How Bollinger Wooed The British

Esquire travels to France's Champagne region to explore the history of our favourite celebratory tipple

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Everyone knows that if it doesn’t come from the Champagne region of France, then that sparkling drink in your hand isn’t champagne. All champagne is made from 34,000 acres of vineyards situated in land measuring 19 miles by 19 miles by 34 miles to the north-east of Paris, and at each point there’s a city: Reims, Chalons and Epernay.

Around 15,000 people are employed in harvesting the grapes that make the wine, and annual production runs in excess of 320 million bottles, half of which is exported. The Pope has his own blend, as do almost all the royal houses in Europe. Legend has it that the champagne coupe was modelled in the shape of Marie Antoinette’s breasts, using wax moulds.



Like all wine, champagne owes much of its distinct flavour to the soil its grapes grow in. In Champagne, ancient oceans receded nearly 70 million years ago and left behind chalk deposits. Earthquakes in the region 10 million years ago pushed marine fossil sediments to the surface and made the terrain particularly chalky. It’s this terroir that contributes to the lightness and finesse of Champagne’s wine.

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The land has produced wine for 2,000 years, and been fought over for as long. Attila the Hun was defeated in Champagne, and here, aged 13, Joan of Arc first heard the celestial voices that would later tell her to drive the British out of France. During the Second World War, the Germans made off with 60 million bottles of the stuff; earlier, the 19th-century allies who defeated Napoleon virtually matched them. But the French have made us pay in the long run. We have been returning to buy more and more bottles of bubbly ever since.

Consider a champagne house like Bollinger. So firmly have we pressed its golden product to our lips, we might almost consider it British. After all, Bolly sponsors the Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race, Royal Ascot and the England rugby team. You’ll recall it being the tipple of Eddie and Patsy in Absolutely Fabulous.



Even our most unambiguously patriotic of global exports, 007, can’t get enough. Tiffany Case sent a quarter-bottle to his cabin on the Queen Elizabeth in Diamonds Are Forever, and since then it’s been the longest-running of all Bond brand associations in the franchise, bubbling along for over 40 years now. Bond’s palate, of course, is irreproachable. “Ah! Bollinger ’75…” twinkled Roger Moore atop the Eiffel Tower in A View to a Kill after being handed a glass and placing its vintage immediately.

Last year, Bollinger’s global sales were up nine per cent, an improvement on its previous best-ever year in 2012. It now exports 2.5 million bottles annually, despite being one of the few independent champagne makers left in Champagne. What’s more, the majority of Bollinger’s grapes are produced in its own vineyards, in contrast to many other marques who buy in bulk from local growers. This summer, they’re expected to be busier than ever.

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To find out more, I made my way to Maison Bollinger in Ay, on the outskirts of Epernay. I arrived during the annual Champagne harvest, a short window of a few weeks in the autumn when hundreds of casual workers descend upon the region to hand strip Bollinger’s 164 hectares of vines. Aside from the few tractors used to tow cartloads of fruit from field to processing facility, all picking here is by hand.



“Machines you will never see,” Bollinger’s marketing manager Victoria Hughes says. “Some people will tell me, ‘Oh, we saw a picking machine this morning.’ I say, ‘This is absolutely not a picking machine’. What they see is, I don’t know, a trimming machine or something. Machines for picking are not allowed.”



The strictly controlled nature of the business may seem drastically at odds with the fun-focused, ultra-luxury marketing campaigns and carefully constructed brand identities created by the world’s largest champagne houses, but it is these rigid, time-honoured processes which set champagne apart from other wines.



It’s a concept the heads of Bollinger reinforce. “When people purchase a bottle of Bollinger, they don’t do it because it’s contemporary but because it represents French artisanal winemaking and because it’s a long-established brand,” says Jérôme Philipon, the company’s CEO. “We cater not only to young people but also to many people from older generations so we don’t seek any kind of novelty factor.”



Maison Bollinger is exactly as I had imagined it. A beautiful red-brick country mansion flanked by numerous outhouses, it’s a safe haven from the gruelling travails going on outside. Founded in the 19th century, the company has been family-run throughout its history (Philipon, who became president in 2008, is the first non-family member to head the company, but the board still consists of Lily Bollinger’s two nephews). It’s this intimate, non-corporate approach that has endeared drinkers for the past few centuries, not least us Brits.



In 1829, young aristocrat Athanase de Villermont, heir to a sizable Ay estate, met Joseph Bollinger, a German who’d come to northern France to learn the champagne trade. With local man Paul Renaudin, the trio founded Renaudin-Bollinger & Cie (de Villermont’s name could not be included as his aristocratic status prevented him from joining the trade). Joseph Bollinger later married de Villermont’s daughter Charlotte and the couple had two sons, Georges and Joseph, both of whom took over the firm following the death of their father. While Georges and Joseph did much to extend the Bollinger estate, acquiring vineyards left, right and centre, it was Jacques Bollinger, son of Georges, who really made the Bollinger name abroad.



A fluent English speaker, Jacques and his Scottish wife Lily (who took over the maison after Jacques died in 1941, and remained in control for some 30 years) built incredibly strong relationships with British buyers and drinkers alike — relationships which Bollinger retains today.



Entering the British market in the 1850s, the UK accounted for 89 per cent of Bollinger’s exports by 1888. Today, Britain consumes around half of Bollinger’s annual export production, which, at 1.25 million bottles, is no mean feat, even if the UK is champagne’s largest world market. Bollinger is the only champagne to have been awarded a royal warrant by every British monarch since Queen Victoria.

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To the wine. Aside from the numerous vintages and unique variations Bollinger produce every year, it is really the brand’s signature Special Cuvée that defines the maison’s identity. “The Special Cuvée is one of the most complex non-vintage champagnes on the market, with a lean, austere, acidic, even unforgiving character, with oaky echoes on the finish,” says champagne expert Tom Stevenson in his book Christie’s World Encyclopedia of Champagne and Sparkling Wine.

Produced (as with all Bollinger wines) from just three grape varieties — pinot noir, pinot meunier and chardonnay — each grape brings its own nuanced flavour to the wine. “Power and body from pinot noir,” Hughes says, “fruit and I would call it roundedness from meunier and lightness and elegance from chardonnay.” As far as champagnes go, the Special Cuvée is at the more robust end of the flavour spectrum. A bright golden colour with an intensity which sets it apart from lighter wines, it’s widely regarded, the brand’s marketing director Clement Garnier reveals to me, as “more of a man’s champagne”.



Though the prevalence of the robust pinot noir grape defines the flavour profile of the Special Cuvée, constituting around two-thirds of the contents of a bottle, it’s the acute attention to detail at every stage of the wine-making process that sets it apart. Each bottle contains 85 per cent grand or premier cru grapes (grand cru applies to vineyards producing favourable wines, due to superior sun exposure or soil quality, while premier cru is the level below) from 10 harvests (around 45 per cent each from the 2013 and 2012 harvests and some 10 per cent from other harvests going back two decades), impressive for such a fairly priced champagne, at around £30 a bottle.



In addition, Bollinger Special Cuvée is aged for a minimum three years before sale. By contrast, with Bollinger’s competitors (whose names the company demurs from identifying), the majority of “signature” bottles age for around 15 months, most grapes come from “other cru” and all pre-bottle aging is in steel vats, as opposed to the oak barrels favoured by Bollinger.



The aim? To ensure every bottle of Special Cuvée produced annually has the same quality and consistency of taste as previous years. “When you make wine, the number one factor is the terroir; the second most important factor is the weather. As far as I am concerned, I grew up on a farm, so it’s really in my blood to work with nature. I think for most people on my team and myself, the unexpected is not so much a problem as it is a challenge,” Philipon says. “It is right that for us at Bollinger, the cycles and harvests vary year on year.



Having said that, the champagne in every Bollinger bottle is made from several years and different harvests. So even though the wine we produce each year will be different, the blend we put in bottles will be consistent. We make the blend from a combination of up to 10 different years.”

Producing this blend is no small task and it falls to Bollinger’s cellar master, Chef de Cave Gilles Descotes. “The production process for Bollinger Special Cuvée is the real magic, the DNA of the house,” he says. “A cellar master’s main task is to protect and continue the work of his predecessors, it is the most stimulating but also the most challenging task and requires intuition and expertise at every step. When we blend the wine, the main difficulty is to imagine how it will change and develop throughout the process to come; filtration, cold stabilisation, bottling, years of ageing and the final disgorgement — many different experiences for the wine over a long period of time.”



It’s an impressive, intricate process that Bollinger has taken nearly two centuries to perfect. From harvesting, for which pickers are rewarded with bonuses for selecting the best grapes, to pressing, where only the first press, or the cuvée, is vinified, or fermented, for four to six months in oak barrels from Burgundy. (There are three presses taken from each haul of grapes, with the second two being sold to other champagne houses.) Every step in the procedure is executed with great skill and patience.



This attention to detail is ably demonstrated in the labyrinth below Maison Bollinger. Storing countless bottles of reserve, vintage and non-vintage champagnes, the cellars lie deep beneath its chalky earth (the mineral-laden soil provides good drainage for the vines), and are naturally climate controlled, with constant temperature and humidity during summer and winter. Around every corner, I saw giant magnums of reserve vintages piled high, dusty old vintages dating to who-knows-when and nearly-there Special Cuvées gradually being riddled (turned) to remove the sediment from the base of the bottles.

Making Special Cuvée is a transformation akin to alchemy.



Once the first press has been fermented in oak barrels, the wine is blended with reserve wines by Descotes and transferred into bottles with sugar and yeast. Over three years, all the lovely bubbles form. Finally, three months before the cases are shipped to shops, bars and restaurants the world over, the wine will be disgorged (the sediment of sugar and yeast in the neck removed), the cork added and the bottle rested. It’s a calm end to a long, fraught process that begins with humble grapes and ends with something unique.



How best to describe the taste? Allow Monsieur Descotes the pleasure: “The flavours we expect in Special Cuvée come from the choices we make when tasting the ‘vins clairs’ (still wines) where we look first for good fruity aromas. Usually not citrus notes — not the style of Bollinger — but fresh pear, cherry, plum, sometimes more exotic fruits, especially noted in the wines from Ay,” he says. “The ageing in the bottle brings some new flavours, like toast, the sweetness of brioche, some spices such as anise, and changes the fresh fruit into ripe fruit aromas. Particular to Bollinger, our process involves very little sulphur, which gives a typical style to Special Cuvée — very light and delicate flavours of apple and nuts.”



And if that’s not enough to convince you where your next bottle should come from, consider this from Mme Lily Bollinger: “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 I drink it when I am. Otherwise, I never touch it, unless I’m thirsty.”



Anyone for a glass? 



champagne-bollinger.com. This article was first printed in Esquire's Big Black Book. Get your hands on a digital edition of the new issue here



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