INTERVIEW WITH CHAMPAGNE FRANCK BONVILLE

BEST CHAMPAGNE had the pleasure of interviewing Olivier Bonville, President of FRANCK BONVILLE, a family House renowned for the elegance and complexity of their Blanc de Blancs champagnes.

Located in Avize, a grand cru in the heart of Côte des Blancs where Chardonnay thrives, this family of vine growers has evolved into a beautiful small Champagne House, obsessed with quality and taste in all the steps of winemaking.

Olivier Bonville of Champagne FRANCK BONVILLE
Olivier Bonville has been in charge of the family House since 1996.

This evolution was orchestrated and coordinated by Olivier, a smart and friendly man with an inquisitive mind and an open spirit, who, in 20 years, has taken his family business to a new high.

Today, FRANCK BONVILLE is not just a name, but a true brand in the world of champagne connoisseurs, thanks to the taste and increasing popularity of its wines.

Production remains intimate, at around 130,000 bottles per year, so if you cross any of their champagnes, do not hesitate a moment, particularly if you are into Blanc de Blancs champagnes with a mineral thing.

What is your career path? How did your past experiences enrich your work in champagne?

After receiving my Diploma in Viticulture and Oenology, I worked in wine in Corsica and Germany and eventually as an oenologist at the Champagne Bureau.

There, I was involved in R&D in issues concerning the different grape presses, the addition of enzymes to wine, the different vinification techniques, the debourbage (settling of the freshly pressed grape juice before fermentation), and the impact of the different types of stainless steel for wine tanks. I was also trained in the technical champagne tasting with almost every day blends to be analyzed.

But when I finally joined our family estate in 1996, I immediately understood that to make the best champagne, you have to know how to produce great grapes and pick them at the right moment of maturity. So, I moved our vineyard towards more reasoned viticulture.

From the early 2000s, we used all our fruits to produce our champagnes [as opposed to selling grapes to other Houses]. This also required new skills in marketing to establish our brand in France and abroad.

But our origins are in the vineyard and wine and my main criterion for building the quality of champagne is always the grapes. Even though we can compensate in the cellar shortcomings in the raw material, my priority has always remained quality viticulture.

The wine inevitably derives its quality from that of the grapes and, for that, it is very important to know your lands, in our case cultivated entirely with Chardonnay.

All your champagnes are indeed Blanc de Blancs (100% Chardonnay). What makes them different and unique? How would you define the style of your House?

Everyone makes the wines he likes. I like the wines of other beautiful Chardonnay Houses like SALON, and others with different styles like ALFRED GRATIEN, CHARLES HEIDSIECK, and POL ROGER, so I taste elsewhere to retain what I like.

These Houses influenced my winemaking techniques, made me progress, but my first source of inspiration is our terroir.

In our champagnes, we notice elegance, purity, freshness, minerality, but also a certain richness because you also need aromatic complexity to really enjoy. They are wines of elegance and purity but also of length on the palate: I like that it is long in the mouth, complex, rich, but without power or vinosity.

These are all components that I seek to frame at the harvest with a specific maturity, and a certain type of vinification and aging of the wine. We must pick beautiful grapes, the vinification is there to accompany their expression, and then let the wines age a few years in the cellar. Aging is key and we market our champagnes only when we consider them ready after tasting them.

Our clientele appreciates our style, which is quite characteristic of Blanc de Blancs from the Côte des Blancs and for which we have become a reference, not only with minerality and salinity, but also depth.

We are fortunate to have a soil that is easy to cultivate, which is light and which brings a lot of elegance, finesse, and freshness to our wines.

But our style, which is based on my taste and our personality, is always evolving. I do not make the same champagnes today as when I started and I may not do the same ones when I stop. The style of a House corresponds to a way of seeing things, to a taste that evolves with our personalities. So FRANCK BONVILLE champagne matches my taste of champagne today that I love and cherish.

Why is Chardonnay the preferred grape in the Côte des Blancs? Do you plan to use Pinot one day?

Previous generations of Champenois answered this question. Many grape varieties were planted in Champagne at the beginning of the last century but they gradually realized that some gave better results in some areas than others: Chardonnay rather in the Côte des Blancs, Pinot Noir in the Montagne de Reims, and Pinot Meunier along the Marne. It is a matter of soil, sun exposure, and other environmental characteristics.

This is based on the empirical observations of previous winemakers and I trust them and if Pinot Noir was not kept in the Côte des Blancs, it is because the Chardonnay gives better results here.

I enjoy well vinified Pinot Noirs from its best terroirs, but I love Chardonnay and I think this grape variety has no limit: it can be so rich and deep in its organoleptic qualities that I can dedicate all my life to it.

The more I taste Blanc de Blancs champagnes, the more I love them. I know better and better my terroir and I love it more and more. We still have a lot to understand about our soils, the ways we work the vineyard…

All your parcels are in grands crus: Avize, Oger, and Mesnil-sur-Oger. Does a grand cru make great champagne?

The classification scale was established by the Houses in connection to the price paid per kilo of grapes, paying more for some villages associated with better maturity and/or fewer diseases and, therefore, higher average quality year after year. So grands crus tend to produce better raw material.

But there are very competent vine growers in villages that are not classified grands crus, so the classification loses relevance. We are happy to be located in grands crus but there are a lot of viticultural work and choices involved to express the best of each terroir, whether grand cru or not.

Although your champagnes are blends of these grands crus, you have also launched a range of focused mono-cru champagnes. Why?

The point of having produced them separately was to better understand the characteristics of each cru. Vinifying them separately allows us to identify the organoleptic differences, in the grapes and the wine. Although these three villages have similar chalky sub-soils, the chalk is found at different depths, resulting in marked differences.

These three crus are like different colors for a painter who draws his picture, and that is why we always combine them in our Brut Grand Cru and our other champagnes.

You were talking earlier about the importance of aging champagne …

There is minimal aging necessary for champagne to taste how I like it.  For me, a Blanc de Blancs below 3 years of aging is not yet ready, and this is the minimum that our Brut Grand Cru and our mono-cru champagne stay in our cellar, while our other champagnes age for 5 years or more.

Except for your Brut Grand Cru which receives a dosage of 9 g / l, all your other champagnes are Extra Brut. What is your approach to dosage? Is it still necessary with global warming and the consequent greater maturity at harvest?

With global warming, we observe greater richness in natural sugar in the grapes which brings a different balance (between acidity and sugars) and results in complexity and generosity in the wine. This goes hand in hand with a reduction in dosage, provided you age your champagnes long enough. 

30 or 40 years ago we witnessed lower maturities and a higher dosage came to balance these champagnes. Besides, champagne has become an aperitif wine, so there is the whole context to take into consideration.

But dosage remains the final touch for ultimate balance and a champagne can be balanced at 0, 2, 5, 9 g / l and maybe in 15 years we will talk of complex and rich champagnes able to accommodate dosages of 25, 30, 40 g / l and which can also be very good.

At FRANCK BONVILLE, we make champagnes that we deem balanced to let the wine speak, evoke salinity, and sometimes nice bitterness which would be less clear with more sugar.

But we also produce Demi-Sec champagnes that are fabulous, especially if paired with seared foie gras and slightly more fatty and rich dishes or desserts where an Extra Brut would be hard to match, but which is perfect with oysters for example. Each champagne, with its dosage, has its place.

How do you look at the future of your House? What are your ambitions?

For 25 years, I have been in charge of our House, our wines, and all aspects inherent to the business and, especially, building our brand.

When I started, we shipped most of our production to France; today it is the opposite and it is with great pleasure and satisfaction that we receive visitors from all countries to better understand and discover us.

But nothing is ever achieved and our results can still be questioned by consumers and wine critics. We must always challenge ourselves to continue progressing for even greater quality.

In a year or two, I hope I’ll be able to devote myself entirely to work in the vineyard and the cellar, thus giving me even more time to observe and follow our vines and wines.

In this context, I have not yet dared organic viticulture, which comes with greater challenges and lower yields, but if I undertake this way, I will do it full send.

In the cellar, I want to extend the aging of our champagnes even longer, from a minimum of 3 to 5 years and from 5 to 8 depending on the cuvées, for more accomplished champagnes, more intense and fine, because Chardonnay has this peculiarity of becoming incredibly rich over time.

Do you drink champagne every day?

Yes, I also drink other wines, but champagne, every day.

What does the word champagne mean to you?

A terroir.

What would life be without champagne?

Impossible to imagine!

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