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Uncorked: Champagne makers’ secrets bubble to surface

Gilles de Larouziere Henriot has time on his side.

The CEO is the eighth generation to lead his family’s namesake Champagne house. They’ve amassed a wealth of institutional knowledge as they’ve made Champagne since 1808.

While experience matters when it comes to Champagne made in the méthode champenoise, also known as the traditional method in the U.S., Henriot knows things can’t be rushed in the vineyard, the cellar, the blending process or even the public release of their wines.

He also knows that the lessons passed on to him through the generations are just as important to pass on to his four children.

“The girls are fond of Champagne,” said Henriot, who has two sons and two daughters.”The bubbles are fascinating, it’s a party, they are excited, they want to smell the wine and ask questions. My sons are more focused on the still wine, especially the red wines and the process of the color coming out of the skins.

“The technical mastery and knowledge, the know-how is important, but the confidence is very important,” he said. “We are transmitting it from one generation to the other. I take my kids to the harvest and have them taste still wines. [The wines are] between 4 and 13 years old and giving, and I want them to feel the year, hear the noises, smell the flavors, taste the juices and be part of that.”

As the holiday season arrives, Cuvée Hemera 2006 ($185) is a wonderfully complex Champagne with toasty brioche, crunchy green apple flavors, a creamy mouthfeel with a backbone of fresh acidity. It’s one of three wines featured that would be an amazing way to launch a holiday celebration this year.

The minimum time any Henriot wine spends in the cellar is four years, even though Champagne regulations only call for a minimum of 15 months. Henriot goes above and beyond in pursuit of conditions to “develop great aromatic expressions.”

Which makes the cellar master and tasting committee, the group that assists with the final blend, prognosticators of what the future holds. There’s more than one palate at work, and while it’s a guess about how the wine will develop, there are centuries of experience on their side.

“I like to say time is our ally and patience is our secret,” Henriot said. “Time is important to smooth the acidity. It’s a cardinal virtue of any fine Champagne maker. Since our inception in 1808, time and the quality of the grape and wine is the cornerstone. The third is know-how. Everything is built on the three cardinal virtues. We need grapes, we need great wine and to be established on the nicest Crus and terroirs, and to vinify them properly. To do so is essential.”

In the cellar library, there are 10 years of blends that are constantly tasted and reviewed by the cellar master. It stands as a guide for the house style, and an ever-evolving example of how the wine has matured.

“We’ve got the know-how,” Henriot said. “For over 200 years, we’ve been doing this very consciously and precisely. It’s something we are doing and redoing every year. So we have a cellar master and tasting committee that taste the still wine and taste them several times through the year to see how they evolve, and then taste different wines. In the end, the cellar master makes the decision. The tasting committee has a very important role in advice and thinking of how it will evolve in time.”

While Frank Family has 30 years of experience in sparkling wine production rather than two-plus centuries, General Manager Todd Graff has learned a patient approach, as well. Frank Family Brut Rosé 2016 ($55) and Frank Family 2015 Blanc de Blancs ($55) are a pair of domestic options grown under the California sunshine, yet still loaded with zippy acidity. It’s a painstaking process to keep wines fresh and vibrant as they source the coolest blocks in the Frank Family Lewis Vineyard in Carneros.

The Brut Rosé had lively strawberry flavors with a touch of flaky pastry, the Blanc de Blancs had green apple, pear, marzipan, baked bread and lemon peel notes. Those are profiles Graff said can’t be manipulated, they only develop with time.

“This is not done quickly,” Graff said. “The time the wine sits on its yeast is so important. We don’t want to make tasting room fizz. It’s a mindset that you can’t just get into. We’ve been doing it for a long time. There can’t be an approach of, ‘Let’s make sparkling and release it next year.’ That doesn’t happen; this isn’t sauvignon blanc, it takes a long time. It’s something that has to be learned over the years. It’s not just pump out a sparkling wine because the accountants have made the decision to sell it. It’s more detailed, with the secondary fermentation and the hand turning of the bottles.”

As much time as they spend in the cellar, the process still starts in nature.

“At the start of everything is a plant with fruit,” Henriot said. “By the actions you take, you transform the material into something incredible that brings emotions, aromas, pleasure and mystery. You’ve still got to have your feet in mud to describe what you are doing.”

• James Nokes has been tasting, touring and collecting in the wine world for several years. Email him at jamesnokes25@yahoo.com.