Francois Roland-Billecart has been president of Billecart-Salmon from 1992 until 2019 when he retired and passed the hand to his younger cousin Mathieu Roland-Billecart, keeping the house safely within the family. I met an open and generous man, a natural risk-taker, who talks of the recent history of his house and of their success with much satisfaction, stressing the strong family spirit behind it.
What are the distinctive characteristics of Billecart-Salmon compared to other Champagne houses?
Created in 1818, our family still manages the house. In the early 2000s, some family members wanted to sell their shares, which passed from hand to hand and ended up with the Frey group who owns Paul Jaboulet Aîné in Côte du Rhône, Château La Lagune in Bordeaux, and 80 ha of vineyards in Champagne, among other things.
We take our time; we don’t rush. We aim at producing value to give us the means to build our future.
Financial hands do not hold these shares, and there is a big difference between the business of financiers and that of family members. I don’t use the term financiers with contempt because I was one myself at a time, but when a financier takes part in the capital of a house, he has already planned the exit in five or seven years. If we had been a business of financiers, we could have never introduced certain changes. We would have limited the changes to marketing, and if we had been successful, we may have produced 8-9 million per year bottles instead of the 2.5 million we are producing now. This is a very fragile and difficult threshold because we are stuck between bigger brands and cooperatives. However, a family business, if successful, is fantastic. If shareholders receive dividends, they are happy, and they give you time to keep going. We take our time; we don’t rush. We aim at producing value to give us the means to build our future.
What contributed most to the success of your house?
First, the quality of the wines. Second, the quality of the salesmen who convey our message, and then–probably the most important–the distribution network.
In the past, we sold to supermarkets. I decided to move us away from mass-market retailers because the volumes needed to supply them didn’t suit us. In 1993, we bought all the stocks present in supermarkets to refocus on high-quality distribution networks like wine shops and high-end restaurants with clienteles more attentive to the quality of champagne.
What is the importance of the brand and communication?
A brand is alive. Certain brands very special and successful but then became common, ordinary. A brand is also an identity and, in our case, it’s our name; it’s a lot of things. Our distinctive logo represents our initial BS, but we removed the left side. This logo strikes people and identifies our brand, our family, and our wines.
Billecart-Salmon is a respected brand because we try to generate publicity similar to that of great perfume brands such as Chanel.
Billecart-Salmon is a respected brand because we try to generate publicity similar to that of great perfume brands such as Chanel. I am a big fan of Chanel, their distribution, the simplicity of their products, the way they talk about it. We do some institutional communication because we cannot remain anonymous, but that’s not what we are after. The family aspect of our house makes our preferred means of communication that of holding a glass.
What do you mean by that?
When we get a customer to try a wine or a bottle with our name on it, there is a need, a pride, to be satisfied with what we offer.
I mean that we meet our customers and we make them taste the wines. When we get a customer to try a wine or a bottle with our name on it, there is a need, a pride, to be satisfied with what we offer. Among Champagne houses, we see more and more a distinction between brand and wine, maybe due to the evolution of the product. Most of the time, houses highlight a brand but not the inherent quality of the wine. This is the dilemma of champagne today: on one hand, those who talk about wine and make the wine, and on the other hand, a logic and industrial approach to selling it. There are only medium to small size houses that know how to talk about wine.
How do you define your wines and their style?
We were pioneers in cold settling in Champagne in the 1950s.
Billecart-Salmon works on quality. We were pioneers in cold settling in Champagne in the 1950s. The musts are cloudy after pressing. There are two usual ways to clarify them: by filtration or by centrifugation. With cold settling instead, we place the musts in a tank and kept at 4-5 °C (40-41 °F) for three days. A natural clarification occurs, with clear and clean musts that haven’t been deprived of their organoleptic qualities and that will develop further aromas. Then we place the musts in another tank where the temperatures rise naturally and are kept at 11-13 °C (52-55 °F) to start a slow alcoholic fermentation.
We tested the impact of this technique by producing wines without it and realized that there wasn’t a huge difference except for less elegance, finesse, and righteousness. When they age, wines of cold-settled musts remain “closed” a little longer but later on develop important aromas and complexity as they have a greater concentration of triglycerides. The “normal” wines are nice too, but they don’t have this extra taste that we get.
The results of our vinification, made up of many small details that make the difference, are wines for aperitifs. We don’t look for heaviness or a powerful body, except for our vintage rosé Cuvée Elisabeth Salmon or our Cuvée Sous Bois. We want to make wines that give pleasure to those who drink them. But pleasure can take different forms. One day I saw four executive women in their 50s sitting down at a café and starting to work. The waiter asked, “What would you like to drink?” and they answered, “As usual.” The waiter came back with a bottle of Billecart-Salmon Brut Rosé. This is the pleasure I mean. They don’t beat around the bush, they just drink their champagne and apparently, they do that every day.
Why is your rosé so successful?
Because it is nice. We found a style with our rosé that contradicts what others do. We kept the red fruits aromas in a champagne that is dynamic, fresh, and pleasing. Most of the time, rosé champagnes are made with too much red wine. The color of our rosé is very light and we make it with one purpose in mind: pleasure, pleasure, pleasure.
What is the main tasting difference between rosé champagne d’assemblage like yours and rosé with the saignée method?
Rosé d’assemblage champagne is easier to taste for the consumer, as there are no tannins, which can taste dry on the palate. However, rosé d’assemblage requires the capability to make red wines (that must come from the Champagne region). At Billecart-Salmon, we know how to make red wine, with and without tannins.
You often refer to pleasure in champagne. What are you referring to exactly?
There are champagne brands that people will drink once, one glass and that’s all. These are champagnes that cost less than 20 euro (in France), often used to receive guests, or for a child’s birthday, for example. Here, it is all about getting access to a name, a brand, the champagne brand. But there are other brands of which people ask for a second glass because they find pleasure in it. This is what champagne is.
We don’t want to make things complicated. We are merchants of pleasure. We make wines for people to say, “I like this champagne.”
We don’t want to make things complicated. We are merchants of pleasure. We make wines for people to say, “I like this champagne.” But to achieve that it is very difficult, especially with brut non-vintage champagne that represents the barometer of any Champagne house, against which its winemaking know-how is measured. It is about all the upstream work and a lot of steps in the production process that cannot be missed.
You mentioned cheaper champagnes of less than 20 euros. Do you think that champagne will remain a luxury product with an important price, given the aggressive competition of cheaper sparkling wines?
Are we going to sell all the champagne bottles at a premium price and make sure that champagne stays at the top of the 3.5 billion bottles of sparkling wine sold worldwide? I don’t know, but we know for sure that the champagne name is regulated, and we can’t produce as many bottles as we want. We must avoid that champagne becomes like salmon and foie gras, two luxury products that the distribution in supermarket killed. They used to be luxury items 30 or 40 years ago and are very common today. Saint-Exupéry said about the future: “You do not have to foresee, but to enable it.” We can’t decide what champagne will be tomorrow, however, we can decide on a measured expansion that remains in the logic of the industry of champagne.
You were born in Champagne. What does it mean to you?
I was born in our Champagne house; champagne is in my genes. When you come from Champagne, you understand its climate and vineyards, like no other; you are used to it. I always spend my holidays in the south of France, but after a while I miss our vineyards.