The Bollinger Vin Clairs Experience
click on comics to enlarge: how champagne is made, an overview
Terlato Wines was kind enough to include me in a Bollinger Vin Clairs tasting yesterday. Vin Clairs, for those that are unfamiliar, amounts to the still base wine that then goes through second fermentation in bottle to become the final champagne. Guy de Rivoire, Bollinger’s Commercial Director, facilitated the tasting, coupled with an overview of the House, and the blending process.
Incredibly, Bollinger’s Special Cuvée (their non-vintage champagne) can include up to 60 component parts of Chardonnay, Pinot Meunier, and Pinot Noir vinified separately, within some neutral barrels, and some stainless steel vats. Each component is bottled in large format, kept in cellar as a still wine to ensure adequate flavor resources for future vintages. These reserve wines total about 650,000 magnums, or 1.3 million bottles. Still, Bollinger produces only 0.6-0.7% of total champagne made in the region per year.
The experience included six components from multiple vintages, and (separately) from each of the three grapes, leading into the final still Special Cuvée, which included at least some of the components we tasted. The culmination occurred in comparing the still Special Cuvée to its sparkling counterpart. Finally, the tasting extended into several vintage champagnes, and the non-vintage rosé followed by a 2004 vintage rosé.
Bollinger Making the Assemblage: the Vin Clairs blend
click on comic to enlarge: Blending still wines into Bollinger’s Special Cuvée
Approximately 90% of the vineyard land in the Champagne region is grower owned. According to yesterday’s presentation, there are approximately 5000 growers in Champagne, and 10,000 Champagne brands producing 25 to 30 million cases of champagne per year. Champagne houses generally operate as a negociant, sourcing grapes from some mix of the 5000 growers through the region. Within Champagne, there is also a small portion of wines made on a grower-winemaker model in which the owner of a vineyard vinifies a small production champagne from their own grapes. Among champagne houses in the region, only three remain under independent ownership, Bollinger being one of them.
Bollinger produces their non-vintage “Special Cuvée” from a blend consistently structured by at least 60% Pinot Noir, with some Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier. With an eye on aging, their vintage blends maintain the >60% Pinot model, sticking to Chardonnay for the rest. Another feature unique to the Bollinger House includes their ownership of more than 60% of their vineyards. The entirety of their fruit comes from Marne district. A portion of the still wines are fermented in old oak barrel, bringing an additional textural and flavor component to their wine. The rest are fermented in stainless steel.
The Bottled Wines
Bollinger’s Special Cuvée offers a silk taffeta texture with the swish of a floor length dress. It carries a richly flavored, while fine-boned presentation of dried flowers, light (not sweet) honey and beeswax, walnut and clove touches with a light pleasing zip of acidity.
Tasting through the several component still wines, followed by the final vin clairs, then moving into the sparkling Special Cuvée drove home how impressive the work of the Chef de Caves really is–to imagine tracking the various wines, creating blending trials for so many potential components, then tasting the final still assemblage to anticipate its presentation after second fermentation… fantastic. So much to track, so much work, so much clarity of vision.
We were able to taste both the 2004 and 1992 Grande Année, as well as the Special Cuvée rosé and Grande Anneé 2004 rosé. Though it sounds obvious, I was moved by the 1992–it’s vibrant zest acidity (in magnum) was coupled with rich smokey, walnut-driven aromatics followed by an electric cord of mouth stimulation cloaked in rich flavors. The saline-chalky electrical-current on this wine was lovely.
Thank you to Mary Anne Sullivan, and Stephanie Caraway of Terlato.
Thank you to Guy de Rivoire of Bollinger.
Cheers to Jeremy Parzen!
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Your illustrations are the bomb… I so totally love them! Keep up the fine work Hawk!
Greg, thank you!
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Bollinger does make great wines. However sounds to me like you were either rushed or intimidated. Where is the Wakawaka existential message? What, if anything, did the wine evoke? The shibboleth is that in the 19th century they had a lot of unsaleble white wine until Madam Clquot “invented” modern champagne. At the tasting, what did the still component wines taste like compared to the final bubbly product.
oh Bob, you silly, there are plenty of angles to write about wine from, as you know. Here I chose one of them. Cheers!