It’s been a big year for Billecart-Salmon, who, founded in 1818, recently celebrated their 200th anniversary. As well as releasing the special edition champagne Billecart-Salmon Bicentenary Cuvée 200 MV, the house announced some key personnel changes. Seventh generation family member Mathieu Roland-Billecart took over as Chief Executive Officer in January 2019, a role previously assumed by his cousin François Roland-Billecart. And in 2018, winemaker Florent Nys, who has been with Billecart-Salmon since 2005, took over as Chef de Cave, following the retirement of François Domi.
It was Florent whom we met for our vins clairs tasting at the house in Mareuil-sur-Aÿ last month. Seeming quite pleased to have 2018 as his first harvest in charge, Florent told us that Billecart-Salmon were one of the very first houses to start picking last year, commencing with the Pinot Meunier grapes on 22nd August in the Vallée de la Marne village of Damery.
“The average sugar level in 2018 was 10.5 and the average pH was 3.0, which is low,” Florent said. He explained that the pH level is even lower (under 3.0) in the wines stored in barrels, partly because of the sulphur transfer and because the wines that go into barrel originate from vineyards “where the soil is worked a lot”.
Also low were the malic acid levels, which, at 3 g/l, were similar to Burgundy last year. Explaining the Billecart-Salmon approach to malolactic fermentation, Florent said: “We don’t systematically do malo, instead we test each wine, tank by tank.” This means that the percentage of wines that undergo malolactic fermentation differs greatly each year: just 30% in 2015, yet more than 90% in 2016 and 2017. In 2018, Billecart-Salmon did malolactic fermentation on 20% of the Grand Cru wines and on around 70% of the remaining wines.
2018 Vins Clairs
We began our base wine tasting with Pinot Meunier, a key grape variety for Billecart-Salmon, which forms the majority of their Brut Réserve NV blend. Despite being Autre Cru rated villages, Florent described Damery and Venteuil as their “two most important crus”. As the winemaking team are looking for fruit and warmth from the Pinot Meunier, they typically block malolactic fermentation to help keep the freshness.
All of the base wines at Billecart-Salmon had great freshness, power, purity and precision. Asked to pick an absolute favourite, Florent highlighted Ambonnay, which, with its black cherry flavour and spicy finish, was one of the star villages for Billecart-Salmon last year.
|PINOT MEUNIER | Vallée de la Marne | Autre Cru: Damery
Malolactic fermentation blocked in this sample. Great freshness. Lots of bright strawberries, cherry and raspberry. Bit of spice on the end.
|PINOT MEUNIER | Vallée de la Marne | Autre Cru: Venteuil
Malolactic blocked. Orange colour with loads of peaches and apples. Kept on the lees a little a little longer than Damery, which has given it roundness. Has lots of fleshy peaches and blackcurrant character.
|CHARDONNAY | Côte des Blancs | Grand Cru: Avize
Smokey ripe apples with hints of chalky character. Good depth and spice. Has a lovely cooked apple and pineapple character.
|CHARDONNAY | Côte des Blancs | Grand Cru: Cramant
Loads of smokey character with rich apples, ripeness, pineapple and guava. Has a real purity, power and precision.
|PINOT NOIR | Vallée de la Marne | Grand Cru: Aÿ
Very peach and redcurrant with great freshness and some of those tropical things like lychee, pineapple and very fresh acidity.
|PINOT NOIR | Montagne de Reims | Grand Cru: Ambonnay
No malolactic. Lots of black cherry, very precise and very fresh – almost too fresh. Has lots of spice and roasted apples.
Florent also shared the Brut Réserve NV and Rosé NV blends, having recently completed the assemblage process. With over 400 vats, many different reserve wines and a perpetual solera blend to choose from, the Brut NV’s are the most complex to blend. A little over 5% of the wines in this year’s assemblage were matured in oak barrels, which Billecart-Salmon “do not fill to the top”, preferring instead to “leave some air and oxygen” in the barrel.
The red wine, which constitutes 7% of the Rosé NV blend this year, is produced using cold maceration at Billecart-Salmon. The number of days the maceration process takes is once again not systematic and depends on the vintage. Florent explained they use low temperatures for the red wine fermentation as they “don’t want to extract too many tannins, just a little colour and aromas”. This technique is showcased in the delicately light pink, almost yellow, colour for which Billecart-Salmon Rosé NV is famous.
|Billecart-Salmon Brut Réserve NV Assemblage 2018 | Base Vintage: 2018
40% PM, 30% CH, 30% PN | Reserve Wine: 55%
Lots of tropical notes, with some hints of chalk and then you get loads of ripeness from pineapple and guava. Reserve wines from 2017 to 2012 and a small amount from the solera, which is up to ten years old.
|Billecart-Salmon Rosé NV Assemblage 2018 | Base Vintage: 2018
40% CH, 30% PM, 30% PN | Red Wine: 7% | Reserve Wine: 40%
Has bundles of strawberry, redcurrant and black cherry and then some of that richness of pineapple. Has a softness to the fruit but with refreshing acidity and good length.
We tasted a comprehensive range of finished Billecart-Salmon champagnes, the majority of which are stoppered with Mytik Diam technological corks. “We are happy to have more complexity with some wines, but we use Mytik on the non-vintage and vintage champagnes,” Florent told us. The house have also adopted jetting, the process of squirting water into the bottle at high speed after disgorgement to prevent oxygen entering and guarantee bottle-to-bottle consistency, for the non-vintages.
Cuvée Louis Vintage 2006, a blanc de blancs originating primarily from Le Mesnil with some Chardonnay from Chouilly and Avize, was a particular standout, with its creamy and silky smooth texture. Also impressive was the recently released Vintage 2008 – a very focused wine with incredible sharpness, freshness and a hint of spice.
|Billecart-Salmon Brut Réserve NV | 17/20
40% PM, 30% CH, 30% PN | Base Vintage: 2015 | Reserve Wine: 55% | Dosage: 8 g/l
Lots of fruit, white flower and hints of chalk. On the palate, there is salinity, lemon and yellow plums. Very precise, this was Florent’s first blend. Has a hint of cashew nut on the end. Very good.
|Billecart-Salmon Rosé NV | 17/20
40% CH, 30% PM, 30% PN | Base Vintage: 2015 | Red Wine: 7% | Reserve Wine: 40% | Dosage: 8.5 g/l
Very creamy was the first impression, lots of red fruits like strawberry and redcurrants. Has a roundness to the texture, nice freshness and precision.
|Billecart-Salmon Brut Sous Bois NV | 17/20
33% PM, 33% CH, 33% PN | Base Vintage: 2011 | Reserve Wine: 33% | Dosage: 7 g/l
Has so much plum fruit, freshness and a great texture. Good length, finishes very clean and precise.
|Billecart-Salmon Vintage 2008 | 17.5/20
65% PN, 35% CH | Lees Ageing: 9 Years | Disgorged: September 2018 | Dosage: 4 g/l | Post-Disgorgement Ageing: 6 Months
Lots of Chardonnay fruit comes forward, that creamy banana, pineapple and lush fruits. So much freshness – has lemons, limes and great length. Loads of yellow fruit like plums and then some mango and pineapple.
|Billecart-Salmon Cuvée Louis Blanc de Blancs Vintage 2006 | 18.5/20
100% CH | Dosage: 6 g/l
Has some real richness, fatness and minerality. This is very different, has lots of open white flower, bundles of yellow plums, power and freshness. Has so much creaminess, butteriness and great length.
|Billecart-Salmon Nicolas François Billecart 2002 | 18/20
60% PN, 40% CH | Lees Ageing: 13 Years | Disgorged: 2016 | Dosage: 4 g/l | Post-Disgorgement Ageing: 3 Years
Nice ripe pear and lemon with a hint of creaminess and bright acidity. Some hints of chalk and lees ageing. Nice mid-weight, rather nice on the end; lingers long.
|Billecart-Salmon Elisabeth Salmon Rose 2007 | 18/20
50% CH, 50% PN | Red Wine: 10% | Dosage: 6 g/l
Has some freshness and great power. The red wine content really brings forward the red fruits. Elegant, fruity and fleshy fruit with tropical notes and classical strawberry with other elements like peaches and really ripe apples.
|Billecart-Salmon Nicolas François Billecart 1996 | 19+/20
60% PN, 40% CH | Lees Ageing: 12 Years | Disgorged: 2009 | Post-Disgorgement Ageing: 10 Years
Has a sweetness of fruit, lots of power and so much freshness. Nice succulent yellow fruits, richness and layers of pastry, Massive mid-palate. This has a small amount of wine from oak.