Forgotten stash of vintage wines helps Bollinger champagne commune with its past

Two new galleries show off best bottles from marque’s 187-year history and reveal the cellar master’s blending techniques

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 14 July, 2016, 2:00pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 14 July, 2016, 2:00pm

The Bollinger champagne house sits on a bluff above the French village of Ay, just east of Épernay. Ay is a sleepy little town that boasts more mileage in its underground cellars than on its cobblestone streets. You descend 49 uneven steps to enter the cellars, which are modest compared with those of some champagne houses. But it would be easy to get lost down there. The dimly lit, brick-lined tunnels extend for more than 5.5km, stacked with thousands of bottles, magnums and jeroboams of champagne, each a time capsule of a vintage past and an invitation to a celebration to come.

Behind many great champagnes is an even greater woman

Wine gets lost down here, too. Six years ago, in a little nook off a cranny in a forgotten corner, a Bollinger worker clearing away several racks of empty bottles discovered that they had been concealing a stash of nearly 600 bottles and magnums, with corks in varying stages of decay. When Bollinger officials matched the codes painted on the shelves and bottles with the company’s records, they realised they had treasure, including 54 bottles from the 1830 vintage, the winery’s first, and several vintages from the late 1800s and early 1900s.

“We don’t know when they were put there,” says Jérôme Philipon, Bollinger’s president. But the youngest wine was from 1928, leading some to speculate that the bottles may have been hidden to protect them from Nazi occupiers during the second world war.

Of the 600 bottles, a third of them could not be identified, and many were leaking through their corks. Winery crews carefully restored as many as they could, using a laser device called an aphrometer to measure the pressure remaining in the bottles.

In June, Bollinger unveiled Galerie 1829, named after the year the estate was founded, to showcase those older wines that span the house’s history. Of the 54 bottles from 1830, 13 could be restored. There are now 11 left. Other bottles on display represent Bollinger’s best vintages and show the results of an eight-year effort to match company records with actual inventory and to restore and preserve damaged bottles.

Aside from making great champagne, Bollinger is best known for its association with the James Bond movie franchise, as the favourite bubbly of Britain’s most famous fictional secret agent. And wine lovers like to recite the famous quote attributed to Lily Bollinger, who managed the house for 30 years in the previous century: “I drink it when I’m happy and when I’m sad. Sometimes I drink it when I’m alone. When I have company I consider it obligatory. I trifle with it if I’m not hungry and drink it when I am. Otherwise, I never touch it, unless I’m thirsty.”

The British sparkling wine on Bordeaux menus, and how Brexit could boost sales

Bollinger is distinctive in other ways as well. In the late 1960s, Lily Bollinger initiated the “recently disgorged” or RD style of champagne, releasing a 1952 vintage wine that had aged much longer than customary on its lees. And since 1892, the winery has aged its reserve wines, used to create the blend for its non-vintage Special Cuvée, exclusively in magnums, giving current cellar master Gilles Descôtes greater flexibility in blending by village and vintage.

“We use these magnums as the spices for the Special Cuvée,” he says. In March, he blended wines to be sold in another three years, using 45 per cent from the 2015 vintage plus 70,000 reserve magnums from seven other vintages going back to 2000. This technique is on display in La Réserve, a companion exhibit to the Galerie 1829, featuring a champagne-themed mosaic by Italian artist Luigi La Ferla.

These two new galleries in the Bollinger cellars are anachronisms, given that Ay is not exactly a tourist destination and Bollinger is open by appointment only. But a new reception area at surface level will accommodate VIP visitors, and the winery will explore ways to make its cellar tours more accessible and perhaps put some historic bottles up for auction, Philipon says.

Cremant – French for creamy – is a sparkling alternative to champagne

The 1830 was not on offer when I visited Bollinger during the opening campaign for Galerie 1829, but I did get a sense of the winery’s history in a tasting led by Descôtes. He announced each vintage by mentioning an important event from that year: Bill Clinton’s election as president (1992), Albert Einstein’s death (1955), Herbert Hoover’s election (1928).

The final wine in our tasting was from 1914. “This was harvested by women and children,” Descôtes said, as the men of Ay had been mobilised for the start of the first world war. The wine was amazingly fresh, like a fine Sauternes with a slight effervescence. (Champagne was sweeter back then.) More than any particular flavour, I tasted the anticipation and dread of a doomed generation, from a time when the Marne was still a river and not yet a battle, when cemeteries did not yet welcome visitors to Champagne along the road from Paris.

After outlasting all that, I thought, the wine had an optimistic and uplifting finish.