Ruinart: The Pink of God Which Passeth Understanding

Frédéric Panaïotis (see pic), Chef de Cave of Champagne Ruinart, was in London last week showing off Dom Ruinart Rosés. We were in an art gallery, not a church, but it felt the same. Pretty uplifting, and when it was over, I felt better.

But wait a minute, the name Dom Ruinart is normally the prestige vintage Blanc de Blancs, no? The pinnacle of what this decidedly Chardonnay specialist house does, no? And it vies with Salon, Clos du Mesnil and Comtes de Champagne as a top reference for prestige Blanc de Blancs. Not long ago, brows would have knit to think this house would make a big push and risk muddying waters by promoting the pink version of its Dom Ruinart. The white Dom was first launched as a 1959 vintage and in fact, Dom Rosé came hard on its heels as a 1966. It may have played second fiddle to the lead white then, but rosé champagne has come a long way since.

So far in fact that rosé is now 10% of all champagne. It’s on a roll, but it was not always so. For the 17th and 18th centuries, Champagne’s mostly still wines and even much of the early fizzy champagne, meant to be ‘white’, tended to pick up some colour at the press, which tinted the final wines. Not surprising given the simple presses of those days and the fact most champagne was pressing red grapes to make white wine. These pale red wines were called ‘vins gris’ and they were what the locals drank.  Other wines meant to be definitely red but not red enough to compete with darker burgundy, were often adulterated with cochineal or elderberry juice boiled with stabilising potassium bitartrate (Cream of Tartar) to give it viscosity. This red elderberry dye was called Teinture de Fismes after the village which specialised in it, and many early rosé champagnes used this in the dosage to add the all important colour, a practice banned in 1907.

But the fact is, when the bubbly market took off in Europe by the mid-19th century, the main effort was to make it as star-bright white as possible. Pink tinges were something many looked down on. Cyrus Redding’s important History and Description of Modern Wines (1833) declared:No one who knows what the wines are at all, would drink rose-coloured champagne, if he could obtain the other kind.” Rosé wines were made and were intermittently in demand, but more a passing curiosity rather than classic. André Simon. in The History of Champagne (1962) shows how they were priced just below their white counterparts.  Fast forward to 2015 and it’s all change.  We pay a serious premium for rosé over white cuvées.

Along with Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin, Ruinart has always had a penchant for rosé. Both houses devote major investment and resources to their rosé wines, Clicquot making no less than four rosé cuvées, three of them vintage-dated. But Ruinart have just stolen a friendly march on VCP – they are both houses in the LVMH stable – by discovering a record of a shipment of Ruinart rosé dated 1764. This eclipses VCP’s hitherto first mention in 1777.

The wines Panaïotis, brought to London were thrilling. I’ve followed most of them over several years and it was fascinating to see their development. The message is clear: these wines are not passing pretty ephemera, an image rosé champagne has suffered from, but can age and be complex like all fine wine. And they have great finesse, clearly linked to the fact they are all high in the Chardonnay component before being blended with red wine.   The Rosé Brut NV (£55-60, various outlets), has always had a glorious hit of fresh crushed berries with, on this occasion, a cherry high note. Perhaps it’s a little lighter-coloured than in the noughties but no less impressive as the entry-level pink of the house. It was 2011 base, 24-28 months on lees and dosed 8/9g/L. 45CH 35PN, premiers crus, and 20% added red PN  An easy-drinking intro to the range.

The Dom Ruinart Rosé 2002 (£215 Berry Bros & Rudd), has vast silky finesse like all the Dom Ruinart Rosés which followed, because they are all the Dom Ruinart Chardonnay blend with red wine from Sillery and Verzenay added. If you like, you are drinking Blanc de Blancs rosé. And the Chardonnay is all from grands crus. This was hardly changed from six months ago, light copper and burnished, smoke and smoulder, mocha and chocolate with a peppery race on the nose. 80CH, 20 added red wine. This was disgorged 09/12 and dosed at 5.5g/L. Showing some development but years ahead of it. Still in school.

Next was Dom Ruinart Rosé 1998 This was 85CH, 15 red wine, disgorged 11/11 and dosed 5g/L. It was less smoky and peppery than the 2002, slightly smaller scale, calmer and less forcing than the 2002 too, but with some very subtle umami and chilli spice notes. A fascinating wine, still good for 10-15 years. (£755/6, Fine and Rare)

Dom Ruinart Rosé 1996 came from that high acid, high sugar ripe vintage called legendary but sometimes prone to oxidation now.  Not this one. It showed the usual suspects of high tension balance between big fruit and steely acidity, but a lovely citrus lemon and orange oil aspect too. 83CH 17 red wine, disgorged 04/08, dosage 10g/L (£230 Berry Bos & Rudd)

The Dom Ruinart Rosé 1990. I had tasted this before in 2003, 2004 and 2005 and recently in October 2014 in magnum.  This single bottle had not developed hugely since those early years but was of course, much faster developed than the magnum.  There is some orange. coppery depth, toffee and nuts oxidation and a fascinating stony minerality now but all with a fungal botrytic note in this bottle that reminded me of great Tokaji and is absolutely wonderful! It was dosed at 10.5g/L. Very long and complex. If you are a fan of old champagne, here’s a very good vintage just entering the mid-slopes of its climb to real old greatness.  (only on the secondary market now).

And so to Dom Ruinart Rosé 1988, a vintage I often love.  80CH 20 red wine. Disgorged 03/01. Dosed 8g/L.  My favourite from the line up and I think we were a little lucky with the bottle which although older, was less developed and showed a fresher minerality than the 1990. Showed a very concentrated mid-palate but humming with vibrant current, citrus but peachy too. A paeon to what great champagne can do over 25 years old.

And so to the Peace from one of Champagne’s altars, and we went out to a sunnier London.

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