Lana Del Rey’s face – in particular those lips – is, surprisingly, altogether more convincing in real life than it appears in all those H+M posters. I’m considering this at 7.45am on a wet Friday morning because I’m standing directly behind her in line for the Eurostar check in. I’m here with John Franklin from wine shippers Mentzendorff & Co, on our way to the House of Bollinger. What Del Ray’s face has to say about the duplicitous nature of glamour I’m not sure, but it would appear to be both counter-intuitive and counter-productive. Still, her very presence seems an auspiciously glamorous way to start a trip to Champagne.
At Gare de Nord, we take our leave of Lana and her entourage and head for a charming little Breton Bistro around the corner called Chez Michel. Yes, Chez Michel, in Paris, of course you must know it… It’s on Rue de Belzunce, and next time you alight the Eurostar at lunchtime, check it out (my remoulade de queue de boeuf, in particular was outstanding). John orders a bottle, not of Bollinger, but of Drappier. A good call – Drappier is a firm favourite in the wine trade, for its excellent quality and terrific value for money – although John reveals gloomily that Drappier lost 75% of its grape crop this year, on account of the generally atrocious summer that Champagne suffered, and, more specifically, the hailstorms that hit at precisely the wrong time. This news does not augur well for the mood of our hosts chez Bollinger, as we’ll be arriving slap bang in the middle of their harvest. Still, the sun’s out in Paris, at least.
Mme Bollinger’s image is everywhere, her name never far from anyone’s lips. Dining at her house is a rare privilege
It doesn’t last. By the time we arrive in Épernay, the sun is hidden behind slate-grey clouds, and rain lashes the windows of our train. Épernay station, particularly in a downpour, does not suggest glamour, or the Champagne lifestyle. It appears to speak more of rundown industry, of a provincial town down on its luck. This impression might well, like Miss Del Rey’s bee-stung lips, be deceptive, but that does little to alleviate our gloom. As we drive the five kilometres up the Marne valley from Épernay to Ay – the village which Bollinger, Ayala, Gosset and numerous smaller houses all call home – the downpour becomes a torrent. The prospects for the first item on our agenda, a tour of the vineyards, are looking decidedly bleak.
You’d need to be the kind of person for whom a half-empty glass would represent an unimaginable lucky break to be actually despondent on entering the House of Bollinger, but nevertheless the humour as we wait in reception, under the benign but firm gaze of a bust of Mme Bollinger herself, is forced and distinctly stiff-upper-lip. Appropriate, perhaps, with all the James Bond paraphernalia surrounding us – Bollinger, as they are keen to remind us, being the champagne of 007.
When Gilles Descôtes, Bollinger’s head of viticulture, arrives, he’s in jeans, a padded gilet, and sturdy Gore Tex walking shoes, and looks more like a farmer than the corporate meeter and greeter for a luxury lifestyle brand. He doesn’t, however, look like a farmer who’s just lost 75% of his crop: in fact, he looks decidedly chipper. We pile into his battered old Land Rover and head off on a bouncing, gear-grinding journey up and down rocky tracks between some of the steepest sloping vineyards in all of Champagne, where Gilles tends Bollinger’s most highly prized Pinot Noir vines. These vertiginous slopes and rocky soils stress the vines, and it’s stressed vines, somewhat counter-intuitively, that produce the best grapes. It’s not just the vines that find it hard: the name for these vineyards, La Côte aux Enfants, is apparently a euphemism, bowdlerised from their original name, Côte d’Enfer – an allusion to the vineyards being so hellishly hard to work. But that toughness clearly doesn’t preclude love – Gilles shows off the Côtes aux Enfants vineyards to us with the pride of a parent whose child has performed exceedingly, though not unexpectedly, well in its exams.
We end up at the pressing shed, where the harvested grapes, still separated by parcel of origin as well as variety, are crushed and the process of turning their juices into wine begins. Here, in a subterranean room filled with rank upon rank of vast, gleaming, stainless steel tanks, we get to taste the juice from the Côte aux Enfants. This juice has been macerating for five days, and is still a long way from becoming wine, but its sweetness has already grown in intensity and complexity. It’s delicious. Gilles’ eyes gleam. This year’s vintage, he assures us, is going to be very good.
The bean-counters would never allow the house to keep so much reserve wine cellared, proportionate to Champagne produced. It would be the end of Bollinger – the Bollinger that is, that Madame had created
I’m ready to drink some Bollinger by now, so it’s as well that the next item on the agenda is dinner, at Mme Bollinger’s house. Mme Bollinger is referred to, continually and solely, by all at Bollinger, as “Madame”. Nobody needs to specify that they mean Lily, the formidable woman of Scottish descent who took over the running of the House on the death of her husband, Jacques (the grandson of the original, founding, Jacques Joseph) in 1941, and turned it into what it is today. She died in 1977, but hers is still very much the presiding spirit chez Bollinger. Her image is everywhere, her name never far from anyone’s lips. Dining at her house is a rare privilege.
Tonight‘s dinner is hosted by Mathieu Kauffmann, Bollinger’s chef de cave – the man responsible not just for the cellars themselves, but for the 600,000 magnums of reserve wine stored within them, and from which he has the daunting task of blending the finished champagnes. Interestingly, this task is most demanding when it comes to blending the House’s “entry level” product, the non-vintage, or Grand Cuvée, for which he has a choice of up to 300 component wines, and the binding imperative to produce a finished wine that is utterly consistent, year on year.
Kauffmann is a modest, lugubrious, slightly mole-ish man, whose natural expression seems to be a shrug and a tilt of the head that suggests “I’m no expert, but…”, despite the fact he’s clearly an expert of colossal standing. I’m impressed by the simplicity with which he dissects the flavours and aromas of wine – not for him references to obscure tropical fruits or things you’d never dream of putting anywhere near your mouth, let alone know what they taste like. He breaks pretty much everything down to fruit or bread, with each category further subdividing into three: bread to dough, fresh baked and brioche; fruit to fresh, cooked and tarte tatin.
The dinner, of course, is excellent, the wines superb. The outstanding single pairing is the 1997 RD champagne with an equivalently aged Comté cheese, which is utterly sublime. The most surprising wine, though, is the 2004 Grande Année Rose, which for all the simplicity of its maker’s approach, is a wine of outstanding complexity and depth, with a spectrum of flavours from brine to strawberry. Were I in the unfortunate position of having to choose only one bottle of Champagne to accompany an entire meal, this would undoubtedly be my Champagne of choice. Indeed, were I ever to commit an unimaginably heinous crime and be punished by being limited to drinking only one wine, in all circumstances, for the rest of my natural life, Bollinger’s 2004 Grande Année Rose might just be that wine. Assuming the court’s picking up the tab, of course.
The following morning, back at The House, we’re met by the ebullient Christian Dennis, who issues us with umbrellas – Bollinger-branded, of course, although it’s remarkable how little else here has been – and takes us on a jaunt around the Vieilles Vignes Françaises. These two tiny vineyards, one in the back garden of The House itself, one in a separate walled enclosure between The House and Madame’s house, are among the very few in all France to have survived the early 19th-century phylloxera epidemic, in which a particularly virulent aphid almost wiped out vineyards worldwide forever. Grapes from these vines are used only in exceptional years, to produce some of the finest, rarest, and costliest Champagne on Earth – the one product in Bollinger’s range we don’t get to try.
Moving briskly on, Christian leads us round the winery, the cooperage (Bollinger is the only remaining Champagne house to employ their own cooper) and down into the cellars, with their kilometre upon kilometre of reserve magnums (unique among Champagne houses, they actually store more reserve wine than actual Champagne), which slumber under thick layers of what may look like dust but is in fact mould. I don’t know if Bollinger is the only Champagne house to have the bottles in its cellars covered in mould – probably not, as it is, Christian tells me gleefully, a good thing. It never becomes entirely clear to me what Christian’s role at the House is, precisely – and it doesn’t say on his card – but it would seem that Head of Enthusiasm might just about cover it. The one thing that seems to darken his mood is the prospect of corporate takeover, and the attendant intervention of accountants which would ensue. The bean-counters would never allow the house to keep so much reserve wine cellared, proportionate to Champagne produced. It would be the end of Bollinger – the Bollinger that is, that Madame had created.
Christian is not alone in his horror of accountants. When we emerge from the cellars back at The House – having entered them down the hill chez Madame – we’re met by Jérôme Philippon, who tells us, as he drives us back to Madame’s for lunch, that he sees his principle job as being to keep the company in family hands, to which end he finds himself weekly, if not daily, rebuffing overtures from hedge funds and oligarchs. Less agricultural-looking than Gilles, Le President still looks more gentleman farmer than corporate CEO, an impression reinforced by his insistence Bollinger is, in essence, an agricultural and artisanal operation, not an exercise in commodifying luxury.
As lunch comes to a hurried end, and Jérôme bundles us into a taxi bound for Épernay and the train home, I find myself truly hoping he succeeds in his prime objective. I came here knowing that Bollinger make good champagne, I’m leaving convinced they make great wine. And that’s surely because they’re making it for Madame, and not the accountants. Long may they continue.