Quick Sips — 11 July 2014
The best champagne you probably don’t know

By Mark Gauert

This being the 226th anniversary of the storming of the Bastille, our thoughts turn, naturally, to champagne. But not just any champagne this momentous year, mes amis, and not one of the usual suspects from the cellar to toast the birth of the French republic.

But first, a little history. (Personal history, that is).

The best Bastille Day party I ever attended was in France on July 14-15, 1988, one year before the bicentennial of the French Revolution. Since my wife and I were not going to be in France for the actual bicentennial, our family decided to throw a preview party at their country house in Ladon, a village about two hours south of Paris near the Loire River.

They set up a long picnic table that day in the shade of hundred-year-old chestnut trees in the back yard. They prepared a feast featuring wild game from La Forêt d’Orléans, roasted on a spit. And they invited about 40 of their friends and neighbors to join us.

The next morning, after almost 24 hours of steady Bastille Day fête-ing, singing, ping-pong playing, dancing and, of course, toasting, we counted 58 empty champagne bottles on the picnic table, under the picnic table, and in the grass, bushes and trees in a widening blast zone around the picnic table.

The story goes that one of the fêtardes enjoyed the champagne poured that day so much she didn’t notice she’d broken her foot dancing until she got a diagnosis the next afternoon. The truth is, the champagne was so good none of us remembers the party actually ending. (In fact, some splinter of it may still be going on.)

But we do remember the name of the champagne: Billecart-Salmon.

Fast forward, 25 years. I am seated at another outdoor table, this time in South Florida beside François and Edith Roland-Billecart at the Fisher Island Club. The genial couple represent the sixth generation of Billecart-Salmon family vintners, going back almost as far as the French Revolution. They are here on their first visit to the United States to help turn our thoughts away from the usual champagne suspects in our cellars.

They are having some success.

Billecart-Salmon is now served around the world in five-star hotels, and three-star Michelin restaurants, François says, but “it still may be the best champagne you’ve never heard of.”

I tell him my Bastille Day story, over an apéritif of Extra Brut Vintage 2004 ($99.99), and he smiles. “Well,” he says, “perhaps you do have some familiarity.’’

Yes. And I’m here to tell you, mes amis, Billecart-Salmon is a name worth remembering the morning after your next Bastille Day party, and at the wine store and beyond.

François and Edith and I sipped a delicate Blanc de Blancs ($84.99) that afternoon over a plate of hamachi and avocado tartare; an elegant 1999 Cuvée Nicolas François Billecart over pepper-crusted branzino and Wagyu strip loin; and, for dessert, a Brut Rose ($84.99) with a chocolate and salted caramel bomb, with almond broquant and mango. Delicious.

We didn’t sing, dance or play ping-pong that day at the Fisher Island Club. But if I’d broken a foot while sipping these sublime champagnes, I wouldn’t have  cared till the next afternoon.

 

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Champagne Billecart-Salmon (from Mareuil-sur-Aÿ, near Épernay, France, champagne-billecart.fr) is distributed by Premier Beverage and available in Broward County at Wine Watch and Hollywood Vine; in Palm Beach County at the Virginia Philip Wine Shop and Hamptons Palm Beach; and Total Wine & More in both counties. It’s also on the menu at Steak 954, Johnny V and Casa d’Angelo in Broward County; and Café L’Europe, Café Chardonnay and Bistro Chez Jean-Pierre in Palm Beach County.

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