The Bollinger Barrel Class

A mid-week Bollinger tasting is pretty good work if you can get it. When deputy cellar master Denis Bunner invited me to come to a master class on the influence of barrels on Champagne Bollinger, I didn’t hesitate. This great house, which was founded in 1829, is still family owned, and Cyril Delarue, the 7th generation of the family, was also on hand to give his insight on the wines. In nearly 200 years of history at Bollinger, they've never turned away from barrel fermentation. Many things have been modernized, but they refuse to stop doing even the difficult old fashioned things that make the wine better.

Champagne has a few barrel sizes of its own, and they have a very interesting, logical story. A standard 4000 kilo press load (or marc) yields 2050 liters of first press cuvee. The standard Champagne barrel, or piece champenoise, is 205 liters, allowing the press to fill five barrels with cuvee. These are now very uncommon in Champagne, with the only real quantity being used at Krug. This is because oak taste is not considered a good thing in Champagne, and it is a lot less expensive and more efficient for producers to buy used barrels from nearby Burgundy. Another local size is the double, which is 410 liters, just the right size for five barrels of cuvee per pressing. 

Nearly every size of barrel is found in the region, with many tonneau (500 literes), foudre (over 1000 liters) being used. One can even visit one of the largest barrels in the world, the 150,000 liter monster at Mercier in the Champagne region. At the tasting today, I had the opportunity to get a real feel for what all of these do the wines. Denis’ team at Bollinger has been running experiments for years, and he brought out samples for comparison to show us the differences.

All of the experimental wines we tasted were made with single press loads of Ay pinot noir. We started by tasting three versions of 2016 vin clair, the still wine that is bottled in order to create Champagne. The first one, which was done in stainless steel, was fruity, and super approachable. The second, which was made in a 1200 liter, brand new oak foudre, was full of Burgundian savor and quite a bit of tannin. Finally, the last one was made in a used 228 liter barrel from Burgundy, and it was shocking how much more focus, minerality and concentration it had than the rest.

The next flight was of finished Champagne, three 2008’s, again from one press load, again all Ay Pinot Noir. The first one, which was fermented in tank, was very easy to drink, open and giving, with plenty of dark Pinot fruit. The middle glass was done in a double Champagne piece, 410 liters, and embodied the savor, creaminess and hazelnut generosity that I love in top notch Pinot Noir Champagne. The last was done in a 228 liter Burgundy barrel, and had a lot more focus and seemed to need more time.

The lesson came through clearly to me. By introducing oxygen early in the wine making process, and concentrating the wines slightly through evaporation in barrels, the wines are given the legs for long ageing and a sort of immunization against oxidation. It was a great tasting.

We finished up by comparing the 2005 Bollinger "Grande Année" Brut Champagne, which is nearing the end of its run to the upcoming 2007 Bollinger "Grande Année" Brut Champagne. Both of these wines are entirely barrel fermented, using only premier and grand cru fruit, almost all of which is estate-grown, and composed of approximately 70% pinot noir and 30% chardonnay. They are aged for about eight years on the lees on a cork instead of a crown cap. Both have the power and toast one expects from Bollinger, but are very individual at the same time. I found the 2005 nearly decadent at this point, full of rich brioche and dried fruit. They will not make an RD out of this, since they prefer the way that it is drinking now and don’t think more time on the lees will benefit it. The 2007 was a return to the style of the 2004, with great chalky cut balancing out the nutty, bready depth of the wine. What a treat!

-Gary Westby

Gary Westby