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The end of the war commerce in champagne was in a critical situation. If it had kept up the soldiers' morale during the war then it now needed to do the same for the inhabitants of Champagne. It was true that, on the 10 May 1947, at the spring meeting of the A.V.C., René Chayoux, president of the merchants, was able to say, with the approval of Henri Macquart, the president of the vine growers: At the end of a period of terrible torment, the situation in Champagne is relatively fortunate. Our vineyards have not suffered as much as we might have feared. A sensible policy of restriction of prices and quantities sold has both maintained substantial levels of stock and Champagne's reputation from the point of view of price and quality. But in 1945, in the vineyards, many men had not come back, average yields had fallen to 32 hectolitres per hectare, a great deal of work which had been postponed for five years now had to carried out with some urgency if the prosperity of before the war was to be recovered. As for the merchants they, too, had a lot to do in order to restore and develop their businesses.
However, little by little the after-effects of the war disappeared. 1954 marked the beginning of an extraordinary phase of expansion for champagne both in terms of its means of production and its sales.
As time passed sales in France and exports to various countries grew rapidly.
Several remarks may be made concerning this dramatic evolution. Between the end of the hostilities and 1953 sales remained more or less at the level in 1938, i.e. around thirty million bottles annually, with a peak of thirty-five million in 1951. People restocked their cellars after the war but the stocks of the producers had not yet returned to their correct levels and the economic climate was hesitant. From 1954 the professions were able to evolve in a climate of healthy cooperation due to the creation of an interprofessional body, the spirit of competition seized the producers, merchants, growers who sold their own champagne, and the cooperatives; their combined efforts would, in a quarter of a century, multiply sales of champagne by six, which is considerable for a product with a relatively high price that, while it was certainly desirable and pleasant, was not a prime necessity.
Between 1910 and 1940 there was a stagnation in the level of sales, which hovered around 30 and 40 million bottles, with considerable and frequent peaks and troughs. The opposite was true in this period of expansion, of which the steadiness was remarkable. There were, however, four hiccups, which occurred for accidental reasons. The first in 1958-1959 was caused by a poor harvest due to frosts in 1957. The second, in 1968, resulted from the introduction of value added tax (VAT)42 and political and industrial problems. The 1970s began with a euphoric period of growth in sales, of the order of 10% per year, but then a third interruption occurred in 1974 as a result of the recession that was triggered by the fuel crisis. From 1973 to 1975 the British and Italian markets fell, in terms of bottles sold per year, from 10 million to 3 million and from 9.8 million to 2.8 million respectively. The French market fell by 6% in 1974 but quickly resumed its growth in 1975.
The underground world of the House’s cellars reveals the full importance of time at Bollinger’s. After primary fermentation in small stainless steel or wooden casks the wine is bottled in the spring and taken down to rest in the pervading silence of the chalk cellars; Special Cuvée champagne will remain there for at least three years and vintage cuvees for much longer. It is this long period of rest that develops the extraordinarily delicate aromas of the wine and gives the bubbles their smooth texture.
Each year, some of the very best wines are added to the House’s exceptional collection of 700,000 reserve magnums which are kept for blending Special Cuvée. Stoppered with natural corks during a light secondary fermentation, these magnums enable each wine, from every cru and every plot, to reveal the infinite subtlety of their bouquet and to develop their full complexity while being protected from oxidation. This is a luxury that gives Bollinger the opportunity of letting wines mature over many years before being used. The art of using reserve wines has reached absolute perfection!
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.”
Christian Dennis sheds light the role that Vieilles Vignes Françaises (VVF) plays in the house portfolio: “Wine is produced in minimal amounts only during the best champagne years, averaging out to 3,000 bottles. This accounts for only 0.15% of our gross production! The hand craftsmanship that this requires and disadvantageous economies of scale make the VVF three times more expensive than our other vintage champagnes. From an economic standpoint, the VVF doesn’t play a major role, but in terms of image it is vital to us. It’s also extraordinary to produce a wine using winemaking techniques which were used before the phylloxera blight. The VVF is thus the epitome of the country’s original champagne style.”