Mrs W falls head over heels for the grande dame that’s a true fine wine lover’s champagne.
Quietly interwoven into the sleepy village of Ay, sits one of the last great independent champagne houses. In 1829, Jacques Bollinger, an enterprising German merchant, marries into the vineyard owning Villermont noble family, and the beginning of a dynasty was born.
The region’s history is long; vineyards in the area had been producing wines since the 15th century, with champagne production starting in the early 19th century. Unique in the world of large champagne houses, Bollinger is still private, and family owned. It follows a centuries old production process (with a few modern enhancements), handed down through generations of the Bollinger family and loyal chef de caves. Time, finances, and other fleeting considerations are secondary to their respect for the tradition of their craft, and their infinite care and passion in pursuit of perfection.
The key to Bollinger’s unsurpassed consistency in quality and taste is two-fold; the most stringent quality control and vast vintage reserves The company maintains strict quality control through several tactics. They employ a ruthlessly simple strategy when it comes to vintages – if it’s not a good year, they don’t bottle it.
The majority of grapes used are harvested by their own vineyards, of which over 85% are grand and premier crus. An astounding 94% of their non-vintage, entry level, special cuvee is from grand cru grapes, and their champagnes are made exclusively from the first pressing of the grapes – the rest is discarded. Their champagne has the longest ageing process of any producer’s; three years for the non-vintage special cuvee and five to fifteen years and upwards for their vintages. They are aged mostly in oak barrels, (an extremely costly endeavour, Krug is the only other champagne to age in oak barrels), imparting a superior, unmistakable flavour.
Bollinger keeps an impressive reserve of past vintages in the miles of cellars that run, warren-like, under the chateaus, houses and streets of Ay. Over six hundred thousand magnums sit in the dimly lit, slightly musty cellars, the terroir from which they came seemingly rising up to infuse the air with the heady scent of oak, vanilla, fruit and acidity. There they patiently sit, lovingly and precisely hand turned multiple times during the ageing process to ensure the correct settling of the sediment and yeast, until they are called upon to contribute their contents in the blending process and released to appreciative connoiseurs.
I feel deeply honoured to return to Madame Bollinger’s historical house on the Bollinger estate, for a day that educates both the mind and palate. Since my last visit almost a decade ago, the torch has passed from the venerable Ghislain de Montgolfier, to the quietly soft spoken Jerome Phillipon, the first non-family member to head the company as chief executive in its 183 year history. The torch may have passed, but much remains the same, in the best possible way. It is still the same unpretentious, unassuming, and humble house, working diligently with exacting standards, to produce some of the world’s finest champagnes.
Comfortably ensconced in the light filled dining room, within walls of soft pastel green, graced by portraits of ancestors looking benignly down at the softly draped dining table with its gently swirling vine-leaf pattern, the sparkling crystal curves of 5 champagne flutes bode of good things to come.
Bollinger is essentially a “house of Pinot Noir”; the grape making up the majority of the blend used in their champagne, whose vinosity, complexity, and structure, ensure its ageing potential, and that it can stand up to food exceedingly well. I had the unparalleled pleasure of experiencing this firsthand, as course after course was flawlessly matched by liquid gold and rose of the finest, silkiest bubbles.
The complex aromas, ripe peachiness, brioche undertone, distinctive structure, and liveliness of the special cuvée is the ideal palate awakening aperitif. The beautiful salmon pink of the grande année rosé 2004, with its aromas of almond and cherries, imparts just the right amount of spicy freshness to provide the perfect counterpoint to the smooth richness of the first course of a mabré of foie gras. The grande année 2002, all old gold, rhubarb, stone fruits, and toastiness, with its great body and length, impeccably accompanies caramelised scallops resting on a light celery puree.
The biggest surprise of lunch lay in the superb pairing of a spectacular RD 1995 and a trio of the finest Comté. The RD’s luminous intensity, aromas of cashews, honey, stone fruits, and truffles, great structure and depth, is a flawless match made in heaven with the sublime roasted nut sweetness of the Comté.
Jerome Phillipon jokes that Comté and RD is the best simple lunch one could imbibe, and I cannot help but agree. The simple pairing is an epiphany of nature’s abundance, tempered by man’s gently guiding hand.
The meal concludes with a rather alarming bright pink dessert of tapioca pearls, vanilla, and raspberries. The Bollinger rosé (the rosé extension of the special cuvée, not to be confused with grande année rose), with its soft spiciness, and aromas of wild strawberries, redcurrants, and raspberries, rises nobly to the sweet challenge. At the end of an extremely memorable meal, in the company of dear friends, and charming hosts, it is exceedingly clear that Bollinger’s champagnes are first and foremost great wines, and drink beautifully from aperitif to digestif.
Run, do not walk, to your nearest fine wine merchant, and reward your palate with the fruit of the labour of generations of painstaking care and dedication.
Special cuvée £42
Bollinger Rosé £52
La Grande Anée from £72
La Grande Année Rosé from £85
R.D. from £170
Vielles Vignes: from £500