It does not cease to impress me when I arrive for a visit to a respected champagne house and I am greeted warmly and professionally…this was indeed the case (merci Jérôme) at Champagne Billecart-Salmon located in the Premier Cru village (rated 99%) of Mareuil-sur-Aÿ.
Champagne Billecart-Salmon celebrated their 200th anniversary last year in 2018 which marked the marriage of Nicolas François Billecart to Elisabeth Salmon and the foundation of the house. Champagne Billecart-Salmon holds 100 hectares within their estate and manages another 200 hectares across the champagne region. It is one of the remaining few champagne houses that is family-owned and the first house to create a logo. The house produces approximately 2 million bottles annually and is considered small to medium in size.
The visit started with a walk to the beautiful grounds of the house – the roses were in full bloom and I could imagine generations of family members welcoming friends and visitors with warm hospitality. The next stop was a very special vineyard plot called ‘Le Clos Saint-Hilaire’ – a one hectare plot of Pinot Noir vines. Here – no chemicals are used and machines are not permitted. Clover covers the rows between the vines, horses are used for ploughing and, after harvest, sheep graze on the remaining leaves until the end of December. It is from this unique plot that Champagne Billecart-Salmon crafts their ‘Le Clos Saint-Hilaire’ champagne. Production of this champagne is anywhere between 3,500 and 6,000 bottles – each numbered and the current release is the 2002 vintage.
The visit continued to the cuverie where juice from over 30 press rooms are collected into 450 separate stainless steel tanks separated by plot, village and variety. Champagne Billecart-Salmon’s NV Brut Réserve is held in a 1,800 hectolitre stainless steel tank which equals 240,000 bottles – it is a sight to see. To my knowledge, they are the only champagne house that does a double cold stabilization – the first at 8ºC and the second at 4ºC – nothing synthetic is added to the wine with this method and it keeps the juice as clean and pure as possible. They use cold temperatures for their alcoholic fermentation – between 12ºC and 13ºC. This gentle approach takes approximately six weeks to complete. This process was introduced by Jean Roland-Billecart in 1956 who found inspiration watching his uncle make beer.
Each year, the winemaking team of six people chooses to block or proceed with malolactic fermentation. In the NV Brut Réserve, between three and four different years are used in the blend and it counts for approximately 50% of the wine alongside the current year. Champagne Billecart-Salmon does not use any wines that are over four years of age for their non vintage champagnes.
Next was the barrel room or the ‘chais’ containing 400 second hand white Burgundy barrels – they have the 4th largest collection of barrels in the champagne region. The wines usually spend only up to six months in barrel. In 2012, Champagne Billecart-Salmon introduced their ‘Brut sous Bois’ champagne which is completely vinified in oak.
Champagne Billecart-Salmon Brut Rosé NV is the flagship wine of the house and sets an incredibly high standard that most champagne houses cannot attain. The still red wine, made entirely from Pinot Noir, is sourced from four villages – Bouzy, Ambonnay, Aÿ and Mareuil-sur-Aÿ. The vines range in age between 65 years to 85 years and produce beautifully concentrated juice.
The tour continued into the incredible ‘chai à foudres’ – one of the most beautiful rooms I’ve seen in Champagne. The ceramic tile walls are lined with 24 x 8,000 litre casks made by four independent coopers. The house is currently seasoning the barrels for five years before they will be put into use. The air in the room is always renewed and the water used to wash the casks is filtered beforehand. The floor is made up a marble and concrete blend. But, it is the ceiling that caught my attention – crafted from hand selected Linden trees – arranged in a wave-like pattern, the wood is said to purify the air.
For the cellar tour, I was asked to put on safety glasses as many bottles were actively fermenting – with six atmospheres of pressure in a bottle – I was all too happy to oblige. Champagne Billecart-Salmon’s cellars are considered ‘modern’ and the 2 KM of cellar area was built between the 17th and 19th centuries. I was also introduced to their ‘nursery’ where 72 wines are crafted to create their ‘liquor de dosage’.
Champagne Billecart-Salmon’s philosophy is to take things slowly – there is no rush to get a bottle of champagne to market – better to let it rest until it is the best bottle it can be. Champagne regulations state that for a wine to be champagne, it has to have at least 15 months of ageing before it is released. Here, the minimum aging for their Brut Réserve NV is three years but usually has four and a half years of aging before you can buy it.
Tasting Champagne Billecart-Salmon:
Champagne Billecart-Salmon Extra Brut NV – comprised of 40% Meunier, 30% Pinot Noir and 30% Chardonnay, there is no sugar added. It is aged a minimum of five to six years on lees and this is a champagne I could enjoy time and time again. Seriously – this champagne is bright and pure with a mineral-based salinity and flavours of white peach, white grapefruit, dried mandarin orange and a top floral note. Refreshing.
Champagne Billecart-Salmon Cuvée Nicolas François Brut Millésime 2006 – created in 1964 as an hommage to the founder of the house. This prestigious cuvée is beautifully crafted with 60% Pinot Noir and 40% Chardonnay from Grand Cru villages and is kept 11 years on lees. About 15% of the production is vinified in oak and delivers a rich, structured and finessed champagne. With only five grams of dosage, this champagne is incredibly layered – the first taste highlights flavours of fig, peach and acacia flower. I left if for a few minutes and the second taste delighted me even more with flavours of toffee, toasted cashew and dried apricot. Sumptuous.
Champagne Billecart-Salmon Cuvée Louis Salmon Brut Blanc de Blancs Millésime 2006 – crafted from the best plots in the Grand Cru villages of Cramant, Avize, Chouilly and Mesnil-sur-Oger, this champagne radiates elegance. It is creamy yet precise and overflowing with notes of lemon curd, fresh cream and grapefruit with a distinct mineral energy and a hint of toast. This delicious champagne has an enjoyable lengthy finish and is delicately balanced. Exquisite.
Champagne Billecart-Salmon Cuvée Elisabeth Brut Rosé Millésime 2007 – exceptionally made with a 50/50 blend of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, this captivating champagne had me at first sip. Cuvée Elisabeth was created in 1988 to honour the co-founder of the house – Elisabeth Salmon. It is as finessed as any Rosé champagne I have ever tasted and is brimming with flavours of nectarine, clementine, almond, peach and a wisp of cinnamon on the mid-palate. This exceptional cuvée has only 6 grams of dosage and has gone through partial malolactic fermentation. Finessed.