François Domi has been chef de cave of Billecart-Salmon for 33 years. Since 2005, Florent Nys assisted him, learning all the intricacies to craft these praised wines, until replacing him in 2018. I interviewed them together and met a brilliant duo, true masterminds that undertake their job lightly and seriously at the same time, in line with the Billecart-Salmon’s spirit of unpretentiousness, spontaneity, joy, and constant quest for great quality and pleasure in their wines. Sparkling Domi and analytical Nys openly and modestly explain their approach to winemaking: sourcing the best grapes and vinifying them with care and passion.
How would you define the Billecart-Salmon style?
Billecart-Salmon is finesse, elegance, and vinosity.
François Domi (FD): Billecart-Salmon is finesse, elegance, and vinosity. We look for purity, for wines that are more aromatically pure than powerful and are light and creamy.
You mainly use grapes from the Vallée de la Marne, Côte des Blancs, and Montagne de Reims. Do you use grapes from the Aube subregion?
FD: Wines from the Aube are very powerful. We use some, but we look more for delicacy in wines, which is what we find in pinots noirs from the Montagne de Reims and the Grande Vallée de la Marne (Aÿ and Mareuil-sur-Aÿ), for example, which are excellent. The pinots meuniers come from the Vallée de la Marne, from sectors in the right bank (Damery, Venteuil) and the left bank (Leuvrigny).
What is more important in reproducing your style: the origin of the grapes or the vinification process?
FD: They are both important. It is a chain that cannot have any weak links. Our vinification is characterized by “cold” first fermentations at 13 °C (55 °F), resulting in slow fermenting musts into wine. As this fermentation takes a very long time, it needs to be constantly supervised. Analytically, the resulting wines are similar to those of “classic” vinification, but when you taste them, they have more flavors and more elegant aromas. The aromas in our wines don’t express themselves immediately; they need time. They are elegant aromas, more suggested than imposed, and that is exactly what we are looking to express with our style.
Is that why you suggest pouring your champagnes in carafes?
FD: Yes, but using carafes is not ideal for all of our champagnes because it is an oxidative shock for the wine. It is more suited for some of our vintage champagnes. It allows them to open, to have more volume in the mouth because part of the carbonic gas escapes when pouring the champagne into the carafe. It is interesting to get an idea of what carafes can bring and compare that with a wine served straight into a glass, where it opens up, little by little, by warming up.
What role reserve wines play in reproducing your style?
FD: Reserve wines allow us to have a certain opulence in our champagnes and get a consistent style year after year. Reserve wines make up 50% to 55% of our Brut Réserve.
Florent Nys (FN): We sort reserve wines by year. We have wines from 2012, 2013, 2014 and 2015. Until recently, we still had wines from 2008. It is only a small proportion, but we had to keep them to create the blend that we seek.
What is your view on the current trend of producing single-parcel champagnes to express the individuality of their terroirs?
Single-parcel wines are a stylistic choice and a bit of a trend. At Billecart-Salmon, our philosophy remains to blend different wines and to craft champagnes that are likable, gracious, accessible and enjoyable.
FD: Single-parcel wines are a stylistic choice and a bit of a trend. At Billecart-Salmon, our philosophy remains to blend different wines and to craft champagnes that are likable, gracious, accessible and enjoyable. We also make vintage blends that express the aromatic characteristics of that year. These are more powerful wines that must remain accessible. Our prestige cuvée Nicolas François is a vintage wine that can age longer, gaining additional body as well as elegance.
You introduced a new winery of over 450 oak barrels. Why did you make such a choice?
Wines kept in wood bring more complexity and more aromas to our champagnes while keeping a balance.
FD: Wines kept in wood bring more complexity and more aromas to our champagnes while keeping a balance. That said, we use very little of those wines–about 3 to 4%–in our cuvées. We also make liqueurs d’expédition with these wines to give a final touch to our champagnes.
So, why do you make a cuvée that is vinified completely in wood, with your Brut Sous Bois?
FN: We decided to make this cuvée and vinify it completely in wood to show our style of wine that has been vinified in barrels compared to non-vintage cuvées vinified in steel vats; to make a cuvée that is different from the others. Since the 1970s, with the introduction of stainless steel vats that are easier to manage than wooden barrels, champagne production has become a lot more automated. We asked ourselves if we had not strayed too far away from tradition and therefore, we decided to go back a bit and work with old techniques to make new things. We have several coopers and we get different results in our wines from one cooper to the next. We also realized that certain grapes express themselves better in certain barrels. It has taken us 20 years to develop these skills that we express with our Brut Sous Bois.
You have lowered the dosage of your wines. Why? Is dosage still necessary?
FN: Dosage is necessary to keep champagne balanced, it is part of the process. Certain champagnes deserve a dosage to be complete, but you have to make sure that you respect the wine’s identity; the wine must not lose out to sugar. Conversely, you need to be careful not to fall into austerity. But we lowered the levels of dosage because of global warming that leads to earlier harvests with grapes that are more concentrated in sugar. FD: There is also a cultural aspect through which the consumer looks for more aromas, and sugar partially hides the aromas. Cuisine has become more refined, so we needed champagnes to go with it, which meant having a lower dosage. However, some wines that need a higher dosage.