Similar to how worms burrow underground and London commuters spend a significant amount of time in the underground subway system, wine experts also have a lot of underground experiences. Some of the most memorable moments in our profession involve exploring damp cellars – cautiously descending stairs, like Nosferatu, to retrieve carefully stored bottles from dusty storage.
I have had the opportunity to visit several large champagne producers, but I was especially interested in touring the cellars of Billecart-Salmon in Mareuil-Sur-Aÿ, which is only a 10-minute drive from the famous town of Épernay in the Champagne region of France. This winery is not only well-known globally, but it also happens to make my favorite birthday wine.
On the 25th of August, I begin my day at 11am with a refreshing glass of Billecart-Salmon’s brut rosé, even before getting out of bed. For me, sipping on this rosé has always been comparable to the taste of a wild strawberry, including the stalk. The earthy and vegetal flavors of the stalk complement the lively and juicy fruit, making it tempting to spend the entire day in bed, indulging in glass after glass of this delightful drink.
Billecart-Salmon, which has been in existence for over 200 years, stands out as one of the rare houses that is still owned and operated by a family. It currently cultivates grapevines on 100 hectares of land and also sources champagne from reputable growers. While it is often advised not to meet one’s idols, I was curious to discover the inner workings of this renowned company.
Bucking the trend
There seems to be a belief that accessing areas in France outside of Paris is difficult, but I am happy to inform you that this is not true. Hourly trains depart from various terminals in Paris, such as Gare de l’Est, to reach the top wine regions in the country. From there, you can also travel to Épernay, the heart of champagne production.
Just a brief car ride from Épernay, Billecart-Salmon is in a completely different world compared to the prestigious Avenue de Champagne, where many of the top brands have their offices. At first glance, Mareuil-Sur-Aÿ appears to be a quiet French town with its white plaster buildings, but upon closer examination, it becomes clear that most of these buildings are actually owned by Billecart-Salmon.
The unassuming barn was actually a winery and the seemingly ordinary family home was actually a guesthouse. I was informed that several famous champagne producers relocate to Épernay when they become successful, but Billecart-Salmon did not do the same.
Maybe the decision was made, at least in part, to be in proximity to Billecart-Salmon’s most prized possession: Clos Saint Hilaire. This singular parcel is surrounded by walls and is considered a hidden gem in the rural Champagne region. Located just a short distance from the winery, Clos Saint Hilaire was originally used to produce red wine for the cuvée Elisabeth Salmon. However, in 1995, it was determined that the 60-year-old plot would be utilized as its own distinct vineyard.
When I arrived in the evening, Mathieu Roland-Billecart, the seventh-generation owner, was looking over the plot. This particular plot can only produce 3,500 to 5,500 bottles. It is interesting to see how much Mathieu and the rest of the winery’s committee value this small piece of land. However, Mathieu makes sure to highlight the origin of the other grapes – chardonnay from Côte des Blancs, pinot noir from Montagne de Reims, and pinot meunier from Vallée de la Marne.
From the vineyard to the wine bottle.
After leaving the vineyards and arriving at the winery, each section of land is processed independently (allowing the winemaker to keep track of where the grapes came from for blending purposes) and undergoes fermentation at a low temperature, not going beyond 13C. This is considered to be on the cooler side of acceptable temperatures for fermenting white wine. The use of stainless steel tanks for cold fermentation results in a slower process and helps to maintain the distinctive qualities of the top-notch fruit. While some of the wine remains in stainless steel to preserve its natural aromas, a portion is transferred to older oak barrels for further aging.
In the maison’s remarkable chais (wine storerooms) some wine continues to be vinified in second- or third-use oak barrels (still in individual parcels). The journey of each plot and parcel is documented in meticulous French cursive on a series of blackboards around the winery.
Next, we headed to the underground storage area where Billecart-Salmon’s wines are left to age on lees (the remains of dead yeast from the fermentation process) for several years. This method adds a distinct biscuity and brioche flavor to the champagne. As I explored the cellars, I couldn’t help but notice the numerous bottles resting on riddling racks all around me. Above, a reminder of the cellars’ origins in the 17th century was displayed, while a long, low tunnel illuminated by sodium-orange lights stretched ahead for about a mile.
A good age
In the Champagne region, as well as in other wine regions, there exists a set of rules, known as the ‘cahier des charges’, that every winery must adhere to in order to use the term ‘champagne’ on their labels. One of these regulations dictates a minimum duration for aging on lees. For non-vintage wines, this period is 12 months, while for vintage wines it is three years. However, Billecart-Salmon consistently surpasses these requirements by prolonging the aging process for all of their wines. The winery’s introductory brut réserve undergoes 30 months of lees-aging, and their vintage cuvées often mature for over ten years.
So, what does this extra layer of complexity do for the wines? Well, I can’t help but notice their quality whenever I drink them, whether enjoying the 2008 cuvée Nicolas François with beef tartare at Le Bon Georges in Paris’s 9th arrondissement, or enlivening the palate with the brut réserve between courses at La Réserve off the Champs‑Elysées. Plus, the aforementioned brut rosé is just as divine with domestic fare as it is with fine dining. Sip it alongside olives or cured trout – just save me a drop for my next birthday.
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