Chloe Craven, UK marketing manager for Bollinger, started off by explaining what makes Bollinger's wines different from other Champagnes; it is a family-owned company, grows most of its own grapes, rather than just buying in - which are then fermented into the base wine on a vineyard-by-vineyard basis - and ages its wines for much longer than required by French wine law, and than done by other Champagne houses.
Typically, only 45% of the current year's production goes into any bottle of the "basic" non-vintage (NV) wine (the exact proportion varies by year in order to maintain consistency of style - the overall aim of any NV Champagne) whilst small amounts aged between 5 and 15 years are added to the blend. Also, the wine is aged for 3 years in bottle on its lees where Champagne law requires just 18 months.
The NV had all the toasty yeasty characteristics I associate with good Champagne - Bollinger's wines are, apparently, a style that has proven particularly popular with the UK market, slightly fuller and heavier than others, in part from the age for the wines used in the blend and in part from the high proportion of Pinot Noir in the blend (60%). Chloe suggested that the NV would be a match for sushi, whilst one of the branch staff explained that in his family, Champagne is served on Boxing Day with left-over meats such as turkey and pork; I can really see how after a day of feasting on mince pies and turkey with all the trimmings, cold cuts and Champagne would be a real pick-me-up.
We followed this with a rosé; there was the same proportion of Pinot Noir as for the NV, but a small amount of it is made into a red wine (by fermenting the grapes along with the skins and pips) then mixed in with the white wine which made from just the grape juice alone. As well as giving colour, the red Pinot Noir wine gives some typical Pinot aromas of strawberries and raspberries.
We then moved on to something much more serious (and pricey), a vintage Champagne from 2000 called La Grande Année. Vintage Champange is only produced if the grapes from one year are good enough to be made into a wine without needing blending with wines from other years - other recent vintages include 1999 and 2002. Chloe explained that for the vintage wine, all grapes are barrel fermented (in old oak, to give the richness of barrel fermentation without the heavy vanilla of new oak), no Pinot Meunier is used, the wine spends 6 years on the lees in bottle and all remuage is by hand (remuage is the process of twisting each bottle by a quarter turn over a period of time so the yeast sediment sinks into the neck of the bottle for removal). Of the grapes, 75% are from Grand Cru vineyards, the rest from Premier Cru. This, then, is a wine of breeding, distinction and heritage - it was weightier and fuller than the basic NV and suggested food matches were light meats or even game such as pigeon.
Finally, we were treated to something quite rare, a bottle of the Grande Annee Rosé. Like the NV rose, this has some red Pinot Noir mixed in with the blend; Chloe described the red wine used for this as intense - not a word I would normally use to describe the pale and sensitive wine that is cool-climate Pinot, but everything's relative. But true enough, this wine did have typical Pinot aromas of woody mushrooms and forest floor along with the strawberries.
I do not feel I have been converted overnight to a regular Champagne drinker, but these were wines were a long way from what I normally drink in terms of both style and price range. Also, I find that the superiority of something is sometimes not so apparent as you move up the quality scale, but as you move back down - that is, you find yourself thinking "Hmmmm, I used to think this was just fine, but now it doesn't seem quite as good as before".
As a footnote, it is worth mentioning that at the end of the formal tasting, there was a small amount of some of the wines left and I re-tasted a little of the Grande Annee which had been sitting quietly in the bottle for a good half-hour. It seemed to have opened up much more and have a far more complex and pronounced nose. Obviously decanting or extensive airing of Champagne rather defeats the object, but perhaps further bottle aging is the answer - the wines we tried were generally from magnums which age more slowly than single bottles so perhaps they were just a little on the youthful side.
It would be an interesting (if rather expensive) experiment to buy a case of one or more of these wines to see how it develops over time and quite a few people bought bottles of Bollinger after the event - however, it was single bottles and not cases.
The Wines - prices are for single bottles
Special Cuvee NV - £45
Rosé NV - £45
La Grande Année (2000) - £65
La Grande Année Rosé (2000) - £90
Bollinger - http://www.champagne-bollinger.com/
Cambridge Wine Merchants - http://www.cambridgewine.com/