There are a number of myths and some monkey business regarding the invention of the French sparkling wine now known as Champagne. The French Benedictine monk Dom Pierre Pérignon (1638-1715) typically gets credited for inventing it, and he did contribute to the production of what would, decades later, come to be known as Champagne. However, during Pérignon's time, French sparkling wine was red, made from Pinot Noir. Likewise, Pérignon is often credited with the quote "Come quickly, I am drinking the stars!"—which was supposedly his reaction upon first tasting the sparkling wine. In fact, wine historians say that the quote first appeared in a 19th-century print ad.
A lesser known Benedictine monk—also with an important place in Champagne's history—was Dom Thierry Ruinart (1657-1709), who was a colleague of Dom Pérignon, as well as Louis XIV. Ruinart, too, was infatuated with the vin de mousse ("wine with bubbles") that the aristocrats of Paris enjoyed. Again, this was very different wine from what we now know as Champagne, which wouldn't become the dominant style until the mid-1800s.
Twenty years after Dom Ruinart's death, in 1729, his nephew, Nicolas Ruinart, founded France's very first Champagne house: Maison Ruinart. This March—some 287 years following its founding—I had the opportunity to visit Maison Ruinart myself. To say that I left impressed is a vast understatement.
As we strolled the crayeres (caves) 38 meters below the city of Reims with Ruinart's communications director, Véronique Péle Steinsulz, I came to appreciate the depth of quality that makes Ruinart Champagne so special and unique. For starters, it's all about Chardonnay. Every cuvée here begins with Chardonnay; it's the soul of Ruinart wines and the thread that runs through all of them. The grapes are harvested primarily from the Côte des Blancs and Montagne de Reims terroirs around Reims.
Ruinart's best-known Champagne is Blanc de Blancs ($75), literally "white from whites," a non-vintage wine made exclusively from Chardonnay. These wines see no oak; they're fermented in temperature-regulated stainless steel tanks and undergo full malolactic fermentation (which converts tart malic acid into a softer-tasting lactic acid). They then age in the bottles stored in the cool, chalk-lined Ruinart caves for up to three years. Ruinart bottles themselves are unique in shape: plump, round-shouldered vessels that are a tribute to historic 18th-century Champagne bottles. Ruinart Blanc de Blancs shouts "Chardonnay!" with its intense fresh fruit aromas and white peach flavors with hints of jasmine. This is truly a graceful and elegant Champagne.
As with their Blanc de Blancs, Chardonnay is at the heart of Ruinart Rosé Champagne ($80), which is blended with Pinot Noir to give the wine its pomegranate-orange coloring. Tropical fruits burst from the bottle upon uncorking, while fresh red berry flavors dance on the palate in an effervescent tete-à-tete. This beautiful, festive Rosé Champagne pairs well with mild meats such as prosciutto di Parma, veal and milk-fed lamb.
The vintage Champagnes from Ruinart are designated by the word "Dom." The most recent vintage cuvée is Dom Ruinart Blanc de Blancs 2004 ($132). This wine is stunning, made entirely from Grand Cru Chardonnay grapes. It has a strong mineral backbone, silky mouthfeel, floral and baked bread aromas and citrus notes on the tongue. The 2004 vintage is a terrific accompaniment to lobster, crab and light-but-sophisticated seafood dishes.
Finally, for a mind-blowing (and budget-blowing) bottle of bubbly, splurge on Dom Ruinart Brut Rosé Champagne 2002 ($299). Toasted brioche notes, smoke, pastry cream, strawberries, blood-orange and white peach flavors make this staggering Champagne Rosé more of a meal than a beverage, but it's a great partner for game birds, too.