Welcome!” says gregarious Antoine Roland-Billecart, gliding down the 19th century staircase with the good looks and confidence of a sports star. On the stairwell wall behind him are oval, gilt-framed portraits of his ancestors.
Antoine’s family has lived in the quaint village of Mareuil-sur-Ay since the 16th century when Nicholas Francois Billecart, an attorney, married Elisabeth Salmon, who brought to the marriage several grand cru vineyards.
Antoine and his brother Francois now represent the seventh generation of the family and manage the estate with the help of chef de cave Francois Domi.
As Antoine walks me through the gorgeously landscaped garden of the chateau, I see the manicured yet rather modest home he grew up in across the small street, where the winery and chai can also be found.
Inside the winery, you will find the usual equipment, a rather large pneumatic press, and priceless young still wine evolving inside glimmering stainless steel tanks.
What differentiates Billecart Salmon from other houses is revealed when Antoine takes out that famously large chain of keys (keys are a constant theme with Antoine … there is quite a bit of locking and unlocking of doors) and voila! We step inside the chai with its dozens – possibly hundreds – of expensive oak barrels.
The majority of barrels are five and six years old from the finest coopers in France, as the oak is used to give complexity to the wine, not any flavors from oak. We taste a prime example of this oak influence later in the visit as we sip and reflect on the NV Billecart-Salmon Brut Sous Bois, made from the 2009 and 2010 vintages from the three grape varieties in equal parts: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier. The color is a sumptuous gold, and Antoine explains the vibrant, tiny, fast moving bubbles as a result of the strain of yeast used. The mousse is rich and creamy, like a soft cloud — very balanced. “The fruit aspect is important,” says Antoine, with a particularly serious, focused look.
This was such a special visit for me on so many levels. First, it was meeting the very charismatic Antoine himself, very forthcoming and confident, yet down to earth all the same. The picture of him savoring that glass of Brut Sous Bois on the sofa, with pictures of his ancestors all around, was just one of those pictures that stays in one’s mind.
And throughout our visit together, was the contrast between “the brand” and “the family.” Throughout the world, Billecart-Salmon is almost an icon of luxury … on the scale of Louis Vuitton. It is often seen on the Champagne cart of the finest restaurants, where guests can choose it as an aperitif before dinner. Everything about the brand sings quality and prestige. Yet at the same time, Billecart-Salmon is actually a very modest, hard-working family enterprise … a family who from a visit to the home valued books, art, and beautifully landscaped gardens.
And good Champagne as well!