This series of articles will focus on the top wines from a number of Champagne Houses. In Champagne these top wines are referred to as that house’s “Tête de Cuvée”. The Tête de Cuvée will be made from a strict selection of the best barrels from the best vineyard parcels. The Tête de Cuvée is very limited in production, but it is very important to the Champagne house as it represents the best of the best, the crowning achievement that defines what the house is capable of.
Billecart-Salmon is one of the great names in Champagne and one of the few remaining that are still family-owned. (Taittinger, notably comes to mind as also being family owned, but these two are rare in that regard). Seven generations of Billecarts have run the estate since Nicolas Francois Billecart married Elisabeth Salmon in 1818. Over two centuries later much remains the same at Billecart-Salmon: the house makes beautiful Champagnes from Grand Cru and Premier Cru vineyards in a style that emphasizes balance and elegance. Horses still pull plows through some of their vineyards and respect for family values and tradition remain very much in evidence.
The commitment to quality at Billecart-Salmon is as high as anywhere. One reason for this is the fact that it is still family owned. There are no outside shareholders or directors. There is no need to maximize short term profits; the family only feels the need to make the best wine possible. That is why they hold back a full one-third of each harvest to be held as reserve wines to be aged and eventually blended with other more recent vintages. The high ratio of reserve wines brings more character to the final blend. The house style emphasizes finesse over power. Not that their wines lack power, but the house is known to be a Champagne for chefs, a gastronomical Champagne.
Billecart-Salmon’s top Champagne, or as they refer to it in Champagne, their Tête de cuvée, is their Cuvée Nicolas-Francois.
This Cuvée was created in 1964 as an homage to the winery’s founder. This is a vintage Champagne made only in very special years from the best grapes grown on estate vineyards and from their top growers. The 2002 vintage that we recently tasted was a blend of 60% Pinot Noir and 40% Chardonnay. 20% of the batch was vinified in oak barrels and the wine was aged for 10 years on the lees. These two processes in the cellar help to give the wine some richness resulting in its truly gorgeous texture. Though Billecart uses the term Brut on the label, the dosage is in fact only 4 grams per litre, technically qualifying it as extra brut. In our view that level of dosage was expertly chosen as the ripeness of the vintage required no more and resulted in a truly spectacular Champagne.
We are not alone in our praise for this extraordinary wine. In the last year of the 20th Century, noted Champagne specialist Richard Juhlin organized a blind tasting of the top Champagnes to choose the “Champagne of the Millennium”.
150 vintages from the very top producers were submitted to a panel in Stockholm and evaluated. At the time Jean Roland-Billecart and his son Francois decided that house would not submit any wines for the competition. His other son Antoine thought this was a big mistake and a missed opportunity. So, he secretly submitted their 1959 and 1961 vintage brut Champagnes to the tasting. There was no Cuvée Nicolas-Francois at the time of those vintages, it was not created until 1964, but these wines can be considered the Cuvée Nicoas-Francois’ predecessors as they were the house’s Tête de cuvée at that time. The winner? The Billecart-Salmon 1959. And who came in second place? The Billecart-Salmon 1961. To fully get a perspective on just how much this award means, have a look at the others in the top 10:
- Billecart-Salmon 1959
- Billecart-Salmon 1961
- Gosset 1952
- Dom Perignon 1964
- Dom Perignon 1961
- Pol Roger 1959
- Dom Ruinart 1979
- Krug Collection 1961
- De Venoge Des Princes 1979
- Paul Bara 1959
Richard Juhlin wrote in his book The Great Tasting, “The Perfect Champagne, 1959 Billecart-Salmon, had everything one would expect of a luxury Champagne, but in a seldom seen concentration and simultaneously with harmonious balance.
A totally perfect Champagne in its category, with a smoky, honey-smooth extremely long taste of walnut, orange blossom and chocolate. All who ever get to drink this fabulous wine just have to love the pleasure it grants. When you study the end result it is striking to see how obvious the victory was.”
Serena Sutcliffe, a Master of Wine and one of the judges at that tasting remarked, ”Creamy delicacy and yet huge flavour, this must be the Holy Grail for which all Champagne blenders search. Mega dimension. Great depth and yet finesse. Perfect composition. Remains fabulous in the glass.”
As our tasting note shows, we share the judges’ enthusiasm for the wine in our review of the 2002 vintage. Another 1959 in the making?
2002 Billecart-Salmon Cuvée Nicolas-Francois
Medium yellow-gold colour with a persistent bead of fine bubbles. Amazing nose of warm bread dough as soon as the cork is removed from the bottle. On the palate this wine is pure heaven! There is an almost indescribable alignment of power with finesse. There is a wonderful intensity to the flavour without any sensation of heaviness! Citrus flavours of an almost exotic stripe come to mind; yes, the usual lemon and lime but there is also hints of mandarin orange, as well as something tropical. The mouthfeel is smooth and textured but nicely defined by a streak of acidity that holds everything else in place. Notes of apple, pear and plum take turns at coming to the fore. A wine of tremendous complexity and extraordinary balance.