It’s not always something scary. Sometimes, it’s just scary good.
A few years ago, Bollinger CEO Jérôme Philipon was chairing a routine meeting of his corporate management committee when someone brought up the business of a cache of some 600 old bottles found in one of the vast cellars of the 188-year-old Aÿ-based Champagne house.
“Initially, I didn’t believe it,” Philipon tells me, a look of astonishment still on his face. “You have to realize that when the Germans occupied France during World War II, many wineries in Champagne and elsewhere would seal off rare bottles behind fake walls. So there are always rumors about secret rooms and secret doors that turn out to be just that – rumors.”
Four years previously, Philipon had instituted a long-term project to restore and organize Bollinger’s cellars. As with every large Champagne house, Bollinger – perhaps best known for Madame Bollinger gifting the world in 1961 with a new-style bubbly, “R.D.” (Récemment Dégorgé or Recently Disgorged) – has millions of bottles either in the process of being made into wines or aging before release. Additionally, unlike most Champagne producers, Bollinger still stores its reserves the old-fashioned way – bottle them in magnums and then un-bottle them before they are blended for final release, which significantly adds to its bottle count.
One afternoon, this mundane but necessary chore suddenly took on all the excitement of a chase involving James Bond, who just happens to be Bollinger’s long-time brand ambassador extraordinaire. In one of the maison’s cellars, there was is this one door that had been blocked off for God-knows-how-long behind a stack of hundreds of empty bottles. For decades, no one wanted to address the thankless task of clearing them out and disposing of them. So it finally fell upon a lowly intern, working his way toward an enology degree, probably needing the euros, to move the bottles and open the door. Eh! Qu’est que…?
Management committee meetings are notoriously boring, so this tantalizing bit of news was all that was needed to cause Philipon and his staff to adjourn and head for the cellars. What they were shown was “about 600 bottles and magnums,” he says, “some with them with recognizable markings. We quickly realized that these were very old bottles.”
That was an understatement. What they discovered in the days that followed were wines dating back to 1830, the year after the company was founded and the second oldest existing bottles of Champagne known to be cellared in the region, Perrier-Jouët’s rare vintage 1828. The youngest of the 600 bottles was from 1921, constituting a heretofore unknown collection spanning 91 years.
Why the cache was selected and why it was stored where it was remains a mystery. “There was nothing in our archives about who did it or when,” Philipon says. “It was probably sometime between the [world] wars.”
“There were 54 bottles that had the code ‘CB14,’” he continues, which company research decoding as meaning they were of the 1830 vintage. “We saved 30 of those 54.” They are now properly re-stored in the new Bollinger library, a sparkling venue within the Bollinger complex that opened to much fanfare last summer.
Philipon is telling me this story as we taste wines – unfortunately none from the secret cache – while he was in New York earlier this winter preparing for Bollinger’s first North American auction. Conducted by Sotheby’s, it is to feature only wines never previously sold, but rather kept in pristine condition at the estate. The auction is appropriately titled, “A Century of Champagne Bollinger: Direct from the Cellars,” and consists of 47 lots.
Only one of the lots has a connection to the recently-discovered cache. That is Lot #40, which is a bundled trophy going far beyond just buying the bottle itself – a Vintage 1914 Bollinger. But, Philipon explains as we sip La Grande Année 2005, there is a catch. The winning bidder, along with three friends, has to go to Aÿ to uncork the prize.
Once in the Marne Valley, the bidder’s party will sample a few bottles of more-current Bollinger bubblies, selected for the occasion, before Philipon curates the uncorking of the vintage 1914 – hopefully not with a sabre. Hotel accommodations plus a Michelin two-star dinner at Le Parc les Crayières will be included. Although Bollinger doesn’t say so, this packaged arrangement ensures that the 1914 will actually be consumed by the buyer and not recirculated, unopened, for decades on the auction market.
The day after our conversation, Lot #40 is gaveled at $10,000.
One intriguing question is whether Bollinger has created a new class of Champagne, one for the auction market only, one of bubblies marked as a new R.D. – Récemment Découverte – Recently Discovered? No doubt, Bollinger’s lucrative cache has been the topic of discussion at management committee meetings across the dozens of famous maisons throughout Aÿ and Reims.
“Tell me,” more than one CEO must have asked his or her minions, “when was the last time we tidied up our cellars?”