Thu 8 Apr 2010
I’m always on the look-out for champagnes from small producers as alternatives to the familiar labels from the highly marketed houses. Sometimes, because of their high production and total ubiquity, these champagnes seem more anonymous than if they emerged from obscure family-owned vineyards.
Well worth a search are the impeccably-made champagnes from the small house of François Billion Pére et Fils, located in the village of Le Mesnil sur Oger (pop. 1,258), officially designated a Grand Cru vineyard area for chardonnay; this region of Champagne is called Côte de Blancs because of its chalky white soil. Le Mesnil sur Oger is home to a number of small and medium-size producers, including Pierre Peters, Guy Charlemagne, Bardy-Chauffert and the luxury house of Salon.
The François Billion Grand Cru Cuvée de Réserve Brut, Cépage Chardonnay, is, in a word, magnificent, with all that term implies of presence, tone and allure. Spending three years in the bottle before release, this sizable champagne — the color of palest gold, flecked with an infinity of surging bubbles — offers powerful notes of fresh-baked bread, cinnamon toast and smoke wreathed with roasted pears, acacia and honeysuckle. It’s a substantial champagne yet light on its feet, a seemingly effortless amalgam of energy and elegance, like a blond cauldron of boundless acidity married to the delicacy of pinpoint citrus flavors. A few minutes in the glass bring out nuances of toasted hazelnuts, a hint of crystallized ginger and candied grapefruit and then, far more than a nuance, a tide of chalk and shale that adds depth and weight to the long finish. Excellent. About $60.
The ruddy copper-salmon colored François Billion Spécial Rosé Brut is a blend of 70 percent Grand Cru chardonnay and 30 percent pinot noir. The bouquet — fitting word! — teems with strawberries and raspberries and dried red currants with backnotes of fresh-baked biscuits, cloves and rose petals. This champagne is very dry and crisp, quite toasty, in fact almost briery in its (paradoxically) expanding spareness and rigor; it’s a wine with great ligatures and bones, the essence of liquid limestone and lithe, plangent acidity. A hint of smoke develops and a touch of orange rind, but mainly the red fruit stays true from beginning to end. Excellent. About $66.
William Harrison Imports, Manassas, Va. Samples for review. Map of Champagne from cafe-calva.com