Bollinger La Grande Année 2014 Champagne Highlights Just How Special The 2014 Vintage Can Be
by Ken Gargett
We are seeing more and more releases of vintage and prestige cuvees from the great champagne producers. Latest cab off the ranks is the 2014 La Grande Année from Bollinger (and the Rosé from the same year). It goes without saying that these are exceptional champagnes. Bollinger doesn’t release anything else at this level, although you can say that about all the top houses.
We’ll get to the specifics of this champagne shortly, but for me what is most interesting are the questions that the wine poses. There are three I’d like to consider.
The age-old question of vintages. Where does 2014 rank? Is it a justifiable release? If so, what makes it so?
The “DNA” of a house? Where does a champagne that is a wonderful wine fit in the scheme of things if it does not faithfully exhibit the house’s “DNA”? Do we blame the winemakers or is it simply a reflection of the vintage? And does that make it any the less a wine?
Making great Rosé. I’ll expand on this.
Regarding vintages, I’ve looked at the thoughts of Charles Curtis MW as set out in his excellent Vintage Champagne: 1899–2019 in How Long Can We Age Champagne, Should We Age Champagne, And Is Late Disgorged Or Aged On Cork Best?, so it is back to the well. His broad-brush assessment is that 2014 is “an up-and-down year that ended well.”
I think that is a fair review. He gives 2014 three stars, but notes that it is a “very good vintage that misses being top rank because of pressure of disease” and concludes that it has produced a large number of vintage wines, “some of lasting quality.” Incidentally, he raves about the quality of the Bollinger Coteaux Champenois La Côte aux Enfants 2014 (the house’s still red wine made from Pinot Noir from a monopole it owns – watch this space), but his book was finished before he would have had the opportunity to taste these wines.
The value of the 2014 champagne vintage
What, then, if a house is able to manage a high percentage of its own vineyards and able to work to avoid the issue of disease? The logical conclusion from that would suggest that Bollinger’s 2014s might be something really special. We saw that with Louis Roederer’s Cristal from this same year and we are seeing it again here (and elsewhere). I think 2014, much like 2013 before it, is surprising critics and fans and is achieving heights that no one saw coming.
Anyone who looks to great champagne for their cellar will be only too aware of stratospheric rises in price for the top wines. In fairness, all this does is start to take prices to the levels that great champagne has long deserved. A superb champagne is as good as a fine Bordeaux or a top Burgundy (yes, Burgundy is a bit different because of the complexities and the tiny quantities of many of the best), so why shouldn’t the wines attract similar prices? It takes a great deal more effort and time to make a great champagne than a fine red, and the winemakers have to wait much longer before they see a return.
But something interesting is happening. As I mentioned, prices are rising fast, both for new releases and champagnes on the secondary market. Among recent vintages, 2012 is much hyped, for good reason. A great year. And yet, prices for this great year are not escalating as one might expect. Not quite in line with what we are seeing with other great years.
Why? I believe that it is because for years we have been told that after 2008 and 2012, the next decent vintage would be 2018. Suddenly, champagne lovers are discovering that is not so. There are some superb wines from both 2013 and 2014 and, without giving anything away, I’m assured we’ll see more from some of the other vintages before we finally see champagnes from 2018. So why pay the excess needed to secure 2012s when you can gravitate to these subsequent, cheaper years and source great wines?
What role should a house’s “DNA” play in assessing quality?
Surely the main thing in answering the above-posed question whether it is a top-notch wine. Does it matter if it is not instantly recognizable – as from a particular maker? I suspect that the answer to this will vary very much according to personal thinking. And I have probably given a preview as to my thoughts on this wine. If given to me blind, there is no way I’d have identified this as Bollinger but that does not mean I didn’t think it exceptional. This is a question for each individual wine lover.
Rosé? More musings than a question. Some houses make their vintage Rosés simply by adding of a small percentage of red wine. Others use a different method – saignée – or create an entirely new base wine to which they add the red.
Personally, I have always been a little bemused by those who operate under the former regime. I’m not sure how one can claim to have made the very best champagne but then add red wine to it and expect to be able to say the same about it as a Rosé. Surely that must bring in the question of balance?
Bollinger largely does this method and that is perhaps why I was always a little underwhelmed by some of the earlier vintage Rosés the house released. I suspect, however, that it tinkers with the base wine a little more than it likes to admit these days to make certain it works with the addition of the red. And the wine is all the better for it.
One point that should be made is that whatever one thinks of a vintage Bolly Rosé, you can bet your cellar that if given time to age under cork, you’ll have something a step up. These wines really benefit from aging.
Bollinger La Grande Année 2014
I have discussed Bollinger on several occasions here at Quill & Pad, so I won’t put you through that again. Things do change, however, although it takes time for the influence of a new team to make its way through the system into the wines available.
In 2013, Gilles Descôtes, a long-term Bollinger employee (he had spent a good decade improving the vineyards), was appointed chef de cave, while Denis Bunner arrived from outside to take up the role of deputy cellar master, a newly created position. They were in position for the 2014 vintage.
For those who like specifics, 2014 was a different vintage. Curtis’s description of it as “up and down” is apt. A wet winter gave way to a warm, dry spring, but the rain came again in May. June was reportedly the “sunniest” in 50 years, which proved the savior of the vintage before the rest of the vintage was cooler and a little damp.
Picking began on September 8, resulting in a large harvest. Bollinger held off until September 15, looking for greater ripeness. As both the Chardonnay and Pinot Noir ripened around the same time it was all a bit frantic, resulting in a compressed harvest that took only nine days rather than the usual several weeks. The Chardonnay was largely from the Côtes des Blancs, mostly Chouilly, Vertus, Oiry, and Cramant. All up, 19 different villages contributed. Seventy-nine percent of the harvest used was from Grand Cru vineyards, the remaining 21 percent from Premier Cru.
Bollinger’s international director of sales, the inimitable Guy de Rivoire, was in town for the release. He sees the wine as more minerally than usual for Bollinger. The reason for this was the higher than usual percentage of Chardonnay in the final blend and the concentration of Pinot Noir from Verzenay rather than Bollinger’s traditional source of Aÿ.
Why do this, you might wonder? For vintage champagne a house needs to work with, and not against, what nature provides. If the Pinot from Verzenay steps up against that from Aÿ, then it will dominate, provided the vineyards or agreements with the growers allow this. If we refer back to the discussion of growers and houses from a recent piece, this is one way that houses have an advantage. It will be like that only when the year so decides. As Bunner has been quoted saying, “Our goal is to express the year and amplify its features under the wing of the Bollinger style.” Exactly as it should be.
The usual blend of a Bolly vintage is 70/30 Pinot Noir to Chardonnay. This time, it was 61/39, the highest for many years and the only time other than 2002 that Bollinger used this much Chardonnay. Two thousand fourteen is known as a Chardonnay year, so little surprise here. Of course, such descriptions often hold little relevance in the long run – think 2007, a little declared year, but perhaps the two best wines are the 2007 Salon and the 2007 Bollinger, yet one is 100 percent Chardonnay and the other heavily Pinot dominant. Go figure.
As for Pinot Noir in 2014, it was the freshness of the fruit from Verzenay that won the team over. Verzenay was cooler in 2014 and saw less rain; Aÿ a little warmer and damper. The last time Verzenay took pride of place ahead of Aÿ was 2007. All of this contributes to why, for me, the usual Bolly “DNA” was not evident.
As the champagne is a stunner, I have no problem with that.
Bollinger La Grande Année 2014 tasting notes
Bollinger La Grande Année 2014 (AUD$260)
Undoubtedly exhibiting more minerality than one expects from this house, but also some of the typical Bollinger green apple crispness. A note like a freshly baked lemon curd sponge cake. Spices, citrus, a hint of red fruits, some stone fruit notes, and a lingering finish. A fresh sea breeze note (more prosaically, think bright salinity). Hints of vanilla and although, as usual, oak is used in vinification, fermentation (malo), and maturation, there is no real obvious impact from it. A touch of toast.
The texture is seductive and more elegant than the usual Bolly richness, if one can ever call Bolly elegant (if we can, this is the vintage). This has balance and precision and maintains intensity throughout. It has years ahead of it. Dosage is 8 grams/liter, and time on lees was seven years. Our bottle was disgorged in August 2021. For me, 97. Okay, not overwhelming us with Bolly “DNA,” but I don’t care. A cracking wine.
One point: this will, in time, be released as an R.D. (“Recently Disgorged”). I will be fascinated to compare a bottle aged under cork with the R.D. When that happens (don’t hold your breath, it will be around 2030), because this has such wonderful aging potential I think the R.D. might struggle to top it. The next R.D. will be the 2008, which will be released next year, but again in 2024 and also 2025. So stocks will be very limited each time. It should be something incredibly special though.
Bollinger La Grande Année Rosé 2014
As mentioned, a dribble of red, Pinot Noir from the famous La Côte aux Enfants plot, is added, making up just five percent of the wine. The plot was originally purchased by Jacques Bollinger III, husband of the famous Madame Lily Bollinger. It was called “Enfants” (“children”) as it is supposedly so steep that only a child would climb it.
Fruit from other sources is used for the NV Rosé. Again, elegant with spice notes, red fruits, berries, cherries, a hint of that same minerality, and licorice. Great freshness, layered, and yet with such an enticing texture. Soft and long, a lovely Rosé that will be even better in a decade, I have no doubt. 95. This is assuredly a food wine, but, please, not dessert. Asian dishes, duck, game, even a rich seafood dish.
For more information, please visit www.champagne-bollinger.com.
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