Limited edition cuvées are all the rage these days in Champagne, the latest in the fold being Billecart-Salmon which has just launched a new series of ‘pop-up’ cuvées called Les Rendez-Vous de Billecart-Salmon; wines where ‘when they’re gone they’re gone’. First in this series is No.1 Meunier Extra Brut which is a 3-crus 100% Meunier that is largely from the 2014 vintage and has spent 52 months on its lees – a wine that has come straight out of the House’s penchant for experimentation.
“We are in a bit of uncharted territory. We intend it for people to enjoy it now, I am not concerned for people to drink it over the next two, three, four, five years, but it’s not designed like some of our prestige cuvées to age for the next twenty or thirty, that is not the idea,” Mathieu Roland-Billecart says.
As avid readers will know, I am always to be had for a rendezvous that involves good fizz – even if it is virtual and streamed on Intstagram Live. Mathieu Roland-Billecart, CEO and 7th generation family member of Champagne Billecart-Salmon, took to the airwaves late on Friday afternoon to launch Billecart-Salmon’s new Champagne cuvée Les Rendez-Vous de Billecart-Salmon No.1 Meunier Extra Brut – just in time to ring in the weekend.
Presenting in the evening sunshine from Billecart-Salmon’s garden in Mareuil-sur-Aÿ, Roland-Billecart said: “We have some exciting news today – we are launching not only one cuvée but a range of different cuvées. This is what we would call ‘éphémère’ in French, they are short lived, they are there then they are gone, they are like a pop-up cuvée, it is kind of there while it lasts.”
He then explained what this new series was all about: “Some of you will know that Billecart-Salmon experiments all the time, whether it’s in the vineyard or in our vinification process. What that means is that we try new things to further improve the quality wherever we can. The vast amount of these experiments you never see. Because if they are successful, and very often they are, they end up being kept in our reserve wine catalogue, so they help us to further improve the quality of our wines, which in time means that they improve the quality of our non-vintage Champagnes, whether that is Brut Réserve, Brut Sousbois, Brut Rosé, et cetera.”
“One of the things that led to ‘Rendez-Vous’ is that from 2015, we started bottling some of these experiments to try and understand how some particular grapes, crus and parcels were going to evolve when left on the lees. We had not done that before,” he said. When the house’s three-generation tasting committee tasted some of those experiments in 2018, “we really uncovered some unexpected things in terms of quality. The taste stood out and was very different to the blend we have in our normal range. This is the genesis and the start of the Rendez-Vous de Billecart-Salmon.”
He noted: “These are very small bottlings in terms of quantity because when we experiment, we experiment with one or two tanks or a few barrels. So it’s never going to be big, it was not intended to be a big thing – but because they were so good, we thought let’s share it!”
Then he delved into the wine itself: “As the name suggests, it is 100% Pinot Meunier. Meunier is a grape that has been underrated for a long time but at Billecart-Salmon we have always been fierce defenders of this grape and have never hidden the fact that it is the majority grape in our Brut Réserve. We think it brings the fruitiness and the freshness that the others don’t. They are all complementary, but we love what it brings to the blend. It was bottled in 2015, so it has a fair amount of age.”
He then explained that two thirds of the base wines were from the 2014 vintage, while one third was from 2012. “We were trying to understand the expression of Meunier in the Billecart style. In terms of terroir, we used a majority of Leuvrigny and Festigny, which are villages about 20km away on the left bank of the Marne Valley. We tend to go into the Marne Valley for our Meunier and these are not particularly well-known villages, but they are in our mind the premier and grand cru of what Meunier can give, even though there is no cru rating in that part. Then there is another village cru that is better known and bigger, Venteuil, on the right bank. So this is based on one grape and three crus.”
“In terms of vinification, this was vinified 100% in stainless steel. The idea was to keep the purity of the fruit and get the real expression of Meunier – remember, this was an experiment. We kept the Billecart way of vinification with cold settling and cold fermentation, slowly, at or around 13°C, to extract the finesse and the elegance which is the signature of Billecart-Salmon. So it’s Meunier, of course, but Meunier Billecart style.”
“Another characteristic of this Meunier is that it has stayed on lees for a long time relative to the vast majority of its peers, so this was bottled in the summer of 2015 and disgorged in December 2019 with 52 months on lees and a low dosage of 4.5g/l. It’s really ‘près du vin’, as we say in French, very close to the expression of the terroir but once again, that was the idea.”
Roland-Billecart opened and decanted the bottle very slowly into a carafe, “in order not to lose the bubbles, the idea really is to wake up the wine,” he said, putting it aside for a few minutes and emphasising: “Please don’t serve it very cold and use big glasses, this is to gain the full benefit of the flavours of this wine.”
As he tasted, he described: “First thing: the Billecart signature – soft touch, very fine bubbles. Where does that come from? Only first press, that goes for the entirety of the range. Long ageing on lees, 52 months, unusual; and that cold method of vinification which gives this particular elegance to the wine. So yes, it is Meunier, but it is Billecart-born Meunier and you get that.” He also noted that half the blend had gone through malo-lactic fermentation and that due to the small quantity, the wines from the three separate villages had been co-fermented.
He then continued tasting: “Then you get the characteristics which are typical of what the grape variety gives you. I would say it is gourmand, rond, so it’s a little richer but still very fresh, very clean with a light and airy finish. It’s broad in the middle of the mouth but airy and light at the back. That is the fine balance between the expression of the grape variety and the vinification method of Billecart-Salmon. Those of you who really are Meunier lovers will get a different expression of what you are used to. But for us in the tasting committee we really recognise this wine because we know it is a fair representation of what we get in our reserve wine catalogue.”
Regarding the wine’s ageing potential, he said: “We are in a bit of uncharted territory. We intend it for people to enjoy it now, I am not concerned for people to drink it over the next two, three, four, five years, but it’s not designed like some of our prestige cuvées to age for the next twenty or thirty, that is not the idea.”
The marketing material billed this as a “first stop” but Roland-Billecart did not give any hints what the second or third Rendez-Vous de Billecart-Salmon would be about, nor when they would be released. There is a promising sign-off “see you soon for No.2”, so we can look forward to more insightful bottlings from the house.
Les Rendez-Vous de Billecart-Salmon No.1 Meunier Extra Brut
The wine opens with a slightly floral aspect and a hint of pear tart with lemon overtones. There is a sense of levity, but more air introduces a more brooding, darker notion of candlewax. That lovely but full-flavoured lightness also characterises the palate with wonderfully bright tension. Again that darker, somehow earthy Meunier note adds a hint of waxiness that almost verges onto smokiness – especially on the finish – while the surface remains bright, light and lemony. The mousse is fine and the wine has a pleasant suppleness and this sense of lightness just begs for another sip.
The RRP is £65