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Destroyed at the dawn of the 20th century by the infamous phylloxera vastatrix, all the Champagne region’s vines had to be replanted with American rootstocks that were resistant to the destructive insect.
All of them? Not quite... In Aÿ, two Bollinger plots classified Grand cru, the “Chaudes Terres” and “Clos St Jacques”, were miraculously spared by the phylloxera. From these vines cultivated using traditional methods, planted “en foule” (without any visible order) according to the provignage method, and worked by hand, is crafted the Vieilles Vignes Françaises cuvée: a Blanc de Noirs matured in the cellar for at least five years, with a cork stopper and then disgorged by hand. Vieilles Vignes Françaises is a confidential production of a few thousand bottles, an exceptional and extremely rare wine, with a memory of bygone days; a symbol, an extraordinary, evocative and moving legacy.
Bathed in golden morning sun of Champagne, three diminutive Pinot Noir plots are under the exacting scrutiny of vineyard workers. The plots, surrounded by stone walls, have been given special attention for over one hundred years. These are the only ungrafted vines in nearly all of Champagne that have managed to escape the ravages of phylloxera decade after decade. It is on this morning that the vineyard workers have discovered a fateful problem on the 16-are Croix Rouge plantation in the village of Bouzy. The year is 2004—phylloxera has landed.
“It was over in the blink of an eye. Right when we found out that phylloxera had hit us, it only took a couple of weeks before everything was gone. There wasn’t a thing we could do,” recalls Bollinger’s Christian Dennis.
Champagne Bollinger has cared for the vines on these three plots with an extraordinary passion since 1969. Renowned English wine author Cyril Ray was the guest of Madame Lily Bollinger when he recorded the history of the Bollinger Champagne house in 1968. His attention was drawn to these exceptional plots and the truly unique character of the wines they produced. At his urging, Lily Bollinger decided to produce wines from these plots under her own name. The 1969 vintage produced in honour of Madame Bollinger’s 70th birthday was released in 1974. The first actually commercial vintage was released in 1970. This ‘museum wine’ instantly became a favourite among collectors and a much-desired rarity, so seldom encountered in a lifetime.
Bollinger is one of only a handful of the remaining family-owned prestige champagne houses. Founded in 1829, Bollinger attained legendary status in its pursuit of perfection: its renowned Charter of Ethics and Quality was published in 1992 by Christian Bizot and Ghislain de Montgolfier, when the syndicate of Grand Marque houses was not ready to accept the stringent criteria as a guideline for all houses. Bollinger decided to stick with the Charter and its own values, which respect not only quality, but also family, the region and tradition. In an age of increasing champagne production and giant champagne houses, Bollinger has been able to keep its scale small. Export manager Philippe Menguy explains:
“Every year we produce two million bottles of champagne, even though we could sell four million. We have 12 million bottles in our cellars, which is a six-year inventory. We own and cultivate a majority of our grape needs, so we’re not dependent on purchased grapes.”
A challenging vintage for Champagne in the face of an unprecedented heatwave during the summer months. The wines are characterised by the year's unusual circumstances. Large-scale frosts destroyed most of the projected yield and they were followed by hail and an extremely hot summer. Harvest was kick-started early on August 21st and yields remained minuscule at 8,100 kg/ha. Atypically round, ripe, sun-kissed wines that miss freshness and backbone. The total acidity level was notably low, at 5.8 g/l. Only the very best performers were able to avoid heaviness and overripe aromatics. This vintage was not largely declared but some famous names, Krug and Dom Pérignon at the fore, chose to experiment with it. Both produced excellent 2003s and Dom Pérignon's chef de cave at the time named the vintage as one of the creations he is most proud of. Some special cuvées surfaced, such as 2003 by Bollinger, as the house found the year did not stylistically fit into the La Grande Année range. Palmer & Co also took a curious route and made its 2003 only in magnum, releasing it much later than usual as cuvée Grands Terroirs. The ageing capacity of 2003 is much debated. Dom Pérignon's Richard Geoffroy had great confidence in his 2003 and he actually regretted releasing it too early. The jury is still out, but personally I am inclined to drink mine sooner rather than later, as the advancement post-disgorgement has in most cases been rather rapid and the wines miss the acidic backbone necessary for retaining freshness.