Elegance personified


Laura and Matt in ChampagneThis year, we had the great pleasure to be invited to the house of Billecart-Salmon near Epernay. No small gesture as the trip was to include staying at the Maison du Billecart, dining with Monsieur François Billecart himself and after a tour the next day, dining at a 3 Michelin starred restaurant in Paris no less.

Greatly anticipating this trip, we met with Berrys’ Champagne buyer Simon Field MW a man of great knowledge and also modesty; a perfect travelling companion.

The Eurostar journey passed very quickly with tastings of the Billecart range including the Blancs de Blancs, Rosé and also the 1998 Blancs de Blancs. A superb set of Champagnes outlining the quality and what was to be the word of the trip “elegance”.

Laura in ChampagneArriving in Paris merry with the Champagne we settled in a charming bar in the Gare du Nord for a glass of Ladoucette Pouilly-Fumé to calm the acidity. A very quick TGV to Reims and we were in Champagne land. It was at this point that our engaging and gracious guide Mr. Colin Palmer, the Managing Director of Billecart-Salmon UK, treated us to a toast of Extra Brut at an incredibly picturesque summit showcasing the panoramic preview of Epernay and the Côte de Blancs. Breathtaking! Let nobody tell you that Champagne country is not as beautiful as any other vine growing area.

The evening commenced with a trio of delights. Monsieur François Billecart arrived carrying a special bottle hand selected from the ancient Billecart chalk cellars buried deep below the village of Mareuil Sur Ay. We were enjoying one of those idyllic evenings basked in warming Summer sunshine in the immaculate gardens within the house of Billecart. A perfect setting to taste the 1988 Cuvée Nicolas François blind. Between the 1988 and M. Billecart it would be hard to decide which was more charming; both of such pedigree with charisma, style and approachability. The third delight arrived in the form of Monsieur Francois Domi, the Chief Winemaker who had even overseen the making of this delightful 1988 Cuvée Nicolas François.

Matt and Simon Field MW M. Billecart welcomed us into the Maison for a spectacular feast starting with Langoustines, artichoke and tarragon served with the superb 1986 Cuvée Nicolas François. Such a complement to one another for richness, majesty and power. The main was monkfish matched with the precision, complexity and finesse of the 1982. Elegance (that word again) in a glass and most certainly one of the finest Champagnes our group had have ever tasted.

A plateau of fine French cheeses commenced with 2005 Brainaire Ducru (again served blind) a favourite of François; one of his go-to tipples for those times when Champagne may not be required. I can only presume those moments must be fleeting. To finish we were presented with a delectable raspberry tart with the delicate and impressive 2000 Cuvée Elizabeth Salmon Rosé. A fantastic evening!

Champagne Cellars In the morning we had a quick tour round the Cellars, Pressoir and Cuverie. We were also lucky to witness the huge amount of work involved in the production of large format bottles – most certainly worth the premium and sense of occasion perhaps. Next on our adventure was the miniscule one hectare picturesque vineyard of Clos St Hilaire. This new unique Blanc de Noirs Cuvée bears the name of the patron saint of Mareuil sur Aÿ. Steeped in history, the pampered vines have developed all the qualities of the best crus throughout Champagne.

Again a swift TGV ride back to Paris for an extra special treat; Lunch at the 3 Michelin Star restaurant L’Arpege on Rue de Varenne with a whistle-stop tourist tour of Paris en route.

Matt must admit to feeling a little bit jaded and not too perky after the indulgences of Billecart the previous evening and we have wondered whether the waiters noticed this upon our arrival. The first course could not have been more apt. Tomato gazpacho with mustard and celery ice cream. In essence a very different take on a Bloody Mary cocktail. Bravo indeed! He was brought back from the brink and at that point, it became apparent that we were in for something special. Course after course followed showcasing gastronomic genius. The highlights were:

Red beetroot with chocolate – A tightrope walk between baffling and bequiling. I thought it was sublime!

A rainbow of tomatoes – A dish as pretty as a Matisse. Vivid and colourful.

Four ravioli pockets – Each parcel a burst of intensity. The purest expression of a vegetable in one mini mouthful.

Tuna with blackened sesame seeds – Star dish on the menu for all of us. Vraiment exceptionnel!

Sweet tomato confit with 12 spice – Do not be fooled, this was one of many puddings! Sweet, spicy and all things delectable.

As the courses progressed, each more exquisite, complex and mind blowing than the last, it led me to the conclusion that the Billecart Extra Brut range is a wonderful tool for Sommeliers. Somehow the zero dosage assisted in regaining the focus on the food. Both the balanced charm of the NV and the minerality and focus of the vintage 2004 brought out the precision of the food flavours whilst holding its own comfortably. The zero dosage also helped ease any forms of guilt for the glutinous lunch which pursued.

The return to the UK was certainly more subdued than the previous day, despite a tasty Claret to accompany our reflections on the trip. We must comment on how everyone we met over those two wonderful days was a perfect representation of the Billecart brand that they have lovingly built; charming, elegant, refined and approachable with unquestionable quality. We are now fully-fledged Billecart disciples and we both look forward to sharing our new found wisdom on this Champagne house. Thank you so much François and Colin.

-Laura Atkinson & Matthew Cobb, Berrys’ Wine Advisors