Unforgettable for me is the Berlin master class of 2018 for the launch of the R. D. 2004. This was not only the opportunity to try out the predecessors 2002 and 1996 in addition to the flagship of the house in the magnum (apart from the specialty Vieilles Vignes Françaises). But also, to experience how significant the influence of aeration can be on great champagnes. I learned that day how much aged vintages benefit when decanted.
In 2022, after a lengthy Corona-related hiatus, Bollinger invited us to Frankfurt’s SkyKitchen high above the banking metropolis on the Main River. Again Denis Bunner, the house’s charming deputy cellar master, led the program. Bunner has become something of the face of the Maison for Bollinger, especially outside France. You don’t have to be a prophet to predict that he will one day follow in the footsteps of Chef de cave Gilles Dêscotes. The theme this time: the wood influence on Champagne Bollinger. New releases of the day: La Grande Année 2014 and La Grande Année 2014 Rosé.
Wood as a stylistic element
Among the great Champagne houses, Bollinger is one of the last in which aging in wood is an essential stylistic device. This results basically in powerful, very substantial Champagnes that are very suitable as food accompaniments. The house owns a good 4,000 wooden barrels, essentially in two sizes and quite different ages. On the one hand, there are used 228-liter pièces from Burgundy, which come to Aÿ from the subsidiary Chanson in Burgundy at the age of four or five years. On the other, “pipes champenoises” of 410 liters. This unusual format has to do with the traditional presses of the region, in which 4,000 kilograms of grapes could be processed. These yield 2,050 liters of preferential must, the so-called “cuvée”. Which in turn fill either exactly ten pièces of 205 or just five pipes of 410 liters.
The first flight of the day dealt with the age of the barrels and its influence on the sensory characteristics of the base wines. In fact, the average age of the barrels at Bollinger is about 20 years, including not only the youngest generation of “four-year-olds” from Burgundy but also pipes up to 100 years old. The three samples were Vins Clairs, i.e. base wines from 2021. Specifically: (naturally white-pressed) Pinot Noir from Aÿ. The first two, it later turned out, came from 228-liter barrels (Sample 1 from four-year-old, Sample 2 from 25-year-old). The third from 50-year-old 410-liter barrels. The sensory differences were obvious. It ranged from a fruit-driven, somewhat forward aroma at the start to a more austere, acid-driven style. It is only in the assemblage, the constantly renewed work on the “style de la maison”, that these characteristics are harmonized.
Flight 2 was then more experimental in nature. In fact, the house style of each Maison is under considerable pressure, especially due to the climate crisis. Thus, every Champagne producer is currently trying to preserve in particular the freshness, which is an essential signature of Champagne, through measures in the vineyard and in the cellar. In any case, glasses four and five contained Pinot Noirs of the 2019 vintage from Verzenay. A cru which, together with Aÿ, forms the red heart of the “Grande Année”.
The wine had already undergone bottle fermentation and had been disgorged six months ago. Sample 4 was aged in a test barrel encased in steel. I assume that this is the new “Fûts inox” of Barrels Delafont, as I saw them for the first time in 2021 in the Torres winery Purgatori. Sample 5 in old wooden barrels of 410 liters. The difference was striking. In the first case, a very subtle, somewhat reductive aromatics. In the second case, a tremendous complexity and length. No doubt which is more in line with the “Bollinger Style”!
The new cuvées
The second part of the tasting then dealt with the new bottlings of the house. First of all, we compared La Grande Année 2014 with its immediate predecessor 2012. The first thing that stands out is that the cuvee has now clearly moved away from the classic rule of thumb “Pinot Noir 70% | Chardonnay 30%”. The second characteristic of the new vintage is the unusual dominance of the Pinot Noir base wines from Verzenay over those from Aÿ in the blend, due to heavier rainfall during the harvest directly on the Marne.
In any case, the young vintage is still quite restrained, with some adolescent fruit sweetness, but also a nice iodine line (95 points). In contrast, the 2012 is already well developed and orchestrates a complex-dark spectrum of aromas (96 points). The final wine was La Grande Année 2014 Rosé. In it, the base wines of the Blanc were blended with 5 percent red still wine from Bollinger’s exclusive La Côte aux Enfants. A beautiful, very serious rosé champagne with cool fruit, fine saltiness and restrained dosage (96 points).