“I want to see the sunshine after the rain,
I want to see bluebirds flying over the mountains again,
Oh, where is the silver lining shining at the rainbow’s end?”
This 1977 Elkie Brooks song popped into my head during a rather extended loiter outside the grim and grey Lille Europe train station whilst awaiting a coach driver battling la circulation (the traffic) and enjoying the boss directing him in with his best Franglais.
It was raining. Of course it was. But the silver lining was that we were heading to Champagne Bollinger in Aÿ, ostensibly for a sales & marketing conference, but it was a dead cert there would be some Champagne involved, which is always heart-warming.
A Eurostar to Lille then a transfer by road is meant to be the fastest way to Bollinger, according to Bollinger themselves, but they clearly do not appreciate the logistics of herding 28 members of Mentzendorff around. The coach arrived nearly 2 hours late, a delay which the rigidly structured itinerary did not allow for, and we ploughed South East to Aÿ, the home of Champagne Bollinger since 1858, and site of the finest Pinot Noir vineyards in Champagne.
Arriving mildly (ahem) behind schedule, the team scarfed lunch before piling back onto the coach to visit the Champagne Bollinger logistics site in Oger in the Côte des Blancs. An important recent development for the brand as part of its modernisation and investment plan, the site at Oger is a 10,000 sq metre, energy-efficient building for the bottling, labelling, packaging, storing and distribution of Bollinger Champagnes. The site has allowed Bollinger to better serve its customers with a much-improved product delivery system. The state-of-the-art machinery is also mesmeric. I can’t add a video here, but the Science Channel did go behind the scenes at Bollinger a while ago and produced this excellent video. A visit to Oger served two brilliant purposes; it underlined the fact that each and every bottle that leaves Champagne Bollinger has been inspected by both computers and humans for imperfections (particularly foreign objects in the bottles…!), but also the old ways are still in use – we saw jeroboams of Bollinger Rosé being labelled by hand, which still happens for all the larger format bottles, plus the very old and very rare wines. We also learnt the trials and tribulations of us asking for stock to be produced and not actually ordering it. I think we have all now learnt our lesson……
From Oger we bussed to the village of Cuis, in the Côte des Blancs region of Champagne, to see Bollinger’s Premier Cru Chardonnay vineyard. Not much is made of Bollinger’s Chardonnay, as it is the House of Pinot Noir, however the Chardonnay grapes which go into the wines – 25% of the Special Cuvée Blend and up to 40% of La Grande Année blends depending on year – must be of the same high and exacting quality as the Pinot Noir. Today, the Cuis vineyard covers eighteen hectares and, as can be seen below, is proudly less tidy than the barren vines of the neighbouring vineyard. The presence of plant life between the vines used to infuriate proud vineyard workers who wanted the tidiest vines, but Bollinger’s viticultural practises want to encourage biodiversity, rather than eradicate it, so grasses and wild flowers are allowed to grow amongst the vines and keep the soil and the environment rich, diverse and healthy. The wines from Cuis bring minerality and liveliness to the Bollinger cuvées, but also floral, exotic and citrus aromas. Like each of Bollinger’s six other vineyards, Cuis is steeped in history: until the 1960s, the oak from the forest overlooking the vineyard was used to make Bollinger’s casks.
Vineyard visit over, we were finally allowed to check into our hotel, the Epernay version of Faulty Towers, which graciously allowed some guests to spend their entire stay without power, light, or power AND light for the chosen few. A swift pre-dinner visit to the bar was required. Loaded back into the baroush we returned to Bollinger for dinner in the Cellier with Commercial Director Guy de Rivoire and Cellar Master Gilles Descôtes. As is customary in Champagne, Champagne was served with every course, a terribly decadent affair which included lobster, veal and aged Comté. Bollinger’s special hospitality trick is ‘Vin Surprise´ (no need to translate, I hope!) which everyone has to hazard a guess at. Some people hit on the vintage, some people hit on the cuvée, others were just concerned their glass had been empty for longer than 60 seconds…
A second day in Champagne dawned with a run for the crazy few and croissants for the sensible, before returning to our ‘cellier’ at Bollinger to get the minor business of the actual sales & marketing meeting out of the way. That done, we were taken to visit one of the most famous Bollinger vineyards, La Côte aux Enfants, the best Pinot Noir site in Aÿ, arguably the whole of Champagne. The vineyard gained its name – literally ‘the hill of the children’ – because the slopes are so steep only children used to be able to tend and harvest the grapes. (Labour laws being what they are today, children are no longer used…) Another iteration of the name is La Côte aux Enfer, or the hill of hell…because of the steepness, not because it is Satan’s favourite mound. Today, the slopes are not as steep as they were because in the 1970s the local middle school was in need of chalk for construction, so Bollinger took the opportunity to level the steepest slopes of the site, and provide building materials to the school. The near four hectare plot of La Cote aux Enfants, sometimes referred to as the Romanée-Conti of Champagne, was assembled in the 1930s by Jacques Bollinger, husband of Mme Lily, who was so adamant it was the finest plot for Pinot Noir in the region. To this day, La Cote aux Enfants provides the grapes for the still red wine of the same name, as well as the Pinot Noir added to La Grande Année Rosé.
From the vineyards, we moved to the Bollinger cellars, via a quick visit to the two walled ‘clos’ vineyards that house the remarkable pre-phylloxera vines that grow the grapes for the mythical blanc de noirs (100% Pinot Noir) cuvée Vieilles Vignes Francaises. ‘Chaudes Terres’ is directly behind the Bollinger Maison, and considered one of the finest examples of a pre-phylloxera vineyard, where the vines are grown en foule with roots above ground, in France (below). The second VVF vineyard, Clos St. Jacques is on the other side of the road. In years when a VVF vintage is made, only 3-4,000 bottles are produced.
A move underground into the +/- 3 kilometres of Bollinger cellars beneath Aÿ allowed us to see some of the House’s extensive collection of Reserve Magnums of still wines, vinified by cru (village), varietal (Pinot Noir & Chardonnay only, no Meunier) and year, which act effectively as the extra ingredients, the spice, the magic touch in the blend of Bollinger Special Cuvée. Currently, the House stores 750,000 magnums of reserve wine, with 70,000 being opened BY HAND to find the correct extra ingredients for the latest release of Special Cuvée. Maintaining the consistency of this benchmark non-vintage blend is the hardest job of all for the Cellar Master.
Back in the cellier, Cellar Master Gilles Descotes took the whole team through one of the most informative and enjoyable range tastings I think we have experienced. ‘Wine Authority’ is not only a focus for Mentzendorff this year, but also for Champagne Bollinger, and Gilles expertly set out all we needed to know about why the House is so renowned for its expertise, its savoir-faire. The five pillars were again underlined, and it is always useful to remind ourselves of these;
- The vineyards; Bollinger currently owns 167 hectares, enough to supply up to 60% of the supply requirements, and hugely important to guarantee quality of grapes and consistency of style
- Pinot Noir; almost 60% of the 167 hectares of vineyard are planted with Pinot Noir, the backbone of Bollinger blends and the cornerstone of the Bollinger style
- Oak barrels; the House has a collection of 3,500 oak barrels, some up to 100 years old, tended by the only full-time cooper employed by a Champagne House, which ferment the wines (up to 1 million bottles annually) and bring a key element to the Bollinger taste
- Reserve wines; rather than storing wines in oak casks or stainless steel tanks, the reserve wines are a unique aspect of the blend of Special Cuvée
- Time; the French put laws on how long Champagne must be aged before release, Bollinger drastically extends these for their wines, keeping them in the cellar for at least twice as long as the appellation requires
As we tasted through the range, Gilles explained to us the ‘Bollinger taste’ which the House has become so renowned for, highlighting 3 key aspects;
- The fruit taste; the Bollinger taste is about fruit in all of its stages, freshness from the wines of the most recent harvest, ripe mature fruit from the reserve wines (which aren’t stored in magnums) and the tertiary layer, the dried fruit aspect from the reserve wines stored in magnum
- Vinosity; taken to mean ‘deep and subtle’. The ‘deepness’ of the taste comes from a majority of Pinot Noir in all blends, a minimum of 60% always. The ‘subtlety’ comes from Chardonnay coming mostly from some of the finest vineyard sites in the Cote des Blancs, and often overlooked when talking about Bollinger
- The creaminess; a creaminess in the effervescence, the fizz is key to the Bollinger taste, and the particular sensation in Special Cuvée derives from three years contact with the lees (yeasts) in bottle which allow the development of this rich, textural aspect.
Dinner on this evening was enjoyed just down the road at Ayala where the young, dynamic team put on a feast of food and wine which brilliantly countered the Bollinger style – rich, powerful, developed – by showcasing Ayala’s elegant, pure, mineral wines. Highlights being two versions of the 2005 vintage with the Millésimé and prestige cuvée Perle d’Ayala. (Thank you again Mr Phillips for the photograph, I was once more too busy throwing down food & wine)
Our final day in Champagne consisted of a quiz so cunning that it featured different answers to the questions depending on whether you tackled the French or English one. It certainly bamboozled the author of this blithering, but that could have been due to the distracting presence of a pile of croissants… #operationcroissant
We were all very privileged to have been given such access behind the scenes at Champagne Bollinger, and certainly all came away with new information, facts and anecdotes which can only contribute to our overall wine authority, and enjoyment of our number one brand!