Gilles de Larouzière was appointed president of Henriot in 2015, representing the eighth generation of the family at the helm of the house. He 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. In this interview, he guides you through the key moments in the house’s history that have most shaped its identity, and explains Henriot’s idea of champagne that is expressed in its distinctive style.
Henriot is one of the few large family-run Champagne houses. What does that mean?
The world of family-run Champagne houses is a very small circle because although champagne is a luxury product, it hasn’t always been lucrative. During the crisis of the 1930s, when the champagne market had completely collapsed, champagne making was a terrible business. In the successive economic crisis, 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.
Our Champagne house is supported by a family who has maintained its passion for this activity and who has given talents the possibility to express themselves.
Careful management, despite the flamboyance associated with champagne, is very important: the storage and aging of wines, and development abroad, require sizeable capital investment. You must find a balance between ambition and reason. Our Champagne house, the matrix of the group Maison et Domaines Henriot, 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 chef de cave and our crop manager only receive one instruction: make the best. You need to give these talented individuals the means to create the most beautiful wines. I am committed to making sure that the family members feel the absolute conviction that our wines reflect our family’s values perfectly.
What are the values at the heart of your family that you transmit with your champagnes and brand?
We look to evoke a world of elegance, culture, refinement, and joie de vivre, values that we hold dear.
We look to evoke a world of elegance, culture, refinement, and joie de vivre, values that we hold dear. We also have an incoercible spirit of independence, of freedom, that runs in our veins. My grandfather, Etienne, who betted on continuing the champagne adventure, even though all the economic signs from the crisis of the 1930s and WW2 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, a great deal of audacity and a strong sense of transmission to believe in and keep this activity going.
We also believe in the respect between family members, our employees, and the vine growers whom we work with. Some of them have brought their grapes to us for generations, transforming our professional relationship almost to that of a family.
What role does the brand play in the success of a Champagne house?
We look to evoke a world of elegance, culture, refinement, and joie de vivre, values that we hold dear.
The brand is very important in champagne, especially when that brand expresses the values of a family, as in our case. However, you need to make sure that a house is more than just a brand and that it expresses true know-how. The notion of brand is a disembodied concept in itself. What establishes and legitimizes the brand, what adds value to it, is the house’s history and know-how and the family’s values on which it is established.
When one goes too far in marketing, one develops an imaginary universe around a name that is sometimes far from the underlying reality. For me, the brand should express something imaginary that is the emanation of the house’s reality. In the case of 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.
Who is champagne Henriot for?
Henriot is for lovers of great wines who look for emotion and pleasure, who have a taste for the finer things, for joie de vivre and who cultivate hedonism.
Henriot is for lovers of great wines who look for emotion and pleasure, for educated consumers who have a taste for the finer things, for joie de vivre and who cultivate hedonism. Our products are for lovers who look for elegance and authenticity in their way of life, people who give importance to brands that demonstrate a real engagement toward them (through quality for example) and toward the community (through environmental and sustainability issues).
That is exactly what the friends of our family and house can experience in our mansion Les Aulnois, in Pierry. Adjoined to the sublime vineyards of the Côte des Blancs, it expresses the sense of perfection, balance, and harmony that the architecture from the end of the 18th century is capable of. It is a welcoming, luminous, and warm place marked by its elegance and simplicity.
To be fully consistent with this identity, our champagnes are offered in gastronomic restaurants and select wine shops. We do not commercialize our wines in large retail stores.
Henriot is known for using large amounts of chardonnay in its blends. Why did you make that choice? How would you define the resulting style?
History has given us a very large vineyard in all the great terroirs of Champagne. Our history here begins with husband and wife Nicolas and Apolline Henriot, drapers from the Lorraine region, settling in Reims. These wine aficionados began to build a small vineyard around the city. When Nicolas died, Apolline, who was passionate about this activity, and maybe to grow the memory of her late husband, invested in the development of champagne and established the Maison Veuve Aînée Henriot in 1808, which has since become Henriot. She immediately understood the importance of exports.
Then, in 1880, Paul Henriot married Marie Marget who brought a magnificent chardonnay vineyard in her wedding basket, heavily marking our style, and our corporate culture, very close to the vineyard.
The style of Henriot is one of balance and elegance: not too vinous, not too sparkling.
Our style results from the influence of women, chardonnay, and a family connected to culture, good living, and hedonism with good taste. I would say the style of Henriot is one of balance and elegance: not too vinous, not too sparkling. To make great champagne, you must first make great wines. To do that, virtuosity in blending is essential, similar to a painter’s ability to play with light, colors and nuances, or musical notes for a musician.
You underline the importance of the vineyard and the blending. What is the role of each in creating your style?
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 variables gives the characteristics to the wine made on that terroir. Certain terroirs will give a wine with aromas of red fruit, or black fruits, others will give aromas of citrus fruit, and others will give exotic aromas. But you need to project those terroirs onto the style of the house. That is why you need to accurately control and deeply understand the terroirs and their distinctive personalities, and have supplies of great grapes, which means from vine growers who work excellently.
The second component is the assemblage. The chef de cave is a virtuoso, an exceptional craftsman who works with subtlety, precision, and a real artistic sense. Forty to 60 different wines end up in the composition of our Brut Souverain. Some 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. The finesse and complexity that are found in all our wines allow us to create an emotion, a feeling, a pleasure: that of Champagne Henriot.
The third component is time. We consider that we need to wait at least three or four years for good champagne to mature, even if the regulations only impose 15 months, which isn’t enough. The great pinots and chardonnays develop finesse and phenomenal aromatic complexity over time. It’s very important in the making of our champagne.
If blending allows houses to better express their style, a trend, especially among growers, is to make less blended and more single-parcel champagnes that express a specific terroir. What is your opinion on the matter?
The variety of terroirs and grape varieties is incredibly rich in Champagne. Together, they make an incredibly diverse palette. Knowing them, with precision, understanding their distinctive personality, having the vision of what each one can bring is essential. In this, it is often very interesting to taste single-parcel champagnes.
I strongly believe that the notion of assemblage is fundamental to the Champagne region–it is our unparalleled and iconic know-how.
Nevertheless, I strongly believe that the notion of assemblage is fundamental to the Champagne region–it is our unparalleled and iconic know-how. Let’s look at our Cuve 38 champagne for example. This unique project started in 1990 when we began building a perpetual reserve to make a constant supply of chardonnay in a 467 hl tank (a cuve in French). These chardonnays originate from four grands crus in the Côte des Blancs: Le Mesnil-sur-Oger, Chouilly, Avize, and Oger and are kept together in the tank. We commercialized the first magnums made from this blend of chardonnays in 2014, in which each grand cru expresses something different, and together, they shape an iconic, Henriot-style champagne with finesse, elegance, complexity, and accuracy.
Every year, we take 3% to 20% from the tank to produce this unusual champagne and put back in the same amount of wines from the harvest of that year of the four crus. The concept seems simple, however, careful blending is still essential because maintaining the balance of this champagne requires us to redefine the optimal blend each year to preserve the wine’s character and style. The wines that we add to the tank need to enrich the existing blend without unbalancing it. The proportion of wines from that year that go into the tank results from our blending know-how, 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 our style. Once again, mastering blending is crucial.
What is the word that best defines champagne to you?
Drinking great champagne is experiencing an illumination inside of you, in the senses and the mind.
Light. Drinking great champagne is experiencing an illumination inside of you, in the senses and the mind.
How does it feel to be the president of one of the great family-owned Champagne houses?
I feel the infinite pleasure and pride of carrying on our family’s history and the fierce desire of making sure that the ninth and tenth generation can keep it up.
What would life be like without champagne?
It would suffer from a cruel lack of extra soul and joy in the celebration of events, and also comfort in difficult times. Champagne is part of all our moments of life.