Tuesday, 14 March 2023

Champagne tour 2023 - Billecart-Salmon

If you were looking to go somewhere for a few days to celebrate a special occasion as a wine lover then think most of you would agree that a trip to Champagne is a rather splendid idea. This is exactly what I did last month as we went away to celebrate my sister-in-law’s 40th birthday. Champagne’s reputation as a wine for celebration is long-held and has been carefully crafted over the centuries, so we were very excited for this trip.

This I the first post in a series where I will take you through some of the highlights from our trip as we were lucky to visit some fantastic champagne houses and drink some truly memorable wines. I won’t, however, go over specific information about the Champagne production process here - if you are interested in this then I would recommend checking out this post from Difford’s Guide.

A champagne institution

Situated in Mareuil-sur-Aÿ is the legendary Billecart-Salmon and touring this house with our tour guide Jerome, you were struck with the weight of history and tradition that surrounds this august Champagne house, which can trace its lineage back to the merging of two extant houses when Nicolas François Billecart and Elisabeth Salmon married in 1818. They are commemorated in many ways by the House today with portraits which you can see their portraits in the picture on the left, as well as some of the wines being named after them. The House still belongs to the Billecart-Salmon family, with 7th generation of the family, Mathieu Roland-Billecart, running the company today.

The House produces c. 2.5m bottles per year, which makes them a small-to-medium sized producer (in Champagne House terms). To do this they grow on 200ha of their own land and buy in fruit from a further 100ha. Beneath the streets of Aÿ they have 2km of underground tunnels that they use for storing their wines in - exploring these tunnels was a real highlight of the tour. You really appreciate how perfect the conditions there are for storing and ageing wine - a stable temperature of c. 12 - 14 degrees Celsius all year and c. 90% humidity. It really is impressive as you walk through their subterranean tunnels seeing all the bottles laid out and ageing gracefully.

In Billecart-Salmon they really focus on developing wines with extra complexity and character. Their NV wines are aged on lees for a minimum of three years, with their vintage wines having at least eight years. Jerome did show us one of their vineyards directly next to the winery (Clos St-Hilaire, which is the photo at the top of this post) where they produce a super small-batch wine, made according to biodynamic principles, which has 12 years on lees - they have only just released the 2005 vintage! 
In the winery they utilise cold temperature fermentation (at 13 degrees Celsius) which is about as low as you can go. This increases the amount of time you need for primary fermentation - it takes six weeks, as opposed to the standard 15 days. The result is that the wines retain more freshness and elegance. 

If you want an indication of the importance that champagne plays in the daily lives of people who live in this region, Jerome told us that when he was baptised as a baby as well as having the holy water sprinkled on him, he was also baptised with some champagne. He tells us that he only found out from his family after he started his current job that the champagne they used was Billecart-Salmon!

Tasting the wines

For our tasting we were taken to a beautiful room in the family house, which was decorated in exquisite, yet under-stated style. We tried three wines, each of which were utterly charming and showed the high quality that the House clearly aims for. 

The first wine was a special release, the ‘Rendez-vous No. 3 edition’, a NV Extra Brut with 2g/l residual sugar and made from 100% Pinot Meunier. It was fresh and clean with a really balanced finish. It had spent five years on the lees, which gave it a little tinge of waxiness. This bottle can be bought from Hedonism wines for £74/bottle.

The 2008 Louis Salmon Blancs de Blanc Grand Cru (disgorged in October 2020) was beautifully heady and expressive. As all good aged BdB wines it had developed those brioche flavours on the nose, but on the palate it was still taut and mineralic, with great poise. This bottle can be bought from Berry Brothers and Rudd for £210/bottle. 

Our last wine was the 2009 Elisabeth Salmon vintage rosé (55% Pinot Noir, 45% Chardonnay), which was light, floral and elegant. The notes were largely crisp red fruit (cherries and strawberries). Compared to the previous wine this felt a but more approachable right now, but that is not to say that this wine will not also benefit from giving it a bit more time. This bottle can be bought from Berry Brothers and Rudd for £178/bottle.

The quality of these wines really shone through for me. I think this was helped by the atmosphere in the magnificent tasting room and Jerome’s naturally considered and reflective style. I also thought that the Billecart-Salmon wines were all really gastronomic wines - yes, they could be sipped and enjoyed as an aperitif, but with their complexity of flavour and texture I really felt that all would really sing when poured to pair with some exquisite food, which is I guess why their wines feature on so many high-end restaurant lists.

I would like to thank Charlie and the team at Billecart-Salmon for organising this magnificent tour and tasting. In particular, I would also like to thank Jerome for his tour and sharing his evident passion and deep love for Champagne with us. Tours can be arranged through the Billecart-Salmon website here - I would highly recommend visiting them.

Look out over the coming days for more posts as I share most of the fabulous things we experienced in Champagne! 

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