A Krug-paired dinner with Olivier Krug

Bid in our charity auction on this dazzling dinner in Reims hosted by Olivier Krug, with an all-star cast of the mason’s cuvées, previewed here by John Stimpfig

A Krug-paired dining experience
A Krug-paired dining experience | Image: Almaphotos

** To bid for this experience in aid of Save the Children, visit Christies.com/HTSI. Online auction ends December 11. **

Over the past two decades, I have been many times to Krug’s magnificent 19th-century cellars in the heart of Reims. However, on this particular trip my taxi doesn’t deposit me outside the Grande Marque’s wrought‑iron gates. Instead, I disembark a short distance along Rue de Cocquebert at a discreet private house that I have known about but never visited. A glance at my watch confirms that I am exactly on time for what promises to be one of the most privileged and magical evenings of my vinous career.

I am back in Reims for two reasons. The first is to interview Olivier Krug about the latest developments in the stellar world of Krug. And the second, dear reader, is to help rehearse a truly dazzling Krug-paired dinner on your behalf. The actual event itself, held at this very address and hosted by Olivier Krug himself, will be one of the top lots at How to Spend It’s forthcoming online charity auction hosted by Christie’s in aid of Save the Children.

I should also mention that the lot for six lucky diners also includes a unique insight into the House of Krug with a pre-dinner tour of the cellars in Reims and one of its most famous single vineyards, Clos d’Ambonnay. The cellars are not open to the public even by appointment. I have never had such VIP treatment all in one go.

My finger has barely pressed the buzzer before the sturdy front door opens to reveal the familiar, beaming face of Olivier Krug. “Welcome to the house in which I grew up,” he says as he warmly ushers me over the threshold.

The substantial interior is elegant and exquisitely furnished. And though no family member has lived here since Olivier’s late father Henri, it retains the inner sanctum feeling of a much-loved private home. “In fact, very little has changed since my childhood,” says Olivier, adding that “these rooms hold many happy memories.” This is plainly evident from various ancestral portraits and framed photos of uncles, parents, siblings, cousins and friends, not to mention several famous Krugiste aficionados.

Olivier Krug, a sixth-generation Krug, at a dinner in the original family home
Olivier Krug, a sixth-generation Krug, at a dinner in the original family home

A brief guided tour reveals that the house adjoins the cellars and overlooks a large, beautifully kept garden with a secret passageway to the chai. “When I was a kid, I used to sneak off to cycle in the barrel cellar and play football with my brothers in the courtyard,” Olivier tells me. From his bedroom, he could hear the bell summoning staff to work and smell the aromas coming from the vats. “It inspired me from a very early age.”

As a sixth-generation scion of the Krug dynasty, Olivier is de facto champagne royalty. He is also blessed with the common touch of a great communicator. Passionate and irrepressibly enthusiastic, he now travels the world pulling corks and spreading the Krugiste gospel of unabashed luxury and pleasure.

Certainly, no one knows Krug better. In the 1990s he turned Japan into one of Krug’s most profitable markets. He also learnt Japanese, in which he is still proficient. As a director of the maison, he works closely with Krug’s all-important growers and is a key member of the Krug tasting panel. Though the maison was bought by LVMH in 1999, he is unquestionably the keeper of the Krug flame.

Already, the house is suffused with tantalising aromas emanating from the spacious kitchen where Krug’s trusted traiteur Franck Philippet has been artfully slaving. “We have been working on the menu and wines for weeks,” Olivier tells me in the upstairs salon where Krug’s private sommelier has poured us each an apéritif of its magisterial multi-vintage Grande Cuvée. Morsels of aged Parmesan are also to hand.

Like many Krug lovers, I vividly remember the exotic taste of my first-ever glass of Grande Cuvée, served at a lunch in the Christie’s boardroom hosted by master of wine Michael Broadbent. “Unfortunately, I can’t recall mine,” Olivier admits with a grin. “But only because I’d just been born and my mother used it to wet my lips.”

On the table between us lies a worn leather-bound volume. I recognise it as the famous notebook handwritten by Joseph Krug in 1848, just five years after he founded the company. For more than a century, this blueprint document was largely overlooked. “But it laid down the guiding principles of the house of Krug,” says Olivier as he passes it to me. “For instance, Joseph declared that Krug should handcraft two luxurious cuvée champagnes [one vintage and one multi-vintage], which must be of the same quality. He even explained exactly how it should be done.”

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Arguably, the most revolutionary aspect of this visionary manifesto was the way in which Joseph turned champagne orthodoxy on its head by prioritising the production of Krug’s non-vintage blend before a vintage. “His unique idea was for Krug’s Grande Cuvée to transcend vintage, year in year out,” says Olivier. “No other house has done it before or since at this level of luxury.”

That’s largely because this approach requires huge resources and the best raw material. Not to mention the requisite amount of time, skill and savoir faire by the Krug cellarmaster, Eric Lebel. Krug’s Grande Cuvée remains a mind-bogglingly complex (and ever‑changing) assemblage of at least 120 reserve wines from at least 10 different years and all three champagne grape varieties. Then it is aged for seven years. Krug has always described it as “multi-vintage” rather than “non-vintage”. Indeed, the champagne expert Tom Stevenson once wrote, “if Grande Cuvée is a non-vintage, then the Pope is just a priest and a Rolls‑Royce is just a car.”

Joseph’s notebook has been returned to the heart of the maison where it has had an especially transformative effect under Krug’s Venezuelan CEO, Maggie Henriquez, who took the helm in 2009. “Thanks to Maggie and this book, we have really returned to our roots with renewed conviction,” Olivier explains. “Today, if we are making a decision, we ask ourselves one question: would Joseph have done it. If yes, we continue. If no, we stop. It informs everything we do.”

Already, Henriquez has boldly repositioned Grande Cuvée as the “first among equals” in Krug’s prestige cuvée portfolio. “She always had the conviction that it is a great champagne, capable of long-term ageing,” Olivier points out. However, Henriquez is by no means alone in this. Sotheby’s worldwide head of wine, Serena Sutcliffe MW, also believes that “Grande Cuvée probably ages better than any other champagne, including Krug’s own impressive vintages.”

Other significant changes have followed. Earlier this year, Krug announced that it has moved on from its long-held line that each new release of Grande Cuvée is identical. “Grande Cuvée is not about consistency,” says Olivier, “it’s about pleasure and celebrating the differences from year to year. So, if you taste two bottlings of Grande Cuvée side by side, they will both be excellent, but they will not taste the same.”

But how are devoted Krugiste collectors supposed to take advantage of these nuances of blend and flavour? “The simple answer is to tell them,” Olivier continues. “Each bottle now has a Krug ID code so you can find out online or via a smartphone app exactly how many reserve wines are in the blend, and when it was disgorged. It means collectors can start playing with Grande Cuvée bottlings to savour the differences. They can make an informed decision about the best time to open and enjoy them.”

Limited-edition bottles of Clos d'Ambonnay 1998, signed by Olivier Krug
Limited-edition bottles of Clos d'Ambonnay 1998, signed by Olivier Krug | Image: Joana Saramago

It’s time to eat. We relocate to the dining room downstairs, where two places are laid with several of Krug’s Riedel-designed champagne glasses. Clearly, no detail has been overlooked and just glancing at the dégustation menu makes my pulse quicken.

Proceedings begin with a bang in the form of the Krug Clos d’Ambonnay 1998, paired with a beautifully executed foie gras de canard. At around £1,800 a bottle, Clos d’Ambonnay is Krug’s most recent and among its most expensive additions to the marque’s all-star cast of de luxe champagnes. The 1998 is only the third vintage released of this rare, sublime Blanc de Noirs.

I am fortunate to have visited the tiny Clos, just once, in 2007 and have tasted all three highly individual releases. A single-vineyard wine from a 0.68ha walled plot, it is made in the most minuscule quantities (3,000 to 4,000 bottles per vintage) and comes with the classic Krug imprint of freshness, finesse, power and structure.

As we savour its hedonistic palate of red fruits, nougat and umami richness, I comment that I expected it to appear later rather than sooner. “It’s good to surprise people,” Olivier smiles. “Moreover, it makes the point that there is no hierarchy of quality at Krug. All our champagnes are created with the same obsessive care and attention – whatever their price tag.”

It’s a tough act to follow, but the sumptuous Krug 2003, matched with a consommé de crevettes, is clearly up to the task. The 2003 is the perfect illustration of Krug’s vintage philosophy. Olivier’s father Henri, who was Krug cellarmaster for more than three decades, once told me that “a great vintage is never enough for Krug. It has to have exceptional character and personality as well.”

My tasting notes agreed. “Citric vivacity and terrific intensity and texture. Dry, savoury with plum, brioche and candied fruits. Long, elegant finish. Remarkable and distinctively Krug.” I am, though, slightly baffled. “Surely 2003 was a hot ripe year?” “Yes, it was very unusual and challenging because we had hail and it was a small crop,” says Olivier. “Also, it had to be picked early. But as soon as we tasted it, we knew we had a great Krug vintage.”

The dining room in the original Krug family home
The dining room in the original Krug family home

Krug has never been afraid to plot its own nonconformist path. “I think it stems from Joseph’s view that you shouldn’t always trust tradition,” adds Olivier as we move on to the 2003 Krug Clos du Mesnil Blanc de Blancs with a ravioli of confit chicken. “I like to call this the first-grower’s champagne,” he says, only half joking.

As a single variety (Chardonnay) from a single vineyard in a single year, Clos du Mesnil broke virtually every rule in the champagne book of blending when its debut 1979 vintage was released in 1986. A storm of controversy ensued. But the acclaim was even greater. This is only the 12th vintage to be released and a mere 10,000 to 11,000 bottles per vintage are produced from the walled Clos, which dates back to 1698. Today, thanks to Krug, single‑vineyard champagnes may now be a more accepted norm. But few, if any, can reach the dizzy heights of Clos du Mesnil.

It certainly makes a delicious and intriguing comparison with the Krug 2003. Both have a saline, creamy nuttiness. But the more austere Mesnil possesses a tell-tale mineral tautness, backbone and precision. Both are classic Krug, but right now, I marginally favour the more exuberant and vinous vintage over the more flinty Clos. In 10 years’ time though, I may well change my mind.

Revered French chef Alain Senderens once created an entire menu around Krug’s sensuous, aromatic rosé because it is so gastronomically versatile. Philippet has prepared a roast Anjou pigeon on a foie gras bruschetta and it provides a triumphant counterpoint to the wine’s crystalline acidity, intense wild-strawberry fruit, deceptive power and concentration. “This is rosé à la Krug,” comments Olivier. “It’s Krug first – and then a rosé.” Henri created it in 1983, making it the first new Krug for 140 years. In so doing, he changed the landscape of rosé champagne.

Fittingly, the grand finale to this gastronomic tour de force is an older Grande Cuvée, brilliantly placed in tandem with a tarte aux pommes. Clearly, the champagne has acquired more vinosity, richness and depth than the younger apéritif. “Partly, it’s the effect of ageing and partly it’s the effect of the blend. Some of the reserve vintages in this release come from the 1980s,” explains Olivier. It is ethereally refined, complex and elegant with a symphony of flavours. In short, it is “unalloyed pleasure”.

“That has always been the essence of the Krug vision,” Olivier replies. “Joseph was a perfectionist who wanted to create exceptional sensual champagnes that, first and foremost, give pleasure. You don’t have to be a wine expert to enjoy these wines. In the past, I think some aficionados were possibly a bit too hung up on technical details about the way we age our champagnes, our small oak barrels (never new) and our meticulous sourcing of grapes from individual plots.

The House of Krug cellars
The House of Krug cellars | Image: Denis Chapoullié

“Those elements are key to Krug’s quality and identity and, personally, I love to talk about them with Krugistes here in Reims and around the world. But we should never forget that drinking Krug is, above all, a social pleasure that is bound up with emotions and feelings. Ultimately, it is about sharing, generosity and happiness.

“Most recently Krug has been developing new ways of accessing and experiencing the brand. A lot of focus lately has gone into creating more innovative, adventurous and ambitious Krug pop-ups in key markets. In other words, Krug is coming to you!”

In London alone, highly successful installations have ranged from Krug Kreperie, Krug & Krustacean and the immersive Krug Music with the Philharmonia Orchestra in hipsterville Shoreditch. The brand also continues to constantly reinvent its uniquely multisensory Krug Capitale experiences in cities such as Milan and Paris with Michelin-starred chefs such as Enrico Bartolini.

Moreover, Krug also offers very exclusive access to a small number of corporate and private clients, “providing it is the right fit,” says Olivier. “We work with a selective number of businesses in areas from finance to fashion and each event is creative, different and tailor-made.”

Of course, if you want the epicurean Krug experience of a lifetime, with the inimitable Mr K in Reims, that is very much up for grabs from November 29. Competition will no doubt be fierce. But whatever fabulous figure the final winning bid comes in at, I can promise it will be worth every penny – and more.

KRUG Limited-Edition offer

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The House of Krug would like to offer readers of How To Spend It the chance to purchase a limited-edition bottle of Krug Clos d’Ambonnay 1998 – signed by Olivier Krug, sixth generation of the Krug family – for £1,850, including postage and packing. Krug Clos d’Ambonnay celebrates the unique character of the Pinot Noir grape from a walled, 0.68ha plot in the heart of Ambonnay and reveals a personality with significant presence, great substance and an amazing length and finesse.

Please register your interest by emailing krugcorporate@moet-hennessy.com.

This offer is subject to availability and delivery within the UK.

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