Bollinger – quality in the long termThere 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 minuscule 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 worldwide 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.
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 has 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 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.
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.