Billecart- Salmon – Understated Elegance.

Visiting Champagne is always a treat.  The treat this time is that I also had the family in tow, a celebratory long weekend of birthdays and anniversaries.  This was to be their first wine tour and our first family holiday all together since childhood.  What could go wrong?

photo by Leif Carlsson

photo by Leif Carlsson

I decided that the best way for my siblings to understand the magic of this effervescent drink was for us to take in the diversity of what the region has to offer. So we based ourselves in Epernay, the regions capital in a gite at the start of the Avenue de Champagne  – a famous street lined with the HQ’s of many leading champagne producers such as Moet et Chandon, Mercier and De Castellane.  The trip was to include a visit to a small organic vineyard, several tours of the major well-known champagne houses and a private tasting organised by yours truly @TheGrapeWizard.   But the highlight and the most anticipated was to the most admired producer in the industry, Billecart-Salmon in Mareuil-sur-Ay.

photo by Leif Carlsson

photo by Leif Carlsson

Maison Billecart-Salmon is a small-medium family-owned producer at the very top end and as you might imagine they are not able to say yes to all of the huge number of visitor requests.  So it was with excitement, anticipation and a sense of awe that, like an excited herd of young billy goats,  we all trotted off on our last day.

Pulling up to the house we were not disappointed; an elegant building of tan coloured stones, luxurious yet understated.  Jerome, our guide for the tour, greeted us warmly.  Elegantly dressed, with refined manners and a subtle galliac dry humour he had us all transfixed.

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TheGrapeWizard & Jerome

History was made 200 years ago, in 1818, when Nicolas François Billecart and Elisabeth Salmon who owned a vineyard were married, marking the creation of their Champagne House. Ever since, through 7 generations, each member of the family has stayed faithful to the motto: “Give priority to quality, strive for excellence”.

Our tour started outside at the esteemed 1 hectare vineyard Clos Saint Hilaire (which is about the size of Twickenham’s rugby field).

photo by Leif Carlsson1

Clos St Hilaire

A Clos is a parcel of vines enclosed by a wall on 3 sides.  Whilst grapes of different vintages and vineyards are blended, a Clos Champagne is made from the grapes from a single parcel of land.  There are only around 20 Clos in the Champagne region and since one vine produces only around 5 bottles of wine you understand the cost of this most rare of vintages.  The vines, soil and subsoil are farmed bio-dynamically with the use of draft horses and even grazing sheep to keep the weeds down!

photo by Leif Carlsson

photo by Leif Carlsson

The Clos Saint-Hilaire creates an exceptional champagne exclusively from Pinot Noir on limited release of between 3,500 to 7,500 individually numbered bottles and only in vintage years.

The champagnes of Maison Billecart-Salmon are created thanks to the knowledge of the men who rigorously cultivate an estate of 100 hectares, across 40 crus of the Champagne region combined with a complex and thorough blending process supervised by the elderly head of the family Monsieur Antoine Roland-Billecart. The majority of the grapes used for vinification come from a radius of 20km around Epernay, where the Grand Crus of Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay co-exist, in the ethereal vineyards of the Montagne de Reims, the Vallée de la Marne and the Côte des Blancs.

The Cuverie

photo by Leif Carlsson

photo by Leif Carlsson

As part of the ever present quest to raise the quality of their champagnes, in the Fifties, the House were the first to use the technique of cold settling (normally used in the brewing industry)

The “cold settling” step involves letting the pressed juice, skins, and sometimes stems settle overnight in a vat for up to three days wherein the solids sink to the bottom. Typical temperatures for this process are between 41-50 degrees fahrenheit (5-10 Celcius). The purpose of this step is to clarify the juice to prevent off-flavors from being present in the final product. Once the suspended particles have settled, the clear juice is transferred, or racked to another vat or fermentation vessel. This is really only used for the production of whites and rosés.

combined with the use of stainless steel tanks for a longer fermentation at a lower temperature. The vinification is carried out cru by cru, grape variety by grape variety which allows for conservation of the full range of characteristics of the terroir to be captured.  The low temperature encourages the most delicate ofaromas and allows all the purity of the fruit to be expressed. The elegance produced is the absolute signature of the Billicart-Salmon style.

Next on the tour was a visit to the Chais (wineries) one of which is a brand new state-of-the-art room built to celebrate Billicart’s bicentenary.  They house 400 small and 24 gigantic oak casks where the wine is vinified in oak to reveal all its richness and aromatic complexity to create their latest cuvee “Sous Bois”.

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The bottled wine then makes it’s way down to the chalk cellars which date from 17th and 19th centuries. Over three to four years, the non-vintage champagnes really blossom, staying around twice as long as the fixed regulations of the appellation. The vintage cuvées patiently wait ten years before they begin to reveal their maturity.

Allowing time to play its role is behind the grandeur of Billecart-Salmon champagnes.

And time now to savour the results. It did not disappoint.  Tasting notes below.

If you want to learn more about Billecart-Salmon, catching up with an interview with Mathieu Roland-Billecart, the current CEO and the Chef de Caves then please go over to my website www.thegrapewizard.com. Simply sign up with your Email.

Tasting Notes

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Billecart- Salmon Cuvee Elizabeth Brut Rose 2007

A salmon pink appearance with a whiff of red berries, citrus peel and stone fruits. Some would say fresh figs, white peach, almond macarons. A delight !

On the mouth a mixture of nectarine and cardamom – exposing the elegance of a tangy mandarin together with delicate flavours of cedar and exotic wood.

Pair with creamy poultry, langoustines and /or  crunchy hibiscus macarons.

Serve at: 11-12°C

GW Rating 5/5

TheGrapeWizard.com
Billecart- Salmon Cuvee Louis Brut Blanc de Blanc 2006

APPEARANCE
golden yellow hue and a few green glints of youth.
PALATE
A beautifully refreshing flavours of citron zest, peach and white pepper
AROMA
whipped cream, white flowers and citrus fruits
Pair matches such as turbot or a creamy shellfish risotto.
Serve at: 11-12°C
GW Rating 5/5

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Billecart- Salmon Cuvee Nicolas Francois Brut 2006

APPEARANCE: yellow gold veiled in luminous golden reflections.

PALATE:honeyed notes associated with stone fruits with aromas of citrus zest.

AROMA: preserved peaches, fine apple tart and lemon verbena tea

Pair with roasted poultry or a turbot in a creamy sauce.

Serve at: 11-12°C

GW Rating 5/5

photo by Leif Carlsson

photo by Leif Carlsson

Billecart-Salmon Extra Brut

APPEARANCE

A pale gold intensity.

PALATE: biscuity flavor with notes of white flesh fruits

AROMA :dried fruits and brioche combined with floral notes. Subtle notes of lemon verbena.

TASTING: Pair with prawns, grilled scallops and ceviche.

GW Rating 4/5

As for the family dynamics and the smooth running of a 4 day getaway for the first time ever… well thats a story for another day !

Any more info wanted on Billecart-Salmon please contact me. Truly a delicious wine and a fabulous House.

MUSIC Pairing 

 

GW

Modern opulence at Louis Roederer. May 2018

TheGrapeWizard at the doors of Louis Roederer

I was lucky enough to be invited to the amazing Louis Roederer estate in Reims last month, late May 2018.  Getting up early is never easy , but 4.30 AM is great time for the soul.  No Commuters, birds tweeting, the world waking up and life just about to start for the day.  Just a shame I had to walk to the Underground with my eyes shut!

No problems on the Tube and everything at Customs went quickly and efficiently. On the train, the usual business meetings are happening with lots of convivial chatter.   As I take in the Kent countryside swooshing past the window, I feel a sense of jubilation.  Louis Roederer has been on my radar for a while and finally I am on my way.  So I begin to wonder, despite the hour, if a glass of Champagne when I am offered is in fact appropriate.  I refrain this time – its still a little early. even for the GW!

It’s all thanks to Alexandra at Maisons Marques et Domaines (LR Distributor in the UK), that I am finally ticking this House off my “Tours at the Most Coveted Vineyards” bucket list.

Upon arrival  I am greeted warmly by Maria at L.R.  who gives me a fun-packed tour of  the Headquarters and what a great experience it is!  I feel like I am the kid that won the golden ticket touring the Willy Wonka factory!

It’s so great to learn more first hand about a world-class producer and especially one so respected by the industry itself.  There are many producers making unadventurous, bland champagnes for the mass consumer.  But LR is not one of them.  LR produces special wines with distinctive characteristics. What a pleasure to be here!

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Louis Roederer is now managed by the seventh generation, led by Frédéric Rouzaud and is one of very few independent, family-run Houses remaining today, producing over 3.5 million bottles and shipping to over 100 countries.

 Starting out as Dubois Père & Fils in 1776,  Louis Roederer inherited and renamed his Uncle’s House in 1833.  In contrast to the practices of his time, Louis decided to invest in his own vines with the idea to master the end to end process of creating vintage wines.  Owning his own vines gave him control of quality and led to particularly distinctive characteristics, establishing L R’s reputation as one of Champagnes best producers.

By 1876, production had reached 2.5 million bottles, 10% of total production of Champagne and exporting had begun to Russia.  Viewed by many as the world’s first prestige cuvées,  Cristal was in fact created at the request of Tsar Alexander II, for exclusive consumption of the Royal Household.  It remained exclusive until 1945 when Cristal was first launched commercially for the rest of the world to enjoy!

Back in 1876 and as the political situation worsened, the Tsar feared assassination and requested that his Champagne was bottled in clear glass so that he could see the bubbles and prevent anyone hiding a bomb in the punt (GW note: a punt is a Champagne bottle’s characteristic bottom recess or hollow).   Louis Roederer commissioned a Flemish bottle maker to create a clear lead glass Champagne bottle with a flat bottom and its why today the bottle is still wrapped individually in its now distinctive yellow cellophane to protect the wine from UV light.

 From the acquisition of those first 15 hectares of vines in the Grand Cru vineyards of Verzenay in 1845, LR’s vineyards now stretch across 240 hectares or just under 600 Rugby sized pitches.  All their vintage Champagne originates from these vines  – 410 individual parcels of land to be precise.  Their distinctive characteristics are very much a product of thr provenance of each vineyard as they are able to

choose the very best grapes from any of the 3 main areas of production depending on the success of the season.

The Montagne de Reims, The Vallée de la Marne, and The Côte des Blancs. (see below)

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Their Champagne involves all 3 classic grape varieties

  • Chardonnay for its minerality, finesse, and elegance;
  • Pinot Noir adds structure, complexity and is useful for ageing;
  • Pinot Meunier brings harmony and softness and a hint of rustic to certain cuvées

 

Last but not least the WINES !

Here I’ve listed my top 4 wines from LR. There are of course more wines to the estate but the ones that stand out for me are highlighted below.

Brut Premier

The freshness, finesse, and brightness of Brut Premier makes it the perfect wine for festive occasions. Its is structured, rich and has a good length.

 

After the upheavals of the First World War that destroyed more than half of the LR estate, Léon Olry Roederer reconstructed the new vineyards by buying grapes externally to ensure survival of the House during this difficult period.  He created multi-vintage wine with a consistent flavour, whatever the harvest year.

It is now called Brut Premier.

A blend of around 40% Pinot noir, 40% Chardonnay, and 20% Pinot Meunier. It is aged for 3 years in LR’s cellars and left for a minimum of 6 months after dégorgement (Removing frozen yeast after second fermentation in the bottle )

Louis Roederer Vintage

In my opinion, their flagship Champagne which best represents the LR terroir and the finesse, purity and precision of their wine-making skills is Louis Roederer Vintage

 

 LR uses the structure and power of the Pinot noir grapes from the Montagne de Reims (see map) to create its Cuvée Vintage. Exposed to the north-east, the grapes mature more slowly on the vine and the character of the wine intensifies and becomes more refined through ageing – if the vines were exposed to the South East it would be perfect aspect for the grapes to grow. Hence the slowing down of the maturing process

Composed of around 70% Pinot noir and 30% Chardonnay, 30% the Vintage cuvée is generally matured on lees for 4 years and left for a minimum of 6 months after dégorgement (disgorging) to attain perfect maturity.

The palate is characteristic of LR’s vintages:  a rich and winey fullness is refined by the sweetness, acidity and tight blend of the Pinot noir grapes of Verzenay. Tasting reveals sparkling suggestions of candied fruits, almond paste, toast, white chocolate, and caramel

Blanc de Blanc Vintage

This Champagne is pure and bright. Its contrasting tones range from an intense, chiselled acidity to the supple lightness of notes of fresh hazelnuts, almonds, and white flowers with accents of acacia, broom, and honeysuckle.

 

From 1830 onwards, the House of Louis Roederer acquired extensive knowledge of the terroirs and plot-by-plot vinification. Louis Roederer selected two exceptional Grands Crus: Mesnil-sur-Oger and Avize producing taut, highly aromatic wines that have finesse.

 

100% Chardonnay, the Blanc de Blancs Vintage cuvée is generally matured on lees for five years and left for a minimum of 6 months after dégorgement.

In the mouth, the attack is typically Chardonnay—it is smooth and delicate, and markedly sweet. Slightly sweetened floral notes and white fruit and dried fruit notes are combined with the almost chalky minerality of the Côte des Blancs.

The texture has notes of sugared almond, a sensation that is strengthened by a soft effervescence that envelops the mouth. This is followed by an impression of finesse, elegance, and freshness, strengthened by suggestions of fresh mint and basil.

CRISTAL

Cristal is both powerful and delicate, combining subtlety and precision.

LR’s most famous wine was created in 1876 to satisfy the demanding tastes of Tsar Alexander II. The emperor asked Louis Roederer to reserve the House’s best cuvée for him every year. To distinguish this cuvée, this exceptional champagne came in a flat-bottomed, transparent lead-crystal bottle. The new brand was named after this precious material, which is particularly transparent and luminous.

 

Produced uniquely during the best years, when the Chardonnay (around 40%) and Pinot noir (around 60%) grapes have attained perfect maturity, Cristal is aged for 6 years in LR’s cellars and left for a further 8 months after dégorgement.

Cristal is a remarkably balanced and refined champagne. It has a silky texture and fruity aromas, complemented by a powerful mineral quality with white fruit and citrus notes. Cristal is a wine that keeps well: it can be conserved for over twenty years without losing its freshness and character.

THE 2002 HARVEST

2002 was an extraordinary harvest, in which all the criteria for a great vintage in Champagne were met: temperatures were uniformly warm, without excess sun or heat, with a markedly mild winter and a slight shortfall of rain during the growing cycle.

This is regarded as the best year in the last 20.

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Cristal 2002 £279.20 Amazon.co.uk

BUY BUY BUY!

GW BEST CHAMPAGNE VINTAGE YEARS

BEST to worst

1990, 1996,1985,1988,2002

1995,1982,2006,2008,2004,1975,1998,1979, 2005

1989,2007,2000,1999,2003,1976,1997, 1993

1986, 1992,1983,1994,1987,1991,1984

If you want something special go for the top row  , something more affordable is 2nd third and fourth row.

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Line up of tasted Champagnes

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In Bottle form !

Sadly due to last-minute events, just before I arrived the – Chef De Cave – Louis Roederer’s Jean-Baptiste Lécaillon was unable to have an interview with Me. I am still hopeful and have submitted the questions for Jean-Baptiste to answer on his return

Stay tuned for interview when it’s posted.

Below are question submitted but not answered

GW: Name one thing that you haven’t accomplished that you would like to
GW: Name one champagne other than your own which you like and why –
GW : If you were to keep a memento of your favourite bottle of Champagne –  , what is the best way to remove labels from the Bottle and what would the Champagne be ( If it wasn’t one of yours)
GW : What do you think of the English and Welsh sparkling wine industry.
GW :Name one thing that scares you !
GW :Wine is so much better enjoyed if paired with music. What song/genre would you pair with
The Louis Roederer Estate of wines
Slide1
GW :What are you drinking at the moment
Slide2
GW:What wine would you like to try that you have’nt ,or a wine that you want to invest in?
Slide3
GW:Who is the person/persons you most admire and why
GW: Whats going on in the estate in the month
And finally no GW article would be complete without a music pairing.
A delicious glass of LR Brut Premier goes very well with a spot of Keith Jarrett.
Salut!  GW.

 

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