PARIS, Sept 28 — Finding a hidden cellar filled with early 19th century bottles of wine is the kind of thing that happens in movies but not real life.
And yet, according to Bollinger, the iconic, 187-year-old champagne house, that’s exactly what happened.
Six years ago, an intern was cleaning a dusty corner of the company’s labyrinthine cellar, when he removed a few rows of empty bottles from a rack that was blocking a dark archway. Little did he know that he’d reveal a secret room filled with 600 vintage cuvees — all from the early 19th century to 1939.
Now, on November 19, Sotheby’s New York will auction a collection of those extraordinary bottles during its first-ever stateside release of Bollinger vintages. The highlight of the sale? A 102-year-old bottle found in the secret room, whose bid price will start at US$10,000 (RM40,000). Gauging from comparable auctions, it’ll go for a whole lot more: In 2013 a two-bottle lot of Moet & Chandon 1914 vintage sold for US$16,620; and just last year, a tasting experience of 1915 Krug was sold for US$116,375.
Like the 1915 Krug auction, the winner of the 1914 Bollinger will win an entire vacation — designed entirely to maximise their enjoyment of the rare bubbly.
First, Champagne Bollinger will open its doors to the winner for a rare tour of the winery and the Galerie 1829 Champagne library. Then the winery will host a private tasting of the 1914 vintage with Bollinger Cellar Master Gilles Descôtes. The winner will stay at the legendary five-star hotel Château Les Crayères, in Reims, and dine with the president of Champagne Bollinger, Jérôme Philipon, at the hotel’s ambitious French restaurant, Le Parc.
But the experience isn’t the only thing up for sale. The auction, “A Century of Champagne Bollinger,” will also include six rare lots of Bollinger Vieilles Vignes Françaises ranging from 1988 to 2002 — all harvested from the Champagne region’s only vineyard resistant to phylloxera, the insect that destroyed many of the vineyards in France in the mid-19th century. Rounding out the sale is a range of eight-year-old Bollinger RD Special Cuvée and nonvintage Special Cuvée, available in a variety of bottle sizes from half-bottle to nebuchadnezzar — perfect if you’re looking for an extra-celebratory bottle of Bolly.
Here’s a primer to the auction and its fascinating contents:
Why would so many great bottles be hidden in a secret cellar?
According to the historians at Champagne Bollinger, the bottles were likely stashed at the beginning of World War II to avoid German pillaging, a common practice for anxious winemakers. Many wineries and champagne houses unearthed hidden rooms of wine in the years immediately following the war, but the 2010 discovery in the Bollinger cellars was the first of its kind in decades. In total, 600 bottles were discovered ranging in age from 1830, the year after the winery’s start, to 1939, the beginning of World War II.
But the wines’ discovery was only half the mystery: It also took the winemakers on site years to figure out what, exactly, they had on their hands. The bottles were coded in an abandoned system of numbers and letters that identified the village of each wine and its vintage. In fact, the winemakers had to dig deep into the archival records to crack the code of how the bottles were labelled — sorting through years of ledgers and winemaking records from the 19th century.
Although the majority of the bottles have been identified, there’s still a small selection of bottles that remain a mystery, even to the Bollinger historians, who have not yet been able to find documentation linking the codes to the wines’ vinification.
Are 100-year-old champagnes even drinkable?
Common convention says to drink champagne as soon as possible after its release. But in the last 10 years, wine collectors have realised that champagnes can age quite gracefully.
“There used to be a small number of connoisseurs who knew that great champagnes could age, take on complexity, and become multilayered over time,” says Jamie Ritchie, the worldwide head of Sotheby’s Wine. “It used to be a secret amongst collectors and connoisseurs.”
Demand for these antique bottles — Bollinger tends to top out at 30 years — has been climbing in the last two to three years, driven by the US and Asian markets.
The Bollinger wines should be no exception. Because they were stored in the company’s cellars for the last 90 years, they have been preserved in their optimal climate, and roughly half of them were determined to be in wonderful condition. To ensure their continued longevity, the bottles were all restored over the course of three years — a process in which the winemakers meticulously catalogued, pressure-tested, and recorked a total of 4,000 bottles. (Normally, winemakers will restore vintage champagne every 40-50 years.)
Can you tour the secret cellar?
Bollinger is famously private about its cellars — when I visited in June, it took a private invitation from Champagne Bollinger to get inside. (The winery is most likely to open its doors if you have a direct line in from a collector or a sommelier with a relationship with the brand.) The exclusive tour started with a winding stone staircase that descends over 100 feet into the earth, and into the never-ending maze of Champagne caves that were once used as air-raid shelters and hospitals during the war. The arched tunnels are lined with massive walls of magnums filled with ageing champagne, with the occasional "road sign" or scribble of graffiti carved into the stone.
The highlight of a visit to Champagne Bollinger is the newly constructed champagne library, called Galerie 1829, where the secret stash now lives. It’s a space for looking more than tasting — a museum of wine, if you will, where bottles are identified with handwritten labels and showcased in minimalist, dimly lit concrete cabinets. When I visited this past June, the Bollinger team was still giddy about the library’s opening, and many called the process of building it a “project of a lifetime.”
If I’m outbid on the 1914 bubbly, what am I missing?
The 1914 is historically an extraordinary vintage — the weather was perfect for winemaking, but France had far greater concerns with the onset of World War I, which had been declared by Germany that August. By the time harvest rolled around in late September, the men of Champagne were on the battlefield and away from their vines. Cyril Delarue, the head of US marketing for Bollinger and a nephew of Madame Bollinger, explained that it was “the women [who] had to take care of the harvest, the winemaking, bottling everything.”
Considering the circumstances — and the intervening years — it’s a wonder that the 1914 vintage still makes for such an incredible drinking experience. During a recent tasting, I was impressed with its sweetness and the structure of the 102-year-old liquid — it was nearly impossible to guess that the wine was over a century old. Despite its age, the amber-tinted wine is incredibly fresh and full of flavour, with the sweet aromas of dried fruit, candied lemons, and toasted oak with a light herbal note. On the palate it’s sweet with a subtle effervescence, as many of the bubbles have disappeared over time. The wine is smooth and silky with fruit-forward flavours of pineapple and apple. It is, quite simply, sublime.
It’s humbling to imagine what these wines survived over the last 100 years, and what life must have been like when the 1914 was made. “Every time I open an old bottle, I am shaking,” Delarue explains, “because the people that made this wine are not here anymore It always is a true experience."
For his part, Sotheby’s Ritchie can’t recall the last time auctioneers had access to such a collection as this. “We’ve seen champagne found in shipwrecks and things like that," he said, "but nothing like this coming directly from the producer.” — Bloomberg