Champagne is the most visited and favourite wine region in France for UK wine lovers. The fact that it is a short hop down the motorway from Calais certainly helps. With beautiful rolling countryside, lovely little hamlets and also the hustle and bustle of Reims, the impressive ‘capital’, to explore it is a very exciting destination for a long or short, vinous holiday. With tiny, one man band houses counterpointed with massive world famous corporate brands there is something for all tastes – literally. To give you a flavour of the region and one of its most famous and inspirational pioneers, and to show that behind every label there is a fascinating story, here is a eulogy in praise of one of my favourite wine legends and a person who is very dear to the Daily Mail’s heart, too.
On the 17th October, exactly half a century ago, the Daily Mail conducted an interview with one of the most revered and respected women ever to work in the wine trade, Madame Lily Bollinger. Little did anyone imagine back then, that she would give the Mail a quote which has lasted the test of time and which I am certain will be remembered as the greatest single piece of wine prose of all time. She was in London to launch the very first vintage of Bollinger RD Champagne (the 1952 for the wine trivia fiends out there) when she said of her beloved Champagne, “I drink it when I am happy and when I’m sad. Sometimes I drink it when I’m alone. When I have company I consider it obligatory. I trifle with it if I’m not hungry and drink it when I am. Otherwise I never touch it – unless I’m thirsty.” – 17th October 1961, Daily Mail.
This quote adorns the walls of restaurants and wine bars all over the world alongside a photograph of Lily on her famous bicycle. Most students of wine learn these lyrical words long before they have even tasted Bollinger Champagne itself. She was such a modest lady that she probably didn’t have a clue what sort of impact that this lovely phrase would have on us all, but it alone conjures up the mystery, beauty and romance of the most famous sparkling wine on the planet – Champagne.
The 1961 Daily Mail vinous literary scoop has never been surpassed, so fifty years later I would like to tell you a little more about this incredible woman and perhaps you will raise a glass to her indomitable spirit next time you have something to celebrate.
Mme Lily Bollinger was born Elisabeth Law de Lauriston-Boubers, in Touraine in the Loire, in 1899, great-grand-niece of the famous Scottish economist John Law and she was fluent in English as a child, having been taught perfect diction by her governess. She became Mme Bollinger when she married Jacques Bollinger, heir to the company, in November 1923. Bollinger was established nearly one hundred years before this date in 1829 and the House had already enjoyed some notable successes in particular its relationship with Great Britain which was bolstered in 1884 by none other than Queen Victoria, who was such a fan that she granted Bollinger a Royal Warrant. Back then, eighty-nine per cent of Bollinger’s exports were destined for Great Britain with a further seven per cent heading out to the Empire. This is an extraordinary statistic and within the next few years the Prince of Wales and King Edward VII had also awarded Royal Warrants to this incredible estate. In 1910 a fourth Royal Warrant was awarded by King George V and in 1911 Harry J. Newman, the director of London agents Mentzendorff, had an idea to create a new brand name for Bollinger – he favoured ‘Special Cuvée Very Dry’ and this became the brand that we all know and love today. It is interesting, looking back, but at the time many Champagnes were medium-dry to sweet and yet the fashion was changing to bone dry wines and this name emphasised this fact. Jacques Bollinger was head over heels in love with his ‘Lily’ and he was galvanised by her extraordinary spirit expanding their winery and offices, increasing their vineyard holdings and even building new cellars. In 1941 he tragically died, aged 48 of ill health, leaving Madame Lily, a childless widow, to run the entire operation by herself. She became the head of the Bollinger House at a time when it was unheard of for a woman to hold such a position.
Mme Lily led the Bollinger House through the war including the devastating bombing of Aÿ in August 1944, when a third of the town was destroyed and sixty-six people were killed. She was part of a small team that prepared the bodies for their funerals, comforted the families of the bereaved and housed the homeless driven by her incredible compassion for her community. She received a commendation from the Allied Expeditionary Forces after the war for her courage and help in aiding the escape of soldiers, sailors and airmen from the enemy. She was known for her unswerving and tireless work ethic. She was a keen cyclist, pedalling all over the region to inspect her vineyards and keep up with her devoted grape growers. Mme Lily was a local hero, major brand ambassador and she set the scene for the image of today’s Bollinger over seventy years ago. During this time she acquired new vineyards in Aÿ, Mutigny, Grauves and Bisseuil, strengthening Bolly’s supply of top class grapes and this reliability and excellence resulted in George VI giving her a fifth Royal Warrant in 1950, and Queen Elisabeth II also awarding a sixth in 1955. In 1956 a certain James Bond drank Bollinger for the first time in Ian Fleming’s novel Diamonds are Forever. This sparkling moment kick-started a long and enviable relationship with 007, which still continues to this day when Daniel Craig uncorked some 1990 Bollinger Grande Année in Casino Royale! In 1961 Lily created the concept of R.D. (Recently Disgorged) Champagne. This was an aged, vintage wine that was kept in the cellars until it’s later than usual release, meaning that the collector could enjoy perfectly mature Champagne which had been mellowed in the very cellar in which it was made. She also launched La Grande Année Rosé, too – a ground-breaking manoeuvre, because it was the first time that the House had released a vintage rosé Champagne. She was linked to many innovations that aimed to perfect the process of winemaking and raise the quality of grape growing. Her insistence on using a rudimentary ‘sorting table’ to eliminate unripe or rotten grapes after the harvest was pioneering. This attention to detail ensured that her wines were made from the very finest raw materials. These days they are commonplace, but fifty years ago they were unheard of.
In 1968 she was invited to London to preside over the Wine & Spirit Benevolent Society’s annual dinner – an all male preserve. Her speech as applauded by 1100 members and she was given a standing ovation. Her pioneering reputation was cemented forever.
In 1969 Lily created Bollinger’s Vieilles Vignes Françaises, coming from two very small, unique plots of vineyards attached to the family house in Aÿ. This is, without question the most sought after Champagne of all – the super-rare 1996 is around £800 a bottle! In 1971 Lily finally retired at the age of 72 and yet she still managed to create a new name for their vintage release in 1976 – Grande Année. It was also in this year that she was awarded the Chevalier of the National Order of Merit. Lily died, aged 77, in 1977 and the wine world mourned.
Over the last three decades, since her passing, the James Bond link has continued uninterrupted with 007 moving neatly from Bollinger’s iconic R.D. to La Grande Année whenever he is in need of first class refreshment. Everyone was alerted to Bollinger’s nickname ‘Bolly’ when it became Joanna Lumley’s Champagne of choice while she was playing Patsy in the divine sitcom Absolutely Fabulous. It also resides on every single first class wine list in the world. If you ever have the chance to visit Champagne, make your way to the village of Aÿ and drive behind the Bollinger House to the incredible Côte des Enfants vineyard, which forms the backbone of the red wines that are used to colour the incredible rosés at Bollinger. Stand on top of this legendary hill, overlooking Aÿ and the Côtes des Blancs in the distance. You will sense what Jacques Bollinger and Madame Lily felt when they stood on this exact same piece of land and realised that they would do the best that they possibly could to honour these vineyards and create their unforgettable style of wine for the benefit of all of us wine lovers. We are all very grateful for their passion and vision and I am humbled that Lily created such an amazing legacy in the face of such incredible challenges.
Bollinger is a very small house and so it is not open to the public for normal visits, however there are typically two trips per year with Arblaster & Clarke when the doors of the house are open to champagne lovers.