Ambonnay, one of the top five Grand Crus in Champagne, is located in the heart of the Côte des Noirs, on the southern slopes of the Montagne de Reims. Its hillsides are renowned for the richness of their Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, the two essential Champagne grapes.
In 1896 Eugene Billiot, a miller by profession in Ambonnay, purchased five acres of land and planted vines. The grapes were sold to major Champagne brands throughout the region. Today, the grape varieties of the vines are around 75% Pinot Noir and 25% Chardonnay.
Champagne Billiot was established in 1937 by Louis Billiot as more of a side hustle than a real Champagne house. But after the war, his son Henri founded Champagne H.Billiot & Fils at 1 place de la Fontaine in the center of the village to realize his dream of becoming a winemaker rather than just a grower. Henri was succeeded by his son Serge, and now fifth-generation Laetitia runs the operation.
There’s sparkling wine. There’s Champagne. And then, as far as I’m concerned, there is Dom Pérignon.
Sparkling wine is simply wine that contains bubbles of carbon dioxide gas. There are four methods of infusing the wine with bubbles, which I won’t bother with here, and fizzy wine is made around the world.
“Champagne” has for a long time been used generically and interchangeably with sparkling wine. But, in the European Union and many other countries the name Champagne has been legally protected by the Madrid system as far back as an 1891 treaty, which reserved it for the sparkling wine produced in the eponymous region and adhering to the standards defined for it as an appellation d’origine contrôlée. In the early 2000s Australia, Chile, Brazil, Canada, and China passed laws that limit the use of the term “Champagne” to only those products produced in the Champagne region. Since 2006, the United States has banned the use from all U.S.-produced wine brands, with a specific exception: producers that had approval to use the term on labels before 2006 may continue to use it, provided the term is accompanied by the wine’s actual origin (e.g., “California”). Hence, a wine such as “Korbels California Champagne,” is still allowed.
Dom Pérignon is named after a Benedictine monk, Dom Pérignon (1638–1715), who was a pioneer in Champagne wine but who, contrary to popular myth, did not discover how to make sparkling wines*. However, he was the inventor of the second fermentation in the bottle, the Méthode Traditionelle (formerly Méthode Champenoise), that creates Champagne as we know it.
The story of Bollinger Champagne began with Athanase de Villermont, the youngest son of a noble family. He inherited an extensive estate from his family in the Aÿ area of France. He foresaw the potential of the wines of Champagne, but as an aristocrat he was forbidden to become involved in trade.
Happily, he met Joseph Bollinger, a German who had traveled widely to learn about the Champagne wine trade, as well as Paul Renaudin, a local man who was fascinated by the world of wine. The firm of Renaudin-Bollinger & Cie was founded on February 6th, 1829. Joseph took care of sales and Paul of the cellar.
Bollinger married Athanase’s daughter, Louise-Charlotte, in 1837. In time their sons, Joseph and then Georges, took over the business. Under the guidance of the two brothers, Bollinger gained renown and extended its vineyards considerably. In 1920 Jacques Bollinger, son of Georges, started managing the family business, and was noted for increasing Bollinger’s sales in England, based on the popularity of their Special Cuvée Brut.
Sadly, Jacques died in the midst of World War II. He left a widow, Elisabeth, whom he had married in 1923. She was only 42 when she stepped in to supervise the business. “Madame Jacques,” as she was known within the House, threw herself enthusiastically into her new role. Although cheerful and witty, she was nonetheless a formidable strategist, a dauntless businesswoman, and a perfectionist. She left many bon mots, such as, “I drink it when I’m happy and when I’m sad. Sometimes I drink it when I’m alone. When I have company I consider it obligatory. I trifle with it if I’m not hungry and drink it when I am. Otherwise, I never touch it—unless I’m thirsty.”
Madame Bollinger gathered around her those family members who were most aligned with her ambitions. Firstly she taught Claude d’Hautefeuille, her niece’s husband, the ins and outs of the operation. In 1950 he became a Director and launched a comprehensive modernization program while respecting Bollinger’s history. Madame Bollinger appointed him Chairman in 1971, but remained closely involved until her death six years later.
Madame Bollinger’s nephew, Christian Bizot, took over from Claude in 1978. A great traveler, he made a point of meeting with sommeliers, restaurant owners, and wine merchants to promote the House’s wines wherever he went.
In 1994, Ghislain de Montgolfier, the great-great-grandson of founder Joseph Bollinger, became head of the House. He continued to strive to increase quality, in part by limiting production. He ran the winery until 2008, when a new Chairman was appointed, Champagne native Jérôme Philipon. In a break with tradition, it was the first time in the history of the House that it would be run by someone outside the family.
In 2017, when Jérôme Philipon was appointed Deputy Chief Executive Officer of the family holding, Charles-Armand de Belenet became General Manager of Champagne Bollinger. He is tasked with preserving the traditional craftsmanship while incorporating the latest technologies.
Bollinger’s 178 hectares (440 acres) are planted with 85% of Grand Cru and Premier Cru vines, spread over seven main vineyards: Aÿ, Avenay, Tauxières, and Louvois et Verzenay are planted with Pinot Noir, Cuis with Chardonnay, and Champvoisy with Pinot Meunier. Bollinger is one of a very few champagne Houses to produce the majority of their own grapes for their blends. Pinot Noir represents 60% of the House’s vineyard output, corresponding to the exact proportion of this demanding grape variety in the Special Cuvée blend.
Another of Bollinger’s distinctive features are two plots, the Clos Saint-Jacques and Chaudes Terres, which have never succumbed to phylloxera, the disease which ravaged almost all of the champagne wine-growing area in the early 20th century. These ungrafted vines are entirely tended by hand and reproduced using a form of layering called provignage, thereby providing the means to preserve this unique heritage from which the very exclusive Vieilles Vignes Françaises cuvée is produced.
Bollinger also supports sustainable winegrowing by planting grass between the rows of vines, using biological pest control, significantly reducing the use of herbicides, and recycling pruning waste. Planting hedges and orchards helps to preserve biodiversity, while the four hectares (10 acres) of the Côte aux Enfants vineyard are managed organically. Bollinger is the first champagne House to obtain High Environmental Value certification.
Bollinger Special Cuvée Brut NV
In 1911, Georges Bollinger and Harry J. Newman, Bollinger’s British sales agent, named the firm’s new wine Special Cuvée, “special” written without a French accent. They thought the French expression “Brut sans année” was no match for such a subtle champagne
Special Cuvée is a blend of 60% Pinot Noir, 25% Chardonnay, and 15% Meunier. The mix includes grapes from each year’s harvest blended with a majority of reserve wines, part of which have been aged in magnums for five to 15 years. Initial fermentation is partially carried out in oak casks. It is then aged for twice as long as is stipulated by the regulations for the non-vintage champagne appellation.
This elegant bubbly is pale gold, with a rich nose of cheese and spices, plus hints of roasted apples and peaches. The clean taste has only a suggestion of yeast. Mango, fleshy pear, and honey flavors show very good depth, picking up refreshing citrus pith, mineral nuances, and notes of fresh walnut after a bit of time in the glass. It features a full mouthfeel with very fine bubbles.
I suggest you serve this with any fish, especially sushi and sashimi. Seafood like shrimp, prawn, crayfish, or grilled lobster should be quite nice. And consider all kinds of poultry and other white meat, or good cured ham. Serve at about 50°F.
2 tsp. salt, plus salt to taste 24 oz. of lobster tails 3 cups dry champagne or sparkling wine (Nothing fancy needed here; try Underwood in a can.) 3 Tbs. unsalted butter 1 large yellow onion, minced 1-1/2 cups Carnaroli (preferably) or Arborio rice 1/4 cup snipped fresh chives, plus whole chives for garnish 2 Tbs. chopped parsley 1 tsp lemon juice 1/2 cup heavy cream ground pepper to taste
Fill stockpot with 6 cups of water and 2 teaspoons of salt. Add lobster tails and cook for 9 minutes. Using tongs, remove tails from cooking liquid and let cool. Remove meat from shells.
Add shells to the cooking liquid and reduce over high heat to 3 cups, about 15 minutes. Strain through a fine-mesh sieve lined with cheesecloth into a saucepan; add the champagne or sparkling wine and bring to a simmer. Adjust the heat to keep the liquid hot.
In a large, heavy sauce pan over medium heat, melt the butter. Add the onion and saute over low heat until very soft, about 12 minutes. Do not let the onion brown. Add the rice and stir until white spots appear in the center of the grains. Add a ladleful of the liquid, adjust the heat to maintain a simmer, and cook, stirring constantly, until the liquid is absorbed. Continue adding the liquid, a ladleful at a time and stirring constantly, until the rice is just tender but slightly firm in the center and the mixture is creamy, 20 to 25 minutes longer. With the final ladleful of liquid, stir in the lobster meat, snipped chives, parsley, lemon juice, and cream. Season with salt and pepper.
Spoon into warmed individual bowls, garnish the whole chives, and serve.
Tiny Bubbles was, of course, the late Don Ho’s signature tune. So much so that he sang it twice at each concert, once at the beginning and again at the end.
Champagne is also closely associated with Mother’s Day buffets, whether enjoyed alone in the glass or as an essential ingredient of Mimosas.
But you don’t have to take your mother to brunch (but perhaps you should) or host a tiki party to enjoy Champagne or another sparkling wine. (Although incorrectly used as a generic term for all sparkling wines, Champagne comes only from the Champagne region of France.) Too often reserved for special occasions, sparklers deserve to be sampled more often. They make excellent aperitifs, and pair well with a wide range of foods; fish obviously (try them with sushi), spicy Thai dishes, and fruits and desserts, to name a few.
Philipponnat Brut Royal Reserve NV
This wine is composed mainly of Pinot Noir blended with Chardonnay and a bit of Pinot Meunier. It is made in the traditional method: a second fermentation occurs in the bottle after the addition of the “liqueur de tirage” (natural fermenting agents and a small quantity of cane sugar). Wines from previous years are incorporated (up to 20%) to maintain the house style.
This wine features plenty of effervescence, so there is a caldron of those tiny bubbles in the glass. It features an appealing light honey color. It is quite dry, which allows the pleasant yeastiness to come through. The nicely balanced acidity lends structure, but leaves a hint of bitterness on the finish.