The holidays are approaching fast and our thoughts naturally turn to sparkling wine and Champagne. Here at MTW, we’ve been thinking ahead and are ready — with one of the world’s best Champagnes!
Billecart-Salmon has been highly regarded since its earliest inception. But the house achieved megastar status in 1999, at one of the most prestigious tastings of all time — “Champagne of the Millennium.”
As you’d expect, entries included cuvées from such esteemed houses as Dom Pérignon, Krug, Taittinger, Pol Roger and Louis Roederer. François Roland-Billecart was invited to enter the competition, but initially declined. Then, at the last minute, he changed his mind and entered both his 1959 and 1961 vintages. The bottles even had hand-written labels since they were such last-minute entries.
When winners were announced, the Billecart-Salmon 1959 was chosen as the “Champagne of the Millennium” and the 1961 vintage was second. Roland-Billecart’s last-minute decision was fortuitous to say the least!
This year, the revered Champagne house is celebrating its 200th anniversary. The estate was originally founded by Nicolas François Billecart and Elisabeth Salmon who, in 1818 had just married. Louis Salmon, Elizabeth’s brother, served as the first oenologist and the three set up operations in Mareuil-sur-Aÿ, a small village near Épernay. Seven generations later, François and Antoine Roland-Billecart, with the support of their father Jean Roland-Billecart, still head the House. Mathieu Roland-Billecart will soon take over as President.
Billecart-Salmon is particularly known for its Brut Rosé, which the family famously describes as: “A Champagne Rosé and not a Rosé Champagne.” The blend is generally 30% Pinot Meunier with almost 50% Chardonnay and the balance Pinot Noir. Most Rosé blends don’t include such a large percentage of Chardonnay. Billecart-Salmon is intentionally different and the house cuvée has a devoted following, worldwide.
Fruit for the various Champagnes is rigorously selected from vineyards totaling just over 300 hectares around Épernay, as well as Montagne de Reims, Côte des Blancs and the Vallée de la Marne. Billecart-Salmon and its shareholders own 100 hectares of these vineyards; the other 200 are under contract.
Adjacent to the estate itself is a prized property called Clos Saint-Hilaire, a vineyard consisting of one-hectare of Pinot Noir. Maintained biodynamically, the small vineyard is the source of the house’s rarest cuvée. The wine is vinified entirely in oak barrels, receives no dosage and has only been produced from four vintages to date: 1995, 1996 and 1998, with an average production of 3,000 bottles. The 1999 vintage has just been released.
Other significant vintage offerings include Cuvée Nicolas François, Brut 2002 and 2006. Created in 1964 as a tribute to the House founder, this blend includes Grands Crus from the classified Côte des Blancs vineyards (Chardonnay) and the Montagne de Reims (Pinot Noir). Cuvée Louis, Blanc de Blancs 2006, originates from the best parcels of the Côte des Blancs.
Recently we had the opportunity to speak with Clément Calleja, Billecart-Salmon’s Regional Manager for the U.S.
What separates Billecart-Salmon from the other houses?
The primary difference is that we are a family-owned house. And not only have we been owned and operated by the same family for 200 years, we are the oldest continuously-owned Champagne house in the region. Remarkable in Champagne!
In fact, the family has lived at the Maison since the 16th century and they continue to live there today. Now other family members have built homes nearby, and they connect through the cellars.
So, this family ownership is the essence of Billecart. Family is at the helm of everything. There is no corporation or board of directors. The Billecarts are completely independent, as they always have been, to do what they want — and the wine is all that matters. They are absolutely committed to quality. They never take shortcuts or do anything to compromise their products.
Twice a week at 11:00 a.m. sharp, the tasting team meets. This group includes eight people, five members of the family, representing three generations, as well as the cellar master and vineyard director. These weekly meetings have been going on for decades and, as a result, very precise records have been maintained. This practice allows for a smooth transition each season and for general operations. For example, we will have a new cellar master this year and the ability for him to see how things have been managed for years and years, is invaluable.
How would you describe the house style?
Billecart is known to be a Champagne for chefs and gastronomy. The combination of freshness, finesse and elegance makes our wines very compatible with food. Our Champagnes are not about high-dosage, but balance with low sugar. We offer fruit and freshness, not oxidation.
Our Extra Brut was actually developed because of a request from Guy Savoy, the famous chef. He is a close friend of the family and in early 2000, he was developing a lighter menu for his restaurant in Paris. He especially wanted to add more dishes with seafood and needed drier and lighter wines to compliment the dishes. Our Extra Brut has zero-dosage and only one-gram of residual sugar. This Champagne is also aged longer than the reserve. The extra-aging provides texture and body to make up for the lack of sugar.
I should also mention that one-third of every harvest is kept in reserve. We’re fortunate to have a deep reserve library. This allows the winemaker to produce a very consistent reserve Champagne annually, with at least three or four different vintages to include.
What do you think is the appeal of the Billecart-Salmon Rosé, compared to other Rosés?
Like many Champagne houses, our Brut NV represents most of our production, but our Rosé has a very important place. It is a top-seller in the U.S. and part of the House DNA. Bottles of Rosé from the late 1800’s have been discovered in our cellars. So, Rosé has a long tradition at Billecart and we were among the pioneers wo believed in this category.
Of course, the style is very unique. It’s the result of blending top-level red wine (made from old Pinot Noir vines) into the white wine blend to build finish and balance. This isn’t the typical Rosé made from contact with skins. Our process avoids tannins and maximizes finesse and lightness. It is the result of a long process in refining and is very unique. Many people say that our Rosé doesn’t taste like a Rosé. But that’s because our cuvée is 50% Chardonnay. Again, much more Chardonnay than is typical in a Rosé.
As you mentioned, Billecart is known for its freshness and elegance. How is that achieved?
We usecold press and cold fermentation. Billecart-Salmon was a pioneer in this process. The must is chilled down to 40 degrees Fahrenheit. The cold settles the lees. This is a much gentler means of handling the must and fruit. Alcoholic fermentation is low, beginning at 40 then 50 to 55 degrees. The entire process is slow and delicate. The end result provides more finesse.
Filtration is done through débourbage à froid. This in essence, is a clarification of the must. Again, a gentle way to separate must and residues from the clarified juice.
Also, most of our NV cuvées have a high amount of Pinot Meunier, from 40 to 45%. The Pinot Meunier is really expressive, provides fruitiness and adds to the overall elegance. The location of the House in Mareuil-sur-Aÿ at the eastern tip of the Vallée de la Marne is a strategic area, as it is at the corner angle of all three sub-regions, near the top Grands Crus of Montagne de Reims and Côte des Blancs. The grapes we use are harvested within 15 miles from the winery.
What size winery is Billecart-Salmon and where exactly are your vineyards?
I would describe us as a Super Grower. We have a grower mentality even though we are a negociant. We have the ability to vinify all parcels separately, in small tanks, while having access to an amazing complexity of different terroirs. Billecart-Salmon produces just under two-million bottles a year. We’re a medium-size producer.
The actual production is drawn from vineyards the family owns in Aÿ and Côte des Blancs, the remaining from contracts and fruit purchased from growers. The Pinot Noir used in the blend for the Rosé comes from the same parcels between Mareuil and Bouzy. These are old vines that make for an outstanding cuvée. Also, we just bought several hectares in Avize and Mesnil. Again, the family is always on the lookout for the best grapes.
Your Clos Saint-Hilaire uses some organic techniques. What about the growers you use? Are you able to control the conditions they use to farm?
Our growers don’t use any chemicals and they are very respectful of the terroir. Organic viticulture accounts for 2% of the vineyards in Champagne. Our Clos Saint-Hillaire does follow biodynamic and organic practices, but the Champagne climate in general, is not favorable to large scale organic practices. However, Billecart-Salmon has been very conscientious of the environment for many years and has adopted sustainable approaches in the vine growing. Most of our products are of organic origin and are certified. We have been implementing more and more handwork of the soil and grass-growing in between the vines to improve the impact. The House recently received the “sustainable viticulture certification.”
There are very strict guidelines that the farmers on contract follow. But more importantly, we have had long term relationships with these growers. They know our expectations and work to maintain them. That’s the key.
We have a very luxurious supply of fruit — over 300 hectares. And, one of the major advantages a negociant has is the ability to pick and choose the production.
How was the 2018 growing season?
This last harvest was one of the best in a long time. Growing conditions were very good throughout the region. It was very hot this summer, consequently, this was one of the earliest harvests in many years. But the grapes were very healthy and still had a lot of good acidity. It was also one of the largest harvests in awhile, so our winemaker could be very selective.
Do you personally prefer a vintage Champagne or a Cuvée Blend?
We make eleven different cuvées. In terms of vintages, we’re lucky to have wine with the most potential on the market. I really enjoy the Extra Brut. But, I would love to drink Nicolas-François every day if I could. It’s great to see the way a 15-year old wine behaves.
Where is your customer base and where do you sell the most Champagne?
The U.S. is our top export market, while France is our largest market over all. The UK is also important for us, as are Japan and Australia. We want to follow our clients wherever they go. If they have a Michelin-Star restaurant in Saint-Bart or Hong Kong we want to be available. By the same token, we are careful where we sell.
Comment on the cost of your Champagnes?
Our entry level brut is $49 — a price that is in line with other Brut NV. We feel that it’s actually a great value, given the focus on quality, premium supply of grapes and long-ageing of this wine. Unlike other Champagne houses, we don’t use advertising, but rely primarily on word-of-mouth. Consequently, we don’t need to include those extra costs in our price. In the end, again, we feel it’s a very honest price.
The Rosé, on the other hand, is a premium Rosé, very much on a par with Bollinger, Ruinart or Laurent-Perrier for example, but slightly higher priced than the Veuve Clicquot. And our Rosé will be a bit more expensive than grower Champagnes.
Champagnes pair well with most food, but what Champagne specifically would you pair with seafood?
Both our Blanc de Blancs or Extra Brut are beautiful with seafood. I love either with scallops, oysters or caviar. The combination of briny salt and minerality explodes on the palate. With seafood risotto, these Champagnes are also very clean and focused.
With a steak – Nicolas François is perfect. It’s a powerful wine with lots of acidity, wonderful with a juicy ribeye. The Brut Sous Bois would also be a good choice because of its acidity. Additionally, this cuvée pairs well with roast chicken or spicy dishes.
With a chocolate dessert?
I don’t recommend Champagne with chocolate. It’s a bitter combination. But I would say that the Brut Rosé is very versatile. That’s what makes it interesting. It’s light and delicate so goes perfectly with many different dishes. You can drink it simply as an apéritif. Or with starter courses, such as a tuna tartare, salmon sashimi, carpaccio, or maybe a fine Spanish ham.
The Rosé offers so many options for a main course as well, whether you’re serving meat, veal or chicken. I love it with lobster. And, of course, any kind of dessert with berries or citrus goes well with Rosé.
Our interview with Clément ended here…. After listening to his mouthwatering descriptions of food and Champagne pairings, we had to stop talking, open a bottle of Billecart and sauté a few scallops and shrimp…..
Brut Réserve NV. WE-91. $44.99
Brut Rosé NV. WS-93. $69.99
2007 Extra Brut. JS-97. $72.99
2006 Brut Blanc de Blancs. JS-95. $139.99
2006 Cuvée Nicolas François. JS-96. $139.99
Billecart-Salmon Champagnes in Magnums
Brut Réserve NV. WE-91. $99.99
Extra Brut NV. $129.99
Blanc de Blancs Grand Cru NV. $132.99
2002 Cuvée Nicolas Francois. JS 98. $344.99.
Other Premium Champagnes
J.M. Labruyère Prologue Grand Cru. $43.99
J.M. Labruyère Page Blanche Blanc de Blancs Grand Cru. $77.99.
J.M. Labruyère Anthologie Grand Cru Brut Rosé. $54.99
Gosset Brut Reserve NV. $44.99
Gosset Brut Reserve NV in Magnum. $94.99
2004 Gosset Celebris Tête de Cuvée. $124.99
Ayala Brut Majeur NV. $44.99
2005 Ayala Perle Tête de Cuvée. $138.99
Other Sparkling Wines
2014 Schramsberg Blanc de Noirs. $29.99
2015 Schramsberg Blanc de Blancs. $29.99
NV Pierre Sparr Crémant Brut. $15.99
NV Pierre Sparr Crémant Brut Rosé. $15.99
You’ll notice that our pricing is exceptional! To order, write [email protected] or call 850-687-1370.