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Champagne Billecart-Salmon

In September, 2010, TEW took a trip to Billecart-Salmon in Champagne.  What follows are the trip notes and photographs of Chris Wilford.  Enjoy!

“Vinification is the most important thing!”  – Antoine Roland-Billecart

At Billecart-Salmon they consider their vinification process to be akin to cooking.  Long and slow, similar to slow roasting food to gain depth of flavor.

Cold and slow=fruit and acidity.

Acidity is of great importance at Billecart as it is the acidity that will stabilize and protect the wines.  This becomes even more apparent when you take into account winery’s almost absolute absence of sulfur.

As the acidity in the grapes begins to drop the moment they are picked, there are a number of old presses (Coquard presses dating back to 1925) located near each of the vineyard sites ensuring a speedy and timely pressing.  While the winery itself also has an old press it has two additional modern membrane horizontal presses used for larger parcels (larger than 4 tons).  While Clos St. Hilaire for example typically yields 8 tons of fruit requiring two rounds of pressing, most of the growers they buy from will supply 2-3 tons with delivery coming in roughly 1 ton batches.  The old presses require 4 people to operate and 4 hours to complete (the modern presses needing only 30 min).  The press has separate drains which are opened individually in order to separate the three distinct presses – the cuvee, and the 1er taille (cut) and 2nd Taille, in to three different tanks.

These presses will run all night during harvest. Use of the 2nd Taille was banished in 2001. It is sent for distillation.

One of the most unique techniques utilized by Billecart (used only by them and Pol Roger) is a process of double debourbage or clarification.  After the first clarification process is complete they will chill the must down to 41F for 2-3 days which allows any remaining solids (dead yeast cells etc) to drop to the bottom of the tank after which the temperature is slowly raised to 52-59F inducing a slow fermentation.  This method of cold stabilization was a technique they learned of in the fifties from their grandfather who was a brewer. This is especially important for the Pinot Meunier grape which can have a tendency to produce some off character flavors if not properly clarified.  As Pol Roger also utilizes a high percentage of Pinot Meunier in their wines it makes sense that they would also utilize this technique. In addition to clarifying and cleaning up the wine it also helps to stabilize the wine, reducing the need for additional sulfites and preventing oxidation and in turn retaining fruit and freshness. The word “Sulfite” itself is considered a bad word in the winery. Its use is strictly reserved for the most extreme situations. This double filtration process is so seldom used in the area due to the time and expense required.

The winery has 100 stacked tanks giving them a net of 200 40hl temperature controlled (jacketed) tanks.  These tanks are monitored by computers but as an added safety measure are all checked manually 3 times a day (morning, noon and night).  This type of redundancy is typical of Billecart’s spare no expense approach.  In addition they ferment by parcel as opposed to simply by grape. This gives them greater control as well as a way of spot checking each parcel’s progress and potential.

Their first fermentation itself can take as long as 4 weeks. This is 2-3 times longer than most other producers.

“We are mad about keeping the fruit and the freshness of the fruit. Once it is fermented you cannot go back.  Take it easy, we’re not in a hurry.”

If one tank stops fermenting they will swap one third of that tank with one fermenting normally.  This will re-start the fermentation. It is more work than the traditional approach of adding more yeast but produces far better quality results.

The tanks are divided between three different congruent rooms.  This was designed by Antoine’s father Jean for control reasons.  If malo is being restricted in some tanks but not others they will group these tanks in to one of the three separate rooms in the winery so they can be isolated from the other two to inhibit any airborne elements from invading the surrounding chambers.   If a tank begins to go through an unwanted malo the tank will be chilled to stop it negating the need to stop it with sulfur.  This also helps induce tartaric precipitation. While there is no firm policy on malo it is still something they want to retain complete control of. Most producers always force Malo as an insurance policy and to gain complexity.  At Billecart they do not feel that complexity of this sort is necessary in wines such as the NV cuvee’s and their higher levels of acidity will act to protect the wine. Again freshness and acidity are the main goals. Pinot Meunier itself does not have enough natural acidity to support Malo. Also, you must be careful as you do not want malo to occur in bottle.

If on occasion they feel they do want some added complexity batonnage will be performed on specific tanks by utilizing a propeller type device inserted through the hose plug. This is done selectively and is not done every year and rarely on Pinot Meunier. As with most decisions in the winery, the decision is based solely on tasting.

When the wines are racked off, much of the solids will be retained in order to grow yeasts for later use.  Only yeasts grown from the same year are used as older ones are prone to complications.  Most other producers utilize special yeasts developed by the CIVC (Comite interprofessionel du vin de Champagne est 1941) As such you could say that all the yeasts are indigenous. Billecart’s wines can also be considered less bubbly than other producers due to having less yeast used in the final fermentation.  This is not a flaw but an intended stylistic choice.

“The less you work on the wines the better it is. Care in this regard is of great importance. It is the most important thing. Not marketing bullshit.
It’s in the bottle, it’s in the glass!”

Antoine started buying barrels a number of years back, starting with 25, then 50 and then 100.  Even so their use is minimal.  Barrels are 4-5 year old burgundy barrels with light to medium toast from a number of different top coopers.  They will then be used for an additional 10 years before being replaced. In addition to small portions of finished wine (up to about 20% on certain cuvees) the dosage is matured in barrel.  They are not looking for oak flavors in the wine, only a touch of spice and micro-oxygenation.

Bottling is done 4 times a year. All of the special Cuvee’s are hand riddled by a Father and son team who are in such demand that they are often loaned out to other Champagne houses.  The two are capable of riddling up to 20K bottles a day. Antoine and Francoise experimented with Gyropalette’s a number of years ago conducting blind tasting comparisons against hand riddled bottles.  While the brothers were convinced of the quality their Father was tied to tradition.  As such it was only after his retirement that the practice was fully implemented for the normal cuvees.

Winemaker Francois Domi will disgorge small lots of wine from time to time to monitor the evolution on the lees.  Sometimes they will add a touch of chardonnay for freshness, other times a bit of pinot noir for body.  Another note of importance is that as the wines have been improving they have been backing down on the amount of dosage used in the wines.  In fact the 2004 vintage bottling has zero dosage.

“Extra dosage is like a girl with too much make up; you are covering something up.”

Brut Reserve is typically made up of 50% PM.  In the current release there is 60% Meunier with a touch more Chardonnay than usual. It is based on the 2007 vintage.  The Pinot Meunier is always sourced from the most recent vintage so as to preserve its freshness. 25% of the blend is Chardonnay (mostly from the 2006 vintage) and Pinot Noir (mostly from the 2005 vintage) making up the balance.  The Tirage (liquor de tirage – wine sugar and yeast) is added prior to bottling to induce the second (not Malolactic) in bottle fermentation. The dosage in the Brut Reserve has also been reduced and was 7gm per lt. The grape variety for the dosage is also determined by tasting. The sugar for the dosage comes from triple refined sugar cane, not beet sugar.

The current release shows lots of apple notes which are attributed to the Pinot Meunier. The other darker fruit notes coming from the PN and the freshness and cut from the chardonnay.

Billecart considers the Rose to be a brand within a brand. It is also considered a Champagne Rose as opposed to a Rose Champagne.  When tasted blind it is actually difficult to recognize as a rose. Given the size of production it is much harder to produce Rose than Brut in a consistent fashion.

As for vintage wines, these are only declared after the wine has been finished and deemed to be of sufficient quality to be declared. There are years that other houses will choose to declare a vintage while Billecart will not.

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