Champagne can be hard to describe, and metaphors can be useful. I heard a novel description of the Ruinart Champagne style at a recent tasting at the Sofitel Sydney’s Champagne Bar.“Out of 5,000 growers in Champagne, there are probably 15 who make wine with a sense of place.” – Robert Walters
Bruce Nancarrow, who represents the prestige Champagnes of the Moët Hennessy group in Australia (including Krug and Dom Pérignon), likened the Ruinart style to sashimi. But there’s nothing fishy about it. Let me explain.
The Ruinart wines are all about fruit and freshness, not aged complexity or yeast autolysis from long-ageing on lees. To some palates they may seem simple, and perhaps not everyone’s idea of great Champagne.
“It’s an old House, established in 1729, but the wine is not about age. It’s a light, fresh style. The blanc de blancs is always a blend of three recent vintages; not a style with a lot of aged reserve wine, it’s all about fruit and freshness.
“It has simple beauty, like a piece of raw fish on a plate, which is what sashimi is. Simple, but possessing purity and finesse.”
He described the blanc de blancs using a beer-drinker’s term: sessionable. Beer tasters use this to describe an easy-drinking beer of which you can down more than one glass. At the risk of seeming to dismiss it with a pejorative, Ruinart is indeed a sessionable Champagne.
Nancarrow shared the stage with Robert Walters of importer Bibendum, who served his Larmandier-Bernier wines. The idea of this tasting was to present wines from contrasting producers: a large House and a small grower. Walters has strong views on this subject, which you can read about in his excellent book Champagne, A Secret History, but he did not turn the tasting into a competition, instead giving an explanation of what small growers are, and why they’re important.
“Out of 5,000 growers in Champagne, there are probably 15 who make wine with a sense of place,” he said. “Their intention is to make Champagne that reflects its terroir.”
The implication is that this is easier to do in small volumes. But he was not putting down the Houses, nor over-glorifying the growers.
“Most of the worst Champagnes are made by small growers, but there is also a subset of small growers who do artisanal wine of high quality.”
Larmandier-Bernier, a producer of mostly blanc de blancs (chardonnay) wines from the Côte des Blancs region, makes single-terroir wines, two non-vintage (Latitude and Longitude) and four single-vintage. Walters served the Latitude, which comes off clay-rich soil, and is a sister wine to Longitude, which is off chalkier soil.
“The chalk gives a racier, more electric style, while the clay gives a richer, more textural wine.”
Both are non-vintage wines, and the Latitude we tasted was based on the 2015 vintage with 40-45% reserve wines. The Larmandier style is also relatively dry, this wine having a dosage of 2-3 grams per litre, whereas most non-vintage Champagne is about 9-10.
I can enjoy both producers’ wines, although I confess to leaning more towards the Larmandier style because I prefer drier and more complex Champagnes.