Thursday 11 September 2014

Does size matter? Comparing Tuscany Ruffino and Champagne Jacques Picard

Two tastings in a row: a guided tasting by Gabriele Tacconi, chief winemaker of Ruffino, a 130 year old family owned estate now under Constellation Wines, followed by a casual tasting with José Lievens, winemaker of third generation family-owned Grower Champagne Jacques Picard. After the tastings, I could’t help but ponder the conversations I had with these two winemakers.

Gabriele Tacconi, Ruffino
Ruffino is one of the biggest wineries in Tuscany, owning seven estates comprising over 1,000 ha of land (of which 600 ha are under vine), and makes 18 wines in Tuscany and 6 outside Tuscany. It is the winery that received the first 10 Chianti DOCG seals (numbers 1-10). In 1927 it launched Riserva Ducale inspired by the Duke of Aosta, who became a prominent customer in 1890. Riserva Ducale is the only Italian wine that can legally use the word ‘Riserva’ in its name.

Jacques Picard, by contrast, owns 17 ha of land in three villages in Champagne and makes 8 wines with a total production of just 12,000 cases. The two sisters and their husbands (José is one of them) are hands on with the running of the business and they also look after some vines for Pol Roger.

Both Gabriele and José are amiable, of a similar age (I would guess mid 50s), have worked in their companies for about 15 years and were in Hong Kong for the first time. At first glance the similarities stop there as, after all, they make very different wines in two different countries and the operations differ massively in size. Yet in fact, their philosophies are fairly similar. Gabriele respects the style developed at Ruffino over the past 130 years, which emphasises elegance, traditional and drinkability. He is particularly passionate about Sangiovese and prefers using cement tanks and old casks, rather than new barriques, to preserve its characteristics. Ruffino does make a Super Tuscan (Modus Toscana IGT), because consumers are asking for it, but Gabriele makes sure the wine still bears the structural hallmarks of Sangiovese and that the Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot only enhance the richness rather than overpowering the distinct Tuscan character.

José Lievens, Champagne Jacques Picard
José is also an aficionado of terroir. While most champagne houses only make vintage champagne in good years, José makes it, named Art de Vigne, every year as he reckons vintage champagne records the characteristics of each vintage, thereby serving as a picture of that vintage in years to come. We tasted three vintages—2002, 2003 and 2005—and they were indeed very different.

What I really like about these two gentlemen is their approach to wine. Though not the same, they ring the same bell. Gabriele believes wine is about experience and lifestyle and that one drinks wine to enjoy food and life. José? He says wine is about sharing—it is for friends, not collectors. Well, I couldn’t agree with them more. I hope consumers will be inspired by them and will drink wine for pleasure—with food and to share with friends—rather than for the labels.

So back to the question: does size matter? Some wine lovers dismiss big producers believing they only make ‘factory’ wine. Ruffino proves this is not necessarily the case. And Jacques Ricard demonstrates that small producers can be creative and resourceful. Gabriele and José are evidence that it is the people and their passion behind the wine that matter.

Some of the wines tasted were:

Ruffino, available from ASC Fine Wines:
• Riserva Ducale Chianti Classico Riserva DOCG 2010: a fine example of Chianti Classico
• Greppone Mazzi Brunello di Montalcino DOCG 2007: elegant and classic, my favourite
• Romitorio di Santedame Toscana IGT 2004 and 2001: 60% Colorino, a dark-skinned, tannic native variety and 40% Merlot. Only made in the best years.

Jacques Picard, available from Sarment:
• Brut Nature NV: 70% reserve Chardonnay wine from 1998 to 2008 aged using the solera system, complex yet elegant
• Art de Vigne Millésime 2003: Biscuity and Marmite, a powerful wine. 2003 was a hot year.
• Art de Vigne Millésime 2002: Citrus, fresh and elegant, livelier than 2002 but unfortunately sold out
• Art de Vigne Millésime 2005: More buttery and vanilla, a rounder mouthfeel than 2003. This will be available in Hong Kong soon.