Friday, March 06, 2009

Champagne Ruinart at Alto

I love Champagne, as anyone who's followed this blog knows by now, especially well-made Champagne. And if there's anything I love as much as Champagne, it's old Champagne. So when the Chef de Caves of Champagne Ruinart, Frederic Panaiotis, asked me to organize another dinner in New York, I jumped at the chance. Our first one, last year, was an amazing success. This time we decided to do something a bit different and try a Piedmontese restaurant, Alto, in Midtown. The food lent itself surprisingly well to Champagne, as we were to discover.

Frederic checks the wine

Even though this is a relatively larger Champagne house, Ruinart still tries to maintain an artisanal view of winemaking. And this comes through in the end product, with wines of elegance and complexity that put to shame some, if not many, of the other houses. And even if they're owned by a large comglomerate, you still get the sense that they have maintained their independence pretty well.

The table is set

Tastings like this also blur the line between business and pleasure. I mean, I represent other, smaller wineries, yet here I am organizing a dinner for a Champagne house that's imported and distributed by a luxury comglomerate. How can I reconcile the inherent contradictions? Easily, and the answer goes to the whole definition of what it means to be a wine-lover. I am sharing a wonderful dinner with some old, some new, friends, people who care less about the marketing and sales aspects of the event as they do about its sheer enjoyment. So despite the fact that technically we're competitors, we sit at the same table and enjoy the fruit of our labors.

NV Ruinart Blanc de Blancs, 1998 BdB, 1996 BdB

As we waited for folks to arrive, we began pouring the NV Ruinart Blanc de Blancs, a lovely 100% Chardonnay (as the name implies - white from white). Right from the get-go, this was lovely and flowery. It was soon followed by its bigger brothers, the 1998 and the 1996. While the 1998 was ready to drink and crisp, the 1996 had a more earthy, truffly note that had me swooning.

Sommelier Eric Zillier opens bottles

The first course, Tonno Bianco, arrived, and more wines began appearing, with the 1993 announcing the next flight, a lovely and crisp wine that had racy acidity to liven its frame. Then came a comparison of the 1990, one from a regular 750 ml bottle, the other from a magnum. Vive la difference! The magnum was fresh and clean, while the bottle had begun to show some softer sides of ageing, with a hint of caramelization and some truffles. Frankly, the magnum tasted as if it had just been put in bottle. Yum! The last wine in this flight was the 1988, another wine of exquisite elegance with both youthful and aged traits dancing around a structure in its middle that will keep it young for some time.

Frederic holds L'Exclusive

One of our guests then generously offered his bottle, a 1969 Blanc de Blancs. What is it about this week? Two 1969 Champagnes in the space of a few days (my post of the 1969 Dom Perignon is here)! While this one was noticeably older and faded when compared to the Dom Perignon, it was a pleasure to taste as it still had life to it. Not much, but there was some.

The sommeliers then began arriving with champagne that had already been poured: a blind tasting of something special. We all bent to the task, sniffing, swirling, tasting, and trying not to make asses of ourselves. There were aged aspects intermingling with youthful notes, racy acidity and a stunning frame that held everything up for your approval. Wow, what the heck was this? Some said a 1985, others a 1990, someone mentioned 1979, a year I had in mind as I trained my senses on the wine. Well, as it turned out, we were all wrong: this was L'Exclusive, a singular blend of 1996, 1993, 1990, 1988 and 1986, some of the best vintages in recent times, and all classified 100% Grand Cru. Amazing, absolutely amazing, with a deep complexity that had me coming back for more and more.

This blend had been made for the Millenium, put into an eighteenth-century glass bottle and encased in a steel cage designed by Christofle. The bottle, as you can see, is both impressive and beautiful. How cool!

These two went perfectly with the Wild Mushroom Risotto.

The Rosés arrive!

With our main course, Roasted Squab, magnums of the Rosés began to be poured, first the 1988, with a tough shell hiding a soft interior that had to be pried open, then the 1986, bridging the gap between the 1988 and the next, the 1985, which revelled in its deliciousness like a preening beauty queen. That 1985 was just gorgeous, really à point, as they say in French, both creamy and steely at the same time.

Rosés by candlelight

A lovely stink arose, and a plate of cheeses was set before us. Another round of magnums showed up, with the 1990 leading the charge, followed closely by the 1996. Both of these were quite nice yet way too young and tight, not willing to show very much without some serious effort on the taster's part. After some vigorous swirling (my forearms will start to look like Popeye's soon!), I coaxed some lovely berry and cream notes from the wines, on stupendously elegant frames. Think of a salmon-colored skyscraper who's steel internal structure has risen and is visible, with the outer layers just starting to appear. You can see what will develop soon, but it's not there yet.

The dinner ends

As we ended the night, one final magnum appeared: the NV Ruinart Rosé. This to me is one of the best Rosés on the market today, with both ripe berry accents and a beautiful acidity that keeps it fresh and lively on the palate. This wine's complexity belies its price, which has always been on the friendly side.

What a way to welcome Frederic, yet again, to New York. I wish he came through here more often! Who ever said there's never too much of a good thing was right, I could drink these wines all day, especially the ones with some age. These are complex wines that should be slowly shared and enjoyed amongst friends and family, wine-geeks or not.

A big MERCI to all those who made this dinner possible!

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