Around the world consumers are buying more sparkling wine than ever and the arrival of the season of celebration means that even more of the stuff will fly off retainers’ shelves. Consumers can choose from an embarrassment of fizzy riches including Prosecco from Italy, French Crémant wines, soft earthy Cavas from Spain and bubblies from many if not most of the world’s regions of wine production. Better yet, they’re usually priced under $20. Stars in a glass are now available to everyone.
Then there’s Champagne. No other sparkling wine matches it for appearance (tiny bubbles in a vigorous mousse), elegance, complexity, structure or depth. Simply put, Champagne delivers a unique bundle of intense interesting smells, tastes, and textures in the mouth. Champagne’s particular character is the product of the region’s cool climate, chalky soils, good grapes (Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier), and careful management of fermentation and aging. Consumers must pay the price for all that goodness and the status and reputation of the region. The wine is usually worth the money.
Bollinger is one of the best known and most respected houses in Champagne. Founded in 1822, it has survived wars, revolutions, depressions and the Phylloxera epidemic. Unlike other large producers Bollinger owns 60% of its source vineyards in prime spots and is buying more. The house style is intense and rich. All of their different cuveés contain at least 60% Pinot Noir for power and red-fruit nuances and are aged in oak to generate oxidative (nutty, toasty) characteristics.
John Hanna & Sons, agents for Bollinger, presented three of the house’s Champagnes at an exceptional lunch at Jamie Kennedy’s Gilead Café in Toronto. First up was Bollinger Special Cuvée ($79.95, score 90.) The English “special” became the wine’s official name because of King Edward VII. His majesty is said to have kept a stash of this wine at his hunting lodge but couldn’t (or wouldn’t) remember the name Bollinger, simply calling for a bottle of his “special” cuvée. The base wines for this cuvée include five- to fifteen-year-old reserve wines aged in magnums. This pale straw-gold sparkler offered rich decadently sweet aromas of autolysed yeast with toasty apple and sour plum notes, a fine vigorous mousse, crisp acidity and a long finish.
Next up was Bollinger Rosé ($99.95, score 90+). Like most rosé champagnes, this wine is pinked up by adding red Pinot Noir to the base wine. It’s a medium salmon-copper colour with energetic small bubbles and aromas of autolysed yeast, hints of red berry fruit, and earthy notes. It’s a lovely fresh mouthful, just-off-dry with red fruit flavours through a long elegant finish.
Finally, we assessed the Bollinger R.D. 2002 ($180.00, score 92). The R.D. stands for “recemment dégorgée.” This means that the wine was only recently poured off the dead yeast which carried out the bubble-generating second fermentation. Long exposure to deceased yeast protects the wine from frank oxidation and imparts that lovely sweet decadent character. Production began in 1967 when the Madame Bollinger decided to release her long-lees-aged ’52 and ’53 vintages and applied the R.D. designation to them. A true “vintage” Champagne, R.D. is only released when wine from a particular growing season achieves a high level of quality. (The ’02 is the only the 24th vintage released since the ’67.) The 2002 R.D. had the typical vigorous mousse. It flaunted sweet spicy autolytic and toasty notes. Despite its age it was fresh, crisp, lemony and creamy on the palate with lemon and yeast notes through a long fresh autolytic finish. A 1990 R.D. brought by a guest at the lunch demonstrated that this cuvée will age for decades, developing mushroom and ginger characters without losing freshness.
I wish you a safe and happy season of celebration ideally involving a bottle of Bolly. Enjoy everything in moderation except for joy.