Not just your average Champagne

What does Queen Elizabeth II have in common with James Bond (aka 007)? Their love for Bollinger Champagne. Last week I was fortunate enough to visit the vineyard of the in 1829 founded Bollinger Champagne, it is an honor as you can only visit the vineyard upon invitation! Thanks to this visit I got a totally different view on champagne. The strength of Bollinger is to my opinion that it is still run by the Bollinger family… I know lots of people find champagne expensive (although if you want a really good cava of prosecco you’ll also be paying more than before), which is true… But for me there must be made a distinction between (I won’t be using names)  Champagne makers! Some Champagne makers only assemble as they don’t have their own grapes. Others only care about selling and making as much as possible and sell their champagne at astronomic/ exclusive prices for no reason (as they make over 10 million bottles a year, so that for me isn’t exclusive anymore). And then there are houses that prefer making quality instead of quantity like Bollinger. (For more info on the history of this Champagne maker check link)

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And even in the group of those houses Bollinger sticks out as they work in an even more special way.  For instance Bollinger uses 70% of its own grapes and the remaining 30% is bought (from farmers that passed the strict Bollinger requirements). On top of that the grapes they use are all from Grand and premier Cru vineyards.  Normally when making champagne the grapes are picked together and all pressed together. Bollinger will be picking and pressing all grapes that are from a different area in Champagne region and type of grape (cépage) separately. So basically from every bottle they are able to tell you exactly from which “lot” the grapes where from. They do this to have a better control of the quality of the Champagne as some grapes might have had more sun than others and therefore are sweeter and will produce more alcohol. They do admit it is a lot more work, but in the end it pays off. I’ll try to keep it short, but no promises 🙂

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I’m sure you probably already know this, but just in case I’ll tell you. Champagne gets made out of 3k kinds of grape: Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay (Bollinger will be using a higher % of Pinot Noir in their Champagnes). What follows would be the 2nd thing that distinguishes champagne makers who choose to go for quality or quantity. When champagne is made there are 3 pressing to get the juice out of the grapes.

1st pressing: is the best part as it will only be existing of 100% juice

2nd pressing: will be having some pulp in the juice (so quality is a bit less)

3rd pressing: here mostly only the pips and skins remain and are used to make alcohol.

Bollinger only uses the 100% juice, the remains from the 2nd and 3rd are sold to other Champagne makers (Big names). And again here they will be pressing all grapes from a different “lot” differently.

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After the pressing the  grapes into the “first fermentation” process, where they will basically make a white wine aka “still wine” or “vins claires” (so no bubbles yet). For this fermentation Bollinger will be using for the “Special Cuvée” (their “base” champagne) Inox tanks (like most champagne makers). Or better 70% in inox and 30% in old oak barrels, if that particular pressing has the power to handle the  oxidation and malolactic conversion…For the more special champagnes they make (Millisimées , La Grande Année and RD) they will be 100% having a first fermentation in old  burgundy barrels (which is unique for champagne makers). The old burgundy won’t be giving a wooden flavor/scent, but rather a light oxidation which will give a richer aroma and a product with a long aging potential (the champagnes can age over 40 years…). For the first fermentation they will still be keeping the “vins claires” separate according to origin.  This will give Bollinger a large assortment of “vins claires” (some sweeter, some with more acidity) to assemble the Champagnes or in this stage still wines.  To guarantee that quality Champagne makers will be mixing the still wines from the current year (95%¨) with what is called “Reserve wines” (5%)  . Bollinger will only be mixing 1/3 from current year, 1/3 of the still wine from the past 2 years and 1/3 of the reserve wine. FYI the reserve wines age in Magnum bottles with cork and knowing they keep their reserve wines up to 15 years per cépage and per region you can imagine they have a huge “reserve” 🙂 🙂 (oooh yeah a little word game)

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I hope you guys are still with me?? I know I’m being a bit more technical than I usually am, but now more than ever you need to know the whole picture… but next time somebody starts babbling/showing of about their champagne knowledge you can impress them with what you know  (snap)

snap attitude

OK, so after the assembling of the cépages (or grape types) they will be adding yeast and cane sugar that will help the still wine to get its aroma and the bubbles during the 2nd fermentation.  BTW for Bollinger’s Rosé champagne they will be assembling the still wine with 5% actual strong red wine (100% Pinot Noir Grand Cru from their own vineyards and that can also be bought on its own “LA CÔTE AUX ENFANTS”) instead of leaving the skins of the grapes to give the color to the champagne.

According to the CIVC champagne can be sold after 15 months of 2nd fermentation (mostly cheaper champagnes) as for Bollinger will at least be fermenting 4 years (48 months) for the Special Cuvée and between 8 and 25 years for the RD. After the “15 months” the bubbles will still be too aggressive (just do the test yourself I ‘d say if you don’t believe me 🙂 )

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Now during our visit we first had a tasting of some of the still wines (so from the first fermentation), but best is when you taste these that you don’t drink too much of it as they are a bit more “acid” than a normal wine (it will get “sweeter during 2nd fermentation) otherwise a close-by bathroom wouldn’t be a luxury 🙂 (except for the red wine as that is a like regular red wine). Anyhow it was really interesting to taste the difference between the still wines from same year and grape but from different vintages.

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Although I enjoyed the visit a lot and learned that Bollinger Champagne is made with a lot of care and patience, my preferred moment was lunch 🙂 with of course the finished product paired with the dishes.  These are the moments I cherish the most!! Surrounded with international sommeliers, wine dealers, etc… and we even had a special guest at our table Gilles Descotes who is Bollinger’s ‘chef de cave’. (very interesting guy!). I think there is no better way to learn everything there is to learn about champagne

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We started with the Special Cuvée that got served with Scallops prepared in 3 ways with petites Rattes du Touquet, Guérande salt and a Parmesan crisp.

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Followed by the 2004 La Grande Année that was served with Iberian Filet mignon, saffron and chorizo rice.

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With the 2002 RD came an cheese assortment Comte de Reserve and Gruyère de Garde.

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For with the dessert they had foreseen Bollinger Rosé… which was a perfect ending of a great meal.

But the perfect ending of the day in Ay was after visiting the vines in the sunshine…

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My personal favorite Champagne is the 2004 La Grande Année if I’d have to pick one. My private wine collection will be growing again 😉 😉

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I could keep going on and on about Bollinger or Champagne… but I promised to keep it short 🙂

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So next time you’re buying champagne you can compare and find out Bollinger (taking into account what I said above) isn’t the “exclusive” overpriced champagne, but a bottle filled with love, care and lots of patience aka Quality!

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