A trip to the Champagne Maison

Unveiling the newest member of Champagne Henriot’s cellar, the Cuvée Hemera

Article by Jo Gregory

Too often we think of champagne as an aperitif, the drink served on the lawn post wedding ceremony, the glass of bubbles before dinner; the precursor to the main event. However, sampling Champagne Henriot’s newest addition to grace their collection has changed the way I’ll drink Champagne forever.

We begin our trip via the Eurostar. There is something romantic about traversing countries by train. The carriage was a hive of activity with the Champagne corks of hen-do’s and rowdy day trips popping away. After our change in Paris we arrive at Reims and head straight to Henriot’s headquarters to have a champagne tasting and tour.

We met with Laurent Fresnet, the award-winning cellar master for an overview of Henriot’s collection. Laurent joined the tightknit family in time for the 2005 harvest and has gone on to win awards for his magnificent work, taking home the International Wine Challenge “Sparkling Winemaker of the Year” in both 2015 and 2016. As the son of a winegrower his devotion to the role is infectious. He says if he was not a cellar master, he would be a baker. His passion for blending flavours is clear to see and he has refined Henriot’s house style to perfection.

After our tasting we head 18 metres below to the cellar. Eight kilometres of aging champagne line the tunnelled walls. We all hurriedly search for our birth year, navigating the dimly lit maze in the cellar’s 12-degree humidity. Just over one and a quarter million bottles of champagne are produced here year on year and the boutique, close knit family feel to the business shines through. There’s no corporate marketing push or gimmicks found with larger champagne companies, Henriot’s reputation results in devotion amongst its consumers. Laurent treats us to a vintage 1985 bottle of cuvee, casually disgorging the bottle before our very eyes. Disgorgement is a traditional process in champagne making, a plastic pellet in the neck of the bottle collects the yeast, its then frozen before removal. Watching this performance is a rare treat. As is the bottle we are sharing, especially as much of the crop was badly damaged during the region’s 1985 frost.

After our afternoon of tasting and tours we head to the hotel to freshen up. We’re staying at the Best Western hotel. Somehow, even the French know how to make a Best Western cool, how do they do it? Our party of six then head to Henriot’s signature house. Built in 1778, the Maison known as Les Aulnois is the beating heart of the family, nestled deep in the foothills of ancient Chardonnay slopes in the village of Pierry. We take a walk around the walled gardens and marvel at the building’s orange brickwork, the colour of which has now made its way subtly into the brand’s redesign. The house is a traditional French château with hand painted wall paper and typical antique window shutters, it makes for a perfect and intimate place for hosting.

Henriot roots in the region date back in 16th century when the family first settled in the Champagne. However, it wasn’t until the late 17th century and the coming together of two powerhouses, that the brand began its journey. Nicolas Simon Henriot, a textile and wine merchant married Apolline Godinot, the niece of the Abbé Godinot, who’s work in viticulture was renowned. The merging of the two families saw Champagne Henriot officially founded in 1808 and in 2017 the 8th generation took over as director marking Henriot as one of the few remaining independent Champagne houses.

As we take our seats for dinner, Laurent introduces us to the newest member of the collection, the 2005 Cuvée Hemera and he’s beyond excited. I would be too, unveiling your first vintage year is monumental. Cuvée Hemera does not disappoint; it’s not surprising it’s been heralded as the jewel in Henriot’s portfolio. Smoother than any champagne I’ve had the pleasure of drinking, it accompanies our meal beautifully. I, for one, would never dream of supping on anything other than wine during a meal and I’d always opt for red or port for the cheese course however Champagne and Comté seem to be a match made in culinary heaven. Cheese isn’t the only thing that is a divine pairing, the flavours of acacia honey in the champagne pack a punch when it came to desert. Where have I been going wrong all these years?

The following morning, we head to Chouilly to meet Hervé Lourdeaux, Henriot’s crop manager for a tour of the vineyards. Hectares (34,000 to be exact) of vines as far as the eye can see. Everyone I’ve encountered during my trip to Henriot cares deeply about the product as if it were their own. Hervé talks extensively about the complexities of managing a crop this size with ever changing conditions. Everything from mildew to frost causes issues for the 15,000 crop growers here and this year, due to our exceptionally warm summer, the harvest will be ready a whole month early.

The name Hemera is a tribute to the Greek Goddess of daylight and I for one have certainly seen the light of day. Before we’ve even left France, I am already planning my next dinner party. But this time it won’t just be bottles of red and white on the table. My trip to champagne has opened my eyes, and it has matured this humble old pallet of mine. riddle_stop 2

Cuvée Hemera 2005 Champagne; £180 RRP

 

Enquiries: Champagne Henriot: www.champagne-henriot.com

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