The Champagnes of Billecart-Salmon have always been a connoisseur’s favourite, but the reputation of one of its top two wines Cuvée Nicolas François was sealed in 1999 when the 1959 vintage was declared to be ‘Champagne of the Millennium’. As if that wasn’t enough the same wine in the 1961 vintage was declared the runner-up! Anne Krebiehl MW talks to CEO Mathieu Roland-Billecart and cellar master Florent Nys about this extraordinary cuvée, why 2007 is such an energetic vintage and, of course, tastes Billecart-Salmon Cuvée Nicolas François 2007 with full tasting notes.
“We have a great degree of confidence in 2007. This is underrated – 2008 is huge, there is no question – but I think 2007 is not as far from 2008 as people think, certainly in the perspective of Billecart-Salmon.” Roland-Billecart said at the launch of Billecart-Salmon Cuvée Nicolas François 2007
The news of this launch comes about a fortnight late, but at least the world now has one or two collective reasons to pop the corks! Hurray! It was on an Instagram live broadcast on a Friday evening in late October that Mathieu Roland-Billecart, CEO of Champagne Billecart-Salmon, launched the latest prestige cuvée of the house alongside his cellar master Florent Nys. The wine is momentous and exciting: it is the new vintage of Billecart-Salmon Cuvée Nicolas François 2007.
The cuvée was first created in 1964 and its 60/40 composition of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay has remained unchanged since then. It takes its place in Billecart-Salmon’s line-up of so-called ‘founders cuvées’, next to Elizabeth Salmon Rosé and Louis Salmon Blanc de Blancs.
Roland-Billecart said: “Nicolas François was my great-great-great-great-grandfather.” While this is a mouthful, Mathieu Roland-Billecart is indeed the seventh generation of the family to run the house. “Nicolas François Billecart founded Billecart-Salmon when he married my great-great-great-great-grandmother Elizabeth Salmon in 1818 – 202 years ago – and in his honour we named our prestige cuvée. It was our historic brut millésimé until 1964, then the name changed. The Nicolas François’ reputation shot to fame in 1999 when [Swedish Champagne supremo] Richard Juhlin and a jury of experts voted Billecart-Salmon Cuvée Nicolas François 1959 ‘Champagne of the Millennium’,” Roland-Billecart said. “And if that wasn’t enough, the 1961 came second.”
Roland-Billecart then swiftly handed over to cellar master Florent Nys for technical detail.
“Let’s begin with the blend,” Nys said, in a delivery as wonderfully brisk as the wine itself: “60% Pinot Noir and 40% Chardonnay. As ever, we chose the very best parcels of our vineyard for this selection and it includes Mareuil-sur-Aÿ, Aÿ and Verzenay for Pinot Noir, not Ambonnay for this year. For the Chardonnay, Mesnil-sur-Oger, Chouilly and Avize. In terms of cru ranking, 79% of the blend is Grand Cru and 21% is Premier Cru in Mareuil-sur-Aÿ. For the vinification, we have 85% of stainless steel which gives pure freshness to the wine and very good definition of fruit. We have 15% of base wine vinified in small oak barrels to give richness and structure.”
Nys emphasised that the base wines were fermented at the low temperature of 13°C – key to Billecart-Salmon’s signature style – with the fermentation lasting more or less three weeks. Nys explained that 2007 was an early harvest, characterised by early budbreak and flowering, and mild temperatures until the end of July. While the 2007 Champagne harvest officially started on 22 August, Billecart-Salmon did not harvest the grapes for this wine until the 10th of September “to get the right maturity,” said Nys. “The levels of malic acid were very low, at less than 4g/l” which is why malo-lactic fermentation was blocked for 60% of the blend.” The wine was disgorged in July 2019. “This long ageing for 11 years gives the wine its incredible complexity,” Nys said. The extra brut dosage of 6g/l via Pinot Noir reserve wine was then decided by the house’s tasting committee in a blind tasting.
It was lovely to watch Nys uncork his bottle with concentration and breaking into a smile as he poured: “If you were here, you could hear the bubbles singing,” he said in anticipation. As he proceeded to sniff and taste, giving us his impressions, he finally let go of his shyness, coming alive along with the stupendous Champagne in his glass. He spoke of creaminess, freshness, amplitude and intensity. ”For me, this is so energetic,” he said, ascribing the wine an ageing potential of 20 years or more.
Mathieu Roland-Billecart sketched the 2007 vintage of Nicolas François with three attributes: “freshness, length, potential.” He noted that 2007 was not usually held in as high regard as 2008 but noted: “In 2007 we made all three of our prestige cuvées which is very rare.” Nys called 2007 a “huge, huge vintage. Because we took our time to pick the grapes, to have a three-week fermentation and long lees ageing, we took all we needed to make a great wine. I remember that after the first fermentation the wines were so juicy, so fresh, so crisp. I knew at that time that 2007 was very good.”
Roland-Billecart added: “We have a great degree of confidence in 2007. This is underrated – 2008 is huge, there is no question – but I think 2007 is not as far from 2008 as people think, certainly in the perspective of Billecart-Salmon.” This was no exaggeration. Nicolas François 2007 is impressive, brisk and certainly has the structure, freshness and power to mature. It is emblematic of Billecart-Salmon’s clear- and clean-cut style, bristling with freshness, drive and sleek elegance.
Billecart-Salmon Cuvée Nicolas François 2007
Clarity is the first thing that strikes on the nose: a bell-like purity that seems to carry ripe, creamy but tart apple flesh. More air then reveals barley sugar with caramelised lemon overtones and hints of wet chalk. That sense of exquisite clarity also features on the palate where absolute freshness strikes a high note, a bright peal of soaring lemon that is anchored in gorgeously creamy almond Viennoiserie and profound chalk. It is that absolute freshness, that chalky depth and superfine mousse that define this wine. Unbending structure, uncompromising freshness, absolute depth. Wow.