Joseph Henriot, who died in 2015, was one of French wine’s most important figures. Born into a Champagne-producing family whose house was founded in 1808, he took over at Champagne Henriot in the 1960s, running it and Champagne Charles Heidsieck, which the family had also acquired, until both were sold to Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy in 1987. Joseph took up a role within LVMH and rose to become President of Veuve Clicquot. But in 1994 he took the decision to step down, buying back Champagne Henriot, and reuniting business with family. In the years that followed Henriot purchased important Burgundy domaines including the major négociant, Maison Bouchard, and William Fevre in Chablis.
Joseph inherited – or re-inherited – a Champagne house lacking in direction. Having been stripped of many of its viticultural assets by the previous owners, the house fulfilled its grape needs by purchasing fruit as required through long-term supply contracts with growers. Without the stability of estate-grown fruit, Joseph had to rely heavily on his Chef de Cave, or cellar master, to manage and create a house style.
Traditionally, the role of Champagne cellar master has been a silent one; changes of personnel occur with little fanfare. The consumer is often unaware of any change, while journalists wait patiently for the new Chef’s first constructions, which of course will not issue forth until several years later. And so it was when Laurent Fresnet (pictured) took over wine making duties at Henriot early in 2006.
Prior to Laurent’s arrival, the wines were, if I am honest, a bit hit and miss. A smattering of well-made Champagnes were interspersed with far too many average ones. However, thanks to Laurent’s thoughtful winemaking, quality at Champagne Henriot has finally headed in the right direction.
The last decade has seen improvements across the entire range. The non-vintage wines are consistently on-form, with their relatively long ageing on lees, balancing fruit, complexity and freshness. The vintage blanc and vintage rosé wines have also improved, and while still slightly oxidative in style, the full-on toffee aromas have been throttled back to a fresher, fruitier profile.
Laurent has been encouraged to innovate too, and a few years back the stunning ‘Cuvée 38’ Blanc de Blancs premiered. Drawn from a Réserve Perpétuelle (solera) of Côte des Blancs Chardonnay (begun in 1990), just one thousand magnums are released every year. This truly mesmerising cuvée avoids exaggerated oxidative tendencies that solera wines often possess, and is instead a fresh, creamy, spicily complex Champagne that maximises textural finesse. A perfect definition of the modern Henriot style, and testament to Laurent’s prowess as a wine maker.
Fairwell to Enchanteleurs
Like all Grandes Marques, Henriot want their tête de cuvée to be the best representation of their house style. When tasting the prestige cuvée, Enchanteleurs, side-by-side with its Henriot siblings however, it was apparent what an outlier it had become. Among the last of the grande marque prestige cuvées to be released (the current release is the 2000 vintage, disgorged after a whopping 17 years on lees), Enchanteleurs is a blend of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, produced from six Grand Cru villages. Historically, some releases have been delightfully complex and fresh, but many have been spoiled by acetaldehydes (a sherry like bouquet, that is the hallmark of oxidation).
An outlier indeed, but what to do?
Hemera (from Greek mythology) – “The personification and elemental goddess of the day”.
Even though the Enchanteleurs brand was certainly damaged, it wasn’t totally broken. And so, phoenix-like (continuing the mythological theme here), Hemera was born from the ashes.
Henriot have been quite open about the fact that this is an evolution rather than a revolution, and indeed, on paper, Hemera looks eerily similar to Enchantaleurs (identical blend from the same six grand cru villages), yet stylistically the wine is quite different.
Champagne is a wine created by a succession of subtle, complex processes and as such, the smallest of wine making decisions may have a profound effect. Instead of looking for aromatic development in the vins clair (still wines), Laurent has selected more neutral base wines for his blend, thus enabling better potential for development during autolysis and subsequent post-disgorgement aging. The wine is released a little earlier too, after a shorter period on lees, and freshness has returned to the fore.
Other wines tasted