Wine Legend: Billecart-Salmon, Cuvée Nicolas François 1959 Champagne, France
- Bottles produced N/A
- Composition 60% Pinot Noir, 40% Chardonnay
- Yield 36hl/ha
- Alcohol 12.5%
- Release price N/A
- Price today N/A
A legend because…
This was the wine that triumphed in a blind tasting of 150 vintage Champagnes organised in 1999 by an expert team led by Richard Juhlin from Sweden. It won first place as ‘Champagne of the Millennium’, and second place was, remarkably, taken by the 1961 vintage. François Roland-Billecart was reluctant to submit any of the house’s cuvées, but his brother Antoine went behind his back and entered both the triumphant wines.
This cuvée is dominated by Pinot Noir, but in more recent years a scarcer wine has taken its place alongside it – Le Clos St-Hilaire, produced solely from 1ha of Pinot Noir grapes planted in the former park of the mansion at Mareuil-sur-Aÿ. Vinified in casks, it is aged on the yeasts for 14 years before being bottled with low dosage. Rare and costly, it shows that the Billecart family doesn’t rest on its laurels.
The family history dates back at least to the 17th century, but it was the marriage in 1818 of Nicolas François Billecart to Elisabeth Salmon that marks the creation of the house in its present form. It is run today by seventh- generation Mathieu Roland-Billecart, who succeeded François in 2018. Jean-Jacques Frey became a minority shareholder in 2004, bringing his Champagne vineyards to the estate. In 1959, this cuvée, which had been produced since 1955, was not marketed under the family label, but in 1964 it was named Cuvée NF Billecart.
1959 was a superb year in Champagne. From May onwards the summer was hot and there was little rain. Flowering took place in ideal conditions. The growing season delivered substantial volumes as well as exceptional quality. These were wines of weight and power that in many cases have aged exceptionally well.
Although the house now owns a good range of its own vineyards, in the 1950s it relied on contracts with a body of excellent growers with good sites and the same commitment to quality as the Billecart family. Only grapes from Mareuil-sur-Aÿ and grand cru sites are selected for this cuvée.
Each parcel is vinified separately. The Roland- Billecart family uses a distinctive technique when it comes to fermenting the wine, derived from experience centuries ago as brewers. The must is settled and clarified twice, chilled to a temperature of about 5°C. The gross lees are then removed before the temperature is slowly raised to allow the yeasts to get to work on juice that is free of any oxidation. The fermentation, at relatively cool temperatures, generally takes about three weeks, and for this cuvée would have taken place in oak barrels. Barrel-fermentation was later abandoned, but revived again in the mid-1990s.
In his 2001 book, Champagne: The Great Tasting, Richard Juhlin wrote that the Cuvée Nicolas François 1959 ‘…had everything one would expect of a luxury Champagne, but in a seldom-seen concentration, and simultaneously with harmonious balance. A totally perfect Champagne in its category, with a smoky, honey-smooth, extremely long taste of walnut, orange blossom and chocolate.’
Serena Sutcliffe MW, who also participated in the 1999 tasting, noted: ‘Very pale with a greenish tinge. The ultimate “divine hedgerows” bouquet – like coming home. This is it! Creamy delicacy and yet huge flavour (this must be the Holy Grail for which all Champagne blenders search). Mega dimension. Great depth and yet finesse. Perfect composition. Remains fabulous in the glass.’