A Week of Champagne Treats, Courtesy of Bollinger

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If there’s one thing seasoned Champagne drinkers need to try during their tasting lifetimes, it’s to compare the same wine in multiple formats. While we are lucky in Champagne to have size options ranging from splits to Nebuchadnezzars, my most recent comparison pitted the traditional 750 bottle against the magnum of Bollinger 2008.

“Pitted” might be too aggressive a descriptor, since both versions were singing and equally enjoyable to drink. But their taste profiles varied widely and suited vastly different food pairings. I experienced both—along with some rare Bollinger offerings—at a recent lunch at Republique.

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The Champagne Bollinger La Grande Année Lunch was an honor to attend and kicked off with passed appetizers and glasses of their classic release, the Special Cuvée. Special Cuvée is one of my go-tos when looking for a Grand Marque, since it offers both the prestige name and value—the quality feels higher than many other luxury brands at similar price points. On this day, it had a quicksilver character about it: nimble and bright enough to cut through the fried potato and leek beignets, yet lush when complementing a more classic tuna tartare. I would have happily gone on sipping Special Cuvée all afternoon, but we were called to our places, each adorned with wood coasters etched with our names, symbolizing Bollinger’s use of oak (they have their own cooperage on the grounds of their estate in Aÿ).

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Denis Bunner, the deputy Chef de Cave, introduced the vintage and the history of the La Grand Année bottling (first created in 1969). He has been with the house for six years and, while his knowledge was almost encyclopedic in scope, he was pleasantly down to earth. The whole event felt like having lunch with old friends, although in extremely elevated circumstances.

The first course was spot prawns, and Bollinger cut right to the chase, pouring La Grand Année 2008 out of a 750ml bottle immediately. The wine is shockingly creamy for such a cold, sometimes austere vintage, and opened up quickly in the glass. Notes of honey on the nose gave way to green apple fruit on the generous palate, and ended with one of the longest finishes I’ve experienced yet for a 2008 release. While seafood and sparkling wine are perfectly suited, I was lucky enough that the chef sneaked me his “golden pig” award-winning pork belly, a rich bite that could not have found a better match than this Champagne. Next up was Dover sole with mushrooms, and I was once again reminded that Champagne can enhance the umami character of anything. A quail dish followed, with dark thigh meat offset beautifully by the sharper notes of La Grand Année 2008 en magnum.

I wish readers could have joined me in experiencing the two versions of La Grand Année 2008 side by side. The magnum was noticeably fresher, with racy lift and a leaner feel. Honeycomb on the nose hinted at the complexity sure to develop, but the first sip felt brisk in the best way possible, then rounded out into the classic Bollinger’s famously textured palate that Bollinger is famous for. The 750 still has decades of life left, but felt the more easygoing of the two, which is to be expected. Air changed both versions dramatically and it almost felt like an adventure to take additional sips as time passed.

Dessert was shortbread cookies garnished with rosemary, and I wasn’t sure how well Champagne would counter the subtle sweetness. But the geniuses at Bollinger were one step ahead of me and poured a “vin surprise”: 2007 Vielles Vignes Françaises Blanc de Noirs! 100% Pinot Noir sourced from just two plots in Aÿ once cared for by Mme Lily Bollinger herself, this Champagne drank super vinous; it felt more like a sumptuous still wine than Champagne. The fruit is from pre-phylloxera vines planted at a higher density than most, 30k per hectare versus the usual 10k. These vines are from ungrafted rootstock and the fruit is more concentrated; the maturity of the vineyard is apparent in the complexity in the glass. White florals shine through on the nose while an almost savory curry note cuts through, followed by stewed golden fruit on the palate. But the acidity is there, thanks in part to a harvest that started on August 31—the earliest in the history of Champagne. Only 200 bottles of this exceptional release were produced, and while 2007 is perhaps not as celebrated as 2008, in this iteration, it certainly gave it a run for its money.

But the fun didn’t stop there! The following Thursday, we hosted Valerie McDaniel of Champagne Bollinger and Champagne Ayala to pour at our Hollywood tasting bar. Customers were introduced to the stunning 2007 Bollinger "La Grande Année" Rosé Champagne, a strawberry-scented dream with bracing acidity and a gorgeously long finish. Also featured was Champagne Ayala, another exceptional house based in the grand cru village of Aÿ, and their latest release from “miracle vintage” 2012. The 2012 was the first harvest-specific release under winemaking prodigy Caroline Latrive, and stole the show with its creamy, toasty brilliance. The always satisfying Bollinger Special Cuvée and the value-driven Ayala "Majeur" Brut completed the set. The bar was packed, the potato-chip pairing was perfect, and everyone went home well-educated and happy.

Thank you to our friends at Champagne Bollinger and Champagne Ayala for an incredible week of bubbly festivities. Cheers!

Wines mentioned:
Bollinger "Special Cuvée" Brut Champagne $59.99
2007 Bollinger "La Grande Année" Rosé Champagne $164.99
2008 Bollinger "La Grande Année" Champagne
2012 Ayala Blanc de Blancs Brut Champagne $79.99
Ayala "Majeur" Brut Champagne $39.99

- Diana Turk