If I said that Champagne has a British connection you would probably laugh out loud. Not only that; our French friends may well consider it blasphemous and may never let me buy a bottle ever again. However, there is actually a connection between the British aristocracy and the region in France where the golden elixir stems from. We just need to start to look back to the beginning of the renowned house of Ruinart.
Ruinart is, in fact, the oldest established Champagne house, exclusively producing champagne since 1729. Founded by Nicolas Ruinart, following in the steps of his uncle – a French Benedictine monk and scholar – who first started with the ambition to make ‘bubbling wine’, but it was Nicholas’s entrepreneurial spirit that took the brand to its great heights. In the early days of production, Nicholas chose to travel to Britain and seek out the wealth and the aristocracy in order to sell the magic elixir directly to them. The British fell in love with the ‘bubbles in a glass’, and sales grew and helped to establish the brand and root itself as one of the most important brands in the world of Champagne. It was even an English socialite Patricia Harmsworth, Viscountess Rothermere, who was nicknamed “Bubbles” because of her love of champagne!
Champagne originally was also much sweeter than the drink we know today but again it was the British taste for a dryer drink that helped build the taste we so associate with Champagne. As we all know, the bubbling wine can only be called Champagne if it fits with certain rules and comes from only certain regions in France. It is only made from three types of grapes: Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and white Chardonnay. The Chardonnay grape is at the very soul of Ruinart. The grape is mainly harvested from the Côte des Blancs and Montagne de Reims areas, with Ruinart Blanc de Blanc bottles embodying the purity of the Chardonnay grape. The nose is powerfully reminiscent of fresh fruits with notes of citrus and exotic fruits, followed by a touch of Jasmine, white peaches and even pink peppercorns. The cuvées named R de Ruinart include both Brut non-vintage and vintage wines, with the non-vintage minimum 40% Chardonnay, and 60% Pinot noir, with 25% reserve wines, while proportions vary in the vintage wine. Also produced are non-vintage Ruinart Blanc de Blancs, 100% Chardonnay, and Ruinart Brut Rosé, typically 45% Chardonnay and 55% Pinot noir.
I may jest about the British connection but the company is actually very global in its approach. Another fact about the house of Ruinart is its long-standing association with the arts. In 1895, Andre Ruinart asked Czech artist Alphonse Mucha to illustrate a poster of Ruinart. From then onwards, the house has collaborated with numerous artists from around the globe.
Today the brand is still closely involved with Contemporary Art and plays a role in numerous international events such as ARCO, the Foire de Bale, the Carre Rive Gauche, London Design, and Miami Art Basel and it has collaborated with many internationally renowned artists.
This year sees the collaboration between artist Jaume Plensa and Ruinart. Plensa is known for his figurative sculptures, which utilise letters from the Latin, Greek, Arabic, Hebrew, Chinese, Japanese, Russian, and Hindi alphabets to create silhouettes of the human form. Jaume sees the letters as having a power (an idea often discussed in Kabbalah) and the power of the letters almost brings the forms to life. His sculptures are a meeting between letters, words and the human body (his interest is in the “biological condition of language”) are bonded, together into silhouettes of human bodies, seated or kneeling and contemplating the horizon, his spiritual figures seem to represent a shared human soul. For this commission, the artist found inspiration in Dom Thierry Ruinart, the monk at the heart of Maison and so he took the figure of a person seated, knees tucked into the chest. The sculpture offers a positive presentation of humanity at a time when we seem to be falling apart, Plensa’s work represents the meeting of each and every human being in the best positive light. After all, we are all at our core made up the same, and we all share the same highs and lows in life’s magical journey and ultimately share our very simple human consecutiveness. The artwork was crafted by hand and suggests almost a link of secret codes and letters that make a magic spell. Light streams through each sculpture giving a sense of power and hope, yet leaving space for each viewer to create their own relationship with the artwork. Letters splay out flat at the bottom of the artwork like roots making their way back to earth. Look out for the two dates with the years 1729 and 2016 carved at the bottom connecting the past and the present.
Thankfully this commission will tour with Ruinart and come to London for the Frieze Art Fair in October as well as Art Basel and Frieze New York, so you can go and experience the piece for yourself. The collaboration also resulted in a 20-piece limited edition box for the Ruinart Blanc de Blancs designed by the artist. The cut metal box of letters, like the sculpture, allows light to filter through as well as casting shadows on the bottle encased within it allowing the champagne bottle to shimmer and shine.
Ruinart has in the past collaborated with many artists. It is the heritage of the brand that is the starting point for creatives. Erwin Olaf was so inspired by his first visit to Reims and fascinated by the depth and immensity of the cellars (that are so immense that they are listed as a world heritage site by Unesco) that the cellars became the starting point of his work.
These remarkable cellars, are amongst the largest in the region and are Gallo-Roman in origin. Like most Champagne cellars, they are the product of ancient chalk mining, extend 38 metres below the ground and are 8 km long. The chalk helps to keep the cellars at a constant 11 degrees Celsius.
Olaf with his Hasselblad camera photographed etchings found around the walls as well as the markings made by those who dug the caves. In fact, The Ruinart taste is greatly dependent on the aging in chalk pits; 3 to 4 years for non-vintages, and 9 to 10 years on average for a Dom Ruinart.
Other collaborations with Ruinart now include artworks by Georgia Russell, Hubert Le Gall and Piet Hein Eek as well as serving pieces and champagne accessories by Ron Arad, Patricia Urquiola, Marten Baas, Nacho Carbonell and Nendo. Given that the House was founded in 1729, during the Age of Enlightenment, when artists and intellectuals were raising questions about the world and defining the art of living, Ruinart has both precedence and historical justification as a patron of contemporary art.
In a small yet important region of France comes a truly global brand with a reach that goes beyond the bottle, where art-meets-craft-meets-luxury. Be sure to visit the work when it travels to the art fairs around the globe this year and make a global and human connection for yourself.