With the 2007 vintage the disgorgement date has returned to the front label
If I'm ever asked who from history I would choose as my guests for a fictional dinner party, Lily Bollinger would be one of them – not just because I hope she would bring some Bollinger to drink but because she sounds as if she was fun. Formidable, too, perhaps, judging by her business acumen, but fun all the same.
It's not just the too often quoted (and here we go again): "I drink Champagne when I'm happy and when I'm sad. I drink it when I'm alone. When I have company I consider it obligatory. I trifle with it when I'm not hungry and drink it when I am. Otherwise, I never touch it – unless I'm thirsty." Nor is it the too often used but nevertheless charming photograph of her tootling through the vineyards on her bike. It's the story behind R.D., one of her creations among several innovations that changed Champagne, not just Bollinger, that makes me think she'd make a great dinner guest.
"In the 1960s the average dosage in Champagne was around 20g/l"
She ran the company from 1941 to 1971, after being widowed at the age of 42. One of the things she particularly enjoyed, apart from cycling through her vineyards, was entertaining. At the end of her dinners she liked to invite her guests down to the cellar, where she would choose an old vintage of Bollinger, disgorge it on the spot and share it, without any dosage, with her guests.
This was in an era when Champagne was drunk young, mostly after two to three years on lees, and markedly sweeter than it is today. The idea of keeping Champagne on its lees for an extended period and the concept of low dosage simply didn't exist when Madame Bollinger launched the inaugural vintage of R.D., 1952, as an Extra Brut with a dosage of 6g/l in 1967. The average in Champagne in the 1960s was around 20g/l (even in 1979 Cristal had 14g/l). It's hard to overestimate how innovative all this was. And, in yet another pioneering move, she put the disgorgement date on the label – the front label. R.D. 2007 marks the return of the date to the front label after many years in relegation on the back label.
"Bollinger ferments all its vintage Champagnes in oak barrels"
Nowadays, R.D. (which stands for récemment dégorgé or recently disgorged) has a dosage of 2–4g/l: the 2007 has 3g/l. The low dosage is to preserve the freshness that the lees have maintained over the long ageing period. Bollinger uses natural corks to seal the bottles for the second fermentation and maturation, and ferments all its vintage Champagnes in oak barrels for the same reason, among others.
In selected vintages, limited quantities of La Grande Anneé, its vintage Champagne, are kept back for R.D. La Grande Année is generally aged for seven years on lees (although 2007, disgorged in 2016, was a year longer – I wrote about it here), while R.D. carries on maturing for 12–14, even 15 years before release.
Time now, before I get to the tasting notes, for a confession: I have occasionally wondered how much I really like the Bollinger R.D. style and how much it's a question of my being impressed by it – by the magisterial combination of age, freshness, complexity, power and intensity. Having tasted the 2007 last week on the eve of its global release, then drunk it with and without food, I can say emphatically that it's not just a case of my being impressed by it. I liked it unreservedly.
Alongside the 2007, I also tasted and drank a recently disgorged 1976 – yes, 43 years on lees – and a 1976 disgorged in 2014, after 37 years.
"Disgorging manually means doing 300 bottles an hour, rather than 20,000"
Interestingly, 2007 is an unusual R.D. Perhaps not all R.D. aficionados will like it as much as I do – or at least not at first. It certainly wasn't an obvious candidate for a vintage at the outset, let alone for an R.D. The harvest was exceptionally early (for the time), but maturity was not very high and pH was very low. A warm summer had been cut short by rain that brought rot. Many houses chose not to make a vintage.
Bollinger picked eight days later than many, but even so cellar master Gilles Descôtes didn't think it was anything more than a "a good average year" (as he put it at the launch of La Grande Année in 2017). It wasn't until November, when the team was tasting from barrel, that they discovered how good it was – and in a style suited to Bollinger's own.
After a strict selection, the resulting blend of 70% Pinot Noir and 30% Chardonnay came from 14 Crus (91% Grands and 9% Premiers Crus ), instead of the more usual 20, and the dominant component (29%) is Verzenay (northern Montagne de Reims and north-east facing), rather than Aÿ, Bollinger's home base to the south. As always, only the cuvée was used and fermentation was in barrel. Disgorgement is manual, by a dedicated seven-strong team doing 300 bottles an hour, compared to 20,000 by machine, and since 2014, they've used jetting rather than SO2 to control oxidation and produced less variable results.
Successful food pairings: scallops in saffron cream and a classic risotto alla Milanese
Bollinger called on the two-Michelin starred Dutch chef Soenil Bahadoer, known as 'The Spicy Chef', to help with food pairings for R.D 2007 with its distinctive spicy notes. He recommended dishes with saffron and Bollinger is using saffron grown in Corsica by Sylvain Martinez Ciccolini.
I cooked two dishes using La Mancha saffron (Spain's only PDO saffron): a classic risotto alla Milanese; and pan-fried scallops served in a light saffron cream sauce (warm the saffron threads in a little crème fraiche and leave to infuse, deglaze the scallop pan with dry white wine, bubble and mix into the saffron cream). Both pairings were very good and the R.D. 2007 also took the butter-wilted spinach served with the scallops in its stride (spinach isn't always easy on wine).
Bollinger R.D. 2007, Dégorgé Le 10 Juillet 2020 Extra Brut
Dosage: 3g/l. First impressions: a complex nose that unfolds slowly, not one that hits you with its immediacy, not showy; it draws you in with spicy acacia honey, grilled grapefruit, pain d'epices, a hint of star anise, then gradually fleshier apricot and white peach. The palate is lively and tightly packed, with a linear power, chalky mineral breadth and depth, crystal-bright, rapier acidity and notes of grapefruit peel, candied citrus, nuts and spice.
It will almost certainly warrant the higher score within a year and probably by July 10 this year: 96/7
Bollinger 1976, sample 1 disgorged in 2020, sample 2 disgorged in 2014
1976 was a more obviously great vintage than 2007, although it was a very hot, dry, early year (not just in Champagne: a Minister for Drought was appointed in Britain) and winemakers were worried about the low acidity. High acidity was thought essential for ageing Champagne at the time; warmer vintages this century have shown it not to be the case.
Disgorged December 2020: vibrant, sprightly and effortlessly generous in flavour – citrus and pear, creamy, chalky, biscuity, toasted wheat and malt flavours. Citrus zest and ripe-apple acidity. So fresh. Lovely.
Disgorged in June 2014: much more evolved and oxidative when first poured, but with a steely underpinning and, as it opens up, it becomes fresher. Toast and baked apple give way to layers of honey, wheat, popcorn, glazed walnut with a crystallised lemon tang and a chalky fine texture. Long and layered.
Photographs by Joanna Simon