Velier and Billecart-Salmon: celebrating fifty years together
Two historic companies traveling on a common path for fifty years – the anniversary of the meeting between Velier and Maison Billecart-Salmon is certainly an event worth celebrating, as well as an opportunity to pay tribute to a partnership that is not just commercial, but a true friendship.
Both companies are family businesses with deep local roots, a strong common philosophy and a time-honored history.
Founded in 1818 in Mareuil-sur-Ay, in the Marne region, Maison Billecart-Salmon is the product of the marriage between Nicolas François Billecart and Elisabeth Salmon. Today, seven generations later, this union between families still remains true to its commitment to quality and excellence in producing one of the world's most renowned and acclaimed champagnes.
"Billecart-Salmon is one of the very few products from the old listings that I kept when I joined Velier," says Luca Gargano. "On arriving back in 1983 to manage the company I, who have been christened with a drop of Pommery, had never heard of this Maison and planned to replace it. I changed my mind when I visited the winery, a unique family business with a product that at the time was clearly undersold. For more than 50 years we have been working with three generations of the family, from Jean-Roland Billecart, to his sons Antoine and François, and to Mathieu today. Even before being a champagne, Billecart is a wine, made with the same – if not better – traditional production methods as it was originally, one of the last family-owned companies with a heart and a soul."
The champagne produced by the Maison – one of five remaining family-run companies still active in the champagne industry today – is the result of the know-how of its people, who look after a 100-hectare estate. The grapes come from 40 Champagne crus for a total of 200 hectares, 15 of which are organically farmed. Most of the wine grapes are 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. At the Maison, 75% of the grapes are Premier cru or Grand cru, i.e., the highest quality classification for champagne production.
Billecart-Salmon uses ancestral methods handed down through the generations and improved every year, thus combining ancient techniques with cutting-edge winemaking technology.
In the 1950s, the Maison was the first to introduce the cold débourbage or settling technique and the use of stainless steel vats for longer low-temperature fermentation. The 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, which is very important to remove all impurities. The cuverie normally houses 80 small thermo-regulated vats, which ensure the traceability of the individual grape varieties 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 the terroir. Low-temperature winemaking involves 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 constant temperature between 11° and 12° C all year round ensure optimal preservation of the wine.
As time goes by, the wines acquire more character and intensity. They develop the distinctive finesse, balance and elegance that make the Maison's champagnes unique. Non-vintage champagnes reach full maturity after three or four years, twice as long as the standard period required by the designation scheme. The vintage cuvées, on the other hand, need to wait patiently for ten years before full maturity. Letting time do its job – this is the greatness of Billecart-Salmon champagne.
The results are clear. One of the highest points was reached in 1999 during the Stockholm Millennium Tasting, one of the largest-ever tasting events organized by top champagne expert Richard Juhlin. A jury of experts blind-tasted 150 vintage champagnes from the largest producers and named 1959 Cuvée Brut "Champagne of the millennium". The 1961 vintage came in second.
Among others, the Maison is home to a unique treasure – a unique plot consisting of one hectare of Pinot Noir that holds a promise of true excellence. Here the grapevines are managed with extreme care and in a completely environment-friendly way.
Maison Billecart-Salmon chose to go back to traditional methods, for example by reintroducing the draft horse, to improve biodiversity in the area. These methods improve the soil's porosity and biodiversity and cause the roots to grow deeper. The extracted minerals in turn favor the growth of smaller grapes, which best concentrate the unique essence of the terroir.
In 1995 – an exceptional harvest year – this plot produced an outstanding champagne that was named after the patron saint of the church of Mareuil-sur-Ay: Clos Saint-Hilaire. It's made exclusively from Pinot Noir matured in barrels and has a unique complexity coupled with surprising freshness. A limited quantity of individually numbered bottles, between 3500 and 7500, is produced for each vintage.
The 50th anniversary celebratory edition
An exceptional 2010 Blanc de Blancs has been produced to celebrate 50 years of partnership between Velier and Billecart-Salmon. It's a unique celebratory edition released with a special label and specifically designed logo.
“The 2010 Blanc de Blancs cuvée was selected by the Billecart family to celebrate the 50th anniversary of our relationship,” explained the Maison's Chief Executive Officer Mathieu Roland-Billecart. “It's assembled from the top Grand crus of the Côte des Blancs and has spent over 10 years in our centuries-old cellars to reveal the full elegance of a great champagne.
In a world where long-term relationships are becoming increasingly rare, we are proud of the bond we have built with the Gargano family, who are doing a great job bringing Billecart-Salmon champagnes to consumers across Italy."
This special cuvée reveals all of the specificities of Chardonnay. Billecart-Salmon lovers and connoisseurs will no doubt recognize some of the distinctive notes of the Cuvée Louis Salmon, the Maison's iconic Blanc de Blancs. The Grand crus it's assembled from are among the very top: Chouilly, Cramant, Oiry and Oger.
To celebrate the golden wedding anniversary with the famous Champagne Maison, Velier hosted a week of events packed with meetings held in different places.
We started on Monday at our Genoa headquarters at Nuova Villa Paradisetto – a two-day gathering that saw Nicolas Roland Billecart as the guest of honor and rallied many of our customers from across Italy who have always believed in great champagne.
The event concluded on an elegant note at chef Carlo Cracco's restaurant in Portofino.
Finally, on Thursday we brought together some of the top journalists with a passion for wine and champagne for an intimate tasting, a family lunch who gave everyone the chance to go into the details of the Maison's cuvées against the unique backdrop of Cracco restaurant in Milan's beautiful Galleria.
"Maison Billecart-Salmon has been gracing our tables for many years," commented the Chef. "For this special occasion, I created two separate menus for Milan and Portofino that play with different combinations and contrasts and are based on refined, seasonal ingredients complementing the style and elegance of the specific Billecart vintage they're paired with."