By: Gary Westby | K&L Champagne Buyer
Earlier this month, Antoine Rolland-Billecart hosted my father and me at Champagne Billecart-Salmon in Mareuil-sur-Ay. This house rightly has one of the most famous names in all of Champagne, but produces relatively little in terms of quantity- about 2 million bottles a year. The family has been in the business a very long time, and will celebrate their 200th year in 2018. We started our tour with a walk in his Clos St. Hilaire, featured in today's video.
Of the 750 acres that Billecart-Salmon works with its 30 vineyard workers, only 25 acres are owned by them. They rent 300 acres and contract the rest of their supply, making them very much a traditional negociant. Of that land, over 42 acres are dedicated to growing Pinot Noir for red wine for their rose. These vines average over 50 years old and are located in the grand cru villages of Ay and Ambonnay as well as in Billecart’s own premier cru village, Mareuil-sur-Ay. In these special vineyards they prune extra short and even employ green harvesting to get the concentration needed to make the most famous rose Champagne in the world. For the rest of the vines, they are most concerned with picking at the right acid level, and look for a very high total acidity of 10 grams per liter at harvest.
This high acidity is something that they seek to preserve in the wines, and fresh clean flavors are the focus of the house style at Billecart-Salmon. Antoine Roland-Billecart's grandfather was a brewer, and in 1950 they were the first house to utilize cold stabilization to clarify the must before fermentation. The alcoholic fermentation is done at a very cold temperature here- so cold that they have developed their own selected yeast strains that can operate in an environment that never goes above 57 degrees Fahrenheit. This primary fermentation is very slow- three weeks- creating less than half a degree of alcohol per day!
They do not have a specific policy on malolactic fermentation at Billecart, and have the cellar split into three separate zones so they can choose to allow certain lots to go through the process and block others. I was surprised to learn that Billecart-Salmon is now the fourth biggest house for the use of wood, behind Bollinger, Krug and Alfred Gratien. Only 3% of their production is done in barrel, and you can see the lots in the picture below. This goes to show that Champagne is still primarily a tank appellation!
The most famous wine from this great house is the Billecart-Salmon Brut Rosé Champagne ($74.99). It has earned its reputation as the benchmark for all rose Champagne with its ethereal elegance, purity and lightness.
My personal favorite is the 2000 Billecart-Salmon "Cuvée Nicolas-François- NFB" Champagne ($89.99) which is less than 3% of their total production. This is classy, understated Champagne with just the right amount of nutty, bready richness to balance out its bright fruit. The bead and texture is near perfect- if you feel like a treat you will not be disappointed by the NFB!
A toast to you!