Benedictine Monk Dom Thierry Ruinart (1657-1709) was a friend and confidant of the more famous champagne-making monk Dom Pérignon. The Dom’s nephew Thierry Ruinart (1697-1769), a linen trader, presented his shmata customers with sparkling wine as a kind of loyalty bonus. He soon realized that the wine was more popular than the cloth. On September 1, 1729, Thierry founded what was to become Champagne’s oldest (and one of the region’s most respected) house, Maison Ruinart.
Ruinart’s history would take several columns to tell, but tout court it’s the usual litany of wars and plagues intermingled with glorious moments. At the magnificent winery visitors can tour the vast underground Crayères, deep caverns cut into the chalk soils. They consist of eight kilometres of cellars on three levels. They were dug in the 15th century and purchased by Claude Ruinart at the end of the 18th century. They’ve done service as quarries for building materials, aging cellars for champagne, and as a refuge from invading German forces during WW I.
History notwithstanding, Ruinart snugs perfectly into the 21st century wine world. Many leading champagne houses like Bollinger favour a gently oxidative pinot-dominated style. Ruinart chose a different direction, pioneering the “blanc de blancs” style. Unlike some “grower” champagne houses, they look for a degree of consistency in its bottlings. The approach seems to be working: Ruinart produces over 2.5 million bottles a year.
Ruinart’s Chef de Caves Frédéric Panaïotis explains the current house style with enthusiasm. “The strength of the house is chardonnay. What are we looking for? Aromatic freshness, keeping the primary elements of the varietal.” How do you do that? “Freshness demands a reductive (winemaking) style. All our wines are fermented in stainless steel and we pay attention to possible oxidative elements.” Part of the pursuit of freshness and varietal character is a reduction in the dosage (the addition of sugared wine prior to final corking). “Our dosage was 12.9 g/l twenty years ago. Now it’s about 8 g/l.”
Maison Ruinart buys in about 90% of its grapes. Blending across village lines gives the house’s winemakers a broad palate of flavours and textures with which to create the final product. Wines made from Côtes des Blancs fruit are gentler. Those from the Montagne de Reims are more square-shouldered.
Last October a group of Circle of Wine Writers members were treated to a sumptuous dinner and tasting at Maison Ruinart’s chateau-like headquarters in Reims. Frédéric Panaïotis was on hand to comment on the stunning array of Ruinart champagnes generously opened for us. There were two NV blancs de blancs, four well-aged vintage bottlings, a blended brut and two rosés. It was a vinous museum tour. The wines were outstanding to exceptional. The courses, which danced divinely with the champagnes, included raw tuna on toasts with crème fraiche and herbs (with the ’93 B. de B. from the magnum), mi-cuit foie gras with pear and chutney (with Ruinart ‘R’ from the jeroboam), roast bass with white beet, candied citrus fruits and a fresh cheese emulsion (with the ’04 B. de B. from the magnum), smoked guinea fowl supreme with braised marrow, creamy hazelnut and a sangria reduction (with Dom Ruinart Rosé 1990), and matcha tea shortbread with red fruits (with the N.V. Rosé). I know what you’re thinking: It’s tough work, but somebody has to do it. Prices where listed are English and approximate. Generally, N.V. bottlings are priced with other known champagne brands. Vintage products are costlier, the price increasing with age.
Maison Ruinart Blanc de Blancs NV (~$80+, score 90) is the first of two NVs. This one is primarily crafted from the 2013 vintage with a generous addition of wines from 2012 and 2011. The citrus and gentle autolytic aromas lead into a crisp palate balancing intensity and delicacy. There’s a hint of toast there, all through a long fruited finish.
Maison Ruinart Blanc de Blancs NV (score 90+) is last year’s model. It’s mainly 2012 backed up with 2011 and 2010. It features earthy autolytic, citrus ad white peach aromas. It’s crisp and delicate but rich, with a long citrus fruited finish.
Maison Ruinart Blanc de Blancs Vintage 2004 (~$160+, score 91), like all the house’s vintage B de B sparklers, is made exclusively of grand cru fruit from a range of vineyards. This one has an autolytic white peach nose with a flinty note. It’s fresh, rich and complex with sweet autolytic and citric flavours with mineral notes.
Maison Ruinart Blanc de Blancs Vintage 2002 (score 91) featured a harmonized autolytic nose. In the mouth it’s crisp, plump and rich with autolytic, ripe lemon pulp and brioche flavours.
Maison Ruinart Blanc de Blancs Vintage 1998 (score 91+) had a very Burgundian funky autolytic nose with a coffee note. Fresh and creamy, it offered sweet autolytic, honey and ripe lemon flavours with fine persistence.
Maison Ruinart Blanc de Blancs Vintage 1996 (score 92) is more closed, more mineral and toastier than the 1998. It’s sweetly autolytic with white peach fruit and toasty flavours through a long finish.
Maison Ruinart Blanc de Blancs Vintage 1993 (score 91+) was an old-gold darling with almondy autolysis and very ripe lemon characters, fresh and sweetly autolytic on the palate.
Maison Ruinart Blanc de Blancs Vintage 1992 (score 88). This wine was regrettably slightly oxidized.
‘R’ de Ruinart NV Brut (~$75+, score 90) departs from the house’s chardocentrism in thus blend of 45% pinot noir, 40% chardonnay and 15% pinot meunier. The nose is gentle and complex, with a hint of sour red fruit. It’s crisp and rich and full, but not heavy with lingering notes of toast and autolysis.
Maison Ruinart Rosé NV (~$80+, score 89+) is a deep rose petal colored champagne redolent of autolysis and red berry fruits. It’s simple, but delicious.
Maison Ruinart Rosé 1990 (score 89) has matured to a salmon pink sparkler with autolytic and red berry fruit aromas. It’s fresh, rich, ripe and well-fruited throughout.
[Thanks to the Comité Champagne for organizing the CWW tour of Champagne and to our fearless leader and den mother Caroline Henry.]
Top: Stairway in one of Ruinart’s vast underground crayères.
Bottom: Serious but passionate Ruinart Chef de Caves Frédéric Panaïotis discusses the house style at a dinner with WWC journalists.