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Bollinger's baby brother

Elin McCoy
Elin McCoy • 5 min read
Bollinger's baby brother
The PN VZ15 is delicious, innovative and relatively affordable
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The PN VZ15 is delicious, innovative and relatively affordable

The middle of a pandemic is a pretty strange time to introduce a brand-new Champagne, even if you are the powerful fizz brand associated with James Bond. But hold on. The debut of the stunning Bollinger PN VZ15, which will arrive in the US in September, turns out to be a prime-time event for bubbly lovers. Alas, Bollinger’s Malaysian distributor Albert Wines & Spirits were unable to confirm the date of its local debut.

It is named for the project code written on barrels in the cellar. The “PN” stands for pinot noir, which is the only grape used in its production, and the “VZ” stands for Verzenay, a village with deep, chalky soil, where about half of the grapes came from. The “15” is the vintage of the majority of the wine. The oddly named, oddly timed release is the first edition of a series to be released every year.

“Major champagne houses rarely add a new wine to their permanent range,” says Peter Liem, author of Champagne: The Essential Guide to the Wines, Producers, and Terroirs of the Iconic Region. “Bollinger debuted its last one 12 years ago. Expectations were high.”

Spoiler alert: This all-pinot noir fizz is gorgeous, fresh and vibrant, yet also rich and succulent. Intense aromas hinting of mint, flowers and smoky nuts marry deep flavours of cool, red fruit and an almost salty, chalky finish. It is listed at the eminently reasonable price of US$120, but you can find it for as little as US$100.

The project started five years ago as a crazy contest among four winemakers on the Bollinger team. I got the backstory via Zoom from company headquarters in the village of Aÿ in France’s Champagne region. Deputy chef de cave Denis Bunner and managing director Charles-Armand de Belenet sat at a historic desk that once belonged to Lily Bollinger, one of the region’s famous widows. The scene was symbolic: She launched one of Bollinger’s most iconic cuvées, the Vieilles Vignes Francaises (VFF), first produced in 1969.

The grapes come from two tiny, walled vineyard plots that total less than one acre and contain very old vines that are among the few remaining ungrafted examples in Champagne. The wine is produced only in exceptional vintages and in tiny quantities — for current release 2007, only 3,132 bottles. (The latest vintage goes for about US$1,000 [RM4,217] a bottle.) Until now, these VVF wines have been the only 100% Pinot, or Blanc de Noirs, among the company’s six-champagne portfolio. Most champagnes are blends — of grapes, of vintages and of vineyards in various sub-regions. Typically, grandes marques houses such as Moët et Chandon purchase and combine grapes and wine from the region’s thousands of small growers.

The rarity of the VVF wines inspired cellar master Gilles Descotes to set a challenge for himself and three other winemakers. Each would come up with a new non-vintage, all-Pinot wine that would be more affordable (thanks, guys!) and accessible while reflecting a sense of place. “The idea was to create a little brother to the Vieilles Vignes,” says Bunner.

A blind tasting decided the winner of the experiments, which became the base wine for Bollinger’s new cuvée PN VZ15. “We think of this as a continuing deep dive into pinot noir and Champagne’s terroirs. We are exploring all its facets, searching to understand its diversity through highlighting the tastes of different villages and vineyards,” says de Belenet. Usually, the goal for any non-vintage cuvée is to replicate the style and taste year after year. But the PN VZ15 also reflects the kind of experimentation by trend-setting small grower champagne makers over the past couple of decades.

Pinot is one of the three most important varieties of champagne, along with Chardonnay and Meunier, and much non-vintage bubbly includes all three. In this chilly region — as far north as vines can be grown commercially — blends used to be necessary to ensure that wine could be sold even in poor years. Global warming is changing things. Based in Aÿ, Champagne’s Pinot heartland, the brand has used the grape as a key piece of its DNA to create the rich, full style of all its bottlings. Of its 178ha of vineyards, 104ha are planted with Pinot Noir.

More than half the grapes were fermented — and the wine aged — in oak barrels of different sizes, which gives it a creamy texture. Some lots were aged in stainless steel tanks, which resulted in a bright, zingy, vibrant character. Older reserve wine aged in magnums is added to provide richness and intense aromas.

In PN VZ15, reserve wine from 2009 makes up 20% of the blend, a lot more than is typical in non-vintage champagnes. Releasing such an ambitious cuvée at a reduced price point is an essential strategy right now. Champagne sales in April and May were down 75% from the same period last year as weddings were postponed and gatherings such as Wimbledon, the tennis event at which 25,000 bottles of bubbly are usually consumed, were cancelled. The closure of France’s restaurants, bars and hotels temporarily dealt a blow to that popular dining-out aperitif, a coupe de champagne.

Those destinations represent about one-third of Champagne’s market in France, which consumes nearly half of all the country produces. The trade organisation CIVC (Comité Interprofessionnel du Vin de Champagne) estimates that the overall loss in sales volume in 2020 may be as high as 100 million bottles. But, hey, prestige champagnes such as PN VZ15 are still one of the world’s relatively affordable luxuries. This summer, for the first time, Bollinger is open to visitors. But you will not have to go that far to enjoy the fizz. — Bloomberg

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