Arriving at Paris Beauvais we were delighted to find the weather a distinct improvement to what we had left in Dublin. It was warm and sunny and certainly put us in the mood to enjoy some wonderful Champagnes. Once the car rental was organised we set off along the N31 towards the Champagne region, a drive of just under 3 hours. An easy enough journey and as we approached Reims and the surrounding area we started to see those famous names that we all recognise.
Our destination was the small village of Mareuil-sur-Ay, the home of Champagne Billecart-Salmon since its creation in 1818. Located a 15 minute drive from Epernay, the village is quiet and sleepy. Its old buildings and houses, set along the Canal lateral à la Marne, were shuttered against the heat of the day. The silent buildings hid a hive of activity as this little village is home to numerous Champagne houses all with their production facilities hidden within the old stone buildings.
Arriving at 2pm. and after introductions and getting shown to our rooms we were taken on a short, but steep, walk up to the Notre Dame du Gruguet. A beautiful hill overlooking the village. At its summit is a statue to the Virgin Mary. After putting themselves under her protection in 1944 against the bombings, the villagers erected the monument in 1946 and a torchlight procession is still led to it each year in thanks to the village being kept safe.
In this beautiful location, with fabulous views of the vineyards, we were treated to a glass of Billecart-Salmon Sous Bois. This superb wine harks back to the original way the Champenoise used to make their champagne. Vinifying and ageing in oak, which gives the wines extra body and texture as well as toasty notes. The new label is unusual! A thin slice of cherry wood from sustainable trees, making each one unique.
That afternoon, we were taken to the newly renovated and re-opened Royal Champagne. A luxury hotel & spa, set in the hills overlooking Champagne vineyards. Here we tasted Billecart-Salmon Extra Brut and Rosé.
Extra Brut – Zero dosage reveals the richness of the delicious fruit.. An initial palate of ripe apples & pears with plenty of complex secondary flavours from the reserve wines. Beautiful aperitif wine or pair with oysters
Rosé Brut – Such a delicious and drinkable Champagne; Vivid, almost luscious strawberry aromas. Touches of nutmeg and clove spice amid lively, refreshing fruit on its delicate, fresh body. A superb rosé,
It was then back to Mareuil-sur-Ay and the Billecart-Salmon property where we were to have dinner. It was such a lovely evening we had an aperitif of Billecart-Salmon Extra Brut in the beautiful gardens. We were joined by the winner of the “Best Dressed” lady at Down Royal races, Shileen McConville and her husband Gareth. Their prize was a night at Billecart-Salmon with dinner and, as it happened, our wonderful company as well. Of course far more impressive was the company of François Roland-Billecart and his wife lovely wife Edith who joined us for aperitifs.
As the wind started to get up we were called in for dinner, perfect timing, and what a treat we were in for. Each courses was accompanied by one of the family cuvees. Nicolas-Francoise 2006, Louis Salmon Blancs de Blanc 2006 and Elizabeth Salmon Rosé 2007! What absolutely stunning wines and a lovely end to a great day at Billecart-Salmon.
Billecart-Salmon Cuvée Nicolas François Brut Millésime 2006 – This exceptional cuvée was created in 1964 as a tribute to the House’s founder. It results from the blending of Grands Crus from the classified Côte des Blancs vineyards (Chardonnay) and the Montagne de Reims (Pinot Noir).
Billecart-Salmon Cuvée Elisabeth Salmon Brut Millésime 2007 – Created in 1988 as a tribute to the House’s co-founder Elisabeth Salmon, this cuvée distinguishes itself through its sparkle and refined purity of grandeur and unique character. This great, rare and sought after wine, offers the subtle signature of our top Pinot Noir and Chardonnay terroirs.
Billecart-Salmon Cuvée Elisabeth Salmon Brut Millésime 2007 – This cuvée was named in tribute to Louis, Elisabeth Salmon’s brother, who was passionate about oenology and highly involved in from the earliest creation of the House. Originating from the best parcels of the Côte des Blancs, the Blanc de Blancs vintage is impressed with a purity and minerality.
Our start to the day was a traditional French breakfast at the very sensible time of 9am before assembling for a tour of the cellars and vineyards. The day was warm but heavy showers threatened, our tour of the legendary Clos St. Hilaire vineyard was interrupted by one such downpour and we sheltered in the nearby bottling plant.
François Roland-Billecart, 6th Generation CEO of Billecart-Salmon said this about the Clos:
“In the 1950s my grandmother set aside this park-like space next to our house in Mareuil-sur-Aÿ with vines, flowers and fruit trees, for our enjoyment. Realising this outstanding terroir’s potential, my family decided to plant the first Pinot Noir vines here in 1964. We tried using the Pinot Noir to make white wine in small Burgundy barrels: an outstanding champagne was about to be born. After several years of painstakingly tending the vines, the 1995 harvest, the first year of this unique cuvée, was remarkable. We called it Le Clos Saint-Hilaire after the patron saint of the church in Mareuil-sur-Aÿ. No more than 3,500 to 7,500 bottles are produced each year and each is individually numbered.”
With their ever-continuing investment in quality the house has a newly constructed barrel-ageing facility, it was quite remarkable. Built to the highest standards, the space accommodates 24 foudres, each holding 80 hectolitres.
This new investment along with the 400 burgundy barrels makes Billecart-Salmon the 4th largest user of oak in Champagne.
The trip down to the cellars was fascinating. With over 3km of cellars there was plenty to see. From the millions of bottles slowly ageing in the cool dark or the old ‘pupitre’ or riddling racks that are still used to this day for the half bottles.
Once we emerged back into what was now a lovely warm day we had one last treat in store. Whilst we waited for the car to take us for a bite of lunch we sampled a bottle of Cuvée Elizabeth Salmon Rose 2002!
A fifty-fifty blend of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, with eight percent of the Pinot being comprised of still red wine. The dosage is only five grams per litre. This is quite simply an outstanding Brut Rosé, soaring from the glass in a blend of blood orange, cherries, toast, exotic spices. On the palate the wine is deep, full-bodied, complex and very pure with perfect focus and balance, a great core, stunning elegance and poise, refined mousse and a very long, zesty and utterly seamless finish.
After lunch we were on the road again, thankfully only a short 15 minute drive to the village of Craon de Ludes, where Forget-Brimont having been making their own champagnes for over 100 years. 6th Generation Champenoise Michel Forget is the current owner & winemaker and the estate can trace it roots back to the early nineteenth century when his ancestor, Louis, first created vineyards in the area. The Champagne Forget Brimont brand was established in 1920 by another relative, Eugène.
Michel Forget inherited a strong family vine-growing and wine making tradition that spans six generations. Based in the town of Craon de Ludes, he owns nine hectares of prime Pinot Noir vineyards, planted mainly on the Grand Cru rated sites of Mailly-Champagne and Verzenay in the Montagne de Reims region. The total production is around 280,000 bottles per year.
All the steps of the production process, from vineyard to cellar, are geared towards expressive, individual wines that offer outstanding value for money. The standard non-vintage blend is dominated by Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier with a small percentage of Chardonnay and is rested on its ‘lees’ for three years before ‘dégorgement’.
The wines of Forget-Brimont offer an opportunity to enjoy some superb Champagnes at very reasonable prices. Before our tour of the facility we tasted their Grand Cru and Premier Cru Blanc de Blancs side by side. The Premier Cru was the ideal aperitif, wonderfully fresh with a very fine mousse and a toasty, brioche palate with plenty of ripe fruit giving the wine excellent length. The Grand cru by comparison really cried out for some accompanying food.
The highlight of our tour was tasting a bottle of 2002 Premier Cru rosé that had never even left the cellars. We tried it with some fresh local strawberries which were an excellent accompaniment. The wine itself was still remarkably fresh albeit 17 years old. Quite remarkable.