Mathieu Roland-Billecart became President of Billecart-Salmon in 2019 when he replaced his cousin François Roland-Billecart who retired in the same year.

An ambitious, pragmatic, and energetic man, he abides by his family’s never-ending quest for quality and pleasure in champagne, by bringing new ideas and tools to his team to ensure Billecart-Salmon’s success under his generation.

In this exclusive interview he provides a refreshing perspective on the categories of champagne producers and explains how they are becoming irrelevant.

But he also reiterates that if great viticulture is the starting point of great champagnes, assemblage-at which houses excel-remains a cornerstone element to sublimates the fruits of nature.

With the increase in popularity of growers’ champagne, it has become the norm to stress the category of producers: houses (NM) or growers (RM). Do you think that belonging to one or the other is linked to an intrinsic better quality in the champagne?

I divide champagne producers into advocates of quality who are motivated by making better wines every day, marketers who follow trends, those who are there just to make money, and finally those who would like to be one of these three actors but are unable. There are houses, growers, and cooperatives in each category and consumers should stop wondering which of these categories the champagne producer belongs to; what matters is what the producer is trying to do.

Consumers should stop wondering which category a champagne producer belongs to; what matters is what the producer is trying to do.

There is indeed a tendency in each category to do some things and not do other things. At Billecart-Salmon we decide the harvest dates of each plot of our 240-hectares vineyard. We also make sure that the cultivation methods of our external suppliers follow our quality chart, and then we press the grapes ourselves. Our control on the viticulture is greater than growers who supposedly knows more about viticulture than houses. And there are growers who uses external service providers to undergo key tasks in the vineyard, who buy 15% of grapes from external suppliers [maximum allowed external purchase for RM], and who trade in grapes more than us for example.

What I mean is that the historical economic division of champagne producers is not decisive to the quality of the wines. There are very good growers and there are terrible ones, and the same goes for houses and cooperatives.

But do houses, given their extensive external supplies, have greater chances of making good champagne?

The starting point for making great wine is good grapes. Much of it depends on the terroirs where they are grown, with some vineyards in Champagne being superior to others. Where the house model is indeed interesting is that we have a very wide, diverse, and adaptable supply capacity.

The starting point for making great wine is good grapes. We have a very wide, diverse, and adaptable supply capacity.

Then comes viticulture: vines require the intervention of man to give good grapes. Sometimes men are able to magnify a terroir which is inferior and this can partially compensate its shortfalls. This is why cultivation methods must always adapt to the terroir: a plot located at the foot of a forest does not require the same work of one on top of the hill. At Billecart-Salmon we adapt our viticulture plot by plot, and make it evolve over time for always better results, in a process of constant monitoring, adaptation and improvement.

So, terroir and viticulture are essential.

Then comes vinification. Even with grapes of excellent quality, the winemaking tools and the hygiene of the cellars are critical. For example, to make Billecart-Salmon champagne we have to control the temperatures very precisely and the equipment for this is expensive.

Also, if you don’t have a competent, passionate and experienced winemaking team you won’t be able to make great wines. We have 250 years of experience in making champagne and a team of people who genuinely care about what they do and who focus on one thing: quality.

If you don’t have a competent, passionate and experienced winemaking team you won’t be able to make great wines.

Finally, the fourth factor for making great champagne is time. For example, a champagne made of Chardonnay from a grand cru needs 6-7 years in the cellar before disgorgement, which is not always the case.

So, according to my reading, with three satisfied factors you make good or very good wine, but not exceptional wine. For me, running Billecart-Salmon means ticking all four boxes. And even when we do, true exceptional quality is given by nature with a great vintage.

Looking at Champagne through this prism greatly limits the list of great champagne producers, whether they are houses, growers, or cooperatives.

You were talking about producers made up of marketing men. Isn’t marketing a key component of champagne’s success?

It depends on the marketing. The one that bothers me is the one that hides mediocre wines with luxury, that makes you believe that you are superior to your consumers who do not see the difference in quality. I understand that technical details do not matter to consumers, but this marketing in my opinion pulls champagne down.

But we have also fallen into the opposite excess in marketing champagne, where we are asked to produce data sheets more than good tasting experiences. The average consumer has minimal technical knowledge which does not allow him to understand all the details provided, and this confuses him. I find this marketing around viticulture-which is quite recent-to be a little caricatured, but remains positive and pulls champagne upwards.

At Billecart-Salmon, marketing is in the glass. I often meet consumers who say they don’t like champagne, to change their mind after tasting our champagnes. So, it’s not that they don’t like champagne, just there are certain champagnes that they have tasted that they don’t like.

At Billecart-Salmon, marketing is in the glass. I often meet consumers who say they don’t like champagne, to change their mind after tasting our champagnes.

Billecart-Salmon Oak Barrel
In 2010, Billecart-Salmon reintroduced vinification in barrels, with a new oak winery of over 400 small oak casks.

What makes your Brut Rosé so popular?

People love its taste. Rosé was not a popular category until the 90s but already in the 70s we decided to make the best rosé possible. We got a push from Michelin start restaurants who presented it properly, that it was not your average rosé.

Houses are the guardians of the art of assemblage, which allows them to create distinctive styles and ensure their consistency over time, providing a reference point for consumers. However, with more and more mono-cru cuvées in the market, with little or no reserve wines, the concept of blending and consistency seems to be losing relevance. What’s your take on that?

The underlying idea of assemblage is to blend different wines to make a resulting wine that is superior.

Regarding continuity, an unwary consumer who buys just a few bottles of champagnes per year will not notice any difference in style as this requires a rather developed taste memory. But more wary consumers will indeed notice the lack in consistency.

Proper assemblage it’s difficult and it’s much easier to get high quality with variance and doing single parcel champagne is very easy compared to blended champagnes.

Proper assemblage it’s difficult and it’s much easier to get high quality with variance and doing single parcel champagne is very easy compared to blended champagnes.

At Billecart-Salmon we have a tasting committee for that and yet sometimes we fail, and in these cases we do not share the result with consumers. Through blending, we apply the highest standards in the four components to make great champagne that I mentioned, to give the best every year, with consistency. But we also produce Clos St Hilaire, and rare champagne for the wine geeks, sourced from a unique plot of one hectare of old vines.

You have recently relabeled your Extra Brut champagne Brut Nature. What is your take on dosage and its ever-lowering levels?

There is no doubt that nowadays there is less need for dosage with the better grape maturity. And the general trend is that people expect their wines to be less sugary. But I think people like the idea of no sugar more than they like the taste of no sugar. You have more sugar in a frozen pizza than in a bottle of champagne. The amount is extremely tiny yet the impact on the taste is dramatic.

Dosage is a bit like the seasoning, but if the wine is not good, dosage won’t help much. If you put lipstick on a pig, it’s still a pig. What matters is the balance in the wine, not the grams of sugar. And sugar is just one of the components of balance. The use of certain crus and the vinification in barrels or vats also come into play.

We do all our trials of dosage blind. Sometimes a champagne is balanced at 7 g/l and will feel less sugary than a wine at 5 g/l. Clos St Hilaire 1999 has no dosage. But in the 2002, after many trials we decided that the balance was at 1 g/l. And if it was 8 g/l we would have done it.

Today, we can make a complete, well-made champagne with no sugar, but will it be as good? Brut Nature is the only champagne for which form now on (2020) we guarantee zero dosage. The maturity of the grapes allows us to get a similar balance, but I don’t agree that champagne with no dosage is better than champagne with dosage and that less dosage makes better champagne.

Today, we can make a complete, well-made champagne with no sugar, but will it be as good?

I’m trying to offer the best tasting experience, I’m not a doctor. And a doctor will probably ask you not to drink at all, with or without dosage.

The job of your cousin François Roland-Billecart, in charge of the house until 2019, has been to reposition the brand and further improve the quality of your champagnes. That has been achieved. What’s your job ahead?

I have two objectives: mine and the one given by our family. My objective is to make better wines, wines that make you cry for the strong emotions they give you. I want to get to the very pinnacle of what’s possible in quality in champagne. The family objective is to pass on the company to the next generation.

I want to get to the very pinnacle of what’s possible in quality in champagne.

I have no financial results to show, and that gives me the luxury of time. We make no compromises; if the blend is not ready, we will iterate it three times more. If a vintage champagne needs to be downgraded, we’ll do it. Very few have such freedom in Champagne.

We strive to make our Brut better. During the tasting of our wines at the assemblage, I ask our Chef de Cave Flaurent Nys to question himself permanently, if each wine is the best he could do, and strive for something amazing. Our Brut non-vintage is among the most expensive in Champagne and yet our sales volumes go up. Why? It is a better value proposition. We don’t have the marketing budget to get endorsed by a start, so we use our money to make better wines and find enough consumers who are willing to pay for the quality we provide.

I ask our Chef de Cave to question himself permanently, if each wine is the best he could do, and strive for something amazing.

I’m a happiness merchant and I take very seriously my responsibility in supplying the consumer who buys one bottle of champagne per year, say for his or her wedding anniversary, and for whom that’s a lot of money. That bottle has to be amazing! Billecart-Salmon is a supporting actor in moments of happiness, and we don’t intend to disappoint.

Billecart-Salmon is a supporting actor in moments of happiness, and we don’t intend to disappoint.

We are not after the champagne geek, who is not faithful to a brand by definition. We are after the champagne lover who experiments to get the best tasting experience. I want to be in the top 10 brands of Champagne [they are the 7th Most Admired Champagne Brand in 2021].

For me, a good result at the end of the year is to have customers who are amazed by the quality of our wines and who will recommend them and trust us without having tasted them.

What is champagne to you?

Champagne it’s a lifestyle, it’s a passion, is pleasure and sharing moments.

Champagne it’s a lifestyle, it’s a passion, is pleasure and sharing moments. In Champagne we are very lucky to have a great terroir. We are all so invested in the responsibility of the common project, and we don’t have the right to be pessimistic.