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Krug: A Quintessence of Champagne

When, in 1989, Olivier Krug became the sixth generation of his family to work at the Champagne house that bears their name, his grandfather gave him a tattered, leather-bound book. “One day you have to read this,” he said. The book was the personal journal of the house’s founder, Joseph Krug.

Krug thanked his grandfather and, with the casual disinterest of youth, put the book in a safe and promptly forgot about it for 20 years.

By 2009, the winery had been sold to the luxury house of LVMH Moët Hennessy, and CEO Maggie Henríquez sat down with Krug to discuss how the company might survive the Global Financial Crisis.

“She took me aside, and said, ‘We have the most amazing product, but people don’t really know about it. Even in this tough time we should not be hurting.’ And then she asked me why my Great-Great-Great-Grandfather started Krug in the first place” recalls Krug.

Krug didn’t have an answer for her. And so for the first time in 20 years, he went to the safe in the back of his office, opened the manilla envelope in which it had rested, and began reading the journal of the man who founded his family winery.

“It has completely changed my perception of Krug,” says Krug. “Now if you ask me what is Krug, I will tell you it is a dream. The dream of a man.”

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Josef Krug came to Champagne in the 1830s and got himself a job at Jaquesson, joining the prestigious Champagne house at roughly the same time as the youngest son of Jaquesson was also beginning to work in the family business. Sooner than expected, the elder Jaquesson died, leaving his relatively young son and his good friend Josef Krug running the entire house. Having begun working as a bookkeeper, Krug soon found himself in charge of working with all the growers while his friend worked in the cellars.

Krug diligently applied himself at Jaquesson for 10 years, eventually marrying Jaquesson’s English sister-in-law.

Five years into his tenure, Krug decided something wasn’t right, and began to experiment in the back rooms of Jaquesson with the help of one of the house’s negociant customers to remedy what he had decided was a major failing of the house’s wines, a failing that would cause him to leave Jacquesson five years later.

“We could never understand why he left what was clearly a great setup,” says Olivier Krug, “but we opened our archives and found some letters that he had begun writing to Jaquesson starting about five years prior to his departure. In these letters he tells Jaquesson that people are complaining about the inconsistent quality of the wines. ‘People aren’t getting what they love from our wines every time,’ he says. ‘We owe our customers the best every year,’ he wrote, saying that if people trust us we should give them the best. We also have letters that Jacquesson wrote back to him saying ‘Don’t waste your time, the vintage decides the quality.'”

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The negociant that Josef Krug had been working with decided to go into politics, and so in 1843, Krug took over the negociant’s operations and founded Maison Krug. Five years later, he begins to write a journal for his son, capturing everything he believes about what great Champagne is about, and more importantly what he is trying to do with the Champagne House he founded.

“Only take the best product, never count on the hazard or compromise,” wrote Josef Krug in 1848. “One cannot produce good wines without elements from good villages. We might have come close to a good cuvée using elements and cru from average or even mediocre origin. But you should never rely on this option, or you will miss your operations and lose your reputation.”

“In principle, a good house should offer two cuvées of the same composition and quality,” continued Krug. “The first will be re-created every year and is the hardest to make. We will balance what nature gave us with reserve, mature wine, and the blend will offer the best quality in every year. The second will be as the first, but linked to the circumstances of the particular year.”

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And so in 1843, Krug established a vision for creating a non-vintage prestige cuvée to be made each year, accompanied occasionally by a vintage Champagne if the year merited it. And for every one of the next 170 years, that’s exactly what Maison Krug has done.

But the way that Krug does it ends up being even more remarkable.

“I believe we are the only major house to vinify every single plot separately,” says Olivier Krug. “Every decision we make is with the idea of recreating Grand Cuvée. We cannot make Grand Cuvée from only three colors. You need the nuances. And if you need them you need to identify them in the vineyard and vinify them separately.”

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Olivier Krug

Maison Krug harvests somewhere between 250 and 300 vineyard plots every year, totaling around 220 acres. The house owns about 50 of those acres, and of the remaining 170 acres, more than 75% are purchased and controlled through direct relationships with farmers, as opposed to being brokered through co-ops. Each is harvested separately, pressed separately (in the nearest convenient location to the vineyard), and then brought to Maison Krug to be vinified separately, in more than 250 different lots.

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It is hard to under-emphasize how unusual this whole arrangement is in the world of Champagne. For centuries, the big Champagne houses have worked in exactly the opposite manner. They rarely own their own land, and almost never have relationships with individual growers. Instead they rely on the large network of regional cooperatives who collect grapes from their many individual farmer members, crush them in lots, and then provide their Champagne house customers with a large quantity of juice. The houses then employ their master winemakers, known as chefs de cave to ferment and blend the wines.

“Eric is the only chef de cave that has walked in every single one of the vineyard plots that go into a great champagne,” says Krug.

Maison Krug’s chef de cave, Eric Lebel, works with the growers to harvest their grapes, and then carefully vinifies more than 250 different vineyard plots each year. He then holds three key tastings with a panel of six people from the house between October and April. At each panel, one person goes into the cellar and selects a group of wines to taste, which the rest of the panel will taste blind, scoring them out of 20 and providing tasting notes to the group. This panel tastes every single lot at least three times before the final blends for Grand Cuvée and the vintage bottling are made.

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A plot of the Grand Cru Les Mesnil vineyard that is farmed for Krug.

“Eric is the scribe, and writes down everything that we say. You should see this book of Eric’s with thousands of tasting notes each year,” chuckles Krug. “It’s amazing.

The employees of Krug aren’t the only ones that get to taste the wines. The growers do, too.

Imagine being a sixth-generation farmer working your family’s 8 acres of vines just as your forefathers have, and for the first time in hundreds of years getting the opportunity to experience a wine made from your and only your grapes.

“You should see the tears we get every week,” says Krug. “These growers don’t know what their land tastes like. They’ve never made their own wines, and they’ve never tasted their wines. And then they begin to work with us, and for the first time Eric opens their eyes to the quality of their own plots.”

As you might imagine, trying to keep each of 250 vineyard parcels separate during fermentation turns into something of a logistics nightmare. This is partially the reason that Krug has long used 205 liter oak barrels (a size that conveniently divides by 10 into the region’s regulation limit of 2050 hectoliters of top quality juice per 4000 kg of grapes) to ferment its wines. New barrels are used for the first 2 or 3 years to ferment the taille, or the last and lowest quality juice to come out of the press, which Krug sells off in bulk. After this initial seasoning, they are then rotated into use for fermentation, where they stay for decades (the average age of a barrel at Krug is 25 years).

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After fermentation the wines settle in barrels for two to three months, and then are racked off into stainless steel tanks, where they will spend the rest of their lives. Following the panel’s series of tastings, Lebel begins his work, blending hundreds of elements together to form the basis for what will become Grand Cuvée, a wine that makes up 85% of Krug’s roughly 40,000 case annual production.

As if 220 to 250 different individual wines (some Chardonnay, some Pinot Noir, and some Pinot Meunier) weren’t enough to make your head spin, Lebel also has approximately 150 additional reserve wines going back to the 1998 vintage. No specific prescribed formula exists for Grand Cuvée, but the blend almost always consists of more than 110 different wines, of which somewhere between 30 and 50% are reserve wines from at least 10 prior vintages.

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A wine lover visiting Reims quickly becomes inured to the grandeur of the Champagne houses, some of which more resemble castles than wineries. Perhaps this is why a visit to Maison Krug offers a bit of surprise. Relative to its peers, Krug’s headquarters and winery are quite modest in both scale and appearance. Relative to its reputation as one of the top Champagnes in the world, it is even more startling in its lack of outward extravagance.

Through the red glazed gates, the visitor encounters a wide courtyard between mirror-image two-story buildings. On the right, are the offices where the house’s 51 employees conduct their business, on the left are the large rooms that resemble most any other working winery and house barrels, some tanks, a disgorgement and bottling line, the warehouse facilities for shipping and the stairs down to the cellar.

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The barrel-vaulted and dimly lit cellars of Maison Krug are also rather modest in comparison to the many kilometers of tunnels possessed by many of the grand marques of Champagne. These black-mold-encrusted halls hold bottles in traditional riddling racks as well as in the ubiquitous wire cages that fit into the gyropalette machines used to gradually settle the yeast of the wines’ secondary, bubble-forming fermentation into the neck of the bottle.

The regulations of the Champagne region stipulate that non-vintage blends, such as Grand Cuvée must age for 15 months on their lees before disgorgement and bottling. Krug doesn’t touch its bottles for at least six years, sometimes seven.

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Even containing six full vintages of wine, Krug’s cellars contain less bottles than are produced by many of the top houses of Champagne in a single vintage.

The cellar also holds the many tanks of reserve wines, as well as a surprisingly small library of back vintages. “Many collectors have far more wines than we do,” laughs Krug, when I mention my surprise at the size of the library. Of course, they do still have a few bottles from 1893.

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Early in 2014 Krug began to print a specific ID code on each one of its bottles. In conjunction with an app available on iPhone and Android phones, this ID provides detailed information about the wine, including the date of its disgorgement, the varietal composition and some information about the overall blend of reserve and vintage wines. The amount of information provided by the app is quite unprecedented in the world of non-vintage Champagne, where, barring changes in label art, one bottle always looks like the next, even if they were made and disgorged decades apart.

Maison Krug has begun to use the app, and the information that it provides, to compellingly counter what they believe is a mis-perception about their wines, one that I will admit holding myself until my recent visit.

Krug Grand Cuvée is not meant to taste the same every year, or any year. Yet this consistency of flavor seems to be exactly what most larger production non-vintage Champagnes aim to produce each year, and certainly what I and many consumers expect to be the goal.

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Most of us lucky enough to drink it at all, tend to drink bottles of Grand Cuvée singularly, and rarely get the opportunity to compare them. But open up two of them side by side, and they can have significantly different flavors. The folks at Krug would like to suggest that the character of the wine is the same — their goal each year in producing Grand Cuvée will be to convey a wholeness and a generosity of expression — but are quite clear that they have no intention of making every new batch taste like the last.

And they definitely don’t, as I experienced on my recent visit.

Despite not replicating a flavor profile with every bottle, Krug’s success and renown as a brand has come from, at the very least, delivering a consistent pleasure from bottle to bottle and year to year.

In many ways, Krug Grand Cuvée embodies the ultimate expression of Champagne for me, which I might characterize as a perfect balance of richness and weightlessness. The wine’s long aging on the lees combined with a high percentage of reserve wine in each blend produce a wonderful, praline and butter cracker yeastiness that has a bit of a salty edge to it. This wonderfully bread-like quality is often welded to a stony, sea-air minerality that enervates and electrifies the palate with citrus-like brightness that in combination with a smooth mousse of foam can lift the wine into a puffy cloud of flavor that all but floats across the palate.

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In addition to Grand Cuvée and its vintage bottlings, Maison Krug produces tiny amounts of a few additional wines: a vintage single vineyard blanc-de-blancs Champagne from the famous Clos de Mesnil, a matching blanc-de-noirs from the Clos d’Ambonnay, and finally the non-vintage Krug Rosé.

The most recent addition to the Krug portfolio is a set of wines now referred to as Krug Collection, which are simply vintage bottlings that have been sitting undisturbed in the Krug cellars for some time. The first two releases under this designation are the 1982 and 1989 vintages.

Krug’s wines are unquestionably luxury products, priced beyond the means of many wine lovers. Unfortunately, the brand’s status has also led to some pretty egregious behavior on the part of retailers and restaurants. I can think of no other wine in the world that is sold at such incredible variations in price. From the roughly $130 per bottle you can pay in some retailers to the $750 price tag in certain restaurants, hotels, and nightclubs, many people trade on the status of Krug to the point that the buyer must always beware.

Pay a fair price, however, and you will be justly rewarded. Krug Champagne represents one of the most essential expressions of the form, and is among my favorite things to drink on just about any occasion.

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NV Krug “Grand Cuvée” Champagne Blend, Champagne, France
Light gold in the glass with very fine bubbles, this wine smells of perfectly toasted brioche, lemon curd, and sea air. In the mouth, the wine has astonishing purity and richness. Gorgeous lemon, brioche, and seawater flavors dance on the palate with hints of crushed nuts and a touch of marzipan. The salty quality results in a mouthwatering finish that demands another sip. Fantastic balance and brightness. A blend of 44% Pinot Noir, 35% Chardonnay, and 21% Pinot Meunier from 142 different individual wines spanning 11 different years. The oldest wine is from 1990, and the youngest from 2006. Disgorged 2013. KRUG ID 213035 Score: between 9.5 and 10. Cost: $150 click to buy.

NV Krug “Grand Cuvée” Champagne Blend, Champagne, France
Light gold in the glass, with very fine bubbles, this wine smells of crushed shells, buttered brioche, and salty lemon squares. In the mouth, gorgeously rich and buttery crackers and saline flavors mix with bright lemon and grapefruit juiciness. Totally mouthwatering and delicious. A blend of 51% Pinot Noir, 30% Chardonnay, and 19% Pinot Meunier from 120 different individual wines spanning the years 1988 to 2003. Disgorged in 2013. KRUG ID 313052. Score: a perfect 10. Cost: $150 click to buy.

2003 Krug “Clos de Mesnil” Chardonnay, Champagne, France
Bright gold in the glass with extremely fine bubbles, this wine smells of white peaches, lemon curd and sea air with buttered brioche. In the mouth the wine has impeccable balance and length perfect buttered brioche seawater, lemon oil, and white flowers. Impeccable and extraordinary. Deep and profound, yet with a lightness that makes it completely effortless to drink. If only we could drink it every day. Phenomenal acidity and balance. Made from 100% Chardonnay from the single vineyard Clos du Mesnil in Mesnil-sur-Oger. Disgorged 2014. KRUG ID 214027 Score: a perfect 10. Cost: $795 click to buy.

2003 Krug Champagne Blend, Champagne, France
Medium gold in the glass with very fine bubbles, this wine smells of toasted sourdough bread, lemon curd, and dried orange peel. In the mouth bright lemon curd, and sea air are borne on an incredibly velvety mousse, ethereal and cloud-like. Stunning balance and depth. Fantastic acidity and length. A blend of 46% Pinot Noir, 29% Chardonnay, and 25% Pinot Meunier, all from the 2003 vintage. Disgorged 2014. KRUG ID 214028. Score: between 9.5 and 10. Cost: $230 click to buy.

2000 Krug Champagne Blend, Champagne, France
Medium gold in the glass with very fine bubbles, this wine smells of wet stones, sea air, lemon oil, and crushed shells. In the mouth, the wine has a crystalline, quartz-like transparency, through which laser-like flavors of lemon oil, butter crackers, and sea water have incredible persistence. Creamy, velvety mousse. A cooler year showing itself beautifully in the glass. Utterly outstanding, with perfect balance. Aging beautifully. A blend of 42% Pinot Noir, 43% Chardonnay, and 15% Pinot Meunier. Disgorged in 2013. KRUG ID 313041. Score: a perfect 10. Cost: $230 click to buy.

NV Krug Rosé Champagne Blend, Champagne, France
Pale bronze/pink in the glass, this wine smells of forest berries washed in rainwater, a hint of brioche and orange peel. In the mouth, bright brioche, saline, and berries take on a deeply mineral aspect. Outstanding balance and length make this an incredibly sumptuous glass of wine even as acidity keeps it dancing on the palate. A blend of 59% Pinot Noir, 33% Chardonnay, and 8% Pinot Meunier. Contains several vintages of wine, the youngest of which is 2006. Disgorged 2013. KRUG ID 313048. Score: between 9.5 and 10. Cost: $250 click to buy.