Based in its gorgeous family house in Mareuil-sur-Aÿ next to Epernay, Billecart-Salmon is a much-respected family-owned maison renewed for the finesse of its champagnes. Its popularity and success are greatly connected to its non-vintage rosé, one of the very best in this category, and a true benchmark. The brand is a reference in France, in Australia–where it is also known as “Billy”–and in many more countries.
Nicolas François Billecart and Elisabeth Salmon were both members of families who owned vineyards around Mareuil-sur-Aÿ and that sold grapes to the Champagne houses. In 1818, they married and founded their house Billecart-Salmon and began producing and selling their champagne. Subsequently, Louis Salmon, Elisabeth’s brother with a passion for enology, joined the family business. While Nicolas François oversaw all the commercial activity, Louis dedicated himself to winemaking.
The house was passed down for several generations, going through the hardships of the phylloxera crisis and WW1. At the end of the war, the next in line, Charles Roland-Billecart returned in Mareuil-sur-Aÿ to find an empty house, with scarce stocks in the cellars. After years of reconstruction, he managed to return the house to sales of more than 200,000 bottles per year in the mid-1930s.
In the late 1950s, Jean, the eldest son of Charles, initiated a revolution in quality. Inspired by the methods used by brewers, he introduced in Champagne the technique of cold settling of the musts combined with the use of stainless steel tanks for a longer fermentation at a lower temperature. This way the freshness and finesse in the wines are better maintained, becoming the hallmark of the Billecart-Salmon champagnes.
In the 1970s, the next in line, Jean Roland-Billecart introduced another “innovation” in Champagne, by giving a new dignity to rosé champagne, until then considered of second class. He created Brut Rosé, a champagne very elegant in color and taste that has since become the house’s flagship cuvée.
In 1993, François, the eldest son of Jean, took over the running of the house and embarked upon a radical change: buying back the champagne stocks from supermarkets to reposition the brand and concentrate the distribution toward independent retailers and fine dining establishments.
In 2000, the house invested in a new winery of small thermoregulated tanks to better maintain the individuality of grape varieties and parcels.
Since 2003, the house is supported by the Frey group that owns 45% of Billecart-Salmon as well as a vineyard in Champagne and wine properties in the Rhone, Bordeaux, and Burgundy.
In 2010, the house returned to the ancestral methods of vinification carried out in barrels, with a new oak winery of over 400 small and two large oak casks. In 2018, the house celebrated its 200 years of history with the inauguration of the new 24 large oak casks, rigorously selected from amongst the best coppers, which hold 80 hl.
In 2019, Mathieu Roland-Billecart, representing the family’s seventh generation, took over from his cousin François who retired in the same year. The continuous and flawless transition between family members participated in the long-term success of Billecart-Salmon, whose motto is: “Give priority to quality, strive for excellence.”
Vineyard and Production
The house cultivates 100 ha, complemented with grapes from other vine growers for a total of 300 ha across 40 crus of Champagne, to produce about 2.5 million bottles per year. Most of the grapes come from a radius of 20 km around Epernay, from grands and premiers crus in the Montagne de Reims, the Vallée de la Marne, and the Côte des Blancs, planted with pinot noir, pinot meunier, and chardonnay. The family loves pinot meunier and use loads of it in their blends. In addition, they own and cultivate Clos Saint Hilaire, one of the few enclosed parcels of Champagne: 1 ha planted with pinot noir at the foot of the Mareuil-sur-Aÿ hill used to make a special champagne named after it. Chef de Cave François Domi, and more lately Florent Nys who took over from him in 2018 after working together for several years, apply the house’s special know-how in champagne making. They use only the very first press (cuvée), they perform cold-settling of the musts eliminating wild yeasts and other heavy elements without the use of enzymes, filtering or centrifuging; they vinify the musts separately cru by cru and grape variety to keep the distinct expression of the terroirs and finally, they carry the fermentation at a lower temperature–in stainless steel and some in oak–for great finesse in the resulting wines with delicate and pure aromas. Reserve wines make for a great part of the non-vintage blends, more than 50% in their Brut Réserve. Bottle aging is never less than 30 months for non-vintage champagnes, and between three and 10 years for vintage champagnes.
Billecart-Salmon champagnes are renowned for their finesse, delicacy, and balance, for uncomplicated, genuine, elegant pleasure.
The range is pretty wide, with champagnes in every category, all refined and very approachable, delicious in fact. Among the non-vintages, the most emblematic are Brut Rosé, their flagship, and Brut Sous Bois, one of the first champagnes entirely vinified in oak since the revival of this traditional material. Brut Réserve is very solid and pleasant and in my opinion overshadowed by Brut Rosé. They also produce Demi-Sec, and Extra Brut, which has recently evolved into Brut Nature that enjoys longer aging of four years to compensate for the absence of dosage. They craft a vintage and three different vintage prestige champagnes, in tribute to their founder, his wife, and his brother-in-law: Cuvée Nicolas François, Cuvée Elisabeth Salmon, and Cuvée Louis Salmon, a chardonnay and pinot noir, a rosé, and a blanc de blancs respectively. Finally, they produce Le Clos Saint-Hilaire, a vintage prestige blanc de noir, made with pinot noir for their clos in Mareuil-sur-Aÿ, renowned for the complexity and rarity of its aromas.