From Bollinger with love
It is 1988 and I am the narrator in the school’s Christmas play. I have an argument on stage with the grandfather clock over his lines while Christian Bizot, the head of Champagne house Bollinger is doing something far more worthy: setting up the Madame Bollinger Foundation. It was formed in memory of Elisabeth Bollinger, the woman behind two of its most celebrated wines: Bollinger R.D. and Vieilles Vignes Françaises.
Little did I know, aged seven, that my acting career would be limited to primary school performances. Thankfully, wine has become my theatre and I became a recipient of the Madame Bollinger Medal last year, awarded in recognition of outstanding tasting ability in the Masters of Wine exam.
That is how I came to find myself in the home of Lily Bollinger, sinking into a well-used sofa with a glass of Champagne in one hand, a canapé in the other, on a Tuesday lunchtime.
History was made here: in the same year that man first walked on the moon, Lily Bollinger created a wine from a small garden of vines that had escaped phylloxera. The hotch potch of closely packed Pinot Noir vines above and below Bollinger HQ, which have made Vieilles Vignes Françaises since 1969 harks back to another era: in 1899, the average vineyard density in the Marne department was a whopping 38,600 plants per hectare. This historic and rather disorderly system would be wiped out by the vine louse phylloxera and replaced by the more uniform lines that you see on the hills behind the village of Aÿ and beyond today. But these two tiny vineyards escaped and I rather like their chaotic nature.
There are also reminders of the past in the blackened walls of the underground cellars. This subterranean network contains a gated wine library with bottles dating back as far as 1895. Whether they are slumbering or dead they remain a souvenir of its pre-phylloxera past. History and the present live alongside each other in these tunnels: a man stands checking the integrity of the oldest bottles not with a candle but with the torch from his Samsung Galaxy.
Back in Lily’s house, there’s a ‘surprise’ glass at the end of the meal with Christian Bizot’s son, Etienne (pictured presenting medal). Dread engulfs me as I’m asked to guess the vintage (I thought I’d passed the exams?!) I discover it was 1988 in a nod to the establishment of the Foundation. 28 years later, it was time for me to fluff my lines. Luckily, the medal had already been engraved!