I arrived at Paris’ Charles de Gaulle airport from Copenhagen, still a quarter full of aquavit after a typical stay with my Swedish in-laws, and thus in the perfect mood to join the 30 or so other celebrants from around the world for the inaugural Krug Celebration Week. We did drink an awful lot, but I could have sworn it lasted only 48 hours. Perhaps that should be its new strapline: “Two days of Krug is worth a week of any other champagne.”
Driving into Epernay, the sun’s beams began to pierce through the covering cloud – Hardy’s pathetic fallacy was never so effectively illustrated. We then passed Villa Eugène next to Mercier, an establishment I recommend if staying in the region – charming, inexpensive and with a startlingly cold pool to clear the head before breakfast. I rocked up slightly early to Clos du Mesnil and caught Olivier Krug (second picture) and his team finalising arrangements for the guests’ arrival. Apologetically he ordered up a bottle of Krug to keep me company as they continued to set up, and my glass and I enjoyed a stroll among the most lauded 1.84 hectares of Chardonnay vines in the region.
On a previous visit, the IMW (Institute of Masters of Wine) had organised a four vintage vertical and horizontal of Krug and Clos de Mesnil – the highlight being the latter from 1990, for which my tasting note read: “Vivacious, deft, crystalline, a core of tarte tatin, with chalk dust and icing sugar, a captivating blend of both Hepburns.” Sounds like I enjoyed it.
Back to the present and, the group assembled, Olivier joined us with a magnum, the contents of which we were invited to ascertain. I suggested Collection ’79, wine writer Bruce Schoenfeld was closer to the mark with the legendary ’64, but it was left to champagne’s foremost expert Richard Juhlin to correctly identify it as ’61– all candied limes, dried nuts, salty butter, bitter marmalade, with a slightly carbolic nose and mandarin freshness on the palate.
Over lunch, outside in the vineyard, we compared two grand cuvée based on very different vintages, the best and worst years in recent champagne history – 1996 and 2001 respectively. We constantly hear how the art of non-specific year champagne (saying “non-vintage” makes the team at Krug wince) lies in recreating the same blend perennially, and this was an excellent illustration of rising to the challenge. Craftsmanship, artistry, heritage and unrivalled excellence are all horribly overused terms in the lexicon of top champagne brands, but, to give a sense of perspective, where most non-vintage champagnes are a composite of three or four years (a base with gaps filled 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 or science but something more akin to architecture – construction based on plans, practical considerations and inspiration) is the latest jewel in the brand’s heavily laden crown: 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 grape variety, one vintage, one tiny site – very easy by comparison to the alchemy of the grand cuvée, and yet it results in the most expensive and exclusive champagne of them all. So far only three vintages have been produced, and we sampled the first and last (1995 and 1998) in the clos itself. My notes: “Very refreshing in a hot dusty vineyard, ’95 served slightly colder so even more so. Corks and cages will make excellent cuff links”.
After comparing a selection of the 2011 vins clairs, mostly Pinot Noirs from other villages important for Krug – Bouzy, Verzenay and Ay – with winemaker Julie Cavill, we headed for an obligatory visit to the cellars to ogle remaining bottles of 1928 and a dozen or so of the surviving 1893, all sensibly kept behind bars with a ponderous inscription by Malraux (“There are those objects which help pass the time and others which explain time”) to leave you in no doubt as to their significance.
Olivier is tenaciously proud of his family’s history and contribution to champagne’s prestige, and founder Joseph Krug’s leather-bound words of wisdom from 1848 (third picture) offer convincing evidence that the house has not wavered from his early principles – most tellingly his emphasis on the pre-eminence of assemblage for “Cuvée 1” to be made to the same exacting standards every year. As memorable (and demonstrating that Krug does occasionally veer from the beliefs of previous generations) was the opinion of Olivier’s grandfather that rosé champagne “is for birthday cake and girly clubs”.
Dinner that evening in the house on Rue Coquebert, cooked quite possibly by chef Arnaud Lallement, of Reims’ two-Michelin-starred L’Assiette Champenoise, 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 Winechap awakes for a day’s experimentation as grand cuvée master blender. Find out what happens in Part Two.