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September 3, 2018updated 02 Nov 2022 10:09am

One Bottle: Bollinger Special Cuvée NV: Opening the door to memory

By Andrew Jefford

There’s a task I carry out each year for which payment is one magnum of Bollinger. I don’t, in turn, trade it on for a new car tire or a fat rabbit, so this particular excursion into the informal economy has a short train. Instead, we open and drink the Champagne gratefully.

Or did. One of the lessons learned during 45 years of wine drinking, though, is that no bottle of Champagne is ever ideally consumed when freshly acquired, so I decided on a gamble: two years of restraint. That would give us a stock of three, so that each year thenceforward we would be able to drink a magnum of Bollinger at least 25 months old.

Wherein lies the gamble? I live in the Languedoc and have, at present, no cellar or wine fridge. The storage conditions aren’t quite catastrophic: The bottles lie darkly in a north-facing room and spend a cool winter. Summer, though, must be a trial for them. The magnum we have just opened (at Christmas) will, I calculate, have passed at least one quarter of its life in my care flirting with 86 °F (30°C) and sometimes going beyond for a torrid month or more. Would it be wrecked?

The engraving of time

Perhaps I’ve been lucky, but the first? of my gambler’s magnums seemed entirely unscathed. Indeed, it was more rewarding, and more articulate, than?my recollection of the fresh bottles we formerly downed and was, in many ways, the very model of everything I love in Champagne. This is not just the result of a storage strategy, of course: One of the arguments for Bollinger, aside from its handsome Pinot vineyards, is the engraving of time into its pores: three years for Special Cuvée. More, too: There are also the 700,000 magnums of reserve wine, stocked under cork, drizzling their own troubles and truths into the blend. The result is not one of those tight-lipped Champagnes where all the pleasure lies in the punishment; nor is it all prettiness and polka dots and pert charm. Nothing particularly creamy about it, either; it’s not notably woody; and it hasn’t been oxidatively spatchcocked or solera- splayed. Instead…

It’s autumn. It’s the orchard. Its scents took me back to a place I think I once came from, to an apple orchard full of forgotten varieties, where the grass had grown so long that dawn’s easing mist had left it wetly nodding and sprawling. Perhaps there was some plum fruit, too, and the quiet grainy warmth of? a stubble field nearby, but apples provided the spirit of this place, while the straw and hedgerows and barns and ivy-encumbered walls supplied the background detail. After a while in the glass, I thought I caught something a little fatter: white chalk clay, clinging to the boots. Generous, allusive, and enhancing; the scent of a mild year’s end in high latitudes. It brought back the Christmases I’d loved—the country quiet, the dripping dark season, the mossy lych-gate, and the mute holly tree in the churchyard. If you come from somewhere else, I then thought, you might find other things in this glass— and this is as it should be. We enjoy aromatic resonance in wine more ?than a sheaf of aromatic particularities. Generosity of this order doesn’t have to be taken a certain way alone; it can yield different interpretations.

After the reverie of the scents, the first sip was a shock: it was much drier than I was expecting. Of course; it’s Champagne, and unvulgar; there must be the bite of the place to it. It was as if the discursive west wind had been blowing when I sniffed my way in to the glass; ?but now that I was sipping, the wind had suddenly swung around to the north— you could feel hard air blown sheer from gray seas on your tender tongue. In flavor terms, back came the apples, the noble perfumed apples, and the hint of green plums, and it was hard not to be struck by the wine’s vinosity, too—the structured sinewy firmness that is so critical a part of the appeal of Champagne and white Burgundy, yet that always resists easy definition. How was this vinosity conjured into the bottle? Air again, perhaps, discreetly informing the wine in those reserve magnums, slowly buffing the fruit and beveling its edges. There was a stoniness in the flavor, too, speckling the fruit and catching the light. Of course, the acidity was dominant, but it was rounded, too—mouthwatering.

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Allusive restraint

And then the rest was a falling-to. Some friends visited on Christmas Eve, and we carried on drinking this wine with blinis loaded with crème fraîche and salmon, and with Charentes oysters and their juices, and eventually with a risotto strewn with local clams. Everything worked; it was a wine too, after all. It’s fit for purpose. But for all that, the most precious moments I passed with it were those first few quiet minutes of scrutiny, discovery, recollection. The best wines come to you jangling a set of keys. As you pull the cork, they turn a key in a lock and open the door to memory. The better they are, the more keys ?and the more doors. Your memories, of course, are your own business, and these were merely mine; but that’s why allusive restraint works best. Fine wine suggests, never insists.

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