Emerging from the forested hilltop of Montagne de Reims, the heartland of the Champagne region unfurls itself before you. The reveal is gradual and, as you’d expect from this most famous of wine regions, not without elegance.
However when I visited the region in March it was not lush undulating green hillsides that greeted me but the rather more sobering sight of heavy, leaden grey skies over bleak fields of skeletal vines – the area had not yet fully emerged from its winter dormancy and so was distinctly lacking in any vegetation or colour.
I was in Champagne to visit Bollinger, the famous House known to anyone with even a passing interest in sparkling wine. Having worked with the brand for years it was akin to meeting one of your heroes, though in contrast to the old saying I couldn’t imagine this encounter to be in any way disappointing.
Descending from Montagne de Reims we hung left before Épernay in the direction of Aÿ, home to Bollinger as well as other notable names such as Ayala, Deutz and a small boutique brand known as Moët et Chandon. Aÿ itself came upon us quite suddenly and without the fanfare I was expecting from such an eminent address. I also found it difficult to comprehend its size: with a mere 4,000 souls or so, I didn’t expect Aÿ to be, well, a village.
More surprising was how we came to find ourselves outside the House of Bollinger itself: instead of a gilded avenue lined with cypress trees and cherubs heralding our arrival, we approached the château via what seemed to be a back lane behind some houses, pulling up outside the iconic polished brass nameplates with absolutely no ado.
That’s not to say the House of Bollinger itself is very impressive however: a very typical château in that much French style, with two sweeping staircases leading to a doorway beneath a wrought iron balcony and surrounded by white shuttered windows. It features a lot in the Bollinger iconography, and rightly so.
We started by having a gander at Bollinger’s back garden – literally. Behind the House is a walled vineyard, and a very rare one too as it’s one of the few in France that wasn’t devastated by the phylloxera epidemic that wiped out most vineyards across Europe in the 1860s onwards. Indeed, it’s one of only two in Champagne that wasn’t affected by the devastating louse – the other, Clos St Jacques, is literally across the road and also owned by Bollinger. Needless to say this rarity is fully exploited via an extremely limited-production Champagne called Vieilles Vignes Françaises which is made exclusively from these two plots; a bottle of this – if you can find one – will set you back at least €500, if you’re lucky.
From there we made our way down the deserted streets on foot to Lily Bollinger’s house where, across a modest courtyard, there was a small cooperage where they still maintain their oak barrels to this day, the last company in Champagne to do so. Hanging haphazardly on the walls were a handful of movie posters from past Bond films, the only obvious connection here to the world’s most famous spy, for whom Bollinger has been the Champagne of choice since the 1970’s. Oddly, the posters they chose were all from the Pierce Brosnan era – none from before, and none since. I wonder if the coopers of Bollinger have a particular affinity for the man from Navan?
Next to the cooperage was a door leading down into the cellars of Bollinger: dark, dank tunnels hewn from the chalky earth for which Champagne is famous. Here, thousands upon thousands of dusty cobwebbed bottles line the walls that snake for an incredible five kilometres underneath Aÿ. It’s mind-boggling to think that the residents of this sleepy village have literally millions of Euros of the finest Champagne resting beneath their feet.
Established in 1829, Bollinger is one of the few Champagne Houses left under full family ownership. The beefy “Bollinger style” is famous worldwide and owes no small part to the predominance of Pinot Noir in its blends, but their dogged commitment to traditional (read: expensive and time consuming) methods also play their part, for example their habit of fermenting a high proportion of their wines in wood, their use of a large amount of Premier and Grand Cru wines in the blends, and ageing for well beyond the legal minimum, amongst others.
‘Attention to detail’ is a term bandied about a lot, and mostly erroneously so, but for Bollinger it really is an underlying philosophy of what they do, preferring as they do to prioritise quality, tradition and craftsmanship over profit and margins – an enviable situation made all the easier by being family-owned.
The result is expensive, yes, especially in light of €20 Champagne in the likes of Aldi and Lidl, but you really do get what you pay for with Bollinger.
Back at Aÿ we emerged blinking from the cellars to face what was perhaps the highlight of the highlights: tasting the fruit of all this effort. The full range of non-vintage and vintage wines were laid before us in white and rosé versions, and even a rare still red wine called La Côte Aux Enfants.
But before we finish, no article on Bollinger is complete without the famous quote by Lily Bollinger, a tour de force who ran the company on her own for four decades in which she revolutionised the company, doubled sales, expanded production, and all the time adhered resolutely to the tradition that made the Bollinger name famous:
I drink it when I’m happy and when I’m sad. Sometimes I drink it when I’m alone. When I have company I consider it obligatory. I trifle with it if I’m not hungry and drink it when I am. Otherwise, I never touch it—unless I’m thirsty.
TWO TO TRY
Bollinger Special Cuvée
RSP €65 and widely available from good independent off-licences
The benchmark, and not for the faint hearted: full, rich, toasty, buttery, this is bruising but nevertheless elegant – a contradiction of sorts, yes, but true nevertheless. A properly posh Champagne.
Bollinger La Grande Année 2002/2004/2005
RSP €120 from Mitchell & Son, O’Brien’s, The Corkscrew, Redmond’s of Ranelagh and other fine wine retailers
This is the vintage Champagne from Bollinger and any one of the years above may be on the shelves of your local fine wine retailer at the moment. I’ve recently had the 2002 and for me it’s the best vintage Champagne I can recall, and from (vague) memory the 2004 and 2005 vintages are up there too. It’s more refined than the Special Cuvée, more delicate and mineral, and though more toned down in volume is nevertheless still rich and complex with incredible length. A true treat Champagne.