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February 28, 2010

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Quantum of class in Bolly

THE Frenchman from Bollinger says it's the most British Champagne on the market. It's been sipped for nearly 40 years by the spy film character James Bond and is served exclusively by the Queen of England at regal receptions under a royal warrant issued in 1888.

Affectionately known in the United Kingdom as "Bolly," the sophisticated drink first appeared under the Bollinger label in 1829 but its richly French heritage goes back through the aristocratic family of Hennequin de Villermont which has been producing wine in the Ay area of Champagne region since the 16th century.

Bollinger has been available in China since 1996 and there's suggested evidence of a trademark registration in Shanghai dating back to the 1930s. It's inconceivable that it wasn't a tipple of choice in the international settlements of Britain and France during the city's earlier glory days in the initial decades of last century.

French wine, predominantly red, dominates the import market into China for still wines but the "bubblies" are a different proposition in a country where there is no tradition of aperitif drinking before a meal.

Like other Champagne labels, and indeed most foreign wine producers, Bollinger is poised for the young imported wine drinking market in China to mature.

Bollinger's President Jerome Philipon said in Shanghai this month that in most parts of the world his product is more recognized as a fine wine than as a bubbly Champagne, a product advantage that might work in favor of its earlier adoption by a bigger group of well-heeled drinkers in China.

"We are always on the border of being known as a wine or as a Champagne and because of Bollinger's structure and its taste, it goes very well with food," he said, referring to the retention of traditional wine making methods that include extensive use of pinot noir grapes, barrel fermentation and extra-aging.

"Bollinger is not a wine that goes with big parties and big cocktail functions so we're competing with fine wines. Typically, the consumers who buy Bollinger are quality wine drinkers," Philipon said.

The company's focus in the market, with support from distributors ASC-Fine Wines, is its non-vintage Special Cuvee which is a classic Champagne blend in the distinctive Bollinger house style, creamy with a good aging capacity and soft rather than biting on the palate. Its average age is four years.

Bollinger also produces vintage Grand Annee (only when there's an exceptional harvest), RD (a more aged version of the Grand Annee) and Vieille Vignes Francaise (a prestige cuvee made in small quantities).

The 10-year-old Grande Annee served at lunch by Philipon was as fresh as the day despite a decade in the bottle and lively with good fruit taste. Its archetypal secondary aromas gave a nice brioche, croissant flavor.

"We spend half our time talking about Champagne and the rest talking about Bollinger," Philipon said in discussion about the multi-level initiation the Chinese market might require to adopt Champagne drinking.

"We need to get people to try Champagne and get them to associate it with 'celebration' as it is drunk in other markets. Our point of difference is the creaminess when drinking Bollinger. The bubbles are very fine due to the maturing process and the wine is very soft and more balanced," he said.

As for the James Bond connection, the Broccoli family (producers of the film series), wanted to associate themselves with a very British Champagne.

And the most British associated product was reckoned to be Bollinger because it was preferred by the Queen of England.

"The Britishness of Bollinger was thus guaranteed by this endorsement and the Broccolis thought it was an ideal match for the elegance of James Bond," Philipon said.

The Frenchman distinguishes his wine from other high-end Champagnes that are the "bubblies" of choice for Hooray Henry celebrations. Bollinger sells at a premium price and its deft quality makes it an ideal accompaniment for all courses of a meal, whether it be Chinese or Western.

It's so classy that even its cork-popping is "reserved" because the bubbles are so soft.

"Popping the cork is part of the Champagne tradition but at Bollinger we like to do it very nicely and gently," Philipon said.


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