What make Champagne Bollinger so special?
By Master of Wine, Christopher Burr
I was fortunate enough to work for Champagne Bollinger, or rather the UK agent they own, Mentzendorff, in the 1990's. Of course, working for a wine like that you get a great insight into what makes it tick, why it is one of the best loved Champagne brands, and why it attracts such a glamourous and interesting following.
I suppose the first thing is the people who own and run it. Essentially family owned and run for many generations since it started in Ay, near Epernay in 1809. What has been passed down is a passion for quality at the expense of everything else, rare in bigger more corporate companies.
As an example, I recall a conversation about pink or rose Champagne, when essentially there was only one brand on the market, Laurent Perrier. Many Houses were starting to introduce a pink Champagne at a considerable premium, so should Bollinger follow? The extraordinary thing was that Bollinger, more than any other House was better equipped to make a pink Champagne, as they had made a still red Pinot Noir wine, Coteaux Aux Enfants, for many years and pink Champagne is made by adding a small amount of red wine to the blend before secondary fermentation.
The then family member running the company, Christian Bizot, was against what he felt was a "fad", and we had long and detailed debates. Eventually some trial blends were done, and it was discovered that with a very small addition of Coteaux Aux Enfants, absolutely no more than 5% as it has quite powerful flavours, an elegant, complex Champagne could be produced still keeping to the Bollinger style. So Bollinger Rose was first introduced only in 2008 after careful and extensive trials.
The second almost unique thing for a major Champagne House is that it owns the 175 hectares of vineyards it needs for the majority of its annual production of around 100,000 cases, a production which is quite small compared to other top Houses. Most, 85%, of the vineyards are Grand Cru and Premier Cru classified sites, including some unique and exceptional plots, notably the 4 hectares plots near the House in Ay which has un-grafted vines. These plots have avoided the phylloxera mite which wiped out Europe's vineyards in the early 1900s. These plots produce the wonderful Bollinger Vielles Vignes Francaise, one of the World's greatest and most unique wines.
These plots produce the wonderful Bollinger Vielles Vignes Francaise, one of the World's greatest and most unique wines.
Thirdly, Bollinger's winemaking is fundamental to the style of the wine. First there is a dominance of Pinot Noir in the blend, depending upon the wine from 60% to 100%, which is a more powerful style of Champagne.
Bollinger still use oak to ferment for the first time their wines. Always old oak, sometimes up to one hundred-year-old barrels, so as not to impart oaky flavours, but just allow the must and young wine to micro-oxygenate, again giving a unique flavour profile but also enabling the wines to last for many years. To enable them to do this they have their own cooperage to maintain and repair barrels and the last full-time cooper in Champagne.
The reserve wines for the Special Cuvee non-vintage blend are bottled off and held in magnums, selected from individual earlier vintages and vineyards. These Reserve wines are kept in magnums under cork closures for 5 and up to 15 years before being used in the final blends. And finally, the finished final blended wines are allowed to remain on yeast lees for at least twice as long as the region's rules permit, and often for vintage wines, up to seven years before disgorging.
Indeed, the whole idea of "late release" Champagne, now taken up by several of the top Houses like Dom Perignon, Krug, and Roederer, was first started by Lilly Bollinger, the then head of the firm, as RD (recently disgorged), in 1967, featuring the newly disgorged 1952 vintage, so a not untypical 14 to 15 years on lees before disgorging.
Indeed, the whole idea of "late release" Champagne, now taken up by several of the top Houses like Dom Perignon, Krug, and Roederer, was first started by Lilly Bollinger
Lastly, how is it that "Bolly" features in Absolutely Fabulous with Joanna Lumley, or indeed most of the James Bond movies? Does Bollinger have a huge marketing and PR budget?
Well no. These endorsements are more to do with Bollinger being found in all the right places; top hotels, restaurants and bars, in many private homes. It hasn't had "smart" flashy marketing campaigns, but simply always promoted and upheld above everything it's quality, and has never been tempted to over-price it's wines, and always be fair value.
But, a small inside story about Bond. Some forty years ago, the then boss of Bollinger took a call from an American called Cubby Broccoli, who said he was passing through London, and was there any chance he could meet. After finding out who Mr Broccoli was, he and his daughter Barbera were duly invited to lunch, over which he explained that Ian Fleming had often mentioned other Champagnes in his books, but occasionally mentioned James Bond as having drunk Bollinger. He went on to explain that in filming they needed a large supply of "stage" Champagne, properly dressed bottles filled with non-alcoholic fizz to look during filming like the real thing. He was having problems in getting these "stage" bottles from the other House who had been featured in earlier movies, could we possibly help? The rest is history!
I finish by asking you, whenever you drink Bollinger, be it the Special Cuvee non-vintage, the Grande Annee Vintage, the Rose, or the extraordinary Vielles Vignes Francaise or still Pinot Noir Coteaux Aux Enfants, allow the wine to breath, in a wider glass than a narrow flute. You will see how these Bollinger Champagnes develop and open up.
And, I will remind you of what Lilly Bollinger said once, when asked by a wine journalist in the early 1970's, "when did she drink Champagne?" …
"I drink it when I'm happy and when I'm sad.
Sometimes I drink it when I'm alone.
When I have company, I consider it obligatory.
I trifle with it if I'm not hungry and drink it when I am.
Otherwise, I never touch it --- unless I'm thirsty."