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‘You only get a wine like this about every 20 years’, claims Bollinger

Bollinger chef de cave Denis Bunner paid tribute to his predecessor Gilles Descôtes in Paris this week at the launch of a wine they both worked on, writes db’s Champagne correspondent Giles Fallowfield.

Speaking at the official launch of Bollinger RD 2008 in Paris, earlier this week (Monday 6 March) in the grand surroundings of the 18th century Hôtel de la Marine on the Place de la Concorde, Bollinger’s general manager Charles-Armand de Belenet dedicated the newly re-released wine to former head winemaker Gilles Descôtes who died at the age of 57 in January after a long illness.

Newly appointed chef de cave Denis Bunner also paid tribute to his predecessor who had recruited him in 2013 as assistant cellarmaster from the CIVC where Bunner was R&D projects and Sensory manager.

Bunner said it had been a privilege to work closely with Descôtes for nearly a decade and that he was happy to open this exceptional wine in his memory.

“When we tasted the wine six months ago we expected a great vintage and we now believe it may prove to be as great as the 1928. You only get one that shows above all others about every 20 years and we think this will be it.”

The tasting began with the 40-strong audience of international journalists from all over Europe and as far afield as the US, Japan and Australia, invited to taste blind two unlabelled Champagnes that Descôtes and Bunner had prepared for the occasion.

They turned out to be the same wine – 2011 La Grande Année – one aged under crown cap, the other under natural cork, as is the practice at Bollinger.

The latter proved to be the tighter, fresher, livelier and longer on the finish, thus justifying the house’s continuation of this practice.

The ‘08 is also the first La Grande Année bottled in the traditional narrower neck format that, Bunner says, further slows the oxidation of the wine that the natural cork already affords.

Over the course of the lunch, which was created by Piedmontese chef Gian Piero Vivalda whose restaurant Antica Corona Reale has two Michelin stars, Bollinger RD 2008 was served in magnum and Jeroboam. The former was disgorged on 28 October 2022, the latter on 17 November 2022, as it says prominently on the front label.

The ‘recently disgorged’ concept has evolved somewhat since it was first conceived by Madame Bollinger, and Bunner said that he and Descôtes agree that the wines need a minimum of three months post-disgorgement “before they find back the Bollinger taste”. He further noted that the oxygen that gets into the bottle at the moment of disgorgement takes 12 months to be entirely consumed.

The emotional highpoint of the meal came when another mystery wine was served and guests were invited to ‘guess the vintage’. It turned out to be the magnificent RD 1979 and Bunner asked all guests to raise their glasses in honour of Descôtes whose beneficial influence on him, the house and its wines will clearly not be forgotten.

Generous with his time and knowledge, it was always a pleasure to spend time talking and tasting with Gilles. His company will be greatly missed on my visits to Aÿ.

I sat with him and fellow journalist Essi Avellan at a memorable lunch at the house in June 2016 to celebrate the opening of the Galerie 1829 and La Réserve cellars, a mammoth restoration project which started in 2012 under his guidance.

Descôtes, whose grandfather was a winegrower in Oger in the Côte des Blancs, worked as a flying winemaker doing harvests in South Africa, California and Bordeaux after completing his agronomic studies in Paris and getting his oenology diploma in Montpellier.

He returned to Champagne in 1994, initially working as a vineyard manager at Vranken Pommery. He was recruited by then Bollinger president Ghislain Montgolfier in 2003, taking up a position of vineyard manager, also responsible for grape supplies. When winemaker Mathieu Kauffmann left in 2012, Descôtes also became chef de cave.


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