Billecart-Salmon: terroir, cru and craftsmanship
We took the opportunity of the release of the cuvée Nicolas François 2008 and this year's fiftieth anniversary of the partnership between Billecart-Salmon and Velier to take our readers on a journey exploring the historic Maison.
The cuvée Nicolas François 2008
Nicolas François 2008 is an authentic reflection of Billecart-Salmon's ancestral know-how. The 2008 grape harvest in Champagne was plentiful and blessed by sunny weather, with concentrated juices and grapes selected at ideal ripeness. The vinification process, part of which took place in traditional oak barrels, also helped create an exceptional vintage for this wine, which perfectly embodies the Maison's unique style, including the blend of grand crus from the classified vineyards of Montagne de Reims (Pinot Noir) and Côte des Blancs (Chardonnay).
|60% Pinot Noir
|Mista acciaio/legno (83/17%)
|Aÿ, Mareuil, Verzenay, Verzy, Ambonnay e Bouzy (PN)
Le-Mesnil, Avize e Cramant (CH)
|Ageing on lees
|13 anni (tirage giu. 2009, dégorgement I trim. 2022)
Created in 1964 as a tribute to founder Nicolas François Billecart, the release of the cuvée is one of the reasons we thought we'd offer our readers a journey into the Maison’s history and, more importantly, its unique philosophy.
Two centuries, one family, one long history
The history of Billecart-Salmon and its champagne begins in 1818 right after the decades that shocked France, first with the Revolution and then with Napoleon's campaigns. At that time, the country was enjoying a period of relative peace, thriving culture and innovation. The monarchy had been restored and Louis XVIII sat on the throne.
It's against this backdrop that Elisabeth Salmon and Nicolas François Billecart celebrate their wedding in Mareuil-sur-Ay, a village on the banks of the Marne - a tributary of the Seine that would play a key role in the family's fortunes.
Their marriage and the union of their last names will eventually give rise to the Maison de Champagne and the label “Billecart-Salmon”. Nicolas François enters into a partnership with his wife's brother Louis Salmon, and the two families also combine their vineyards to obtain an initial total of fourteen hectares of land in Mareuil-sur-Aÿ, Chouilly and Chigny-la-Montagne.
Billecart-Salmon has since remained a family-run company, preserving its traditions for over 200 years. In 1858, Charles Billecart takes over from his father as general manager of the company; the same will happen exactly thirty years later, when the company is divided between his children Jean, René and Juliette, and so on until today. After Jean-Roland Billecart and his sons Antoine and François, the head of the Maison is now Mathieu Roland-Billecart and his experienced cousin Antoine Roland-Billecart, deputy general manager and head of exports.
1958 marks one of the main turning points in the Maison's history, when for the first time Jean Roland-Billecart introduces low-temperature fermentation and cold settling in the vinification process – an innovation the entire Champagne region would soon adopt. It was the time of a new industrial revolution propelled by three decades of postwar expansion known as Les Trente glorieuses. Improvements in quality were driven by advances in winemaking, with developments including stainless steel vats and a perfect command of malolactic fermentation.
In the 1980s, the Maison started expanding on global markets. A decade later, Jean's eldest son François will make radical changes to the company's distribution policy, buying back all of the product stock from supermarkets and focusing exclusively on specialized wine shops and high-end restaurants.
In 1999 Brut 1959 is selected as ‘Champagne of the Millennium’ at Stockholm's Great Tasting, with second place going to another Billecart-Salmon champagne, 1961. Then, with the new millennium, the Maison expands further and introduces a new visual identity and packaging in the lead-up to the celebrations for its two-century anniversary in 2018.
Today, Billecart-Salmon remains one of only five family-owned companies in the industry, having seen every member of the family for seven generations commit to perpetuating their tradition and living up to their oath, ‘prioritize quality, aim for excellence’.
The importance of terroir
Historically, the most important relationship the Maison has always been working to harmonize is between vine-growing and winemaking – a long research effort that would continue for generations.
In the early 19th century, the grapes grown in the Champagne region were used with no regard for the importance of terroir and the specific flavors it provides. Considering around two hundred grams of sugar per liter were added to champagne, and cognac was added to the liqueur d'expédition, it comes as no surprise that the influence of terroir on Champagne wines was considered negligible. In addition, some regarded champagne as a ‘manufactured’ wine, where the specific characteristics of each cru only played a minor role.
By contrast, it was Nicolas Francois Billecart himself who, since the very beginning of the Maison's history, decided to reduce the dosage, despite the risk of alienating customers. By using a lower dosage, Billecart-Salmon was a pioneer in bringing out the true expression of the terroir. His desire the preserve his wine's natural flavors was undoubtedly influenced by his location. Unlike many Champagne houses of the time, which merely transformed wine into champagne, Billecart-Salmon already owned extensive land, which to this day one is of the Maison's unique features.
Today, Billecart-Salmon's estate extends over 100 hectares. The grapes come from 40 Champagne crus for a total of 300 hectares, 15 of which are organically farmed. Most of the wine grapes are actually grown over a 20-kilometer range around the town of Épernay, an area extending between Montagne de Reims, Côte des Blancs and Vallée de la Marne and comprising grand crus of Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier.
75% of the Maison's grapes are premier cru or grand cru, i.e., the highest quality classification in champagne production.
Terroir and grand cru: Meunier, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir
Ever since Nicolas François himself decided to adjust prices based on the reputation of each area of origin, the Maison realized the importance of terroir and started giving each champagne the name of the crus used in its production, like Fleur de Bouzy and Sillery Première Qualité.
Today as back then, Billecart considers grape quality a key factor, while the cellar master's job is simply to allow it to express its full potential.
Their guiding principle is to select the best crus and the best grape growers and offer them a real partnership with the Maison, thereby ensuring close control over the quality of the supply.
As early as the 1990s, at Billecart-Salmon grape growers were involved in the tasting of the blends. It was a highly symbolic decision, which would lead to major changes in the way vineyards are managed.
One of the grand crus used in blends, Pinot Meunier (“miller” in French) owes its name to the white down found on the leaves and grapes, making them look as if covered by a veil. Pinot Meunier is a black grape variety typical of the Champagne region and represents about a third (32%) of the varieties grown for the production of champagne, second in quantity only to Pinot Noir (38%). Rarely bottled as a single variety, Meunier is a mutation of Pinot Noir which buds later but ripens more quickly, is slightly higher in acidity and lower in pigments.
It's traditionally used in cuvées with Champagne's two other main grape varieties - Pinot Noir and Chardonnay - for a more delicate, well-rounded and fruity flavor. Hardy even in harsh climatic conditions, Pinot Meunier mainly favors clay and limestone soils like those found in the Vallée de la Marne, where it accounts for 72% of total grape production.
Billecart-Salmon uses Pinot Meunier from 28 different municipalities scoring above 94/100 on the cru scale.
The Côte Des Blancs is also located in the Vallée de La Marne, an area where Chardonnay finds its best expression. Featuring gentle east-facing slopes, the Côte des Blancs extends over around 3,400 hectares and includes 13 municipalities - 7 premier crus and 6 grand crus (Chouilly, Cramant, Avize, Oiry, Oger and Le Mesnil sur Oger). The name derives from about 93% of the grapes grown there being Chardonnay, and the soil being rich in chalk.
This small corner of France produces the best expressions of Chardonnay, as the vineyards are planted on a thick layer of chalk and the roots need to grow deep into the soil to access nutrients. This enables the plants to avoid drought stress, even when water is scarce.
In addition, among Maison Billecart-Salmon's many gems is a unique plot of land consisting of one hectare of Pinot Noir in Montagne de Reims. Here the grapevines are managed with extreme care and in a completely environment-friendly way.
The vineyard dates back to 1964, when the first vines were planted for the future Clos Saint-Hilaire with a focus on optimal southwestern exposure. The terroir's unusual features again play an important role. The silt-clay-limestone soil found in this area located at the foot of a hill is three meters deep before meeting the chalk layer, in contrast with just eighty centimeters found in other plots of the cru.
Ancestral methods and innovation
Mindful of the importance of ensuring variety in the blender's palette, the Maison is committed to preserving the specific qualities of each cru, including by developing new farming methods.
Maintenance includes ‘eco-friendly mowing’ - every year, immediately after harvest, four sheep are brought into the vineyard and kept there until the first cold weather. The sheep graze the grass and fertilize the soil, promoting microbial life with their excrement.
The plowing process, which forces the roots to dig deep into the chalk layer in search of nutrients, uses a horse-drawn plow to avoid packing the soil.
This choice is part of the Maison's distinctive philosophical approach. In the past, the people who worked the land embodied the power of man over nature, and the methods they used certainly ensured short-term success but, as master grower Denis Blée observes, "we know from experience that in the end, nature always wins out."
Ancestral winegrowing methods, handed down from generation to generation and improved from year to year, enabled to restore the soil's natural life cycle and, with it, the life cycle of the microorganisms that live on the roots of the vines.
For the same reasons, the Maison favors grassing - a technique whereby growers sow selected grass varieties to form a thick layer against weeds - over the use of herbicides, and natural fertilizers over chemical ones. Another eco-friendly choice was to revive the technique of charrutage, which had fallen out of use with the advent of herbicides. It consists of cutting the thin roots on the surface to force them to penetrate deeper into the chalk layer.
This drive for more diversity is also reflected in the way the Maison manages replants, favoring massal selection - where cuttings are obtained from the best vines - over clonal selection, where grafts are selected for their genetic qualities in order to produce identical plants. Individually, grapevines from clonal selection are undeniably more resistant to disease, but reducing diversity also reduces the overall resistance of a group of vines or parcel of land.
From vineyard to bottle
This ‘philosophical’ approach is not limited to vineyard farming, but continues in the cellar.
Yeasts are selected from an isolated strain according to a method that has no equal in the world of champagne. The must is allowed to settle twice, a key step to remove all impurities. The cuverie mainly includes 80 small thermoregulated vats, which ensure the traceability of individual vineyards and plots of land.
As well as ensuring traceability at all times, this type of cru-by-cru and variety-by-variety production enables to preserve the specificities of each terroir. Low-temperature vinification results in a slower fermentation process, which lasts an average of three weeks and promotes the emergence of ethereal, delicate aromas that are the highest expression of the fruit's purity.
In keeping with tradition, the wine is left to mature in small 5000-liter wooden barrels.
The Maison's chalk cellars date back to 1840, and since the 19th century 2.8 kilometers of tunnels have been housing 24 foudres (large barrels) and 400 smaller barrels, each carefully selected and crafted to bring out the wine's richness and aromatic complexity. An 80% humidity level and a constant temperature between 11° and 12° all year round ensure optimal preservation of the wine.
To produce its wines, Billecart-Salmon uses small vats, each corresponding to a single plot of land. This makes it possible to closely monitor the farming methods used by vine growers, as well as to compare and observe the results of the different farming choices made by individual growers over the years.
Thanks to these efforts, the cru classification system and terroir diversity is regaining its original meaning.
Consistently with its philosophy, the Maison doesn't sell every vintage they make - only the best ones hit the market, after undergoing several selection steps.
This return to the land and the extremely meticulous, subtle work they put into each individual plot of land have had a strong impact on Maison Billecart-Salmon's reputation. For many customers, Billecart-Salmon is not a Champagne House but a wine producer.
The crowning achievement of this long research work to improve farming methods came in 2017, when Billecart-Salmon's philosophy and winemaking practices were granted the sustainable sinegrowing in Champagne certification.