The secrets of Champagne Billecart-Salmon
Billecart-Salmon is in Mareuil-sur-Aÿ in the Montagne de Reims, in the heart of the Champagne region. They make excellent Champagnes down on the rue Carnot and are most famous in the UK for their Rosé.
As their labels proudly state, the House dates back to 1818, created by Nicolas-François Billecart. It’s still family-owned, one of the few prestige Champagne houses to remain so. Now the sixth generation, François and Antoine Roland-Billecart, are in charge.
The goal of the House style is finesse and balance, determined by chief winemaker François Domi these last 30 years.
The Billecart-Salmon method
Rigorous quality is at every stage in the already lengthy and costly Champagne process, and that begins in the vineyard. You can’t make great wine from inferior grapes!
Billecart owns 30 hectares of vineyards, including the fantastic Le Clos Saint Hilaire (of which more later). It also sources a further 140 hectares of grapes from 35 different sites. All of those are Grand Cru or Premier Cru quality. Pinot Noir comes from the Montagne de Reims; Chardonnay is from the Côtes des Blancs and the Pinot Meunier from the Marne Valley.
As with all Champagne grapes, harvesting is by hand. There is a selection of the grapes and destemming before pressing, to ensure no inferior juice enters the process. Crucially, at pressing, only the first pressing wine is used, which is the best. In other words, the first 2,050 litres. The second pressing, a further 500 litres, is never used in any of Billecart-Salmon’s Champagnes and is sold off.
The juice undergoes slow fermentation over an extended period of 3-4 weeks. It helps retain aromatics and freshness. The resultant still wines (the vin clairs) usually go through the malolactic fermentation, which softens their acidity.
The blending, or assemblage, is then undertaken. For the non-vintage styles, a high percentage of reserve wines from previous years add finesse to the blend. These wines are kept on their lees to pick up extra finesse and complexity until used. The minimum ageing time under the law for an NV is 15 months, but Billecart-Salmon age theirs for 36 months. The vintages wines age for considerably longer.
But what of the wines themselves? I had the great privilege of tasting most of the range at Billecart-Salmon with viticulturist Denis Blée and Claudia Meigneux. An excellent opportunity to taste and learn! The Billecart-Salmon range divides into the non-vintage “Collection” and the vintage-dated “Milliésme”.
Brut Réserve NV
A blend of all three Champagne grapes. It’s usually 40% Pinot Meunier, 30% Pinot Noir and 20% Chardonnay. Fermented for three weeks at 13°C. Made from the current vintage plus reserve wines from the previous two years. 36 months on the lees and a dosage of 10 g/l. A soft mousse with long slow beading and tiny
A soft mousse with long slow beading and tiny persistent bubbles. Initially, very fresh before roundness and richness appear. Long and vinous, some brioche autolysis from the lees ageing. Nothing aggressive. If you’re used to aggressive NV’s, this is a shock. Drinking now and at any time in the next ten years, will develop.
A demi-sec version is also available, gently sweet, made in the same manner except for a higher dosage. By the same means, an Extra-Brut version has no dosage, which tastes more biscuity, with hints of quince.
Brut NV Sous Bois
Sous Bois is a relatively recent addition to the range, launched in 2010. It’s a little different in style because the base wines are vinified and matured in oak. It’s a darker yellow colour. There is a buttery texture, and the fruit has moved towards citrus. You don’t taste any wood directly, but you do get caramel notes, a little smoke and a grilled nut finish. A food wine, definitely delicious. Still definitely Billecart-Salmon too.
Stockists include Z&B Vintners, £51.95
Blanc de Blancs Grand Cru NV
100% Grand Cru Chardonnay, from 5 villages on the Côte de Blancs, namely Oger, Mesnil-sur-Oger, Avize, Cramant and Chouilly. 4 weeks fermentation at 8°C. A blend of the current and previous years, with 36 months on the lees and dosage of 10 g/l.
That classic green tint gives this wine away as a Blanc de Blancs. The nose features white fruits and hazelnuts. It tastes bone dry, with a creamy opulence, delicacy and mineral nerve. Finally, a slight almond finish. Plenty of development over the next ten years possible. Food-wise, it just has to be Oysters!
Stockists include Harrogate Fine Wine Company, £61.99
Brut Rosé NV
Probably the best-known Billecart-Salmon wine. A blended rosé rather than one using the saignée (skin contact) method. The white wine is a blend of Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay similar to the Brut Reservé. 8-10% Coteaux Champenois red wine is then blended in.
The colour is truly the essence of rosé, adorable. A pale salmon with hints of glinting copper, the best description is Oeil de Perdrix (Partridge Eye). Wafting scents of red berry fruit and jasmine. It offers a creamy texture, finishing fine and chalky-fresh with an aftertaste of nuts. Uplifting and romantic, a fabulous rosé and one of the highlights of a recent Rosé Champagne tasting. Drink as an apéritif or charcuterie, or try with Sushi or Sashimi.
Stockists include Uncorked, £59.99.
The Vintage Cuvées – Millésime
A blend only of 75% Pinot Noir and 25% Chardonnay, with 10% vinified in barrel. All about orchard fruits and nuts, mixed in with marzipan. Ten years on the lees, so far more vinous and leesy, brioche and bakery! Long chalky finish. Only 4 g/l, so a high acid Extra Brut style. 2007 is the current release. It takes time to open up in the glass and is a food wine. I imagine this is capable of developing in bottle for decades yet.
Stockists include Uncorked, £59.99.
Cuvée Nicolas – François Billecart Vintage 2002
Named after the founder, first made in 1964, from 60% Pinot Noir and 40% Chardonnay. Grapes sourced only from Grand Cru vineyards. 25% of the wine ferments in old barrels. Left on the lees for around eight years before release. 5-6 g/l dosage.
A light brassy gold. The nose of white fruits, specifically, Denis advised the flower of Mirabelle, a small yellow French plum. Vinous flavours, dried fruits, toasted brioche, caramel and a soft buttery note before a nutty persistence. Truly beautiful. Don’t serve this too cold!
Stockists include Z&B Vintners, £119.95
Cuvée Elizabeth Salmon Rosé Vintage 2006
Named after the wife of the founder and first created in 1988. 50% Pinot Noir and 50% Chardonnay, all grapes sourced from Grand Cru vineyards. Then a little Coteaux Champenois from Mareuil-sur-Aÿ is blended in.
Copper coloured, bolder and deeper than the NV. Nutty, almond-like nose with roses and delicate red berry fruit. Pillowed mousse, steady beading. The palate has nuances of strawberry, griotte and raspberry. Mandarin oranges? It pulls off the trick of power and delicacy, such finesse! Very long. One of the great rosé Champagnes, and a step up from the NV! Decadent.
Stockists include Champagne Direct, £150.00
Blanc de Blancs Brut Vintage 2004
Pure Grand Cru Chardonnay from the villages of Chouilly, Avize and Mesnil-sur-Oger. 33% vinified in old oak barrels. Pale bright gold, tiny bubble stream with complete beading around the rim of the glass, a joy to watch. Power and vivacity! White flowers again, yes it’s Mirabelle, plus grapefruit notes and lemon zest. The palate is all grace and a delicate complexity featuring chalky minerality, superbly textured, even ethereal—finally, a very long hazelnut finish. I could cry. An emotional moment and a great culmination to the Milliésme range.
Stockists: Berry Brothers & Rudd, £130.00
But wait! There’s one final wine, a Cuvée Prestige.
Le Clos Saint-Hilaire Blanc de Noirs Vintage 1999
Le Clos Saint-Hilaire is a walled vineyard of about one hectare. It’s adjacent to the Billecart-Salmon winery, named after the patron saint of Mareuil-sur-Aÿ. Planted in 1964 only with Pinot Noir, it produces this cuvée only in the very best years; the remainder goes into the Elizabeth Salmon rosé. All the wine ferments in old wooden barrels, with no dosage. Made in tiny quantities, averaging around 4,000 bottles per vintage. The dark brown bottles are each numbered for traceability.
A mid-gold colour, tiny bubbles glinting, steady, perfect bubble streams. Incredibly fresh and youthful, the nose is a lasting memory of fleeting bonfire smokiness, raspberry leaf and rising dough. The first impression is of penetrating acidity before a honeyed texture takes over. Then a chalky minerality and finally cashew nuts. Very firm and tight, with a massive nervy, edgy structure, this wine has the capability of ageing for decades. Extraordinary, a different kind of tension.
Stockist: Champagne Direct, £335.00
40 Rue Carnot
A visit to Billecart-Salmon is highly recommended. From there, walk down the road to try Philipponnat!