Frédéric Panaïotis has been Maison Ruinart’s Chef de Cave (cellarmaster) since 2007. Ruinart is the world’s oldest established champagne house, founded in 1729, and is based just outside of Reims, France. The house is famous for its 18th-century crayères, or chalk cave cellars, where it still stores champagnes 38 metres below the earth. The Ruinart Blanc de Blancs bottle has retained a distinctive shape that is based on a 18th-century design. Tank talked to Panaïotis about the importance of bubbles in champagne, Japanese kaiseki and how the historic house adapts to the present day.
Tank So I was wondering how you first became a chef de cave.
Frédéric Panaïtois Well, I first developed an interest in wine thanks to my uncle – he brought an amazing bottle of Richebourg from the Gros from a 1976 vintage to Christmas lunch, back in 1985. This bottle opened my eyes to the idea that wine was not just a drink. At the time, I was studying agronomy and I was offered a free course on winemaking and viticulture. So I would say it was all down to good timing! I fell in love with winemaking, not necessarily with the products, but more importantly with the people – everyone that I met was so passionate, so enthusiastic.
Then I worked my way up to become a chef de cave. To be a chef de cave is to be in charge of the champagne house. It is the champagne equivalent of the maître de chai (cellarmaster). To become successful, you slowly work your way up, learning different things, and you need a good mentor. I had a great mentor at Veuve Clicquot, where I used to work before Ruinart.
Tank What does the role consist of?
FP I think an easy way of seeing it is to say that you are, as chef de cave, the guardian of the temple. Of course a lot of what we do is teamwork, but I am ultimately responsible for the taste and the quality of the wine or the champagne that we are making. This means coming into contact with the vineyards and following the transformation of the grapes. The crucial period is when we taste all the wines in the late harvest in order to create or recreate the house style of champagne so that year after year we are consistent.
My job also involves more and more travel and talking to customers. I am like an ambassador, and people are increasingly eager to know and learn about the product. So the role is pretty wide: from the soil to the grapes and the vineyard, up to the final consumer.
Tank So what is it that sets Ruinart apart from other champagnes?
FP I think part of what makes Ruinart special is that it is the first established champagne house. We are the oldest in the world and we have an amazing heritage. This is reflected in the bottle shape, which is very unique and dates back to the late 1700s. We also have the crayères, our beautiful cellars which helped the Champagne region to be granted UNESCO World Heritage status in 2015. So there is always a really strong sense of the history of the house. Ruinart also uses the Chardonnay grape, which we have become known for. It makes for a specific, refined, fresh, elegant champagne that is very easy to fall in love with.
Tank The bottle is really very beautiful. How do you feel about pairing champagne with food?
FP Even though my surname is Greek, I was born and raised in the region and my uncle and my family had vineyards, so I was immersed in champagne early on. For us, drinking champagne throughout a meal is something very natural and something we want to promote out of our region. At Ruinart we make a champagne with the Chardonnay grape, like I say, so that evokes freshness, purity and elegance. So to eat food of a similar profile with this sort of champagne is definitely possible and I believe more and more food is going this way. There are more well sourced ingredients and there is less of the French cuisine that was big in the 1980s, which used a lot of salt and was considered “innovative”. It’s no wonder Japanese and Italian food are so timeless and popular – these nations stay very true to their ingredients. It is with this kind of food that our style of champagne, which is all about the freshness and the precision, works best.
Tank What are your favourite foods?
FP I have a big crush on Japan. I’ve been there many times. My ideal meal would be a fantastic kaiseki. Kaiseki is like the chef’s choice, it is what the chef decides to do that day or that month depending on their skills and what is in season. It consists of many different mini-dishes so it’s always surprising, but it’s clean, fresh, complex and beautiful in appearance. My ideal meal is kaiseki in Kyoto, not Tokyo. Kyoto has more tradition.
Tank With such a rich heritage at Ruinart, would you describe yourself as a traditionalist?
FP Well, the world is changing, and if you want to stay with the world, you’ve got to change. You might think that being the oldest champagne house, our traditions are a hindrance, but this is not the case at all. We work with lots of contemporary artists. One of our recent collaborations was with Piet Hein Eek, the Dutch artist. He is amazingly modern and he reworked the Maison Ruinart crates into an enormous arch that is both sculptural and architectural. We have also introduced a lot of modern techniques to help improve the product. In order to survive, in order to be attractive to people, you have to be modern.
Tank So what modern technologies have changed champagne production?
FP A few years ago we introduced a method called jetting. It’s a technology that allows you to put a little drop of water into a bottle of champagne before you put the cork in it. This protects the freshness of the champagne for much longer. It’s nothing revolutionary because it has been used in other industries for a long time, but in champagne not many people do it.
Tank What do you think of other sparkling wines around the world?
FP Well, firstly, we really need to really protect the name, so we say champagne is only from Champagne. There are a lot of excellent sparkling wines made in the world, however, and I was lucky enough to be part of a few projects. I’ve worked in California, in Northern California, which is has wonderful sparkling wine, I have spent a harvest in New Zealand, and I’m very good friends with winemaker Charlie Holland, at Gusbourne Estates in England. I think there can be some excellent sparkling wines made in most regions of the world as long as they have the right climate, but they have a different quality from champagne. It’s a mistake for people to try to make sparkling wines that mimic champagne, so the good regions have found their own way, have found the grape that is best suited to what they make and to what they want to do.
Tank What do you look for when you taste champagne?
FP There are two elements to what I look for. Firstly, champagne is viewed as wine for celebration, or for sharing, which in a way is celebration by itself. In this sense I like my champagne to be nicely approachable, which means fresh, clean, crisp. In a way it refreshes your memory, refreshes your senses and makes you feel at ease. For that, the Ruinart Blanc de Blancs is the perfect companion because it has a very citrusy, creamy texture. But on a second point, as a winemaker and a wine geek, I also like champagne that has more complexity and more depth and which may be much better with food. In that field we do have a champagne at Ruinart like this, Dom Ruinart, made from Grand Cru Chardonnay grapes, so the top grapes that are available in the region. I’m very open to other champagnes as well. I like to drink Krug, which is also, you know, like Ruinart’s cousin. I also like Dom Pérignon and Clos de Goisses from Philipponnat, and I love the champagnes from small producers, from the Côte des Blancs region.
Tank What is your favourite Ruinart vintage?
FP It’s the 1969 Dom Ruinart Blanc de Blancs. It is very rare and I have only had it five times but each of those times it’s been nothing short of extraordinary. There are less than 20 bottles left in our cellar so it’s a privilege to try.
Tank Why is this one so special?
FP Well, it’s 46 years old and has retained a beautiful freshness. It has amazing notes of hazelnut, almond, pistachio, toasted bread and honey. There’s a maturity in the notes.
Tank What do you like to drink other than champagne?
FP I drink a lot of different wines because I have a good cellar and I think it’s important to know your products well – it’s a world of passionate people. I often come across sommeliers and collectors who like to try different things, and if you want to share your passion then it’s important you know what you’re talking about. I’ve been learning more and more whiskey and sake as well. I think it’s important to be eclectic. I am also very partial to white burgundy.
Tank What do you think champagne needs to do to keep up with trends in natural and organic wines?
FP For me, something that is way more important than just being natural or organic, is being sustainable. It is all well and good to be natural or organic but sometimes those methods are not necessarily sustainable. Sustainability is more global and we look at aspects such as the packaging, how to reduce your carbon emissions. We embraced this a long time ago: we have an ecological and environmental jury and all projects have to go through that first. We may be less spectacular and less trendy than natural or organic or biodynamic wines but I think, in the long run, what we do is probably more efficient.
People say how lovely it is to see horses in the vineyards because it’s natural. Well, if the whole of Champagne was using horses, not one horse but a few thousand, it would have a phenomenally negative impact on the environment. For one, the production of methane would be very high, and secondly, you would have to grow a lot of wheat or corn to feed the animals. It would look natural: the pictures would be great! But in terms of sustainability, it’s a disaster.
Tank How is climate change affecting the grape?
FP We have been thinking about this issue for years. I went to my first conference about it 20 or so years ago. Climate change is a fact and we are harvesting on average two weeks before we used to 50 years ago. In some ways, growing grapes used to be more difficult and global warming has helped the grapes. However, we are at the limit where growing grapes with a good harvest is possible because these warmer temperatures are just temporary. If the trend keeps rising and we get higher temperatures then it’s going to be worrisome. Although by the time things are too hot to grow grapes, I think there will be some much bigger issues in the world than making or drinking champagne.
Tank What does art de vivre mean to you?
FP The French art de vivre means knowing how to enjoy the good things in life, but not necessarily the most expensive things in life. There is maybe a little bit of etiquette with it; using beautiful glassware, for example. It doesn’t necessarily cost a fortune and it can be simple, like an amazing pizza made in Naples, with simple, fresh mozzarella and locally grown tomatoes with basil and olive oil. It would be made by someone who is very gifted – a pizzaiolo spends a lot of time perfecting the dough. Art de vivre requires a bit of effort and knowledge: it is about trying to get the best out of things is. Serving champagne in plastic cups is not the French art de vivre!
Tank Tell me a bit about the distinctive architecture in your cellars.
FP The crayères obviously provide the ultimate conditions one could dream of. It’s really dark, the temperature doesn’t change between summer and winter and the humidity is perfect. In a way you could reproduce these parameters with air-conditioning in a shed, but the quality of conditions is not the same as the experience it gives. When you visit the cellars – we get about 10,000 people every year – you feel something. It’s the same as when you go to see amazing natural phenomena or cathedrals… these places transport you. I visited friends in Burgundy and each time I drink one of their wines I remember their cellar and the whole experience.
Tank What makes a good champagne bubble?
FP There here used to be a lot of rubbish about bubbles going around. There was a lot that was not known, many untested theories. However, for about ten years, we have had scientists and researchers in Champagne who have been properly researching bubbles. The conclusions are very interesting. The first thing is that in the glass, the bubbles have many sizes. We now know that in champagne you get a sensation of very small bubbles on the palate – when compared to bubbles in soda or sparkling water. We know that smaller bubbles do have an effect in the mouth and give you a sensation of creaminess, of something very silky, cashmere-like.
Now, on a more scientific note, bubbles are very important in the sense that they are like a flavour exhauster; when they rise to the surface they gather aromatic compounds so that when they burst on the surface of the glass, thousands of mini sprays release these aromatic compounds. If you serve champagne in the wrong glass, a glass that gives no bubbles, like in the coupe – the flat glasses that were very fashionable in the belle époque – you don’t get the depth of liquid for the bubble to rise and gather the aroma. But if you serve champagne in a very narrow flute, it will be so narrow that, even though you have bubbles, you won’t be able to let the wine express itself. What we have now is a hybrid, something between a flute and a white wine glass where bubbles can be formed. There are a few tricks to help make bubbles, like scratching the glass or drying the glass with an old cloth. It’s a visual pleasure but it’s also an aromatic pleasure. Bubbles are very important. §