Champagne Bollinger, part 1
Introduction, and the vieilles vignes Françaises
based in Aÿ, is one of the most famous names in Champagne. The
wines are quite distinctive in style, with Pinot Noir at their core
(it’s 60% of the Special Cuvée, 65% of Grande Année and RD), and
barrel fermentation is widely practiced. Indeed, all the wines above
the Special Cuvée level are fermented in barrel, with Special
Cuvée fermented in a mix of barrels and stainless steel cuves. This
reliance on oak is unusual in Champagne. Krug’s base wines
(another house known for its use of oak) average 1 month in oak
(apparently, they don’t really talk about this), whereas those of
Bollinger spend 6 months in oak. Bollinger are also famous for
ageing reserve wines in magnum bottles, sealed with corks, where
they undergo a partial secondary fermentation (more on this later).
visited in March, which is when the base wines (vins
clairs) from the previous vintage are tasted. Bollinger make
this a special event, inviting along many of their growers to taste
through a range of vins clairs
and then to enjoy a nice dinner together. Tasting these infant wines
can be quite a challenge: they are bone dry, with sky-high acidity—you
realize why the bubbles transformed the fortunes of this region. But
it’s the skill of being able to recognize which are the best of
these base wines, how they might complement each other, and then to
blend them appropriately before the second fermentation, that is
critical in making great Champagnes.
ungrafted plot of Chaudes Terres, 15 ares, at the back of the
before we tasted, it was time to look at some vineyards. Aÿ, where
Bollinger is located, is Pinot Noir territory, and that’s largely
what is planted here in the surrounding vineyards, most of which are
Grand Cru status.
first, a nice diversion. Vieilles Vignes Françaises is Bollinger’s
iconic super-luxury cuvée. Until recently, it came from three small
plots, totalling 36 ares (0.36 hectares), yielding 2500–3000
bottles each year (when the vintage is considered good enough for
this cuvée to be made). Normally, 1 hectare would take 500 hours of
labour to manage; these sites take 1500 hours per hectare.
21 ares of ungrafted vines, not yet pruned and staked
vines are ungrafted, which means they are susceptible to the
root-munching louse phylloxera. This makes them vulnerable; indeed,
one of the three plots, Croix Rouge, recently succumbed and is now
out of action. The remaining two plots, Clos Chaudes Terres and Clos
St.-Jacques, have survived, though. ‘There is nothing really
different about the soil,’ says viticulturalist Gilles Descortes.
‘It is 40 cm of top soil and then chalk. I don’t know why you
don’t have to graft here: it’s a mystery.’
vines? Sounds like you’d be encountering big, knarled, ancient
trunks. But the remarkable truth is that the vines are actually in
effect young vines, because of the ancient method of training,
called en foule (literally
‘in a crowd’; also known as layering, or marcottage).
Each year the canes that have borne fruit (that year’s growth) are
bent and replanted back in the ground, with just three buds showing.
New roots develop from the underground portion of the cane, and then
the following season new fruiting canes rise from the buds that are
above ground. Effectively, the vine is moving little by little down
the slope of the vineyard. The term ‘vieilles’ (old) therefore
refers not to the vine age, but the ancient way of planting a
only since 1970 that Vieilles Vignes Françaises has been made as a
separate cuvee, and it’s an anomalous wine. Normally, Champagnes
are blended from many separate base wines; Vieilles Vignes is
different. It also tastes quite different (although I have only been
able to taste it once; with so few bottles made it’s hard to get a
chance to see it at all).
it’s truly interesting to see a snapshot of wine history like
Here's a short
film of the two plots of ungrafted vines: