Appellations Vol. 27 No. 02

Champagne Henri Giraud


Champagne Henri Giraud is a prestigious boutique maison located in Aÿ, which is legally classified as one of only 17 “Grands Crus” wine villages in the Marne Valley area of the Champagne region and is widely reputed to produce its finest. Aÿ is home to 50 maisons and located just 17 miles south of Reims and 2.5 miles outside Epernay. Claude Giraud is at the helm of the eponymous family domaine and the 12th generation of the Aÿ vine-tending Giraud-Hémart family, which dates to 1625 and started wine-making in the 18th century. He succeeded his father, Henri, as a winemaker, in the 1980s and continues his vision: “Preclude nothing, be bound by nothing, make good wine naturally.”

Champagne Henri Giraud produces 300,000 bottles a year, of which only a few thousand are Grandes Cuvées, which is why oenophiles, collectors, and sommeliers are the most familiar enthusiasts. As American wine critic Robert Parker once famously wrote: “Henri Giraud, the greatest champagne you’ve never heard of.” New, wine-loving friends introduced me to their favorite bottle weeks before the 2020 Covid shutdown; months later, in October 2021, visiting the maison was high on my list of must-dos on my return to France. Tasting Champagne Henri Giraud Grand Cru Argonne Brut 2013 with the owner and winemaker and learning about the historic maison were highlights of my visit.

Claude Giraud has been sourcing oak from the Argonne forest, just 60 miles distant, since 1990; that’s when he realized the superiority of the solid, dense oaks, which had been used for barrels for ten centuries. He explains: “Until the 1950s, there were over 180 barrel makers in this forest, but the last ones closed in the 1980s.” Through a series of scientific tests comparing the same juice in different barrels, he discovered that trees have a unique terroir that reflects the minerals in the soil, just as vineyards do. Giraud understood that it’s not just the oak from any tree in the forest that adds tannins and influences the flavor of wines; it’s the oak from certain, specific trees that makes the difference in their barrel-fermented champagnes.

Giraud’s son-in-law, Sebastien Le Golvet, has been making champagne since 2000 and Chef du Cave since 2008. The younger winemaker notes that their wines are firmly rooted in the Aÿ Grand Cru terroir: Aÿ is a self-sufficient cru, whose wines don’t need to be blended with those of other villages. Here we can produce Champagnes from a single terroir, such as Code Noir (100% pinot noir from Aÿ), but all our wines bear the indisputable marks of Aÿ: chalk, salinity, menthol, anise.

The Giraud grape-growing methodology incorporates a Triple Zero approach launched in 2019 with the 2016 vintage: Zero Herbicides, Zero Insecticides, Zero Pesticides (anti-botrytis). Henri Giraud’s Coteaux Champenois ‘Triple Zero’ expresses that achievement. The vineyard uses sustainable viticulture, with growing measures, such as stripping leaves and weeding the vineyard, and it is certified as having High Environmental Value (HVE). Here, grapes stay on the vine until they are ripe, do a long “cold soak before fermentation, and, since 2016, they never touch stainless steel. 

Le Golvet learned about the Argonne forest during visits, together with his father-in-law, and mapped the forest. These days, he mobilizes his merrandiers (who produce the wood staves used in barrels) and coopers (who make the barrels); working with forestry experts, they select the best oak trees to be felled and transformed into barrels. He toasts the barrels, precisely, along with the coopers and according to the oak’s origin; he tastes the grape juice first and toasts it as an influential step in determining the taste of the grand cuvées. As the Chef du Cave explains: “We work with the forestry commission, choose our plots, season them for three years, and then record the effect of each plot on our Pinot and Chardonnay, depending on vintage.” On a cellar tour, visitors can see the individual labels on the oak barrels, which identity: the forest, the specific parcel, and the agency that certified the quality. In 2018, Henri Giraud became the first Champagne House and the first estate in the world to promise total transparency by offering customers access, via a QR Code on the back label, to a complete analysis of its wines carried out by an independent laboratory.

After the transition to the next generation winemaker, Claude Giraud started devoting his creative energies to creating a visitor experience based on “Esprit Sain,” Healthy Mind, Healthy Body. He enlisted his good friend, the eminent architect Gerard Batalla, and reimagined an adjacent 19th-century manor house into a five-suite, art-filled ManoirHenri Giraud, and transformed the cellar into a wellness spa complete and added a glass-walled wing with an indoor heated pool and hammam, which opened in September 2019.  The signature Craÿothérapie, treatment, uses chalk, known for its thousand-year-old micro-organisms with restorative, softening, and soothing properties, for a wrap, followed by a hydro-bath and body massage. 

As a nod to nature, the Giraud experiential wellness program offers an hour-long ‘forest-bathing’ walk starting at the giant 400-year-old Giraud oak tree near the center of the Argonne forest; this stress relieving boost to the immune system is a ritual that the Japanese call “shinrin-yoku.” Here, it’s an opportunity to sip a Champagne Henri Giraud and learn about their collaboration with the French National Forest Office (ONF) and the Safe the Argonne Forest program; for each bottle of Champagne Argonne purchased since 2013, Giraud has funded the planting of 50,000 two-year-old oak tree and supported its first five-year growth.   

Visitors to Champagne Henri Giraud can tour cellars and the tasting room, where Claude Giraud collected and commissioned the local artwork and where the centerpiece is a tasting table constructed out of one long piece of Argonne oak. We delighted in a private TABLE EXPERIENCE for two in an adjacent kitchen prepared by house chef Ebby, who demonstrated how best to open these precious bottles without losing a drop of wine: “six twists to remove the wire; then, turn the bottle, not the cork!” 

Ebby features local and seasonal dishes and custom-curated pairings for each of the seven courses. He poured a fruity, plum-touched Homage au Pinot Noir–that matured for 12 months in small oak barrels–with a roasted spice pumpkin appetizer studded with purple vitelotte potato chips. The elegant, round, silky MV16–a traditional, 4-year aged blend, including a third from perpetual reserve wines (since 1990)—cut the richness of a chestnut foie gras crème brulé. Ebby poured a full-bodied, fruity, and spicy Esprit Nature—the pinot noir that exemplifies the house’s original commitment to the environment–to accompany the grilled, Argonne-smoked scallops, for which he collected sawdust from the cooperage. Ebby says it’s “a pillar of the winery, shows great blending, 100% barrel-aged and barrel-fermented, not new oak. It’s made in the spirit of being as natural as possible, as illustrated in the QR code on the label.” Next, Dame-Jane–a fruity rosé aged in terracotta amphoras (more than 50 are dedicated to the vinification and aging of Dame-Jane)–balanced with the rich brie with bacon. 

Aÿ Rouge Grand Cru 2018, my personal favorite, is a rich and full-bodied Triple O wine and the first red wine guaranteed free of pesticide residues on molecular analysis. It accompanied the Magret duck breast sourced from a local Farm du Moulin, which Ebby prepared sous-vide, seared in front of us, and presented with mashed, rosemary-infused butter potatoes. Finally, he caramelized thinly sliced apples in local honey and served the fruit topped with an artisanal ice cream flavored with Madagascar vanilla, with a glass of Ratafia Champenois SOLERA S90-16. Ratafia, a family tradition, is a blend of the fruitiest grape juices from the best years between 1990 to 2016 blended with Fine Champenoise and matured in barrels according to the Solera method. According to Claude Giraud: “The distinct taste reflects the minerality, elegance, and balance of the region.” 

Domaine Henri Giraud offers a world of Champagne and art de vivre experiences in a region that is easily accessible from Paris; it takes 45-minutes via TGV, the high-speed train, to reach Reims; from Charles de Gaulle (CDG) airport to Epernay takes 1.5 hours, by car and train. 

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