Bollinger – quality in the long term

Approaching Bollinger

Lily BollingerThere are many remarkable things about visiting Bollinger.  The house is understandably proud of Tante Lily who drove the company forward in the most difficult circumstances during the last century but still found the time to attend the baptisms of the children of estate workers. Her picture hangs in the entrance hall.  The vieilles vignes françaises project has pride of place as a series of tiny vineyards immediately around the winery.  A miniscule 2,000 bottles a year are produced from pre-phylloxera vines grown partly in the traditional layering system.  Here, rather than orderly rows of pruned vines, a 120 year old root system supports a random stem grow which has to be staked for its year of production. Characteristically the vines come out of the ground at a rakish angle, rather than the neat upright rows we are all used to.  Its is picturesque and a bit chaotic and tribute to the  past.  Given the world wide demand for Bollinger it is a wine that most of us are never going to taste.  When we visited the outstanding Restaurant Foch in Reims it was on the wine list at €1400.

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But what really impresses at Bollinger are the grape growing and wine making decisions which lead to the reliably outstanding Champagne which it produces.  The first of these is the extent to which the house is in charge of its own destiny. The company continues to be family owned and so can make courageous decisions without having to worry about shareholders.  Thus it decided not to release RD (a line of long aged and ‘recently disgorged’ vintage wines) this year because there was enough of a doubt about the corks for them not to want to take the risk.  Even more importantly, it grows 60% of all its own grapes which makes it unique among the larger companies, those who produce 1.5m bottles or more.   The house is based at Äy which is very much Pinot Noir territory and it sources its Chardonnay from the Côte des Blancs.  86% of their own vineyards are Grand Cru.  When it comes to pressing, they only use the cuvée, the heart, and sell on the taille.  The wines are put through malolactic fermentation by warming the cellar at the appropriate point.

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In the winery they ferment most of their wines in old barriques.  The barrels now come from Domaine Chanson in Burgundy (which conveniently they own) and have already been used for Grand Cru white Burgundy.  They are never new as the idea is to give the wine the benefit of slow oxidation while it ferments, not new oak flavours.   Some of the barriques are 50 years old and they are the only Champagne business to have an in-house cooper.  He repairs barrels and makes and repairs the larger tonneaux which they also use.  Most of the barrels he makes are then dismantled so that individual staves can be used for repairs, again to limit the ‘new oak’ effect. 

The other secret of their success lies underground in the impressively large system of cellars and tunnels – the extended ageing of reserve wines.  Houses differ in the way they keep their reserve wines and for how long.  Most will keep them in neutral stainless steel vats for a year or two.  A few keep them in a perpetual reserve (see the post on Laherte.)  Bollinger have long chosen to go to the trouble of bottling their reserve wines in magnums under cork and keeping them for between five and fifteen years.  This is a large amount of work and obviously costly.  (Judging from the pictures they don’t merely discourage dusting of this vinous treasure trove, is is completely forbidden.)  But these old wines which make up 5-10% of the non vintage blends add flavour, complexity and roundedness to what is supposedly the house’s standard wine.  Finally, they keep all the vintage wines in the second fermentation phase under cork, not the more convenient crown cap, as they believe in gentle oxidation as a key quality factor.  

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My tasting notes at Bollinger are extremely skimpy.  This one of the rare occasion when I my impressions of visiting the place rather overwhelmed the attempt to record the experience of the wines – which are rich and very impressive.  Fortunately I had had the chanced to taste the current release shortly before this visit to Champagne and the notes are here.  The trademark richness of all four wines tasted certainly shone through. What I understand much better is why these great wines are consistently excellent. 

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