Bollinger: A Survey of the 2009 Vins Claires

2009    Cuis (Chardonnay, fermented in tank)

2009    Cramant (Chardonnay, fermented in tank)

2009    Cramant (Chardonnay, fermented in barrel)

2009    Venteuil (Pinot Meunier, fermented in tank)

2009    Aÿ (Pinot Noir, fermented in tank)

2009    Aÿ (Pinot Noir, fermented in barrel)

2008    Aÿ (Pinot Noir reserve wine, fermented in tank)

2009    Verzenay (Pinot Noir, fermented in barrel)

2005    Verzenay (Pinot Noir reserve wine, fermented in barrel)

NV      Special Cuvée (2008/2009 blend)

2009    La Cȏte aux Enfants (fermented in barrel)                                    (91-94)

2002    La Cȏte aux Enfants                                                                           94

There is probably no region where it is harder to get a handle on the most recent vintage than Champagne. The window for tasting the still wines, known as vins claires, is quite narrow, and only lasts from the end of the calendar year of the harvest until the following spring, when the wines are bottled. Unlike other regions, there are no formal events to show the young wines to the trade and press. Even visiting the region is no guarantee of being able to get a good look at the wines. Schedule a trip too early and the wines might still be undergoing malolactic fermentation, but waiting too long might mean they are already in bottle! Of course, tasting vins claires really only matters to the most passionate of Champagne lovers. The overwhelming majority of the component wines will blended in NV bottlings, which means tasting the vins claires is really more of an academic exercise. The young wines are also typically brilliant and piercing in their acidity, making them difficult to assess even for the most seasoned palates. One producer I visited recently wouldn’t even taste his own vins claires; he contended smelling them was enough to discern the differences – he was right. Still, there is no question that site, vintage and house style are all readily apparent even in the young still wines that will one day become Champagne.

For all those reasons, I applaud Bollinger and Chef de Caves Matthieu Kauffman for taking the initiative to bring the estate’s wines to the trade. This tasting was one of several Bollinger organized in New York for sommeliers, buyers and press. All of the wines were shipped over in magnum directly from Bollinger, the only estate I am aware of that stores its reserve wines in bottle and under cork, a painstaking approach that can only be described as a labor of love. This tasting provided a great opportunity to compare samples of 2009 Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and, to a lesser extent, Pinot Meunier, grown in various villages, some wines vinified in oak and others in steel. The endless complexity and nuance in the wines was yet another eloquent reminder of why Champagne remains the world’s greatest undiscovered region. In keeping with my standard convention, I have not provided scores for the vins claires, as it seems a bit of a stretch to score component wines that still need to go through most of the process that makes them Champagne, including a secondary fermentation in bottle, extended aging on the lees and eventual disgorgement. I do provide scores for Bollinger’s La Cȏte aux Enfants, the estate’s still red Pinot.

Vintage 2009 yielded a set of ripe, flashy wines. As mentioned below, the 2009s will make a great complement to the decidedly steely, mineral-driven 2008s when paired in NV wines. On their own, the 2009s appear to be somewhat hit and miss at this stage. In warmer microclimates and south-facing sites the wines can be overly blowsy, but in cooler areas the combination of the ripeness of the warm vintage mixed with the coolness conferred by more sheltered sites produced wines of striking balance. Of course the 2009 vintage Champagnes are still many years away from being released so there is plenty of time to follow their evolution.

Bollinger’s 2009 Chardonnay from Cuis, a Premier Cru village, shows excellent density and roundness, with subtle notes of earthiness that add complexity. Not surprisingly, this tank-fermented Chardonnay is a big part for the blend for the estate’s Special Cuvée.  Of the two samples from Cramant, I like the wine fermented in steel best. It is an explosive Chardonnay graced with citrus, pear and jasmine, not to mention host of other aromas and flavors. The Cramant fermented in oak shows more textural richness and generosity on the palate, but in this warm, open vintage it is almost too round. The Pinot Meunier from Venteuil is an attractive, caressing wine with excellent body and length but not much more in terms of personality and character. It is easy to see why Meunier is the workhorse for so many NV Champagnes.

Two 2009 samples of Pinot Noir from the Grand Cru village of Aÿ provide wonderful contrast to each other. The first Pinot, which was vinified in stainless steel, is positively rich, ripe and exuberant at first, before turning quite a bit more linear on the mid-palate. This is a fabulous, pure-bred Pinot of inimitable class. The second Pinot, which was vinified in oak, comes across as a bit heavy and clumsy. Rich, smoky notes add further nuance on the finish, but this remains a large-scaled Pinot that is probably too intense on its own.  

The 2008 Pinot, also from Aÿ stands in stark contrast to the 2009s tasted alongside it. This is a superb example, with gorgeous, mineral-infused fruit and an exceptionally long, textured finish. The 2008 possesses higher acidity and lower potential alcohol than the two 2009s, which comes through in the bracing, refreshing close. It is fabulous in every way. The 2009 Pinot from Verzenay (fermented in oak) provides an equally fascinating counterpoint to the 2009 Pinots from Aÿ. Here the northern exposure of the vineyards confers a measure of cool minerality that the south-facing vineyards of Aÿ simply can’t in a hot vintage. This is a marvelous, complete wine packed with vibrant fruit, not to mention tons of class. The 2005 Pinot Noir, also from Verzenay, is a fascinating wine. It has the highest alcohol and lowest acidity of any of the wines tasted from magnum. Rich and voluptuous through to the close, the wine caresses the palate with layers of soft fruit and velvet-like finish.

Bollinger’s Special Cuvée based on the 2008 and 2009 vintages was bottled in April 2010, but it won’t go on sale until early 2013 or early 2014. It is already an immensely promising wine. The cool, steely minerality of 2008 finds a gorgeous counterpoint in the warm, open fruit of 2009 as this fabulous Champagne opens up in the glass. The blend is 60% Pinot Noir, 25% Chardonnay and 15% Pinot Meunier, roughly 40-45% each 2008 and 2009, plus reserve wines.

The 2009 La Cȏte aux Enfants, Bollinger’s Coteaux Champenois, is stunningly beautiful in this vintage. Layers of warm, radiant fruit emerge gracefully from this elegant, sublime Pinot. The wine’s balance and its potential are both first rate. A bottle of the 2002 La Cȏte aux Enfants, tasted alongside the 2009, confirms the wine’s ability to develop beautifully in bottle. Still young, the 2002 offers up an attractive mélange of red berries, flowers, spices and licorice, all framed by clean mineral notes. Some of the baby fat has begun to melt away, leaving a delicate, subtle wine of notable finesse.

--  Antonio Galloni