Le Clos Saint-Hilaire: a single hectare at the forefront of winegrowing

Behind a patchwork of buildings in Mareuil-sur-Aÿ, a so-called ‘commune déléguée’ in the Vallée de la Marne, a single hectare of south-southeast facing Pinot Noir vines produce arguably one of the world’s most vinous and critically-acclaimed Champagnes. Le Clos Saint-Hilaire, its name lent from the local church of Église Saint-Hilaire, belongs to ‘super grower‘ Billecart-Salmon. Though the commune itself is classified premier cru, albeit amongst only two villages to have scored 99% in the Échelle des Crus classification framework, seventh-generation CEO, Mathieu Roland-Bilecart has his own views on the cru framework. Views which are certainly emboldened by this tiny parcel off the Boulevard du N. Having produced only five vintages since it’s first as a standalone bottling in 1995, you’d be forgiven for underestimating the extent to which this outwardly humble site continues to shape the houses persistent and determined evolution. Pointing toward the vineyards scattering of pumpkins and wool-laden residents, Mathieu describes the site as his research and development facility. Shortly after this years harvest, Mathieu and I wondered the site discussing in more detail its extended importance.

In the late 1950s, with the enjoyment of younger generations in mind, François Roland-Billecart’s grandmother planted the land behind the family home to flowers and plants. For more than a decade the family had enjoyed the space as a communal area, before Mathieu’s uncle in 1964, convinced of the potential of the plot planted it entirely to Pinot Noir. The soil, consisting mostly of tufa, a highly-friable well-draining calcareous bedrock formed by the localised precipitation of calcium carbonate, proved more than ideal for viticulture, encouraging deep-rooted soils. As we walked the vineyard at 11:00, the gentle morning sun enveloped the site, though not scorching yet, the fruit, had it have been a few weeks earlier, is subject to optimal ripening conditions. This combination of well-draining soil, near-perfect exposition and gentle slope form a trifecta of sorts.

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Though planted in 1964, the vines were not considered established nor mature enough to warrant producing a standalone wine until 1995. It took more than three decades of meticulous viticulture, working the land organically to shape the site’s potential. Interestingly, between 1988 and 1994, grapes were harvested and used for red wine in the cuvée Elisabeth Salmon. After 1994, with the vines now producing impressively distinct fruit, the decision was made to bottle the single vineyard.

The resulting wine, powerful, concentrated and complex, is a product, amongst other things, of dramatically low yields. The average yield over the last decade in Champagne has been circa 13,500 kg/ha. This year, amongst a global market facing a coronavirus-induced crisis, that figure was set at 8000 kg/ha, considered a dramatic reduction. Even at 8000 kg/ha, yields are twice that of Le Clos Saint-Hilaire, which harvested in one pass yields around 4000 kg/ha. Producing just 3500-7500 bottles per vintage (1995, 1996, 1998, 1999, 2002). This painfully low yield consists of small, concentrated berries in which the low skin to juice ratio favours an intensely complex aromatic range.

The site, farmed organically, has a small flock of sheep which take residence much of the year. Their manure acting as a natural slow-release fertiliser. Sheep manure fertiliser is serendipitously ‘fine-tuned’ for the nourishment of grapevines, usually high in both phosphorus and potassium, both essential nutrient for optimal growth. Where the site is ploughed, it is done so by horse. Compared to tractors, horses cause less soil compaction allowing for better microbial activity in the soil. The limitations of a horse’s physical strength also often lead to a more sensible exertion of force which better suits the state of the soil at a given time, something a machine finds difficult to duplicate. On a baking hot day, cutting into the soil may leave it vulnerable to water-loss. A farmer in an air-conditioned unit would likely plough ahead regardless. The horse, though not conscious of this water loss, is not physically able to cut into the dry, hard earth, just as it won’t be able to plough when the ground is sodden. The result is a natural sensibility in terms of the extent of ploughing.

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Le Clos Saint-Hilaire has a somewhat ‘Edenesque‘ quality. Lush diverse cover crop, ripe tomatoes, flourishing agriculture, and an obviously blossoming soil porosity and biodiversity. Pointing toward a pumpkin erupting from the soil nearby (a test relating to the management of gas found in soils), Mathieu describes the one-hectare parcel as his research and development facility. It is here, in a controlled, manageable environment where the estate seeks not only to better its understanding of soil and climate but also to trial new practices and establish advancements in viticulture.

In total, Billecarts annual production requires a total of roughly 300ha. 100ha of this is owned by the house, 140ha is not owned by the house but worked by their employees, and a further 60ha is purchased from growers with which the house has longstanding relationships. The unhelpful and pernicious caricature of Champagne houses as entirely separate from the raw material they purchase is not only increasingly unhelpful but certainly not the case with Billecart.

Though a commendable percentage of the house’s vineyards are farmed organically, the estate is not organic in its entirety. Mathieu is practical in his philosophy, explaining that he treats the vines as he does his children. He and his wife insist their children maintain healthy diets, exercise frequently and opts, where suitable, for holistic ‘home remedies’. However, if one of their children were particularly unwell, they would, of course, support medical intervention. In Le Clos Saint-Hilaire, the house is establishing the best course of intervention for its vines, recognising a need for balance and nuance.

When does it make sense not to till? When is ploughing an appropriate option? How often should cover crop be rotated and how does this differ year on year? To what extent can pruning and trellis height negate climate change and/or aid optimal ripeness? These are questions asked and experimented with in Le Clos Saint-Hilaire. Lessons learned from these experiments, where successful, are disseminated into workable practices across the rest of the houses plantings.

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Once picked, the 4000kg harvest is pressed. Only the first press, pressed slowly to encourage a more broad extraction, proceeds to barrel. The wine is vinified entirely in oak, this itself an experiment which has spilt over to another of the estate’s wines. In the centre of a thermo-regulated barrel room, just a brief walk from the vineyard itself, sit 16 French oak barrels plugged with translucent stoppers emblematic of the estates branding. Once vinification is complete, during which 1 of the 16 barrels sacrifices itself in order to up the remaining 15, the wine spends an impressive 15 years on the lees in heart of Billecart’s extensive cellar.

This is truly one of the world’s greatest wines. A flourishing example of what can be achieved where harmonious balance is sought between man and nature. Here, in a single-hectare parcel behind the family estate, pressing challenges are considered and sustainable responses trialled and shared across the houses plantings. A plot of land at the very forefront of considered viticulture.

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