Geoff Kelly Wine Reviews
Independent reviews of some local and imported wines available in New Zealand, including earlier vintages.

Champagne Billecart-Salmon has a very particular and fragrant style,  epitomised by the perfume of the introductory nv Brut Reserve.  The volume of pink rose and best side of strawberry aroma,  virtually perfume,  coming off this wine is sensational.  So it comes as no surprise to find it is 40% pinot meunier,  a grape rather overlooked,  even disparaged,  these days.  But the strange thing is,  the Blanc de Blancs wines share suggestions of this perfume,  even though there are allegedly no red grapes in the cuvée at all.  One can  never take any winery totally at its word,  naturally enough,  and maybe there is a little meunier in the Blanc de Blancs.  Or maybe the winery by now has its own indigenous yeast strain 'selected' over the years for replicating its fragrant house style.

Two factors influencing the purity and fragrance of their wines is their unusual practice of double cold-settling,  and then strict temperature control of all ferments.  Primary fermentations whether in stainless for the non-vintage wines,  or in barrel for some fractions of the vintage wines,  are kept at temperatures below 15° C.  The barrel hall is kept at a similar temperature.  The malolactic fermentation is used,  but not as a matter of course.  Each wine is judged on its merits.  The firm is also marked by their ultra-subtle use of oak.  Apart from the Sous Bois label,  oak is used only as a component of the vintage wines.  It is all well-used / old oak from noted chardonnay producers in Burgundy,  in the 5 – 15 years old range.  Their oak use finds its greatest expression in the cuvée Sous Bois,  which provides a stunning exposition of how oak should be deployed in method champenoise élevage.      

Billecart-Salmon draws fruit from c. 320 ha of vineyards,  but sources are conflicting as to the percentage they own.  What is clear is that a very significant part of it is grand cru rating.  The website implies but does not make explicit that all the vintage-dated wines are made solely / largely from grand cru vineyards,  and even in the non-vintage range,  the Blanc de Blancs is said to be all grand cru fruit.  To further enhance quality,  the house tightly controls cropping rate in the vineyards they lease,  averaging 70 h/L per hectare (11.2 t/ha = 4.5 t/ac) against a Champagne commercial average of c.85 hl / ha (13.5 = 5.5).  All the grapes are hand-picked.

Robinson,  Jancis:  www.jancisrobinson.com  (subscription needed)
Stelzer,  Tyson,  2013:  The Champagne Guide 2014 – 2015.  Hardie Grant Books,  Melbourne & London,  360 p.


2004  Champagne Billecart-Salmon Blanc de Blancs Brut
   nv  Champagne Billecart-Salmon Blanc de Blancs Grand Cru Brut
   nv  Champagne Billecart-Salmon Brut Reserve
2006  Champagne Billecart-Salmon Cuvée Elisabeth Salmon Rosé Brut
1997  Champagne Billecart-Salmon Cuvée Nicolas Francois Billecart Brut
     nv  Champagne Billecart-Salmon Demi-Sec
   nv  Champagne Billecart-Salmon Rosé Brut
   nv  Champagne Billecart-Salmon Sous Bois Brut
   nv  Champagne Gatinois Grand Cru Tradition Brut

1997  Champagne Billecart-Salmon Cuvée Nicolas Francois Billecart Brut   19 ½  ()
Mareuil-sur-Ay,  Champagne,  France:  12.5%;  $154   [ traditional compound champagne cork;  PN 60%,  Ch 40,  all grand cru vineyards;  recent vintages have had no MLF component;  some old-oak barrel-fermented base wines;  long tirage perhaps 10 – 12 years or so,  details not made available;  dosage 4 – 5 g/L;  website superficial;  in a formal blind tasting in Stockholm in 1999,  the 1959 of this label (judged from a magnum) won the title 'Champagne of the Millennium',  judged against 150 of the finest 20th Century champagnes.  A magnum of the winning wine later sold for £3,300;  www.champagne-billecart.fr ]
Colour is rich straw,  the deepest of the white champagnes.  Bouquet is wonderfully pure,  fragrant both from grapes and a depth of autolysis almost beyond baguette-crust into lightly toasted Vogel's Multigrain and suggestions of cashew.  Pinot noir is the dominant fruit aroma.  Palate immediately has this wonderful perfumed lift to it which seems to characterise the house,  and it tastes of pinot meunier too,  yet there is none in the cepage.   Richness and texture of palate,  and complexity of white cherry and cashew flavour,  are most impressive,  the fruit and flavour long and rich,  even though the dosage is so low.  This is grand cru vineyards,  and conservative cropping rates,  speaking.  The palate is substantial,  yet as with other great champagnes,  it is not 'fruity'.  This is glorious wine,  to cellar 5 – 25 years.  GK 04/16

2004  Champagne Billecart-Salmon Blanc de Blancs Brut   19 +  ()
Mareuil-sur-Ay,  Champagne,  France:  12.5%;  $305   [ traditional compound champagne cork;  Ch 100%,  all grand cru vineyards;  Robinson records that around 66% of this vintage went through MLF;  around 33% old-oak barrel-fermented base wines;  c.8 years en tirage,  details not made available;  dosage 4 g/L;  website superficial;  www.champagne-billecart.fr ]
Colour is intriguing,  much deeper than the non-vintage Blanc de Blancs or even the Brut Reserve,  yet there is a yellow glow to it still linking it to Blanc de Blancs.  In one sense bouquet is not so clearly autolysed as the non-vintage Blanc de Blancs,  but as soon as you taste it,  you realise the bouquet is a whole dimension deeper and richer.  It is closest in style to a great Meursault,  but enhanced by bubbles.  Thus the autolysis has an oatmealy depth to it,  and stunning purity,  enchanting.  Palate and mouthfeel follow on perfectly,  essence of complex mealy chardonnay,  great body (for champagne),  perfect acid balance and length.  As a young wine it is at a peak of perfection now,  but it will cellar for another 25 years,  or more.  GK 04/16

2006  Champagne Billecart-Salmon Cuvée Elisabeth Salmon Rosé Brut   19  ()
Mareuil-sur-Ay,  Champagne,  France:  12.5%;  $310   [ traditional compound champagne cork;  93 % of the wine is PN 50%,  Ch 50,  a high percentage (perhaps all) grand cru rating,  plus 7% PN added to achieve the desired colour;  some old-oak barrel-fermented base wines;  long tirage perhaps 9 years or so,  details not made available;  dosage see below;  website superficial;  www.champagne-billecart.fr ]
Perfect light salmon hue.  The purity of the bouquet here is exemplary,  beautiful baguette-crust and Vogel's Multigrain autolysis on a bouquet seemingly dominated by red fruits pinot noir,  but in an ethereal way.  There is little sign of meunier perfume here.  The freshness and depth of flavour on palate is again sensational,  clearly showing red grapes dominance,  yet the autolysis complexity runs right through the palate.  In one sense rosé champagnes are not such good candidates for cellaring,  because they lose their subtle fresh red-fruits charm,  but the characters replacing them are still a delight,  in the older wine.  So this will cellar for 20 years,  all the same.  Various sources give the dosage as between 5 and 8 g/L:  it tastes about 6.  GK 04/16

nv  Champagne Billecart-Salmon Sous Bois Brut   18 ½ +  ()
Mareuil-sur-Ay,  Champagne,  France:  12%;  $114   [ supercritical Diam cork;  PM 40%,  PN 30,  Ch 30,  an unknown percentage grand cru vineyards,  the base wine 2011 vintage but a high percentage of reserve wines;  all the base wine barrel-fermented in old oak,  plus 6 months on lees in barrel with batonnage (hence the 'Sous Bois');  tirage c.4 years or so,  dosage 7 g/L;  website superficial;  www.champagne-billecart.fr ]
Colour is hard to characterise,  not as concentrated as the 1999,  yet fractionally more straw.  Yet again,  the  bouquet is wonderful.  Before seeing the label,  you would think it showed exceptional autolysis,  with baguette crust plus an outstanding depth of Vogel's Multigrain crust aroma to it which is beguiling.  But when you learn it is the wine with a high percentage of the base wine fermented and held an old white burgundy barrels,  it all makes sense.  You can scarcely taste oak as such,  but the nutty depth of flavour and aromatic complexity in mouth is stellar.  The base wine is a year older than the non-vintage Brut Reserve,  so it has had nearly 12 months longer en tirage.  A lovely wine,  but I can imagine delicacy faddists mocking it.  Perhaps not the cellar potential of the vintage wines,  even though it has so much flavour,  due to the high percentage of meunier.  Cellaring 3 – 8 years might be best.  GK 04/16

nv  Champagne Billecart-Salmon Brut Reserve   18 ½  ()
Mareuil-sur-Ay,  Champagne,  France:  12%;  $73   [ supercritical Diam cork;  PM 40%,  PN 30,  Ch 30,  an unknown percentage grand cru vineyards,  the current base wine 2012 vintage but up to 50% reserve wines spanning three vintages;  little or no oak (except maybe in reserve wines);  tirage 32 – 34 months,  dosage 7 g/L;  website superficial;  www.champagne-billecart.fr ]
Conventional champagne colour,  lighter than the 2004 Blanc de Blancs.  The perfume is stunning on this wine.  People get sniffy about pinot meunier,  but when it is handled as Billecart-Salmon do,  it has a fragrant florality to which is magical.  The aroma combines the best side of pink roses (imagine a pink variant of the cream 'Peace' rose) with the pure natural best side of strawberry aroma,  yet it is winey.  Behind that is pinot noir-led near-cherry quality fruit,  and great autolysis,  really baguette-crust in quality.  Palate is wonderfully flavoursome,  because the perfume on bouquet expands and almost bursts in mouth,  carrying the baguette and Vogels Multigrain autolysis flavours to every tastebud one owns.  As a 'standard' champagne this really is special,  aided by the sophisticated dosage of 7 g/L.  Again,  not a long keeper with the high ratio of meunier,  say 3 – 8 years,  so it might be best to enjoy that sensational flavour while it is fresh.  GK 04/16

nv  Champagne Gatinois Grand Cru Tradition Brut   18 +  ()
Ay,  Champagne,  France:  12%;  $55   [ traditional compound champagne cork;  PN 80%,  Ch 20,  all grand cru vineyards;  30% reserve wines in the blend;  all s/s fermented,  only trace oak in reserve wines;  MLF;  two year en tirage;  dosage 7 g/L;  www.champagne-gatinois.com ]
Faintly orange-flushed straw,  tiptoeing towards the hue of the Billecart-Salmon Rosés.  Bouquet is a little different from the Billecarts,  not so perfumed,  instead more obviously pinot noir-dominant with a depth of mealy baguette and Vogel's Multigrain yeast autolysis complexity which is enchanting.  Palate is rich and in one sense 'stronger' than the Billecarts,  again a more sturdy pinot noir-based wine with slightly higher  phenolics.  Dosage tastes more around the 5 g/L mark,  on account of the firmer red-grape base of the wine,  and the interaction between perception of phenolics and perception of sweetness.  Interesting,  and on re-inspection you can see the specs are correct.  The Gatinois meshes in well with some other wines in this bracket.  Cellar 5 – 20 years.  GK 04/16

nv  Champagne Billecart-Salmon Blanc de Blancs Grand Cru Brut   18  ()
Mareuil-sur-Ay,  Champagne,  France:  12.5%;  $111   [ supercritical Diam cork;  Ch 100%,  all grand cru vineyards;  an MLF component;  no oak;  c.4 years en tirage,  a blend of two vintages;  dosage said to be 5 g/L;  website superficial;  www.champagne-billecart.fr ]
Lemon,  clearly the palest wine.  Bouquet is both immediate and obvious,  showing fragrant crumb and crust of baguette autolysis complexity on white fruits.  It is only when you compare it with the reserved-in-comparison 2004 Blanc de Blancs that you realise you are being seduced by the volume of bouquet,  and its freshness,  rather than the depth of character.  Palate is crisp,  highly varietal,  and enchanting,  on a refreshing dosage.  Yet you can see a link to Lindauer Blanc de Blancs Reserve,  and can contemplate whether that wine,  if handled more seriously,  could achieve this pinpoint citrussy freshness and poise.  The warmer Gisborne climate would on the face of it,  militate against that comparison,  but the thought is intriguing.  Dosage seems higher than the 5 g/L given,  and higher than the 2004 Blanc de Blancs,  maybe 6 – 7 g/L.  Cellar 3 – 12  years,  and it will hold longer.  GK 04/16

nv  Champagne Billecart-Salmon Rosé Brut   17 ½ +  ()
Mareuil-sur-Ay,  Champagne,  France:  12%;  $124   [ supercritical Diam cork;  93 % of the wine is PN 50%,  Ch 50,  plus 7% PN added to achieve the desired colour;  little or no oak in the base wine,  but maybe an MLF component;  tirage 3 – 3.5 years,  details not made available;  dosage 8 g/L;  website superficial;  www.champagne-billecart.fr ]
Light straw,  minutely pinker than the 2006 Cuvée Elisabeth.  Bouquet is simpler on this wine,  unlike the vintage rosé,  the fragrant meunier showing up clearly.  Both on bouquet and palate,  there is also the faintest yeasty trace of clog,  but it would be uncharitable to mention reduction.  The wine simply doesn't quite show the magic of the other Billecarts.  It is nowhere as rich (dry extract) as the Elisabeth Rosé,  and the dosage is more regular too,  at 8 g/L.  It ends up more a wine to drink than think about.  It might clear in cellar,  5 – 15 years.  GK 04/16

nv  Champagne Billecart-Salmon Demi-Sec   17 ½  ()
Mareuil-sur-Ay,  Champagne,  France:  12%;  $73   [ supercritical Diam cork;  PM 40%,  PN 30,  Ch 30,  an unknown percentage grand cru vineyards,  the base wine 2012 vintage but a high percentage of reserve wines;  little or no oak in the base wines;  tirage c.3 years or so,  dosage 25 – 27 g/L;  website superficial;  www.champagne-billecart.fr ]
The second lightest wine,  fractionally paler than the Brut Reserve,  though nominally the same base wine.  This bouquet too lacks the magic of the Brut Reserve.  It is still fragrant and attractive,  but not so perfumed (notwithstanding the maker's claim it is exactly the same base-wine).  It is more a regular champagne,  but still with good autolysis.  Strangely,  despite the overt sweetness,  the wine comes together remarkably in the mouth,  the autolysis and oatmealy flavours now much clearer,  good acid to add freshness against the sweetness,  good length of flavour.  Given the quality of the Billecart-Salmon  portfolio,  you can't help wondering if the firm needs this populist wine in its range.  Cellar 3 – 10 years.  GK 04/16