BEST CHAMPAGNE had the pleasure to meet Laurent Fresnet, Chef de Caves of Champagne HENRIOT, one of those rare, independent Champagne Houses that have been family owned since inception.
Since its foundation in 1808 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.
Fresnet is a man with very clear ideas who insists on the importance of a close human relationship with the wine growers who supply the House. A constant dialogue ensures that he has the grapes he seeks and needs to perpetuate HENRIOT’s distinctive style, characterised by the dominance of Chardonnay in the blends.
With is own words Fresnet explains this style and the roles that both the terroirs used and the winemaking process play in it, to create fresh and elegant champagnes. Read on and enjoy.
Prior to joining Champagne HENRIOT, Laurent Fresnet worked in other wine regions around the world and in Champagne.
BEST CHAMPAGNE: You are from the Champagne region, studied oenology, and worked in several wine-growing regions before coming back to Champagne. What have you learned from these experiences?
LAURENT FRESNET: At the end of my university course, I went to New Zealand and South Africa to learn English. I also worked in Portugal to help Houses that were buying products from Champagne to make sparkling wines.
I then came back to the south of France, where I worked in winemaking for three years. As a result, I acquired experience with all three colors of wine: red, white, and rosé. It was very enriching.
In 1994, I came back to Champagne where I worked at the champagne producer Cazals in Le Mesnil-sur-Oger for seven years and then became Director at the cooperative La Vigneronne in Vertus for five years before joining the Maison HENRIOT.
In champagne, all Houses have different styles and the Cellar Masters, like myself, are responsible for that.
BC: How would you define the HENRIOT style?
LF: HENRIOT is minerality and freshness from the great terroirs, the fruitiness of the citrus fruits and, finally, the viennoiserie and the toasted aromas.
BC: You mention the use of great terroirs, not necessarily grands crus. Is it possible to make great champagnes without grands crus?
LF: Outside of the Champagne region, the effervescence is often more discussed than the terroir. However, the terroir is essential, with its 320 villages that represent as many crus as possible blends, as champagne is a blended wine, first and foremost.
We do not necessarily need grapes from villages classed grands crus to make great wines, however. Every year, terroirs that are not in grands crus produce exceptional results.
It is also a human blend. Our partners [who provide us with a large part of our grape supply] are involved in the final quality of our wines. We explain and discuss what we are looking for in order to guarantee a top-quality blend.
BC: HENRIOT is known for using a large proportion of Chardonnay in its cuvées. How does this grape variety link to the concept of terroir and to your style?
LF: The dominance of Chardonnay in our blends (up to 50%) is at the core of our style, with its natural freshness.
The choice of Chardonnay is historical and results from a marriage that brought a vineyard to the House that was built on the Côte des Blancs and on the north of the Reims Mountain, our House’s two great terroirs.
However, the grape variety is linked to its terroir, and we look to explain the best terroirs with the grape variety. There are terroirs like Vertus that were first planted with Pinot Noir and then became Chardonnay terroirs over time, where this grape variety is sumptuous.
BC: What role does vinification play in obtaining your style?
LF: We vinify all of the terroirs separately by grouping two or three villages that share some similarities.
Our wines are the expression of a terroir and for that, we vinify in a way that the terroir can best express itself. All of the vinifications are done in inox thermoregulated vats to prevent as many modifications due to external factors as possible, such as the use of wood, for example.
BC: And what role do reserve wines play?
LF: In 1990, Joseph Henriot (President of the House until 2015) wanted to make a reserve wine that was the very DNA of the House, by including Chardonnays from the best crus of the Côte des Blancs (Mesnil-sur-Oger, Chouilly, Avize and Oger) every year.
We, therefore, made a perpetual reserve of a rare and complex blend, 100% Chardonnay, 100% from grands crus.
We use this reserve wine in all of our non-vintage cuvées: Brut Souverain, Blanc de Blancs and Rosé Brut. The result is that these wines offer an extraordinary range of aromas.
However, since 2009 we’ve been also bottling 1,000 magnums every year from this reserve wine, that undergo a second fermentation and age in our cellars for five years and that we commercialize under the name Cuve 38. Cuve 38 currently contains the vintages from 1999 to 2009.
BC: You are from the Champagne region and are the Cellar Master of one of the most beautiful Houses. What do you feel?
LF: I am proud to work for Champagne HENRIOT. Everyone here is enthusiastic, motivated and impactful, which is what drives us forward. The goal is also to convey that enthusiasm to our customers through our champagnes. For me, it is a real pleasure.
BC: What is champagne to you? What would life without champagne be like?
LF: Champagne is in my DNA, and has been in that of my family for generations. As a child, I was always in the vineyards and cellars.
Life without champagne would be sad, with no bubbles. Champagne is always associated with something joyous, like births and parties.
A day without champagne is a day without sunlight.