Bollinger’s one-off Champagne from 2003

xOn Thursday 12th April 2007 I tasted a product so new at Bollinger that some family shareholders had not even heard of it, let alone tasted the wine. It’s a new vintage, but it’s not a Grande Année. It’s a one-off special Champagne called 2003 by Bollinger”, and yet it tastes nothing like a Bollinger. It is a soft and sumptuous Champagne, with a gloriously slow-releasing pin-cushion mousse that feels utterly satisfying in the mouth. There is none of the angular oakiness that has, until now, been the consistent hallmark of this most traditional of Champagne houses. And although the wine was barrique-fermented, the oak has been subsumed by the rich, juicy fruit of the 2003 vintage. At the moment, it is the vanilla-finesse of ultra-ripe Chardonnay that dominates the wine from the mid-palate to the finish. Just so not Bollinger!As Ghislain Montgolfier, the président directeur général of Bollinger, explained “The 2003 harvest was not a Grande Année for Bollinger. We knew from the start that the grapes did not have a sufficiently high total acidity, or a low enough pH, to achieve the austere character that is so necessary for a Bollinger Grande Année.

However, 2003 did produce something special. So special, in fact, that it was impossible to ignore. Even at Bollinger. But what should we do? We could not release this wine as a Grande Année. Bollinger drinkers would not understand such a change of style. So we are presenting it as “2003 by Bollinger”. A bit theatrical, perhaps, but we are lifting the curtain on a totally one-off style and saying “Yes, this is 2003” and “Yes this is Bollinger”. It is neither superior, nor inferior to Grande Année. It’s just different, and we hope the packaging reflects the uniqueness of the product.”

xAs a critic, the packaging is always secondary to the quality of a wine, but I do prefer a good presentation to a poor one, and I have to admit that the packaging of “2003 by Bollinger” is inspired. Most people remember 2003 as the year of the long, oppressively hot, pan-European drought, but in Champagne it started off with temperatures so low that half the region’s potential crop was destroyed. This has been captured on the packaging by a photograph of a snow-laden vineyard. It was the spectacular frosts of the night of 11 April, when temperatures remained at -11°C, followed by three days of freezing fog, during the vulnerable budding period that destroyed most of the potential crop. The vines responded by gradually creating more buds, consequently the flowering was extended from June through to August, with violent hail-storms in June destroying more buds and playing havoc with the flowering.

Vintage 2003

The very small crop ripened at an extraordinarily fast rate, resulting in the earliest harvest on record (which began in 1822, seven years before Bollinger was founded), and high, but not excessively high, natural alcohol levels (an average of 10.6% ABV). The speed at which the grapes went through véraison produced the lowest acidity and highest pH on record. It is therefore not another 1976, 1959 or 1947, as some champenois would have us believe. They trot out these vintages as an automatic defence mechanism, citing these years as proof that high alcohol and low acidity can produce very longlived Champagnes indeed, but the fallacy of this comparison is that 2003s do not have the exceptionally high alcohol, and yet the acidity is even more worryingly low:

Regional average 2003 1976 1959 1947
Natural alcohol 10.6% 10.5% 12% 11.5%
Total Acidity * 5.8g 6.7g 6.3g 6.1g
pH 3.28 3.17 N/A ** N/A **

* Of juice, expressed as grams per litre in sulphuric acid
** Before pH testing

I think the 2003s will be more mid-term developers, than long-term. What does make the wines stand out, however, is the exotic character of the fruit, particularly from the Chardonnay, which is not devoid of its usual aromas of white flowers and yellow fruits, but also possesses nuances of tropical fruit and a tell-tale vanilla-finesse opening out on the finish. This is all evident in the “2003 by Bollinger”, which is already a delight to drink, hence its release in July (£45rrp in the UK, €65-70 in France), a good three years before Bollinger is due to release its 2000 Grande Année. Bollinger’s chef de cave, Mathieu was able to craft this sublime one-off by selecting only the finest grapes from the firm’s oldest vineyards in Aÿ, Verzenay and Cuis, by resisting the temptation to acidify or increase the amount of sulphur, which is the traditional method of dealing with low pH wines. The result is a minor miracle and here for interest is a comparison between the “2003 by Bollinger” and 2002 Grande Année:

‘2003 by Bollinger’ 2002 Grande Année
Natural alcohol 11.2% 11.2%
Total Acidity* 3.9g 5.7g
pH** 3.15 3.00
Dosage 7g 9g
Pinot Noir/Chardonnay 60/40 60/40
Number of villages 3 17
Bottles produced 50,000 500,000

* Of finished wine, expressed as grams per litre in sulphuric acid
** Of finished wine