I arrived at Paris’Charles de Gaulle airport from Copenhagen, still a quarter full of aquavitafter a typical stay with my Swedish in-laws, and thus in the perfect moodto join the 30 or so other celebrants from around the world for the inauguralKrug Celebration Week. We did drink an awful lot, but I could have swornit lasted only 48 hours. Perhaps that should be its new strapline: “Twodays of Krug is worth a week of any other champagne.”
Driving into Epernay, the sun’s beams began to pierce through thecovering cloud – Hardy’s pathetic fallacy was never so effectivelyillustrated. We then passed Villa Eugène next to Mercier, anestablishment I recommend if staying in the region – charming, inexpensive andwith a startlingly cold pool to clear the head before breakfast. I rockedup slightly early to Clos du Mesnil and caught Olivier Krug (second picture) and his teamfinalising arrangements for the guests’ arrival. Apologetically he ordered up abottle of Krug to keep me company as they continued to set up, and my glass andI enjoyed a stroll among the most lauded 1.84 hectares of Chardonnay vines inthe region.
On a previous visit, the IMW (Institute of Masters of Wine) had organised afour vintage vertical and horizontal of Krug and Clos de Mesnil – the highlightbeing the latter from 1990, for which my tasting note read: “Vivacious, deft,crystalline, a core of tarte tatin, with chalk dust and icing sugar, acaptivating blend of both Hepburns.” Sounds like I enjoyed it.
Back to the present and, the group assembled, Olivier joined uswith a magnum, the contents of which we were invited to ascertain. Isuggested Collection ’79, wine writer Bruce Schoenfeld was closer to the markwith the legendary ’64, but it was left to champagne’s foremost expertRichard Juhlin to correctly identify it as ’61– all candied limes, driednuts, salty butter, bitter marmalade, with a slightly carbolic nose and mandarinfreshness on the palate.
Over lunch, outside in the vineyard, we compared two grand cuvéebased on very different vintages, the best and worst years in recent champagne history – 1996 and 2001 respectively. We constantly hear howthe art of non-specific year champagne (saying “non-vintage” makesthe team at Krug wince) lies in recreating the same blend perennially, and thiswas an excellent illustration of rising to the challenge. Craftsmanship,artistry, heritage and unrivalled excellence are all horribly overused termsin the lexicon of top champagne brands, but, to give a sense of perspective, wheremost non-vintage champagnes are a composite of three or four years (a base with gapsfilled by reserve wines), Krug can utilise nearly 200 still wines from a 15-year spectrum.
In contrast to this creative process (which, I suggested to Krug’s president Maggie Henriquez and chef de cave Eric Lebel, was neither art orscience but something more akin to architecture – construction based on plans, practicalconsiderations and inspiration) is the latest jewel in the brand’s heavily ladencrown: Clos d’Ambonnay. From a single 0.6-hectare walled vineyard (first picture) in the village of Ambonnay, this 100 per cent Pinot Noir cuvée is born; one grapevariety, one vintage, one tiny site – very easy by comparison to the alchemy ofthe grand cuvée, and yet it results in the most expensive and exclusive champagne of themall. So far only three vintages have been produced, and we sampled thefirst and last (1995 and 1998) in the clos itself. My notes: “Veryrefreshing in a hot dusty vineyard, ’95 served slightly colder so even moreso. Corks and cages will make excellent cuff links”.
After comparing a selection of the 2011 vins clairs, mostlyPinot Noirs from other villages important for Krug – Bouzy, Verzenay and Ay –with winemaker Julie Cavill, we headed for an obligatory visit to the cellarsto ogle remaining bottles of 1928 and a dozen or so of the surviving 1893, allsensibly kept behind bars with a ponderous inscription by Malraux (“There are those objects which help pass the time and others which explaintime”) to leave you in no doubt as to their significance.
Olivier is tenaciously proud of his family’s history andcontribution to champagne’s prestige, and founder Joseph Krug’s leather-boundwords of wisdom from 1848 (third picture) offer convincing evidence that the house has notwavered from his early principles – most tellingly his emphasis on thepre-eminence of assemblage for “Cuvée 1” to be made to the sameexacting standards every year. As memorable (and demonstrating that Krug does occasionally veer from the beliefs of previous generations) was the opinion ofOlivier’s grandfather that rosé champagne “is for birthday cake andgirly clubs”.
Dinner that evening in the house on Rue Coquebert, cooked quitepossibly by chef Arnaud Lallement, of Reims’ two-Michelin-starred L’AssietteChampenoise, featured the pink stuff along with Krug ’88. Prior to dinner was an extraordinary presentation back in the cellars: silver-cat-suited dancers,light shows and projections, a harpist and wraith-like opera singers among the fermenting vats: part Cats,part Jean Michel Jarre show, part Lakmé by Leo Delibe – wholly entertaining.
Sill high on sparkle and spectacle, the next morning Winechapawakes for a day’s experimentation as grand cuvée master blender. Find out what happens in Part Two.