The discovery of a forgotten collection of Bollinger reserve magnums inspired the Champagne house to embark on a mammoth project: to create a bottle archive

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On the edge of the village of Aÿ, in France’s northeastern champagne region, lies a tiny, walled-in field full of raggedy vines planted in a haphazard muddle, in contrast to the neat rows you’d expect in a French vineyard. The random planting isn’t down to carelessness: this is how vineyards used to exist, before the phylloxera bug – a US import that destroys the roots of grape vines – ripped through Europe’s wine regions in the 19th century, necessitating new farming practices. Known as the Clos St Jacques, this field of a few acres somehow survived unscathed, one of just two such plots still remaining – the walls ensure things stay that way. It belongs to Bollinger, the historic champagne house, which produces its rarest and most exclusive fizz, Vieilles Vignes Francaises, exclusively from Clos St Jacques grapes. The clue is in the name: drink that, and you’re tasting champagne produced the old way, right down to the grape itself. History in a glass.

History is an obsession at Bollinger. The company’s CEO, Jerome Philipon, proudly points out that not a single archive record – logging every release, cuvee by cuvee, year by year, since the chateau’s founding in 1829 – is missing. More importantly, the firm, still owned by the Bollinger family, maintains several practices that other houses have long since discarded, including fermentation in old oak barrels, and keeping its reserve champagnes – for blending into its recipes – in magnums. It also passes laser beams through champagne bottles to help analyze the contents – but only, naturally, for its oldest vintages. And these can be very old indeed.

Several metres beneath the Clos St Jacques, and the nearby Chateau Bollinger, run several kilometres of cold, dank cellars – arched tunnels and chambers that long predate Bollinger itself – populated with huge, neat stacks of dust-caked bottles. Wandering among these, it’s hardly a surprise to learn that even with the careful archiving, the odd stockpile was missed or disregarded over the decades. In 2010, an intern wandered into a dark extremity of the cellar complex, and began moving a pile of empty bottles. Behind these, he made a discovery: 600 bottles of old, forgotten champagne, some dating back to 1830 – as old as the champagne house itself. The newest bottle dated to 1921. No Bollinger worker had any recollection of the storing these special vintages, but there they were – possibly hidden out of sight from occupying Germans, or simply left and forgotten between the wars.

Pic: Greg White for Wired

The discovery of this remarkable treasure trove engendered a new and mammoth project: to gather together all the old discarded and ignored bottles throughout the cellars, and to turn them into something useful: a liquid archive of Bollinger winemaking, with as many bottles as possible painstakingly analysed and restored. The result amounts to a collection of some 5,000 bottles, an unparalleled archive of historic champagne making.

“We don’t know exactly why many of these wines were around,” says Gilles Descotes, Bollinger’s chief winemaker, or chef de caves. “Nobody really took notice of a lot of them – these are huge cellars, and stockpiles would get made and later forgotten. We finally had to take action.”

The first task was to identify every one of several thousand bottles, magnums and even jeroboams, decoding mysterious old inscriptions and chalk markings – the bottle from 1830, for instance, was simply marked “CB 14” – and matching these to the thankfully complete archives.

Rather more technical in nature was the job of checking and restoring as many of the champagnes as were found to be worth saving – an analysis that necessitated the introduction of a new laser technique to assess the pressure inside a bottle without opening it.

The ‘restoration’ of an antique champagne essentially means its preservation as a sealed, drinkable wine, and is in some ways an extension of its making process. The pressure in a bottle of bubbly comes from the carbon dioxide created during the secondary fermentation process, which occurs in the bottle with the help of yeast that’s added to the base wine. The by-product is the lees – dead yeast cells that eventually form a sediment in the bottle and need to be removed, or ‘disgorged’, before the champagne is ready. At that point, a final top up of sugar dissolved in wine – known as the dosage – is added, and the permanent cork inserted.

Anyone who’s ever kept a bottle of champagne in too warm a place for a long period will know how a champagne can loose its fizz. Over time, humidity and moisture ensure a natural degradation and shrinking of the cork, allowing leaks and the loss of carbon dioxide – and eventually, a sparkling wine with very little sparkle.

pic: Greg White for Wired

Descotes and his team were aware that, even in the perfect conditions of the Bollinger cellars, the champagnes would have suffered from loss of pressure, while also continuing to age naturally.

Restoration would involve every bottle being newly disgorged, tasted, potentially topped up with a dosage and re-corked with a fresh cork; but this introduced a problem. There are two ways to disgorge a champagne bottle: by hand, involving an ancient and rather theatrical technique whereby the lees explodes out of the neck of the bottle while the degorgeur quickly traps the champagne with his thumb, and prevents oxygen ingress (a skill that only three Bollinger staff have currently mastered, but which is still used for its vintage cuvees); or the industrial method in which the neck of the bottle is frozen in a brine solution, sealing the sediment into an icy plug that’s expelled on opening, while the freezing temperature also subdues the internal pressure and prevents the wine from fizzing out.

“We wanted to disgorge as many bottles as possible the traditional way,” says Descotes. “We don’t want to loose this savoir faire, so it was a good time to train our workers on a very specific thing, to keep this knowledge. But if you don’t have the pressure any more, you can’t do this.”

On the other hand, using the ice method – and for a lack of pressure, extracting the cork and lees with a screw opener ­– came with its own set of risks: the old bottles are thinner and more fragile, and liable to crack under freezing.

Deciding how to open the champagne, therefore, first required knowledge of the pressure inside a bottle. Unable to risk using a traditional aphrometer – a device that inserts a needle sensor through the cork to give a reading – given the potentially weak corks, the Bollinger team turned to an appliance originally developed for the beer industry, which replaced the needle with a laser. This laser aphrometer passes a horizontal beam through the gap between the liquid and the cork in the neck of the bottle, and carbon dioxide in the gap absorbs the laser signal. The strength of the signal delivers a reading as to the quantity of Co2 – and therefore the pressure – in the neck.

“It’s the instrument we always dreamed about, because we wanted to know what happens inside a bottle without opening it,” says Dennis Brunner, Descotes’ deputy who introduced the device. “We found that, on average, after 50 years you’ve lost half of the pressure in the bottle, but there was also intense variation, due to the varying quality of the corks. We know a lot more about the wine aging process thanks to this, and particularly the importance of the cork evolution.”

Pic: Greg White for Wired

To be legally classed as champagne, the region’s sparkling wines must contain a minimum of 3.5 bars of pressure, though most are produced to at least double this. Many of the wine library’s bottles have fallen below the threshold, and some of the 19th century vintages almost to total flatness. However, though they can never be sold as champagne, for Descotes they hold no less fascination or pleasure.

“One of the things this really showed to me is that champagne is one of the best wines to age in the world. With white wine, it’s really difficult to find good ones after 60 or 70 years, but with champagne, even if the effervescence isn’t all there, the wine was really alive. You get such a different wine with complexity and aromas that you don’t usually see.”

This introduces an intriguing prospect: the potential for interest specifically in old champagne, a wine that is traditionally held to be at its best when brand new. To this end, Bollinger tested the water last year by putting a small selection of wines from the 2010 discovery on the auction block at Sotheby’s. A 1914 vintage went for $12,250 – though as Descotes points out, it was the experience of visiting Bollinger and opening and drinking the champagne in situ that was sold, rather than simply the bottle itself.

“People are starting to see old champagnes in a new way, and I think in the next 10 years you will see a lot more old champagnes fetching really high prices – you’re really going into another world in champagne.”