If Franck Bonville has managed to evolve from being just one of the many growers of Champagne into a fine boutique producer, it is mostly thanks to Olivier Bonville. A smart and friendly man with an inquisitive mind and an open spirit, in 20 years he has taken his family business, and its champagnes, to a new level. A skilled vine grower and enologist, he is obsessed with the quality and taste of his grapes, and the great care he applies in all the steps of winemaking. For him, great champagne is, first and foremost, the expression of a great terroir, and on that basis, of its personality and taste.
What is your career path? How did your past experiences influence your work?
After receiving my Diploma in Viticulture and Enology, I worked in wine in Corsica and Germany and eventually as an enologist at the Comité Champagne. There, I was involved in R&D in issues concerning the different grape presses, the addition of enzymes to wine, the different vinification techniques, the debourbage, and the impact of the different stainless steels for wine tanks. I was also trained in the technical champagne tasting with blends to be analyzed almost every day.
But when I finally joined our family estate in 1996, I immediately understood that to make the best champagne, you must produce great grapes and pick them at the right moment of maturity. So, I moved our vineyard toward more reasoned viticulture. From the early 2000s, we used all our fruits to produce our champagnes (as opposed to selling grapes to other houses). This also required new skills in marketing to establish our brand in France and abroad.
When I joined our family estate in 1996, I immediately understood that to make the best champagne, you must produce great grapes and pick them at the right moment of maturity.
Our origins are in the vineyard and wine and my main criterion for building the quality of champagne is always the grapes. Even though we can compensate in the cellar shortcomings in the raw material, my priority has always remained quality viticulture. The wine inevitably derives its quality from that of the grapes and, for that, it is very important to know your lands, in our case cultivated entirely with chardonnay.
All your champagnes are indeed blanc de blancs. What makes them different and unique? How would you define the style of your house?
Everyone makes the wines he likes. I like the wines of other beautiful chardonnay houses like Salon, and others with different styles like Alfred Gratien, Charles Heidsieck, and Pol Roger, so I taste elsewhere to retain what I like. These houses influenced my winemaking techniques, made me progress, but my first source of inspiration is our terroir. In our champagnes, we notice elegance, purity, freshness, minerality, but also a certain richness because you also need aromatic complexity to really enjoy. They are wines of elegance and purity but also of length on the palate: I like them complex, rich, but without power or vinosity.
My first source of inspiration is our terroir.
These are all components that I seek to frame at the harvest with a specific maturity, and a certain type of vinification and aging of the wine. We are fortunate to have a soil that is easy to cultivate, which is light, and which brings a lot of elegance, finesse, and freshness to our wines. We must pick beautiful grapes, the vinification is there to accompany their expression, and then let the wines age a few years in the cellar. Aging is key and we market our champagnes only when we consider them ready after tasting them. Our clientele appreciates our style, which is characteristic of blanc de blancs from the Côte des Blancs–for which we have become a reference–not only with minerality and salinity, but also depth.
Our style is characteristic of blanc de blancs from the Côte des Blancs, not only with minerality and salinity, but also depth.
But our style, which is based on my taste and personality, is always evolving. I do not make the same champagnes today as when I started, and I may not do the same ones when I stop. The style of a house corresponds to a way of seeing things, to a taste that evolves with our personalities. So, Franck Bonville champagne matches my taste of champagne today that I love and cherish.
Why is chardonnay the preferred grape in the Côte des Blancs? Do you plan to use pinot one day?
Previous generations of Champenois answered this question. Many grape varieties were planted in Champagne at the beginning of the 20th century but they gradually realized that some gave better results in some areas than others: chardonnay rather in the Côte des Blancs, pinot noir in the Montagne de Reims, and pinot meunier along the Marne. It is a matter of soil, sun exposure, and other environmental characteristics. This is based on the empirical observations of previous winemakers and I trust them and if pinot noir was not kept in the Côte des Blancs, it is because chardonnay gives better results here.
I enjoy well-vinified pinot noirs from its best terroirs, but I love chardonnay and I think this grape variety has no limit: it can be so rich and deep in its organoleptic qualities that I can dedicate all my life to it. The more I taste blanc de blancs champagnes, the more I love them. I know better and better my terroir and I love it more and more. But we still have a lot to understand about our soils and the ways we work the vineyard.
I enjoy well-vinified pinot noirs from its best terroirs, but I love chardonnay and I think this grape variety has no limit.
All your parcels are in grands crus: Avize, Oger and Le Mesnil-sur-Oger. Does a grand cru make great champagne?
The Champagne houses established the rating scale in connection to the price paid per kilo of grapes, paying more for some villages associated with better maturity and/or fewer diseases and, therefore, higher average quality year after year. So, grands crus tend to produce better raw material. But there are very competent vine growers in villages that are not classified grands crus, so the classification loses relevance. We are happy to be located in grands crus but there are a lot of viticultural work and choices involved to express the best of each terroir, whether grand cru or not.
Although some of your champagnes are blends of these grands crus, you also bottle them separately by cru. Why?
We vinify and bottle some of them separately to better understand the characteristics of each cru and its organoleptic differences in the wine. Although these three villages have similar chalky sub-soils, the chalk is found at different depths, resulting in marked differences. These three crus are like different colors for a painter who draws his picture, and that is why we always combine them in our Brut Grand Cru and other champagnes.
We vinify and bottle some of them separately to better understand the characteristics of each cru and its organoleptic differences in the wine.
You were talking earlier about the importance of aging champagne…
There is minimal aging necessary for champagne to carry the taste I like. For me, a blanc de blancs below three years of aging is not yet ready, and this is the minimum that our Brut Grand Cru and our mono-cru champagnes stay in our cellar, while our other champagnes age for five years or more.
What is your approach to dosage? Is it still necessary, with global warming and the consequent greater maturity at harvest?
With global warming, we observe greater richness in natural sugar in the grapes, which brings a different balance between acidity and sugars and results in complexity and generosity in the wine. This goes hand in hand with a reduction in dosage, provided you age your champagnes long enough. Thirty or 40 years ago we witnessed lower maturities, and a higher dosage came to balance these champagnes. Besides, champagne has become an aperitif wine, so there is the whole context to take into consideration. But dosage remains the final touch for ultimate balance and a champagne can be balanced at 0, 2, 5, 9 g/l and maybe in 15 years we will talk of complex and rich champagnes able to accommodate dosages of 25, 30, 40 g/l and that can also be very good. At Franck Bonville, we make champagnes that we deem balanced to let the wine speak, evoke salinity, and sometimes nice bitterness which would be less clear with more sugar. Except for Brut Grand Cru which receives a dosage of 9 g / l, all our champagnes are extra brut. But we also produce demi-sec champagnes that are fabulous, especially if paired with seared foie gras and slightly more fatty and rich dishes or desserts where an extra brut would be hard to match, but which is perfect with oysters for example. Each champagne, with its dosage, has its place.
We make champagnes that we deem balanced to let the wine speak, evoke salinity, and sometimes nice bitterness which would be less clear with more sugar.
How do you look at the future of your house? What are your ambitions?
For 25 years, I have been in charge of our house, our wines, and all aspects inherent to the business and especially building our brand. When I started, we shipped most of our production to France; today it is the opposite, and it is with great pleasure and satisfaction that we receive visitors from all over the world to better understand and discover us. But nothing is ever achieved, and consumers and wine critics can always question our results. We must always challenge ourselves to continue progressing for even greater quality. I hope that one day I’ll be able to devote myself entirely to work in the vineyard and the cellar, thus giving me even more time to observe and follow our vines and wines. In this context, I have not yet dared organic viticulture, which comes with greater challenges and lower yields, but if I undertake this way, I will do it full send. In the cellar, I want to extend the aging of our champagnes even longer, from a minimum of three to five years and from five to eight depending on the cuvées, for more accomplished champagnes, more intense and finer, because chardonnay has this peculiarity of becoming incredibly rich over time.
We must always challenge ourselves to continue progressing for even greater quality.
Do you drink champagne every day?
Yes, I also drink other wines, but champagne, every day.
What does champagne mean to you?
What would life be like without champagne?
Impossible to imagine!