In 2013, Gilles Descôtes, who was managing Bollinger’s vineyard since 2003, was appointed as its seventh chef de cave. A friendly and joyful man of great experience in both the vineyard and in the cellar, he remains humble in explaining his wines, among the most admired in Champagne, and the construction of their distinctive character, marked by great complexity and elegance.

Many see Bollinger as a very distinctive Champagne house. Why?

The singularity of Bollinger is based on its five pillars: its vineyard, pinot noir, vinification in wood, reserve wine kept in magnum bottles, and long aging.

The singularity of Bollinger is based on its five pillars: its vineyard, pinot noir, vinification in wood, reserve wine kept in magnum bottles, and long aging. In Champagne, few houses own large vineyards and we own 178 ha that account for over 60% of our grape needs. This is extremely good for the quality of the product and very reassuring for the consistency of the style of our wines. Then, we always use at least 60% of pinot noir in all of our cuvées and up to 90% or 100% for some champagnes. We are also the Champagne house with the largest number of oak barrels (4,000) where we vinify one-third of our harvest and 100% of the grapes for our vintage champagnes. Then, in the blend of our Special Cuvée, we reintroduce 5% of reserve wines kept in magnums where they underwent a further small fermentation. Finally, we let our wines age longer with six years of stock in our cellars compared to an average of three years in Champagne.

How do these pillars participate in creating the Bollinger style? How do you describe it?

The Bollinger style is based on three elements: the fruit in all of its states, the texture with a creamy effervescence, and a dense and subtle presence.

The Bollinger style is based on three elements: the fruit in all of its states, the texture with a creamy effervescence, and a dense and subtle presence.

When we talk about fruit in all of its states, we are talking about fresh fruit, ripe fruit, and dry fruit. For this, Special Cuvée (made in 2017) is made of 43% of base wines and 57% of reserve wines, with 60% of pinot noir, 25% of chardonnay and 15% of meunier. In the base wines, pinot noir brings notes of fleshed fruits, chardonnay brings flavors of citruses, and meunier brings aromas of exotic fruits.

To get the full range of fruits, the wood also acts as an enhancer of these scents and aromas during the first fermentation, bringing more ripe fruit. But to avoid any woody taste, we do not use new barrels, which also hide the fruit, but always after at least five or six years of use. Meanwhile, the stainless steel vats reveal the aromas of thiol (a compound that smells fruity in tiny amounts) and citrus much more.

We use reserve wines from many different years (nine different vintages in the Special Cuvée of 2017). These older wines bring aromas of riper fruit and candied fruits. However, a remarkable difference in the Bollinger style is the last layer of dried fruit obtained through the use of reserve wines kept in magnum, for an average of 10 years, where they undergo a further small fermentation before including them in the blend of Special Cuvée. Today, we have 750,000 magnums stored in our cellars, cru by cru, year by year, which we call “aromatic bombs.” These are “spices” that allow us to fully achieve the Bollinger taste and style.

The second element of the Bollinger style is found in the texture of what we call creamy effervescence. The mouth is very silky and never aggressive, always easy. It results from three moments of contact of the wine with the lees at Bollinger, as opposed to a single moment of contact for most Champagne houses. First, in the still wines that we age in wood on the lees, then in the bottle after the second fermentation, but also in the reserve wines aged in magnums with a small fermentation and thus, autolysis of the yeasts. These three moments of contact with the lees bring an extraordinary creaminess to our wines.

The third component of the Bollinger style is its dense and subtle presence, due to the significant use of pinot noir. We are often the last to harvest in Champagne to pick very ripe pinot noirs that bring this presence. The chardonnays, mostly from the Côte des Blancs, balance this power with their subtlety.

So, the five pillars of Bollinger are all there to serve its style, but these are just tools that enable us to achieve this result, not goals in themselves. Purity and curiosity are among the values of our house, which means that we must not forbid ourselves to explore simpler, more direct and natural solutions to obtain the same taste and style.

For example, we stopped clarifying the wines (with collage). When I became chef de cave, we used to do it, but we then wondered if it was really necessary. We experimented with and without clarification and tasted the still wines and the sparkling wines and we found no difference, so we stopped all clarifications. Similarly, we have reduced the amount of SO2in the wines, we have changed the cooling system, and we are moving from two wine filtrations to one.

What role do other grape varieties play in your blends?

At Bollinger, we are very pinot noir. We never use less than 60% pinot noir in blends and up to 100% for Vieilles Vignes Françaises.

At Bollinger, we are very pinot noir. We never use less than 60% pinot noir in blends and up to 100% for Vieilles Vignes Françaises. But chardonnay remains a very important component because it intervenes as an element of harmony and balance. We use 25% of chardonnay in Special Cuvée, 30% in La Grande Année, and up to 40% in R.D., with 95% of the chardonnays coming from the Côte des Blancs. We also use 15% of meunier in Special Cuvée and Rosé.

What is more important for the quality of champagne, the quality of the grapes or the vinification process?

We are not magicians and we cannot turn bad grapes into wonderful champagnes. It was an approach used in the 1990s, but it is no longer the case.

We are not magicians and we cannot turn bad grapes into wonderful champagnes. It was an approach used in the 1990s, but it is no longer the case and today the key to quality champagne is the vineyard. I am an enologist but I have spent my entire career in the vineyard. I supervise it, buy the grapes, manage the entire production line, and for me, it is obvious that ripe and healthy grapes are essential. We cannot make great wines with average grapes and the great advantage we have at Bollinger is our vineyard. We were the first Champagne house to be certified for High Environmental Value and for Sustainable Viticulture. And since we are winemakers, not magicians, we have to give ourselves the chance to pick the best and therefore, we buy more of what we need, and we resell what we do not use. We vinify in-house 99% of these grapes because having control of the supply chain from the beginning is essential and our house always had a very clear vision on this subject. That’s why we invest 4.5 million euro a year on the purchase of vines since 2014, to own 200 ha by 2024.

What is the development strategy behind these investments?

This choice is linked to an ambition to grow in value and partly in volume, but always maintaining a proportion of our own supplies of at least 50%. The sparkling wine segment continues to grow globally, while champagne does not grow in volume, so it is losing market shares. All of Champagne’s productive area is planted with vines so the development strategy must go through an increase in value. But for this, it is necessary to justify a rise in selling prices. There is a constant rise in the price of grapes in Champagne, which has to be reflected in the price of the wines and therefore, champagne must remain an extremely qualitative luxury product.

Bollinger is a family-owned house. What does this mean in your work?

We are fortunate not having to present immediate returns on investments to external shareholders. The Bollinger family believes in the difference and quality of our wines. The first magnums of reserve wines were fermented in 1886 and were used in the blends from 1890 on continuously. We now have 750,000 magnums in stock in the cellar, the equivalent of 1.5 million bottles that we could sell as they are, but instead, we include them in Special Cuvée, which will age for another three years. All of this represents a large locked-up capital.

What is the nicest and hardest aspect of your job?

Even though we work a lot as a team, the chef de cave embodies the signature of a blend and the brand of the house, and that comes with great pressure. At the same time, it is extremely gratifying to know that consumers love the brand and that its wines bring them moments of great pleasure.

What does champagne mean to you? What would life be like without champagne?

Life without champagne would not be possible; it would be extremely sad, truncated, incomplete.

For me, champagne is aperitifs, festivities, and celebrations. Life without champagne would not be possible; it would be extremely sad, truncated, incomplete.