BEST CHAMPAGNE 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.
François Roland-Billecart is President of BILLECART-SALMON since 1993.
BEST CHAMPAGNE: 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 hectares of 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.
Among 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, Houses highlight a brand but at no moment the inherent quality of the wine is mentioned.
This is the dilemma of champagne today: 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 Billecart-Salmon?
FRB: Billecart-Salmon works on quality. We were pioneers in the cold débourbage in the Champagne region in the 1950’s. The musts that we obtain after pressing are cloudy. There are two usual ways to clarify them: by filtration or by centrifugation, but there is a third method called cold débourbage. Musts are placed in a tank and the temperature is decreased to 4 or 5 degrees during 3 days. At this moment a natural clarification occurs.
In this way, we get very clear and clean musts that haven’t been deprived of their organoleptic qualities and that will develop further aromas. After that, we place the clear and clean must in another tank; we wait for temperatures to rise again to 11-12 degrees or even 13 degrees to start the alcoholic fermentation.
We tested this process by producing vintages without débourbage and 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 débourbage 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 débourbage.
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, 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 four executive women in their fifties sitting 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 color 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 requires the capacity to make red wines [that must come from the Champagne region]. At Billecart-Salmon we know how to make red wine, with and without tannins.
BC: You often refer to pleasure in champagne. What are you referring to exactly?
FRB: Most of the time, purchasing champagne is a pleasure.
There are champagne brands that people will drink once, one glass and that’s all. These are 10, 12, 15 euro champagnes, often used to receive guests, or for a child’s birthday for example. In this case, it is all about getting access to a name, a brand, the champagne brand.
But more often than not there are other brands that customers recommend, they ask for a second glass because they find pleasure in it. This is what champagne is.
We don’t want to make things complicated. We will always be merchants of pleasure.
We make wines for informed consumer-customers, people have enough knowledge of champagne to say, “I like this champagne”.
But to achieve that it is actually very difficult, especially with non-vintage champagnes that represent the barometer of any Champagne House, against which its winemaking know-how is measured.
It is about all the upstream work and a whole lot of steps in the production that cannot be missed.
BC: What allowed you to become such a renowned quality champagne brand, especially in France?
FRB: First of all, the quality of the wine. Secondly, the quality of men/salesmen who convey the message, and then – probably the most important – the distribution network.
During my father’s time, champagne wasn’t what it has become nowadays. After the war, most of the sales were made by demi-sec champagne. At that time 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 of champagne from a dessert to an aperitif drier wine. We had the choice to either remain in supermarkets or we would go towards aperitif in luxury places. I made the choice considering that volumes didn’t suit our house.
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.
Today, we do not sell a single bottle in supermarkets. This considerably limits our exposure to the general public, but we instead focus mainly on high-quality restaurants and palaces.
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 our current logo that is used as a reference for all the bottles. It is meant to represent our initial, BS, but we removed the left side.
This logo has been associated to Billecart-Salmon for some time now 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 generate a publicity 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 of family members. I don’t use the term “financiers” with contempt because I was one myself 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 we had been a business of financiers, we would have never been able to make the changes we introduced. We would have limited the changed to look and commercial events. If we had been successful, we may have produced 8 or 9 million per year 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 the business is successful, is fantastic. If shareholders receive dividends, they are happy and they give you time to keep going.
BC: You mentioned cheaper champagnes of less than 20 Euro. Do you think that champagne will remain a luxury product with an important price?
FRB: 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?
I don’t know, but we know for sure that the champagne name is restricted and we can’t produce as many bottles as we want.
We must avoid that champagne becomes like salmon and foie gras, two luxury products that mass distribution killed. They used to be considered luxury items 30 or 40 years ago and are very common today.
Saint-Exupéry said about the future: “You do not have to foresee, but to enable it.”. 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, you were actually born in Champagne. What does it mean to you?
FRB: I was born in the house that is located above our Champagne House and as such champagne is in my genes.
When you come from the Champagne region, you understand the climate, you understand the vineyard, like no other; you are used to it.
I always spend my holidays in the south of France but after a while, I miss these vineyards.
BC: What would be your piece of advice to people that do not have tried yet Billecart-Salmon champagnes?
FRB: You have to try, change, take breaks from routine and be curious.
If you are looking for good aperitif champagne, then Billecart-Salmon is here.
You will find something fruity, that will give you pleasure and will get you to ask for a second glass.
Give it a go, I can’t say more.