Billecart-Salmon – 200
The 200-year-old story started with the marriage of Nicolas François Billecart and Elisabeth Salmon, in 1818. One of them had vineyards, the other had a cellar, which provided the perfect foundations for the birth of a champagne house.
Billecart-Salmon is one of the very few champagne houses that while keeping, or rather, constantly growing its prestige during history, could remain in family hands. Currently, the house is producing two million bottles annually, under its name, from 260 hectares of vineyards. The 200-year history, the fame and fortune do not come for free, and it’s not an obvious natural state of affairs. Still, what does it take for a winery to remain on the stage for 200 years?
First, persistence is important. After World War II, Billecart-Salmon almost had to start again from scratch – the champagne stocks and reserve wines that had been piled up over decades had been destroyed, and vineyards were sold, so that the house could survive. Apart from that, incredible experience is necessary for seeing the harmonious final result from the freshly fermented base wine. Thinking ahead by several moves is indispensable. Blending, secondary fermentation and sometimes decade-long ageing are required before the bottled champagne arrives in our hands. So perhaps it’s no accident that one of François Roland-Billecart’s pastimes is playing chess.
Now, it’s once again fashionable to drink rosé from Champagne, but in the 90s Billecart-Salmon was almost the only house that stood by the rosé category, despite all the disdain for it. These days, the house’s rosé is so sought-after that the US state of California would have purchased the complete 2018 allocation by itself last year. Unfortunately, Billecart-Salmon rosé is one of the big favourites of the grey market and counterfeiters, which causes a fair bit of headache for the estate, yet this can be regarded as a strong compliment that comes along with its greatness.
As for the source of the raw material, there’s never been any compromise. All the grapes arrive from the heart of Champagne, from the 50-kilometre zone around Épernay, from first-class vineyards. It’s not the devil’s work to boost a champagne with creative expedition liqueurs but at Billecart-Salmon, only dosage from grape must can be put into the champagne, because, in the house’s view, the message cannot be honestly conveyed otherwise. Changes have always occurred – over time the technology has developed and consumer tastes have also changed slightly. We used to like champagne sweet once, now Billecart-Salmon bottles its dry champagnes with the lowest dosage, as we understand elegance differently in the 21st century than in 1818. It’s not a unique thing in 2019 to ferment the wine at a lower temperature in order to achieve certain aromas, but when the maison introduced temperature control 60 years ago in the wine region, it caused a huge stir. There is still a determined worker at the cellar who believes in riddling and is capable of turning 40,000 bottles by hand a day, but according to the winery, the fact that remuage is mostly done with the aid of machines does not affect the quality of the champagnes.
Malolactic fermentation is a key issue in Champagne, but the question of when and where it has to happen each year, in order to keep the freshness, is adjusting every year. Billecart-Salmon owns one of the largest stocks of barrels in the region but it took a long time to find the right Stockinger, Seguin Moreau and Taransaud barrels, and the several hundred 228-litre Burgundy barriques. One of Billecart-Salmon’s greatest virtues is that we encounter constant and consistent value. The house style has been unchanged for decades and while it’s integrally renewed, it never loses its roots..