It’s a hot, humid afternoon in July. I’ve been back in North Carolina more than 48 hours since my trip to France, and I still can’t stop thinking about how amazing it felt to be in a hot air balloon 1,000 meters aboveground, looking down at the patchwork vineyards on the slopes of the Montagne de Reims. Everything’s quiet, save for the occasional boom of the flames that kept the balloon inflated. We could see the villages of Trepail, Villers-Marmery, Bouzy, and Ambonnay, with the river Marne snaking through; they were all coming awake at 9 in the morning.
This is only a snapshot of what we experienced during the 2017 Ruinart Challenge Trip.
I remember reading through the messages in the WhatsApp group that Frédéric (Fred) Panaïotis, Chef de Caves of the Maison, created for the trip’s participants in May so we could introduce ourselves to each other and feeling a sense of anticipation. I knew this was going to be a great learning experience, but what Fred and his team gave me was nothing short of the most memorable trip I’ve ever had, bar none. I can confidently say that the other participants would easily echo this sentiment.
14 winners, 10 countries, 5 days—it was surely going to be epic. Ruinart did not disappoint.
Upon arriving at Charles de Gaulle Airport, I met Wendy Shoemaker from California, Elton Nichols from Seattle, and Mohamad Fazil from Singapore. We exchanged quick hellos and commiserated on the almost 120 minutes we had to spend going through immigration, then hopped on a van to go to Reims. Many of the other participants were already there, giving us a heads up on what to expect at the hotel and what the weather was going to be like. We were incredibly lucky—the temperature was an average of 80 degrees for the entire duration of our stay.
The participants gathered in the lobby before heading to Café du Palais at the city’s center, a block away from the Reims Cathedral to meet up with Fred and his team. Imagine the most eclectic, chic French décor your mind can evoke, and that is Café du Palais. I couldn’t soak it all in; it was so overwhelmingly fun and colorful. We met Amélie Chatin, longtime winemaker of the house, as well as Megan Gordon and Lacey Burke both brand ambassadors for Ruinart in the US.
After lunch, Amélie introduced the group to our tour guide Nathalie, who took us to the city center. We stopped at the Reims Cathedral, the Carnegie Library, and the Place Royale. I completely owned the Asian tourist stereotype, waving around a selfie stick to take photos of anything and everything. (Where was that peace sign emoji when you needed it?!) I was glad no one in the group was above photobombing my photos.
That evening, we headed to the Maison, located at 4 Rue Crayeres. The building is situated on top of some of the most impressive chalk caves in the region, going as far as 38 meters below the ground. The property hedges Champagne Pommery, which shares the same cave walls. We started with a vertical tasting of Dom Ruinart Blanc de Blancs and Rosés dating back to 1979. The experience could have been just like any other tasting of high-end wines in New York or London, but it’s easy to forget that it’s the small, personalized touches that distinguish hard-wired memories from transient ones. On our seats were Moleskine notebooks monogrammed with our initials, with pages of information on each vintage we tasted that day. Fred gave all the props to Caroline Fiot, the newest winemaker on his team, for organizing all of the information and goodies. She is extremely talented, meticulous, and—not to mention—has one of the most beautiful accents I’ve ever heard. (And I told her so!) We started to joke that Fred only surrounds himself with amazingly talented women in the business.
After the incredible tasting (my favorites were the 1993 BdB and 88 and 79 Rose), we toured the property and were introduced to the history of the oldest Champagne house in the region as we marveled at the beautifully manicured expanse of the Maison. With it being 82 degrees at 6 in the evening, we were absolutely ready to go to the Ruinart caves to cool off. I can’t even begin to describe the feeling of being in a place that has existed for so long, storing some of the most amazing juice in the world. It was calm, damp, and oddly soothing in its quietness. I could wander around in that space, get lost, breathe in the cool air, and meditate.
Since Elton’s birthday was the closest that day, Fred let him choose a magnum from the house’s private cellars for all of us to share during dinner. Armed with a magnum of 1989 Cos d’Estournel, we headed toward Turbot, Pigeon, and Cheese. We drank more of the vintage Champagnes from the tasting with a special edition of Ruinart L’Exclusive (released for the year 2000) in magnum thrown in at the end. Fooseball, Hennessy Paradis, Cigars, and espressos later, we were ready to get some much-needed rest. After all, call time the next day was at 5:30am!
But Team Ruinart was not yet done with us. Remember when I said that it’s the small, personalized touches that make all the difference? Well, upon entering my hotel room after that decadent dinner, I was greeted with two large swag bags filled with souvenirs: a t-shirt, vest, candles, cufflinks (for the men), a duffel bag, a tote, and a welcome note from Fred letting us know that there were many, many more fun things/activities to look forward to in the next few days. I could not wait; I slept for 2 hours.
There aren’t many things that can make me willingly wake up at 4:30 in the morning. A hot air balloon ride high above the Champagne region is easily one of them. With a packed breakfast of croissants, muffins, and juice, we traveled for half an hour to where our balloons were set up to be launched. I’m not fond of heights, but again, this was truly one of those times when I just had to suck it up.
Truth be told, once you’re up that high, with only a basket keeping you from falling to your death, and seeing the expanse of the region kissing the clear blue sky at the horizon from every side, you forget your fear; delight and amazement take over. I think I must have wished to be transformed into a bird a dozen times or so during that balloon ride. We ended the experience with a roadside toast of Ruinart rosé.
As the weather was extremely hot—I actually ended up with a tan, even though I live in the southern part of the US—I was so happy they took us back to the hotel to freshen up. (They did this after every activity, thus allowing me to take 3 cold showers each day we were in Reims!) We then met up at Au 36, a cute bistro in Hautvillers, for lunch. We tasted monovarietal Champagnes side by side, including a Coteaux du Champenois Rouge and Blanc and a Rosé de Riceys. Afterward, we headed to the Abbey—the resting place of both Dom Ruinart and Dom Perignon.
We moved on to Chouilly to visit the CIVC Experimental Vineyards in Plumecoq. It’s an interesting area where all of the allowed vines in Champagne are being tested for sustainable and organic viticulture. We talked about the effects of spraying the vineyards organically and how the carbon footprint of such endeavor (multiple spraying) doesn’t make it sustainable in the long run. It was discussed that at that point, it really becomes a question of what makes more sense during the processes. The visit concluded with us tasting a Champagne that cannot be found for sale since it is produced by the CIVC.
As if Team Ruinart hadn’t fed or had us drink enough Champagne at this point, we all met up at Le Coq Rouge for dinner. The wine bar was packed, and it definitely had a Brooklyn vibe to it, with rows of empty wine bottles decorating the walls. Fred let us pick a bunch of bottles to share as the restaurant kept on sending meat and cheese plates, brie with truffles, sliders, and potatoes. It was a pleasure chatting with sommeliers from all over the world, learning how their restaurants work, how varied their clientele were, and what wines were selling best in their markets. I had a great conversation with Maya Samuelsson from Vinkällan in Sweden and Julia Sewell from Fat Duck in England about how female empowerment in the industry is slowly getting better. My biggest take from the conversation was a bit inane — they both get 41 and 37 days, respectively, of PAID vacation time. Someone from Europe please adopt/marry me now.
A few somms headed off to Le Clos to put more Champagne into their systems. Being the old lady that I am, I headed back to the hotel for some much-needed rest. Unfortunately, I missed out on bottles of Jacques Selosse and Charles Heidsieck’s Blanc de Millenaires. Oh well, I thought, tomorrow was going to be another day.
The next day, we met up for a tour of the region’s vineyards, headed by Professor Alain Marre, who specializes in Champagne’s geology. He discussed the slopes of Montagne de Reims, specifically Bouzy, and how its exposure contributes to the ripeness of the grapes. He took us to an area that had an entire wall of chalk exposed. The wall also contained deposits of Silex, which was really cool to see and smell. The difference between the porous, friable texture of the chalk versus the compacted Silex was very helpful in identifying what these soil types contribute to the final product. Amélie then brought us over to Sillery to visit the Ruinart plots where they source their grapes. She pointed out the effects of hail damage on some vines and how it stunts their growth for the harvest.
Did I mention how much food and wine were included in this trip? Well, at the conclusion of our Champagne vineyard tour, Fred sent a photo of the spread that Chef Stéphane Rossillon of Les Avisés at Domaine Jacques Selosse prepared for lunch and asked if we were getting hungry. We all responded with a resounding, united YES. Magnums of Ruinart 2004, Mas Jullien Blanc, Lapierre Morgon, Barroche Chateauneuf du Pape, bottles of Initial, Bordelet Granit, and Vajra Moscato were paired with some of the most wholesome food we had during the entire trip.
That afternoon, we all got our palates ready for an assault of 27 Blanc de Blancs, preceded by three Ruinart vin clairs to prep us. I’m glad that I adore acid; who needs teeth enamel anyway?
The exercise started off three weeks ago with all of the participants sending Fred a list of NV Blanc de Blancs that we enjoyed, but without telling each other what we asked for. The wines were grouped in a manner that considered the houses’ style: the classics together, the funky ones together, and so on. There were definitely a few surprises as we all ranked what we liked the most and the least. Paul Goerg, Guy Larmanier, Henriot, Larmandier-Bernier, and Lassaigne all scored very high, while Veuve Fourney, Jacquart, Bruno Paillard, Boulard, and Leclapart collectively did not. Some more of my favorites include Pierre Peters Reserve & Oubliée and the Les Pierrieres by Ulysse Collin. Selosse and Agrapart scored middle of the road during the blind tasting.
Before dinner, we had a diploma ceremony with photos in the crayere caves. We concluded the day (well, for most of us), with a dinner at Le Jardin Brasserie paired with R 2009, Dom Ruinart Blanc de Blancs 2006, Dom Ruinart Rosé 2004, NV Rosé—all in magnum, of course. And if anyone else had a question in his or her mind if this trip could be any more fun, Fred called up a friend of his that owns a night club in Reims to say that he was going to bring a bunch of people to party. Since we had an early TGV ride to Paris the next day, they promised they would only have a single bottle of wine at La Loge… which ended up being a jeroboam of Ruinart presented to them with fireworks shooting from the bottle’s neck.
We took the TGV to Paris the next day to conclude the trip. Since our train was early, we ended up having espressos and croissants near Rue Marbeuf, where the bespoke division of Berluti is located. We met with Rémi Fritsch-Fontanges, Director of Bespoke and Special Orders, who walked us through the labor-intensive process of creating some beautifully crafted shoes. Suffice to say, these shoes were definitely on the pricey side, starting at $6,000! We all gathered in their showroom across the workshop for another Champagne reception and a surprise: Berluti gifted each of us with a leather passport holder that was monogrammed with our initials. At this point, I was just shaking my head at how generous this company is. It’s the combination of how hospitable the Ruinart Team was and the level of detail and generosity that they managed to execute.
Our last lunch was at Hexagone by Mathieu Pacaud, a 2 Michelin star restaurant. We were joined by Frederic Dufour, the CEO of Ruinart, who flew in specifically to share a meal with us. Bottles of Guilberteau Les Arboises, Leroy Aligote, Zusslin Gewurztraminer, and Ruinart Champagnes rounded up lunch. At this point, a few of the participants had to leave already, and we knew that we were nearing the end of this epic trip. Thankfully, the program booked all of us an extra day and a half in Paris as part of the experience.
While it’s been 11 years since I’ve been to France, and Paris has always been a lovely place to explore, I think I would have zero qualms remaining in Reims walking through all the vineyards with my GPS so I can see all of the villages that I’ve only ever read in books.
The beauty of this entire trip is that Ruinart spearheaded an event that championed a region, not just its own house. It highlighted how special their wines were, but as a whole, it made (re)learning Champagne fun and exciting by including many unexpected aspects of the trip. I don’t think any of us will ever forget the topography of Bouzy, or how all the Champagne grapes’ leaves look like side by side, or the stylistic differences of over 27 Champagne houses’ blanc de blancs. “Spoiled” doesn’t even begin to describe how they treated all of us. It was a trip that was thoughtfully created, meant to be educational, and brought an entire region that we all love to life.
Maybe this trip didn’t necessarily offer anything I couldn’t learn by surfing the Internet or visiting a bookstore or library, but what I can tell you is that physically visiting a region, guided by people who care that I understood the land and its history, has left an indelible impression that can’t ever be replicated by any article or book.
Find a recap with more photos here!