Shortly after last year’s harvest, Bollinger cellar master Gilles Descôtes told the drinks business: “2017 was the worst harvest of my life and 2018 is the best.” Considering Descôtes has been working in Champagne for more than 25 years, we were more than a little excited to taste the results of such a spectacular harvest and discover why he holds it in such high regard.
Each year, Bollinger dedicate a week to vins clairs tastings, hosting a series of popular events in which guests come and taste the base wines, culminating in a tasting and dinner with the growers that supply their grapes. Addressing a room full of eager palates, Descôtes introduced the main grape varieties and what they contribute to the blend this year: “The Chardonnay from the Côte des Blancs brings the citrus and grapefruit; the Pinot Meunier from Champvoisy adds a more delicate texture; and the Pinot Noir brings fleshy fruit – peaches, pears, and apples.”
Weather conditions in Champagne last year were unprecedented, and for that reason Descôtes was hesitant to liken 2018 to just one single past vintage. However, he noted similarities between three others: 2004 – for its sizeable crop; 2003 – for its hot and dry weather; and 2002 – for the sugar-acid balance in the grapes.
Whilst on the topic of climate, Descôtes alerted guests to the recent pattern of early harvests in Champagne: “We started to pick [in 2018] on 23rd August and we picked in August in 2017, 2011, 2007, 2003… the previous time was 1893. So there is definitely something happening with climate change. For now, in Champagne, it’s a chance, it’s an opportunity, but for long-term business it can be a problem.”
2018 Vins Clairs
The 2018 harvest for Bollinger began in Aÿ on 23rd August. “We had natural sugars of 11 at that time, so there wasn’t a reason to wait any longer,” Descôtes said. All of the grapes and vineyards were picked at 10.4 degrees or above, with the lowest being the Côte des Blancs. Although levels of tartaric acid were the highest seen in the last 10 years, the malic acid was very low this year, and Descôtes is therefore not worried about doing malolactic fermentation.
The total acidity in Bollinger’s 2018 wines was 6 g/l, with a pH of 3.1. Descôtes confirmed that Bollinger have produced a vintage expression in 2018, which he believes is very good (and, importantly, has considerable ageing potential), but warned it is too young to know yet if it will be as outstanding as he hopes.
|CHARDONNAY | Côte des Blancs | Premier Cru: Cuis | Vinified In: Vats
Very floral white flowers and quite delicate on the nose. All Bollinger vineyards. Peaches and jasmine dominate, this is aromatic and great.
|CHARDONNAY | Côte des Blancs | Grand Cru: Avize | Vinified In: Barrels
Lots of ripe apples, spice, pears and really good acidity.
|CHARDONNAY | Côte des Blancs | Grand Cru: Chouilly | Vinified In: Barrels
Loads of power and chocolate comes through with apricots, peaches and cream. This is really round but has fresh acidity.
The Chardonnays we tasted, all from the Côte des Blancs, were fresh and forward with a nice delicacy and bright acidity. The black grapes however, are the clear winners for Bollinger this year. The Pinot Meunier from Champvoisy is so good this year it has put the small autre cru village in the Vallée de la Marne “on the map.” The Pinot Noirs, particularly the ones local to Bollinger – from Aÿ and Mareuil-sur-Aÿ – were packed full of power and juiciness, hardly needing much more time to mature.
|PINOT MEUNIER | Vallée de la Marne | Autre Cru: Champvoisy | Vinified In: Vats
This has nice minerality and a slight menthol edge with loads of blackcurrant. Good acidity and freshness with a nice bitter edge to the finish.
|PINOT NOIR | Vallée de la Marne | Premier Cru: Avenay | Vinified In: Barrels
Lots of light notes of white peaches, apples and some exotic notes like lychees. Good salinity to the finish.
|PINOT NOIR | Vallée de la Marne | Premier Cru: Mareuil-sur-Aÿ | Vinified In: Barrels
Lots of apples and pear with great freshness. Some hints of cinnamon.
|PINOT NOIR | Vallée de la Marne | Grand Cru: Aÿ | Vinified In: Vats
Really reductive fruits with loads of orange and lemon. Great acidity. Some hints of nice bitter and nuts on the end.
|PINOT NOIR | Vallée de la Marne | Grand Cru: Aÿ | Vinified In: Barrels
Lots of black fruit like black cherry and spiciness. Redcurrants and exotic notes, like lemon. Very fresh – big mouthfeel.
|PINOT NOIR | Montagne de Reims | Grand Cru: Verzenay | Vinified In: Barrels
Lots of peach, plums and juiciness – the texture is really great.
We were also fortunate to taste some of Bollinger’s ongoing experiments with the lesser known grape varieties of Champagne – 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.
Descôtes explained that Bollinger’s decision to experiment with the older varieties, which were planted in 2011, was a response to the changing climate: “We are starting to experiment with some of the old grape varieties of Champagne, like Arbane, Petis Meslier, Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc… these varieties can bring some more freshness in the warmer years.”
|ARBANE | Vallée de la Marne | Grand Cru: Aÿ | Vinified In: Barrels
Has very ripe pear fruit and some spice from the barrel.
|PETIT MESLIER | Côte des Blancs | Grand Cru: Chouilly | Vinified In: Barrels
Quite peachy and lots of apricots. Very fresh acidity.
|PINOT BLANC | Vallée de la Marne | Premier Cru: Avenay | Vinified In: Barrels
Big berry flavour. Not ready now, maybe one for the future.
|PINOT GRIS | Montagne de Reims | Grand Cru: Verzenay | Vinified In: Barrels
Good texture and balance, some exotic fruits and nice acidity.
Our base wine tasting concluded with two reserve wines, Vertus 2017 and Aÿ 2009 (the latter of which has been stored in magnum), and the recently completed Special Cuvée NV 2018 blend. Notably, Descôtes used just 26% reserve wines in the 2018 blend (compared to 50% for the 2017 blend), demonstrating the strength and maturity of the wines from this harvest.
|CHARDONNAY | Côte des Blancs | Premier Cru: Vertus 2017 | Vinified In: Vats
Has a good balance of weight and freshness with loads of apricots and nuts. Nice minerality that freshens up the finish.
|PINOT NOIR | Vallée de la Marne | Grand Cru: Aÿ 2009 | Vinified In: Barrels
Lots of powerful fruits on the nose: apricots, pineapple, orange and roasted cashews. Full and rich and very generous fruit.
|Bollinger Special Cuvée NV Assemblage 2018 | Base Vintage: 2018
52% PN, 30% CH, 18% PM | Reserve Wine: 26%
When these NV blends are just completed they are great to taste as everything is quite forward. The fruit is very generous and fleshy, loads of peaches and tropical notes like pineapple and then those layers from the reserve wines add dried fruits and nuts. It all lifts up great on the end with minerality and freshness and a hint of that sea air character. Will look forward to tasting this on release in 2023/24.
Tasting the recently launched La Grande Année 2008 – which Descôtes described as “very creamy but with the energy of 2008” – we were told it won’t be around long, as a large amount was kept behind to be released as R.D. 2008 in the coming years. Descôtes believes the longer lees ageing will balance out the bright acidity of the vintage.
As a demonstration of the effect of longer lees ageing, we were treated to a mini-vertical tasting of R.D. vintages, from a magnum of the latest launch, R.D. 2004, to R.D. 1996 (“the 10/10 year”: 10% natural sugar, 10% acid), all the way back to R.D. 1973, which was famously served at the wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana in 1981.
|Bollinger La Grande Année 2008 | 18.5/20
71% PN, 29% CH | Lees Ageing: 9 Years | Disgorged: November 2018 | Dosage: 8 g/l | Post-Disgorgement Ageing: 4 Months
A lot of up front fruit, very nutty and powerful. Initially you get fruits like ripe apricots, lemon and pineapple and on the palate you get freshness and power and layers of apricots and cashew nuts. It all lifts up with salinity and after a few minutes fruits like apple and orange peel start to show.
|Bollinger R.D. 2004 Magnum | 19+/20
66% PN, 34% PN | Lees Ageing: 12 Years | Disgorged: November 2017 | Dosage: 3 g/l | Post-Disgorgement Ageing: 1.5 Years
Some of those reductive hints are the first impression – that layer of smokiness and then the fruit character starts to build up and on the palate the pineapple seems is the dominant fruit. After a minute of two you start to see the other layers building with some mango, spicy apples and the layers of dried fruits and roasted cashews. Has great length, the low dosage doesn’t seem low, has breadth of flavour and long lees ageing texture that make it round on the palate. A refreshing lift of salinity keeps it bright and light on the finish.
|Bollinger R.D. 1996 | 19/20
70% PN, 30% CH | Lees Ageing: 15 Years | Disgorged: 2012 | Dosage: 3 g/l | Post-Disgorgement Ageing: 7 Years
When you first nose the glass you get crystallised orange and toasty cashews with concentrated lemons, cooked apples and multi layers of dried fruits. The longer post-disgorgement time has allowed a lot of those secondary flavours to develop like dried fruit, some of the autumn forest notes like field mushrooms and dried leaves. The fresh acidity balances the great depth that would otherwise be potentially heavy.
|Bollinger R.D. 1973 | 19+/20
65% PN, 35% CH | Lees Ageing: 41 Years | Disgorged: 2015 | Dosage: 3 g/l | Post-Disgorgement Ageing: 4 Years
Initially has some of that damp wool character and bundles of lime combined with the richness of roasted cashews and dried orange peel. Dry and precise on the palate with plenty of freshness from the acidity and minerality. After a few minutes in the glass you get more layers, lots of dried lemon, lime, kumquats, coffee, chocolate and roasted almonds all come forward. Drinking very well indeed at this time some 40 years on the lees has protected it against oxygen, so maintains a fresh character and you would expect this to last for many more years.
Finally, we conducted a similar exercise with Bollinger’s unique single vineyard champagne, Vieilles Vignes Françaises, produced from two remarkable plots in Aÿ – Chaudes Terres and Clos St-Jacques – famed for surviving the phylloxera infestation of the early 20th century, which destroyed almost all of the vines in Champagne.
We tasted four vintages, including the upcoming release, Vieilles Vignes Françaises 2010, and one of the very first vintages, Vieilles Vignes Françaises 1986. The dosage in the new 2010 has been reduced to 4 g/l, qualifying it as an Extra Brut champagne, though it is not labelled as such. The 2010 will also be the first to be released in the new ‘1846’ bottle shape, which slows down oxygen exchange, producing a slightly more complex wine with longer ageing potential.
|Bollinger Vieilles Vignes Françaises 2010 | 18.5/20
100% PN | Lees Ageing: 8 Years | Disgorged: February 2019 | Dosage: 4 g/l | Post-Disgorgement Ageing: 1 Month
Initially the nose is dominated by spices and ripe apples, with great freshness on the palate. Has a big nose with a lot of bright citrus combined with tropical fruit ripeness and hints of herbaceous, slightly menthol character. Very distinct; I’ve learnt with VVF you need to take your time, allow it to open up and with most vintages there are flavours in these champagnes from these very old vines that we are less used to tasting.
|Bollinger Vieilles Vignes Françaises 2007 | 17.5+/20
100% PN | Dosage: 6 g/l
Slight malty character, quite reminds you of being by the seaside. Has that fresh array of citrus and really ripe tropical fruits, perhaps the palate isn’t showing as well, but has great length, lacks a little of the mid-palate fleshiness.
|Bollinger Vieilles Vignes Françaises 1996 | 18.5/20
100% PN | Lees Ageing: 13 Years | Disgorged: January 2010 | Post-Disgorgement Ageing: 9 Years
This is very bright and fresh on the nose with loads of ripe fruits, some tropical notes, especially pineapple, guava, cooked apples, pear and layers of tangerine with very expressive acidity. Loads of apricots and dried fruits and nuttiness making this a big wine and holding up to the very bright acidity. Not a textbook example, like many 1996s, but still very good.
|Bollinger Vieilles Vignes Françaises 1986 | 18/20
100% PN | Lees Ageing: 23 Years | Disgorged: January 2010 | Post-Disgorgement Ageing: 9 Years
When first served you get that slight wool character with hints of iodine and then with more time in the glass you see the fruits come out, apricot, pineapple, baked apples and raisons. This is showing some maturity and roundness on the palate. Nearing its peak of development.