WORLD FIRST: French business opens on a Saturday...
It truly was a world first: the venerable House of Champagne Bollinger open for guests ON A SATURDAY – for the first time in the company’s near 200-year history. We were indeed being truly honoured – but in more ways than one, as you will find out...
The day began very, very early indeed. A 5:30am meet, 6:18am train out of St Pancras and 6:30am saw the first bottle being popped. A little mini-tasting of Taittinger 2006, Taittinger Comtes de Champagne 2005, Bollinger Grand Année Rose 2004 and Pol Roger 2000 set the 11 of us on our way. After a quick transfer onto the local “Vallée de la Marne” train to Epernay, we gently wound our way along the banks of the river, through the increasingly snow-dusted vineyards until we reached the waiting cars; a gentle drive to the pretty town of Ay saw us dropped off at the entrance of Mme Lily Bollinger’s house.
The charming Guy de Rivoire, Bollinger’s International Sales Director, met us at the property – relatively recently reopened after some careful renovations – and gave us some background on the House. Bollinger has no public visitor policy, so there is no grand lobby or gift shop; we simply sat and chatted in the convivial drawing room over a glass of the ever-delicious Special Cuvee. We learned of the foundation of the House, the growth of vineyard ownership, and the introduction of the strangely ‘Franglais’ Special Cuvee. Soon we moved into the beautiful pistachio-green dining room, where over lunch we worked our way through the current Bollinger range, plus something very special indeed. This was in fact the main reason behind our visit: we were being given the very first official tasting of the new release of Grand Année, the much-awaited 2005.
Beetroot, Crab and Avocado with Rocket Pesto Bollinger Grand Année 2004
A great dish which really brought the mineral freshness out of the wine. Gorgeous brioche and pastry characters abound with a refreshing flash of grapefruit and amalfi lemon. The mousse has softened beautifully creating a creamy mouthfeel, and the finish is long and linear. Absolutely delicious now, but having tasted examples of considerably greater age there is every reason to think this is a 10-15 year Champagne, even from this point. 94pts BI
Turbot, Broad Bean Risotto and Watercress Emulsion Bollinger Grand Année 2005
The main event and a dish to match. I actually wrote ‘one of the best dishes I have eaten in a long time’ and I stick by that – it was magnificent. The wine was genuinely quite remarkable as well; the quality of the Pinot fruit was positively Burgundian (Bollinger are known as ‘Burgundians in Champagne’ primarily due to their use of barrels) combining stunning wild strawberry fruit with that elusive orange citrus character. As the wine developed in the glass, it went from orange to clementine to mandarin, becoming muskier and more fragrant and pushing the wet stone minerality to the fore – but without ever losing its vibrancy or freshness. The mousse was a little on the round side as it clearly still needs a few more months (or ideally a couple of years) to really show what it is made of – but it had the rare quality of being broad in fruit and yet pleasingly direct and linear in its acidity. A tour de force for Bollinger. 95pts BI
Comté Reserve and Comté Grande Garde, Bernard Antony Bollinger Côte aux Enfants 2009 and Bollinger RD 2002
In the world of BI, Comtéis the King of Cheeses (especially when it’s from Bernard Antony) and one of the few which is capable of matching red, white, sparkling and sweet wines. These were fabulous examples, the first chalkier, saltier and more intense – not unlike a Red Cow Parmesan – and the second rounder, more mouth-coating and fruity. Côteaux Enfants is a still red wine made in tiny quantities in a small Pinot vineyard just a few hundred metres from the house; it is like a good, rustic style of Burgundy (although some around the table argued its use in creating Bollinger’s rosé Champagnes is more effective!). 90pts BI
The RD was another matter altogether and gave further evidence of the potential longevity of this incredible vintage. Still tightly wound and intensely flavoured, packed with zesty grapefruit, lemon meringue pie, crisp fresh green and baked apple, it is still almost painful in its concentration; the balance is superb and you just know that this is a 1996/1990-style world-beater. An essential purchase for the cellar of every Champagne lover. 95+pts BI
Apple Millefeuille with Spiced Bread Bollinger Rosé
Considering it took around 180 years for the house to create a non-vintage Rosé, this is a fabulous effort – many of us at the table considered it, along with Billecart Salmon, to be the finest of its kind on the market today. Shows that classically rich Bollinger style but with a little added strawberry and wild raspberry character and not even a hint of unwelcome sweetness or fluff. This is a serious drink, no doubt about it, and a great foil for the spices and rich cooked apple in the dessert. 92pts BI
Many, many thanks to the good people at Champagne Bollinger for hosting us – in particular Andrew Hawes and Guy de Rivoire – for opening up on a Saturday, and for giving us the fantastic experience of being the first to taste this stunning new release.