When it comes to celebrations, bubbly is one of the first things that comes to mind. Light, effervescent and luxurious, it’s the perfect pairing for a festive occasion, or to uplift an ordinary day. And one of our iconic favorites is from the house of Champagne Billecart-Salmon.
Perhaps best known for its Brut Rosé, this 200-year-old brand was actually born from a celebration: the marriage of Nicolas François Billecart to Elisabeth Salmon in 1818.
It has been a rich family story ever since, which may just be one of the keys to the brand’s success. In 1999, the Cuvée Nicolas François Billecart 1959 was chosen as “Champagne of the Millennium” by a committee of experts at a blind tasting session involving 150 vintages from the best Champagne producers from around the world. The team at Billecart-Salmon was also recently awarded an entrepreneurship award by Ernst & Young.
This year, seventh-generation family member, Mathieu Roland-Billecart, is stepping into the role of Chief Executive Officer, ushering in a new era for the family-owned and family-run company.
But running the family business wasn’t always in mind for Roland-Billecart, whose background includes working in consulting firms along with sitting on the supervisory board of Champagne Billecart-Salmon. “I was born into Champagne and spent the first 20 years of my life here,” he says, adding that he then went to London for his studies at Durham University. “We focus on picking the best individual in each generation, and therefore, it’s not just by birth.”
Billecart-Salmon produces several Champagnes: seven in the Gallery Collection including four Brut Champagnes; four Cuvées in the Gallery Millésime Collection and a special edition Le Clos Saint-Hilare, that is a limited release of 3,500 to 6,500 bottles. Annual production is around two million bottles distributed across 80 countries, and the top restaurants and hotels around the world. Despite the popularity, there are no plans to expand beyond that.
“We can serve an elite array of customers around the globe without needing to go mass market,” Roland-Billecart says.
This laser focus on quality versus quantity is what results in such exceptional wines. “We have always had great pride in living the family motto, which is to give top priority to quality and strive for excellence. And, that is what we try to do every day in creating exceptional wines,” Roland-Billecart says.
Another factor he attributes to the company’s success is keeping the business in the family, which is virtually unheard of for a 200-year-old brand.
“Most Champagne companies, the well-known ones, belong to big groups. A number of these groups are listed, which means they have to report quarterly and semiannually, and therefore, they live and die by their financial performance,” he explains. “I was just much more focused on relationships and quality, and if it wasn’t for the family ownership and long-term commitment to quality, we would not be able to produce as good a wine as we produce today.”
This year, the company is investing in 24 large barrels, which are used during the vinification process and done under very cold temperatures. Cold-setting is a unique technique to Champagne production, and one which Billecart-Salmon pioneered. It has been used since the 1950s and is something Roland-Billecart says adds an extra layer of finesse and complexity to the wines.
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“As we strive for excellence, we always look for the little things that will make a difference,” he says.
Barrels are used during the vinification process and, depending on the wine, stainless steel or oak barrels, small and large options, may be chosen. For example, the Brut Sous Bois and Close Saint-Hilare are 100-percent vinified in oak casks, whereas Nicolas François is blended with wine from both stainless steel and oak barrels.
The amount of time the wines are aged at Billecart-Salmon is also lengthier than the average Champagne. Unlike the legal minimum required for Champagne wines—15 months for non-vintage wines and 36 months for vintage wines—Billecart-Salmon bottles are laid down for between three and 10 years in its chalk cellars before they are judged ready for tasting.
“Our gift to clients is quality and an exceptional experience.”
The wines also undergo quite the “approval” process. The first press is done at the vineyard. “We only keep the best and sell down the rest,” Roland-Billecart says. There is also a tasting committee which consists of eight members; four of which are family members who taste the wines at all stages of the production process. There has to be unanimous agreement from the members on when the wine is ready. “Our philosophy is that the wine gets respected at every single stage, and there is no weak link that will in any way reduce or weaken the product,” he says. “Our gift to clients is quality and an exceptional experience.”
Of course, there are a few drawbacks about working in a family business, like never really being able to “unplug”. But having a shared vision and family philosophy has clearly propelled the brand forward.
Roland-Billecart also adds that staying away from big, traditional marketing techniques helps them stay focused. “We’re relatively less well-known because we don’t do the big push, but there is this inner circle of an elite that know us and are loyal to us because they know that we won’t get compromised by a variety of different things. We just stay focused on delivering the best Champagne in their glass. At the end of the day, that’s what matters.”
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In 2018, a limited-edition Bicentary Cuvée was released in celebration of the 200th anniversary. Only 1,818 magnum bottles exist and each one is numbered.
One thing is clear: passion runs through the veins of this family. When asked what he loves most about the wine-making business, Roland-Billecart is quick to answer in two words: “The people.”
“There is so much in a bottle outside the glass. It’s a work of passion.”