Bollinger Brings the Vin Clair to SF!
Friday, May 20, 2016 at 9:00AM
Gary Westby

Denis Bunner, Gilles Descôtes and Cyril Delarue of Bollinger

Normally, I have to go to Champagne in the spring before the bottling to taste vin clair, the base wine that turns into Champagne after bottle fermentation. Luckily last week Champagne Bollinger’s Cellar Master Gilles Descôtes, Deputy Cellar Master Denis Bunner and export manager Cyril Delarue came to show their 2015 vin clairs in San Francisco. It was great to taste these base wines without any jet lag for the first time in my life! My colleague Heather from our Redwood City store joined us and it was a great afternoon learning all about Bollinger.

Bollinger produces about three million bottles a year and sixty percent of their needs come from their own estate. It is a very special estate, four hundred acres of grand and 1er cru vineyards spread out across all of the best terroir in Champagne. What they purchase they purchase as grapes, never as juice or still wine.

The company was founded in 1829, and they have stuck to a couple of techniques since the beginning that really set them apart. The first thing is barrels- they have never stopped using them, and all of the best vineyard sites are barrel fermented today the same way they were nearly 200 years ago. The vintage wine is always all barrel fermented, while the non vintage wines are still mostly barrel fermented.

They also keep all the reserves for the non-vintage in magnums. This is a mind bogglingly laborious and space intensive task… Instead of having one 3750 liter tank of Chardonnay they have to stack up 2500 magnums! These reserves are given a secondary fermentation at ¼ pressure and kept for an average of 10 years before being hand disgorged, checked for cork taint and poured one by one into the Special Cuvee blend. They use approximately 70,000 of these in each batch of grand cuvee.

We started by tasting an example of 2015 Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Meunier. These really showed the strength of the vintage, especially for the black grapes. They were uniformly spicy, complex and intriguing vin clairs. Champagne fans have a lot to be excited for… In another 10 years or so we will be seeing some great vintage wines come from 2015. We also tasted some reserve wines from 2014, which tasted younger than the 15’s due to the cooler growing temperatures. Perhaps the most interesting thing was a magnum of reserve under ¼ pressure- this was loaded with nutty, dried fruit flavors and length to spare.

Heather Gowen of K&L (foreground) and other tasters learning all the secrets of Bollinger

We finished by tasting the current releases- first the polished, dry, refined Bollinger "Special Cuvee" Brut Champagne ($59.99), then the authoritative, structured, yet still elegant and charming Bollinger Brut Rosé Champagne ($69.99).  Mr. Descôtes then presented the lush, soft, decadent 2005 Bollinger "Grande Année" Brut Champagne (not yet released) followed by the subtle, spicy, classic, mineral driven 2004 Bollinger "Grande Année" Brut Rose Champagne. The big treats of the day were the unbelievably complete, concentrated, loaded 2002 Bollinger R.D. Extra Brut Champagne and the unique still red Bollinger "La Cote aux Enfant" Still Champagne.

This was a treat that I won’t soon forget!

Gary Westby


Article originally appeared on K&L Uncorked (
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