Our 2023 wine writing competition sees the return of Allison Burton-Parker, whose pieces on Peter Hahn and Clos de la Meslerie, La Grange Tiphaine and Auckland for wine lovers were featured in previous wine writing competitions. Here, she writes about her favourite wine person, Mathieu Roland-Billecart, CEO of Billecart-Salmon. See this guide to our competition.
Allison Burton-Parker writes Allison Burton-Parker is a globe-roaming wine educator and writer living between the Loire Valley, London and New Zealand. She is a former luxury advertising executive who surrendered to her love of wine a decade ago and never looked back. She holds the WSET Diploma in Wines, is the Education Director for the Academie du Vin in London and co-founder of the Loire Wine Academy. She is currently writing an insider’s guide to Loire Valley wines. Her writing has appeared three previous times in the WWC.
The Happiness Merchant
Long before I knew anything about wine except what I liked and did not like, I loved Billecart-Salmon rosé champagne. I remember clearly the first time I tasted it at a tiny San Francisco wine shop in 2002. I was hooked, and a few months later I scoured the city to procure enough to serve at my wedding.
Two decades later, the elegant wines from this venerable house still feature prominently in our cellar. As it turns out, 2002, became a very highly regarded vintage, offering the perfect excuse to collect ridiculous amounts of that millésime under the guise of honouring our nuptials Thankfully my husband shares my enthusiasm for Billecart, and I estimate that more than half of our stash is from the house.
I offer this as a form of full disclosure. Anyone who knows me (or my cellar) would find it no surprise that I am a fan of Mathieu Roland-Billecart, a seventh-generation member of the family and Chief Executive Officer of the house of Billecart-Salmon. But it is not the wines that make me a fan of the man. I adore his frankness, openness, passion and eagerness to call out a lot of the nonsense in the Champagne business. Thanks to some generous friends and a bit of luck, I have had several opportunities to visit with him and each time I am left wishing I could buy even more Billecart, to support the man as much as the house.
Champagne is perhaps the most opaque product in the wine industry. It’s history, methods of creation and image are layered with fables, outright untruths, intentionally vague marketing and lots of pomp and circumstance. Any visitor to the chalky caves of a grand marque Champagne has experienced this unique blend of theatrics and lore. Yet amongst the high-stakes world of the top houses, Mathieu Roland-Billecart stands out for his willingness– and eagerness– to dispel these myths.
Mathieu grew up in the tiny village of Mareuil-sur-Aÿ well aware of the expectations of his surname, but intent on forging his own path. He pursued a business degree and worked in finance in London for fifteen years. He returned to the house in 2019, under his own terms and with the vision to make the best champagne possible through a path that honours the legacy of the family, respects the planet and allows each employee and contractor to earn an above-market wage.
He has succeeded on all those fronts, and the wines are better than ever. Yet Mathieu remains refreshingly humble and honest about the business of bubbles. He rejects marketing jargon and processes he calls trendy. He rolls his eyes at the current obsession with dosage. He eschews the posturing inherent in promoting a luxury product. “If it sounds fancy… makes a nice Instagram picture… it’s not for me”, he says.
Mathieu also takes issue with the market’s eagerness to define so-called landmark vintages. “A vintage is hyped based on many many things often with have very little to do with the wine,” he says. He also dislikes the trend whereby houses release wines before they are ideally ready, feeding their coffers and fueling the market, but asking the consumer to buy now and wait to enjoy later. “I hate drinking potential,” he says. “I could die waiting for drinking potential!” He instead chooses to keep his wines ageing on their lees in the cellar, sometimes for very long periods, in order to release only when he thinks the drinking moment is right.
This point was illustrated at our most recent encounter, a tasting at London’s 67 Pall Mall marking the release of the 2008 Nicholas Francois, a prestige cuvée named after his great great great great grandfather. Most every major house released their 2008 champagnes four years ago. But Mathieu thought this wine needed more time, and much to the frustration of the house accountant, kept it in the cellar for 150 months. The result is an intense, complex Champagne that was certainly worth the wait. Critics have agreed. Unsurprisingly, Mathieu dismisses ratings, “We don’t really care about the scores. The biggest score is how quickly people go through the bottle! Thats fundamentally what matters to us.”
Mathieu leads a tight-knit tasting committee that decides the blend for each and every wine. Even there he serves as the voice of reason. When the discussion gets too technical, he encourages the team to revert back to their palate. He explains, “Someone my say, ‘oh, that wine is interesting’. I don’t want it to be interesting. It needs to be excellent. I want people to smile. That is the most important thing.” He urges them to not lose sight of what they do as winemakers.
The DNA of the house is defined by Mathieu as finesse, elegance and balance. But he insists this must be achieved with the utmost respect for both the land and the people involved. Organic and sustainable practices are at the forefront of his ethos, applied with practicality to as many touch points as possible. As an example, the house uses the darkest glass bottle available on the market. Yes it provides the greatest protection against damaging UV rays, but it also uses the highest percentage of recycled material and has the lowest carbon footprint.
Like most grande marques, a great deal of the grapes each vintage are purchased from growers. And competition for the best grapes can be fierce, with these growers often facing temptation to seek an ever-better relationship. But almost all the growers who work with Billecart have done so for sixty years, often without a contract. When Mathieu began his role, he dug into these relationships and discovered that many of them were created purely on the basis of trust. “Someone from my family and these growers shared a pie together in the 1960’s. And that was that.” He still breaks bread with all involved in the making of his wines, and treats them as if they were family. He is proud that Billecart has among the lowest attrition rates of any house in Champagne.
As he walked me though the family estate he outlined the development of the new buildings and future plans, but also talked of the past, the memories he has of this place from his childhood and his fierce intent to protect it for future generations. Yet he puts it all in perspective saying, “Yes, we are good guardians of the heritage, good guardians of the natural ecosystem… but if we do our job properly, we are happiness merchants. If people are not smiling after having our champagne, I don’t think we have done our job properly.“
Of course I smile when I enjoy his refreshing, refined and elegant wines. That smile broadens when I think of those same qualities in Mathieu. In 2002 I had an inkling of what a brilliant choice it was to marry my husband, and of the decades of pleasure I’d come to enjoy from Billecart-Salmon wines. But I certainly could not have predicted I’d become friends with the inspiring man who made them. When I asked him about the drinking window of our beloved 2002 collection, he winked and said, “It will outlive me”. Cheers to that, Mathieu.
Image created by the author, based on an original photograph © Leif Carlsson.