Bollinger cellar master: Champagne 2018 ‘best’ of my life

In sharp contrast to last year’s extremely challenging harvest, Bollinger cellar master, Gilles Descôtes described 2018 as the ‘best’ of his life.

Harvesting in Champagne

Having been reminded by the drinks business that he had described 2017’s harvest as the “hardest and shortest” of is 25 years working in Champagne, Descôtes said that the 2018 vintage was the reverse.

“If last year was the hardest and shortest, this year was the easiest and longest,” he told db at a lunch for the press hosted by Bollinger in London on Friday.

Continuing, he said, “2017 was the worst harvest of my life and 2018 is the best; it is black and white.”

Making this year’s harvest so exceptional was a combination of sustained warm and dry weather, conditions which favoured the gradual ripening of the grapes without risk of moisture-induced rot in the bunches. (And it was such weather that was also enjoyed in the UK, creating the best and biggest vintage in the country’s history of wine production).

Discussing the situation in Champagne further, Descôtes stressed that the vintage conditions were unprecedented.

“2018 is a new thing for Champagne,” he said, adding that as a result he couldn’t compare this year’s ideal conditions throughout the growing season to any other in the history of the region.

This also meant that he couldn’t isolate one single vintage as the same, but commented that 2018 displayed aspects of three harvests – 2003, because both this year and 2003 were hot and dry, although 2018 didn’t suffer the heat spikes, nor low yields of 2003.

He also compared 2018 to 2002, which was a brilliant vintage with similarities in terms of sugar-acid balance in the grapes.

And he said that this year resembled 2004, because that year was produced a large crop, something true of 2018 too.

Importantly, he said that this year’s early, ripe, clean crop would produce long-lasting wines, despite a commonly-held belief that warms years in Champagne produce rich but short-lived fizz.

Noting that the average total acidity for the wines at Bollinger was 6g/l with a pH of 3.1, he said such figures were not unusual for the famous Champagne house.

“The acidity level is not a worry for us at all… we are definitely happy with the freshness of 2018,” he said.

Although the malic acid in the grapes was low this year, the much more stable tartaric acid was actually higher than the average level recorded over the past 10 years, according to Descôtes.

In any case, he said that the influence of acidity on Champagne longevity was overstated, echoing the view of another top cellar master, Richard Geoffroy at Dom Pérignon.

2003 by Bollinger being poured on Friday 26 October 2018 at Hide restaurant in London

To illustrate his point, Descôtes poured the attendant press some samples from the 2003 vintage, using a special release from Bollinger, called ‘2003 by Bollinger’, which comprised a small release of around 40,000 bottles that were disgorged in 2007, meaning it has been ageing off the lees on its cork for more than 2010 years.

Furthermore, if 2018 had a TA of 6g/l and pH of 3.1, 2003 had a lower level of acidity, with a TA of 4g/l and pH of 3.3.

Although the 2003 has a slightly caramelised note from the slow maturation of very ripe fruit by Champagne standards, it was still lively and bright, as well as a delicious full style of fizz.

Descôtes commented, “Many thought that 2003 can’t age, and this is now 15 years old, and it is still very fresh, it is still alive, so I have no worries about the capacity for Champagne to age with a low acidity and high pH – and a very good example of that is 2003.”

Returning to the topic of 2018, Descôtes confirmed that he would make a vintage expression from the harvest, saying, “it is definitely very, very good,” but added that he wouldn’t know until a future date whether it is “exceptional”.

In particular, the weather this year favoured the production of vineyards planted on chalk-based soils, due to this sponge-like rock’s ability to absorb and then slowly-release water – vital qualities considering 2018 began with high levels of rainfall, but then remained hot and dry right throughout the summer and during harvesting.

“For a great year in Champagne you need very dry conditions at the end, and 2018 was dry all year…but that could make it hard if you were on sand or on clay, as the grapes suffered from dryness,” recorded Descôtes.

However, he said that vines on chalk soils “worked well this year as the chalk brings regular water, so there was no stress for the vineyards – the grapes kept growing during August with no rain.”

Although this year’s harvest was early, and clean – with “zero” botrytis – it was also, as noted above, a long harvest for Bollinger especially. Indeed, Descôtes told db that he started harvesting Pinot Noir from Bollinger’s Aÿ and Verzenay grand cru vineyards on 23 August, and finished picking on 12 September in Chouilly, where he was “pushing maturity”.

Considering harvest began for the house on 23 August, the picking started three days earlier than the famously hot and early 2003 vintage, when the harvest officially kicked-off on 26 August.

Descôtes reminded attendees at the Bollinger press event on Friday last week that Champagne has now seen picking begin in August on five occasions in the past 15 years, listing the following vintages: 2003, 2007, 2011, 2017 – and now this year. However, he said that it was only 2003, 2007 and this year when an early harvest had also produced great wines.

Meanwhile, earlier this month, Bruno Paillard told db that this year’s vintage reminded him of 1982 and 2003, saying, “It is 75% ’82 and 25% ’03, with the first for the volume and the beautiful state of the grapes, and the second for the extra maturity.”

Summing up on the excellence of the 2018 harvest, he stated, “We have everything to create the greatest wines for some time… there is no reason why we won’t succeed, you just need the will and the skill.”

However, he expressed his sadness that due to the high yields in 2018 some grapes won’t be used to make wine, while he also aired his concern over the price of grapes, which have risen again from this harvest, despite the high quantities produced.

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