Yesterday, we attended the global launch of flagship champagne Bollinger R.D. 2004. Standing for ‘Recently Disgorged’, the R.D. concept was introduced by Madame Bollinger in the 1960s, a time in which many producers were releasing ‘special bottles’ the beginning of the prestige cuvées trend. Wanting to offer a more daring experience, Madame Bollinger created R.D. for the benefit of, in her words, “the consumer searching for a new and exclusive level of quality”.
Her intuition was that disgorgement, the removal of lees which allows the development and enrichment of aromas throughout cellar maturation – is a crucial moment for wine. (see note at end of article about lees ageing) Keeping a collection of old wines to share with close family and friends and disgorging them a very short time before tasting had long been a tradition in Champagne. However, Madame Bollinger was the first to commercialise this special tasting experience. As such, the first vintage – Bollinger R.D. 1952 – wasn’t disgorged until 1967 and was released later that year. The exact disgorgment date of Bollinger R.D. 1952 was 6th June 1967, which was printed on the front label of each bottle.
Since then, there have only been two dozen releases: Bollinger R.D. 2004 is the twenty-fifth. The continued importance of this distinct cuvée to Champagne Bollinger was evident at yesterday’s ‘World Premiere’, which was hosted by new General Manager Charles-Armand de Belenet, COO Jérôme Philippon and Chef de Caves Gilles Descôtes. Alongside the launch of R.D. 2004, the team had prepared a blind tasting masterclass and shared three experiments based upon key elements of Bollinger champagne: time, dosage and disgorgement.
Experiment 1: Time
Our first tutorial was designed to highlight the significant role that time plays in the development of Bollinger R.D.. We were blind served two glasses of the same champagne – Bollinger R.D. 2002 disgorged 17th May 2017 – one of which had just been poured, the other 15 minutes earlier.
|Bollinger R.D. 2002 | Just Poured
60% PN, 40% CH | Ageing: 14 years on the lees | Disgorged: November 2017 | Dosage: 3 g/L
Bundles of oak giving charming toasty notes with underlying dried fruit flavour. Palate quite tight right now.
|Bollinger R.D. 2002 | 15 Mins in Glass
60% PN, 40% CH | Ageing: 14 years on the lees | Disgorged: November 2017 | Dosage: 3 g/L
More open than 1st glass, some tertiary aromas with bundles of nuts, dried fruits & heaps of complexity. 18.5/20
This served as a clear demonstration of how time, even just 15 minutes, makes quite a difference to the tasting experience of a champagne of this age. Gilles described the experience as an “aromatic journey” – when initially poured, the champagne has all the freshness and fruit flavour of a young wine, but with time the oxygenation in the glass allows the development of more complex, dried fruit and tertiary notes.
“Madame Bollinger wanted the complexity of an old wine but the freshness on the palate of a young wine”, he added. Well, mission accomplished. Our advice: if you have the discipline to leave a glass of Bollinger R.D. untouched for 15 minutes, try this at home.
Experiment 2: Dosage
Next up was an experiment with dosage. Whereas many producers follow a strict dosage formula with every vintage, at Bollinger a small executive team blind taste each new champagne with different dosages added, before deciding on the perfect level. Gilles told us that the dosage liqueur itself is a simple recipe – cane sugar and Bollinger R.D. – and that he is not looking for anything extra from the liqueur.
For this test, we were blind served three glasses of the same champagne – Bollinger R.D. 2004 disgorged 20th November 2017 – with three different dosage levels. The first glass was zero dosage, the second 3 g/L and the third 8 g/L.
The higher residual sugar of the sweetest 8 g/L glass was quite clear on the palate with its round and heavy texture. However, detecting the driest champagne was a more difficult exercise. We actually thought the glass with 3 g/L dosage tasted drier than the zero dosage, something Gilles told us is a common occurrence – even amongst his winemaking team!
Explaining that this was an exercise about freshness, Gilles told us that the 3 g/L exhibits the freshest characteristics and allowing the fruit to come forward – hence it was chosen as the most appropriate for Bollinger R.D. 2004 (see here for a broad overview of dosage). The 2004 is showing power straight away, loads of fresh zesty lemon and peaches with the palate following through with the trademark dried fruits of apricot and quite exotic, pineapple hints and good balance of fruit and acidity. 18/20 would expect it to cellar well to 2030.
Experiment 3: Disgorgement
Our final experiment was the most applicable to Bollinger R.D. – an exploration of disgorgement. Once again we were blind served two glasses of the same champagne – Bollinger R.D. 1996 – however this time the two bottles had different disgorgment dates. The first had been disgorged in 2012 and the second in November 2017.
|Bollinger R.D. 1996 | Disgorged: 2012
70% PN, 30% CH | Ageing: 15 years on the lees | Dosage: 3 g/L
Great golden colour and is zesty and very young. Loads of fruit lime and lemon and dried apricots and yellow plums all with a hint of spice and underlying freshness from the acidity. This was my preference since it so fresh. 18.5/20
|Bollinger R.D. 1996 | Disgorged: November 2017
70% PN, 30% CH | Ageing: 20 years on the lees | Dosage: 3 g/L
Creaminess comes out really strong and wow, what a lovely texture. This is elegant, shows some age, so where are we going with the age? This is beautifully rich, dry and full of peaches and cream flavour. So much dried fruit and lots of tertiary notes like coffee, chocolate and bitter orange. 19-19.5/20
The difference here was incredibly marked. The champagnes were both utterly exquisite but were like night and day – the bottle disgorged in 2012 showed a much more creamy texture and more complex evolution than the recently disgorged bottle. A perfect illustration of Madame Bollinger’s philosophy behind Bollinger R.D..
Gilles shared with us his approximate equation for determining life post-disgorgement: “The wine can be kept post-disgorgement, as long as it was kept on the lees.” So, if the champagne has spent twenty years on the lees, Gilles believes it can easily be kept for twenty years post-disgorgement. Using this logic, it can reasonably be assumed that the most recently disgorged bottle of Bollinger R.D. 1996 that we tasted will have a lifespan stretching until at least 2037 and with such freshness possible longer.
Bollinger R.D. 2004
Our tasting concluded by returning to the focus of the event and the newly released Bollinger R.D. 2004. The vintage is renowned for its incredible generosity and high yields, following the big frost of 2003. Grape maturation was assisted by a September with temperatures 2°C warmer than usual and 80% less rain – as such Bollinger let the grapes ripen for a long time and picked in late-between 25th September and 8th October.
Bollinger R.D. 2004 is a blend of sixteen Grand and Premier Crus, it is 100% oak fermented, including malolactic fermentation in barrel. An astonishing commitment to manual production means Bollinger R.D. is aged under cork and staple in the cellars, before being riddled and subsequently disgorged by hand – thus requiring tasting for TCA before release.
Our final glass was served from a magnum of Bollinger R.D. 2004. Gilles discussed the ageing potential of the larger formats, explaining that the yeast autolysis process takes much longer in magnum and the extra time gives texture and evolution to the champagne. All size formats of Bollinger R.D. up to jeroboam are fermented in that bottle size – rather than fermented in 75cl and decanted into a larger size.
|Bollinger R.D. 2004 Magnum
66% PN, 34% CH | Ageing: 12 years on the lees | Disgorged: December 2017 | Dosage: 3 g/L
Quite a forward nose, lots of toasty notes come first , the oak is quite prominent for the first few minutes and then more of the rich ripe fruit starts to come forward, loads of juicy dried fruits and almonds. Very tight at the moment. 18.5/20
Comparing the latest release to previous vintages, Gilles commented: “The 1996 was bold and sharp, the 2002 was bold and fresh and the 2004 is bold, brilliant and generous!” We think R.D. 2004 has a similar ageing profile to 1990. Champagnes from this vintage, after 10-12 years maturation on the lees and 16+ years ageing in bottle, are now just starting to show their age. A similar journey for R.D. 2004 would yield a lifespan until well into the early 2030’s. This may mean its life cycle is very likely slightly shorter than the R.D. 2002, its journey to maturity seems to be very gentle and slow.
Typically there are 4-6 disgorgements of each vintage of R.D. meaning the bottles currently on the market are usually the most recently disgorged. However, if you want the tasting experience that inspired Madame Bollinger to create R.D., you should open the bottle within a year of disgorgement.
What about future vintages of Bollinger R.D.? Well, accounting for the difficulties of the 2005 vintage and the House decision not to make a vintage in 2006, it seems reasonable to predict that Bollinger R.D. 2007 may be the next release. Given the success Bollinger had with both their La Grande Année 2007 and the newly released La Grande Année Rose 2007, this should prove to be an exciting champagne. Though we have a few years to wait, we guess probably 2021 or later. So for now we are very happy to drink the 2004 and watch it change with longer post disgorgement time.
Note about lees ageing; Champagne kept on the lees will remain fresh because yeast has an ability to absorb oxygen for an extended period of more than 50 years and small amounts of oxygen continue to move into a bottle either under cork or crown cap and hence when on its lees the champagne is largely protected against oxidation. At disgorgement the champagne is likely exposed to some oxygen plus once its final cork is in place the effects of further oxygen entering the bottle through the cork start the slow process of ageing the wine. So if you know the disgorgement date you have that clue about the maturity of the champagne, something so well illustrated above in experiment three. The recently disgorged 1996 was very fresh and youthful where as the 2012 disgorgement of the same champagne was much further along its path to maturity.