Champagne Billecart-SalmonHistory, savoir-faire, passion & tradition

Anna Caidan meets up with Mathieu Roland-Billecart, Chief Executive at Champagne Billecart-Salmon
Wine Story

What could you tell me about the history of Billecart-Salmon?

‘Billecart-Salmon was founded in 1818, so 200 years ago to this day. It is the story of two families from Mareuil-sur-Aÿ, a little village, by the River Marne, and the house was founded when Nicolas François Billecart who is my great-great-great-great Grandfather married a lady called Elisabeth Salmon, two longstanding families that have lived in the village. They were farmers and traders, and they got together and created the house of Billecart-Salmon. Around that time the brother of Elisabeth, a gentleman called Louis Salmon effectively joined the house and became the chief winemaker. Some of our prestige cuvées are called Nicolas-Francois Prestige Brut, Elisabeth Prestige Rosé and Cuvée Louis for the Blanc de Blanc. And since then, for seven generations it has always been family owned, and very importantly, family run. We strongly believe that the family running the place means that you can really put your values of quality every day. The shareholding is important, but the family looks after the company. We are also part of the tasting committee, which is effectively every single base wine, blend, dosage. So everything is defined by the family, one of the reasons why we have managed to remain independent and strong.’

What is your favourite step in the winemaking process?

‘It’s a hard question because every single step is interlinked. If you do great vine growing, and you mess up your winemaking, you will not make a good wine. If you have poor vine growing, chances are you will not make a good wine. So I don’t think there is a step that I like more than the rest. What we constantly look for is how we continue to make small improvements to every single step, because it’s only with these small improvements and keeping the chain of quality that you will make an exceptional product. You cannot dissociate one from the other!’

What is the secret to making Billecart-Salmon Champagnes?

‘The first thing are the people, if you don’t have passionate people working in your company and making the wine every day, you will not get an exceptional product. The second part of the people for us, is the family. The family reinvest its profit every year, to always continue to invest in the quality. If it wasn’t like that, we wouldn’t be able to produce exceptional Champagne. So people are the anchor. The second thing is around vine growing; if you don’t have the right region, you can’t make an exceptional champagne. So, we work a 20km radius around Epernay, which is basically where all the Grand Crus and Premier Crus are, and we are very lucky that Mareuil is at the epicentre of Côtes des Blancs which is where the best Chardonnays are. It’s like the Bond Street of Chardonnay, and it is very close to Montagne de Reims, which is like the Knightsbridge of Pinot Noir, and then you have for the Pinot Meunier, Vallée de la Marne, the early part of it, which is the Regent Street of Pinot Meunier. So, we’re basically right in the middle of it which means we can choose the very best grapes. We have a sustainable viticulture approach, we look after our vines the way we look after our children. And all of this enables us to get all the very best ingredients. The third point is wine making. Now you have passionate people with the very best ingredients, if you don’t give them the very best tools, they won’t be able to make exceptional wines. We work with stainless steel tanks, which are all temperature controlled, they are small which means effectively almost one parcel goes into one tank, so we can make the very best wine from that small parcel, with not much early blending and the signature of the house is this cold vinification, which means the process of turning sugar into alcohol happens at 13 degrees instead of 20+ degrees, that’s a very technical thing, it’s very difficult to do, and it makes it very slow, and much more expensive which is why not many people do it. But what that gives to the wine, is a level of finesse and elegance that you wouldn’t be able to get the other way. We also only use the very first press, the second press at Billecart-Salmon doesn’t make it into the bottle, we don’t cheat…! We work with oak barrels, small ones and big ones. So we have a full palate of things that enable us to do it, and the final element is reserve wines. A lot of the wines you taste at Billecart-Salmon, the majority of them, take the Brut Reserve as an example, which is our entry level, more than 50% of what’s in that is reserve wine, all the whites which enables us to ensure the quality remains at its peak. Passionate people, vine growing, wine making. The fourth factor, which is specific to wine, is time. We work a lot with Grand Cru and Premier Cru, you need to give them time. Champagne non-vintage can be released after fifteen months, vintage can be released after three years. My non-vintages spent on lees is between three years and eight years, so more than double the minimum. Our vintages don’t get released before ten years, because when you work with the best Cru, a bit like when you work with a Burgundy. I’m not sure it’s a smart thing to do to drink a young Romanée-Conti, I don’t think Château Latour 2017 is quite ready. You know what, my Grand Cru is the same. I need to age them, I need the best people with the best vines for the best winemaking techniques, and I need time. The family ownership and the approach to time is what holds it together, to ultimately put the very best bubbles in the glass. That keeps us, we don’t do marketing, we don’t have a marketing department, our marketing department is in the glass, which means we have a very loyal client base.’

What is your best memory since working at Billecart-Salmon?

‘I don’t know whether it’s the best one, but I’ll tell you know that I think I’ll remember for a very long time. I was a supervisor for more than five years, when I really joined the company and the board, the very first day, Francois, my cousin and sixth generation, who is a man of few words, but he knows how to make exceptional wines, he calls me into his office, and he has all the range, standing side by side, and he says “Ok Mathieu, come here” thinking day one and I’ve already been called into the office! And he says, “you see these bottles” “yes, which one?” “It doesn’t matter, pick one. You see that label? There is your name on it” “Yeah I know that…”. “The reality is, everywhere you go, that name is your name, so at no point will you ever be able to say to someone ‘well sorry, the wine isn’t quite good enough’ there’s no one to blame, it’s your name, it’s your responsibility, you will never be able to find an excuse”. That was the end of the conversation, I went back home, lesson one was over! There have been many more since, but I remember that one!’

...and your most challenging?

‘Well I thought that was a challenging conversation!! It was a bit one-sided! To be fair, it has gone or has been going very, very smoothly, so I can’t tell you a time when it has been difficult. We are very fortunate because of our very simple recipes of quality and of our very loyal followers, and we are very respectful of it, which means we can thank them by doing even better. We don’t get complaints, we get thank you letters, and that’s a great part of the job, I can’t call that a challenge!’

When is the best moment to drink your Champagnes?

‘Frequently! I don’t think there is a best moment, I think that it’s not about the moment. Often, it’s with the people. You know when you ask people “what is the best wine you’ve ever had?” The technicians will tell you “it was that wine, in a dark room and we all concentrated” most people are not like that. I ask this question around, and most people answer and often the very best wine they had is during a very happy moment in their life. My very best wine was when I got engaged to my wife and it was with a bottle of Billecart Rosé and the next best time was with my best friend doing something. Ultimately, we are happiness orientated, we are a supporting act, some of the wines we do, and most of the range we do are a supporting act, the Founders Cuvées and the Clos Saint-Hilaire are supposed to be happiness creators, they are supposed to bring it to the next level. But you have to remain very humble. We don’t want to impose on our clients, if somebody says the best time for my champagne is eight o’clock in the morning, the question is, if you like it then, have it then, if it’s at eleven o’clock at night, or three o’clock in the morning it doesn’t matter! I don’t have a marketing department to tell my clients what to do! The clients are an international elite, they know what they’re doing, they know what they like and what they don’t like. We respect them, and they do what they want! So long as they do it frequently enough, everyone is happy!’

What type of food pairs best with your wines?

‘That depends on the Cuvée, but we are a gastronomy wine. We pride ourselves on it, we are associated with a lot of the 1,2,3 Michelin stars around the world. Rosé is absolutely wonderful with a red fruit dessert, Sous-Bois at the moment is very autumnal, which you can have with mushrooms or Comté cheese. We have eleven cuvées, which is a lot, more than frankly, any rational person should have! But they are there, because they capture the different moments and dishes. So, I like to think that we have a very complete range. Brut Reserve is an all-rounder, Rosé is the aperitif and dessert, Extra-Brut which goes with seafood or caviar. Blanc de Blanc is more for fish or seafood. Sous-Bois can cope with veal with sauce, nice poultry, so it is very versatile, much more than any of the prestige cuvées on the market. Nicolas Francois, Louis and Elisabeth and the Clos Saint-Hilaire you don’t need to eat anything with it. We frequently do complete meals with champagne pairing, and our wines are able to cope with it all.’

How would you describe the Champagne way of life?

‘I don’t think I could tell you the Champagne way of life, because Champagne is so diverse, and there are things that happen in Champagne that I don’t think is part of the Champagne way of life. The Billecart way of life was quoted to me as “your feet grounded in the vineyard and your head in the stars!” And there is a little bit of that in what we do. There is the tip of the iceberg, which is the cocktail at the Connaught, followed by the Ritz and the Dorchester and your Michelin starred dinner at the River Café, and when you go to Hong Kong you will be going to that chef or that chef… But a lot of what we do every day, what the 125 people who work in the vineyard do, is extremely grounded, cautious long-term approach, sustainable approach to quality. They are quality geeks! I want them to be quality geeks. The only question they ask themselves every day is “how do I make the wine better?” So that may not be the most flashy thing, it may not be as nice as an actress with a nice bottle, but we are true to our values, and we stick to them, and it’s served us well for two hundred years, so we won’t change it!’

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