Champagne, France, Winemaking
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Brut Sous Bois Q & A with Mathieu Roland-Billecart

No one needs a reason to drink Champagne but ringing out 2020 is certainly a good opportunity to reach for something beyond your sentimental favorite. In an effort to learn more about Billecart-Salmon’s Brut Sous Bois, I asked Mathieu Roland-Billecart for the inside scoop on this particular cuvée.

Mathieu Roland-Billecart is the seventh-generation of his family to oversee Billecart-Salmon. He took over the management of the family holding company and joined the supervisory board in 2013 and became CEO of the Group in 2019. He now manages all the activities of Champagne Billecart-Salmon, including the tasting committee that shapes and validates all the house’s vintages.

Billecart-Salmon Mathieu Roland-Billecart
Billecart-Salmon CEO Mathieu Roland-Billecart

DPW – Brut Sous Bois which was first introduced to the U.S. market in 2011 has been compared to Burgundy on several occasions. What do you think of the comparison?

MRB – If people mean it as a compliment then great! There are similarities in terms of grape varieties and terroirs to a certain extent with Champagne when you look from afar, but the two regions are quite distinct when you look at them closely in my opinion. I think where the comparison might come from is that the Brut Sous Bois is vinified in 15 year old Burgundian oak barrels, which give it additional structure and depth to a typical base NV Champagne.  It is also the non-vintage we age the most on lees before release (c. nine years on lees for the current release) hence there is a richness to it that make it more of a gastronomy wine than a lighter champagne for an easy aperitif.

DPW – Brut Sous Bois has settled nicely into its very specific style niche and is competing easily with wines that are triple and more of its price. Would you say the wine represents the best quality for its style on the market?

MRB – I am biased perhaps but I certainly agree it is right up there and it is a must try for all wine lovers! With Brut Sous Bois, you have a non-vintage wine that is older than the majority of vintage champagne on the market, including in the prestige category. The blend also includes a majority of grand cru and premier cru so you have amazing quality for the price for those that are looking at a richer style of Champagne. It is also particularly well suited to be paired with food like poultry, mushrooms, (hard) cheeses, etc.

DPW –  Although it’s not a direct comparison of style, there are oak-aged Blanc de Blancs receiving very high scores. Is it complexity from the composition of the blend that sets Brut Sous Bois apart or are there other points of differentiation that are more significant?

Brut Sous Bois Champagne
Brut Sous Bois

MRB – It is really a combination of factors that makes the Brut Sous Bois blend unique. It, of course, includes the three mains grapes which makes it different from a Blanc de Blancs but there are more technical differences that set it apart:

  • The selection of some of our best parcels are vinified in our oak barrels across Pinot Noir, Meunier and Chardonnay with a significant proportion of grand crus and premiers crus.
  • The fact we use barrels that are 15 years old on average give richness to the wine through the micro oxidation without making the wine overly marked by the taste of the barrels (that you can get with new barrels).
  • The very long ageing on lees (six/seven years minimum and c. nine years in the last release) allow the wine to gain additional complexity.
  • A balanced dosage – always decided by blind tasting with our tasting committee – to be able to have a balanced and harmonious tasting experience.

DPW –  Given the percentages of Pinot noir and Meunier in the blend, are there any plans for a rosé?

MRB – No plans of that nature currently. Our Brut Rosé has a very distinct identity and we already have a very wide range with 12 cuvées, but never say never.

DPW – What vintage is the base wine for the current release of Brut Sous Bois?

MRB – Base year 2010 with c. 1/3 of reserve wine

DPW – Reviewers have commented that the oak influence has been dialed back from earlier vintages, please elaborate on that observation.

MRB – That’s correct, we have indeed ‘refined’ the style since the very first releases… the oak barrels are getting older, we have aged the wine more on lees, and adapted our selection of parcels to have more finesse. We constantly challenge ourselves to make better wines and we are not scared to adapt/change if we feel it delivers better quality. Whilst it is 100% vinified in barrels it is important this cuvée shares the full Billecart DNA: Finesse, elegance and balance.

DPW – I’ve read that this style relies on partial ML but the house is known for often blocking ML. If partial, why does this work better with the oak fermentation and aging regime?

MRB – For the house as a whole, there is nothing systematic about ML at Billecart-Salmon, we taste every tank after alcoholic fermentation and decide whether to do the ML based on the year, parcels, grape variety etc. hence the vast majority of the blends are partial ML.

Now if we are more specific about Brut Sous Bois, you are correct that because the chai of barrels tend to get more of the top parcels (that typically have greater power and depth), we tend to block (almost) all ML. This is to preserve the tension and freshness with a vinification method (barrels) that tend to bring more oxidation and we also know that the wines from the chai are very likely to end up in cuvées that we age more (Brut Sous Bois, Nicolas Francois, Louis Salmon etc.)

DPW –  Is Billecart Salmon’s hallmark technique of double cold settling of particular importance to this style?

MRB – It is across the board, but I would not say this is more important for Brut Sous Bois than the other cuvées. The double cold settling combined with our cold fermentation is one of the main reasons our wines tend to have the finesse and elegance that is the signature of Billecart-Salmon.

Billecart-Salmon Chai
Billecart-Salmon Chai

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