Ruinart: secrets of Blanc de Blancs

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 Continue reading “Ruinart: secrets of Blanc de Blancs”

In praise of magnums

As you have probably gathered from recent posts, and those during last year’s festive season, I am a fan of magnums. The magnum is without doubt the perfect receptacle for ageing champagne in and in nearly all cases in my experience, faced with the same wine served from a standard 75cl bottle or magnum format, the latter will taste better.

Champagne aged in magnum develops and evolves more slowly, so it will always seem fresher than its 75cl counterpart. But it isn’t just about freshness, there’s extra zip, more nuances of flavour, and ultimately greater complexity. As I have noted because producers are aware of this, some houses will release and sell their magnum stock at a later point after longer ageing than their bottles. In the case of non-vintage blends, sometimes the base wine that is likely to make up the largest portion of the blend, will be from an older harvest in the case of the magnum non-vintage cuvée – this, as I have mentioned recently elsewhere, is the case in the example of both Bollinger and Veuve Clicquot.

If you are looking to buy something now in magnum for a special celebration over the holidays, it’s really non-vintage wines we are talking about here. Vintage champagne in magnum can also be sublime, but many current releases in magnum simply aren’t ready to drink, at least not if you wish to enjoy them at anything close to their peak. In terms of development they may be three or four years behind the same wine in 75cl bottle format.

For the better houses the price of a magnum is often more than the price of two bottles. That’s partly why I was keen to highlight the deal at Waitrose (13 stores and online) on magnums of Bollinger Special Cuvée, which at least one regular visitor to the site has found and purchased for only a shade over £60.

But where else outside the supermarkets – Sainsbury’s and Tesco have both had good deals on Veuve Clicquot in large bottles – can you find any stock of non-vintage champagne in magnum that you could buy and drink without disappointment (if you have the chance and the cellar space, most good non-vintage champagne in magnum will develop very well over a couple of years or so and if you can afford to put some away so much the better) in the next few days.

Hunting the other day for some bargains among the pages of the Majestic website I found they had quite a selection, albeit that not every store stocks them, so you might have to hunt around. Two of the least expensive on which there are both good deals are Laurent-Perrier, currently down from £70 to £50, and Perrier-Jouët Grand Brut which is £55. Both with the emphasis on freshness, lightness and balance would make great aperitif fizzes for Christmas Day or Boxing Day or before a celebration dinner. Taittinger Brut Réserve with its largish splash of Chardonnay is in a similar vein and down from £70 to £60 per magnum.

The more muscular ‘R’ de Ruinart blend in its distinctive bulbous bottle, down from £100 to £75 a magnum would add a note of class. Class, luxury and seductive creamy texture can be found in the Veuve Clicquot rosé magnums which will set you back £95.

If you want a Blanc de Blancs (all Chardonnay) magnum Ruinart may provide the answer and it’s down from £125 to £100, as is their rosé, though I’d favour the Clicquot pink wine and save a fiver. The much improved G.H. Mumm Cordon Rouge blend in magnum, sprayed about on the F1 podium, is £60 as is the apple fresh Lanson Black Label. Bollinger is down from £99 to £80 is you can’t find a Waitrose store stocking it and this wine is a treat with real depth of flavour. Another Pinot Noir dominant non-vintage cuvée of real class which has been on particularly good form in 75cl bottle format when tasted over the course of this year is Louis Roederer Brut Premier which rather surprisingly Majestic sells in magnum at a regular price £10 less than the discounted Bollinger — ie £70. This is a brisker, fresher style but develops beautifully with time so really you should be buying magnums now for 2016 and beyond.

In terms of flavour profile I tend to think of Pol Roger as somewhere between Bollinger and Roederer but it is another serious contender in the magnum stakes. You can buy it from for £74.97 (plus at least £6.95 delivery) in time for the New Year celebrations. Berry Bros & Rudd has a three magnum deal on Pol – enabling you to put two away for future celebrations — whereby the regular price of £84 falls to £67.20 a magnum, a saving of £50.40. This is the preferred Christmas tipple of their talented buyer Simon Field MW, whose commentary on the delights of the magnum, kindly penned for my book on Champagne, I am reproducing below its glorious unedited entirety.

Magnum Force

“Champagne comes in a bewildering array of  bottle sizes, from the somewhat perfunctory quarter bottle, best concealed in a floral gift when visiting a hospitalised relative, all the way up to the Nebuchadnezzar and beyond, the larger the size the more impractical the vessel and the more remote the eponymous Biblical origin.

Nebuchadnezzar we have heard of; he, after all, was famous for selling his wife for a pair of shoes. But Melchizedek I know not; a Melchizedek is a 30 litre bottle, and in addition to being fantastically impractical (unless one has a small crane to hand) is also bound to be of inferior quality, as the liquid has been decanted from a series of smaller bottles, post ageing, and will have lost freshness and fizz in the process.

Indeed this process, known as transvasage, is practiced on all the large formats above jeroboam size and instantly rules them out as candidates for the best bottle size. But why the Magnum? Well beyond the theatre and the sheer indulgence of having one on one’s table, the voice of experience dictates that this size, above all others, allows Champagne to age most gracefully and to maintain the fundamental tension between acidity, sugar, fruit and fizz which make this small and essentially rather dull region so famous.

It’s all to do, they say, with the rate of oxidation and the relative surface area of liquid exposed to the air. So they say. All rather tenuous in my opinion. For me it’s a matter of taste alone and for this reason, every Christmas Day, we open up proceedings (not a minute before noon you understand) with a Magnum of Pol Roger. Not a bottle, not a Methuselah and most certainly not a wretched Melchizedek, but a Magnum. Sir Winston Churchill would approve, I suspect.”
Simon Field MW, buyer at Berry Bros & Rudd

Two bottle price the norm for customers says Majestic buyer

I bumped into Justin Apthorp, champagne buyer at Majestic, at the London Wine Fair at Olympia last week, feeling slightly guilty about my recent post on their pricing policy for champagne — High pricing flatters discounts offered at Majestic. He didn’t approve. Before I had even asked him a question he said he’d read the post and wanted to point out that Majestic customers very rarely purchased single bottles of champagne, so in effect the [much more competitive] two bottle price was the norm.

He didn’t want to talk on the record generally about champagne pricing in the UK (which is a shame because I know his comments would make interesting and uncomfortable reading for champagne suppliers and supermarket retailers alike) but did make the quick aside that it seemed to be more than a coincidence that all the major champagne houses have been putting their prices up together, and at a time when sales are falling.

Majestic’s policy of, let us say, emphasising the discounts it offers, has of course been influenced by the supermarkets’ ‘false’ half price deals on champagnes that are not remotely worth the claimed full retail price. And to its credit Majestic certainly hasn’t aped that policy. In fact the company has some very decent current offers, particularly under its ‘buy two save 33% deals’, with  big name brands featured like Bollinger (£33.31 for Special Cuvée); Pol Roger Réserve (also £33.31); Perrier-Jouët Blason Rosé (£29.98) and Piper Heidsieck £23.32.

And if any of its customers do want to buy a single bottle of champagne in their minimum purchase of six bottles there are also good single bottle price deals on Taittinger Brut – down from £42 to £25–   plus three wines from Ruinart, including the sought after Blanc de Blancs and Rosé styles both priced at £41.66 when they are more regularly featured at well over £50.

Great vintage champagne predicted from 2012 harvest

After a disastrous growing season with frost, poor flowering, hail and disease all hitting yields, good, dry and warm weather in the run-up to picking has produced a small but potentially great harvest. “The quality is outstanding,” says Jean-Baptiste Lécaillon chef de cave at Louis Roederer. “It is a great vintage. Probably better than 1996 and close to 1990 on average. But in some special location it could well better than that, closer to a 1947? Full ripeness of Pinot Noir which is typical of a continental summer and a perfect final ripeness of Chardonnay and Meunier. Acidity is balanced and pH quite low for such a level of sugar.”

“All will be clearer in a few weeks when the still wines are tasted, but already, what we are seeing now is somewhere between 2002 and 1959, two of Champagne’s greatest vintages, if ever there were any,” says Charles Philipponnat of the eponymous house. “For us [it is], somewhere between 1959, 1990 and 2002. Yields were only 6 to 7000 kilos/hectare, but quality was very satisfactory, especially the Pinot Noir, whose exceptional sugar content — 11.5° to more than 12° — was higher than in 1976, 2000 or 2003, and was combined with an excellent acidity, that was even better than in 1996.”

“Everything is here, quality-wise, to craft some top vintage champagne. Considering just numbers, 2012 looks like a cross between 2002, 1990 and 1952 all excellent years,” says Frédéric Panaiotis, chef de cave at Ruinart. “All grapes came in super- healthy, we’ve recorded extremely high levels of glycerol and gluconic acid.”

“The overall quality of the grapes was very high,” says Hervé Deschamps, chef de cave at Perrier-Jouët. It was “a very good healthy harvest with no botrytis and a very good ripeness for all grapes varieties.” “Considering the health of the grapes, the level of maturity and the balance with acidity I am very confident in the vintage potential of this harvest,” says Benoît Gouez, chef de cave at Moët & Chandon.

“It looks like 1996, but less homogeneous,” says Michel Drappier of the eponymous house in the Côte des Bar. “It was a year of ‘extremes’, minus 20°c in February, a very warm and dry end of winter, the rainiest spring for years, the most devastating hail storm of the past 200 years, a heat wave in August with plus 38°c ‘cooking’ some berries and this resulted in the smallest crop for Drappier since 1957, with a yield of only 4,300Kg/ha.”

Yields were considerably down elsewhere as well. “With most of our old vineyards being traditionally ploughed, little usage of chemicals and some of our vineyards farmed organically and bio-dynamically, we have been very exposed to the bad weather conditions in 2012,” says Lécaillon, “especially in the early ripening grands crus.  Our final yield in our vineyard was 7,500 kg/ha. Well below the appellation.” At Philipponnat yields “were only 6 to 7,000 kgs/ha” while at Moët in the Appellation’s largest estate “The average yield is 8.5 tons/ha,” says Gouez. Of those we have spoken to so far since the harvest ended only Perrier-Jouet has reached the maximum yield set by the CIVC. “In our vineyards we have by average 11,000kg/ha and near 200kg/ha for the Réserve individuelle,” says Deschamps.


Ruinart and Clicquot move further on disgorgement dates

Ruinart has in fact already begun putting disgorgement dates on its vintage wines, starting with the 2004*vintage released in 2009, Frédéric Panaiotis confirmed at the recent launch of Dom Ruinart 2002. “I wanted to introduce disgorgement dates at Ruinart when I first came here [from Veuve  Clicquot] five years ago,” he told me, “but only for Dom Ruinart and the vintage wines, it’s too complicated to manage for the non-vintage.

Frederic Panaiotis, Ruinart Chef de Cave
Frederic Panaiotis, Ruinart Chef de Cave at the launch of Dom Ruinart 2002

“We started with the back label of the vintage 2004. We only have two different back labels for vintage and it’s released in two batches so it’s easier to do. Dom Ruinart is released in four batches with 25 different back labels so it’s very difficult to manage but we are going to do it soon, giving the month and year of disgorgement.”

Veuve Clicquot is also moving in this direction and plans to go further, eventually putting the date of disgorgement even on its non-vintage Yellow Label, or at least supplying this information via its website or a QR  code on the bottle. Cyril Brun from the winemaking team at Clicquot says at present they give both the date of disgorgement and the dosage, but only for the Cave Privée range [re-releases of older vintages]. But he confirms: “We are currently working on extending this step by step to the rest of the range.”

These moves from LVMH owned brands follow the decision at Krug to make this detail available for all the wines in their entire range (except Krug Collection) bottled since July 2011 via a unique ID code on the bottles you can look up on the Krug website.

*We don’t officially see Ruinart straight vintage wines in the UK, because the marketing people at Moët Hennessy have decided to concentrate on promoting Ruinart Blanc de Blancs and rosé NV styles that are positioned at a slight price premium to vintage and being cheaper to produce (they are not aged for nearly the same length of time) are more profitable. But you could in fact find them in the UK at Nicolas shops until very recently (priced at £62.99 vs the Rosé and Blanc de Blancs price of £63.50) as the chain made all its champagne purchases in France.

Disgorgement dates: who else will follow?

Is the move to put a date of disgorgement on all quality champagne gathering momentum? Moët has revealed it is going to put disgorgement dates on the 2004 Grand Vintage in white and rosé styles when they are officially launched later this year. Perhaps this is partly to highlight the longer ageing these wines are now getting, and the importance winemaker Benoît Gouez is placing on additional post-disgorgement ageing before release – the white 2004 will get 12 months, we understand, in addition to nearly seven years on its lees. Richard Geoffroy at Dom Pérignon has also been giving longer post-disgorgement ageing to recent releases of DP.

Moët management has always claimed that it would create problems and confuse consumers if they did this with Moët Brut Imperial NV, following the line taken by many other houses, that consumers might think it was a ‘sell by’ or ‘best before’ date. There is no hard evidence that they have changed their minds, but perhaps they have seen that Lanson now puts a date of disgorgement on all its range of champagnes, vintage and non-vintage, and it doesn’t appear to have caused them any such problems.

It can hardly have escaped their notice either that many other small, quality-minded producers are also giving this information now, along with the majority of higher profile growers. Krug too has just started making this detail available for wines bottled since July 2011 via its website, although Olivier Krug doesn’t see it as important. It can’t be long before Veuve Clicquot and Ruinart follow suit, surely? Clicquot already gives this information for its Cave Privée range of vintage re-releases and head winemaker Dominique Demarville is certainly open to the idea. It will be interesting to see what Frédéric Panaiotis, Chef de Cave at Ruinart, has to say on the subject at the release of Dom Ruinart 2002 later this week.

Ruinart celebrates 50 years of Dom Ruinart, 16 October 2009

Originally published on 23 October, 2009

Ruinart Champagne held a vertical tasting of its prestige cuvée Dom Ruinart Blanc de Blancs at restaurant Apicius in Paris last week to celebrate its 50th anniversary. Starting with the 1959, there have been 21 different vintages of this cuvée released although it proved impossible to source bottles of them all. They only have stocks of 10 vintages going back to 1981 plus the 1969 left in Ruinart’s own historic cellars in Reims — the plan was to taste these 11 plus the seven venerable vintages which Ruinart’s current Chef de Cave Frédéric Panaiotis managed to purchase from specialist retailers and collectors.

Sadly they couldn’t find any 1959, 1966 or 1976, three top class vintages in Champagne, the ’59 and ’76 being two of the warmest summers on record. Panaiotis did however source some 1961, 1964, 1971, 1973, 1975, 1978 and 1979. Unfortunately quite a few of these hadn’t been well cellared and the ‘69 from Ruinart’s own cellar demonstrated the importance of storage conditions and was the star among the older wines.  The 80s produced the highlights of the tasting.

The key thing to know about Dom Ruinart’s Blanc de Blancs style is that the fruit isn’t all sourced from the grands crus of the Côte des Blancs. It is all grands crus but there is an important element in the blend – 50% of the cuvée in the case of the 1990 though this is the highest proportion — from three Montagne de Reims grands crus Sillery, Verzenay and Puisieulx. This tends to give the wines more weight and a certain white Burgundian quality as they age.

Highlights of the tasting

1998: the current release (to be followed by 2002) almost colourless in the glass, it’s lemon-scented with floral notes and a hint of honey. Still very fresh, lively and youthful there is a biscuity note building but it needs more time.

1996: similarly pale to the ’98 this is still notably linear with a lovely purity of fruit and lively acidity but barely developed as yet

1993: more colour and the first in the line-up showing real signs of development and maturity with bready, yeasty notes and an attractive richness. It’s still a surprise as to why Ruinart made this in preference to the superior ‘95 vintage.

1990: for many of the tasters this was the star of the show though I thought it lacked richness in the mid-palate, a surprise given it was picked at 10.8deg. The magnum we had with lunch was superior, still very fresh with a long future ahead of it but showing more ripe buttery notes and a lovely overall balance.

1988: A glorious, light golden colour and the highest proportion of Montagne de Reims Chardonnay (44%) outside the 1990 this has developed into a lovely, lusciously rich, silky textured wine with a developed toastiness, pronounced mocha notes and a long complex finish. Mature white Burgundy with bubbles.

1986: One of the biggest surprises in the line-up, this has gone a rich golden colour and there is a honeyed sweetness on the palate redolent more of a Semillon based pudding wine. Panaiotis says he doesn’t know what to do with the 300 bottles he left in the cellar but liked the suggestion of matching it with foie gras.

1985: Richly coloured like the ’86 this has three-quarters Côte des Blancs fruit in the blend and it’s a class act. Ripe notes of quince, a hint of blackcurrant and while it’s ripe, even opulent there’s a refreshing streak of acidity keeping the whole wine in balance and harmony.

1982: this seems to have more in common with the ’88, its paler in colour, very toasty on the nose and there are secondary notes of coffee, chocolate and ceps. At or near its peak, it would be lovely with roast turbot.

1981: a tiny yield of just 4,360kgs/ha (compare that with over 14,000kgs/ha in 2008 & 2009) this harvest produced some great wines (like ’81 Krug) and this is surprising fresh initially, leading to a concentrated buttery rich mid-palate and a savoury finish. A delight and unlike any of the other wines tasted.

1969: very pale the lightest in colour since the ’81 (a good sign after several sherry-like oxidised wines) this was amazingly fresh still and a good advertisement for Champagne’s longevity. There was a rich toasty element but more noticeable was an attractive biscuity palate texture and a savoury almost saline finish. Classy

1961: Not a great example of this fine year but while slightly oxidised it didn’t completely hide an underlying lively fruity freshness. Would love to try a well cellared example, Moët 1961 is one of the finest champagnes I have ever tasted.