I am waiting in the well-appointed sitting room of the impeccably maintained Château Les Aulnois in Pierry, just outside Epernay. The historic manor house, dating back to 1778 (and pictured above) belongs to Henriot, one of Champagne’s few remaining family-owned houses – indeed, one that has remained in the same family’s hands since its foundation in 1808. But history is not what has brought me here today. Rather, I am here to survey a new era, after the long and turbulent reign of Joseph Henriot.
I am welcomed by Henriot’s nephew, and the family’s eighth-generation incumbent Gilles de Larouzière, who eventually took over the running of Maisons & Domaines Henriot after his uncle’s death in 2015 (with Joseph Henriot’s son Thomas stepping aside). As we taste the house’s Brut Souverain in magnum, its impeccable pedigree and quality only reinforces my constant surprise at how poorly known the house remains. There is, though, a complex backstory behind this.
Joseph Henriot, the house’s late 20th-century powerhouse, was a busy man. Much of that business, however, related to other Champagne brands. First, in 1976, there was the purchase of Charles Heidsieck, which he sold a decade later to Remy Martin. Immediately after that, he exchanged Champagne Henriot’s magnificent estate of 125ha for 11% of Veuve Clicquot stock and a role with the house, which morphed into a post on the LVMH board. It was a role so consuming that the family brand received less of his attention. And even when, in 1994, Joseph Henriot bought the brand back – minus the vineyards – he immediately went about expanding into Burgundy, via the purchase of such notable wineries as Bouchard Père & Fils and William Fèvre. It’s fair to say that he had his hands full.
‘From 1976 onwards, Joseph had Charles Heidsieck’s problems to solve,’ de Larouzière says. ‘And then, of course, at Veuve Clicquot the stakes were very high, so the job demanded his full energy.’ De Larouzière goes on to make a comparison with Ruinart, a house with which he says Henriot was on a par in the 1980s but which kept on rising while Henriot stood still – at least from a communications point of view. ‘The international markets especially were ignored,’ he opines.
The engaging Tétienne brings a sense of energy and focus that has been missing in previous years
There were, though, other reasons why the house disappeared from view. ‘It has never been in the family spirit to put ourselves to the fore,’ de Larouzière continues. ‘But we realise now that we are also a brand, and we need to shine.’
In 2020, de Larouzière recruited Alice Tétienne – one of Champagne’s growing crop of young, female cellar masters – from Krug, where she had been responsible for grower relations and was a member of the tasting committee. Today, the Henriot spotlight is very much focused on Tétienne.
This is, at last, the era of the female chef de cave, with the likes of Krug, Duval-Leroy, Joseph Perrier and Ayala all showcasing female figureheads. For Henriot, the engaging Tétienne brings a sense of energy and focus that has been missing in previous years. She is not, though, about to rip up the Henriot rule book. ‘Our house represents Champagne classicism,’ she says, confidently. ‘Our style is a combination of freshness and generosity. Time is a friend here, and we really take time in crafting our Champagnes.’
The Henriot wines are notable for enjoying particularly long lees ageing, and Tétienne was fortunate to be left a cellar boasting a laudable collection of reserve wines by her predecessor, Laurent Fresnet. As a result, she has no intention of overhauling this style but is keen to fine-tune the quality and increase the precision of the wines. Much of her focus will be on the raw materials. ‘The next steps will be made in the vineyards,’ she says. The house is working resolutely towards organic viticulture – something that is not made any easier by having to rely on such a wide array of suppliers.
With Joseph Henriot having traded many of the house’s vineyards to Veuve Clicquot, its own holdings now total a modest 36ha, representing a fifth of the overall supply. The house sources grapes from 76 growers and 171 different plots across 25 different villages, with Côte de Blancs Chardonnay and Montagne de Reims Pinot Noir forming the backbone. Very little Meunier is used.
Chardonnay dominating at Henriot is a trait that can be traced back to the 1880 marriage of Paul Henriot to Marie Marguet, who brought with her great Chardonnay plots on the Côte des Blancs. The variety was very much cherished by Joseph Henriot, who started blending the best into one tank, number 38, which became a reserve wine to be added to Henriot’s non-vintage Champagnes to enforce the house DNA. Eventually, he came up with the idea of bottling this special blend, and in 2007, a blend of 17 harvests from the villages of Le Mesnil-sur-Oger, Chouilly, Avize and Oger gave birth to Cuve 38, which received its inaugural release in 2014. Produced only in magnums, 1,000 decadently rich and flavourful examples are now released each year.
A small amount of the Cuve 38 blend still makes its way into Henriot’s non-vintage Brut Souverain, which contains at least one wine from each of the 25 villages from which the house sources, along with 30% reserve wines for an extra degree of richness and complexity. The result is a palate-pleasing, attractively toasty and age-complexed non-vintage wine.
But it is Henriot’s older, vintage cuvées that will truly excite any wine lover. Fortunately, and as if to prove the point, Henriot recently brought to market its Mémoires collection of three old, recently disgorged vintages from the family cellars. In addition to the very fine 1981 and 1971, there are 48 magnums of the majestic 1959 Cuvée des Enchanteleurs (Henriot’s prestige cuvée, since renamed Cuvée Hemera) in magnum. It is an age-defying beauty that is the best possible testament to Henriot quality.
For de Larouzière, the release encapsulates the house’s raison d’être. ‘It is not just our duty but our pleasure to share these Champagnes with Champagne lovers,’ he says. ‘For us, Champagne is a great wine, and vintages are the diary of our family history.’ It is a history that has not been without its challenges, but the house seems determined to continue along its classical path. ‘Henriot is not going to go after the lifestyle bubbles thing,’ says de Larouzière. Don’t expect him to take on any posts with rival brands any time soon, either…
Find wines to try from Champagne Henriot in the winter issue of Club Oenologique magazine