On the Trail

To Billecart-Salmon

Gary Westby
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A trip to the little village of Mareuil-sur-Ay to visit Champagne Billecart-Salmon is always a treat. Today was extra special because we had the chance to tour and taste with Florent Nys, the chef de cave. Florent took over the reins from long time chef de cave Francois Domi in February of 2018, but he has a long history here for such a young man. Florent started as an intern 14 years ago, and spent many years as the number two making the wine.

We started out with a visit to the barrel room, which will soon be adding many new foudres (8000 liter oak barrels) as they are very impressed with the quality of wine that they have been making in the two they currently have. After we had a look in the cellar for making red wine, the crucial ingredient for the Billecart Salmon Brut Rose; the rose that sets the standard for all others. The limiting factor for the production of the rose is the red wine—they like to use old massal-selected Pinot Noir from the village of Mareuil, and the vines need to be very old, 60-80 years to make the cut. They use tanks with built in robotic punch down machines to make a full bodied red wine without too much tannin, quite a trick this far north.

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After the visit, we headed to the very well-lit tasting room that the production staff uses for meeting and making their wine making decisions. We tasted through some vin-clair (the still wine that has not yet bottle fermented to become Champagne) from the 2017 harvest and he explained some of the challenges the last vintage posed. Not only did they have a big spring frost on April 20th which destroyed a lot of Chardonnay, but they had to deal with a very wet, warm August that caused a lot of botrytis (rot) in the vineyards before the harvest. On top of that, they had a problem with a fruit fly called a “Suzuki” which breaks the skins of the grapes and creates all kinds of problems for the juice if the effected bunches are not sorted out before fermentation. Florent explained that for him, the short crop of Chardonnay was the best quality, while the most problematic was Meunier, as it was strongly effected by both the botrytis and the Suzuki.

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We tasted through nearly the entire range of current releases, as well as a preview of the magnum only Bicentenary cuvee. I have to say that the Brut Reserve really stood out, showing the incredible commitment to quality that makes Billecart-Salmon so deservedly famous. This Champagne is always about 40% Meunier, 30% Chardonnay and 30% Pinot Noir, and the current batch that is on the shelf is based on the excellent, clean and racy 2014 harvest. Reserve is not just a name for Florent, and the wine is 50% made from older wines, a lot coming from oak aged soleras. We tasted the Pinot Noir and Meunier soleras to see what this component is like, and it is no wonder that this Champagne has the depth that it does, they have a ten year rotation! It is still as fresh and clean as ever.

-Gary Westby