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The wines of Champagne Bollinger, including Vieilles Vignes Françaises

Website: http://www.bollinger.fr/

Bollinger is one of the best known of the prestige Champagne houses. Its Special Cuvée is widely regarded to be a leading example of NV fizz, with dense flavours and the ability to develop a bit in bottle. Grande Année is their well-regarded vintage Champagne, and interestingly seems to sit just under the prestige cuvées of most other houses in terms of price. In the portfolio there is a niche product, the RD, and of course the legendary Vieilles Vignes Françaises. More on these later.

Bollinger own 160 hectares of vines, which is a lot compared with most Champagne houses, and meets 60% of Bollinger’s needs. These are spread among a range of different crus, and the emphasis here is on Pinot Noir: Speciale Cuvée is 60% Pinot Noir, while Grande Année is 65%. The Pinot Noir clone 386 (also known as Pinot Moret) is favoured here. The house owns two pressing houses, and just uses the ‘cuvée’, the first pressing, selling off the ‘taille’, the second pressing, to other houses.

Bollinger is well known for its use of small oak barrels for fermenting and ageing a portion of its wine. These are never new: they must be at least four years old to avoid adding any oak imprint or oak tannin to the wine. They allow for a gentle oxygen exposure, which increases the complexity and longevity of the wine.

These wines were tasted with Bollinger chairman Ghislain de Montgolfier (pictured), the great grandson of the founder.

Bollinger Special Cuvée
Bold and quite fresh on the nose with some toasty, herby complexity. The palate is fresh and bright with good acidity. There’s a precision here alongside the bold, toasty flavours. Really nice stuff. 92/100

Bollinger La Grande Année 1997
Wonderfully toasty nose is quite tight with a lovely herby character, some citrus notes and a hint of vanilla. The palate is complex and bold with tight lemony notes alongside some richer herby characters. Powerful and expressive at the some time, this is a structured, almost profound wine. 93/100

‘2003 by Bollinger’
2003 was an atypical year in Champagne, when it was just too hot to make a typical vintage wine. ‘I’m proud of the risk that we took in 2003’, says Montgolfier. ‘Usually, we blend [from weaker years], but here we decided to make no Grande Année or RD. As wine lovers, when we had such good base wines we didn’t want to forget this year.’ So a special wine, the 2003, was made. It’s a nice drop, but I’m not sure this was a fantastic decision because the wine is atypical and lacks the sort of qualities that make Champagne special. Bright and extremely fruity with quite a delicate character. It’s accessible and fresh with subtle herb notes and a bit of toast. Easy drinking style. 89/100

Bollinger RD 1995
RD (recently disgorged) is a unique concept. The RD is a Grande Année that has been kept in Bollinger’s cellars for 8–25 years and then disgorged as an ultra brut, with a dosage of just 5 g sugar per litre. This is a deep-coloured wine that’s tight, savoury and bold, with high acidity evident. It’s toasty and structured; intensely savoury, with striking flavours of herbs and acidity. Startling, and a bit extreme. 92/100

Bollinger Vieilles Vignes Françaises 1999
Vieilles Vignes is a relic of what Champagne would have been like before phylloxera destroyed the vineyards. It comes from three plots of Pinot Noir, planted prephylloxera on their own roots at a fantastic density of 30 000 plants per hectare (most modern vineyards are 5000 or lower). The vines are planted en foule (a cane from one vine is layered into the ground to create another) and cultivated by hand. Not much is made. The annual allocation for the UK is 12–18 bottles, and at the lunch we drank half of this. Sorry. What does it taste like? Wonderfully complex open nose is delicate and beguiling, with apples, herbs and subtle toasty notes. The palate is concentrated and elegant with a lovely complex rounded character: there’s some honey, some spice and it’s broad and full. There’s lots happening here: a Champagne of real depth and complexity. 94/100

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Wines tasted 08/07  
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