WITH HIS PROFESSORIAL visage and softspoken nature, a humbler custodian of a historic tradition I have never encountered. Frédéric Panaïotis is chef de cave, master of the cellars, at the Champagne maison Ruinart, the oldest sparkling wine house in France, best known for its remarkable Blanc de Blancs made entirely from Chardonnay.
Six years ago, the French-born Panaïotis – his family heritage is Greek – made a critical decision when he left a more famous Rheims neighbour, Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin, for the comparatively boutique-style operation also owned by LVMH, and he hasn't looked back. Ruinart, founded almost 300 years ago in 1729, currently produces six wines: the vintage Dom Ruinart Blanc de Blancs, the vintage Dom Ruinart Rosé, three nonvintage Ruinart cuvées (in blanc de blancs and rosé versions), and the entry-level vintage R de Ruinart (sold only in France). All are selectively distributed due to the small production, and the results are a trade secret; Panaïotis requests that I not disclose any allocation or sales numbers.
His Blanc de Blancs, in general, offers lovely aromas of “jasmine, lemon, citron, pineapple, peach, pink peppercorn, ginger and cardamom”, as the company's tasting notes assure. Of particular interest to me are his premium Dom Ruinart vintages, made only in years of acceptable harvest, and I particularly favour the Blanc de Blancs 1988 and 2002 when I meet him to sample some back vintages over lunch at Cépage in Hong Kong. However, he's surprisingly prouder of his nuttier, non-vintage versions. Bubble, bubble, toil and trouble? I hear the corks pop as he holds court, and duly listen.
You had your wine epiphany when you were 18, when someone gave you a glass of Richebourg. True?
Yes. My uncle brought this bottle, a 1976 Richebourg, for Christmas lunch 1984, and I can remember it all. I even remember the glassware and I remember my uncle saying, “Kid, try this.” And for the first time I had a wine that was like, “Wow!” It was a revelation. I was then studying agronomy and, a few weeks later, I had the opportunity to study viticulture and winemaking for three weeks. Then I did a trip to Champagne and Burgundy, and I fell in love. I said, “This is what I want to do.”
But that was Richebourg, a grand cru from Burgundy, so shouldn't you have ended up there?
Yes, it could have been Burgundy if it hadn't been Champagne. I would have been happy there, too. I like the process of champagne-making because of the bottling, the ageing, the blending, and the secondary fermentation – you have this extra step, which makes it more interesting to me because it's more complicated. I find making champagne a beautiful, endless process. You're learning all the time.
You are most famous for your Blanc de Blancs. How do you explain its success?
Blanc de Blancs is definitely our house style. We're Chardonnay-driven. The non-vintage Blanc de Blancs blend in the clear bottle was launched in 2001, so it's a fairly recent addition, but it has become very successful. There's no year on the label and our job is to make sure it's always the same from one year to another. In order to achieve this, we blend different years together, using reserve wines. Our current release is mostly from the 2008 harvest but there is also some 2007 and some 2006, and this way we can moderate the influence of the most important harvests and make it quite consistent from year to year. You are creative but in a different way, because the challenge is to get the consistency.
How does that compare with making vintage champagnes?
Making vintage wine is relatively easy. You take the best grapes, the best years, put them together and the result is going to be excellent. It doesn't have to be the same every vintage, because you want to express that vintage. For the non-vintage, you need to find the right grapes from different areas and that is my biggest responsibility. In a poor year or a difficult year, you still have to make it as good as you made it the year before. And even in a very good year, you cannot make it too good because the following year, you never know what you're going to have!
What is your own view of the great champagne flute debate? Do you, like some other cellar masters I've met, believe that they are wrong?
Yes, champagne flutes are too narrow and not very nice for the wine. You'll miss out on a lot of things. If it's for a cocktail party and people don't really care, or if you're drinking non-vintage champagne; then I would say flutes are okay. But when you're drinking vintage champagnes, I would say definitely no – especially for the older vintages where the wine needs space, needs air and needs to breathe. The narrow flute is not good if you want to really enjoy it.
I'm intrigued that you came to Ruinart from Veuve Clicquot. What was that transition like for you?
I was with Veuve Clicquot for twelve-and-ahalf years. The style there is very different, more about the richness and structure of Pinot Noir. I've been at Ruinart for five-and-a-half years – my first vintage was the 2007 – and it's more about the aromatic freshness of fruit-driven Chardonnay. There is the same search for perfection, but Ruinart is smaller so it's easier to make decisions. At Veuve Clicquot, which is a bigger organisation, things can sometimes get more political, whereas at Ruinart I can make a decision and just go for it.
As the Ruinart cellar master, you are now carrying 300 years of tradition. How do you deal with such a huge responsibility?
By not thinking of it every day. You can think of it as positive pressure but it shouldn't be a burden. It should give you energy, a direction, a love for the work. It's also about making sure that the style and the quality of the wines are at a certain level, because my name won't be remembered in the future. What people will remember is Ruinart, so this job is bigger than me. I'm only passing by.
What is the most important thing to you about what you do?
Making people happy. I always say that's my real job, because making champagne means making a wine to offer for celebration, for good moments in life, to share with friends – a pure product of happiness. I see my job as a privilege. There are not many jobs in the world where you can make people happy.