BEST CHAMPAGNE had the pleasure to meet Gilles de Larouzière, President of HENRIOT, one of those rare, independent champagne houses that have been family owned since inception.
Founded in 1808, for eight generations HENRIOT’s commitment to quality has remained unchanged selecting the finest parcels, magnifying the purity of grands crus, and respecting the aging time for each cuvée.
HENRIOT’s champagnes are characterized by a high proportion of Chardonnay that brings delicate and complex aromas, a refined structure that balances the distinctive character from great terroirs.
De Larouziere is a man of great elegance and refinement, with a marked interest for culture and sober hedonism, values that are part of the spirit of the HENRIOT family and its champagnes.
With his own words, he guides you through the key moments in the history of the House that have most shaped its identity, and he explains HENRIOT’s idea of champagne, that is expressed in its distinctive style.
If there is one Champagne House that incarnates the French elegance, bourgeois spirit, and joie de vivre, this is HENRIOT. Read on and enjoy.
Gilles de Larouzière represents the 8th generation of the Henriot family at the helm of the eponymous House.
BEST CHAMPAGNE: Champagne HENRIOT is one of the few large family- and independently-run Champagne Houses. What does that mean?
GILLES DE LAROUZIERE: The world of family-run Champagne Houses is a very small circle because although champagne is a luxury product hasn’t always been lucrative. During the crisis of the 1930’s, when the champagne market had completely collapsed, champagne making was a terrible business.
The economic uncertainty drove a number of Champagne families to abandon winemaking unless there was a man or woman with a strong vision and will to perpetuate their know-how. Luckily, that was the case of my grandfather, Etienne Henriot, and my uncle, Joseph Henriot. When my uncle Jo took over the House in 1962, the champagne economy was still fragile!
Careful management, despite the flamboyance associated with champagne, is very important: the storage and aging of wines, as well as outside development, require sizeable capital investment. You must know how to find a balance between ambition and reason.
The HENRIOT House, the matrix of the Maison et Domaines Henriot group, which includes other wine estates, is supported by a family who has maintained its passion for this activity and who has given talents the possibility to express themselves. For example, our Cellar Master, Laurent Fresnet, or our Crop Manager, Hervé Lourdeaux, only receive one instruction: make the best. And they do. You need to give these talented men the means to create the most beautiful things. I am very committed to making sure that the family members feel the absolute conviction that the wine contained in a bottle of Champagne HENRIOT reflects our family’s values perfectly.
BC: What role does the brand play in the success of your House?
GDL: The brand is very important in champagne, especially when that brand expresses the values of family, as is the case of Champagne HENRIOT. However, you need to make sure that a House is more than just the brand because what matters most is that the brand expresses a reality and true know-how.
The notion of brand is a disembodied concept in itself. What establishes and legitimises the brand, what adds value to it, is the House’s know-how, its history, and the involvement of eight successive generations that have served this passion and these values.
When you go too far in marketing, you develop an imaginary universe around a name that is sometimes far from the underlying reality. For me, the brand expresses something imaginary that should be the emanation of the House’s reality.
In the case of Champagne Henriot, the brand also – and I would even say especially – embodies values that are dear to our family. That way, champagne lovers who are loyal to Champagne HENRIOT commune with our values in a certain way.
BC: What are the values at the heart of your family that you transmit with your brand and champagnes?
GDL: We look to evoke a world of elegance, culture, refinement, and joie de vivre, values that we hold dear.
We also have a spirit of independence that runs in our veins. My grandfather, Etienne, who betted on continuing the champagne adventure, even though all of the economic signs from the crisis of the 1930’s and the Second World War indicated that this activity was doomed, had the independence to carry that conviction. At that time of great unrest, you had to have an inextinguishable conviction and be fiercely independent to believe in and keep this activity going.
We also believe in respect between family members, our collaborators, and the growers whom we work with. Certain growers have brought their grapes to us for several generations, which has almost given us a family relationship, not just a professional one. The first blend, to us, is that of people…
BC: HENRIOT champagne is known for using large volumes of Chardonnay in its cuvées. Why did you make that choice? How would you define the resulting style?
GDL: History has given us a very large wine estate thanks to which we had all of the Champagne region’s great terroirs.
Our House’s history begins with Nicolas and Apolline Henriot, cloth businesspeople from the Lorraine region, settling in Reims. These wine aficionados began to build a small vineyard around Reims [in the Reims Mountain, which predominantly had Pinot Noir grapes].
When Nicolas Henriot died, Apolline Henriot, who was passionate about this activity, and maybe to grow the memory of her spouse, invested in the development of champagne and built the Maison Veuve Aînée Henriot in 1808, which has since become Champagne HENRIOT.
Then, in 1880, Ernest Henriot married Marie Marget who brought a magnificent vineyard in her wedding basket, which gave Chardonnay a significant weight in the House. History changed this aspect of our activities, but it heavily marked our style and our corporate culture, very close to the vineyard.
HENRIOT’s style is the result of women’s influence (Apolline, Marie, my grandmother Françoise…), Chardonnay, and a family culture committed to culture, good living, and hedonism. I would say Henriot’s style is one of balance and elegance: not too vinous, not too sparkling.
To make a great champagne, you must first make a great wine. In order to do that, virtuosity in blending is essential, similar to a painter’s ability to play with light and colors, or musical notes for a musician.
BC: You underline the importance of the vineyard and the blending. What is the most important when producing your style of champagnes?
GDL: There are three pillars in the production of champagne. It all starts with the quality and origin of the grapes: the composition of the soil and subsoil, the climate, the environment where the vines grow. The combination of all of those things gives that characteristic to the wine made on that terroir. Certain terroirs will give a wine with aromas of red fruit, others will give aromas of citrus fruit, and others will give exotic aromas.
You also need to be able to project that terroir onto the House’s style. That is why you need to accurately control the Champagne region’s different terroirs and have a supply of great grapes, which means from growers who work excellently.
The second component is the assemblage (the blend). The cellar master is a virtuoso, an exceptional craftsman who works with subtlety, precision, and a real artistic sense. 40 to 60 different wines end up in the composition of our Brut Souverain. Certain make up a tiny part of it but, like a double bass in an orchestra, we don’t identify it but something is missing if we take it out, and that makes the difference.
This finesse and complexity have allowed us to find an emotion, a feeling, a pleasure over the years: that of Champagne HENRIOT. They are found in the finesse and complexity of our wines, and what allows us to guarantee that is the great origins of the grapes and the ability to carefully blend wines from these grapes.
The third component is time. We consider that we need to wait at least three or four years for a good champagne to mature, even if the regulations only impose 15 months [12 of which on lees]. We find that that isn’t enough, however. The great Pinots and Chardonnays develop a finesse and a phenomenal aromatic complexity over time. It’s very important in the making of our champagne.
BC: If it is true that blending allows the Houses to better express their style, a current trend, especially among Champagne Growers, is to make less “blended” and more “single-parcel” champagnes that represent a specific terroir. What is your opinion on the matter?
GDL: I think it is good to refresh your style and know-how. For me, however, the notion of assemblage is fundamental in the Champagne region, it is our unique and iconic know-how.
Let’s use our Réserve Perpétuelle, the famous Cuve 38 as an example. This unique project started in 1990 and whose first magnums were commercialized in 2014, by blending “only” four grand crus from the Côte des Blancs: Mesnil-sur-Oger, Chouilly, Avize, and Oger, in a large, 467 hl tank (a cuve in French) to make a constant supply of chardonnay.
These four grand crus each express something different. Together, they shape an iconic, HENRIOT-style champagne: finesse, elegance, complexity, and accuracy.
Every year, we take 3% to 20% from the tank to put the same amount back in from the four villages’ harvest from that year.
The concept may seem simple. However, the notion of blending is still essential because maintaining the balance of this champagne requires you to redefine the optimal blend each year to preserve the wine’s character and style. The wine that we add to the tank needs to enrich the existing blend without unbalancing it. The proportion of wines from that year that go into the composition of the tank is the result of the know-how of blending, which is important in the making of our style.
We only commercialize 1,000 magnums of Cuve 38 every year. The rest of the wine that has been taken from Cuve 38 is used as reserve wine in our non-vintage cuvées, which reinforces the inimitable character of HENRIOT’s style. Once again, mastering blending is important.
BC: Your House remains very discrete in its communication. Who is Champagne HENRIOT for?
GDL: Champagne HENRIOT is for lovers of great wines who look for emotion and pleasure, for informed consumers who have a taste for the fine things, for joie de vivre and who cultivate a form of hedonism.
Our products are for lovers who look for elegance in the meals that they eat and the wines that they drink, for people who try to live a joyous and elegant life.
That is exactly what friends of the family and Champagne HENRIOT can experience in our House, “Les Aulnois”, in Pierry. Adjoined to the sublime Côte des Blancs vineyards, it brings out the sense of perfection, balance, and harmony that architecture from the end of the 18th century is capable of expressing. It is a welcoming, luminous, and warm place marked by its elegance and simplicity.
To be fully consistent, Champagne HENRIOT is offered in gastronomic restaurants and chosen wine boutiques. We are not in the mass distribution trade.
BC: In your opinion, what is the word that best defines champagne?
GDL: Light. Drinking a great champagne is experiencing an illumination inside of you, in the senses and the mind.
BC: How does it feel to be the CEO of one the most beautiful Champagne Houses?
GDL: The infinite pleasure of carrying on our family’s history and the fierce desire of making sure that a ninth generation can keep it up.
BC: What would life be without champagne?
GDL: It would suffer from a cruel lack of extra soul and joy in the celebration of events and maybe comfort during difficult times.