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Q&A: Ghislain de Montgolfier, Bollinger

Q&A: Ghislain de Montgolfier, Bollinger
© Emily Walker/Bollinger
Bollinger's Ghislain de Montgolfier is the former president of the Union of Champagne Houses. In this interview with Caroline Henry, he addresses some of the key issues facing the region – and remembers the day he made a grown man cry.

Where did you grow up?

I grew up in the center of Paris

Tell us about your family’s involvement with wine.

My great-great-grandfather on my mother's side founded the House of Bollinger in 1829. However, I did not visit the vineyards very often, as my grandparents died when I was young. But we did sometimes visit Aunt Lily [the legendary 'Madame Jacques,' who took over running the business after her husband, Jacques Bollinger, died in 1941].

Which sparkling wine region in the world, if any, do you think can take on Champagne?

Both New Zealand and Chile produce very good sparkling wines which continue to improve in quality. But the wines are different from Champagne – the grapes are primarily grown to make still wine rather than sparkling. They generally are riper, hence have more pronounced fruit flavors and a higher alcohol percentage. In Champagne, we have a relative low alcohol percentage, amazing acidity and freshness. So even if these wines are good, for me they are still not as good as Champagne, or should I say as good as Bollinger, as this is still the Champagne I will compare others with.

What do you think of the zero dosage trend?

Hmmm... it often causes a lot of discussion. You know Ayala is part of the Bollinger group and when we wanted to renew the image, zero dosage made perfect sense for the brand. Historically, Ayala has always made a very dry style of Champagne, so I felt it worked for the brand.

However, in general I feel dosage adds to the beauty of the Champagne in the same way make-up can add to a woman’s beauty. The best make-up is the one we do not notice, the one that is not obvious but which adds the invisible layer of extra pleasure.

The new zero-dosage trend often means that marketing people decide not to add dosage – they do this at the very end of the winemaking process – and I feel this often takes away some of the potential pleasure. I feel we always need a small touch of dosage – in the Champagne and in life. When I started at Bollinger, we had a little more dosage; now the trend has gone towards extra brut (3 to 4 grams a liter), as this small touch adds to the complexity and magic.

What is your opinion on the expansion of the Champagne appellation?

The expansion in essence is the revision of the appellation, and I believe this is a good thing for Champagne. The current delineation dates from 1927 and in many ways followed the existing administrative borders – for example, the definition of the appellation based on the village borders. One has to remember that in 1927, barely 11,000 hectares were planted with vines, whilst now we are close to 35,000 hectares. It is thus time to add a more technical layer.

From a market and economic point, the expansion is needed, because the demand for Champagne has been growing, and if we did not expand the appellation, we would experience a very steep increase in price as there would not be enough Champagne for everybody.

Clos St.Jacques, a pinot noir vineyard that survived phylloxera ; the winery
© Bollinger | Clos St.Jacques, a pinot noir vineyard that survived phylloxera ; the winery

What do you feel are the core differences between the Champagne houses and Champagne growers?

Growers grow their grapes to make their own Champagne, and now have all the knowledge and experience needed to do a good job. But they are limited by their land, so the quantity and quality may vary from year to year. A house can generally make the same quantity year after year, and because it has a wider choice of wines to blend with, it also can guarantee the consistency in flavor and quality year after year.

What is the biggest threat to Champagne?

I feel the biggest danger for Champagne is its success – by this I mean it is quite easy to sell Champagne, and some people may start to focus on pushing volume rather than on the magic of Champagne. In order to prevent this, we need strict rules, which need to be reinforced so people will follow them.

From 2007 to March this year, you were president of the Union des Maisons de Champagne. How do you feel the organization changed under your presidency?

My presidency coincided with the economic crisis. This has changed the way we have to balance the market – we need to make sure there is enough Champagne available but at the same time make sure there is no glut. This means that in the past few years, our stocks have been very high.

I feel that we have learned to make better decisions at harvest time; we now look at the future as well as the past to determine the quantities, and also are pickier about quality. In the next few years, as has been put down in the 2030 plan, the focus is very much on the quality.

Why does Bollinger still mature its reserve wines in magnums?

When I first started out, I questioned a lot of things and was looking where we could make changes to work more efficiently. So. together with the chef de cave, I experimented to see if there were different ways of working in the cellar, and we changed some things. For example, we stopped moving the bottles from one place to another. However, I felt that keeping the reserve wine in magnums under a little pressure really did make a difference to the quality – even if I have no logical explanation for it. Hence I decided to stick with this process.

Do you think the blend or the second fermentation in bottle has the greatest impact on the wine style?

It takes a little time to understand what happens during the second fermentation. Yes, there is the prise de mousse [yeast], which will give us the bubbles and a little more alcohol. However, after this, the wine remains in contact with the yeasts. Wine is a living product, so it is still working, and the acidity, complexity and flavors will change during this time. It is very difficult to pinpoint when these changes occur.

The blend will give you the base wine for this fermentation, so it is crucial, but so is the aging. Both play a big role in getting the balance right, but the aging in the end may have more impact, as longer aging will give smaller bubbles and intensify the complexity of the flavors, and this is why Bollinger opted for extensive aging.

What, for you, is the magic of Champagne?

It is the people you are drinking with. Champagne as a wine is not so easy to understand; there are small differences of flavors blended with the bubbles which make it often more difficult to taste. However, Champagne is a wine which is often drunk at special occasions, happy occasions, and it is wonderful to share that happiness with people we are drinking with. I realized a long time ago that people are always up for a glass of Champagne!

The Bollinger cellars; vineyards in the village of Ay
© Bollinger | The Bollinger cellars; vineyards in the village of Ay

Do you feel wine has become just another commodity?

I hope not. There are so many amazing wines out there. I have been very lucky to have tasted some very rare and old wines, which have given me immense pleasure. It would be a pity if these extraordinary wines are now just purchased as an investment.

What is your view of the Robert Parker 100-point system of ranking wines?

Robert Parker is a free man with a great palate and I have no problem with what he does. I have tried a Chapoutier and a Guigal before, which both received the 100-point mark, and both wines were outstanding. However, this does not mean that other wines which do not get these scores are not well made and just as pleasurable.

What is it you most dislike in wine?


Tell us about a surprising wine in your cellar.

I have some amazing Côteaux du Layon 2003, made from 100 percent chenin [blanc].

What do you drink on a “school night”?

I try not to drink every night. However, my wife quite likes full-bodied red wine, so we tend to regularly drink a glass of Chilean wine, or a northern Rhône wine or some well-made Bordeaux with dinner.

What has been your best experience in the wine industry?

On November 1st, 2000, I had a large tasting of about 1,000 people in Fukuyama, Japan, and after the tasting, I felt very touched as the people had been so very happy to taste Bollinger and all came to thank me for the experience. Occasions like this make me realize that we make wine to share, not to drink alone.

Another amazing experience was a very exclusive tasting I was once invited to where we tasted 40 grand Bordeaux from the 1928 vintage as well as the Bollinger 1928. It is very humbling to be able to taste so many great old wines with specialists and realize that the wine you brought was actually showing very well. Being part of the wine industry, we often get invited to amazing tastings and experiences – we really are lucky.

And the worst?

When I was a lot younger I once made a very big mistake and embraced a Japanese man – like we do in France – and it made him cry. We both felt absolutely horrified.


A selection of the most popular Bollinger wines on Wine-Searcher (ex-tax, per 750-ml bottle): 

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