A very lovely young lady and self-confessed hedonist, Cordelia Rosa, asked me if I wanted to try something a little different. Rather excited by what the lovely Cordelia was proposing, I asked what? Exactly?
“Billecart Salmon Brut Sous Bois,” she said.
Mildly disappointed by this answer but still intrigued, I accepted. I’ll try anything once.
Let’s face it. If Billecart is going to release any new wines you want to know about it, right?
Well, early last year, they launched this new cuvée. Literally, “Dry Billecart Under Wood”.
But here’s the rub. The process of ageing wine in oak for champagne is far from new. What is new, though, is the amount of wood - and that you can TASTE IT.
Wood-conditioning on champagne base wines can have all sorts of effects. Take Bollinger for example. All its base wines are fermented in old demi-muid 600 litre barrels. Just imagine how savage that champagne would be if didn’t have the benefit of a bit of old oak French polish. Harder, though, is finding an example of a champagne house or producteur-récoltant who intentionally makes both a wood-conditioned, and totally unwooded, cuvée.
The best comparison that comes immediately to mind, is the difference between Taittinger Prélude Grand Cru and Taittinger Les Folies de la Marquetterie. They are both created to the same signature house style, are both approximately 50/50 Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, and have both been aged for about five years before release. The one technical difference is that half of the Chardonnay base wines (so roughly a quarter of the final blend) in Les Folies is fermented and aged in small old barrels. What difference does it make? Well I strongly urge you to do the £130 odd experiment yourself, but the flavours bleed into each other just a little more. Everything is a little more romantic and less technical. More Renoir, less Canaletto. More a seduction of the heart and less a game for the mind. For the record I love them both, a lot, but one really cannot tell that either has actually been influenced by the flavour of wood. This is (almost) true for Bollinger too, despite its dashing fresh vigour. But what of Billecart Salmon Sous Bois then?
It is new and innovative in one clear respect. It is actually making a virtue out of the fact that this wine looks, smells and tastes as if it was aged in oak. There is no escaping from it, this wine is loud and proud about its oak origins.
OK. So? What do I think? Well it’s a bit slutty, and in your face. It has very glossy red lipstick, golden Gucci sunglasses on, you can hear it across the restaurant, and it is no stranger to a wonder bra. One size too small. On its own, it is simply too much. It stands there and gets in the way of any conversation that you might be having. It is vinous and a touch varnishy on the nose, with peanut, orgeat and quite clear vanilla ice cream notes. The palate is satisfyingly tight and compact, with a rich, penetrative, resinous quality that coats the mouth, well no, almost paints the mouth with vanilla essence, savoury yeasty notes of charred sourdough toast (not in itself necessarily a bad thing). The oak flavour is subtle at first, but it creeps up on you steadily and slowly. You can’t avoid it. You know when you are pouring honey onto something with a spoon, and you think, “That’s enough”, but then you panic because it continues its onslaught, ribboning everywhere until there’s just too much, and the whole kitchen is a mess? The oak’s like that.
However, it wouldn’t be so obvious if it wasn’t champagne we were talking about. It’s the tight acid that makes the resinous wood component stick out so, but it is what it is. Maybe I am just not giving it enough of a chance, but with all the wonderful diversity and variety that champagne as a wine has to offer, this one sits outside my comfort zone.
Now, let’s take a moment to clear our minds, and be just a little less staid, and hackneyed about what we have here.
This is what I did when trying this wine with Paola and Mike, one Sunday brunch not too long ago. Guess what? I realise that it reminded me of the first time that I tried a dry oloroso sherry. Not that it tastes anything like a sherry, but trying this for the first time, expecting tastes that I am familiar with, I found myself with the same unease of feeling out in the dark. Do I understand this? Do I like this? I mean at all? Am I not letting myself see the joy in it? Then it hit me.
It’s a food wine. Plain and simple.
Like my first oloroso, I couldn’t see the Sous Bois as a drink, but I immediately saw images of bellota ham, anchovies on toast and pan con tomate flash before my eyes. Like all weird things to eat, like blue cheese or oysters you have to get used to it. Now, all I want is to be buried in a vat of palo cortado, so who knows?
Now I remember as a student, I discovered that Bolly goes with omelettes. Shit, Bolly goes with nearly everything. Dad’s fiftieth, mags of Bolly, battered wings of skate, and beef dripping chips. Oh yes.
So Paola and Mike took their weekly constitutional down to the allotment and brought back some killer greens and some very fresh eggs from the butcher. There was some decent cheddar in the fridge, so we did what any normal food-obsessed soak would do, and we made this.
It was bloody fantastic. Mike and Paola have made brunches into a globally recognised martial art, but this was something very special. The secret ingredient? Billecart Salmon Sous Bois. Suddenly all the planets were in alignment, the sun came out, and the world started making sense again. Drinking the champagne with this particular food did something that I have noticed many times. The eggs, or more accurately the fining properties of the albumen in the egg, literally took the waxy resinous out of the wine’s texture. The cheese polymerised the edginess of the wood tannin, and suddenly you had a sleek, silky drink. Fine, sexy and perfectly doable.
Since then, I have been wondering about all the other things that I would want to drink this with. Wild mushroom risotto? Arbroath smokies in cream with wild rice? Cheese leek and ham soufflé? Crab gratin? Oh yes. I’d have a lot of bloody fun trying. So, when I told Paola and Mike the price, £65 by the way, they were shocked to say the least, but in the right, fairly narrow context, I think it’s fantastic.
I can imagine it making a very interesting addition to a Menu Gastronomique, but, on its own, Cordelia or no Cordelia, there’s only so much wood that I can handle.