Bollinger is one of the most recognized names in all of Champagne for a variety of reasons. It’s the Champagne of James Bond and of the Royal family. Its history dates back almost 200 years, it is one of the original Grande Marques of Champagne (a group of roughly 20 of the top houses that have been leaders in building the Champagne brand) and it remains family owned. Most importantly, it makes damn fine Champagne.
Its history goes back to 1829 when German-born Jacques Bollinger partnered with two Frenchmen to form Renaudin-Bollinger et Cie.
Bollinger was one of many Germans who came to the Champagne region to make sparkling wine from grapes grown on its unique limestone-laden soils. The Germanic influence can be seen from the names of many of the best-known Champagne houses: Taittinger, Krug, Deutz, Dhondt, Mumm, Moet, and many others. Over time the French adapted their own pronunciation to these German names and the original pronunciation of “bawl-un-grr” (with a hard g) has morphed into the more Francophone “bawl-on-zhay”.
Over the years various members of the Bollinger family have run the house, defined and maintained the house style, and developed the market not just for their wines but for the entire Champagne region. Perhaps the most colourful of these was the great Madame Lily Bollinger who was suddenly thrust into the drivers’ seat when her husband Jacques died in World War II.
Lily was charismatic, driven and extremely passionate about her Champagne. She furthered Bollinger’s already deep connection in Britain and pioneered a loyal following within the US. She had a great wit and is still frequently quoted for having stated when asked how often she drank Champagne: “I drink it when I am happy and when I am sad. Sometimes I drink it when I am alone. When I have company, I consider it obligatory. I trifle with it when I am not hungry and drink it when I am. Otherwise I never touch it unless I am thirsty.”
Ian Fleming’s famous spy James Bond was known to drink Bollinger, among a lot of other things. While the vodka martini (shaken, not stirred) would be the most famous, Bond was quite at home with a wide variety of drinks, including the Americano, the Negroni, the Vesper Martini, scotch, rum Collins and on and on.
But Bond was known as man who knows what he wants and one who pays attention to the details. So, when he ordered Champagne, he generally ordered the best. But on the pages of Fleming’s books, Bond was a dabbler with a taste for several Champagnes that included Taittinger, Krug, Veuve Clicquot, Pommery and, of course, Bollinger. It was in the movies where Bollinger was featured in no less than 14 Bond films as being drank by the super spy.
Britain’s Royal family is also known to drink Bollinger and has given it a Royal Warrant which is a much-coveted designation that states the product is worthy of consumption by the Royals. But Bollinger is not the only one; other Champagne’s with Royal Warrants include Veuve Clicquot, Lanson, Roederer and Laurent Perrier.
So just what is it about Champagne Bollinger that makes it chosen by such discerning arbiters of taste as the Royal Family and James Bond? We recently visited Bollinger on a tour of Champagne and it was there we learned firsthand the various reasons behind the greatness of the Bollinger wines.
There is no great wine unless there is great fruit, and Bollinger has plenty of that.
The big Champagne houses are known for buying grapes from numerous different growers, often 60 or more. These growers ultimately supply up to 90% of the grapes that a big house will vinify into Champagne. Bollinger has always been an outlier in being a big house but supplying over 60% of the grapes it makes into Champagne. The vineyards they own come primarily from 7 top- rated villages. Pinot Noir is sourced from villages of Ay, Verzenay, Avieres, Luvois and Tauxenieres; Pinot Meunier from Champvoisy and Chardonnay from Cuis. Great sites, with control over how the grapes are grown and picked means top-quality, expertly ripened fruit.
Being family owned and operated for generations, Bollinger has developed a healthy respect for traditions. That is why they have gone to great lengths to protect and to continue to harvest grapes from two very special vineyards: Clos St Jacques and Chaude Terres.
Neither of these two tiny vineyards succumbed to Phylloxera, the vine-eating louse that destroyed most of the vineyards of France starting back as far as the mid-1800s. As a result, these two vineyards produce minimal amounts of grapes that remain planted on their own rootstocks, unlike most of the rest that were ultimately re-planted on phylloxera-resistant American rootstocks.
Adding to their uniqueness is the fact that each is a “clos” a special site that has been walled in. While the clos is found in many spots in Burgundy there are only about 15 remaining in all of Champagne. The grapes from these two clos go into the ultra-recherche Bollinger Vielles Vignes, their most exclusive (and expensive) Champagne. The Chaude Terres sits adjacent to the Bollinger house and we able to walk among its vine rows when we visited. A rare treat to walk on such hallowed ground.
As we toured their vast underground cellars, we saw the meticulous attention to detail that goes into their winemaking. These are traditionally made Champagnes where manual processes are embraced. The expense is endured so that quality can be achieved. Huge amounts of reserve wines go into their blends that creates wines of added complexity as well as consistency of the house style.
Ageing is very unique at Bollinger. All their wines are aged in magnum-sized bottles (1.5 litres).
The Bollinger’s believe this is a better format for the long ageing of wine, better than barrel-aging or aging in tank. Their magnums have specially designed, thinner necks which reduce the amount of airspace in the neck of the bottle which has ben shown to contribute to better ageing.
Most Champagne houses that store in bottles use the metal cap also found on beer bottles during storage as it is cheaper than using corks. Corks would only be inserted at the very end of the process as the Champagne receives its dosage. But at Bollinger, all their magnums are aged under cork that is held in place by a large metal staple, in a process known as agraffe. It is little details like these that make the Bollinger difference.
The Bollinger style is one of power aligned with finesse. Their dominant grape variety is Pinot Noir which brings power and depth to their wines. Chardonnay is also blended into many of their cuvées which adds elegance and precision. The result is full body, complex wines that always make a statement. Bollinger is distributed around the world and their Grande Cuvée is especially accessible. Not the cheapest bottle on the shelf but for a special occasion (or just watching a Bond movie) Bollinger is highly recommended.
Bollinger NV Special Cuvée
We think the Bollinger Special Cuvée needs to be separated from the “other” NV Bruts. Every big house has an NV Brut that is their largest production wine and is the example for the house style.
This is true of Special Cuvée. But what makes Special Cuvée, plus a handful of others (Billecart Salmon NV Brut Reserve, Pol Roger NV Brut, and Roederer NV Brut) different from the rest is the painstaking expensive attention to detail these cuvées go through. In the case of Bollinger, these differences are striking. First, Bollinger Special Cuvée sources of grapes are from 85% Grand Cru or Premier Cru designated vineyards. Each vineyard’s harvest is fermented separately. 60% of the wine in the final blend is reserve wine that has been aged from 5-15 years. Wines are all barrel fermented and then aged for twice as long as required by the appellation in individual magnum-sized bottles before disgorgement. And yet these huge differences come at only a small price premium to the other NV Bruts. The Special Cuvée we tasted at the winery was based on the 2015 vintage with reserve wines going back to the turn of this century. Golden in colour with a fine mousse, the pinot driven Bolly style is displayed well with its characteristic power and depth. A complex and food worthy Champagne, we get notes of pear, nougat, lemon zest along with hints of spice and earth. Terrific balance, this strikes all the right notes. 60% Pinot Noir, 15% Pinot Meunier, 25% Chardonnay.
2014 Bollinger Grande Année
Like Roederer Cristal, the Grande Année is one of the first tête de cuvées to be released to the market but one of the longest lived.
Youthfully exuberant, this is definitely a gastronomic Champagne that really should be enjoyed at the dinner table. Full bodied, rich and almost decadent, this shows a stylistic similarity to the NV Brut but a turbo-charged version. All of the dials are turned way up. The intensity of the flavours must be experienced to be believed. Apple skin, cherry, citrus notes, and plenty of toasty brioche are but some of the panoply of flavours that this Grande Année puts on display. Delicious now, but additional time in the cellar will only bring out more nuance and even greater sophistication. A stand out wine, no question. Extraordinary
20 Boulevard Maréchal de Lattre, 51160 Aÿ, France
Tel: +33 3 26 53 33 66
*Visits by appointment only