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The Freewheel line with a couple of English friends.

It takes a lot of beer to keep the wine business running smoothly. Here in Redwood City, we are very fortunate to have a great English style ale producer right in our backyard: Freewheel Brewing Company. The staff of K&L are fictures at our local pub, and it is a rare moment when one of us isn't there having a pint and a bite of their excellent food. We are also lucky enough to be the first place to offer their bottled beer for sale. If you have never had it, the Freewheel Brewing "FSB" Freewheel Special Bitter, California (500ml) is the benchmark in fresh, balanced, smashable ale. We will do our best to keep some in stock for you, the customer too!

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Champagne Friday - Ruinart!

Today we will taste Ruinart Brut Blanc de Blancs & Ruinart Brut Rosé Champagne in Redwood City at 5pm. I hope that you can join me. I thought that this would be a great occasion to talk about one of Champagne’s oldest houses, so those of you who are too far away to come to the tasting might be inspired to taste on your own. We’ll be conducting the tasting here in Redwood City

Last time we tasted Ruinart, the house was kind enough to supply some tasty macaroons!

Ruinart was founded in 1729, on the heels of a 1728 decision by the king of France that allowed wine to be traded in bottles and thus opened sparkling Champagne up to the world of trade. The wines are made from Premier and Grand Cru fruit, except for the Dom. Ruinart, which is exclusively Grand Cru. Across the line these Champagnes are dosed very low- 9 grams or less per liter, and show an element of elegance and ease that is the mark of “the good stuff.” All of the wines go through complete malolactic fermentation and are vinified in stainless steel. Ruinart is one of the few Champagne houses that have their cellars in the original crayeres that were dug by the Romans in antiquity. These 90 foot deep caves stay at 50 degrees year round, and an are arguably the best place on the planet to age wine.

The Ruinart Blanc de Blancs Champagne ($59.99) is all Chardonnay, but utilizes crus such as Trepail and Villers Marmery on the Mountain of Reims to round out the mineraly focus of the Cotes de Blancs fruit. This is a creamy, subtly toasty bottle of Champagne with a little bit of lychee exoticism. It has class to spare and is exceptionally easy to drink.

The Ruinart Brut Rosé Champagne ($64.99) is a blend of 55% Pinot Noir and 45% Chardonnay, with 18% of the Pinot vinified red and blended in for color and flavor. It has a dark color- almost like blood orange juice and a soft, full bodied texture. It is rich and satisfying, despite the deceptively high proportion of Chardonnay. Many rose Champagnes have become so expensive and out of reach, but this is a luxury worth making a sacrifice for.

Although we won’t taste them today, the top of the Ruinart lineup is very worth noting. The 2002 Dom Ruinart Blanc de Blancs Champagne Prestige Cuvee ($149) is one of the top wines of that great vintage and very reminiscent of high class Corton Charlemagne. Composed entirely of grand cru Chardonnay, 65% from the Cotes de Blancs and 35% from the mountain of Reims it has a very mineral, driven focused green apple and fresh bread nose. Extraordinarily serious, compact, concentrated flavors with a nice nutty note in the background, it long to a fault.

At the very top of their lineup, the 1996 Ruinart "Dom Ruinart" Brut Rosé Champagne ($299) is a savory superstar that is just now barely starting to drink at 16 years old. This is the type of bottle to share with only one other person, and perhaps a fillet of wild salmon. Look for Vosne-Romanee like umami, haunting red cherry fruit and a near-endless finish.

Recently, I had a chance to interview the cellarmaster of Ruinart for the K&L newsletter. Frederic is a real wine lover, and actually bought quite a number of bottles of California wine before leaving the store! If you are interested in reading it, I have reprinted it here:

Name: Frédéric Panaïotis

Winery: Ruinart

Number of years in business (both you and Ruinart): Ruinart since 1729, so 283 years. Myself, since 1988, so that’s 24 years. And almost 5 years “together”, as I joined Ruinart in May 2007.

How would you describe the Ruinart winemaking philosophy?

I would say that everything is made to preserve the essence and the purity of the fruit, which is mostly Chardonnay. Winemaking is clearly more reductive than oxidative, in order to retain as much fruit flavours as possible. As a result our champagnes tend to be racy, elegant and with a lot of aromatic freshness.

What wines or winemakers helped influence this philosophy?

I think the current style of Ruinart has been very much influenced by Jean-François Barot, who was cellarmaster at Ruinart between 1985. He really pushed to use more Chardonnay in or blends, went for a style with more finesse, culminating with the launch of the Ruinart Blanc de Blancs in may 2001. But let’s not forget that historically, because Ruinart is located in Reims, we have always relied on Montagne de Reims grapes, particularly from its Northern side. The Sillery grand cru particularly, as well as neighbouring villages Verzy, Verzenay, Mailly and Puisieulx, was the base of our very best cuvees. And today they are extremely important for our Dom Ruinart (and Dom Ruinart Rosé), adding a fantastic yet restrained power to the refined chardonnays from the Cote des Blancs.

How involved in grape-growing are you? Is there a particular village or vineyard site that wows you year after year?

I try to spend some time in the vineyards as often as possible during the growing season, but will of course look more closely when harvest is nearing. I have a young winemaker in my team, Amélie, who is currently working on new tools to better estimate the grapes’ potential and not rely only on Brix or acidity.

As far as vineyards are concerned, Sillery is definitely the Grand Cru that we cherish most at Ruinart. An interesting anecdote about this cru: even before the word “Champagne” appeared on our labels, Ruinart was selling a “Sillery Mousseux” (or sparkling Sillery)!

How do you think your palate has evolved over the years? How do you think that’s influenced your wines?

I am not sure my palate has evolved much, because the style of Ruinart wines should definitely not change much. But I guess that with more understanding in winemaking and with global warming we have slightly reduced the dosage levels over the year (typically now around 9 g/l for NVs, and anywhere between 5/7 g/l for the Dom Ruinart), crafting wines with more purity and a more precise finish. And that fits me well; I like all my wines with good freshness and racy minerality.

What kinds of food do you like to pair your Champagnes with?

Since Ruinart champagnes are mostly based on chardonnay, I like to pair them with rather delicate food, where freshness and purity will be found. So seafood comes to mind first. One my favourite match with our Ruinart Blanc de Blancs is the simple tartar of white fish (sea bass for example), marinated with a bit of citrus scented virgin olive oil, and topped with freshly grated ginger. A few crystals of rock salt and some Tilda pepper to finish this entrée and you have a heavenly combination! Personally, I also love Japanese cuisine (and not only sushi or sashimi), as I find its precision and subtle balance of flavours, combined with the use of fresh ingredients, a great source of tasty yet refined pairings.

Are their changes are planned for coming vintages? Any new cuvees on the horizon?

Well we are just releasing our new vintages for Dom Ruinart (from 1998 to 2002) and Dom Ruinart Rosé (1996 to 1998) so there won’t be any change for the coming year and next. The Dom Ruinart 2002 has been very well received, which is no surprise considering how great that vintage was.

And there are no new cuvees in the horizon, I am just starting to think about a special cuvee to celebrate Ruinart 300th anniversary…. in 2029!

Houses like Krug and Jacquesson now have lot numbers for their non vintages, and Louis Roederer is doing large scale experiments with organic grape growing. What do you think of these trends in Champagne?

You mean disgorgement dates for their wines?  Well this is something we are now doing on our vintage champagnes, as we think it is very valuable information for wines that can benefit from further ageing after disgorgement. I do not feel the same for our non vintage champagnes, which are better consumed shortly after release given their characteristics, and that we made in a very consistent style, year in, year out. However, if someone want or needs to know (to manage a stock for example), there is a code on the back label of each bottle and by simply contacting us via internet, we will gladly provide any technical data on the bottle.

For organic experimentation see my answer on the challenges to come.

What do you drink when you are not drinking your own wine?

I drink a lot of other champagnes, both for enjoyment and professionally as I am always curious to see what other producers make. And at home we drink wine pretty much every night, from various varieties, regions and countries. I like to experiment and learn, and tasting is an endless source of learning!

Do you collect wine personally? If so, what’s in your cellar?

I don’t really “collect”, because everything I have in my cellar is meant to be drunk one day. But I have nearly 2000 bottles from all over the world, though my favourite regions – beside Champagne- would be Burgundy (red & white), Northern Rhone (red & white) and Piemonte for the fantastic red wines. There are also a number of bottles of Pinot Noir from California and New Zealand, but they are difficult to purchase in France. And I shouldn’t forget Sauternes and Tokaj, which I am a fan of.

What do you see as some of the biggest challenges facing Champagne today?

Definitely the environmental issues. Which means first going for a very respectful viticulture while guaranteeing decent yields and healthy grapes, something the CIVC (the interprofessional body of Champagne) is pushing very hard for the whole region (and not just a few estates to show off). In my opinion it will probably be something mixing smartly the best of sustainable and biological viticulture. It also means reducing as much as possible our impact on the environment, mostly by reducing our CO2 emissions. Champagne has a very ambitious programme, aiming at reducing its CO2 emissions by 25% between 2003 and 2020, and dividing them by 4 in 2050. That is a formidable challenge, and one we cannot evade.

I hope to see you at the tasting- if not, I hope you put one of your own on tonight!

–Gary Westby, K&L

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