Sébastien Le Golvet has been making champagne at Henri Giraud since 2000. An ambitious young man obsessed with details, he 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. Chatting, drinking and laughing with him at their stylish tasting table made of one single piece of oak from the Argonne forest, in a modern environment, and with nice electronic music on the background, was a refreshing approach to champagne tasting, very much in the spirit of this inventive house and family.
The Giraud-Hémart family has been living since the 17th century in Aÿ, a vine-growing village that already enjoyed a certain reputation. Aÿ 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 like a sponge), while 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 wines with black grapes, using a pressing method unique in the world. Pinot noir is therefore intrinsically part of Champagne, and Aÿ is a self-sufficient cru, whose wines don’t need to be blended with those of other villages.
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 from Aÿ), but all our wines bear the indisputable marks of Aÿ: chalk, salinity, menthol, anise.
We work with 10 ha that we own and with 15 ha belonging to family members and friends. We apply sustainable viticultural methods in our vineyard and are certified for High Environmental Value. Our philosophy is therefore to highlight the terroir. This approach also involves the use of oak barrels, which have always been used in Champagne and have participated in the fame of champagne.
Why the choice of oak, from the Argonne forest in particular?
We keep our wines on their lees, which are aroma precursors and antioxidants and fix free radicals, enriching the wine. The oak barrel, with its small size (228 l), promotes the contact with the lees. The Argonne forest, which lies between Champagne and the Vosges mountains, wasn’t 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 slowly, with 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 terroir of Aÿ toward 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. Within this framework, large stainless-steel tanks replaced barrels. But we think that great wines can only be vinified in small containers: the smaller the container, the higher the exchange with the lees.
In the 1980s, we started working with wooden barrels and in the 1990s, we became interested in the Argonne forest. We quickly realized that there were different soils in this forest that also impacted 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.
We also looked for other alternatives to stainless steel vats for the vinification and for the aging of our wines, like concrete ogives, a shape that permits maximum exchange with the lees. Concrete was a viable solution, although it is 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.
How does each material impact the expression of the terroir of Aÿ?
Stainless steel is very neutral. In oak, pinot noir expresses all its fruits but always with this minerality and this extraordinary iodine taste, and a different finish in the mouth.
In oak, pinot noir expresses all its fruits but always with this minerality and this extraordinary iodine taste, and a different finish in the mouth.
The concrete ogive, with its particular shape, lends body to the wine and brings out the chalk, the minerality and the anise, but chalk dominates. The terracotta ogive, unlike the sandstone ogive that is a neutral material, brings out bitterness (note: 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). This 30-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 small one like yours?
Claude Giraud 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 ask ourselves is “why, how, and with whom will we drink it?” In our range, we have champagnes to be carefully savored and others to be consumed in festive contexts, but the basic idea is always enjoying the moment and wanting a second glass. Therefore 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.
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 vine’s management and in the winemaking. That’s why we work as closely as possible with our suppliers. We explain our work to them, what we expect from them, and where we want to go.
After pressing the grapes, we perform cold settling of the must for two to three days, working with all the lees as 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 good champagne is not so complicated, but making great champagne in difficult years is not that simple. This is when the terroir and the winemaker’s work are really rewarding. 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.
The smallest champagne producer can make industrial wine while a large house can make artisanal wine.
What is your approach to dosage?
Dosage is part of champagne and without sugar, champagne wouldn’t exist. Wines with no dosage are for technicians and wine is not made for technicians, but for people looking 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 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 the pesticide residues, proving the safety of our wines. In this analysis, you will find just very tiny traces of two anti-botrytis, which we do not use and that are contaminations from the surroundings, yet they are only present in amounts far below the legal limits. We do not use herbicides, insecticides or anti-botrytis in our vineyard.
We do not use herbicides, insecticides or anti-botrytis in our vineyard.
To achieve this result, we use sustainable soil amendment and undergo permanent weeding in our entire vineyard. By carefully stripping the vines of their leaves, we limit the need for chemicals, and 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 took over the management of the house in the 1980s the production was 100,000 bottles a year; today it is 250,000. Although we distribute our champagnes 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. We work a lot with Michelin-starred restaurants and the fans of Henri Giraud are probably the most demanding wine connoisseurs in the world.
We might be able 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 Champagne AOC protects us because it forces us to have reserve wines to overcome the climatic hazards of our region. The obsession of 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 ha 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, 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 greatest drinkers of Henri Giraud champagne, and I never get tired of it.
What is champagne for you?
Wine is a social bond that unites us, that’s its main function. 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 champagne to be in line with the moment: each moment has its champagne.
Champagne is a key to discover the other, to break the barriers and to go a little further to get to know each other.