Interview with Sébastien Le Golvet Chef de cave of HENRI GIRAUD

BEST CHAMPAGNE had the pleasure of interviewing Sebastien Le Golvet, Chef de Cave of HENRI GIRAUD, a high-quality boutique Champagne House that has achieved great fame with its powerful wines full of taste, and has built a solid reputation as a conscious winemaker.

Sebastien Le Golvet Chef De Cave of Henri Giraud Champagne

Sebastien Le Golvet has been Chef De Cave of HENRI GIRAUD since 2000

The founding family, the Giraud-Hémart, were growers who, like many others, decided to produce their own champagne in the postwar period.

However, when visionary and strong-willed Claude Giraud took the reins from his father Henri in 1983, he decided to bring the family business to a new level.

By looking at the past of the champagne business and leveraging on it to redefine its future, it has created a Maison with a very strong identity, based on the terroir of Aÿ grand cru where they are based, the Pinot Noir grape, and the unapologetic intense use of wooden barrel from the Argonne forest, something unique in Champagne today.

The results are full-bodied champagnes, with a distinctive salinity, which are particularly appreciated in Asia where they are said to perfectly match the umami taste that is often present in Asian dishes.

The author of these wines of marked personality, Golvet, is an ambitious and hardworking young man who is laser-focused and committed to a never-ending quest for excellence.

He does so by continuously researching and experimenting with the details of the whole champagne making process, to provide HENRI GIRAUD aficionados with the greatest enjoyment.

By reading this interview you will not only understand what makes HENRI GIRAUD champagnes so sought-after, but also how they are the expression of individuals’ idea of pleasure: that of the Giraud-Hémart family of which Golvet is a member.

Read on and enjoy with a glass of HENRI GIRAUD, ideally of Code Noir cuvée if you ask us; you might be as surprised as we were!

HENRI GIRAUD is a boutique Champagne House intimately connected to the terroir of Aÿ, planted mainly with Pinot Noir, and well-known for the use of oak barrels from the Argonne forest. What are the origins of these choices?

The Giraud-Hémart family has been living since the 17th century in Aÿ, a vine growing village that already had a certain reputation at that time.

Aÿ Grand Cru is an exceptional terroir, facing south on a steep slope, where grapes roast under the sun. On its very poor chalky soil the vine suffers, but without water problems (water is provided by the chalk that acts as a sponge), and the Marne river brings its fresh currents.

Aÿ has historically been planted with Pinot Noir, a grape that arrived in Champagne from Burgundy, well before Chardonnay did.

The people of Champagne had the genius to make white wine with a black grape, using a pressing method unique in the world at the time. Pinot Noir is therefore intrinsically part of Champagne.

Aÿ is a self-sufficient cru, whose wines don’t need to be blended with those of other villages. Here we can produce champagnes from a single terroir, such as Code Noir (100% Pinot Noir Aÿ Grand Cru).

All our wines bear the indisputable marks of Aÿ: chalk, salinity, menthol, anise.

We also use Chardonnays from the Montagne de Reims and produce blends of several crus like our cuvée Esprit, and our Blanc de Blancs with 55% Chardonnay from Aÿ.

We work with 10 hectares that we own and with 15 hectares belonging to family members and friends. We apply sustainable viticultural methods in our vineyard and are certified for high environmental value – HVE (the highest environmental certification assigned by the French Ministry of Agriculture).

Our philosophy is therefore to highlight the terroir. This approach also involves the use of wooden barrels, which have always been used in Champagne and have participated in the fame of champagne.

Why the choice of wood, from the Argonne forest in particular?

We keep our wines on their lees, which are aroma precursors and antioxidants and fix free radicals. The oak barrel, with its small size (228 l), promotes the contact with the lees that enrich the wine.

The Argonne forest, which lies between Champagne and the Vosges mountains wasn’t really managed until the 17th century when it was utilized to supply the French navy.

Its woods are the most historic of Champagne. They are very dense and very solid. Its soil consists of gaize, a siliceous rock of sedimentary origin on which the oaks grow very slowly, with very tight mesh (of fiber), thus reducing the release of ellagitannins (a class of tannins). As a result, there is little exchange between oak and wine.

We use the Argonne forest to accompany the Aÿ terroir towards excellence and bring out its typical minerality.

We abandoned the use of stainless steel tanks in 2016, but it is not a question of denying what we did, but rather looking for details to improve.

Why did you give up stainless steel?

From the 1950s, Champagne industrialized and shifted from working in a traditional way to producing champagne with modern tools that are easier to work with. As a result of this shift, barrels got replaced by large stainless steel tanks.

But we think that great wines can only be vinified in small containers: the smaller the container, the higher the exchange with the lees.

When we looked for an alternative to stainless steel vats for the vinification and for the aging of our wines, we started to work with concrete ogives, a shape that permits maximum exchange with the lees.

Concrete was a viable solution although it was not a noble material. So we tried terracotta but the results were not in line with our expectations: the wine lacked finesse and substance. So we tested sandstone, very neutral, with a clay skin from the Argonne Forest.

In the 80s we started working with wooden barrels and in the 90s, we became interested in the Argonne forest. We quickly realized that there were different soils in this forest that also had an impact on the wine.

Following the profile of the harvest, I order my merrandiers (producers of wood pieces used in barrels) woods from specific plots of the Argonne forest.

Then I toast the barrels with my coopers, according to my taste. From one plot to another the toasting will be different. All this requires total commitment and great mastery.

But we do not just work with new wooden barrels. As long as there is an interesting interaction between wood and wine we will use them.

How does each material impact the expression of the terroir of Aÿ?

Stainless steel is very neutral.

The concrete ogive, with its particular shape, lends body to the wine and brings out the chalk, the minerality and the anise, but remains dominated by the chalk.

The terracotta ogive, unlike the sandstone ogive which is a neutral material, brings out the bitterness (note: the terracotta vats are fired at 900 ° C).

The thickness of the sandstone ogive is interesting compared to the very thin stainless steel tank where the slightest change in temperature “tires” the wine, especially in large vats. In this material we find all the characteristics of Aÿ: chalk, menthol, anise and the salinity, a distinctive element of all great wines (note: sandstone ogives are fired between 1200 and 1300 ° C).

With the oak barrel, Pinot Noir expresses all its fruits but always with this minerality and this extraordinary iodine taste. The wood is also more austere with a finish in the mouth totally different from the others.

This 28 years long exercise led us to replace the stainless steel tanks with sandstone ogives.

What is the philosophy behind your winemaking? Is there a different approach between a large Champagne House that produces millions of bottles per year and a smaller one like yours?

Claude Giraud really taught me the philosophy of wine, the how and why. Wine is a social bond, it’s a moment of sharing and pleasure. When we make wine, the first question we must ask ourselves is why, how, and with whom will we drink it?

In our range we have champagnes meant to be carefully savored and others that are meant to be consumed in festive contexts, but the basic idea is always enjoying the moment and wanting a second glass.

This is why champagne is first and foremost a wine that must have balance and finesse, keeping in mind that our wines also have a lot of body and salinity.

Our motto “Preclude nothing, be bound by nothing, make good wine naturally”, is a good reflection of our identity and our approach, which is that of making the right choices at the right time in the management of the vine and in winemaking.

That’s why we work as closely as possible with our suppliers. We explain our work to them, what we expect from them, our commitment and where we want to go. To do this, our path must be perfect.

After pressing the grapes, we perform a cold settling of the must for 2 to 3 days which allows us to work with all the lees. We do not rack our wines after the first fermentation. We intervene very little on the wine, at the right moment.

We aim for perfection, which requires total commitment and time. Wine doesn’t have moods: you pay for all the mistakes, so you must always be attentive and alert.

Today making a good champagne is not so complicated but making a great champagne in difficult years is not that simple. This is when the terroir and the winemaker’s work are really rewarded.

The smallest champagne producer can make industrial wine while a large House can make artisanal wine. The search for details makes the difference. It is a question of commitment and will to make great wines.

What is your approach to dosage?

Dosage is part of champagne and without sugar, champagne would not exist. Wines with no dosage are for technicians and wine is not made for technicians, but for people looking first and foremost for pleasure and for sharing moments.

You relaunched your Brut non-vintage champagne, Esprit Nature, in early 2018 with a label that indicates the absence of pesticides in this wine. How did you achieve this?

We are very sensitive to the idea of pesticide residues in our wines. We do not use herbicides, insecticides or anti-botrytis in our vineyard.

On the label of this champagne, there is a flash code that lets you discover our House and access the molecular analysis of pesticide residues, thereby proving the safety of our wines.

In this analysis, you will find just very tiny traces of two anti-botrytis, which we actually do not use and that are contaminations from the surroundings, yet, they are only present in amounts that are far below the legal limits.

To achieve this result, we use sustainable soil amendment and undergo permanent weeding in all our vineyard.

By carefully stripping the vines of their leaves, we limit the need for chemicals. In addition, we obtain grape berries richer in anthocyanins that bring body and aromatic intensity to the wine. The berries are also more resistant to damage during transportation to the pressing center.

All these details contribute to the quality of our wines. We always try to work in the most sensible way.

What are your growth ambitions?

When Claude Giraud, son of Henri Giraud, took over the management of the House in the 80s the production was 100,000 bottles a year; today it is 250,000.

Although our champagnes are distributed in just 30 countries, there are HENRI GIRAUD fans all around the world. We are particularly appreciated in Asia where consumers who understand our history, our vision, our terroir and know-how, are always looking for details, just like us. In fact, the HENRI GIRAUD fans are probably the most demanding wine connoisseurs in the world.

We work a lot with Michelin-starred restaurants.

We might have the capacity to produce 100,000 more bottles a year but this is not in our current vision. We focus on details, and it would be difficult for us to grow in volume. We prefer to do very little, and do it very well.

My only obsession as Chef de Cave is excellence and for that I am involved in the whole production process of our champagnes.

How do you see the future of champagne and Champagne?

Champagne remains the leader in sparkling wines, with its unique history and terroir. The designation of origin of champagne protects us because it forces us to have reserve wines to overcome the climatic hazards of our region.

The obsession of Champagne HENRI GIRAUD for quality and excellence is reflected in our prices and I do not think that these are a limit to the development of champagne. However, not every producer will be able to increase its prices.

Our vision is centered on our House and we bet on its future. We have already planted 7 hectares of oaks in the Argonne forest that show our long-term commitment.

We shouldn’t spare or hold back anything in our efforts, and I am convinced that within 20 years, Champagne will have continued to evolve in a constructive way that is one of a constant search for diversity, so as not to always make the same wines.

I also think that in 30 years, the consumers’ demand will be different and that’s what makes champagne making interesting.

Does producing champagne reduce the pleasure in tasting?

Certainly not! Every night we open at least one bottle of champagne with my wife. I’m probably one of the people who drink more HENRI GIRAUD champagne in the world and I never get tired of it.

What is champagne for you?

Wine is a social bond, which unites us, that’s its main function.

Within this framework, champagne is a key to discover the other, to break the barriers and to go a little further to get to know each other. This requires the wine to be in line with the moment: each moment has its champagne.

468 ad