Visiting Billecart-Salmon in March this year was an unforgettable experience. Only rarely in the life of a wine and champagne lover does an opportunity like this come along, and I was lucky enough to have the chance to visit Billecart-Salmon in Mareuil-sur-Aÿ. Arriving at the unassuming entrance, I was struck by the clean, organised and un-touristic atmosphere in the main building. Arriving at 10.30am, a small group of about eight people stood before us, however they were going on a tour as a group and the four in our group were left to the extremely knowledgeable and hugely friendly Claudia.
Imagine visiting your dream destination, where everything you’ve read and heard about is actually possible. Fortunately, this happened to me, as the first place Claudia took me to was the illustrious and widely-worshipped Clos Saint Hilaire, the small walled vineyard (clos) containing the magnificent grapes that make up the unique and much sought after Le Clos Saint Hilaire. Planted to 100% Pinot Noir, the small vineyard produces elegant, long-lived and extremely clean champagne. It really was a privilege to see this vineyard, and hear about the dedicated facilities that produce and house this magnificent product. The Clos Saint Hilaire has its own vinification facilities on site, is cropped to extremely low yield (no more than 3 bunches per vine), receiving little dosage during vinification. We spoke with specialized employee Stefan as he went about pruning the vines during my visit, and he was very helpful in explaining his selection of pruning. The attention to detail and vigilance in maintaining the highest standards is evident in the selection of which canes to crop and the growth of backup vines.
Le Clos Saint Hilaire: Sacred champagne territory, March 2014.
I was very impressed with the vinification areas of the Clos Saint Hilaire, before moving on to the barrel rooms for the other magnificent champagnes, and the tank rooms, with their remarkable control panels and sophisticated, clean facilities. The Billecart-Salmon key to pure wine for their champagne comes from their cold storage of the pressed juice, at a temperature of around 5 degrees Celsius. The juice is ‘clarified’ at such a cold temperature to deny the development of bad materials that may otherwise change the development curve of the juice. In the barrel room, barrels containing Oger, Bouzy and Verzenay samples lined the space, beside a simple but effective blackboard chart of samples and stocks. We were shown a barrel with a glass front containing lees, which was a really simple way to show visitors the way in which the wine interacts with lees in barrel. From here, it was on to the cellars, where much joy awaited.
Specialist Stefan tending vines in Le Clos Saint Hilaire, March 2014.
Tank temperature control is taken seriously at Billecart-Salmon, March 2014.
Tank with Bouzy and Verzenay samples for blending, March 2014.
Bottling at Billecart-Salmon, March 2014.
Lees enriching the cuvees of Billecart-Salmon in the cellars, March 2014.
The Billecart-Salmon cellars, March 2014.
The cellars are a magnificent example of temperature control and organisation. Not wholly dissimilar to other cellars I have encountered, what struck me most was the neat stacks of bottles and how little of them there were. It brought home the realization that Billecart-Salmon really is not a huge operation, and with the family still heavily involved, it makes for a very loveable champagne house.
See part 2 here for tasting notes!
Good drinking to you,