FAMILY JEWELS

By: DAVID ZIVAN

A legendary Champagne house releases a pair of bottlings worthy of commemorating its rich lineage.

 

“You might ask, Why now? And why so late?” says the charming Mathieu Roland-Billecart, from his offices in the heart of Champagne, France. “It’s because we’re family-owned and run. We don’t rush for the stock to be released. That’s one of our luxuries.”

Mathieu is referring to the release this May of the Billecart-Salmon Louis Salmon 2012 and the Elisabeth Salmon 2012, a pair of rare cuvées produced only in exceptional years, which bear the names of two of the company’s three founders. (Elisabeth married Nicholas Francois Billecart and brought along Louis, her winemaking brother. The brand was born in 1818). One important distinguishing characteristic of these bottles (and of Billecart-Salmon generally) is that they are ready to drink now while they have decades of life ahead of them. The house refers to this approach as a core part of their savoir-faire.

“We feel the wines have reached maturity yet have enough freshness to be shared,” Mathieu says. “Releasing the wine is always a personal choice, but our tasting committee all agreed: We’ve done what we can as producers or as good parents. We’ve not only given birth to the child, but we’ve also raised him or her to have a good, independent life in our hands. So that’s our job. They have learned what they can learn from us and are now ready to be enjoyed.”

After 14 years in big-firm international consulting, Mathieu joined the Billecart-Salmon board in 2013 and became CEO in 2019. He represents the seventh generation to run the business—an uncommon continuum even in the wine world, and vanishingly rare for a Champagne producer making up to 150,000 cases per year (“too small to be called big, and equally too big to be called small,” he notes).

These two rare offerings launched at different times, well before Mathieu’s tenure. The first Elizabeth was dated 1988, and “the Louis Salmon is much older,” Mathieu notes. “The first written record is 1964, though we probably made some before then.” The decade-long wait for these wines is not atypical. “The only rule, if there is one, is that we have to feel the wines are ready,” Mathieu says. “If the wine is among the greatest of the greatest, we have found that ten years is typically the point where the wine has a mature profile—where it has gone from very good to great or from great to exceptional.”

The Louis Salmon 2012, a 100 percent Chardonnay blend from several of the finest Grand Cru parcels in Champagne, is evident in the glass, tinted slightly by a gossamer golden robe. Its persistent effervescence is matched on the palate by a refreshing focus. For pairing, Mathieu says, think of it much as you would a white Burgundy. “I’m a fan of John Dory, with a light, slightly citrusy cream sauce,” he suggests. “Topped with caviar, if you can.” The Elisabeth Salmon 2012, a rosé, points to a slightly different mark on the culinary compass. “I like it with red snapper because that’s got a nice balance,” he says. “Elisabeth can even go toward the dessert side—a more fruity style. We’re planning a party where we’re going to pair her with some macaroons. But also, as with all rosé Champagne, ours in particular, sushi works well.”

Opening either of these wines requires no special occasion; the bottles create the celebratory moment. They should be in major markets this May, but only in the finest shops (top restaurants around the globe snatch up the majority), so don’t take your time. They have already done that part for you.

 

 

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