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In the latest of his journeys to the world's great wine regions, Nick Tarayan takes a trip to the home of Bollinger, in Champagne, behind the wheel of a Mercedes-Benz SLK 350
Car giant Mercedes-Benz and Champagne house Bollinger have a lot in common: both brands are associated with quality and attention to detail, and both companies are leaders in their respective fields.
What's more, both organisations can boast a long and illustrious past. The Champagne house of Bollinger was founded in 1829 by Jacques Joseph Bollinger. Exactly 60 years later, in 1889, Gottlieb Daimler and Wilhelm Maybach built a vehicle with a two-cylinder petrol engine that travelled at speeds of up to 10mph; another German, Karl Benz, also built a petrol-driven car in the same year.
The rest, as they say, is history and through their histories each company has honed its product to compete for the attention and tastes of those who demand the highest quality and standards. Gimmicks are definitely not common boardroom-speak for either Bollinger or Mercedes-Benz.
My latest wine tour gave me the opportunity to test out the very latest offerings from both companies and to find out what sets them apart from their competitors. In the case of the exotic blue Mercedes SLK 350, it was not difficult to see that this was the new baby brother of the delicious SL, which I took to Bordeaux last year and which I pronounced to be the sexiest car on the road.
The new SLK boasts glamorous styling and was the perfect sports car in which to explore the tight, winding roads of the Champagne region. The six-cylinder, 3.5-litre engine simply burst into life - rather like opening a bottle of great Champagne - when it was taken on its journey down through the Montagne de Reims.
In Bollinger's sleepy home village of Ay, just to the north of Epernay, one of the two wine capitals of the Champagne region, the relative quiet on the streets belies the level of activity in the buildings' cellars. Quality is key at Bollinger, and the raw ingredients have to be as near to perfect as possible, so the work that goes into making the final product cannot be compromised.
This is the legacy of Lily Bollinger, the famous matriarch who appeared well after the founding of the Champagne house, taking over the company after her husband's untimely death in 1941. Lily ran it with legendary professionalism, and an iron will, for 30 years and carried the company forward through the difficult war years up to the late 1970s. Indeed, her pronouncements on drinking Champagne (see box overleaf) will be long remembered.
Sadly, as I discovered on my visit, Lily did not hold motoring in such high esteem. She had never learned to drive a car but instead could be seen riding her bicycle most days. Yet this was no ordinary bicycle - Hermès had created a crocodile leather seat for it.
In 1987, on the 10th anniversary of her death, the house created the Mme Lily Bollinger Medal of Excellence in Wine Tasting, which goes to the best taster in the annual Master of Wine exam. It's another example of Bollinger's drive for quality, which has led to it being awarded the Royal Warrant by no fewer than seven British monarchs.
These days the house is run by Ghislain de Montgolfier, great-great-grandson of the founder, and no less a character than Mme Lily. I asked him for his opinion on what makes Bollinger unique in a world where not only Champagne, but sparkling wines from all over the world, compete for quality, image and loyalty. His answers painted a picture of a house that is succeeding in attracting an ever wider audience but which is struggling to produce the quantity demanded.
Its quest for excellence means Bollinger is one of few Champagne houses to have enough of its own land holdings to provide a large percentage of the grapes it needs. The house owns more than 150 hectares of vineyards, which supply almost three-quarters of its requirements. This compares with an average holding that supplies a little over 10 per cent of the necessary grapes by the other 100 producers in the region.
The village of Ay is in the foothills of the Montagne de Reims, the area in Champagne that is rich in Pinot Noir grapes. Whereas most well-known Champagne houses will use in their non-vintage wines a third of each of the permitted grape varieties in the area (Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier), Bollinger uses an average of 60 per cent Pinot Noir, 25 per cent Chardonnay and only 15 per cent Pinot Meunier. It calls this blend Special Cuvée.
This blend is the first thing to set the house apart. Pinot Noir gives its Champagnes a complexity and viscosity, while Chardonnay adds elegance and finesse. Pinot Meunier tends to add freshness but develops much more quickly than the other two and is not necessarily useful in a wine that is intended to last for many years. Acidity is also a key to longevity. Bollinger aims for low pH, which means higher acidity in its youth but, again, the ability to age well.
Another key to its individuality is the now-rare use of oak barrels during the first fermentation of the wine. These barrels are not intended to be flavour enhancers, as in so many still wines. They tend to come from Burgundy (Bollinger owns Beaune-based Chanson Père et Fils), where they will have been used to produce top white wines and will be around five or six years old. The barrels will, therefore, have lost their tannins and woody flavours but will allow the wines to go, very slightly, through an oxidative process, building character and richness over time.
All of the wines destined to go into the Grand Année (Bollinger's term for its vintage Champagne) will have started their lives in these oak barrels, as will a proportion of the wines that are later blended into the Special Cuvée.
The barrel-fermented wines planned to be blended into the Special Cuvée are bottled in magnums and stoppered with corks for the second fermentation. They will sit in the cellars for between five and 12 years and will account for as much as 10 per cent of this multi-vintaged blend, the balance being made up of no more than two other vintages. It's another unique aspect of Bollinger's story.
All these exceptional qualities could, of course, only be put to the test by tasting the finished product, so we set off for the gloriously restored house that was once Lily Bollinger's home.
The Special Cuvée's freshness was immediate but moments later it showed an elegance and depth that was both wonderful and unexpected. This is Champagne as proper wine. It is designed for its character and complexity and to appeal to more discerning palates through its balance of power and purity.
But it was when we opened a bottle of the 1996 Grand Année that the full majesty of Bollinger wine came through. It boasted massive richness, as this vintage has an even higher proportion of Pinot Noir than usual - around 70 per cent, about three-quarters of the blend coming from Grand Cru vineyards. The acidity and fruit of this wine is perfectly layered, sending waves of flavour through on the palate. And, while the most extraordinary attribute of this wine is its bubbles, the purity and length of the wine also sets it apart. It sits on the tongue and follows through with amazing persistency.
I now had to make a choice: sampling more passion in a glass or indulging my passion for the road. Luckily, though, by loading a few bottles into the boot, I had the opportunity to do both.
A throaty roar from the engine and I was off. Snaking up the old road towards Reims with the car roof down, enjoying admiring glances and safe in the knowledge that there was plenty of power up front and a bit of treasure in the back was all I needed. The journey back was a joy, and the return home 'absolutely fabulous', to coin a phrase.
In 1956 12 of the Grandes Marques houses invited 12 top restaurateurs, hoteliers and wine buyers from the UK to Champagne for a fortnight of intensive training in everything there is to know about the wine, soil and people of the region. The course has taken place every year since.
Over the years, the group has expanded to 16 houses and the course has decreased to a week. It never theless remains the most prestigious academy in the wine world. Many of London's restaurateurs and hoteliers are past academicians and, as a result, have a great loyalty to the Champenoise and their unique and special product.
To discover more about the academy and to access links to the best houses to visit during a stay in the Champagne region, log on to: www.champagneacademy.co.uk.
64 boulevard Henri-Vasnier, Reims
Tel: (00 33) 03 26 82 80 80
The former home of Louise Pommery is now a celebrated three-Michelin-starred restaurant with glorious rooms. From around £200 per night.
Le Royal Champagne,
Tel: (00 33) 03 26 52 87 11
Fantastic views of vineyards waterfalling their way down the Montagne de Reims to Epernay. Around £120 per night.
Grand Hôtel des Templiers,
22 rue des Templiers, Reims
Tel: (00 33) 03 26 88 55 08
A restored 19th-century, mock-Gothic house which is beautifully furnished. From around £105.
Le Clos Raymi,
3 rue Joseph de Venoge, Epernay
Tel: (00 33) 03 26 51 00 58
A charming boutique hotel that offers a great welcome and excellent value. From £70 single and £95 double.
As before The best in the region and better than most you'll find in Paris. Around £100 per person with wine.
Le Royal Champagne
As before Formal but airy restaurant with great daytime views making the £60 per person average well worthwhile.
13 rue Berceaux, Epernay
Tel: (00 33) 03 26 55 28 84
This wine bar (with food) is attached to one of the best restaurants in town and offers great value, many wines by the glass and relief from the heavy meals of the day. If you want something smarter, go to Les Berceaux, the atmospheric parent restaurant with its heavily-beamed room.
La Table Kobus,
3 rue Docteur Rousseau, Epernay
Tel: (00 33) 03 26 51 53 53
Modern/eclectic bistro in the old tradition where you can take your own Champagne without paying corkage.
Brasserie Flo Reims,
96 place Drouet d'Erlon, Reims
Tel: (00 33) 03 26 91 40 50 Part of the super-smart brasserie chain based in Paris, where you'll find efficient and charming service.
Auberge Saint Vincent,
Tel: (00 33) 03 26 57 01 98 Charming country restaurant on the Champagne route. Family-run with sensible prices and regional cooking.
Café du Palais,
14 place Myron-Herrick, Reims
Tel: (00 33) 03 26 47 52 54
Father and son team run this brasserie and love to indulge their patrons.
37 boulevard Foch, Reims
Tel: (00 33) 03 26 47 48 22 Highly recommended by everyone in the area.
Tel: 08705 353535; www.eurotunnel.com
Engine: V6 3.5-litre
0-62.5mph: 5.6 seconds
Top speed: 155mph
Nick Tarayan's verdict: While the most beautiful car on the road may be the curvaceous, sensuous SL, this is a gorgeously refined baby brother. Indeed, it has many of the same genes, and what it lacks in space it more than makes up for with its ballerina-like performance on the windy routes through the countryside.
Top Gear's Andy Wilman's verdict: The old SLK was the car of choice among footballers' wives' hairdressers and masseuses. Not, frankly, a great endorsement for a car with sporty pretensions. But that's gone now, and the new one will kill all the jokes stone dead in their tracks. With its Formula One-style nose and muscular haunches, it looks beefier, and underneath you'll find a sports car with much more fire and ambition in its soul. The whole package is helped by the introduction of a cracking engine and a seven-speed auto that downshifts two or three ratios at a time. Overall, a truly comprehensive rebirth.