Oddly, until last week I had never visited Ruinart in Reims. It’s not as well known as its three main stablemates in the Moët Hennessy group (Moët et Chandon, Veuve Clicquot and Krug), nor one of the best known of the big names generally, but it is the oldest Champagne house (founded by Nicolas Ruinart in 1729) and I’ve always had a soft-spot for the impeccable fruit and purity of its Chardonnay-led style. I’ve tasted with chef de cave Fréderic Panaïotis several times, the first time so long ago that he was he was still working for Veuve Clicquot, but last week, when I finally made it to Ruinart, he was away. Instead, I met Caroline Fiot, one of his team of two winemakers (there should be three, but they’re recruiting at present). I’m not sure what I was expecting, but I didn’t immediately realise that the small, chic figure with flowing hair, black lacy dress and heels, racing across the expansive Ruinart courtyard, was the winemaker I was due to meet. This is what I learned about Caroline over an excellent tasting lunch cooked by Ruinart's chef Valérie Radou (see menu below).
Q: How old are you?
Q: Are you from a winemaking family?
A: No, I was born in Paris, but my grandparents are in Savoie, in the French Alps. That’s why I like nature, and I love to ski. My parents live there now, too.
Q: How long have you been at Ruinart?
A: Two and a half years.
Q: Where did you work before?
A: This is my first job. Before that I was at college – Agronomic Engineering in Montpellier (Montpellier SupAgro). Then after my first internship at a small family winery in Saint-Emilion, I specialised in Viticulture and Oenology. Then I did a Masters in Marketing Management & Digital at ESSEC Business School in Paris. I pursued a luxury products path there. I did another internship in Bordeaux, one in Vietnam and one in New York.
Q: What did you say at your interview to get such a senior job when you had very little experience?
A: Actually, I had seven interviews. At one of them with Fréderic Panaïotis at Ruinart’s offices in Paris, he surprised me by saying, we’re going to leave now and go somewhere else. We went to a Michelin-starred restaurant and he said I’m leaving you here. I’ll be back in one hour. I didn’t know what to do, but then the chef arrived and started showing me spices, vegetables, cheeses… and asked me to tell him what they were and all about them. Another time, Fréd asked me about cooking temperatures for veal and other meat. They wanted to find out if I really knew and was passionate about gastronomy, as I had said I was, because Ruinart is very focused on gastronomy and food pairings.
Q: How do you choose the menus and pairings?
A: We work with a lot of chefs, not just Michelin-starred chefs but young chefs – we call them jeunes pousses. We also have many of the old menus in the archives and we use those too. This turbot with leeks and Champagne sauce is an old family dish, a favourite of the last family member, Bernard Mure.
[See photo below of the Champagnes and dishes with which they were served. The turbot, centre left was perfectly paired with the creaminess, freshness, delicate toast, pear, peach and orange notes of a Dom Ruinart Blanc de Blancs 2006, disgorged after nine years on its lees in October 2016.]
Q: Is this a typical lunch for you?
Q: What is a typical day?
A: No day is the same. One day I will be in the winery controlling the fermentation. Yesterday afternoon, I went to see one of our vineyards with the vineyard manager. Another day I will give a masterclass to sommeliers. Tonight I have a Champagne tasting with the Club des Jeunes Négociants de Champagne. We meet every two months and everyone brings a bottle and some food.
Q: Where do you live now?
Q: Aren't you tempted to live in Epernay to be further from the office?
A: No, there are 200,000 people in Reims and I still walk down the street and see people I know all the time. In Epernay there are only 20,000.