Champagne Krug – A Profile

Krug sits at the top of Champagne’s tree.  On any reliable assessment it has to be among the best at least, even if you could make a case for Krug being a rather specific style or interpretation of what champagne can be. For many it is a starry counterweight to the idea champagne has become an ‘affordable luxury’. At north of £100 a bottle for its entry level wine, to most of us it is a name we never drink or at best a rare treat. I once came into the bar of an admittedly swanky two star restaurant to be hit between the eyes by the casual vision of a huge bin of Krug Grande Cuvée sitting in ice on the counter, bold as brass, some 20 bottles, nothing else offered.  It was a masterstroke.  This is what we drink here, it seemed to say.  I thought of Shelley’s Ozymandius: Look on my works ye mighty, and despair!

The house was founded in 1843 by ambitious Johann-Josef Krug, a German from Mainz, having worked first at Jacquesson & Fils based at that time in Châlons-sur-Marne. He married an Englishwoman, a Jacquesson sister-in-law but soonafter unexpectedly broke away from Jacquesson and with a French business partner, set up Krug and Co in Reims.  Three years later he took French nationality and became Jean-Joseph Krug.  His son continued the business, as did his grandson Joseph Krug II and the firm took on the present HQ in Reims in 1893.  The firm prospered, survived the war and inter-war slump and the following second world war.  But by the 1970s owning only some 15.5ha of vineyards in Aÿ and Le Mesnil-sur-Oger, Krug was exposed to rocketing grape prices and sold majority control to the Rémy Martin cognac house but with the Krug family sons Rémi and Henri holding the management reins.  The current sixth generation director of the house is Olivier Krug.  In 1998, the house was bought by the Louis-Vuitton-Moët-Hennessey Group (LVMH) and remains the jewel in their crown.  Eric Lebel is the long-established and respected Chef de Cave.  The first market is Japan, followed by the UK, Italy and France alongside the USA.  Over 85% of production is exported.

The house still owns little actual vineyard, just some 19ha supplying about 30% of their total needs to make about 550 thousand bottles per annum.  The most prestigious house is ’boutique’ in size.  The land owned is split more or less equally between the Côte des Blancs and the southern swathe of the Montagne de Reims east of Epernay.  For all the lack of vineyard holdings, there is a complex and historically established network of closely managed contracts with growers, often focused on specific parcels of vines rather than the bulk of a grower’s crop.  Each year there are exhaustive tastings and selections with no absolute guarantee of the volume of a grower’s crop included in actual Krug cuvées in a single blending.  If it is not selected, the vin clair is sold off.  Surprisingly to many, the house is a fan of Pinot Meunier but insists its interest is in very specific locations rather than the variety in general.  Nevertheless, Meunier forms between 20-25% of the blend of the Grande Cuvée, Vintage and Rosé wines.  Krug is particularly enamoured with the Meunier of the village of Leuvrigny in the Marne, regularly buying over 50% of its total crop from the Ste Gemme Coop.

Krug is famous for completing the first fermentation in small 205L oak barrels and my visits to Krug have coincided with vast numbers of these small casks arrayed like soldiers on parade, being cleaned in the rue Coquebert courtyard.  Their age is immediately obvious; the vast majority are grey-brown old wood with new ones always seasoned three years and bought from two separate established tonnelleries based in Cognac: Taransaud and Séguin Moreau, the latter being the original historical supplier.  The oak from both barrel makers is sourced only from central France, sustainable forests managed under the ‘Hautes Futaies’ quality control system to ensure a straight and tight wood grain.  Krug particularly do not want the explicit taste of vanillin, spices and lactones that comes from new wood flavouring the blend.  The average age of barrels at Krug is 25 years. 

Some commentators suggest this blanket use of barrique for the first fermentation was always a unique feature at Krug, but of course it was the norm for all producers until the 1950s after which stainless steeel vats and temperature control technology took over in Champagne as elsewhere.  Krug however is definitely alone nowadays amongst the big houses in having continued completely with making the vins clairs in small casks.  Other houses use a proportion, even a large fraction at Bollinger, but Krug are settled complelely on wood.  Part of this policy is stylistic, the wish for a full texture and mildly oxygenated complexity in the wines that only wood can achieve.  But the other half of the story links to Krug’s vast micro-sourcing of its grapes.  Small barrels allow tiny parcels of wine to be segregated and assessed for their role in future blends and ageing for reserves.  On a deeper level, Krug’s claim to preeminence is based on a more complex network of blending material and system than other houses.  Here, the blend is all, in time and space.  The Grande Cuvée makes about 85% of the total production and regularly involves the tasting of over 300 separate wines.  The rating of their own vineyards is 99% and of bought-in wine, 98% on the old échelle des crus.

The house’s style can best be summed up as one of extreme textural vinosity and finesse.  While there is a magnifying power and presence in all the cuvées, a tremendous sense of volume and power, it comes across as tightly proportioned, reined in and elegant.  Every wine begs attention and may seem serious and slightly severe in youth but they are never over the top.  The deliberate marking of the wines with an oxidative style does not prevent them from remaining lively and very highlighted with developing details across the palate.  They are quite unremittingly dry and mineral, with average dosage around 6g/L.  They are in general more complex wines than from any other house, which is not to say other houses do not make some very complex wines.  But at Krug this is a given with every version of their cuvées.    

Malolactic is entirely pragmatic here, neither induced or prevented but the barrel halls’ coolness almost certainly holds most of it back and if it happens it will usually be in the reserve tanks. All of the reserve wines, and of course the assemblage tanks are modern stainless steel with all the modern aids for control.  The span of reserve wines goes back to 1995.  Time and ageing here is everything to create finesse and complexity.  Reserve wines make up 30-50% of the Grande Cuvée, a higher proportion than other houses. It is usually blended from around 100 wines from 8-12 vintages and aged six to seven years on lees – and priced accordingly. The cellars hold some 6-8 years of stock.  The ageing on lees of the other Krug wines is around 10 years, except the Rosé which has somewhat less. 

The Grande Cuvée NV styled by Krug as ‘multi-vintage’ rather than NV is the calling card and most of what is made by the house by some way. Recent cuvées have been given back label names to identify their age. ‘Elégance’ is 1998 based, but remember Grande Cuvée has more reserves in it than almost all other NVs, hence the term they insist on for it: ‘multi-vintage’.  The release called ’Balance’ is 2000 based. From June 2011 Krug have provided code details on the back label of Grande Cuvée which can give you details of release date and disgorgement.  Paradoxically a wine blended each time to a house style in fact shows important details of taste and development variation with each release.  ‘Krugistes’ often want to follow these variations so what can identify each release is important to them.  So there is now an I.D. number on each back label.  You can enter it into the bottom right link on the website or follow these slightly treasure trail steps: The first digit is the quarter of disgorgment and the next two the year. The final three digits tell us nothing but are part of the total 6 digit code you put into the website.  In the end all we can learn is the three month period in the year of disgorgement, not the main base year of the bottle, but that is a major step forward.  Even so, would it not be much simpler to just put the base year and disgorgment date on the label like some good producers already do?

The Vintage wines use all three varieties; Pinot Meunier is not neglected here either but the wines have longer ageing before release.  The Krug Collection wines are late-released vintages.  The Rosé rather refutes some of the stylish severity and aged complexity of the rest of the range.  Dusky pink, it has an inveigling aromatic of musk and red berries but a remarkably softly-pointed finesse and length.  The great glories are the two single vineyard wines, always vintage.  Clos du Mesnil, (Blanc de Blancs) is a 1.8ha walled plot well within the village of Le Mesnil, bought in 1971 and the first release being 1979.  It has five separate parcels within its unprepossessing enclosure and not all the fruit is used in every version.  Clos d’Ambonnay’s first vintage is 1995, unveiled with great fanfare in 2008 and 100% Pinot Noir and with a near-zero dosage, although the dosage varies with each release, depending on the vintage conditions and dosage trials to find the perfect balance and potential evolution.  It has been followed by releases of the ’96 and ’98.  The .7ha vineyard was bought in 1994.  The wine immediately fetched the highest Krug release price for any of its range, £3,000 a bottle and up.   

The Wines

Tasted 01/07 at Krug – a range of vins clairs from the ’06 harvest, most of them showing a length and intensity not mirrored by several other houses whose wines we had tasted.  Confirms the quality of Krug’s contracts.
The Grande Cuvée    35-45CH 45-55PN 15-20PM   Tasted on various occasions.  Variable in its apparent level of oxidative style in my view, possibly because of the way it has been kept since release, this is usually fuller and more intensely savoury and biscuit than the NV of any house.   In 03/99 it showed a broad spectrum of exotic aromas and flavours including lime and peach and ginger;  a spirity hint of aldehydic sherry but not overdone.  Somehow the palate almost has to ‘eat’ the wine it is so bodied but is left with an impression of poise and elegance and great length.  Silk texture with real muscle behind.  In 11/07 Deep gold; rather mature with oxidative brioche, smoke and toasty notes.  Peach and hint of cherries’  Lively acidity, taut but nicely poised, mid-weight. Long.
 In 11/09: focused and oxidative note.  Very tight and long.  Some development and good treacle tart note.  Stately but brisk.  
 In 12/10 the  Grande Cuvée (Base 03) had round character but incisive leanness too. Seems to compensate against the year.  Not fat. 
Grande Cuvée (Base 02 I was told) Toasty – but much leaner than 03 and less evolution.
Grande Cuvée (Base 01)  Easily the most complete and balanced, but also, always a warming, elegant brulée note.
Clos du Mesnil ’89  03/99  Very dense and concentrated but with stunning balance and finesse.  Still an impression of great youth.
 Tasted 02/08 at Krug
Krug ’96   Rich yellow, biscuit nose.  Released September ’07.  Woody sous bois aromas, pastry and crystallized orange.  Rather strident acidity as yet but great concentration and length.  Very long.
Rosé NV  Pale pastel- salmon-orange; very reserved nose, not superficially perfumed.  Five years on lees.  Very silky texture.  Lovely.
Krug ’95 (03/07 – London)  Good yellow.  Familiar Krug delicacy of texture and fluidity. Delicate aldehyde mild sherried note – very attractive.  Delightful small granular mousse quality, a laciness and fine-grained mousse which always seems to come from long aging.  Terrific wine. 
Rosé NV  01.09 Pale but fresh pink.  Lovely hazlenuts cream, citrus and wood-aged notes.  Complex and winey with spice and thyme.  Bordering profound.   
12/10 in London:
Clos du Mesnil ’98  Pale gold; paler than the ’98.  Great vinosity and chalky nose.  Mild aldehyde / whisky note & delicate oxidative notes.  Marzpan, almonds and savoury
umami notes.  Tight on palate, high acid and mineral but developed element too. 5-10yrs to peak.  Lovely poise and weight.  Very young now.  Phenolic note in texture, but
 silky overall.  
Krug 98  36PN 45CH (high!) 19PM  Only 1981 has as high Chardonnay.  Deeper hue that CDM 98.  Similar profile but weightier and riper, warmer feel.  More flesh and honey than CDM but still young.
Clos du Mesnil’96  Mid-gold.  Forceful marzepan and grilled almonds and chalky texture.  High acid but orange pastille and trewacle tart too – very good.  Lacy texture and lowish mousse.  Very complex and way to go. But accessible now. 
Krug 96   Deeper colour than CDM 96.  More open now than CDM 96 and less lean. Great aromas of spice, white pepper, vanilla and citrus peel.  Honeyed and thought surprisingly advanced for ’96 – still zingy but the fruit portion developing. 
Clos du Mesnil ’95  Touch paler than the vintage ’95 but not much in it.  High toned acacia and lovely delicate spice and smoke and whisky aldehyde notes. Still quite young – less tense than the ’96.  Perhaps more ready and complete. 
Krug 95  Very specifically toasty and evolved – the first of the flight like this.  Seems much more evolcved than the CDM ’95.  Very attractive and the most ready of the flight.
Clos du Mesnil ’90  Mid deep gold.  Very oxidative character – evolved, but also tight phenolic aspect to the texture, but less of this than the younger vintages.  Very fruity and ripe, heat shows. Much rounder than earlier wines in flight.  Voluptuous.  Sweetness!
Krug 90  Oldish gold.  Touch reductive but blows away. Very ripe and sweet orange, pastille and apricot.  Very expressive and ‘sweet’.  Developing fast. 
Champagne Krug & Co
5 rue Coquebert
51100 Reims
0033 (3) 26 84 44 20
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