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20 Questions With Bollinger's Top Dogs

Bollinger CEO Jérôme Philipon and chef de cave Gilles Descôtes
© Bollinger | Bollinger CEO Jérôme Philipon and chef de cave Gilles Descôtes
Bollinger has a new chef de cave, Gilles Descôtes, the company's former viticulturist. Caroline Henry met the new man at the helm, along with his boss, Bollinger CEO Jérôme Philipon.

Where did you grow up?

Descôtes: I grew up in Oger in the Côtes des Blancs and spend my whole childhood here in Champagne. I went to primary school in Oger, then to high school in Épernay, before I continued my studies in Reims, Paris and Montpellier.

When did you first become interested and involved with wine?

Descôtes: I learned about wine at home at a very young age. My grandfather was a grape grower and winemaker in Oger, and the whole family used to help out in the vineyard and cellar. We picked at vintage, and spent our summers in the vineyard putting in place the training system [palissage] and keeping the vines trimmed and neat.

I also used to help out in the cellar, especially during bottling. It was a big event, where all the neighboring grower-producers would help each other. In fact, they would take turns till everybody’s bottling was done. In those days we used to bottle in May; everybody had their own bottling line and it took about three days to bottle 15,000 bottles.

I started off as a 5- to 6-year-old boy by putting chalk lines on the bottles before they were stacked. Over the years I helped out at every stage till 1985, the last time my grandfather bottled his own wine. My father was a natural science teacher at the time and decided not to take over the family business.

Is it unusual for a chef de cave in Champagne to have such a focus in the vineyard?

Descôtes: I have walked a very atypical path for a chef de cave. I have 20 years of experience in the vineyard – 10 at Bollinger. When I first became vineyard manager I did not think about ever becoming chef de cave. But now that I have become chef de cave I feel my time managing the vines and grapes enriches me a lot.

We start out making wine in the vineyard, so the relationship with our vineyard workers and growers is very important. Because of my background, the communication with the growers is often easier – I am on the same page as them, they know we speak the same language. This helps to close a little of the traditional gap between the winemaking team and the growers. 

Do you think there’s a change in attitude among chefs de cave – do they realize that they need to be in the vines more, or are most still winery focused?

Descôtes: It is difficult to say. Yes, there is more focus on the vineyard in general because if we want to continue to improve the quality it needs to be done in the vineyard as well as the winery. But I feel Bollinger is in many ways ahead of the game. Bollinger has always invested a lot in the vineyard; we own 164 hectares of vineyard, which is about 60 percent of our production. With my appointment, the importance of the vineyard management got yet another boost. Most other houses have started to communicate about the importance of the grape quality, but not that many chefs de cave actually spend a lot of time in between the vines.

L-R: Former chef de cave Matthieu Kauffmann; one of Bollinger's long-established vineyards; a productive harvest
© Bollinger | L-R: Former chef de cave Matthieu Kauffmann; one of Bollinger's long-established vineyards; a productive harvest

For many, the Bollinger style has been intrinsically linked to the former chef de cave, Matthieu Kauffmann. Is that daunting?

Descôtes: Kauffmann is a very talented wine maker, so yes, there is pressure. However, for the last 10 years I have been a part of the tasting committee and worked quite closely with Matthieu, so I feel I have a good understanding of the Bollinger style. Furthermore, we work as a team: the winemaking department consists of seven oenologists who all contribute to the final blend; producing Bollinger is really a team effort rather than the vision of one person.

In the industry there is a lot of speculation that Kauffman did not want to leave. There are rumors that you, M. Philipon, want to innovate and you were not on the same page. Can you tell us what actually happened?

Jérôme Philipon: Speculation is often fueled by jealousy and if we would pay attention to rumors and speculation we would not go very far in the world. First of all, Mattieu Kauffmann was not forced out – he resigned. Honestly, I was sad to see him go – he is a great winemaker with excellent technical expertise and a deep knowledge of the Bollinger style.

However, moving on from this, I am happy that Gilles Descôtes has agreed to take on the position of chef de cave. Descotes is a great leader and I have full confidence that he will manage the reasonable growth in the cellar in the same way he managed it in the vineyard in the past. 

Are there any changes you envisage to the winemaking style?

Descôtes: No, I don’t envisage changes. As a chef de cave we defend the work of our predecessor and we prepare the work of the person who will follow us. By this, I mean that for years to come people will still taste a lot of Kauffmann’s wines – just as last decade we still drank a lot of Gérard Liot's wine.

Bollinger has been experimenting with organic viticulture in recent years. Would you like to make an organic cuvée in the future?

Descôtes: Organic cuvées are indeed trendy right now, but at Bollinger we have never really followed the trends. What is important for us is the taste and impeccable quality. Right now it is not feasible to achieve what we want by working 100 percent organically. We engaged in organic viticulture to improve the qualities of our soils, and our focus remains on the soils rather than making an organic wine.

What is your opinion on extra brut Champagne? Can you envisage Bollinger ever releasing a zero dosage Champagne?

Descôtes: I like extra brut Champagne – in fact, our prestigious cuvée RD (Recently Disgorged) is an extra brut cuvée – but I cannot envisage we will make a zero dosage Champagne.

I think dosage is useful when it is correctly applied; it often adds to the complexity and brings roundness to the wines. It brings a plus and I do not want to give this up just to follow the zero dosage fad.

You store your reserve wines in magnum rather than tank or barrel. Why?

Descôtes: When we store our reserve wines in magnums we also stimulate a second fermentation, to make a slightly sparkling wine with one quarter of the pressure of regular sparkling wine. This means that whilst the bottles are resting they are subject to the autolysis process – the wine is interacting with the lees in the bottle. This will add complexity, extra flavors and will also keep the wines fresher than if they were stored in tank or barrel. The reserve wines stored in magnum are more expressive than the wines we keep in tank.

A cellar worker tastes the vin clair from barrels; Bollinger, from half-bottle to Nebuchadnezzar
© AFP/Bollinger | A cellar worker tastes the vin clair from barrels; Bollinger, from half-bottle to Nebuchadnezzar

How have you weathered the downturn since 2008?

Philipon: What downturn? Without wanting to sound arrogant, the last few years have been excellent for Bollinger’s sales. In 2009, 2011 and 2012 we broke our sales records in terms of value and volume. The first quarter of 2013 showed the same results, so all I can say is so far, so good. Why did we weather the storm so well? In today’s world it is all about making a difference. Bollinger always stayed true to tradition and thus created a very distinctive taste

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

Descôtes: None. There are many regions in the world making excellent sparkling wines which could indeed compete with Champagne when they are young. However, the real difference is the aging potential Champagne has: the wines become more complex with age, yet they retain their freshness.

What do you drink on a “school night”?

Descotes: Very little red wine, because my wife prefers white. So we often drink Sancerre, white Burgundy, Loire chenin [blanc], or Champagne.

What is it you most dislike in a wine?

Descôtes: When people try to convince me that a badly made organic or natural wine is good – just because it is natural/organic. I am very sensitive to the acetone/sticky tape characteristics of oxidation these 'project' wines can have.

What has been your best experience in the wine industry?

Descôtes: Working in South Africa when Nelson Mandela was released from prison. We had hiked from Boschendal to Paarl and I was one of the very few people who saw him get off the boat from Robin Island. I took my family to South Africa four years ago and we went for a picnic at Boschendal. It really is a breathtaking place.

And the worst?

Descôtes: My worst experience was when I returned to Champagne after my international experiences. It was really difficult to find work, and the first year I had to take on a lot of small jobs just to make ends meet.

If you are not drinking wine, what are you drinking?

Descôtes: Water and single malt whisky – I really like Talisker.

What would you want the last wine you taste to be?

Descôtes: A 1996 magnum of Léoville-Las Cases.

What do you think would make the world a better place?

Descôtes: If people would drink more wine instead of spirits.

Related stories:

Bollinger Names New Chef de Cave

Bollinger's Chef de Cave Makes Sudden Departure


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