One of the most recognisable Champagne names, the Grande Marque house of Bollinger has a reputation that goes somewhat beyond the superb quality of its wines. It has also become something of a fashion icon and a byword for luxury, in part thanks to mentions, for good or bad, in James Bond movies since 1973 and the sitcom Absolutely Fabulous!
Pleasingly, the high quality of the wines is absolutely there to back up its reputation, one based on the superb 178 hectares of vineyard which the house proudly owns, 85% of which are of grand or premier cru status and from which some 70% of the grapes for its wines come.
The vineyards are spread across several villages, with pinot noir planted in Avenay, Aÿ, Louvois, Tauxières and Verzenay, chardonnay at Cuis and pinot meunier at Champvoisy. Indeed, two sites – the Clos Saint-Jacques and Chaudes Terres – are planted with vines that have never suffered the ravages of phylloxera and remain ungrafted.
Bollinger is one of very few Champagne houses to grow the majority of the grapes they use. All the vineyards are farmed sustainably, employing methods designed to increase biodiversity, even down to planting hedgerows and orchards.
Its rich, even weighty Champagnes owe something of their luxurious flavour to the vines and their care, to the predominance of pinot noir in the blends, and to the barrel fermentation and extended lees ageing the wines undergo.
The Special Cuvée accounts for much of their production and is representative of the rich, powerfully flavoured style of wine that is the hallmark of the house. Bollinger R.D the brainchild of Madame Lily Bollinger ('Aunt Lily'), the very finest expression of Champagne from the best vineyards (71% grand cru, the rest premier). It begins life as the vintage La Grande Année but in certain vintages, such as 2002, some of the wine is aged much longer before disgorgement just before release. Dosage, or the addition of cane sugar and wine just after disgorgement, is reduced, permitting RD to be sold as extra brut. It is a stylish and wonderfully individual Champagne with quite magnificent structure and length of flavour. La Grande Année is the vintage cuvée, vinified only in small oak barrels made by the in-house cooper. Prolonged ageing on its lees follows before being riddled and disgorged by hand.
Founded in 1829 by Joseph Bollinger, from Swabia in Germany, and Champenois native Paul Renaudin, the business was soon in a position to expand and seek new markets. In so doing, Bollinger became the first house to export dry Champagne to Britain, in 1865, earning a royal Warrant in the process. They began exporting to the United States in 1870.
During the Second World War the widow of Jacques Bollinger, Scottish-born Elizabeth ‘Lily’ Bollinger, took charge with an indomitable spirit and intelligence. Despite the privations of war and the lack of manpower, she managed to keep making wine and, when the conflict ended, she expanded the vineyards by buying prime sites across Champagne. She also travelled tirelessly to promote her wines and the region, and it was the fabulous Lily who, on a visit to England in 1961, was famously quoted by a newspaper as saying: ‘I only drink Champagne 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 am not hungry and drink it when I am. Otherwise I never touch it – unless I’m thirsty’. Quite!
Lily, who had carefully planned her succession as cleverly as she planned everything else, handed control to her very able nephew Claude d’Hautefeuille in 1971 and died in 1977, having made Bollinger an even greater house. In 1978 the management of the business passed to Lily’s nephew Christian Bizot and it remains in family hands to this day, a bastion of tradition allied with understated modernity.
Many traditional techniques are retained in the vineyards and cellars, but Bollinger is not afraid to embrace technology too. Riddling, the turning of bottles to allow sediment to slip down to the neck of the upturned bottles, is a process carried out by machine at very many houses but is still done by hand at Bollinger. The bottling line, though, is very modern.
2008 saw the choice of the first chairman of the business to come from outside the family in the form of a native of Champagne, Jérôme Philipon, who worked previously for Coca Cola. The standards that have made the house of Bollinger what it is today remain firmly in place.
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