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Exploring Champagne at Billecart-Salmon, Mareuil-sur-Aÿ.
On a windswept, vine-covered hillside, looking out over the Champagne region, Mathieu Roland-Billecart, 7th Generation of the house of Billecart-Salmon Champagne surveys his land.
‘This area, where we are standing is part of the Montagne de Reims, it’s the Bond Street of Pinot Noir for the Champagne Appellation – and over there, the Côte des Blancs is the King’s Road of Chardonnay’
For a born and bred Londoner, it makes absolute sense. We are right in the heart of the appellation, where just like London’s premium property districts, tiny pockets of land are worth millions for their ‘terroir’. The rows of vines have been passed down through generations, often split up so that rather than owning fields, the Champagne Houses and growers own single lines of vines, sometimes, but not always, marked out with stones. As Mathieu explains the blends of wines used to make up each Champagne are for the most part top secret and they don’t want to give away too many secrets by letting the world know where their vines are. There are a few exceptions, one of which I learnt more about and will cover later.
Back to Billecart-Salmon, the purpose of this visit is to learn more about one of the few remaining family-owned Champagne Houses, about what makes Billecart-Salmon special and what is coming next. Founded in 1818, when Nicolas François Billecart married Elisabeth Salmon, the house celebrated its 200 year anniversary last year in 2018.
We learnt from Mathieu, who took over as CEO at the start of 2019, that the house owns around 100 hectares of its own vines which produce around a third of the grapes needed for production. The rest are bought on a negotiant basis, though often through long term relationships with the growers, so that in total they have access to around 40 crus in the Champagne region. From that, they produce around two million bottles of champagne a year, ageing even their Brut Reserve NV for a minimum of three years, well over the appellation regulation of 15 months of ageing. Non-vintage champagnes use around 50% reserve wines from the previous three to four years too in order to maintain a consistent house style.
All the champagnes are made from first press using a cold fermentation method that was first trialled by Jean Roland-Billecart, the fifth generation of the family, in the late 1950s. The inspiration for that was from the beer production used by his father in law and brother. It was an experiment that worked, but like many of the techniques used at Billecart-Salmon, takes time – with the gentle fermentation at 12-13 degrees taking up to six weeks. It helps to create a wine which is fresh, fine and elegant and to keep the characteristics of each plot. The wine is then aged in small stainless steel tanks, one per parcel so that there’s very little early blending. When it comes to blending, there’s currently a team of 6 who work with the still wines. Three are family members, the others are technical specialists, the oenologist, cellar master and the previous cellar master. Only when there’s an agreement from everyone can they proceed with blending and second fermentation.
If cold fermentation was the inspiration of the fifth generation, Mathieu’s predecessor François was the driving force behind the stunning vat room and a move toward oak ageing. We learnt that the purpose of the ageing was micro-oxidisation – a kind of toasty note.
To accommodate that process, the new vat room was built from scratch, lined with 8,000-litre oak casks with a stunning Linden wood ceiling and a special marble and concrete blend floor that has been designed to ensure the barrel ageing process is kept as pure as possible. With 400 oak barrels, Billecart-Salmon is the fourth biggest barrel user in Champagne, although the wine is never kept for more than 6 months in barrel.
Billecart-Salmon is gastronomy champagne, perfect for food pairing and a highlight of our visit was trying some of the champagnes with dishes prepared by Benjamin Gilles. I find it much easier to understand wines when there’s a complementary dish. That said, my first glass, on the Eurostar, was just the subject of some champagne envy from the chap sitting across the table from me. Despite the fact that he was on his way to Moët et Chandon…
Once we reached Paris we made our way to Sinner Hotel for lunch. A new boutique hotel in Paris, it wasn’t just the champagne at lunchtime which made us all want to stay.
It’s a quirky place complete with confessionals in the bedrooms, stunning decor and costumed staff.
The food was actually delicious and after a whole selection of sharing dishes to start, I went on to enjoy a platter of griddled prawns with a glass or two of Billecart-Salmon Extra Brut NV
I was genuinely trying to eat a light lunch, with the knowledge that we had a tasting dinner that evening once we reached Billecart-Salmon.
A short train journey to Reims and a taxi transfer to Mareuil-sur-Aÿ and we were there. The Maison Billecart-Salmon is in the heart of the tiny village, surrounded by various buildings which are connected with the Champagne House. Within half an hour we were whisked to the top of the hill, to look out over the vineyards of Billecart-Salmon before sunset. Even after harvest, there were grapes on the vines. Immaculate rows of golden leaved vines snaked down the hill to the village. We chatted about how the Champagne House was evolving. They are buying more land, looking for plots that will accommodate climate change. Experimenting with a few new grape types for the same reason. But otherwise, this is very much a traditional business, where the grapes are harvested by hand, the land is managed without chemicals, ploughed with horses and generally farmed in much the same way as it has been for 200 years. Billecart-Salmon has long relationships with the farmers who supply the grapes from vineyards they don’t own themselves. They install presses across their own and their negotiant businesses to ensure that once harvested the grapes can be pressed as quickly as possible. And, they’ve evolved their own very high processing standards. The end product, across the range, is premium. This is very much wine-drinkers’ champagne.
That became evident when we met later that evening for dinner. I’d been asking what Mathieu thought of a trend I’ve noticed to lower dosage or even zero dosage champagnes, so we started the evening with Billecart-Salmon’s own version of skinny champagne. Billecart-Salmon extra brut NV is a blend of 30% each of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay with 40% Pinot Meunier. The zero dosage makes for a dry biscuity mouthful after 40 months ageing on lees. It’s actually a really good aperitif wine too.
Our five-course dinner came with more than five champagnes to try though – a real demonstration of Billecart-Salmon as a gastronomic wine.
Tiny cubes of cured salmon with celeriac were paired with Billecart-Salmon Cuvée Louis Blanc de Blanc. If the food was delicate, the accompanying wine was even more so. Ten years aged on lees made for a soft creamy mouthful while the 100% Chardonnay blend came entirely from Grand Cru vineyards in the Côte des Blancs. A special occasion wine, I’d have happily enjoyed this as an aperitif too.
Our nut stuffed chicken breast served on a kind of polenta with little morsels of popcorn and haricot beans was paired with Matthieu’s own choice of Billecart-Salmon Nicholas François 1988 which is a heritage bottle that you won’t find in the shops.
I’ve only tasted aged vintage champagne once before, a vintage Krug that was some 30 years old at the time on New Year’s Eve around 20 years ago…and without seeing the bottle, I could tell this was similar fine champagne that had benefitted from careful ageing. The colour was darker, the mousse finer than anything else we tried that evening. A lovely pairing with the chicken.
Brut Sous Bois seemed like a natural accompaniment to the nutty Comté with a Mirabelle confit. Made from a third each of the three main Champagne grapes, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, this is easy champagne which I think would pair well with food – it’s fermented in small oak barrels and aged for six to seven years. It has a lovely nutty, brioche taste and if I was looking for champagne to serve with turkey at Christmas, this would be my choice (it will cost you £60 to £70 a bottle)
My absolute favourite champagne of the evening though was not the 1988 vintage but the Cuvée Elizabeth Salmon 2007, which is a 50% Pinot Noir and 50% Chardonnay blend using Grand Cru and Premier Cru wines. It’s a low dosage for a rosé and some Pinot Noir is pressed and blended as a red wine to create the rosé. It has lovely rich autumnal notes and paired beautifully with our dessert of figs, raspberries, buckwheat sablé biscuit and timut peppered cream.
We finished the evening by tasting Billecart-Salmon Clos St-Hilaire 2002, champagne from a single parcel of vines that were planted in 1964. Aged on lees for 15 years and with zero dosage, this was a fine and delicate end to the meal.
A tour of the estate with Jérôme Lafouge the next morning took us to Clos St-Hilaire the single plot of land (0.96 hectares) which is used to produce Clos St-Hilaire. The idea of a Clos is historic – originally it was a single plot of land which was enclosed on at least three sides, although that regulation no longer applies. This particular Clos was the family’s vegetable garden, orchard and tennis courts, a space planted by François Roland-Billecart’s grandmother.
The vines are now 55 years old, older than many champagne vines and they are cultivated using the cordon royat method to produce fewer bunches of grapes but in conditions which will ensure the best concentration and maturity. Jérôme pointed out how close we were to the press – another characteristic of the care which goes into making Billecart-Salmon.
It’s also managed on an informal biodynamic programme. Like all Billecart-Salmon vineyards, it is only fertilized with organic matter, but, at Clos St Hilaire, the ploughing is done by horses, following lunar cycles and the plot is cultivated by sheep, brought in to eat the leaves and grass and help fertilize the soil.
In total it takes 1.5 kilos of grapes to produce one bottle of Billecart-Salmon champagne. Billecart-Salmon loses the first 10% of the first pressing, then takes the remaining juice, the cuvée for its own champagne. Second and third pressings, the taille and 2nd taille, are sold.
Jérôme also took us around the cellars, which he described as modern, although this is very much a relative term.
It was fascinating to see the new Vat room which was finished on 27th May 2018 – just in time for the 200-year anniversary celebrations. And, we peeked in at the nursery, to see the specially aged wines which are used as the base for the liqueur de dosage, at Jérôme said, the ‘seasoning’ for the wine which is added after disgorgement.
We went on to taste yet more wines – the Billecart-Salmon Vintage 2008 which is 65% Pinot Noir and just 35% Chardonnay, and a second vintage Nicolas François, 2006 which is 60% Pinot Noir and 40% Chardonnay. 20% of this wine is vinified in oak barrels and it was aged on lees for 10 years.
Pinot Meunier is not used in Billecart-Salmon vintage wines because the house believes it doesn’t age well. Instead, their meticulous production methods together with the unique fermentation method and a willingness not to hurry anything means their vintages are often released later than their competitors as they wait for perfect ageing. There’s a passion here which I suspect comes from the family heritage. It’s evident in the naming of vintage wines after the founders of the house, Nicholas François and Elizabeth.
Mathieu told us that when he first started to work for Billecart-Salmon, his cousin, then the CEO, pointed out to him that there was one thing which he should always remember.
‘See this – it’s your name on the bottle’.
That family pride ensures quality and attention to detail. And, hopefully, will continue to result in some very, very fine champagnes.
I was a guest of Billecart-Salmon
For more information on the house, please check their website
40 Rue Carnot,
We enjoyed lunch at
116 Rue du Temple,
We travelled to France with Eurostar
Billecart-Salmon is stocked in the UK by Selfridges, Harvey Nichols and Harrods and is available from leading Wine Retailers or from www.champagnedirect.co.uk