A fizzy finale in France

I’m back home in London. It’s been a super summer – well beyond my expectations but at the same time it’s great to be home.

Having said that – what a final week! My friend Sue joined me in Seyssel and after a mammoth drive we arrived in Reims – the Champagne capital on Monday. We had a terrific few days both in Reims and in Epernay visiting a number of champagne houses, our particular favourites were Collard-Picard and Martell where we did some fantastic tastings. Reims Cathedral is also a huge stand out – it’s the home of the coronations of 23 French Kings and is just an incredible sight.

But nothing prepared us for the absolute magnificence of Bollinger. After watching Jennifer Saunders and Joanna Lumley on their tv programme I was under the impression that the public were not allowed to visit. In addition there was nothing in my Rough Guide or Trip Advisor about Bolly so I just dismissed going. Not Sue! She managed to get us a visit on Friday – our last full day.

We took the train to Ay and headed to the magnificent house. When we arrived we were greeted by Carolyn – a qualified professional oenologist and champagne master who told us that we were were exceedingly lucky as we were only the 5th private tour (i.e. not a wine critic / journo / buyer) of the whole year – the website we booked on is more intended for professionals rather than just Joe Public!

And oh my what an incredible experience. We spent the first 20 minutes learning about the history of Bollinger including the phenomenal ‘Lily’ Bollinger who turned the house around after the war. After there, we took a walk to a small vineyard. It’s a Phylloxera free vineyard which is completely unheard of in basically most of the world so the vines are pure vitis vinifera rather than grafted onto American root stock. It’s a brilliant example of how the vines were cultivated.

After that we headed over to the ‘machine room’ of the winery full of the stainless steel tanks where we saw the wine going through its first maturation. We also saw a number of 25 year old oak barrels with the wine in them. I loved how Carolyn referred to the casks as ‘our boys’.

After that we went to the Cooper’s room – Bollinger have the only in house Cooper (the person who makes the barrels) in Champagne. Although he makes new barrels they’re never used because they’re new oak – they’re just used to repair old ones. All the traditional tools are still used – it’s incredible. Bollinger is the only place in Champagne that the roads are closed once a year for ‘casks crossing the road’ where the casks are cleaned and then rolled out onto wooden tracks for storage for the next year.

Also rather amusing to see an ‘Ab Fab’ (Absolument Fabuleux) poster in there. In addition – there’s a huge amount of James Bond posters as Bolly is the champagne of 007. We were told that the deal was done on a handshake – Bolly don’t pay a thing to be in the James Bond movies – apparently Lily was furious at the time but after it appeared in the film Bolly sales went through the roof and she was happier! But could you imagine?! Right now the cost for product placement like that must be extortionate!

Then we went to the caves. I’ve been into caves on this trip but nothing prepared me for this – over 6km of tunnels full of Bolly in magnums – their preferred bottling storage method. We saw true vintage including access (well – not strict access but through a gate – even Carolyn doesn’t have the key to that part) to their first bottled wine from 1829 – only found after an intern was tasked a few years ago with mapping out the caves!! It was just incredible. They still hand turn every bottle and have their own Riddler who can turn thousands in no time whatsoever.

Following that we did our tasting – five incredible champagnes, three white and two rose. Bollinger were the last major house to turn to Rose (little fact – Rose wine was seen as the drink of prostitutes and Lily was very reluctant for her house to be associated with women of the night!)

I treated myself to a bottle of the 2007 ‘Le Grand Annee’ (a white not a rose!) which I look forward to opening on an incredibly special occasion.

We were there for well over two hours. And I have to admit, that when we finished, I sat outside on the steps and welled up with tears on just what an incredible experience that was on the final day of an incredible summer.

It’s been great. Despite a tough start I’ve completely switched off from the corporate life. I’m thoroughly relaxed. I have no plans about work yet although I’ve compiled a list of things to get me into a routine come October. I’ve got a couple of free days and then my September is busy, a festival with my brothers from other mothers, a tasting, a 40th, the theatre and the new honorary title of aunty to one of my best friend’s soon to be born little girl.

This isn’t the end of the blogs. This is just the beginning. The first step of the journey is done with my France adventure. After 18 months of planning to get here I’ve done it. Now I need to get into the mindset of that new career – so keep following, but allow me a few days off before returning to uncork the finer things of life!