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Who's On First? Champagne's Earliest Houses
By Michael Franz
May 6, 2014
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In this spring-summer season, filled with tradition and reflection at graduations and weddings that effervesce with Champagne, you'd do well to reflect on the modern origins of the magical beverage in your glass.  The Champagne region has a fascinating history of wine production stretching back to Roman times, but its modern phase dates from the rise of the first Champagne “houses,” namely, Gosset and Ruinart.  Both have strong claims to the title of being Champagne’s oldest house, just as both are among today’s very best producers.

A Champagne Maison is quite different than a Bordeaux Château or a Burgundy Domaine.  In Bordeaux or Burgundy, growing grapes to produce a wine expressing the particular savor of an estate’s own vineyards is the defining mission of a château or a domaine.  By contrast, a typical Champagne house buys almost all of the grapes for its wines, and its great challenges are to make a consistent product from different vineyards and vintages and to market it around the world.

Blending and marketing may not seem quite as romantic as tending the vines of a single plot in an effort to conjure a distinctive wine from them year after year.  However, blending grapes from many places within one of viticulture’s most capricious climates and turning them into one of the world’s most consistent and highly-regarded wines is a vinous feat with few equals.  And on the marketing side, taking these wines from a cold, damp, landlocked region and turning them into the epitome of an international luxury good is just as impressive a feat of entrepreneurship.

The importance of Champagne’s houses is clear, as all 284 of them own just 12% of the region’s vineyards, but are responsible for over 70% of wine sales and 95% of exports outside of Europe.  Their remarkable contributions to the Champagne trade began as early as the 16th century.

Which house was first?  That question can’t be given a straightforward answer due to the fact that the bubbly beverage we now call Champagne was preceded for centuries by wines from Champagne that were still rather than sparkling.  Most experts agree that the house with the oldest documentation as a producer of such wines is Gosset, whereas the house first registered as a producer of modern sparkling Champagne is Ruinart.

Most Champagne experts are also agreed that Gosset and Ruinart remain among the very best producers to this day.  The Gosset family can trace its ancestry back to Jean Gosset, who was a feudal lord in the famous grand cru village of Aÿ as early as 1531.  Evidence indicates that Jean’s son Claude was a vigneron by 1555, but no documents attest to his having marketed the wines he made.  On this ground the status of founder of the house falls to Pierre Gosset, who was documented as both a récolant and also a négociant of wines from Aÿ in 1584.

Pierre Gosset was also the mayor of Aÿ in that year, and held the post until 1592.  During his tenure he was visited by no less a figure than Henri IV (whose fame was recently resuscitated when his skull was found and authenticated), though we don’t know whether the king would have tried any of Gosset’s wines.

The Gosset family held the house for more than 400 years prior to a 1994 sale to the Renaud-Cointreau group.  Despite the sale, Gosset’s Champagnes remain very traditional in production techniques and finished character.  In keeping with its status as Champagne’s firsts wine house, Gosset strives not only to make fine Champagnes, but Champagnes that are serious as wines.

Gosset’s various bottlings as among the most “winey” of Champagnes, and they are always among the richest and most deeply flavored wines of the region.  The non-vintage bottlings are made with unusually high percentages of reserve wines, and all vintage-dated wines are aged in the traditional manner in oak barrels.  All wines are still riddled and disgorged by hand.

Production remains relatively small for a Champagne house at 1.2 million bottles, but these are sold in more than 80 countries.  The entry-level Brut “Excellence” (suggested retail $45) shows the seriousness of the house with delicious but unusually assertive flavors that could prove surprising or even challenging for a novice taster accustomed to big commercial brands.

The wines become even more dramatic when moving up Gosset’s product line, though they also gain an extra measure of finesse at each tier.  The Brut “Grande Réserve” ($65) and “Grande Rosé” ($80) are among the most expensive non-vintage Champagnes offered for sale, and yet I believe they are nevertheless among the finest values in high-end Champagne, comparing favorably to many Cuvée de Prestige Champagnes from other houses costing more than $100. 

The vintage-dated “Brut “Grande Millésime 2000” ($100) and Cuvée de Prestige Brut “Célebris” and “Célebris Rosé” 2003 bottlings express the character of the particular growing season while still displaying the rich, muscular Gosset style despite being finished with virtually no residual sweetness.  “Célebris” Blanc de Blancs is a non-vintage wine that shows amazing length and depth of flavor despite its ultra-brut dryness.  All wines above the Brut “Excellence” level are sold in antique-style bottles that are exact replicas of those used at Gosset during the late 1800s.

The Champagnes of Ruinart are notably different in style from Gosset’s, but the two houses are quite similar in conducting their present-day businesses in ways directly influenced by their historical heritage.

Ruinart was established on September 1, 1729 by Nicolas Ruinart.  Nicolas was the nephew of Dom Thierry Ruinart, a Benedictine monk who was a close friend of the famous Dom Pérignon.  Dom Ruinart was a learned and well-traveled man whose acquaintance with aristocratic circles and the royal courts of Europe made him one of the first Champenois to anticipate the commercial potential of sparkling Champagne.

This potential remained untapped due to a tax law requiring that all French wines be transported in casks, which permitted effervescence to dissipate.  But in May of 1728, Louis XV decreed an exception solely for Champagne that permitted its shipment in bottles.  Under the inspiration of Dom Ruinart, Nicolas capitalized on this development and soon abandoned his business in the linen trade to concentrate his energies on running the first sparkling Champagne house.

The house’s name was changed to Ruinart Père et Fils when Nicolas’ son Claude joined the business, and Claude’s son Irénée built its fame with sales to such notables as Napoleon and Joseph Bonaparte, the Empress Josephine, Joachim Murat and Talleyrand.

A succession of highly capable Ruinarts led the house into the 20th century, which saw all of the firm’s buildings destroyed during the Battle of the Marne in World War I.  André Ruinart deal with this with remarkable aplomb, conducting business as head of the house from deep in one of the house’s deep chalk caves.  When additional shelling burst a water pipe that flooded this crayère, André strapped his desk to a makeshift wooden raft and continued operations while afloat in the cave.

Business expanded for Ruinart in the 1950s, thanks to an influx of capital from Baron Philippe de Rothschild and a cooperative marketing association with Château Mouton Rothschild.  In 1963, Ruinart was purchased by Möet & Chandon, and is now one of five Champagne houses in the LVMH Möet-Hennessy group. 

Despite the transition from family to corporate ownership and a related expansion of production and sales, much remains unchanged at Ruinart.  The house is still largely autonomous.  This has a lot to do with the complementary nature of the various Möet-Hennessy houses, of which Ruinart is the only one emphasizing Chardonnay.  Production is now around 3 million bottles per year, but that not really large by Champagne standards, and represents less than 6% of the annual sales for the group.

Ruinart Champagnes were reintroduced to the American market earlier in this decade.  Two premium non-vintage Bruts are now available, a Blanc de Blancs and a Rosé, both packaged in traditional bottles.  They are unusually delicate in style, with intricate flavors and admirable freshness on relatively light-bodied foundations.

The house’s flagship bottlings, Dom Ruinart Blanc de Blancs and Dom Ruinart Rosé, were reintroduced to the U.S. market four years ago.  These were first made in the vintages of 1959 and 1962, respectively, and have consistently drawn strong critical acclaim ever since.  Every bottle is still disgorged by hand and tasted in the Ruinart cellars prior to being corked and labeled, indicating a level of patience and precision befitting a venerable producer.

So, if you are in a traditional frame of mind when selecting your bottle of bubbly to pop open 2011, now you’ll know where to turn.