Ruinart: A Sparkling Affair
Min-Li Tan stars in her own adventure novella about a chance encounter with a mysterious stranger in the French countryside that leads her to Reims and the heart of Champagne
Seven metres above the ground, amid the canopy of oak trees, she sips on her sparkling wine as she contemplates the view before her. Beyond the treetops of the Montagne de Reims Regional Natural Park, she could just make out the storied vineyards of Champagne in the horizon. Reluctantly, she pulls herself away from the wooden balustrade and the view, and retreats into the cool sanctum of the Perching Bar (perchingbar.eu).
A sleek, pale-wood treehouse built around an old oak tree, this champagne bar is only accessible by suspension bridge. Inside, asymmetrical, angular lounge seating is formed by wooden planes, in perfectly parallel lines that traverse seamlessly around the room. Minimalistic but trippy, especially if all one drinks here all evening long is bubbly.
As she settles into a swing seat in the sun-dappled room, she senses someone brush past her and her eyes follow the back of the tall stranger making his way to the bar. Standing there, with a proprietary air about him, he turns his head and their eyes meet. Her mind races back to the day before when, as she lingered on the manicured grounds of Maison Ruinart, a mysterious stranger had stridden past her just as he did today, before disappearing into one of the elegant estate buildings. “It’s you,” she whispers under her breath, as he approaches her, a glass of – what else – champagne in hand.
Ruinart: A Sparkling Affair
A pilgrimage to Maison Ruinart is likely high on the bucket list of every champagne connoisseur. As the world’s oldest commercial champagne house, its venerable grounds were where the very history of France’s renowned sparkling wines began. Ruinart’s beautifully-maintained chateaux are framed by pristine, verdant gardens, but its most famous – and beautiful – feature is what lies beneath. Underground lies hand-hewn chalk caves or crayères and an 8km maze of tunnels that date back some 2000 years to the Middle Ages, when chalk was carved from underground quarries for building construction. Nicolas Ruinart, who founded the winery in 1729, was the first to use these abandoned chalk caves as cellars to store and age his champagne in. Even Ruinart’s address – 4 Rue des Crayères – attests to how synonymous are these underground caves are with the champagne house. The Champagne region’s crayères were ascribed Unesco World Heritage Site status in 2015.
The Art of Tasting
It’s a rare day that visitors to Ruinart get a personal tour of the crayères and tasting session with Frédéric Panaiotis, the maison’s Chef de Caves, the way champagne lovers Min-Li Tan and Alicia Loke did. If you’d like to follow in the footsteps of Nicolas Ruinart and the champagnemakers after him, through the historical chalk cave cellars that go 40m below ground at Maison Ruinart, book a tour and tasting (a choice of two cuvées) at least three weeks ahead at ruinart.com. Visits are available on Tuesday to Saturday, from mid-March to early November.
She stumbles through the tall doors of the chateau, disorientated for a second as her eyes adjust to the cool darkness after the searing afternoon sun. A second visit to Maison Ruinart, on the invitation of a cognoscente she had connected with over sparkling wine and conversation… She takes in the elegant interiors, punctuated with avant-garde art, as she follows his lead.
Frédéric Panaiotis has been the Cellarmaster of Ruinart since 2007, and is responsible for the creation of the house’s cuvées and vintages, which are made only from chardonnay grapes mostly from the Côte des Blancs and Montagne de Reims terroirs. In the underground chalk cave cellars, millions of bottles of wine are arranged with military precision in stacks several feet deep and high. “Anywhere there’s space,” quips Panaiotis. One can understand why, as the house produces over two million bottles of champagne a year.
He leads her down a steep flight of stone stairs, which lead to the cavernous chalk cellars of the Maison Ruinart, the deepest of which is about 40m beneath ground level. As they wander through miles of roughhewn tunnels, he enthrals her with stories of the house and the crayères, and she falls deeper in love with Ruinart. They pass stacks of countless bottles, identified by plaques with codes only he can decipher a dossier of information from in his head. He picks up a dusty bottle and holds it to the light and they stare at the micro universe that swirls within, as specks of sediment light up like stars in the night sky.
The caves have a conical shape, tapered towards the top, because of the way water-sensitive chalk had to be harvested; even today, the walls feel cool and damp to the touch. Sodium lights – they do not cause undesirable chemical reactions in the wine, the way white light does – cast an eerie, dim yellow glow on the chalk walls and ceilings that are rough with chisel marks. Because of their depth, the crayères offer the right conditions for the job, being naturally cool, dark, and humidity controlled, and free of vibration. Here, non-vintage wines are aged for three to four years, while Dom Ruinart vintages stay on the lees for nine to 10 years. Along the way are frames that hold bottles tipped downwards, demonstrating the manual riddling process to where yeast sediment is allowed to settle in the bottle neck for removal later.
They venture deeper into the maze, into the very heart of the crayères where he has promised to unveil the secret of Ruinart. He unlocks a private chamber, lit only by candlelight. Unlabelled bottles of champagne take pride of place on stone shelves, history in the making. Unable to bottle her curiosity any further, she asks, “I know you’ve shown me what goes into my favourite champagne, I know how it is made but what is the secret ingredient? What is it that makes me float on a cloud of happiness, that makes me dream of distant isles and palm trees?” He takes a moment before turning to her, fixing her with that steely gaze she has grown accustomed to. “The secret, ma jolie, is love. I am a winemaker and the passion I have for the wine and the love that I put into creating the champagne will never cease – that is what makes the difference and that is what you experience when you partake of Ruinart.”
The events portrayed in this story are purely fictional. All characters, names and places are real, and resemblance is intentional. Copious champagne was consumed in the making of this feature story.
Photography Rosalynn Tay Additional Reporting Grace Tay