|Interview with Thomas & Joseph Henriot|
BestChampagne had the pleasure of interviewing Thomas and Joseph Henriot from HENRIOT Champagne. Both son and father, represent the family owned and managed House that has earned a reputation for quality and excellence for over 200 years.
Thomas Henriot is President and the seventh generation continuing the Henriot tradition. His father, Joseph Henriot, is a decorated veteran as President and Director of large luxury brand groups. Yet, his passion with Henriot is focused solely on achieving a refined quality in Henriot Champagnes.
Together, they work to maintain the purity and perfection in each cuvée in order to create ‘craftsman luxury’ champagnes.
BestChampagne: What is the history of Henriot, one of the oldest Champagne Houses? How does this affect the style of your House?
Thomas Henriot: The Henriot family arrived in Reims between 1620-1650 and began to take an interest in wine and champagne. Champagne Henriot was founded in 1808. Henriot has since remained a family House, which is becoming increasingly rare in Champagne and is a real great asset to us. We take the time to develop our wines, to assemble our cuvées, to bring them to maturity: this is the result of our family tradition. I call this, ‘handcrafted emotions.’
Joseph Henriot: I took over the House Henriot when I lost my father at age 20. At the time, Henriot was not developing much and I aided in the drive for advancement. Meanwhile, I sold the House de Venoge and the Charles Heidsieck House [Charles Heidsieck today belongs to the EPI Group.]
I was president of Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin for 8 years and one of the Directors of Louis Vuitton at the same time. I left the LVMH group and refocused on the Henriot brand because I believe that large groups involved within this sector of champagne, contributes to the success of champagne, but deviates the focus from champagne to something more industrial.
I think our product is incompatible with the notion of industrial mass production. In keeping with my family and with Thomas, we decided to focus our efforts on the preparation of champagne as a craftsman luxury. We are not looking for mass production; rather our aim is to make things perfectly and carefully, with high quality grapes.
We produce 1.2 to 1.3 million bottles per year, which is quite small. Our focus is perfection on a relatively small volume.
BC: What characterizes the style of your House and your champagne?
TH: We are a family House that has been fiercely independent for over 200 years. We master excellence and scarcity with elegance and delicacy.
What characterizes Henriot is our capacity to focus on making wine before making champagne. This is achieved by a conscientious selection of grapes. We strive to choose the ones from the most qualitative crus and parcels in Champagne. We know the best places in the Côte des Blancs for chardonnay and the Montagne de Reims for pinot noir, which are the backbone of champagne together with a hint of pinot meunier.
BC: You do not use any pinot meunier in your wines?
TH: The two grape verities identifying champagne identity are the pinot noir and chardonnay, blended together. At our House, we always had a particular fondness and strong attachment to the great wines derived from chardonnay grapes. This is because Côte de Blancs (where most of chardonnay is grown in Champagne) is at the heart of the identity of our wines.
We have always succumbed to the elegance of the wines made from chardonnay from the Côte de Blancs because of the freshness, delicateness, which we strive for at Champagne Henriot. When properly vinified, assembled and aged, they become pure, fresh, delicate and fine -what Henriot champagne is meant to be.
We include a bit of pinot meunier in the Brut Souverain cuvée, in small quantities that provides a light touch of exoticism. In the history of champagne, pinot meunier was not a leading element of the champagne varieties. With that said, there has been a lot of progress made in recent years on its vinification and its capacity to give more interesting results today rather than 30 or 40 years.
BC: Why this attention for chardonnay?
TH: We believe that in today's world, you can make wine in many places. The evidence is that chardonnay is successfully cultivated worldwide. Having said that, there are few places where this variety gives grapes and wines of absolute uniqueness.
Northern France combines a unique climate with chalky soil that results in a chardonnay that when properly cultivated results in a grape of great nobility.
BC: Why is champagne superior to other sparkling wines? Is its renowned freshness (acidity) necessary to make a great wine?
TH: Champagne has something that other wines will probably never have. One of the key features is the longevity of champagne, related to its reduction-oxidation potential. This is related to the amount of acidity, which results from environmental conditions (climate, chalky soil, etc.). The challenge is to marry well the acidity in the wines and the expertise of the wine making.
BC: Do you think that the quality is sufficient in itself for the commercial success of a Champagne House or does it need the accompaniment of a strong brand and/or wide distribution?
TH: In the long term there is little doubt that the quality is the key for success.
JH: Quality is the fundamental necessary condition but not a solely sufficient condition. Beyond that, it is of course marketing and distribution efforts to really become a major brand. Having been president of Veuve Clicquot, I know the extent to which a strong international brand permits fast expansion.
However, I am convinced, in the long term, that our family group will continue to exist by never disappointing a single consumer. I know that we will never be a large group like LVMH -it is not our goal. We want to have a circle of customers who are convinced of what we do, and are never disappointed.
I knew very well Jean-Louis Dumas, the President of Hermès who was one of my very good friends and he told his colleagues: "at Hermès, a disappointed customer in a thousand, it's a disaster for Hermès" and well, we apply the same method. It is the pursuit of perfection.
BC: At Henriot your aim is elegance in your champagnes. What do you think of extra-brut champagnes and the trend for lower dosage?
TH: Our family has never succumbed to the charms of extra-brut champagnes. We add sugar (dosage) to our champagnes at up to 8g per liter, which is not very much.
JH: Elegance comes first from the consideration of time needed to produce a great wine. Secondly, a terrific selection of grapes is needed and we know the best vineyards of Champagne. We then add a little dosage, just a little to create a perfect harmony.
BC: Right now, you are producing around 1.3 million bottles per year. In the future would you be looking to increase price or production?
JH: We are looking for a good balance. Our focus is on customer satisfaction and therefore, around 1.5 million bottles per year with a reasonable price to customers seems like a healthy balance. A luxury Champagne House should not abuse their fame as some of the most prominent Houses have.
Yet, at the same time they have opened the doors to markets abroad such as: the United States, England, Japan and recently China and Australia. We respect their work, they opened doors that we would have been completely unable to.
BC: Where are most of the Henriot customers found?
JH: In Paris and the Paris region, Japan, the U.S., Italy, classic champagne markets in England and also in Canada -but with still plenty of markets to introduce.
BC: Is champagne your favorite wine?
TH: Yes, definitely. My earliest memories are when my father took me by the hand when I was a child in the vineyard, saying: "Thomas it is harvest time, I must show you." He then took me to the press and I remember we took small glasses, he said, "you have to taste the juice from the press; first press, second press, you need to understand, you have to see." Then after, we went to the crayère (chalk quarries where champagne bottles are stored and aged.) “You must see the vines, you must know the press; you have to see how grapes become juice..." Since then, champagne, c’est la vie!
BC: What would you think life would be without champagne?
TH: An infinite sadness (smiles)!
Follow the link to discover HENRIOT champagnes: http://www.bestchampagne.co/houses/henriot