It’s great to see Billecart-Salmon making it into the top five Most Admired Champagne Brands for the first time. I’ve always had a soft spot for the classy, understated wines from this excellent house in the centre of Mareuil-sur-Aÿ. Founded in the early part of the 19th century, it’s another family business where brothers Antoine and François Roland-Billecart are the sixth generation at the helm.
With production around the 2m bottle mark, there’s no ambition to grow further, says Antoine. Investment is going into the vines, buying small parcels with a Grand Cru focus in places such as Ambonnay, Bouzy, Chouilly and Avize. The brothers are also adding some more 500-litres demi-muids of Transylvanian oak, made in Austria, which they like for its subtle effect and, once 95% of the tannins have gone, use for holding reserve wines.
We tasted some of the current range with chef de cave François Domi, one of the unsung heroes of the Champenois scene, who has worked his magic across the Billecart range for nearly three decades. First up is the current Extra Brut blend, with a 50% 2012 harvest base plus reserve wines from 2010, ’09, ’08 and a little 2011 Chardonnay. It’s the same blend as the Brut Réserve, says Roland-Billecart – 40% Pinot Noir plus 30% each of Meunier and Chardonnay. The Brut Resérve with its bones laid bare and only 1.5gms/l residual sugar is a great palate livener just after nine in the morning, but with some recognisable depth, thanks to an extra year’s lees ageing.
We follow with the 2004 Blanc de Blancs, made from just four grands crus – Avize, Cramant, Mesnil-sur-Oger and Chouilly – with 30% of the juice barrel fermented. Good when first released at the start of 2015, this has developed into one of the best wines I’ve tasted from the attractive 2004 vintage, with a creamy, silky texture and white truffle aromas. The Chardonnay was better than the Pinot Noir in 2004 says Domi, and here is living proof of that in the glass. Hard to surpass but the 2002 Cuvée Nicolas- François Billecart that follows manages it. With this quality in the bottle we’d expect a top-five finish next year too.