Earlier this week, the famous Bollinger Champagne house hosted the Vins Clairs at its historic estate near the village of Ay, east of Épernay. This is a tasting of the base wines that go to make its Champagne, before they are blended and then undergo secondary fermentation to give the wine its characteristic bubbles.
Champagne is made by bottling still wine with yeast and a little sugar. The yeast then ferments again, creating carbon dioxide, which is trapped in the bottle and creates bubbles. After the yeast dies, it is left in the bottle to add a creamy complexity. Champagne is a blend of different wines and different vintages, with separate vinifications - as many as 100 or more, each with their own characteristics - coming from local vineyards. With so many different possible combinations and permutations available, the skill of the winemaker lies in creating a blend that is true to the all-important style of the house.
Champagne drinkers tend to be fiercely loyal - Patsy and Edina never drank anything other than Bolly, and neither does James Bond - so consistency in style is essential. Bollinger's house style is known to be distinctively rich and toasty. Other Champagne labels have different and equally distinctive styles. Lanson, for instance, is fresh and light, while Dom Pérignon and Billecart-Salmon are elegant, and Moët & Chandon and Louis Roederer balanced.
Bollinger Special Cuvée, the label's 'regular' non-vintage Champagne, is 60pc Pinot Noir, 25pc Chardonnay and 15pc Pinot Meunier. Both Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier are black grapes, which provide body and richness. Chardonnay is white and adds elegance and acidity. Wine experts say that one should think of the red and white grapes, respectively, as the meat and bones that give Bollinger its distinctive house style. A 60pc Pinot Noir is quite high, especially when only counteracted by 25pc Chardonnay; 40pc Chardonnay would be more typical in other Champagnes.
Vinifying wine in oak barrels and using a large proportion of Pinot Noir both boost the richness and structure of a Champagne. Most Champagne houses no longer use oak barrels, but Bollinger and Krug, also known for a rich house style, have always done so. The Bollinger estate has 5.5km of underground cellars where it stores its wines. In 2010, an intern clearing away racks of empty bottles discovered a hidden stash of nearly 600 bottles and magnums, with corks in varying stages of decay. The wines included 54 bottles from 1830, Bollinger's first vintage. The youngest wine was from 1939, and the assumption is that the bottles were hidden to protect them from German pillaging during the Nazi occupation. Similar discoveries have been made in other wineries and Champagne houses.
At Bollinger, the bottles were coded in an abandoned system that identified the village and vintage of each wine. The majority have since been identified, but there are still a few that remain a mystery. Bollinger's staff restored as many bottles as possible, using a device called an aphrometer, which measures the pressure remaining in the bottles.
Thirteen of the bottles from 1830 were restored, and 11 of these are now on display in Bollinger's newly constructed Galerie 1829, alongside others from those of Bollinger's best vintages. This collection showcases 65 vintages, including the extensive red wine collection of the house pre-dating 1952, Bollinger RD from 1952, and the Vieilles Vignes Françaises collection from 1969.
Simultaneously, a second cellar named La Réserve was unveiled to present highlights of Bollinger reserve magnums dating from 1892 - since when Bollinger has aged its reserve wines, used to create the blend for its non-vintage Special Cuvée, exclusively in magnums. These are used as the spices for the Special Cuvée, giving Gilles Descotes, the cellar master, a high degree of flexibility when it comes to blending. Last year, he used 45pc from the 2015 vintage plus 70,000 reserve magnums from seven other vintages going back to 2000.
It used to be received wisdom that Champagne should be drunk as soon as possible after release, but in recent years interest in aged Champagnes, which have taken on complexity, has increased - particularly in the US and Asia. Because the hidden Bollinger wines were stored in the optimal conditions of the company's own cellars, about half of them were judged to be in excellent condition after restoration.
Visits to Galerie 1829 and La Réserve are by invitation only; it helps to be a member of Bollinger's 1829 Club, which one can join online.
Bollinger Special Cuvée is widely available, RRP €65