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Krug: iconic fizz

I’ve a confession to make. Until fairly recently, I wasn’t really ‘into’ Champagne. How crazy is that? My prejudice was that this was a wine whose reputation had been enhanced by a sense of occasion and some fairly serious protectionism by the Champenois, and that it didn’t offer the same level of geeky appreciation as other wine styles. Let’s be brutally honest: adding fizz was a clever way of making an otherwise rather inadequate base wine from northerly vineyards taste good.

I’ve now changed my mind, you’ll be glad to hear. Champagne is worthy of serious investigation, but you knew that already, didn’t you? It takes the art of fine discrimination of flavours and aromas another step forwards. Having said this, it’s not cheap. Basic, entry level Champagnes start north of £10 a bottle, and things only start getting really interesting when you’ve dug a lot deeper than this.

What first changed my mind? Krug. Back in September 2004 I was at a wine dinner with some chums in Singapore and someone brought along the Krug Grande Cuvée. It was fantastic, with depth, balance, precision and lots of class. Yes, these words are hard to define, but when you come to describe fizz, straight descriptors prove woefully inadequate and instead of reductionist looking-for-flavours-and-aromas you have to start using these more holistic, ethereal adjectives.

A year later, September 2005, I got to have lunch with Rémi Krug himself (right) at wonderful London restaurant The Ledbury. As well as the Grande Cuvée, I tasted three Champagnes that will live with me for a long time: the 1988, 1989 and 1990 vintages.

The UK is the third biggest market for Krug taking a fifth of production. Volumes have increased over recent years. A couple of years ago about half of production went to the airlines, but with the economic squeeze on carriers in recent years, first class fliers have had to make do with less stellar wines, so no more Krug. But this loss of business has freed up volumes for other markets, and airlines weren’t all that profitable anyway. Krug’s total production is secret, but Rémi disclosed that it is 0.05% of Champagne’s total, perhaps around half a million cases annually.  

Is there a problem getting good quality grapes, given Krug’s desire to gradually step up production of Grande Cuvée each year? ‘Growers know that Champagne is driven by top-end brands’, say Rémi. ‘They are eager to supply us; we are not in conflict with them’.

Rémi points out that overall, Champagne production is limited geographically to some 300 million bottles each vintage. ‘The issue is how the system favours those people who have an individualistic attitude’, he explains. ‘There is still space within Champagne for evolutions within that space, to reduce generic offers and produce more Clicquot, Krug, Bollinger and so on.’ He suggests that the way forward for the region is to shift more to the brands rather than making generic Champagnes.

Krug Grande Cuvée is taken very seriously; it’s not considered secondary to the vintage wines. ‘Most Champagne houses create the blend by hierarchy’, says Rémi. ‘We don’t do it that way: it is Krug or out! What doesn’t please us disappears. Grande Cuvée is always our first decision. If there is a conflict, Grande Cuvée wins. If we favoured the Vintage, Grande Cuvée would turn out to be skinny.’ It has one-third to one-half reserve wines from 1990 to 2004.

Don’t try to ask too many questions about the precise details of these wines, though. ‘I don’t like to reduce my wines to technicalities’, says Rémi. ‘These should be backstage. If you promote a movie or a novel, you don’t talk about the technicalities, but the emotions.’

‘Grape percentage is a dead story to me’, he continues. ‘It is not a recipe issue. I am not interested in cepage except for in terms of terroir. The back label tyranny turns wine into a recipe, and it started in California. Using the analogy of a symphony, knowing the percentage of violins provides you with a false understanding.’

What does Rémi like to drink at home (apart from fizz, of course)? He loves Bordeaux, and particularly admires St Julien for its finesse, delicacy and subtlety allied with character. He also has wines from the likes of Spain, Italy, New Zealand and Australia in his cellar. Is he just trying to sound catholic in his tastes here? It’s hard to tell. Normally, at home, wines are decanted and served blind. Can I come to dinner? Sounds fun.

Storage conditions are critical for Champagne. ‘People talk a lot about disgorgement, but this isn’t a story for the public, even though people make a big issue out of it’, says Remi. ‘With old Champagne, you need to consider the age and the brand – some are made to age well, with Krug as the extreme example. Then you need to look how it has been stored.’ He maintains that the barrel ageing employed by Krug gives their wines an exceptional lifespan. ‘For Krug time, multiply the time for other Champagnes by ten.’

The wines
I’m rating these on how they showed when tasted. With time, I’d expect the 88 and 90 to rate even better, whereas the 89 is peaking now. Rémi describes the 1988 as fresh, crisp, lively, energetic and exuberant, and the 1989 as rich, intense and mellow. The 1990, he thinks is a different dimension. ‘Think of the 1990 as taking the best of the two and transcending to another peak, combining the warmth and ripeness of the 1989 with the crisp dynamics of the 1988.’

Krug Grande Cuvée
Lovely fresh full herbal nose is very expressive with a subtle hint of greenness and some complex toasty notes. The palate has great concentration. It’s fresh and bright with high acid and a slightly herby edge. Complex and full with an acidic finish. A serious Champagne, but really needs a bit of time to show itself at its best. Very good/excellent 92/100

Krug Vintage 1988
Quite a deep colour. A beautiful, deep intense nose with subtle nutty and toasty notes. The powerful, intense savoury palate has wonderful freshness and bold complexity. Quite tight and lean: savoury, complex and full. Fantastic stuff with a long life ahead of it. Excellent 95/100

Krug Vintage 1989
Incredible rich open nose showing honeyed, toasty, rich fruit with some peach and apricot notes. It’s quite profound. The palate is rich, showing some evolution. It’s bold and hauntingly complex. Fantastically rich and opulent with a nice richness of texture. Excellent 98/100

Krug Vintage 1990
Very refined complex nose: tight, rich, toasty, slightly honeyed ripe apricotty notes here. It’s beguiling, complex and full. The palate is crisp, tight and fresh with bright acidity. Complex and bold with lots of weight, but intensely fresh and bright with good acidity. A very serious wine with a bright future ahead of it. Brilliant. Excellent 97/100  

wines tasted 09/05

see also: a more recent tasting of Krug's wines

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