Champagne is sparkling wine, but not all sparkling wine is Champagne. So, what makes Champagne so special beyond the requirement to be produced within the French region? Well, there are a lot of rules surrounding its production.
Champagne Billecart-Salmon is one of the few Champagne houses still family-owned and run. We sat down with Mathieu Billecart, who is CEO and the seventh generation to run the house, to discuss the world-renowned region. Wine Enthusiast Assistant Editor Jacy Topps and Billecart discuss the region’s unique production regulations, harvest, climate change, approachability and the brand’s latest vintage to be released in April.
Transcripts are generated using a combination of speech recognition software and human transcribers and may contain errors. Please check the corresponding audio before quoting.
Speakers: Mathieu Billecart, Jacy Topps
Jacy Topps 00:08
Hello, and welcome to the Wine Enthusiast podcast. You’re serving drinks culture, and the people who drive it. I’m Jacy Topps. This week we’re diving into the Champagne region. So what makes the category so special? Many champagne enthusiast know while all Champagne is sparkling wine, not all sparkling wine is Champagne. It must be produced within the French region to bear the name. But what else sets it apart? I sat down with Mathieu Billecart from Champagne Billecart-Salmon. Mathieu is the CEO and seventh generation to run the house. So listen on as we examine the region’s very strict production regulations. What harvest is like, climate change and the history behind Champagne Billecart-Salmon. Every glass of wine tells a story. These stories reveal the hidden histories, flavors and passions. And sometimes they unravel our darkest desires. And Wine Enthusiast newest podcast, the infamous journalist Ashley Smith dissects the underbelly of the wine world. We hear from the people who know what it means when the products of love and care become the source of greed, our sin, and even murder. Each episode takes listeners into the mysterious and historic world of winemaking and the crimes that have since become the infamous. This podcast pairs well with wine lovers, history nerds and crime junkies alike. So grab a glass of your favorite wine and follow the podcast to join us. As we delve into the twists and turns behind the all time most shocking wine crimes. Follow Vinfamous on Apple, Spotify, or wherever you listen and be sure to follow the show. So you never miss a scandal. New episodes drop every other Wednesday. Hi, I’m Jacy Topps assistant editor here at Wine Enthusiast. Today we’re discussing all things champagne. My guest today is Mathieu Billecarte from Billecart-Salmon. He is the CEO and seventh generation running the champagne house. Welcome to I’m so glad you can join us today.
Mathieu Billecart 02:31
Thank you for having me.
Jacy Topps 02:33
So before we get into your house, I kind of want to give listeners an overview of Champagne in general, I think that many Champagne lovers know it’s a sparkling wine from the region. But there’s a lot of interesting things about the region and wine that people may not be familiar with. So learning about the region myself, what struck me is that the amount of rules and regulations that surround the production of champagne. So can you kind of give listeners an overview of like, who makes the rules, who’s his governing body, and kind of give us an example of the rules in Champagne?
Mathieu Billecart 03:12
Sure, you’re quite right, that regulation is at the core of champagne. And frankly, it’s at the core of the French system. There’s a long list of different regulating body. But if we summarize it all I would say the most impactful the more pertinent is the civc. The committee at a professional dimension, it has very wide powers, to ultimately put rules in place to protect quality and winemakers and the know how of winemakers for the regions to continue to produce exceptional wines. The power that it has, we could we could basically talk all day about the different regulations. But to give you a few example about how wide ranging that is, it is cool is many things that links to what you could put in the in the category of vineyard management. So it regulates what kind of pruning method we can use, for example, very importantly, for the economics of the region, it sets how much grapes how much how many kilos of grapes we can harvest per actor, okay, so that you can understand this is obviously it’s got a big impact on production, regulates things like with so many kilos of grapes, how much juice you can extract. So these are just examples of as you can tell very, very powerful, powerful regulations that drive how we run our vineyards and ultimately what we can get from the harvest.
Jacy Topps 04:39
Wow, that’s a lot. That’s just
Mathieu Billecart 04:43
one pass, wait until you get the other pass also regulates what we can and can’t do in terms of winemaking to be called to be able to be cold champagne. Okay. So, examples of that would be I mean, the obvious one is the fact that the second fermentation where the bubbles come from after happening bottle. So you know, there are other ways of doing it. But in Champagne, this is the only way. It also regulates what we can do with a dose ash, you know, the extra brute, brute, brute mature type category. Again, that’s regulated, we can’t just do what we feel like. And if you want to go further in another category is what they let us do in terms of packaging. You know, labels are subject to CIBC approval, for example. So there is to go back to your original comment, this CIBC and indeed many other institution in France, protect the regions and also encourages, I would say positive behaviors to ensure the quality of the region is worthy of carrying that name.
Jacy Topps 05:46
Okay, that makes sense, I know that there are only certain grapes that are permitted to be used in Champagne.
Mathieu Billecart 05:55
Okay, that’s you, that’s a very good point, we could have added that to the previous list, there are seven grape varietals that are allowed in Champagne for the wine to be called Champagne. In reality, if we want to be honest, I think 99% of the planted areas is made of the three which are Pinot Noir Chardonnay, and million for you, technically, technically, your lab for others have been put similarly, Pinot Blanc and Pinot grey. And you could technically work with those grapes and fill me champagne. But in reality, only three are the only three of the sevens are really used in any kind of scale in the region.
Jacy Topps 06:33
Is there a reason for that? I mean, are those grapes just considered the best grapes or?
Mathieu Billecart 06:39
Well, I think of the seven I think is historic as to what was planted in what was deemed to be viable to make champagne. As you can tell producers, the region has gone further and effectively self selecting the three that we believe collectively are the best suited to create the best wine based on the terroir that we have. So nobody stops you from using the other four. But the reality of people’s taste, and also how suitable it is for the soil and the climate has led us to basically everybody, I mean, for Newcastle, in reality, we only use the main threat, your
Jacy Topps 07:16
Harvest is very special as well can you let us know what harvest looks like in Champagne.
Mathieu Billecart 07:23
Big difference if you compare with what is done worldwide, we one of the I think rare regions, if you take, as I said, a global view, where everything needs to be done by hand. So the cutting of every single right in Champagne is done by hand. Wow, this this is yes. The crate is done manually, okay, as well to regulate and avoid what we call self pressing, you know, basically too many grapes put together would stop effectively creating juice. And this is not what we want to have. And the other elements I guess which makes champagne champagne are one of the many things is pressing, as I mentioned at the beginning is also regulated. And the unit of measurement here is in Champagne, we work with a unit called a math Ma is 4000 kilos of grapes. And from that, you’re able to produce 20.5x two liters of first breaths, which we call COVID, and five hectoliters of second practice, which we call tie. Depending on the producers of CP particular different do you call change the ratio of first and second press, you can choose to use one or two or one or the other. At Baker, for example, we only use the first press which is considered to be the very best you can get.
Jacy Topps 08:41
And the reason why champagne can be so expensive is because of all of this, right?
Mathieu Billecart 08:47
Yeah, it’s just some product of individual tasks, which obviously are there once again, to produce quality with a vision of producing the very best Poppy wine in the world. But you’re quite right that a number of these regulations lead to significant cost of production, which ultimately is reflected in the price. Yeah.
Jacy Topps 09:08
So Champagne is such a like a historical region. And I love hearing about the history of certain houses. So let’s talk about Bill Carlesimo. What is the history of your house?
Mathieu Billecart 09:20
So we one of the very last few family owned and run champagne estate, for example, for my case, the seventh generation as a direct descendant of the founding couple. So Nicola Francois blockout was my great great great great grandfather is married a lady called Elizabeth Salmon was my great great great grandmother and in 1880 they create the champagne house with Cassandra. It’s now becoming very rare that the founding family is still there. And more importantly for in my mind the founding for many still, Ron manages the house on a day to day basis. We in the hospital, we sit in a village called Maurice right which is in the heart of where the premium rock group step in Champagne Champagne is a big region. But premier broker is only a small selection of the total region like you know, like it would be for example in Burgundy and we work 20 kilometer radius around our estate for sourcing the very best grade. And once again because that’s where the Permian conqueror and we really have if you want to summarize it quickly, we have four main savoir faire into the winemaking, we produce traditional blend units. So that’s our root reserve and our QA Nicola Francois name of the founder, we produce a book Rosie, she’s obviously very popular in the US. And it’s it’s pretty inversion is Elizabeth salvo. Again, a founding member. We also have a blog of loss of affair, which is our blog rock groups, because that book off Saturdays for the girl crew is sort of awkward, and we sell more, which is a premium version. And the last hour fare is what we do with old barrels. So barrel vinified wines, which is brewed Suwa. And a unique parcel called clue Satilla, which is at the heart of the spec. So in a nutshell, that’s that’s what their cost goes, we focused on you know, champagne, again, quite wide category, we focus on, you know, the 1% of the very best fossils in wine for the most demanding time because the world.
Jacy Topps 11:23
I absolutely love your champagne, and I’m so happy that I had the opportunity to visit the house two years ago, and it was such an amazing experience. Thank you. So your grapes, are they est? Or do you source them from other growers and champagne,
Mathieu Billecart 11:42
Amazing champagne. So we do all of the above, meaning we have a third of the land that we need for the build car production, which is owned, owned and run, we have another third which where we work the land that belongs to other people. So through leases and management contracts, so it’s my team that go and work the land. So it’s like a lease in the shop. But fundamentally, we control what he’s done in terms of each culture. And the last third is purchased on long term supply contracts and data, we buy grapes, which we press and then make the wine so we don’t buy bulk wines already made bottles with that kind of thing. So I said own a third, run and said purchased.
Jacy Topps 12:31
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Mathieu Billecart 13:25
Sure. So, of course the force I found mentioned at the beginning, so there are for each a non vintage and for each vintage, okay, no vintage put broadly, it’s basically gives us the ability to blend multiple years. Okay, so it’s not when you have a bottle of rose a nonvintage, for example, it’s a result of blending several years. And we do that and that’s true for your customer with as well I would say for poor producers in Champagne to have a degree of consistency in terms of style across the different releases. Okay, so a guru is a complete Kassar no words it changes every year, the changes are reasonably small, because we able to use quite a wide array of reserve lines to be able to have a consistent quality even when you’re facing difficult harvest or vintage champagne on the other hand, in our case in the most traditional definition, because sometimes it’s perhaps not as done as as selectively as good but that Bill cow we only pick the very best years selected parcels within the last year. And in that particular case, if you take the example of Nicola Francois QA or is it the time of September today, for example, the one we’re releasing at the moment are only based on the year of 2008 meaning all the integrity of that wine is based on the year 2008. What that gives you is a combination between the house style and the identity of that particular year. Okay, so Nicola Francois oh eight whilst it is still Korea as well as a different identity to Nicola Francois oh seven, and we try and reflect on the one hand, the house style, but also the characteristic of the young whether it’s the warm your cold, you are more mineral rich in all these kind of things. Okay.
Jacy Topps 15:13
So if it’s a vintage it has to be 100% of that year Correct? That’s right. And you do have a new vintage coming out that’s launching next month Correct?
Mathieu Billecart 15:25
You’re well informed.
Jacy Topps 15:27
Sources tell me.
Mathieu Billecart 15:30
I was referring to it perhaps a little too early. So our prestige cuvee for traditional blend is a cubicle Nicola Francois, you now know that this is because it was my great great, great grandfather and we are releasing the vintage 2008 which is one of the Almighty vintage over the last 20 years. For us. This is a bottling which is 100% girlcrew. And from a group blended with 60%, Pinot Noir and 40% Chardonnay proper, which we age for 15 years in our cellar. Okay in our historic cellar, which you would have seen when you came to visit and we are really seeing it in 2023. So this is a time capsule of greatness. And with with the traditional savoir faire of our house and traditional blending of these two, fantastic were a variety of Pinot Noir channeling. And we’re releasing that in the US by Riley next month, both in bottles and in magnums. So Magnolia, as you know, will age longer. So for those of you looking to lay down for 2030 years, Magnum is a format for those of you looking to drink in the next 1020 years bottles are there as well.
Jacy Topps 16:39
Wow. So 2008 So if I want to open it, I can open it now. But also, if I wanted to lay it down, how long? How long am I going to lay down for?
Mathieu Billecart 16:49
Well, we are known for the aging potential of the stock Cubase. For us, we’re very technical elements. We preserve freshness for longer. So yes, every bottle we ship is ready to drink now, but frankly, I wouldn’t have any worries keeping it 1020 and potentially 30 for the bottles, and magnums, you can add another 10 years to that. I think patience is typically the way that’s what stands in the way of keeping our wines they will survive Most people
Jacy Topps 17:18
You mentioning different sizes as far as bottles, can you give a little overview about the sizes of bottles and champagne.
Mathieu Billecart 17:25
So yes, the traditional bottle size is 75 centimeter. So that’s what we call the bottle. You sometimes see there’s not pertinent for Nicola Francois, but you sometimes you have bottles. Okay, so so it’s 7.5 centimeter. And the other format, which is reasonably common is magnums, which is 150 centimeters. So double double the bottle size. Why that becomes important, if you’re looking to age top quality wines is typically the larger the bottle, the slower the aging process. And that’s the reason why I was referring to it in the context of Nicola phosphorite. For those of you looking to age for more than 20 years.
Jacy Topps 18:05
Yeah. And I think people don’t realize is that like, it’s not just, you know, more champagne and this bottle, it’s actually it tastes different because of the aging. And I think that people just think that it’s a larger size or, you know, smaller sizes, but the actual tastes of the champagne is very different.
Mathieu Billecart 18:23
Yeah, so it depends is what you intend to use it for. And aren’t you intend to agent?
Jacy Topps 18:29
Okay. So let’s talk about climate change. Are you seeing it in the region and champagne?
Mathieu Billecart 18:38
For sure. When we it’s never been warmed up? So yes, absolutely.
Jacy Topps 18:43
How is that impacting harvest? Is that meaning you’re harvesting earlier or later?
Mathieu Billecart 18:50
Sure. So I mean, the obvious thing that if you look at what’s happened so far is we get better maturity in rates. Historically, if you take, you know, historic youth 20 3050 years ago, it was very difficult to get grapes to maturity in Champagne. This is no longer a challenge at all, because basically it’s warmer Sanya. Some of the the other elements of global warming is also that’s created weather patterns are a little bit more unstable. So you end up having more problems with spring frost or higher heat, which can impact the quality and the quantity of the house impact. So far tangible example, if you were pointing to one is basically we harvest what you know my parents and grandparents will tell you harvest is 15th of September 215. So October, that will be probably the cutting window. Now I will tell you it’s more 20th of August to 15th of September more likely. So we’ve basically gone forward a month and we’ve also changed and this is more technical but a little bit our viticultural practices to basically slow down the maturation profile Before everything was done to make it more rapid, so we’ve had to change things. And as ever, you know, creating a great wine is man adapting to nature. But we have many challenges ahead on how we how we can deal with that in the decades and centuries.
Jacy Topps 20:16
Yeah, I think that’s really interesting because the region has a, like a whole lot of regulation. So are those regulations are going to have to be bent a little or changed? I mean, because if it’s highly regulated, how are you going to beyond you know, harvesting sooner? How are you going to fight climate change,
Mathieu Billecart 20:37
and regulation that are there to be adaptive regulation, even in the French system, which can be a little bit rigid and archaic. The intention, as I said, at the beginning, is to protect quality. However, this is based on a given climate. So regulation is regularly adapted based on the feedback of producers. If we can demonstrate that some of the rules are obsolete, and they no longer protect quality, then we we basically say so, and in most instances, this is taken into account, because the intention of that regulation, as I said, is to protect the region not to make it impossible to move. So I’m not that worried about regulation being the limiting factor in our ability to adapt, to be honest. Okay.
Jacy Topps 21:23
Well, that’s good to know. So let’s talk about accessibility. I think there’s been a lot of conversation when it comes to wine being more accessible. And how does champagne fit into that? How does Bill car Simone fit into that? Are we making wine too accessible? Or is champagne supposed to be more of a luxury? What’s your opinion on that?
Mathieu Billecart 21:48
Well, you don’t know whether we don’t control all the parts in in your question. Because I’m always accessible to a point there is we face a lot more demand than we have supply. So we’ve never been able to satisfy the entire demand we have from the various countries and customers across the world. So from that perspective, you can say it’s not that accessible. And fundamentally, we are there are specialists in producing, as I said at the beginning, exceptional champagnes. For the most, I would say discerning client base, or at least the ones that want to take the very best champagne that can be made. Having said that, I don’t think that needs to be from a dialogue with your customer base means that you need to be secretive or protective, for example. So we are very open with people and you can see on social media on discussion for funsies I’m very happy to share our history and everything else. However, that doesn’t mean that can satisfy the demand of everyone. But there’s certainly no intention on our part to be inaccessible because I don’t think you make your product better by making it accessible. And I think you know, the luxury of an exceptional wine is is about authenticity. It’s about exceptional know how in our case, it’s about exceptional terroir. And that’s what makes the orcas I mean, we’ve got a low grade champagne Brad is because it’s real, it’s tangible and the quality is there for people to taste.
Jacy Topps 23:11
So I know that Oprah Winfrey is a big fan of Billecart Salmon. She’s given like a bunch of shout outs over the years and she I know she’s done a lot of cocktail so I know she loves Bill car Simone just as a champagne itself to sip. But she also puts a splash of champagne and then cocktail. Are you guys okay with that? Are you guys okay with having champagne and cocktails?
Mathieu Billecart 23:40
For me, the most important thing for people when the table casserole is that it contributes somehow to making them happy. So frankly, I’m not there to tell the people that trust our champagne and by the bottles to tell them this is how they must enjoy it. And frankly, if if they want to drink it in such a Glassware, physicians cocktail and the thing that makes it the very best drink they can have Soviet we need to be humbled in our approach. Often we get asked how we recommend the wine should be served champagne should be said that it can be enjoyed and we have a view on how we enjoy. Having said that, I think that goes back to your point about being approachable. I don’t want to give situation where I’m imposing my way of enjoying wine champagne to other people.
Jacy Topps 24:31
Yeah, I like that answer. I have one final question when you’re not drinking champagne, what’s in your glass?
Mathieu Billecart 24:40
So when I’m not drinking champagne, I drink red wine often because you know champagne and white wine is lovely. But when you taste a lot of champagne as I do professionally to make the blend and decide what we do and what can be called the customer. You want something a little different. And I have to say when I get home sometimes it’s more likely you will finally opening a bottle of red wine than any new.
Jacy Topps 25:04
I love that. Mathieu thank you so much for joining us. It has been such a pleasure
Mathieu Billecart 25:12
to talk to you and thank you all for listening.
Jacy Topps 25:15
Thank you. I can’t wait to open that new bottle of champagne coming out soon.
Mathieu Billecart 25:21
For sure delicious
Jacy Topps 25:27
Okay, so champagne can be a little intimidating, but it doesn’t always have to be. Hopefully by breaking down the strictly regulated list of requirements that govern production helps you understand why the sparkling wine is so unique, and sometimes a little bit costly. If you liked today’s episode, we’d love to read your reviews and hear what you think. And hey, why not tell your wine loving friends to check us out to remember, you can subscribe to this podcast on Apple, Google, Spotify, and anywhere else you listen to podcasts. You can also go to wine mag.com backslash podcast, more episodes and transcripts. I’m Jacy Topps. Thanks for listening
Last Updated: June 6, 2023