The Bollinger Lunch was, as you can imagine, a rather nice fixture in the calendar until it was dropped a couple of years ago. Searching for the positive, the only thing you could say was, well, who’s got time for lunches like that anyway? The answer was given by the wine writers who warmly welcomed the invitation to this year’s revival of the lunch at The Beaumont in London last week. I found I had the time.
The latest vintage from Bollinger, La Grande Année 2007, served at The Beaumont hotel in London, art deco venue for the revival of the Bollinger Lunch
The idea was that we would taste the latest vintage, La Grande Année 2007, and some older, and therefore rarer vintages – which we did, but not without a few surprises along the way. The first surprise was how many grandees there were over from Bollinger’s HQ in Ay: the president, the chef de cave, the international sales director and the marketing director. It turned out that the date had originally been set for a major planning and strategy meeting with the UK team. In the event, it was all a bit superfluous because Bollinger has been doing so well in the UK. I’m sure both teams are remembering to give thanks for James Bond and Spectre in their prayers.
The second surprise, less welcome for Bollinger, was the journey, courtesy of FedEx, taken by the bottles of 1992 La Grande Année released from the cellars in Ay specially for the occasion. For some reason, they ended up in South Korea rather than London (who knows, but K and L are next to each other in the alphabet and L does cause some pronunciation difficulties). They’ve now arrived back in Ay, but not in time for the kunch. Sorry, lunch. Instead we drank bottles of 1992 that chef de cave Gilles Descôtes went to retrieve from his personal cellar in Le Mesnil-sur-Oger (hence the damaged labels – mind you, they’re not half as tatty as many of the labels in my super-damp cellar). Hero of the hour and the lunch: Gilles Descôtes.
Third surprise: bottles versus magnums of 2007 La Grande Année. We were served the 2007 in bottle and magnum alongside each other to show how the two formats age differently. As wine ages more slowly in magnums (with the same amount of air trapped between wine and cork as in a bottle, but twice the volume of wine interacting with it), the '07 in the magnum should have been less evolved, but the ’07 from magnum, at my end of the table at least, was a slightly deeper colour and smelled more evolved, more honeyed, richer and toastier. The Champagne from the bottle was tighter and less giving on the nose.
But on the palate it was a different story. The sample from the bottle had richer baked-apple and candied citrus fruit. The magnum was zestier, tighter and more youthful, with a fresher citrus and more chalky, mineral character. Both were excellent (and I’ve tasted two more bottles since, thanks to Waitrose’s press tastings in the same week).
If you know your Champagne vintages, you might not expect excellence from 2007. Bollinger themselves weren't when they harvested. It was an exceptionally early vintage – one of only four August harvests since 1893. Bollinger, who own 166 hectares of Premier and Grand Cru vineyards, waited eight days later than many people, starting on 31 August, but even so, with maturity not very high and pH very low, Gilles Descôtes wasn’t convinced that they had anything other than “a good average year”. It wasn’t until they were tasting from barrel in November that they discovered how good the wines were. It’s a year that suits the Bollinger style, he says: “not a fruit bomb and quite sharp”.
Vital statistics for Bollinger La Grande 2007
70% Pinot Noir, 30% Chardonnay, from 13 Crus (aka villages): 91% Grand Cru, 9% Premier.
Bottled in spring 2008. Disgorged after 8 years on lees in 2016 – the bottles in June, the magnums in October.
Dosage of 6–7g/l.
As always, Bollinger only used the cuvée juice, the first fermentation took place entirely in old oak (mostly Burgundy barrels), and riddling and disgorgement were by hand.
The dazzling 1992 La Grande Année, pulled from the private cellar in Champagne of Bollinger chef de cave Gilles Descôtes, after the original consignment ended up in Korea
Bollinger La Grande Année 1992
This vintage was chosen for the lunch because, like the 1989 (see below), it was not a vintage selected for one of Bollinger's RD Champagnes (aged on their lees for an exceptionally long time) and Bollinger wanted to show how well these non RDs can age. It was not an obviously great vintage year – there was some botrytis and they had to do a strict selection – but it’s a sensational Champagne. Still effortlessly fresh, with caramelised apple, candied citrus, Christmassy spice, patisserie and biscuit flavours.
65% Pinot Noir, 35% Chardonnay. From 16 Crus: 83% Grand Cru (much lower than now), 17% Premier Cru. Disgorged in 2003.
Dosage of 6g/l – very low for the time.
Bollinger La Grande Année 1989
The middle of three successive fine years, 1989 was harvested early and with very high maturity (12.2% natural sugar) and lowish acidity. Despite this, the freshness is, apparently, still there – but sadly not in the two bottles I tried, both of which were tired and mushroomy. There's bound to be bottle variation in Champagne that's nearly 30 years old. For the record, it was 61% Pinot Noir, a high 39% Chardonnay, from 18 Crus, 69% Grand Cru and 31% Premier.
Photographs by Joanna Simon