Located in its classy family house in Aÿ, Bollinger is one of those Champagne houses that any wine producer or lover looks at with great respect, whether or not they are a fan of champagne. Probably because, since the 19th century, Bollinger has been producing full-bodied masculine champagnes. This bolder style was unusual until some emerging growers introduced their broader-than-usual champagnes, making oxidative champagne making, which often goes with this style, less unusual. Meanwhile, I, like some others, find that Bollinger has smoothed out its style, for champagnes of richness and complexity but easier to drink for the average palate. In England and Australia, two top champagne markets, the house is a true reference and nicknamed “Bolly.”
Joseph Bollinger was born in 1803 in Ellwangen, in the Kingdom of Württemberg, in current Germany. In 1822, having realized the potential of the growing champagne business like other Germans, he moved at just 19 to the Champagne region where he began to work at Müeller-Ruinart, a house founded in 1821 that no longer exists. In 1829, together with Paul Levieux Renaudin who also worked at Müeller-Ruinart, and Count Athanase Louis Emmanuel Hennequin de Villermont, member of an aristocratic family that owned an extensive estate in Aÿ, they founded their Champagne house. The name was Renaudin-Bollinger & Cie, as an aristocratic tradition prevented Count Athanase to use his family name in business.
In 1837, Joseph married Louise-Charlotte de Villermont, the daughter of Count Athanase who died in 1840. The couple had two daughters, and two sons: Joseph and Georges. As Paul Renaudin died without heirs, the two brothers took over the company in 1885. They began expanding the family estate by purchasing vineyards in nearby villages, and developed the image of the brand, becoming an official supplier to the British court in 1884.
In 1918, Jacques Bollinger, Georges’ son, took over the company. Sophisticated, cultivated, and fluent in English, he further increased the house’s prominence in England and guided it through the difficult years of the Great Depression and WW2.
When he died in 1941, his wife Elisabeth Law de Lauriston-Bourbers, from a noble family of Scottish origins but better known as “Lily Bollinger,” took over. She expanded production through the purchase of more vineyards and traveled the world to promote the brand, which became Bollinger. She also introduced the recently disgorged concept in champagne, with the first R.D. cuvée in 1967. Lily was well-publicized in the region, leaving several noteworthy quotes like, “I drink champagne when I’m happy and when I’m sad. Sometimes I drink it when I’m alone. When I have company, I consider it obligatory. I trifle with it if I’m not hungry and drink it when I am. Otherwise, I never touch it—unless I’m thirsty.” Lily managed Bollinger until 1971 when her nephews Claude d’Hautefeuille and Christian Bizot succeeded her. Claude became Chairman but Lily remained closely involved until she died in 1977. Christian took over from Claude in 1978. A great traveler, he made a point of meeting with sommeliers, restaurant owners and wine merchants to promote the house’s wines and became well known for his outspokenness and informality.
In 1994, it was the turn of Ghislain de Montgolfier, great-great-grandson of the founder Joseph Bollinger, to become president of the house. He continued to develop the house under the pursuit of excellence, maintaining a policy of voluntarily limiting the amounts produced to increase quality. His great technical and commercial expertise led him to be elected in 2007 as president of the UMC and co-president of the Comité Champagne.
In 2008, Jérôme Philipon, the first non-member of the Bollinger family, took the relay. A Champenois with an impressive track record in major industrial groups of the like of Nestlé and Coca Cola, the Bollinger family chose him to continue developing the house, while guaranteeing the upholding of its principles and values.
In 2017, Charles-Armand de Belenet from Burgundy was appointed to replace Philipon. Former Global Director at Mumm and Perrier-Jouët, with him, Bollinger continues its development, in line with the family’s spirit of tradition, craftsmanship and innovation.
Vineyard and Production
The house owns 178 ha mostly in grands and premiers crus. The vineyards are planted for 60% with pinot noir in the Montagne de Reims and Vallée de la Marne, and for the rest of chardonnay and pinot meunier in the Côte des Blancs and Vallée de la Marne. These account for most of the grapes used to produce an estimated 2.5 million bottles, sourcing the rest from vine growers, many of whom have been faithful suppliers to the house for several generations. Bollinger also owns two special adjacent clos in Aÿ–Clos Saint-Jacques and Chaudes Terres¬–that never succumbed to phylloxera. These ungrafted vines are used to produce Vieilles Vignes Françaises, a champagne of extraordinary heritage. Bollinger was the first Champagne house to obtain the High Environmental Value (HVE) certification in its vineyards. But they also apply great care in the cellar, with vinifications in both stainless steel vats and oak barrels, and complex blends enriched with reserve wines, some of which carry something unique: they are kept fermenting in magnum bottles for an additional contact with the lees.
Given the dominant use of pinot noir, clearly oxidative champagne making, and long aging, these champagnes are very rich and generous yet fresh. Being more specific, Chef de Cave Gilles Descôtes talks of “fruit in all of its states, texture with a creamy effervescence, and dense and subtle presence.”
The range is focused. The non-vintage wines include Special Cuvée, among the very best and most complex BSA, and Rosé. The vintage wines include La Grande Année (also available in rosé), and their signature R.D. Recently Disgorged champagne, aged for a long time on lees and released a few months after it is disgorged, to guarantee remarkable freshness in the wine. They are one of the very few houses to produce a champagne from a clos–Vieilles Vignes Françaises (100% pinot noir)–and a still red wine–La Côte aux Enfants (100% pinot noir). Given their richness, I find that Bollinger champagnes go best with food. I once had a soul-touching moment enjoying their spectacular Rosé with truffle salami, while admiring the beauty of Stockholm’s bay at night.