In the world of true Champagne, it's all about following the rules

Posted9/11/2018 6:00 AM

Maybe you've experienced a boss who could be described (politely) as controlling.

Maybe you dream of liberty -- the life of, say, a winegrower.


Before you trade your business suit for bib overalls, consider Champagne.

You'll discover that Champagne -- like all French wine regions -- adheres to strict governance of vineyard and winery practice, from planting of the vine until the bottle exits the warehouse.

In addition to permitted grape(s), permitted yield, permitted style, permitted label …, after all is weighed, analyzed and accounted as accurate under the auspices of regional and national offices, still the final step; your wine must be tasted and approved typique.

Typical?! Who wants to be typical?!

The French winegrower, that's who. Even if your family hasn't spent centuries of sweat and investment (which many have); even if you don't give a hoot about a millennium of history (which most do); still, your land is your brand. Champagne -- one of most valuable brands on earth -- must be protected at all costs.

So, Champagne enforces controls beyond France's norm, including permitted harvest date for each village and grape, beginning in 2018 on Aug. 21, with Saint-Amand-Sur-Fion's chardonnay.

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Remember who gave us the term "bureaucracy"? The French, that's who.

With all these controls, can any Champagne be different, special, unique?

It can, according to Champagne Bollinger Deputy Chef de Cave, Denis Bunner, if you have place, grape, time and rarity.

Of the 300 Champagne houses, most source their fruit from 15,000 growers. Bollinger relies on their family-owned estate, comprised of top-ranked Grand and Premier Cru vineyards, with qualities of soil and climate expressed best by the most demanding grape, Pinot Noir.

For full complexity, great Pinot Noir demands both air (the best friend and worst enemy of wine, according to Bunner) and time. Thanks to their stock of 3,500 aged casks, Bollinger gives wine air by fermenting in wood (not steel tanks), one of only two houses to do so. After primary fermentation, Bollinger's wine rests on lees for twice the regional requirement, sometimes much more. (See R.D. below.) A portion of the best wines are reserved in a cellar of 700,000 magnums, to be blended into multi-vintage wines for richness and texture. "There are places of the cellar even we don't go to," says Bunner. "Madame Bollinger once returned with a magnum from 1830."

One the world's rarest wines was inspired by such a cellar trip. Madame Lily Bollinger directed Champagne Bollinger's fortunes from 1941, following the death of her husband during Nazi occupation, until 1971. A hostess-with-the-mostest, she entertained friends with fine vintages from her reserve cellar. Whether her motivation was egalitarian or business acumen, she decided to make more friends. In 1967, Bollinger released "Recently Disgorged" (R.D.), a wine held in reserve on lees until optimum development; at the precise moment, the wine is "disgorged" (separated from lees), bottled and sold for extraordinary complexity coupled with freshness. "Bollinger accounts for only 1 percent of Champagne production," reports Bunner. "R.D. is 1 percent of that 1 percent."


A recent tasting of R.D. 1996 stunned the commanderie of Chicago top-palates with aromas of browned butter, luxurious mouthfeel, delicately-oxidated earthiness, mystery and nearly meaty flavor. My imagination watered for a mushroom and onion tart and sautéed filet or salmon with shiitakes.

For your own taste of time in a bottle, turn to Flickinger Wines, purveyors of the finest and rarest, who currently cellar R.D. 1996 (disgorged in 2006) for $299 per 750ml bottle. Visit or call (312) 471-WINE (9463).

In addition to the current release of R.D. 2004 and other Bollinger marques including "Ross's Choice", ask your merchant for:

"Special Cuvee" Brut NV: Full and refined, with layers of flavor -- baked brioche, orchard fruit, minerals and toasted nuts -- wrapped in creamy effervescence, outlined by fresh acidity. Blended from a majority of reserve wines, aged for five to fifteen years. About $60.

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