Wednesday Wines – Episode 156 – The launch of 2008 Billecart-Salmon, Nicolas François

2008 Billecart-Salmon, Nicolas François, Champagne, France RRP £145.00

I have never before taken an overseas trip to taste one wine, but something told me that this was a flight worth boarding.

Billecart-Salmon is not a House that sponsors festivals, flower shows, racing cars, etc.  This House has always, and I am lucky enough to have been privy to some of the thought processes here, been keen to encourage deep partnerships with the elite on-trade community.  While I see first-hand how this House has underpinned select London restaurants, those who share the deep meaning of savoir-faire, I am not as familiar with their travails overseas.  I know that Alain Passard is a Billy fan – Arpège is my desert island resto and I have visited a good few times!  Anne-Sophie Pic, too, is a massive fan of this discreet House.  You can now ‘play count the Michelin stars’, if you wish, as I continue.  Another friend of the House is Frédéric Anton, based in the restaurant Jules Verne in the Tour Eiffel – I have yet to visit, but reviews are stellar.  These relationships seem to me to be enduring, intimate and genuine, and another that dates back two decades and more is Billecart’s friendship with Mauro Colagreco at Mirazur, in Menton.  With three stars and ‘best restaurant in the solar system’ awards under this man’s belt, it was apparent that a trip to France and lunch in a restaurant of this calibre might be of interest.  But I must be honest – I am a wine taster and not a food critic, so while I could have made this note at home, as I have done in the past, context is all, and I will never forget this experience, as it stands out as one of the most carefully considered events of my wine life.

Mathieu Roland-Billecart & Mirazur Chef Mauro Colagreco

I spent more time walking around Mauro’s kitchen garden (the finest hillside Eden I have ever witnessed) than I did tasting ‘08NF.  Indeed ‘08NF was put into context in a triangulation of consideration that, speaking frankly, I have never before experienced.  

You can skip over the next bit if this is too nerdy, but it had me on the edge of my seat, and it built, and built, towards the launch!

First, there was an open-book chat about how NV Billecart is assembled and a neat tasting of the current and future releases. Get your scanners out, or put your reading glasses on because, like a handful of other visionary Houses, Billecart is happy to expose its tender underbelly while letting you know precisely what is in the bottle –  you can access the 6-digit code on the side of the case (or bottle), which gives you all of the details on the wine.

Billecart’s non-vintage wine is usually a 40% Pinot Meunier, 30% Pinot Noir and 30% Chardonnay blend, vinified in steel and aged for 30 months on lees and a further six months in bottle before release.

Winemaker Florent Nys’s ‘first blend’ is the current NV release with a base of the 2018 vintage, and it follows the varietal recipe with 55% reserve wine involved and a 4% oak barrel component. 

The dosage is a firm 6 g/L (extra-brut-level), and it must be noted that this is an incredible wine.  Leaner, tauter and more focussed than many, this is a wine I would seriously consider buying in magnums and putting away for a rainy day. It is heroic, and I scored it an 18+/20 – remember that this is a ‘by the glass’ Champagne hero in select restaurants near you!

But, hold fire and scan the side of the bottle/case that turns up imminently on the market.  Code-numbered 191193, this wine is the 2019-based NV Réserve, and once again, it follows the varietal recipe, but this time there is 62% reserve wine, a 7.6% barrel component and a tiny tweak more residual sugar at a squeaky 3 g/L (another extra-brut-level-wine).  Gosh, these two wines are different.  Which do I prefer?  The new release seems riper and fleshier, offset by a slight saltiness and more astringency, and these components draw the wine back to its House style while, at the same time, affording it a degree of individuality.  My wine score is the same, just without the ‘+’ that I give to a wine because of its ability to age!

So after this lees-ageing lesson, I was stunned to learn that by the 2020-base-wine release, which is a little way off, Billecart will have moved to a 42-month average lees ageing period for their NV wine – and this extended ageing allows them to play with ever-lower dosage levels and, to my mind, an exponential rise in overall deliciousness of these wines.  There is so much forensic analysis of this NV cuvée that lessons learned have directly informed the rest of the portfolio, so we come to the drumroll event.

Those of you who follow my notes will have read that I am a devotee of the 2008 vintage in Champagne.  I have given Billecart’s 2008 Louis a perfect score and 2008 Elisabeth Rosé a 19/20.  So, I will not waste time here and let you know my thoughts and score, but please read the rest of this piece because context is all, and it frames ’08NF in a completely remarkable way that is Billecart to the core.

2008 Billecart-Salmon, Nicolas François, Champagne, France 20+/20 (Drink now – 2050) (case/bottle code number – 081078)

The facts – 08NF was made from 83% Grands Crus and 17% de Premiers Crus: 60% Pinot Noir from the Premiers and Grands Crus of the Montagne de Reims and the Grande Vallée de la Marne (Mareuil-sur-Aÿ, Aÿ, Ambonnay, Bouzy, Verzenay et Verzy); 40% Chardonnay from the Côte des Blancs (Mesnil, Chouilly, Cramant, Vertus); 17% of the wines were vinified in oak barrels, and it was aged on its lees for 150 months; The dosage is 2.9 g/l, and it was disgorged in January 2022.

This super-deep wine dwells low in the glass with weight and depth of delivery that is completely unhurried.  Vinous, powerful and with a full spectrum of fruit and patisserie, it is remarkable just how little citrus and herb there is on the front end of this staggeringly impressive wine.  It is more layered and exotic than any current release Champagne I can think of, and then when it seems as though the scene is set, everything changes instantly.  The palate drops about three gears revealing arresting zestiness and tanginess that completely engulfs the senses.  I learned that this cuvée’s release was delayed by nearly two years because the back end was so twitchy, nervy and excitable.  As it turns out, the Billecart gurus made the right call here – this is an electrifying wine, and the finish shows that the potential here is incredible.  I am lucky enough to have tasted the 1959 and the 1961 Billecart-Salmon vintage wines, among others, and the DNA and detail in this 2008 are near-identical.  While the top half of this wine is showy, flamboyant and seductive, the lower half is firm, chiselled, rigid and breath-taking.  

But that was not all.  I mentioned above that this launch took place at Mirazur, previously voted the finest restaurant in the world, and so over lunch, orchestrated by Mauro Colagreco and his brigade, Billy CEO Mathieu Roland-Billecart opened magnums of 08NF, which were cork-capped during their ageing as opposed to crown-capped, like the bottles.  They were even more exotic on the nose and even more nipped in on the palate (a canny buy for patient folk).   Then the 2002 Nicolas François followed, a wine I am lucky enough to have tasted many times.  It was sublime, built around a core of sensational intensity, and the smokiness and orange blossom notes were astounding.  With incredible balance, the acidity is just starting to soften here.  That was until magnums of the exact same wine were poured, and these looked insanely detailed up front and even more locked up on the finish. Both formats held hands with the 2008s, brothers in arms, but the 2008s showed infinitesimal fractals of detail, whereas the 2002s were more broad-brush in their approach and attack.

Then came 1998 Billecart-Salmon Nicolas Francois (56% Pinot Noir, 44% Chardonnay, 1.5% barrel component (they only started using barrels in 1995), 5.8 g/L. It was disgorged in 2007.  This was a blast from the past!  With a much more historic, open and floral Billecart stance, at 25 years of age, the jasmine tea kindliness was soothing and charming, and there was little tension here. While this vintage is drinking well now, plenty of acidity still holds it together.  As it opened up in the glass, there were faint butterscotchy hints and latent decadence on the finish, too.  This is a gorgeous and elegant wine, but it does not have the steeliness of the 2002 or the 2008.

1986 Billecart-Salmon Nicolas François came next, and as you will see from the stats, the recipe has not changed aside from the lack of carefully-judged oak and the rather hefty dosage!   86NF is 60% Pinot Noir, 40% Chardonnay, 0% oak and 12.6g/L.  This is another wine I know very well, and it looked sensational.   Silky, generous, lemon and orange balm-soaked, this is a nostalgic look through the back catalogue, and while it has none of the drama of the 2008, it is inextricably linked from a core flavour point of view.  I scored this bottle a cheeky 19/20 – only a couple of wines this year have moved me as much as this one.  

The very first vintage of Billecart-Salmon that was labelled Nicolas François was the 1964.  When this wine arrived at the table, I imagined we might tuck into chicken or fish, but Mauro and the Mirazur squad had other ideas. 

What followed was a food and wine pairing that shot to the top of my hit parade.  1964 Nicolas François was matched to a dish called Naranjo en flor.  I think it was an almond pieces, orange sorbet, almond foam and saffron assembly, but I might be wrong. Either way, the dish was a perfect 20/20, and the wine was, too.   This makes it a 40/40  – another first!

What I found most exciting was that this pudding was ‘dry’, in the same way that ‘64NF was dry, but it was also ripe and indulgent, and the perfume and flavour synergies were on another level.

I am conscious that I have not written more about the individual dishes that I enjoyed at Mirazur, as my focus was on the myriad of wines.  Over seven courses and countless canapés, it is clear why Billecart has become such close friends with Mauro and his team.  I do not doubt that, like the other partnerships in the Billecart orbit, I will visit under my own steam to recreate these life-changing experiences without having to make copious notes.

I thank Mathieu Roland-Billecart and his team for inviting me on this 24-hour whirlwind. As my readers know, I always pay my way, but on this occasion, I gratefully accepted this kind invitation, as I felt that I needed to experience the tour around the stunning kitchen gardens, the incredible lunch, the conversations and the amazing ambience of this event to bring it all to life.