I remember tasting my first glass of Billecart-Salmon. It was in Paris, at Hotel Montalembert, a stylish 50-room, eight-storey building set in the 7th arrondissement. The hotel’s general manager, Laurence Guinebretière, a feisty French lady, offered me some to try, insisting that Billecart-Salmon Brut Rosé is the best rosé she’s ever had. And I had to agree with her. So imagined my surprise (and subsequent laughter) when I sat down for a chat with Antoine Roland-Billecart, the sixth-generation scion to helm Billecart-Salmon, before a four-hands champagne-pairing dinner at Shangri-La Hotel Singapore’s Origin Grill, that the 56-year-old reveals his go-to drink is actually Belgian draught beer.
Seems that it’s common knowledge within the champagne-making circle that it takes several swigs from a couple cans of beer to create a well-crafted bottle of champagne. Though, of course, Antoine’s first ever beverage tasted was likely champagne; where at just two hours old, as a traditional initiation of being Champenois, his dad would’ve dipped his fingers in some bubbly to dab it on baby Antoine’s lips.
Though now, all grown up, Antoine cheekily admits, “Sometimes, what happens is, after a long day, when you had a lot of wine or champagne to drink, you become thirsty and just want to hide yourself somewhere with a nice cold beer in hand. Always something light and refreshing, nothing too heavy or too bitter.”
But really “refreshing” too, are the cuvees of Billecart-Salmon. Today, the independent champagne Maison is synonymous with words like freshness, elegance, delicate; and its bubbles aren’t aggressive, or as the Italians would say, “like small perlage” — best translated as pearls or beadings in English.
And this consistency in traits as well as other tricks of the trade have been passed down from generation to generation, starting from Antoine’s great-great-great-great grandparents, Nicolas François Billecart and Elisabeth Salmon, who founded the bicentennial brand in 1818.
“I think we are the forth house of its kind to reach 200 years old. We’re going to have a big fiesta in Champagne on June 17 this year [which coincidentally falls on Father’s Day],” says the polyglot who speaks fluent Spanish, Italian, German, French and English.
Antoine Roland-Billecart runs the house together with his older brother François, the current CEO of Billecart-Salmon, under the watchful eye of their father Jean Roland-Billecart, who sits as the president of the board of shareholders. “My father is 95 years old this year and is in great shape,” says Antoine. “His experience is so valuable and he visits the winery almost everyday, still participates in all blending and tasting sessions to elaborate the cuvees, and follow the evolution of our domaine.”
And while Jean is still highly invested in the products, he need not worry about succession. Seventh generation Mathieu Roland-Billecart, aged 37, will replace François as the CEO at the start of next year. And Nicolas Roland-Billecart, François’s 33-year-old son, is already working as the company’s brand ambassador and sales manager in Italy and the UK.
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“Remaining family-owned, family-managed and independent is nice,” expresses Antoine, a father of three. “That’s something really important, to be different in today’s world of branding where most champagne houses belong to huge groups. We are a close-knit group of exactly 82 employees… I also try as much as possible to give my own kids the information on our domaine.”
When asked about balancing family time and family business, he adds, “To be a good father is quite challenging with a busy schedule so having good moments with [my kids] is very important.”
However, Antoine wasn’t always as busy and Billecart-Salmon wasn’t always as lauded as it now is. Not until June 1999 that is — what Antoine recalls as the turning point for the house. “We won a blind tasting in Stockholm organised by Richard Juhlin, comprising 150 cuvees from 60 to 70 brands. We managed to beat all the big guys and I was very proud of my dad because he made the wine at the time — this was the Nicolas–François 1959, which was awarded ‘Champagne of the Millennium’ by a panel of experts and journalists.”
Independency and consistency aside, it is perhaps the exclusivity of bottles produced that’s allowed Billecart-Salmon to stand the test of time. “We are not a huge company and act on the vinification of around 2.5 million bottles per year. That is less than the population of Singapore.”
And it seems our tiny nation has been pretty receptive to bubblies over the past few years too. Antoine Roland-Billecart gives an account, “When I first came to Singapore some 25 years ago, it was hard to find champagne by the glass in bars. Now, you can go everywhere and get it by the glass.
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Last year alone, 1.3 million bottles of champagne were sold in Singapore. But I think we can increase that number.” And by the looks of the successful champagne-pairing dinner organised at Origin Grill, where there was a surprising equal gender mix of a turnout, there’s no doubt things could only bubble up.