Taking its own sweet time

French champagne house Billecart-Salmon, almost 200 years old and run by sixth-generation scions, is the only one remaining that takes 30 days to do the first fermentations while others take 10 days

Family-run French champagne house Billecart-Salmon celebrates its 200th anniversary next year and remains one of the oldest independently managed houses.

Its owners very much intend to keep the business within the family.

The champagne house, founded in 1818 and situated in the village of Mareuil-sur-Ay in the Champagne region, is managed by sixth-generation scions, Mr Antoine Roland-Billecart and his older brother, Francois. Their 94-year-old father, Jean, has been through 75 harvests.

As Billecart-Salmon turns 200, Mr Antoine Roland-Billecart says: "It's not just a small family business, we are getting really serious."

And so the seventh-generation successor has been decided and will be announced in June next year on the anniversary of the champagne house.

Mr Roland-Billecart says: "Our challenge is not to create a super company, but to create a company that will go to the next generation in the best possible condition."

The 56-year-old travels globally to represent the champagne house and is involved in executive business decisions. He was in Singapore for a talk at the Asia Competitiveness Institute earlier last week.

From producing 400,000 bottles a year in post-war conditions in 1945, Billecart-Salmon today produces 2.6 million bottles a year and exports to 98 countries.

Two years ago, the company decided to cap production at this number after determining that it was the optimum level to produce at for a mid-sized champagne company. Bigger companies such as Moet & Chandon, for example, produce an estimated 15 million bottles.

But while other champagne houses in the region are looking to acquire more land and increase production, Mr Roland-Billecart says there are no plans for Billecart- Salmon, which is famously favoured by wine connoisseurs and sommeliers, to expand production.

"We want to stick to that particular level of production in order to be able to control the quality," he explains.

And while most champagne houses choose to produce specific vintages, it is not a main priority for Billecart-Salmon, which would rather first measure the potential of each harvest.

"From there, we decide whether to produce a vintage or not - whether it's for the rose, blanc de blancs or others," Mr Roland-Billecart says.

The champagne house also has a different production method from others. With a wine style that focuses on "fruit, freshness and elegance", the priority is "respecting the fruit", Mr Roland-Billecart notes.

They use a very slow and cold vinification process to protect the acidity of the fruit that comes from the 220ha in 40 grand crus of the Champagne region.

"With first fermentations for instance, what the other houses do in 10 days, we need 30 days since we drastically control the temperature of the must (freshly pressed grape juice, containing skin, seeds and stems) during fermentation," Mr Roland-Billecart explains.

This practice has been carried out since the 1950s and Billecart- Salmon remains the only champagne house to do this.

"Producing a bottle of Billecart- Salmon costs more than any other brand since it takes more time, but we do it anyway because quality has no price," Mr Roland-Billecart says.

While tradition and quality are paramount, he assures that they are not averse to change. The champagne house has ventured into social media and there might be a change in the label design, which was last seen in 2004.

Without revealing too much, he adds: "We are always evolving and it will happen again next year on our 200th anniversary."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on April 30, 2017, with the headline 'Taking its own sweet time'. Print Edition | Subscribe