BEST CHAMPAGNE had the pleasure to meet Gilles Descôtes, Chef de Caves of BOLLINGER, or “Bolly” as many refer to, the favorite champagne of James Bond and many others.
Gilles Descôtes was appointed Chef de Caves of BOLLINGER in 2013
The House was founded in 1829 in Aÿ (grand cru) by Hennequin de Villermont, an adventurous aristocrat who inherited vineyards in Champagne, Paul Renaudin, and Jacques Bollinger, two wine experts, one from Champagne and the other from Germany.
When Paul passed without heirs and Jacques married Charlotte de Villermont, the House came under the sole control of the Bollinger family.
Among the fans of their champagnes was the Court of England that awarded the House the Royal Warrant in 1884.
The company gained greater visibility from WWII under Lily Bollinger, an icon of the champagne world, who traveled the world to promote the House until 1971.
From 1994 to 2008 the Maison further expanded under the lead of Ghislain de Montgolfier, a great-grandson of the founder and President of the Union of Champagne Houses from 2008 to 2013.
From 2008, Jérôme Philippon manages the company. He is the first President outside the Bollinger family, although the company remains 100% family-owned. He has extended his predecessor’s program of modernization and investment.
In 2013, Gilles Descôtes, who was managing BOLLINGER’s vineyard since 2003, was appointed as its 7th Chef de Caves.
A man of great experience in both the vineyard and in the cellar, Descôtes remains humble in explaining his wines, among the most admired in Champagne.
In his own worlds, he explains the construction of the BOLLINGER style, built on distinctive character, elegance, and complexity.
By reading this interview you will understand what makes BOLLINGER really unique and will probably run to buy a bottle.
BEST CHAMPAGNE: Many see BOLLINGER as a very distinctive Champagne House. Why?
GILLES DESCOTES: The singularity of BOLLIGER is based on its 5 pillars: its vineyard, Pinot Noir, vinification in wood, reserve wine in magnums, and aging time.
In the Champagne region, few Houses own large vineyards and we own 174 hectares that account for more than 50% of our grape supply.
This is extremely good for the quality of the product and very reassuring for the consistency of the style of our wines.
Then, we always use at least 60% of Pinot Noir in all of our cuvées and up to 90% or 100% for some champagnes.
We are also the Champagne House with the largest number of oak barrels (3,500) where we vinify 1/3 of our harvest and 100% of the vintages that we declare.
Then, when we assemble our Special Cuvée (Brut non-vintage champagne) we reintroduce 5% of reserve wines kept in magnums where they underwent a further small fermentation.
Finally, time. We let our wines age longer than the average in Champagne with 6 years of stock in our cellars compared to an average of 3 years in other Houses.
BC: How do these pillars participate in creating the BOLLINGER style? How do you describe this style?
GD: The BOLLINGER style is based on three elements: the fruit in all of its states, the texture with a “creamy effervescence”, and a dense and subtle presence.
When we talk about fruit in all of its states, we are talking about fresh fruit, ripe fruit, and dry fruit.
For this, Special Cuvée (made in 2017) is made of 43% of base wines (of the year) and 57% of reserve wine, with 60% of Pinot Noir, 25% of Chardonnay and 15% of Meunier.
In the base wines, Pinot Noir brings notes of fleshed fruits, Chardonnay brings flavors of citrus and Meunier brings aromas of exotic fruits.
We use reserve wines from very different years (9 different vintages in the current Special Cuvée). These older wines bring aromas of riper fruit and candied fruits.
However, a remarkable difference in the BOLLINGER style is the last layer of dried fruit obtained through the use of reserve wines kept in magnum, for an average of 10 years, where they undergo a further small fermentation before including them in the Special Cuvée blend.
Today we have 750,000 magnums stored in our cellars, village by village, year by year, which we call “aromatic bombs”. These are “spices” that allow us to fully achieve the BOLLINGER taste and style.
To obtain the full range of fruits, the wood also acts as an enhancer of these scents and aromas during the first fermentation. But to avoid any woody taste we do not use new wood but always after at least 5 or 6 years of use.
The stainless steel vats reveal the aromas of thiol and citrus much more, but old barrels bring more ripe fruit. On the other hand, the new wood casks hide the fruit and thus do not interest us.
The second element of the BOLLINGER style is found in the texture of what we call “creamy effervescence”.
The mouth is very silky and never aggressive, always easy. It results from three moments of contact of the wine with the lees at BOLLINGER, as opposed to a single moment of contact for most Champagne Houses.
First, in the musts that we vinify and let age in wood on fine lees, then in the bottle after the second fermentation, but also in the reserve wines which age in magnums for 10 years with a small fermentation and thus an autolysis of the yeast.
These three moments of contact with the lees bring an extraordinary creaminess to our wines.
The third component of the BOLLINGER style is its dense and subtle presence, due to the significant use of Pinot Noir. We are often the last to harvest in Champagne to pick very ripe Pinot Noirs that bring this structure.
The Chardonnays, mostly from the Côte des Blancs, balance this power with their subtlety.
So the 5 pillars of BOLLINGER are all there to serve its style, but these are just tools that enable us to achieve this result, not goals in themselves.
Purity and curiosity are among the values of our House, which means that we must not forbid ourselves to explore simpler, more direct and natural solutions to obtain the same taste and style.
For example, we stopped clarifying the wines (with collage). When I became the Cellar Master, we used to clarify our wines but we then wondered if it was really necessary. We experimented with and without clarification and tasted the still wines and the sparkling wines and we found no difference, so we stopped all clarifications.
Similarly, we have reduced the amount of SO2 in the wines, we have changed the cooling system, and we are moving from two wine filtrations to one.
BC: What role do other grape varieties play in your blends?
GD: At BOLLINGER we are very Pinot Noir. We never use less than 60% Pinot Noir in blends, and up to 100% for Vieilles Vignes Françaises (Blanc de Noirs).
But Chardonnay remains a very important component because it intervenes as an element of harmony and balance.
We use 25% Chardonnay in Special Cuvée, 30% in La Grande Année and up to 40% in R.D., with 95% of the Chardonnays coming from the Côte des Blancs.
We also use 15% Meunier in Special Cuvée and our Rosé.
BC: What is more important for the quality of a champagne, the quality of the grapes or the vinification process?
GD: The magic winemaker or oenologist who turns bad grapes into wonderful champagne doesn’t exist. It was an approach during the 1990s but it is no longer the case today; the key to quality champagne is the vineyard.
I am an oenologist but I have spent my entire career in the vineyard and I continue to supervise it, to buy the grapes and, therefore, I manage the entire production line and for me, it is obvious that ripe and healthy grapes are essential.
We cannot make great wines with average grapes and the great advantage we have at BOLLINGER is our own vineyard.
We were the first Champagne House to be certified for high environmental value and the first for sustainable viticulture for our constant commitment to the vineyard.
And since we are winemakers, not magicians, we have to give ourselves the chance to pick the best and therefore, we buy more of what we need and we resell what we do not use.
We vinify in-house 99% of these grapes because having control of the supply chain from the beginning is essential and our House has always had a very clear vision on this subject.
That’s why we invest 4.5 million euros a year on the purchase of vines since 2014, with the aim of owning 200-hectares by 2024.
BC: What is the development strategy behind these investments?
GD: This choice is linked to an ambition to grow in value and partly in volume, but always maintaining a proportion of our own supplies of at least 50%.
The sparkling wine segment continues to grow globally, while champagne does not grow in volume so it is losing market shares.
All the Champagne productive area is planted with vines so the development strategy must go through an increase in value. But for this, it is necessary to justify a rise in selling prices.
There is a constant rise in the price of grapes in Champagne, which has to be reflected in the price of the wines and therefore champagne must remain an extremely qualitative luxury product.
BC: BOLLINGER is a family-owned and independent house. What does this mean in your work?
GD: We are fortunate not having to present immediate returns on investments. Our shareholders, the BOLLINGER family, believe in the differences and quality of BOLLINGER’s wines.
The first magnums of reserve wines were fermented in 1886 and were used in blends from 1890 on continuously.
We now have 750,000 magnums in stock in the cellar, the equivalent of 1.5 million bottles that we could sell as they are, but instead, we include them in Special Cuvée, which will age for another 3 years. All of this represents large locked-up capitals.
BC: What is the nicest and hardest aspect of your job?
GD: Even though we work a lot as a team, there is a moment when the Cellar Master embodies the signature of a blend and the brand of the House, and that comes with a great pressure.
At the same time, it is extremely gratifying to know that consumers love the brand and that its wines bring them moments of great pleasure.
BC: What does champagne represent for you? What would life be without champagne?
GD: For me, champagne represents aperitifs, festivities, and celebrations. Life without champagne would not be possible, it would be extremely sad, truncated, incomplete.