Billecart-Salmon tasting, Mareuil-sur-Ay, March 2014
During my visit to Billecart-Salmon, I was asked to choose which champagnes I would like to sample. With a collection already growing from my travels in France as well as a very productive Christmas 2013, I was looking to cast a critical eye on the champagnes before me. They were the Brut Reserve, Brut Rose, Extra Brut and Nicolas-Francois Billecart 1999. My (rather unprofessional but passionate) tasting notes follow. I would, as always, encourage any reader to take my scores not as gospel but as a guide to how I perceived the champagnes on the day! Enjoy:
The Brut Reserve, as with the other champagnes in the Billecart-Salmon portfolio, benefits from the cold storage of its juice, as mentioned in the previous blog on my visit here. Claudia, our guide, points out that the slow-rising bubbles in the champagne are a result of the cold storage of the juice, which gives a refined and timeless impression. There’s no hurry to drink this champagne. The Brut Reserve is a character-filled entry cuvee, allowing one a full appreciation of the Billecart-Salmon style. Freshness is the key and, although I like my champagnes (both vintage and non-vintage) on the warmer side at around 12 degrees, this wine was served at 8 degrees and gave a fresh and crisp mousse. The colour is a rich straw colour like an antique gold ring. The expected stone fruit and citrus flavours are present, as is a strong freshness, with an almost creamy peach and pear note. I realise that the freshness I noted may come from knowing of the cold storage, but I think that the knowledge of their cold storage facility would not change the fact that this champagne is super clean. It was a highly impressive champagne, one of the best entry champagnes I have ever tasted. 93 points (18/20).
The Brut Rose is priced above the Brut Reserve, because of the standard of the house’s Pinot Noir stocks, but also because of the prevailing perception of Rose in the market place at the moment. Often I am finding roses priced higher than standard Brut champagnes, and I suspect that allotment of Pinot Noir skews the price scale a little. The colour of this wine is enticing and a delicate light crimson, actually quite lightly coloured for roses compared others I have tasted. The Rose is marketed as an aperitif but also a champagne capable of carrying a refined and light fish dish or with dessert, and this is due to its subtlety but also its red fruits, which enrich the sweetness of desserts and purity of beautiful salmon. Raspberries are all over the mid-palette and finish of this champagne, with a delicate sweetness and richness coating the mouth. I found, like the Brut Reserve, that the Brut Rose improved with warmth – perhaps only 15 minutes in the glass was enough to bring it up to a richness of flavour and texture that I admire most in champagne and rose. I was impressed with the Rose, but more impressed with the Brut Reserve. 92 points (17.5/20).
Next in our tasting was the Extra Brut Reserve, a champagne made to suit the current trend of extremely low dosage or zero dosage champagnes. I find this an interesting trend, since, health-wise, it is perfect for regular consumption if you are watching your sugar intake. But champagne is a decadent product aimed at celebratory atmospheres, and really, should you be watching your sugar intake when consuming champagne? Anyway, zero dosage champagnes have their place, and the dry nature makes them actually quite well suited for aperitifs, or for pairing them with a dish where you do not want the wine to overshadow the food. Be careful, though, that the dryness does not prevent your guests from enjoying the flavour range of the food. This champagne is very bright, actually quite brighter than the Brut Reserve. On the nose, floral notes and cleanliness are the overriding factors, with the development of warm brioche upon some swirling. Pear notes dominate the attack, and proceed to underline the warmth, floral notes and zesty lemon hints. I found this champagne a clean and refreshing wine, but too dry to make the most of its complex flavour balance, with the aromas slightly suppressed by the overall balance. 91 points (17+/20).
Lastly we were treated to a tasting of the sublime Cuvee Nicolas Francois Billecart 1999. This champagne has a privileged place in the Billecart-Salmon portfolio, second only to Cuvee Elisabeth Salmon (Rose), and Le Clos Saint Hilaire itself. Developed in 1964 as in honour of the house’s co-founder, this cuvee now receives all of the fruit previously split with the Grande Cuvee, which is no longer made. Chardonnay comes from the Cote des Blancs, and Pinot Noir from Montagne de Reims. It is vinified partially in oak, giving a very vinous, almost Burgundy white character to the champagne. This wine was served at the cellar temperature of 12 degrees Celsius, at almost the ideal warmth and temperature I find most suitable to vintage champagne. After 10-15 minutes in the glass, the Nicolas was gloriously rich on the nose, with dried figs and warm, deep nutty notes. Lime zest and a subtle cream depth made this cuvee feel like one you could swim in. Writers and reviewers talk a lot about tension and persistence, and this wine had both, but not in equal measure. The tension was there but was nuanced and relaxed, a gloriously perfect nod to the ideal cellaring time of this cuvee. The persistence was insistent and lasting, with flavour control at a high but not overwhelmingly so. Caramel notes and warm, softly stewed peaches and pears came through deeply on the palette. This cuvee impresses with its lasting finish but also its fascinating richness. Other vintages of this cuvee may have been differently received, but for me, this cuvee is the champagne for celebrating, but first and foremost, for the appreciation of age-worthy champagne that is both ready now, and will last another five years into the future. There is a rare and prestigious cuvee. 96+ points (18.5+/20).
Good drinking to you!