Bollinger 2012 Champagne: One Of The Very Best Wines And Vintages Of The Century
by Ken Gargett
Champagne may be the last thing on most minds as the coronavirus pandemic sends the planet into lockdown, but, really, is there anything that would lift depressed spirits more than a great glass of fizz?
Of course, some are suffering far more than others, with the threat to lives and livelihoods so real. Others, not so much. One retired surgeon grumpily told me that he was not at all happy about this virus. Apparently his local golf club had placed restrictions on the number on the course and, worse, had decreed that golf buggies were restricted to the use by a single person (and only if you owned the thing in the first place).
Apparently, he now has to walk the 18 holes. Life has become hell, #firstworldproblems.
While we are on first-world problems, one unexpected consequence of the pandemic has been that a number of the champagne producers have cancelled their annual trips down under, leaving us without the benefit of their wisdom and often their wines.
Bollinger was one such cancelled trip. Fortunately, the local state manager for the importers kindly managed to have a bottle of the newly released 2012 delivered. Not quite the same as enjoying catching up with the producers themselves, but we all have to make sacrifices.
In looking at this champagne, it means we will now have followed three Bollinger champagnes (previously, the RD 2004 and the 2008), which is more than we have examined from any other producer, champagne, or wine here. This is simply a function of the superlative wines we are seeing from this illustrious house. But what it also means is that you really do not have to have the story of Bollinger repeater.
2004 was a wonderful vintage, but for me 2008 (and 2002) took the honors from that decade; 2012 is a strong favorite to rule as the best of the most recent decade – with 2018 probably the only likely challenger but, of course, we have not seen any from that year as yet. Bollinger skipped the vintages of 2009, 2010, and 2011.
At this stage, it is hype only. But what hype it is, with Bollinger’s chef du cave Gilles Descôtes describing it as “the best harvest of my life.”
As it is a few too many years since I last visited this amazing house, I was hoping to rectify that later this year, but this would seem to be another of the sacrifices one must make thanks to this hated virus (and, yes, I am all too aware that this doesn’t register in comparison to the troubles of some). It led me to thinking of one of the early visits I made.
To reminisce . . .
I was doing food and wine events around Asia with a local chef, who was also an old friend. In the middle, I had to head off to Monte Carlo for the wedding of another old friend, as one does. So I took the opportunity while in Europe to race around to some favorite wineries – Rayas, Domaine d’Arlot, Louis Roederer, and Bollinger among them.
Ghislain de Montgolfier, the head of the house at the time, having succeeded Christian Bizot, kindly showed us around. Montgolfier is the great-great-grandson of the founder of the house, Joseph Bollinger. He would later become the president of the Union of Champagne Houses.
Ghislain is also descended from the famous Montgolfier brothers who invented the hot air balloon – I wonder how many people who do the early morning, hot air, champagne balloon ride know that the family who invented the balloon might also have made their fizz?
De Montgolfier is always wonderfully entertaining, and as we toured the vineyards he had opened a bottle of the extremely rare, legendary Vieilles Vignes Françaises, perhaps the most famous of all blanc des noirs (a champagne only made from the red grapes Pinot Noir and/or Meunier).
I remember de Montgolfier using the bottle as a sort of pointer as he identified various things around the vineyard. I really doubt that both my eyes, and those of the chef, ever left the bottle.
After the tour and tasting, we were kindly invited back to the family home for an unforgettable lunch. Sitting at the dining table in that exquisite room, it was impossible not to wonder who came before us.
There is a wonderful story about the famous Lily Bollinger hosting the local German commander during World War II, something she was not happy about but she was left with little choice in those days.
Apparently, halfway through the dinner a junior office burst in, declaring he had orders from Berlin that the Bollinger cellars were to be searched immediately as it was believed that they were hiding escaped POWs and downed Allied airmen there before the Resistance could get them to England.
Madame Bollinger was horrified at this intrusion, not least because she had a cellar full of exactly that, and she knew that if this was exposed she’d be for the firing squad.
Lily Bollinger was reportedly a tiny woman, but she leaped to her feet in mock outrage, declaring this a terrible insult. She told off the commander in no uncertain terms, pointing out that he was sitting at her dining table in her home, enjoying her champagnes, and then had the effrontery to make such accusations.
Thoroughly chastened, the commander apologized profusely and ordered the junior officer back to barracks with instructions never to make such ridiculous claims ever again.
As they returned to their dinner Madame Bollinger was relieved, but knew how close she and those hidden in the cellars had come to exposure. For anyone who has been in the cellars of Bollinger, or indeed most of the cellars in the region, it would be obvious that if anyone wanted to, you could probably hide an army there for months without detection, so extensive and such rabbit warrens they can be.
Nothing so dramatic when I was there, but I did have to ask de Montgolfier a question. I had come to know Guy Bizot, Madame Bollinger’s grand-nephew, over the years as he looked after the Aussie market, among others, and had thought he might be there on the day. Not so.
Anyway, when we arrived at the family home for our lunch, we had been taken past the front door and around the back to enter via the laundry, even stepping over a few baskets of washing. I asked de Montgolfier why, given the truly extraordinary hospitality they had endowed upon us, the wonderful lunch, looked after us for almost a full day, given us such an amazing tasting with so many great champagnes, they had us come in via the laundry (I probably should have kept my trap shut, but I was curious as it made no sense to me).
De Montgolfier looked mortified at the question. He apologized profusely and explained. Seems that Guy had gone off to the Asia-Pacific region for several months promoting their champagnes and had inadvertently taken the front door key with him. They had not yet had time to get another made. The entire family was stepping over the washing.
Enough digression: on to the Bollinger 2012
The Bollinger 2012 is fast gaining a reputation as one of the very best vintages of this century. While 2008 was a wonderfully classic, elegant, refined year, 2012 is considered a little richer, more forward, more exuberant. In the years to come, your favorite year between these two stars is very likely to come down to your personal preference. But there is nothing wrong with loving both.
It may be that in time we’ll drink the 2012s while the 2008s continue to mature. Others would argue the contrary. It remains to be seen, but will be fun assessing the vintages over the coming years. Just make certain your cellar is well stocked with both.
The 2008 was a small harvest, and it seems 2012 was likewise. Guy de Rivoire, Bollinger’s director of international sales (the very man who was unable to make the trip to Australia), noted that 2012 was an “extreme” year. Thanks to the frosts in April, the yields were a low 8,000 kg/ha.
Bollinger has noted that it made even less 2012 than 2008, with some to be set aside for the RD (“Recent Disgorgement”), so you’d be wise to move quickly and grab whatever you can.
Bollinger 2012 details and tasting notes
The 2012 Rosé was released by Bollinger at the same time as the 2012 Grand Année (AUD$250 – the price is up around 10 percent on the 2008 as Bollinger and its distributors felt that the 2008 was released at too low a price, but then what winery has ever felt its wines were not released too cheaply?). Not having tasted it as yet I cannot comment.
The “details” of the 2012 Grand Année are that it comes from 21 villages, notably Mesnil-sur-Oger for Chardonnay, Verzenay, and, of course, Aÿ for the Pinot Noir. The final blend is 65 percent Pinot Noir and 35 percent Chardonnay. Dosage is 8 grams/liter. The wine spent seven years on lees and was disgorged in May 2019.
Chef de cave Gilles Descôtes describes the wine as “full, fresh and complex” with notes of “almond, hazelnut and honey” on the nose and a “silky texture with a long, refined finish.”
For me, this is a gloriously decadent champagne. The color is perhaps a little more golden than one might expect from such a young champagne, but it matters not.
Seductively aromatic. There are peaches, tobacco leaf notes, hints of raspberry, fig, almond/hazelnut, perhaps even a whiff of honey, dried fruits, stone fruit, glacé grapefruit, and oyster shell touches. Even hints of truffles, suggesting what might be to come.
More open than 2008, fuller in flavor and riper. Superbly structured. Vibrant acidity yet a hedonistic, creamy palate. Even at this early stage, the complexity in this champagne is compelling. Great length. It really does persist for an incredible period of time.
A fantastic champagne and while truly wonderful now, it has a great future. 98. Just wow!
A couple of cases of this and I would feel a lot better about an extended period of isolation!
For more information, please visit www.champagne-bollinger.com/en/INT/the-bollinger-collection/vintage.