‘Im told you should not trust the intentions of any man turning up with two bottles. If he turns up with a magnum, though, it is apparently absolutely fine’
THERE ARE MANY wonderful things happening at this time of year: the leaves are turning and showing off their beautiful autumnal hues, truffles are in season, it has once again become acceptable to wear inch-thick jumpers and, very importantly, it is harvest time in Champagne.
For those of you in the know, you might comment that it is a little late for the harvest, however: due to weather conditions this year the grapes were not ready in mid-September when I was over in Ay (with the hope of being part of the picking crew).
Sitting in the back of an old-school Land Rover driven by Bollinger’s chef de caves, Gilles Descôtes, bumping through the vineyards of Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Meunier, the sun was struggling to break though the clouds. A slightly cruel reminder of the problem with the grapes – not quite sweet or ripe enough; ie not enough sunshine. I believe the harvest has now taken place, presumably thanks to one final burst of the sunny stuff.
Bollinger grow more than 70 per cent of their own grapes in their 164-odd vineyards, making them practically independent and therefore quite unique within Champagne. The remaining percentage is supplied by growers neighbouring the Bollinger plots and with whom the house have long standing contracts to ensure that the grapes are of the same quality and locality.
Driving back to the Maison we passed many a small ‘Bollinger’ marker at the bottom of various plots, all jumbled up with plots from the other big houses. It is quite a sight, but nothing when compared with the labyrinthine cellars that snake under Madame Bollinger’s house.
Pictured above: Maison Bollinger
Unlike many of the houses, Bollinger store their reserve wines in magnums rather than steel tanks, meaning they have miles of magnums laid out according to plot and date to allow them to keep continuity in their non-vintage. It is a wonderful sight.
The walls of bottles bring me to one of my favourite – repeatable – champagne stories. It revolves around the size and number of bottles a man should or should not turn up with to a lady’s house. I’m told you should not trust the intentions of any man turning up with two bottles. If he turns up with a magnum, though, it is apparently absolutely fine. I would agree.
During my time at Bollinger, though, I learnt of a much more important reason – intentions aside – why you should only accept a magnum (or a jeroboam. Let’s not forget about the jeroboam – such a magnificent name). The ratio of liquid to air in either of these bottles is almost perfect, meaning that the contents will taste significantly better than the same wine in a single bottle.
You might think this renders the standard bottle utterly pointless, or at least a significantly worse investment. However, Bollinger have redesigned their bottles to recreate this ideal ratio (quite the project from what I understand) and are in the process of trying them out now.
Even the bottles, something we probably pay very little attention to as consumers, are showcasing the very best of how modern developments and technologies are running through the production process, blending seamlessly with techniques from centuries of champagne making. It’s rather exciting.
But nowhere near as exciting as being presented with a table of various Bollinger vintages, cuvées and delicious food. That, to me, is the joy of champagne – it goes with everything. It isn’t just a reception drink, or at least it shouldn’t be. It complements earthy venison, deeply powerful Comte and parmesan, delicate lobster, fragrant Asian food and the flavour of this season – truffle.
From the Bollinger RD, the champagne of James Bond no less (though impressively this is not your regular product placement as the producers had to convince Bollinger, not vice versa, and the contract is but a handshake) to La Grande Année, which is a 100 per cent grands cru and premiers cru blend, they are exquisite with velvety soft, fine bubbles.
The wine that was most surprising, though, was La Côte aux Enfants, so named because the vineyards where the grapes are grown are so frighteningly steep that back in the day only the children were able to harvest the grapes on those slopes. This is Bollinger’s 100 per cent Pinot Noir, still red, and it is knock-your-socks-off good.
La Grande Année
Bollinger is dangerously easy to drink – not just before dinner, but during and after too. Before dinner, with the devilishly charming combination of Guy de Rivoire and Jerome Philipon, two of the suavest gentlemen you could hope to meet and the men behind Bollinger, we had a small glass of the Rosé, then ate lobster with the Grand Année Rosé, guinea fowl with La Grande Année 2004, Comte with the 1999 Bollinger RD and the Special Cuvée with pudding.
Pictured above: Jerome Philipon
It is mildly miraculous that I remember how fantastically well the various bottles went with the food given that Jerome was ensuring my glass was constantly full. As he said to me, ‘We don’t mind if you don’t eat the Comte but we do expect you to drink.' That, my friends, is how you party in Champagne.
I’d happily drink champagne with practically everything, at any time. Socially, I believe this is mildly unacceptable and sadly it is without any doubt financially and health-wise a less than clever idea. Yet, it is worth remembering how versatile the old bubbly stuff is. So, perhaps treat yourself to a bottle or two for your next special occasion meal and I will keep hoping someone turns up with a magnum.