In the second of three articles focusing on fizzy wine, Peter Ranscombe discovers that beauty is in the eye of the beholder – or, when it comes to Ruinart, in the eye of the partridge.
CHAMPAGNE is full of weird and wonderful stories – from Benedictine monk Dom Pérignon using thicker glass to stop bottles exploding all the way through to Charles Heidsieck, the original “Champagne Charlie”, plying his wares in America during the civil war.
One tale that caught my eye last week was about the evolution of rosé Champagne.
Sitting in Ruinart’s “Hotel 1729” pop-up in London’s posh Primrose Hill district – complete with polystyrene blocks suspended from the ceiling to mimic the chalk in its cave cellars – winemaker Caroline Fiot explained how pink fizz has evolved over the years.
Ruinart traces its roots back to 1729 and has been making rosé since 1762, with exports of sparkling wines to the UK beginning as early as 1763 and pink sparklers following in 1776.
Yet those early bottles pre-date what we’d call “Champagne” today.
The forerunners were known as “oeil de perdrix” or “eye of the partridge” due to their grey-pink colour, which resembled the tint in the eye of a French or red-legged partridge as it dies.
Later, deeper-hued wines were produced by adding colouring from elderberries, a practice that ended in the late 19th century.
Veuve Clicquot produced what’s accepted as the first rosé Champagne in 1818 by blending red wine with white wine, a technique that Ruinart adopted in 1861 and which it continues to use to this day.
Fiot said the label used at least 40% chardonnay grapes in its “cuvees” or blends due to the white grape’s purity, with four of the six cuvees made exclusively using chardonnay.
The pink colour is obtained by blending a small portion of red pinot noir wine into the white chardonnay and pinot noir base wines.
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder
That fruit purity was certainly on show in the non-vintage Champagne Ruinart Rosé (£55, Woodwinters), with aromas of ripe raspberry and tangerine on the nose leading into fresher strawberry and raspberry flavours on the palate.
Maybe it was just because Wimbledon was on the TV, but the rounded feeling in the mouth reminded me of strawberries and cream, or perhaps a strawberry cheesecake.
The base wine is made from 45% chardonnay and 55% pinot noir, with around 17% red pinot noir wine then blended in to give its salmon pink colour.
It was fascinating to compare and contrast the standard non-vintage bottle with its equivalent in a larger-format magnum.
As I found out for BQ magazine when tasting with Nick Baker from delivery service The Finest Bubble, the wine in a magnum evolves at a different pace to that in a standard bottle because the wine-to-air ratio is different – there’s the same amount of air inside the top of a magnum as there is in a standard bottle and so less wine comes into contact with the tiny amount of oxygen and so develops the flavours of age more slowly and maintains more of its freshness.
The Ruinart Rosé Magnum (£98.90, Hedonism Wines) certainly had fresher strawberry and raspberry notes on the nose and the acidity did seem crisper.
Those red fruit flavours were joined by tarter cranberry and redcurrant on the palate and the texture of the wine felt a bit thinner than its stablemate, despite having spent an extra year ageing in the bottle before going on sale.
The two formats also had different base wines – 75% of the wine in the standard bottle came from 2015, with the other quarter formed from liquid held in reserve from 2013 and 2014, while the magnum was based on a 2014 wine, blended with 25-30% of 2012 and 2013.
Top of the pear tree when it comes to partridge-esque pink fizz is the Dom Ruinart Rosé (£215, Harrods), formed from 81% chardonnay and 19% pinot noir made as a red wine to add the pale orange shade.
As well as strawberry on the nose, there were richer red cherry and riper raspberry aromas, along with toast and croissant.
The feeling in the mouth was rounder and much richer, with more of those concentrated red cherry and raspberry flavours and sweeter notes of confectioners’ custard and a drier, more savoury finish.
The 2004 represents the 19th year since 1966 in which the company has made its Dom Ruinart vintage Champagne; with the style and production methods having evolved so much over the past 300 years, it will be fascinating to see how more recent developments such as planting cover crops in the vineyards and the changing climate in the region will affect future vintages.