FX Excursions

FX Excursions offers the chance for once-in-a-lifetime experiences in destinations around the world.

Champagne Billecart-Salmon Bears the Fruit of a Generations-Long Pedigree and Thoughtful Technique

by Kelly Magyarics

Jun 4, 2024

© Kelly Magyarics

June 2024

Strawberry lemon meringue pie. That’s how I described Champagne Billecart-Salmon Brut Rosé the first time I sipped it, falling in love with its extraordinary interplay of freshness and structure, red fruit and citrus, drinkability and complexity.

France

© Kelly Magyarics

Last summer I strolled the vineyards in Aÿ-Champagne with seventh-generation winemaker Mathieu Billecart. Family-owned and -operated for more than 100 years, the house uses mostly fruit grown on the estate or on leased land — unusual for a region where many producers purchase grapes. Ahead of its time, Billecart-Salmon is the OG Champagne grower — a current trend among sommeliers and fizz fanatics.

Among the 740 acres under vine, 92 percent lie within a 12-mile radius of the property. Pinot Noir comes from the chalkiest six villages in Montagne de Reims, Pinot Meunier from vines planted in clay soil from four villages in Vallée de la Marne, and Chardonnay from six villages in the Côtes de Blancs. They treat their vines like their children, Billecart said.

If that’s the case, those growing in the beloved Le Clos Saint-Hilaire might be their favorite offspring. The single-parcel plot boasts its own winemaking facilities for vintage expressions with a commitment to biodiversity and natural winemaking; beehives reside in barrels, and a shed houses equipment for biodynamic winemaking. The house uses only the highest quality first-press juice for all its Champagne, and temperature controls fermentation to retain flavor and pick up a strong, acidic backbone. Most happens in stainless steel tanks; some wine ages in used wooden barrels that boost microoxygenation and body and add a woody imprint. Two million bottles slumber in the 1.5 miles of caves for five to 14 years or longer for the prestige cuvées.

wine

© Kelly Magyarics

Billecart-Salmon maintains an interesting philosophy toward dosage, the mixture of reserve wine and sugar added as the final step to determine sweetness level. “Dosage is the last chance to manipulate the wine,” Billecart said. “But it needs to be very precise.” To that end, they spend as much time with dosage as they do with blending. Unlike many Champagne producers which use one house liqueur, Billecart-Salmon uses a combination from any one or more of 51 small tanks.

The end result is expressions that stay true to the house style but aren’t homogenous. The NV Blanc de Blancs uses only Grand Cru Chardonnay from the Côte des Blancs, vinified in stainless steel to showcase the terroir and preserve freshness; long aging on the lees adds body and elegance. Brut Reserve has a low dosage and boasts the highest percentage of reserve wines (55 percent), from vintages 2006 to 2018; it’s complex and lifted on the palate and versatile at the table.

Brut sous Bois pays homage to the decades-old trend of barrel-fermented Champagne, produced by a fractional blending method similar to that of the sherry soleras in Jerez. Mature wines (2006–2015) bring depth and softening tannins. Brut sous Bois evokes thoughts of sitting around the fireplace and makes an unbelievable match for veal, mushroom risotto and other umami-rich dishes.

An easy daytrip from Paris, Billecart-Salmon opens a new visitors’ center this summer; tastings are booked three months in advance by appointment only. But a peek behind the philosophy of this renowned house and its special wines proves a truly incomparable experience.

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