Richard Hook – Sanderstead Manager
I was recently lucky enough to be invited to visit the Bollinger Champagne house, an invitation no-one should refuse. The 6 of us met Tim and Chloe, our hosts for the day, in Vauxhall and although it is a 7 hour drive to Champagne it didn’t feel like it, though perhaps that was the Bollinger Rosé we drunk on the Eurotunnel. Whatever it was, we all arrived in high spirits and in glorious sunshine. We were greeted by our own personal Bollinger tour guide, Christian Dennis, who took us straight through the impressive entrance to the small walled vineyard at the back of the property. It is here, in the Clos de chaud-terre, along with a similar site across the road, that ancient phylloxera-free vines give very small yields of high-quality juice and, in the best vintages, allows Bollinger to produce the rarely seen Vielles Vignes Francais. We were then shown proof of how times have changed in Champagne, with a small exhibit of vines that were grown in the area in years gone by but are now outlawed. Some, like Pinot Teinturier, are almost unheard of anywhere now, but what a Champagne made from Gamay tasted like is anyone’s guess!
After these little sites of interest we headed past Madame Lily Bollinger’s house to their most impressive area – the cellars. These stretch for miles under the streets of Ay, housing thousands upon thousands of bottles, magnums and jeroboams. Many of these are used for the reserve wines which make up the majority of the ‘Special Cuvée’ non-vintage. Most of Bollinger’s grapes come from their own vineyards, which is highly unusual for a Champagne house, as is the fact that 80% of these vineyards are rated as Grand or Premier Cru. A proportion of the reserve wine is fermented in oak barrels as well, adding a little more of the delicious richness that Bollinger is famous for. The house style is to age the champagne for well above the legal requirement for extra complexity (the Special Cuvée receives at least 3 years ageing, twice the legal minimum), and it shows. It is the fact that Bollinger are still family-owned, that means they can make decisions like longer ageing, better quality fruit and more stringent quality checks, without worrying about the added costs. This comes across in almost every aspect of the business, where every process is meticulously thought through and quality strived for despite any added costs.
After emerging back into the sunny courtyard through the impressive arch flanked by the sweeping staircases, we got back in the cars for the return to our hotel to get changed for our evening meal. And then the rains came, sudden and torrential, limiting visibility and completely ruining the views of the rest of Bollinger’s 163 hectares of vines. This, and a slight overrun on the tour, put our schedule back a little but no matter, we swiftly (you have no idea how swiftly!) smartened ourselves up and returned through the monsoon weather to Madame Bollinger’s house for a meal to surpass all that we had seen so far.
The Special Cuvée on arrival whetted our appetite, but was purely an amuse-bouche for what was to follow: Firstly the Grande Année Rosé 2002, yet to be released in the UK, showed off their trademark power and complexity and left us dreaming of what it might be like in 5 years time. If the fois gras with lobster that accompanied the Rosé was great, the turbot that followed it was sensational, matched only by the Grande Année 2000 that came with it. The Pinot Noir that dominates Bollinger blends really shone through here, giving a champagne of real depth and body. The next bottle opened was to be the RD ’97. The RD (Recently Disgorged) is a style unique to Bollinger, whereby extra minimum maturation time (8 years as opposed to 5 for Grande Année) is followed by a lower dosage (making the RD technically extra-brut rather than brut as the rest of the range is). This champagne is, as the name suggests, only released when ready, hence the most recent vintage being ’97, while Grande Année 2000 has already been released. There was a mix-up however and the Grande Année ’97 was opened instead. This was quickly spotted and the RD ’97 appeared as well which was a terrible shame for us as it meant we had to drink both bottles side-by-side, a practise that almost never happens. The Grande Année was all weight and creamy, dreamy, fruit-filled power, whilst the RD seemed somehow tight in comparison, a lighter style that was waiting to come to the fore but couldn’t match up to its big brother. Until the cheese came that is. What a difference; suddenly the Grande Année was overpowered, lost beneath the protein in the cheese, and yet the RD rose to the occasion, opening up its mysterious myriad of secret flavours than soon brought the room to silence. Now we realised why the 2 similar but yet so different champagnes rarely meet. We did speak again, or at least made lots of yummy noises, when the symphony of desserts arrived with a bottle of Bollinger’s most recent baby, the Rosé NV. The addition of 5% red wine to the classic Special Cuvée blend gives almost unbelievable flavours of strawberries and blackberries combined, the flavours dancing in the mouth and lingering on and on. We retired happily to our hotel, still tasting the rose the next day – or was that the extra 2 bottles we drunk on the way home? A flying visit it may have been, but it will live long in the memory – and the Eurotunnel will never seem the same again either!
From 28th May 2009 – 8th June 2009 Bollinger Grande Année 1999 is on an improved offer – single bottle £75.00, buy two or more £44.99 per bottle!