Like worms and London commuters, wine professionals spend a great deal of time underground. Some of the best moments of our careers are spent sniffing around dank cellars – creeping down stairs, Nosferatu-like, to withdraw carefully stowed bottles from dusty storage.
I’ve had the pleasure of visiting a few of the monolithic champagne houses, but I was particularly intrigued to visit the cellars of Billecart-Salmon winery in Mareuil-Sur-Aÿ, a 10-minute drive from the famed town of Épernay in France’s Champagne region. Not only is the winery one of the most easily recognised grandes marques internationally, most crucially, it also produces my go-to birthday wine.
Indeed, every 25 August starts (at 11am) with a chilled glass of Billecart-Salmon’s brut rosé, enjoyed while I’m still in bed. To me, the sensation of drinking this rosé has always been akin to placing a wild strawberry in my mouth – stalk and all. The earthy, vegetal umami of the stalk, paired with the racy but fleshy fruit… it’s enough to make you want to stay in bed for the whole day, enjoying glass after rapturous glass.
More than 200 years old, Billecart-Salmon remains one of the few major maisons to be both family-owned and -run. It now grows vines across 100 hectares, as well as collecting from trusted champagne growers. They say you should never meet your heroes, but I wanted to peek behind the curtain and see the wizard.
Bucking the trend
I find there’s a perception that everywhere in France (apart from Paris) is impossible to get to, so it is my pleasure to tell you that is not the case. There are hourly trains travelling to the country’s top wine regions from Paris’s various terminals, including Gare de l’Est, from which you can travel to Épernay – the epicentre of champagne production.
While just a short drive from Épernay, Billecart-Salmon feels worlds away from the clout-heavy length of Avenue de Champagne (a stretch of road that hosts the offices of most of the grandes marques). On first glance, Mareuil-Sur-Aÿ seems to be a sleepy French village, its buildings covered in white plaster, until you realise most of those buildings are owned by Billecart-Salmon.
What may have seemed like a humble barn is revealed to be the winery….