Tag Archives: Ayala

Bollinger – A Visit to the Legendary Champagne House

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.

Overlooking Clos St Jacques in Aÿ

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.

The cooperage in Bollinger

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.

One of the many stretches of underground cellars

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.

When Bollinger says they lay down their Champagne for years they ain’t lying!

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.

 

This article originally appeared on TheTaste.ie.

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The Obligatory Christmas Dinner Wine Review

It is a truism that wine bloggers get all jittery and gooey-eyed this time of year, and not for festive purposes. Christmas is the one guaranteed time of the year that ‘the good wine’ is permitted to be pulled out without an inkling of hesitation, uncertainty or guilt.

Throughout the year, wine-lovers, whether cognisant of the fact or not, torment and vex themselves on occasions where wine is requested of them, performing complex mental cost/benefit analyses in an effort to choose a bottle that fits criteria relevant to the situation. When a nice dinner is to about to be had, when friends call around on short notice, or something comforting is needed in front of the telly after a long day, all eyes turn to ‘the wine guy/girl’ in expectation and the mental gymnastics begin.

Of course the occasion for which the wine required is a big factor in the decision to be made. Should the wine be reliable or ‘interesting’; will the recipients ‘get’ an unusual bottle you choose; is it a time for alternative varietals or not? Are most of your wines in your collection for laying down for a couple of years or are some ready to drink now, and how can you be sure it’s in its drinking window? Should it be food-friendly or sipped on its own, and if the former then what food is being served and what will match it (and the complete can of worms that itself entails)? All these considerations and more jumble around your head while your hand hovers over various options until you find yourself, shamefully, weighing up if the occasion and the people involved are ‘worth’ a particularly fancy bottle on that specific occasion, before re-shelving that Super Tuscan for ‘another time maybe’.

Christmas is different though. ‘Tis the season for wild abandon of course, so the month tends to see your special wines wheeled out for all and sundry. Out come the vintage Champagnes, the icon Aussies, the Super Tuscans, the French Premier and Grand Crus, the bottles with just the right amount of aging or ones you’ll take a punt on. And of course with the ups come the downs: the bottles left too late; the ones that really should have been better; the oxidised, corked and TCA’d. But it’s all part of what we love about wine.

Anyway, here’s what we had on the day:

Ayala Champagne Brut Majeur NV[singlepic id=3 w=320 h=240 float=left]

Owned by Bollinger, the typical Bolly style is very apparent, though perhaps toned down a little – think of this as a ‘Baby Bollinger’ perhaps. Very vivid gold in the glass, there’s the toasty nutty nose and touch of butter and grilled nuts on the palate. The perlage perhaps isn’t as fine as some more expensive wines but this is just a niggle. Very good, and a decent QPR. Consistently a favourite of mine.

2001 Domaine du Duc de Magenta Chassagne-Montrachet 1er Cru Morgeot Clos de la Chapelle 

A rare foray into cru white Burgundy. I’m suspicious that this may have been perhaps past its best or a victim of the scourge of random oxidation that white Burgundy has been suffering from of late. Notes of butter (real butter, and not just ‘buttery’) and nuts on the nose, even some sherry characteristics, which made me more wary of the possibility of oxidation. More sherry on the palate which blew off shortly to give more by way of nuts, a lick of oak and yellow-green apples. A sip with some Christmas turkey resulted in an explosion of this over-ripe, yellow apple characteristic which astounded me. Following from this was more sweet apple juice and some recurrent sherry notes. Overall this was an interesting bottle though I’m not sure I’d have it again.

2004 Wakefield St Andrews Cabernet Sauvignon[singlepic id=7 w=320 h=240 float=right]

Good solid wine but its time may be now. Blackcurrent liqueur, some firm menthol (but not to the usual Aussie blockbuster level), a lovely all-rounder. I’m guessing it’s slightly past it: I had this last year and it was firmer and more structured, but now it’s a little sweeter and not as balanced. A recent tasting of the 2002, which was certainly on its descent, suggests a similar prognosis. Still a rich, deep wine that’s very enjoyable now though. Perhaps give it a half-hour decant too.

2005 Chanson Beaune-Grèves 1er Cru[singlepic id=4 w=320 h=240 float=left]

Took a time to open up (initially it was jarringly harsh and acidic), but when it did it provided some nice Burgundian Pinot characteristics, but not to a a 1er Cru level I felt. Some nice mature baked red fruit, quite drying in the finish and nicely integrated acidity (eventually!), it went well of course with the Christmas dinner (especially matching and elevating the cranberry sauce) but as I said, perhaps not the 1er Cru level I was expecting.