded it. It’s now attractive showing lemon peel citrus notes with a creamy middle palate, textural grip and overall elegance, which is the direction that Panaïotis wants to go.
The 1998 is a bigger wine with impressive complexity and a very long nuanced finish. The gorgeously golden hued ’88 has lost none of its luscious, toasty, richness, though for Panaïotis the ripe butter, even butterscotch note, is a slightly lactic character he wants to move away from now in favour of greater elegance. It’s hard to believe that this is a wine made from grapes that barely reached 9.7deg potential alcohol. For lovers of mature vintage champagne this is still a great experience, mature white burgundy with bubbles.