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Billecart-Salmon: enduring history, evolving savoir faire, and six decades of Nicolas François

By 1844, Champagne’s grand marques were already measuring global shipments in millions of bottles. Following phylloxera, consecutive troublesome vintages, and two devastating wars, they acquired vast swathes of land from countless small growers and offered stable long-term contrat de vendange to many more. Subsequently, production grew and consolidated; between 1900 and 2000, production exploded, totalling 250 million bottles by the second millennium—90% of which was exported by large maison or negociants. The number of growers shrunk too. Concomitantly, prodigious marketing made bubbles an obligatory adjunct to bourgeois society; champagne became a luxury product ostensibly detached from quality. Mass production also ravaged vineyards, indiscriminate synthetic crop control and fertiliser application pillaged soils and high-yielding clones replaced native selections—average yields tripled throughout the 20th century. 

Around 1980, a handful of rebellious, daring growers sparked a nascent renaissance in artisanal winegrowing in Champagne. The resulting wines were distinct, characterful, and starkly contrasted the polished house styles drinkers were used to. Crucially, these growers inspired other vignerons, and a furious mania for grower champagnes ensured, sweeping through winedom at a furious pace—as did a disillusionment among popular commentators and metropolitan sommeliers for grand marques, which were too readily juxtaposed as anachronistic and stodgy. Sadly, this unjust caricature does a gross disservice to house and drinker alike; few illuminate this disservice so plainly as family-owned and operated, Billecart-Salmon, where courage, innovation and a ceaseless pursuit of quality unite the harmonious passage of generations. 

Les années yéyé

In 1999, Billecart-Salmon’s vintage 1959 triumphed at Richard Juhlin’s Champagne of the Millennium, trumping Dom Pérignon 1964, ’61 and ’59, Dom Ruinart 1979, Krug Collection 1961, and 143 more champagnes. In 1964, the same chardonnay and pinot noir blend (40/60%) became cuvée Nicolas François, created in homage to the house’s founder. 59 years later, the cuvée uniquely reflects the breadth of Billecart’s evolving savoir faire through six decades, reflecting contemporary history, climate change, technological advancements, and shifting generational ambitions. 

1954 marked the beginning of a period of extraordinary expansion in the scope and nature of champagne production—exports and domestic production increased markedly, and new technologies revolutionised production for better and worse. After World War 2, advancements in steel manufacturing and increased availability of raw materials largely did away with barrels. By 1950, two large cooperages in Châlons and Ay had closed, and between 1939 and 1980 the number of coopers in Florent-en-Argonne fell from 100 to one. Automated disgorgement also became available, and by 1964, following fifteen years of trials, automated machines obliged producers to swap agraffes for crown caps, inevitably altering lifetime oxygen ingress. Fifth-generation, Jean Roland-Billecart navigated this period skilfully, introducing a raft of revolutionary techniques which induced tangible shift in quality and fortune.  

Inspired by traditional brewing methods, in 1958 Jean extended fermentation, began vinifying at lower temperatures—achieved by cooling the entire winery—in enamelled steel, and introduced cold settling. This cold fermentation became a principal component of the house style; the wines are fermented around 13ºC for 3-4 weeks, which helps retain acidity and coaxes out aromatics, then cooled further and settled, reducing enzymatic activity, and further enhancing aroma. The 1964 Nicolas François was cold co-fermented for several weeks entirely in large, enamelled steel vats and is the only vintage to have been aged on agraffe. There were no wooden barrels of any size for vinification, and every vat underwent malolactic fermentation. Dosage was 6 g/l, a modest quantity given succeeding increases.

Champagne’s climate has warmed 1.3 degrees on average comparing the period 1961-90 and 1991-2000, sunshine hours have increased too. Subsequently, fruit composition was quite different six decades ago. Nevertheless, 1964 was an excellent vintage, hot and dry conditions produced ripe, full-bodied wines. 1964 Nicolas François was harvested around 10.6 potential alcohol, significantly higher than in subsequent decades. Yields were modest too, recorded at 9300 kg/ha, 2700kg lower than 2022 yield limits; the estate was also much smaller than it is today, and expansion did not begin for several decades. 

24 years after it was crowned Champagne of the Millennium, the 1964 Nicolas François remains a lofty wine, strikingly primary, and gushingly rich, seeping from the glass with aromas of fresh caramel, candied orange rind, dried fruits, mushroom, and truffle. The palate is poised, crisp and generous, with a refreshing core of tart acidity and sweet citrus fruit. At almost 60 years old, this beguiling champagne defies its age, challenging 1998 and 2008 as the greatest Nicolas François release to date; it’s interesting to think how cork ageing influenced this remarkable survival. 

Trouble and strife

If the sixties were defined by progress and prosperity, the seventies and eighties were markedly more turbulent. Despite a euphoric period of growth beginning in 1970, the financial crises of 1973, 1979 and 1987 induced colossal slumps, as did climatic challenges which hampered production and stressed already scarce reserves. 1972 was a disaster; 74 was difficult; and in 1978, 1980 and 1981 grapevines suffered so badly that four vintages produced the equivalent of just two and a half crops—lower yields caused by disease pressure and poor weather were commonplace in both decades. 

This prolonged adversity engendered a period of consolidation and collapse. In 1963, Ruinart accepted financial support from Baron Philippe de Rothschild and was subsequently sold to Moët & Chandon. In 1973, Krug was acquired by Remy Martin. In 1984 BSN Groupe acquired Pommery and Lanson. In 1985, Perrier-Jouët was acquired by the spirits company Seagram. In 1987, LVMH acquired Mercier. And, in 1988, Piper-Heidsieck was acquired by Rémy Martin and Perrier-Jouët was bought by Pernod Ricard. 

In 1958, Jean Roland-Billecart pioneered new winemaking techniques at Billecart-Salmon, between 1970 and 1990, he was preoccupied with survival, skilfully navigating numerous challenges, not least growing and harvesting sufficiently healthy, ripe fruit to produce any wine whatsoever— 1972, 1984, 1985, and 1988 were married by powdery mildew and botrytis. During this period, chemical agriculture was widespread, helicopters regularly applied treatments en mass and verdant, grassy landscapes were uncommon. Nevertheless, beginning in 1970, Jean reinvented the house rosé champagne, swapping maceration for blending and applying his trademark cold fermentation, giving rise to Billecart-Salmon’s emblematic rosé. Then, in 1988—despite innumerate challenges—he created the Elisabeth Salmon rosé prestige cuvée. 

Nicolas François remained largely unchanged during both decades; a forbidding climate ultimately distinguishes the era. Vintages 1976 and 1985 were both picked in October at 9.8 and 9.1 (2022 was harvested nearer 12) potential alcohol respectively, and both with almost 10 g/l TA—regional averages in 2019, 2018, 2016, 2015, and 2014 were 6.8 g/l, 5.9 g/l, 7.4 g/l, 6.9 g/l, and 8.3 g/l respectively. Greater total acid also meant more dosage; 1976 and 1985 each exceeded 12 g/l, an extraordinary amount by today’s standards. However, these generous additions may well have kept both wines—from imperfect vintages—alive for so long.  

The 1976 and 1985 Nicolas François are equally nectareous, radiating from the glass with tertiary aromas indicative of their age and sugar content. Aromas of roasted coffee, caramel and toasted hazelnut contrast with candied lime peel and orange rind. Both champagnes are staggeringly fresh with ample acidity and sparkle. These are luscious and indulgent wines redolent of an altogether different Champagne, their only obstacle is that they’re between 1964 and 1998. 

The dawn of a new expression

The nineties were defined by sweeping economic, social, and technological changes. The 1990 Gulf War led to an oil price shock which sparked a global recession lasting until 1993 in France—champagne sales fell by 9% between 1990-1994. Between 1994-2000, sales recovered, increasing by 75 million bottles per annum, followed by a further crash after the dot-com bubble burst. Simultaneously, global internet penetration grew swiftly, rising from two to 400 million users between 1990 and 2000. Global connectivity also intensified nascent environmental and ecological advocacy. Similarly, budding movements in champagne were empowered by enhanced information sharing and globalisation, which spawned newfound economic successes among revolutionary growers. Importantly, mounting backlash against industrial and chemical agriculture gripped Champagne, and a gradual shift towards more sustainable vineyard management practices began. These same growers popularised artisanal winegrowing and production methods, including harvesting riper fruit and returning to barrel ageing.

The decade also presented new winegrowing challenges as European winegrowers began to feel the impacts of a changing climate—a streak of early Champagne harvests from 1991-2000 is telling. Paradoxically, the warming climate also produced exceptional vintages (90, 95, 96, 97, 98, and 99) in a region previously hampered by unripe fruit and pitiable weather. Nonetheless, escalating concerns inspired action in vineyards and wineries. 

In 1992, François Roland-Billecart took charge of the family business, swiftly executing a series of auspicious, radical transformations. François immediately reinforced Billecart’s commitment to quality, buying back the house’s stock from supermarkets and concentrating distribution on independent retailers and fine dining establishments. He also began expanding his family’s estate, buying more land, purchasing more fruit, and establishing new, collaborative relationships with growers to encourage more considerate land management. Then, in 1995 he launched the first vintage of Clos Saint-Hilaire, a barrel-aged prestige cuvée made from a single-hectare vineyard named in honour of the patron saint of the church in Mareuil-sur-Ay. Most notably, François celebrated and sponsored qualitative changes in winemaking; the1998 Nicolas François reflects these astute commitments, marking a distinct divergence from previous decades. 

Having first trialled blocking malo in 1990, the 1998 Nicolas François consists of one-third blocked malo, helping taper a warm vintage and preserve pH. Since the house converted to steel in the 1960s, 1998 was the first vintage of Nicolas François to incorporate a small portion of barrel fermentation (5%), signalling a gradual return to ancestral methods at Billecart-Salmon. Crucially, the 1998 Nicolas François also spent longer on its lees than any other vintage, beginning the family’s journey toward extended lees ageing. Finally, dosage (5.8 g/l) is much lower than in previous decades, almost half the addition of 1975 and 1986. Stylistic impacts notwithstanding, these choices represent persistent, judicious investment at Billecart-Salmon.

The 1998 Nicolas François unambiguously marks the genesis of a new expression for this prestige cuvée. Bursting from the glass, the 1998 is powerful and expansive, offering toasted nut, tonka bean and nougat; mingled with these tertiary aromas is a charming core lemon sherbet, lime zest and orange rind, The palate is structured, moreish and ample with a bright backbone of acidity with a long, enveloping finish. Among its forebears, the 1998 shows heightened complexity, breadth, and stamina. 

A new millennium 

After peaking in 2000, champagne sales fell precipitously following the dot-com crash, after which they rose again, surpassing previous highs before The Great Recession in 2007. Between 1970 and 2000, Champagne experienced six recessions of varying magnitude, nevertheless, the overall trend was growth—sales grew from 100 million bottles in 1970 to 350 million in 2007. During this period, Champagne’s megalithic corporations truly came of age, accounting for most of the region’s exports. Between 1995 and 2010 astute merchants and collectors also paid greater attention to a handful of pioneering growers spearheading a renaissance in artisanal winemaking. Coupled with growing international ecological concerns, growers also energised mounting pressure to reconsider chemical agriculture. Importantly, innovation wasn’t limited to growers. After expanding his family’s holdings the prior decade, François led Billecart-Salmon into this new millennium with similar vigour. 

In 2000, François completed constructing a new cuverie consisting of 150, 40hl stainless-steel, thermoregulated fermentation vats. These new vats allowed winemaker, François Domi to vinify parcels and varieties separately, emphasising terroir and enhancing selection capacity. In 2003, vineyard manager, Denis Blée joined Billecart-Salmon, and in 2005, winemaker Florent Nys joined François Domi in the cellar—both remain at the house two decades later. After reintroducing barrel-ageing in 1995, successive vintages featured successively more wood. Between 2000-2010, François began purchasing 228-litre barrels, starting with used barrels from Domaine Leflaive. In 2010, after amassing 400 barrels, François officially opened a new chai for ageing wine in wood. Around two years earlier, after experiments ageing wine in two foudre, François also began buying 24, 80hl thermoregulated barrels from Stockinger, François et Freres, Taransaud, and Seguin Moreau. These large vessels allowed the family to maintain their signature cold fermentation, benefit from micro-oxygenation in barrel, and reduce the total juice-to-wood ratio. In total, it would take more than a decade, plus barrel loads of sacrificial juice, to realise any qualitative benefit to this gargantuan investment. These sorts of investments are largely inconceivable to firms beholden to shareholders. 

Billecart-Salmon Nicolas François 2008

The 2008 vintage is broadly heralded as the vintage of the century; a cold winter was followed by a stable, dry, and cool growing season making for protracted ripening and remarkable phenolic maturity. Cool weather during harvest saw clean, ripe fruit enter wineries in September with stable pH and plenty of acid, making for healthy ferments and stable and boundless ageing potential. Unsurprisingly, eagerly anticipated prestige cuvées received rave reviews and prices have risen considerably.

Billecart-Salmon’s 2008 Nicolas François, released in April 2023, is the last prestige cuvée to be released by a grand marque from this celebrated vintage and embodies 44 years of evolving savoir faire, varied and sustained investments, and symphonic generational change. The cuvée comprises 83% grand cru and 17% premier cru, including 60% pinot noir from the Montagne de Reims and the Grande Vallée de la Marne (Aÿ, Verzenay et Mareuil-sur-Aÿ.) and 40% Chardonnay from the Côte des Blancs (Mesnil, Chouilly, Cramant). 17% of the production was vinified in oak barrels, lees ageing lasted 12 years and 6 months, 60% malolactic was blocked, and dosage is just 2.9 g/l. 

The 2008 Nicolas François is the greatest rendition of this prestige cuvée thus far. Erupting from the glass with aromas of macadamia nut, ground white chocolate, bergamot orange, exotic spices, and lemon drizzle. The palate is concentrated, fresh and sumptuous, revealing flavours of mandarin, ginger, lychee, and kumquat. Coupled with a showstopping vintage, quality fruit and masterful winemaking sets this wine apart; careful dosage, partial malo and increased oak vinification maintain freshness and compound complexity. The finish is saline, creamy, balanced, and enduring. From a landmark vintage, this is a standout cuvée.

The seventh generation

In 2017, savvy, seventh-generation Mathieu Roland-Billecart abandoned a successful career in finance and returned to manage the family business, becoming president in 2019 following a brief handover. Working closely with Denis and Florent, Mathieu sustained his forebear’s unrelenting investment in viticulture, winemaking and business development. In 2018—beset by quality concerns—he made the unnerving decision to cease purchasing fifty hectares of fruit from growers in the Vallée de la Marne, navigating complex interpersonal quandaries and markedly reducing total production. Concomitantly, Mathieu barred chemical herbicides in the family’s own vineyards and those under their management—continuing François’s cooperative endeavours, he provided local growers with mechanical and intellectual resources, supporting the challenging and taxing transition. Eliminating herbicides and working weeds discriminately has also helped concentrate fruit, eradicating unwanted competition at critical growth phases. 

In the winery, improvements began at the press; chief winemaker, Florent Nys and his team now taste all press juice from varying parcels, separating the best juice into small vats for future prestige cuvées. Meticulous selection doesn’t stop with vinification, in 2016 a climate-controlled, sterile ‘nursery’ was constructed in Billecart’s cellars containing 51 stainless-steel vats for storing select liqueur de mère and still wines for producing liqueur d’expédition. Before dosage, the liqueur is chosen depending on how it elevates and accompanies the final wine—the ‘nursery’ even includes liqueur produced from unbottled Clos Saint-Hilaire. 

The same attention is paid to producing the liqueur de tirage, which only contains beet sugar and is made to complement specific cuvées. Then, before being added to wine, both additions face a harsh tasting committee, consisting of family members and technical staff who also assess the vin clair. Florent now also maintains a perpetual reserve in an oak cask and is paying close attention to filling vats immediately after alcoholic fermentation is complete in a bid to preserve freshness. Future Nicolas François releases will benefit from this aggregation of marginal gain. 

Today, led by seventh-generation Mathieu Roland-Billecart, Billecart-Salmon is one of Champagne’s most exciting and authentic estates. Since 1818, successive generations have shrewdly navigated sustained turbulence and changing trends, maintaining an ancestral obligation to quality. Released last month, the 2008 Nicolas François marks the latest triumph in a series of robust releases, plainly reflecting six decades of evolving savoir faire; enhanced fruit quality, selection and composition; improved and atomised fermentation regimes; extended lees ageing; increased barrel ageing and vessel composition; more blocked malolactic; enhanced focus on liqueur de tirage and liqueur d’expédition quality; and reduced dosage. Stock your cellars and fill your fridges, upcoming Billecart-Salmon releases will challenge Champagne’s greatest estates. 

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