Meets the Professional

Interview with Antoine Rolland-Billecart
Billecart Salmon Champagne

We all love Champagne and sure we all have our favorites, however, there is one brand that everyone likes and so do I. I have been using their Brut Reserve by the glass since 14 years ago when I start to have my own wine list, up until my last project. Today I finally met one of the two brothers that manage the House, firstly, Mr. Antoine Roland-Billecart who will give an insight into their philosophy on their production. The setting for this type of event is stunning as usual, the private Dining Room of Celebrities Restaurant at The One & Only Royal Mirage resort.

Antoine together with his brother François, and it is the 6th generation of Champagne Billecart-Salmon House. 200 years family owned and managed, the Champagne House from Mareuil-sur-Äy was established in 1818 when Niçolas François Billecart married Elizabeth Salmon.

During the Master Class, Antoine let us immerse in his philosophy of style while tasting 7 of his magnificent wines.

Champagne is a region specific dedicated to the sparkling wines, and we as Billecart-Salmon we want to show the capacity of the region, and not to produce a structured wine that is not what champagne is known for. Champagne should be fresh and delicate.

Being a family own house allows us to fully use our philosophy. Our goals are to develop the base wine with its own personality. At Billecart-Salmon we work double to achieve the best. We take lots of time to develop our cuvee.

To make our base wine, we grow tree grape varieties in our land.
In the vineyards, we work towards the concentration and typicality of each grape variety. Pinot Meunier is fantastic for the fruit and the character of this fruit cannot be found in the other two grape varieties.

Chardonnay imparts great acidity to the Pinot Meunier and Pinot Noir imparts great complexity and structure. Someone would say why you don’t take the fruit from the Chardonnay and from the Pinot Noir and leave the Pinot Meunier? Firstly, because Pinot Meunier represents 47% of the AOC in Champagne and secondly because of the character of the fruit that both Chardonnay and Pinot Noir don’t have. That said that our Brut Reserve Champagne has to show all the quality of those three grape varieties. The yields in Champagne are around 80-90 Hectoliter per hectare, with the exception of some particular vintages like the 2016, where we lost 30% of our volume due to an awful spring heavy in frost and hail. However, those are yields that we would really work as we get more quality in our fruit.
When it comes the harvest time, we are looking more to the acidity than the maturity in the grapes, because acidity is what we are looking for the style of Billecart: very high natural acidity.

As House Champagne, we will never re-acidify prior to the first fermentation, not even in very warm particular vintages as was 2003 and to achieve a very slow and cold process of fermentation. While others do around 10 day’s fermentation, at Billecart we do around 30 – 40 days, and we do that by training the yeast prior to inoculating.
After the pressing, we extract 99.9 % of the wild yeast, and we use yeast that is more delicate and in line with the style of Billecart. We train that yeast to work at around 13-14 degrees, which gives a transformation per day of 1/10 sugar alcohol so it is very slow. We want to ensure that we keep the acidity and the basic character of the fruit. Mainly this is the difference between our philosophy and other Champagne Houses
After the 1st fermentation, we don’t rack the wine, and we work in small tanks of 50 hectoliter so its parcel by parcel system of vinification, and we will never pre-blend before the vinification is totally finished because at the end we will blend but we want to blend right.

Every harvest and every vintage we hold at least 1/3 of the harvest in reserve wine, because when you buy our Reserve Brut Champagne you are confident that there is at least 40% of a reserve wine.

Back to vinification, it is important to us to keep maximum lees contact with the wine. What we do at the end of the first vinification is that we keep the wine on lees and as we block the malolactic fermentation, we top up in a tank with no oxygen and we regulate on 10 degrees. Then we leave the wine for a period of time following its evolution. After the first fermentation the lees needs to settle for at least one month, then when you taste and you evaluate the evolution and if for example, we think that it needs more character then we maybe do batonage in the tank, very slow. We don’t apply batonage to the Pinot Meunier as it would add too much complexity and we don’t like that style as we prefer a fresher style. Then at one stage we stop and evaluate if we need to do the malolactic or not, depending on the evolution. This depends on from the style of cuvee that we want to do and so we ask ourself if the complexity and structure are what we would have from the malolactic, and which cuvee would benefit? Anyway, the malolactic we hold, we can always add at a later stage when we are defining the different cuvee and once we understand more of the evolution of our wines. Some years, for example, you have lots of malic acids in the fruit; so you know if you do the malolactic not much will change in term of the freshness of the acidity.

The vinification for Billecart is a long process and we wait for the blend before declaring the vintage and not during harvest time.

Once the vinification is completely finished we need to start bottling , so we start pre-blend Pinot Meunier with all the Pinot Meunier and the same process we apply for the Chardonnay and the Pinot Noir.
We work in a precise style, so for brut and extra brut we already know that we have to place 45% of our reserve wines, so we need to focus only on the 55% left, We also know that 45% of the current vintage will go into reserve wines for next year, and this is the key in Champagne which gives us consistency in our product-you keep a proportion of what you have done this year and you keep for next year.
Even in a great vintage like 2015 we would love to place much more into Vintage Champagne, but we believe it’s a short vision, so we apply the same rules and place the 45% into reserve wines, as we don’t know yet what will be the 2016 and 2017 vintage.

The first wine we taste is our Brut Reserve Champagne. The legal requirement for this category is to keep the lees for 18 months but at Billecart we keep maturing on the lees for 30 months. We keep for all this time because the longer the maturation on lees, the lower is the dosage that you do. Usually, other standard Brut Reserve have dosage around 10 to 13 grams of sugar per litre, but for us, we only add maximum 7 grams per litre. This is because we work intensely on the quality of the fruit we don’t want to hide the fruit behind the sugar. Our liquor dosage is not a secret: we use triple refined cane sugar to have lots of concentration and minimum of residual and we mixed with still wine. Then in the dosage we can use barrel fermented wine, or young tanks vinification type of wine, it depends on how far you are on the aging with the lees and 3% is the maximum  volume that you can add.

Our Extra Brut Champagne comes from the same blend of our Brut Reserve and the difference is that the reserve wine is kept one more extra year in the cellar before the final blend, 42 months on the lees instead of 30, and 0 dosage, so after the disgorgement is straight bottled. (legislation for extra brut is between 0-4 grams residual sugar). The blend is more focused on Chardonnay and Pinot Noir because this style is more orientated as a trend on the pinot noir style than the other 2 grape variety. Why the chef needs to have extra brut is because the extra brut is more for food matching.

The idea came from me as my father didn’t want to use the lesser quantity of Chardonnay for a new production of Blanc de Blanc Non-Vintage Champagne, so my father told me to source my own grapes for this project. I sourced 10 hectares, of which 7 from Le Mesnil-surOger in the Cotes de Blancs, which is the spine of the Chardonnay with big structure, complexity and high acidity, and the other 3 hectares are from Ay, because the fruits are less structured and this was the style I had in mind when I start to work on this project. Now we have 45 hectares, and we stand out from other Bland de Blanc not only because our Chardonnay is fresher and has greater acidity, but also because with this new addition to our House we start to do batonage, which imparts strength and a long finish. The dosage here is 8 grams per liter and the production is around 1000 bottles, quite small but very concentrate on the quality.

In 1995 we start the vinification in barrels from 1 hectare of Clos Saint Hilaire.
We started from 20 barrels and now we have 500 barrels. It all started because we had a lot of red wine reserve in the cellar so we wanted to do another champagne style, so we created the Brut Sous Bois Champagne. When we decided to do all vinification in the barrel I had to go the day before the harvest to my dear friend Olivier Leflaive in Burgundy and take 20 barrel from him. Since 1995 we have increased the number of barrels, so without any tannins, we were looking for Vanilla flavour, toasty notes, no oxidation and in this Champagne you have 1/3 of each grape variety. We don’t apply the malolactic, so that means that we want to see if the Pinot Meunier can handle the elevage in barrels. All process from fermentation is in barrels, so we need to use a specific barrel for each single grape variety.

The goal of Sous Bois Champagne is to make it possible to vinify in the barrel without having the problem of the tannins and work more with the spicy flavours. The dosage is 5 grams of sugar per litre and the total time spent in barrel is around 6-7 months.

Nicolas Francois 1999 is 60% Pinot Noir and 40 % Chardonnay, that is the original recipe of the very first vintage of Billecart-Salmon. The parcel selection is Grand Cru and with a production of 60,000 bottles, so very small.
Before 1998 it was called Grand Cuvee, but this name was lost amongst others so we opted to call it after the name of our founder, and it’s the flagship of our house to compete with other top cuvee. We don’t produce often, after the 1999 we released the 2002, that is currently in the market and all the other we need to wait as we age them for at least 10 years.

This wine is a surprise for you, and I’m glad you recognize that it is a Pinot Noir from the 1990’s. Unfortunately, it’s not 1996 as everyone would expect, one of the greatest vintages, but it’s a 1998 Clos Saint Hilaire. It’s a biodynamic Champagne, lightly pressed, barrel fermented, no malolactic, 7-8 months barrel aging, after the racking we place into tanks, we fine and we place in the bottle with 0 dosage.

It’s biodynamic wine and we tend to loose lots of volume due to the powdery mildew. What we want to show is a different style of red wine, more delicate than the structured Ay village one.

Brut Rose for Billecart is something very special, a signature, because when my grandfather asked his enologist to produce its rose he said: produce a rose that doesn’t look and taste like a rose. The enologist came up with a blend with Chardonnay as the major player and he added 6-7% of red wine to get the right color and the fruit flavor.
The total blend is 50% Chardonnay 30% Pinot Meunier and 20% Pinot Noir, maximum 24 months on lees as we want the rose to be very fresh. Our philosophy is to have a Champagne Rose and not a Rose Champagne.

For the Elisabeth Salmon, we have 40 hectares of wines, of which 50% is Chardonnay and 50% is Pinot Noir, no barrel addition because this produces a level of bitterness at the end so we prefer when we don’t use that method.

My two preferred Champagne, is the Rose, as it’s the most iconic, and the Blanc de Blanc, not because I have created it, but because I genuinely love it. Regarding vintages, the best for the 80’s is the 1986, in the 90’s it is the 1996 and in the new millennium it is the 2002 and the 2015.