Interview with a Vintner – Nicolas Henriet
In 1890 Gaston-Henriet broke from the long tradition of selling his grapes to the Grand Maisons and embarked on an adventure that became Champagne Henriet-Bazin. 132 years later, the fourth generation, Nicolas and Marie-Noëlle, are at the helm.
Part farmer, part philosopher, Nicolas and I discussed the Maison's ethos and approach to winemaking, the similarities between organic certification and religion, and even how goldfish and grapevine roots behave in the same manner...
Sip: "Nicolas, thank you for taking the time to talk to us. Tell us a little about your philosophy to winemaking and the way in which you work at Henriet-Bazin."
Nicolas: "The most important point I want to make is how grateful I am to be born into a family of Champagne growers, on a nice big estate with Grand Cru and Premier Cru vineyards. Once I was old enough to consider how lucky I am to receive this gift from nature, I felt like the least I could do with regard to winemaking was to return the favour by working in a way that is respectful to the natural environment. Of course, this hasn't always been the way on the estate. For my parents and grandparents life was much tougher and harvests were challenging, so when science gave them the opportunity to improve their yield with fertilisers and pesticides they jumped at the chance."
Sip: "I suppose little was known back then about the ongoing effects of using herbicides and pesticides, but now, I think I'm right in saying that you're taking the Maison in a different direction."
Nicolas: "Yes. For us life is far easier than it was for previous generations – if we want to move a barrel we don't need to haul them around with chains, we just press a button on a forklift truck! So, with this in mind, when we took over some 17-20 years ago we decided that we would work in harmony with the environment, firstly by removing the use of herbicides and pesticides and then gradually, step-by-step, we evolved to where we are now [HVE, Organic conversion 2nd year]."
Sip: "How do you feel this has affected the Champagnes you produce?"
Nicolas: "When we started we made around 5 cuvées at the estate and now we have more than 15, but we still have the same plots of land, the same grape varieties and the same amount of vats. All that's happened is that each plot of land has began to develop its own specific characteristics due to the 5 elements of terroir – soil, sub-soil, exposition, altitude and gradient – and you see the differences over very short distance, sometimes just 50 or 100 meters apart!
"The reason for this change is what I call 'the goldfish effect'. If you put a goldfish in a bowl of water it will swim at the surface and, every few turns, take a gulp of air. If, however, you place an air pump in the bowl, the goldfish will dive down and swim around in the newly oxygenated water. It is the same principle with vines. If you work with herbicides and pesticides, this kills organic matter in the top soil and the atmospheric pressure crushes the oxygen out of it, meaning that the roots cling to the surface. Once you stop working in this way you completely reset the life-cycle and the nutrients and life return to the soil – insects and worms aerate and enrich it and, just like the goldfish, the roots drive deeper into the terroir and ultimately you taste this in the grapes."
Sip: "As a winemaker, this must be fascinating. You can experiment so much more with what you grow."
Nicolas: "Of course! Now it's not just the grape varieties or particular vintages to look at, we have so many different things to consider and, because roots grow slowly – maybe just 10cm a year – you see the unique qualities of each specific terroir develop over a number of years. For example, Cuvée Marie-Amelie, which is named after my daughter, was first created when my wife was pregnant. She had intended to remove a few plots of old vines which she thought had passed their prime, but when she tasted the juice from those grapes she really liked it. She created a blend of all three parcels and this made a really distinctive, complex and powerful wine."
Sip: "You're currently HVE certified and undergoing organic conversion but you've been working organically for many years. Why is it only now that you have chosen to commit to certification?"
Nicolas: "The problem is, when you come to export to many different countries you need a way to prove to people that you doing as you say and this is the only credible way to do so.
"Maybe I'm wrong but, personally, I see certification like religion. If you see an old man fall down in the street you will rush to help him whether you are religious or not. It is not because you want to follow some rules but because you want to do the right thing. So, for me, I don't want to work organically for the label, but because I think it is the right thing to do. When you give to nature she will give back 100x better."