In early March every year, Champagne Bollinger invite guests to their house in Aÿ to tour the vineyards and cellars and taste a selection of vins clairs from the previous vintage. We managed to find time with Chef de Cave Gilles Descôtes during this busy period to talk (and taste) all things 2017. Our visit concluded with a magnificent champagne lunch.
Vins Clairs 2017
“The vintage started well,” Descôtes began. “We had dry weather in the winter and although we lost 10% of the vineyards to spring frosts, there was still potential for it to be a vintage harvest.” However, despite a positively uneventful June and July, the weather in August eventually determined the fate of 2017. “It was one of the worst Augusts,” Descôtes said. A rainy and cold climate prompted the spread of botrytis throughout their vineyards. “Usually we have a ‘Champagne Miracle’ – the sun comes out and its perfect for ripening. Instead we had warm and wet weather… which is worse in terms of botrytis,” he added.
|Avize | Grand Cru, Côte des Blancs | Vinified In: Oak Barrels
The oak comes out strong but the fruit is a bit subdued. Some apricots, nectarine and quite refined acidity. Nice lees flavours and finishes with oak toasty tannins.
|Cuis | Premier Cru, Côte des Blancs | Vinified In: Oak Vats
On the nose lots of smoky character and lemons and spices; on the palate some orange, dried orange peel and lemons linger. Crispness on the finish.
Unfortunately the complications were evident in some of the vins clairs we tasted. The Pinot Noir from Aÿ, usually fruit forward, generous and rich, had just a touch of those characteristics and fell quite flat in the middle. Because of their reliance on Pinot Noir, Bollinger decided quite early on that 2017 would not be a vintage year and emptied the barrels quickly. “Most of our barrels are empty. This is one of the very rare years at Bollinger where there is more Chardonnay in barrels than Pinot Noir,” Descôtes said.
|Aÿ | Grand Cru, Vallée de la Marne | Vinified In: Oak Barrels
Lots of strawberry and ripe apples on the palate but quite thin, very light structure.
|Verzenay | Grand Cru, Montagne de Reims | Vinified In: Oak Vats
Has some richness of oranges and tangerine. Quite thin in the middle, not a very good year for Verzenay.
|Rilly-la-Montagne | Premier Cru, Montagne de Reims | Vinified In: Oak Vats
Lots of strawberry and peaches on the nose. The palate is all nectarine and quite ripe peaches, quite forward and showy.
However, it wasn’t all bad news. Bollinger have been experimenting with some of the older grape varieties rarely seen in Champagne, something Descôtes is clearly quite proud of as he couldn’t wait to show us the wines they produced in 2017. Although Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier are often considered the only three grape varieties in the region (they cover 99.9% of the vineyard surface), there are actually four other grape varieties permitted to be grown – Arbane, Petit Meslier, Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris. Once quite common in Champagne, they are now all but extinct, with just a few hectares remaining today.
Of these other varieties, Bollinger are experimenting with Arbane, Petit Meslier and Pinot Gris – all white grape (‘blanc’) varieties. They planted vineyards as long ago as 2004, however the severe frosts in 2010 destroyed many of the vines and they had to be re-planted in 2011. Now, more than six years later, they are starting to see some promising results.
Descôtes noted that these other varieties are known for their particularly high acidity, which is an interesting component in light of the changes global warming is having on Champagne viticulture. Many believe the warming climate has produced a pattern of earlier ripening periods, higher levels of alcohol and lower levels of acidity. Arbane and Petit Meslier appear to be ripening slightly earlier, although Descôtes acknowledged it is difficult to be conclusive with such young vines. It will be very interesting to see what these vineyards produce in the future.
|Aÿ | Grand Cru, Vallée de la Marne | Vinified In: Oak Barrels
This has great texture, acidity and freshness. The fruits are all nectarine, tangerine and grapefruit, quite a mouthful.
|Cuis | Premier Cru, Côte des Blancs | Vinified In: Oak Barrels
Lots of rhubarb fruit, citrus and orange, good texture and wow v refreshing acidity!! Tasted from barrel
|Verzenay | Grand Cru, Montagne de Reims | Vinified In: Oak Barrels
Delicate and floral, with hints of orange blossom and citrus fruits. Very good concentration and lift from acidity. Tasted from barrel
According to Descôtes, the last vintage as difficult for Bollinger as 2017 was 1893. What with the troublesome year and the Pinot Noir dominance of their non-vintage champagne, Bollinger had to use nearly 50% reserve wines in the Special Cuvée blend this year. Typically in years when vintage champagnes are not made, the non-vintage blend is strengthened as all the best wines can be utilised. This certainly seems to be the case with the Special Cuvée 2017 base vintage blend – rich and oaky as ever, it was tasting impressively fresh and elegant. One to watch when it hits the market in 3-4 years.
|Bollinger Special Cuvée NV Assemblage | 2017 Base Year
60% PN, 25% CH, 15% PM | Base Year: 2017 | Reserve Wine: 50%
Oak comes through at the start and then some of the apricots and ripe apples start to show sitting on a layer of spice and nuttiness. This is really quite lush at this pre-bubble stage.
To conclude our base wine tasting, we sampled a range of reserve wines. Bollinger are famed for their extensive store of reserve magnums – one of the ‘five pillars of Bollinger‘. Given the higher percentage of reserve wine in the 2017 Special Cuvée blend, it was interesting to taste some of the reserves that contributed to it. A particular standout was the Verzenay 2006 aged in magnum, which had all the ripe fruit freshness to be expected from such a warm and generous vintage.
|Vertus 2016 | Chardonnay | Premier Cru, Côte des Blancs | Vinified In: Oak Vats
Orange peel and lychees. Great mouthfeel, the texture is all juicy. Lots of clementines and lemon peel.
|Verzenay 2014 | Pinot Noir | Grand Cru, Montagne de Reims | Vinified In: Oak Vats
Lots of great acidity and wow lush fruits. The palate is all tropical and apples and lemons.
|Verzenay 2006 | Pinot Noir | Grand Cru, Montagne de Reims | Vinified In: Oak Barrels
Smoky and toasty on the nose. Lots of fruit like oranges and ripeness and lushness. This was aged in magnum.
A truly splendid morning at Bollinger ended with a grand lunch at the winery, paired with a fitting selection of grand champagnes. The occasion was a celebration of 2017 – although not the best for the vineyards, it marked the tenth vintage since newly promoted COO Jérôme Philippon joined the house and was the first vintage for new General Manager Charles-Armand de Belenet. Appropriately, the lunch also coincided with the launch of new Bollinger La Grande Année Rosé 2007, which we were fortunate enough to taste from magnum. This is the first time La Grande Année Rosé has been released in magnum and a jeroboam is also now available.
|Bollinger Special Cuvée NV
60% PN, 25% CH, 15% PM | Reserve Wine: 10% | Dosage: 7 g/L
Really rich nose, with forward fruitiness, full of lemon and ripe apples and a generous palate with cinnamon and vanilla undertones. Long, dry finish. 17/20
|Bollinger La Grande Année 2007
70% PN, 30% CH | Dosage: 7 g/L
Big up-front nose and lovely golden colour. A bunch of tropical flavours really open up on re-taste and the peach notes start to shine. 18/20
|Bollinger La Grande Année Rosé 2007 Magnum
72% PN, 28% CH | 5% Red Wine | Dosage: 7 g/L
This has perfect fruit: lots of peaches, apricots and redcurrants. Good mouthfeel with citrus notes and strong rose petal and lots of nuttiness and dried fruits. 18.5/20