BestChampagne had the pleasure of interviewing François Roland-Billecart, President of the connoisseurs’ Champagne House Billecart-Salmon. Founded in 1818, the House remains mostly family-owned and is today acclaimed for its flagship Non-Vintage Rosé, a true reference among rosé champagnes.
BestChampagne : What are the characteristics of Billecart-Salmon compared to other Champagne Houses?
François Roland-Billecart: Created in 1818, Billecart-Salmon is a very old house that will celebrate its bicentenary in 2018.
Our family still manages the House. About fifteen years ago, some of the members of our family wanted to sell their shares, which passed from hand to hand and ended up with the Frey group who owns Paul Jaboulet Aîné in Côte du Rhône, Château La Lagune in Bordeaux and 80 hectare vineyards in Champagne, among other things.
These shares are not held by financial hands. This family aspect emphasizes our house’s preferred means of communication, which is always by holding a glass.
BC: What do you mean by that?
FRB: I mean that we meet our customers and we make them taste the wines. When we get a customer to try a wine or a bottle with our name on it, there is a need, a pride to be satisfied with what we offer.
In Champagne Houses we see more and more a distinction between people and wine and it is maybe due to the evolution of the product. Most of the time, they highlight a brand but at no moment the inherent quality of the wine is mentioned.
This is the dilemma of the two-speed champagne: on one hand, those who talk about wine and make the wine, on the other hand a logic and industrial approach to sell it. There are only medium to small size houses that know how to talk about wine.
BC: In this context, how do you define the Billecart-Salmon House?
FRB: Billecart-Salmon is not a champagne wine that one will find in large retailers as we focus mainly on high-quality restaurants and palaces. We do not sell a single bottle in supermarkets and it considerably limits advertising, which is aimed mainly at the general public.
Billecart-Salmon works on quality. We were pioneers in the cold débombage in the Champagne region in the 1950’s. When we get the must after pressing, they are cloudy. There are two usual ways to clarify them: infiltration or centrifugation, but there is a third one called cold débombage. Musts are placed in a tank and temperature is decreased to 4 or 5 degrees during 3 days. At this moment occurs natural clarification.
This way we get very clear and clean musts that haven’t been deprived of their organoleptic qualities and that will develop aromas. After that we place what is clear and clean in another tank and we wait for temperatures to rise again to 11-12 degrees or even 13 degrees to start the alcoholic fermentation process.
We even tested this process by producing vintages without débombage and vintages with débombage and we realized that there wasn’t a huge difference except for more elegance, finesse and righteousness in wines that used this process.
When they age, wines that underwent débombage remain closed a little bit longer but later on develop important aromas and complexity as they have a greater concentration of triglycerides.
The “normal” wines are nice too but they don’t have this quality, this extra taste we get with the débombage.
The quality of vinification is also made up of many small details which will make the difference: cleanliness, hygiene, quality of the grapes, blending, quality of wine-tasting etc.
BC: How would you define the Billecart-Salmon style?
FRB: Billecart-Salmon is mainly a wine for aperitifs. We don’t look for heaviness or a powerful body.
Most of the time and except for some vintage rosé or oaky cuvées, we want to make wines that will give pleasure to those who drink them.
But pleasure can take different shapes. One day I saw 4 executive women in their fifties sit down at a café and start to work. The waiter asked: « what would you like? » and they answered « as usual ». The waiter came back with a bottle of Billecart-Salmon Rosé. This is a kind of pleasure I like. They don’t beat around the bush, they drink their champagne and apparently they do that every day.
BC: Why is the Billecart-Salmon Rosé so successful?
FRB: Because it is nice. We found a style with our rosé cuvée that contradicts a little what the others do. We kept the red fruits style with a brut that is dynamic, fresh and pleasurable.
Most of the time, rosé champagne wines are made with too much red wine. The colour of our brut rosé is very light. The keyword is always pleasure, pleasure, pleasure.
BC: What is the main tasting difference between a rosé champagne made by blending with red wine (d’assemblage) and one made with the saignée method?
FRB: I think that rosé d’assemblage champagne is easier to taste for the consumer as there are no tannins, which can taste dry on the palate.
However, rosé d’assemblage needs a capacity to make red wines [that must come from the Champagne region]. At Billecart-Salmon we know how to make red wine, without tannin and with tannin.
BC: You talk a lot about pleasure in champagne. What are you referring to exactly?
FRB: We have two ways of classifying wines, where we are “close to the wine” that means we are going to produce a “connoisseur” wine and it is not always funny, or we are going to make a wine for “informed consumer-customer”. It simply means that people have enough knowledge of champagne to say, « I like this champagne » or « this champagne doesn’t please me enough ».
However, you also have a whole range of customers who buy 10, 12, 15 euro champagne because they need champagne to receive guests for example, or for a child’s birthday. In this case it is all about getting access to a name, a brand, the champagne brand.
I often notice that there are champagne brands that people will drink once, one glass and that’s all.
But more often than not there are other brands that customers recommend, they ask for a second glass because they find pleasure in it.
We don’t want to make things complicated. We are not going to sign on a red wine. Even though I personally love wines from Bourgogne, Bordeaux and all the great wines, we will never be a powerful red wine. We will always be merchants of pleasure. It can’t be anything else.
Some few Champagne Houses give a go to complicated wines, I am thinking about Krug or some Bollinger vintages, but we are talking about 500,000 to 1 million bottles a year on the whole Champagne region. Most of the time, purchasing champagne is a pleasure. This is what champagne is.
But it is actually very difficult to do, especially non-vintage champagnes which represent the barometer or the thermometer of Champagne Houses.
A Champagne House is measured against its brut non-vintage champagne. We can produce wonderful blanc de blancs or wonderful rosés but hard work will make all the difference. It is about all the upstream work and a whole lot of steps that cannot be missed.
BC: What allowed you to become such a renowned quality champagne brand, especially in France?
FRB: First of all, the wine quality. Secondly, the quality of men/salesmen who convey the message, and then (and it is probably the most important), the distribution network.
In 1993 I decided to buy all the stock that was available in the supermarkets to focus on the very high range distribution network; it cost a lot but it was a good decision.
During my father’s time, champagne wasn’t what it has become nowadays. After the war, most of the sales were for demi-sec champagne, we were not really talking about wine because when you add 20 to 30g of sugar, you cover all aromas.
At the same time there was this evolution from dessert to aperitif, and either we would remain in supermarkets or we would go towards aperitif in luxury places. I made the choice considering that volumes didn’t suit our house.
BC: And what is the importance of the brand itself and of its communication?
FRB: That’s a good question. A brand is created, it’s alive. You can find brands that were very successful but were then forgotten because they became common, normal. A brand is also an identity and in our case it’s our name, it’s a lot of things.
We took our time and we created this logo that was used as a reference for all the bottles. It is meant to represent a BS but we removed the left hand side.
This logo has been associated to Billecart-Salmon for some time and struck people a lot. We managed to make customers identify the brand and its content.
Billecart-Salmon is a respected brand because we try to have a publicity that is similar to that of great perfume brands such as Chanel. I am a big fan of Chanel, their distribution, the simplicity of their products, the way they talk about it.
We do some institutional communication because we cannot remain completely anonymous but that’s not what we are after.
I think we need to take our time, we can’t rush. We aim at producing added value that will give us the means to build our future.
BC: Your shareholders are mainly from the same family that founded Billecart-Salmon. How does it impact the house?
FRB: There is a big difference between a business of financiers and a family business. I don’t use the term “financiers” with contempt because I was myself like that at a time but when a financier takes part in the capital of a House, he has already planned the exit in 5, 7 years.
If I had been a business of financiers, I would have never been able to make the changes we introduced. We would have limited changed to looks and commercial events. If we had been successful, we may have produced 8 or 9 million bottles instead of the 2 million we are producing now. But this is a very fragile and difficult threshold because we are stuck between mass distribution, cooperative associations and bigger brands.
However a family business, if business is successful, is fantastic. If shareholders receive dividends, they are happy and they give you time to keep going.
BC: What do you think of the impact of the current crisis on the future of the champagne industry?
FRB: This is a touchy subject. You know, there are mechanisms that help champagne to reborn all the time.
What we have to avoid is for champagne to become like salmon and foie gras, two luxury products that mass distribution killed. What respect do you have for these products that used to be considered luxury items 30 or 40 years ago and that are so common today?
However you have younger brands like [the caterer] Le Nôtre who are emerging and taking a quality spot that their hard work gives them the right to hold.
BC: Do you think that champagne will remain a luxury product with an important price?
FRB: I don’t know. We know for sure that the champagne name is restricted and we can’t produce as many bottles as we want. Are we going to be able to sell all these bottles at a premium price and make sure that champagne stays at the top of the 3.5 billion bottles of sparkling wine sold worldwide?
Saint-Exupéry said: « you must not decide of the future but you have to allow it to be». We can’t decide what champagne will be tomorrow, however we can decide on new vineyards, on a measured expansion that remains in the logic of the industry of champagne.
BC: Mister Roland-Billecart, what do champagne and the Champagne region represent for you?
FRB: I was born in the house that is located above our Champagne House so it is definitely in my genes.
When we come from the Champagne region, we understand the climate, we understand the vineyard, we are used to it since we are children. I always spend my holidays in south of France but after a while I miss the vineyards.
BC: To conclude, what would you advise to people that don’t know your champagnes, if they want to think outside the box and taste a bottle of Billecart-Salmon?
FRB: You have to try, change, take breaks from routine. I hear people say sometimes: « I buy this bottle because my dad advised me to do it». It shows a lack of curiosity, a lack of open-mindedness and I think this is terrible because it limits the view and choices.
It also depends on what the customer is after. If customers are looking for good aperitif champagne, then Billecart-Salmon is here. Give it a go, I can’t say more than that.
If you don’t like it go back to what you used to drink before. However I can say that you will find something fruity, that will give you pleasure and will get you to ask for a second glass.