Visiting Champagne Bollinger, part 1   
Introduction, and the vieilles vignes Françaises

Bollinger, 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).

I 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.

The ungrafted plot of Chaudes Terres, 15 ares, at the back of the Bollinger house

But 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.

Individually staked, layered vines, Chaudes Terres

But 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.

Clos St Jacques, 21 ares of ungrafted vines, not yet pruned and staked

The 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.’

Gilles Descotes

Ungrafted 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 vineyard.

It is 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).

But it’s truly interesting to see a snapshot of wine history like this.

Here's a short film of the two plots of ungrafted vines:

See also:

Part 1, introduction and the vieilles vignes Francaises
Part 2, in the vineyards
Part 3, in the cellars, tasting wines
A previous report on the wines of Bollinger

Wines tasted as indicated  
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