Oeno-File, the Wine & Gastronomy Column

by Frank Ward

Vertical tasting of vintage KRUG

I met Henri Krug for the first time a good quarter-century ago. He looked me in the eye and declared proudly, “Of four hundred bottles of champagne sold around the world, only one will be from Krug!”.

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One of the many Krug singularities is that they mature their champagnes in oak casks. When most other Champagne houses changed over to stainless steel vats Krug bought all their unwanted oak barrels. “They thought I was mad!” said Henri, shaking his head to convey the sorrowing faces of his confrères and rivals.

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Nobody thinks him mad today. Krug still vinifies and matures its champagnes in oak barrels, which have an average age of around 25 years. Even at that age, the wood is not wholly inert: it gives a subtle, understated texture to the wines, a faint graininess. Another thing Henri Krug said that has stayed in my mind ever since: “Krug is first a wine and only second a champagne.” Perhaps this is why it goes so well with food.

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Eric Lebel, wine-maker at the house of Krug, contemplates a sea of vines in one of Krug’s top-rated vineyards which total 20 hectares.

The London tasting, hosted by the Masters of Wine, featured four vintages of their two single-year cuvées, Krug Vintage and Clos du Mesnil (the latter from a single vineyard): 1990,1995,1996, and 1998. We also tasted, at the end, three different bottlings of Krug’s Grande Cuvée, which others would have called non-vintage but which they describe, strikingly, as “multi-vintage”. It shows a lot about the structure, freshness, and longevity of the Krug style that all the wines were poured out well before the tasting began with no loss of effervescence or vitality.

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My favourite vintages were 1996 and 1995 (in that order). These, it transpired, were the two with the lowest yields: 10.500 kg and 10,400 kg respectively.This may have been fortuitous, of course: a comparison of a mere four vintages cannot possibly be conclusive. In general, though, the smaller the yield the greater the concentration.

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In each of the four vintages the Clos du Mesnil was shown before the regular Vintage. This suggests tacit acknowledgement that the Clos is structurally lighter than the Vintage. That was certainly my impression at the end.

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1990 KRUG CLOS DU MESNIL ***(*)
A rich yellow-gold (darker than the ‘95), this has a full, slightly bitter aroma of oak leaves, yellow plums, and marc de champagne (without the alcohol). Bitter orange peel and chrysanthemum can also be picked out. The nose quickly grows softer and rounder. In structure, the wine has much in common with a full-bodied white Burgundy from the same vintage – full and forceful. I note a new element: spray from an orange as it’s being peeled. The flavour is lush and intense: orange and baked apple. The powerful aftertaste is faintly bitter and its acidity is of the grapefruity kind. Still young, it needs four years or so to open and will go on improving for several more.

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1990 KRUG VINTAGE ****
Still richer in colour (is there a faint pinkness from the red grapes?), this has a round, ripe aroma with a certain restraint. Apricot is the dominant scent but there’s a clayey element too. The weighty flavour is buoyant, with a flowing quality. There’s a cross-hatching of sub-flavours on mid-palate, with a touch of bitter orange. Though partly masked by the wine’s sheer power, there’s ample delicacy waiting to emerge as the wine matures. It needs at least 6-7 years to open and will improve for a further 6-8 at the very least.

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1995 KRUG CLOS DU MESNIL ***
This has a rich golden colour and a big, assertive aroma of bitter orange peel, white leather, and marc de champagne (without the latter’s alcohol). There’s a reprise of the marc on the palate, which is assertive to the point of aggressivity. It tastes of apple and endive and the finish, though long, is closed up. Not exactly seductive at present it should, though, be very good to drink around 2015-21 and doubtless beyond.

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1995 KRUG VINTAGE ****(*)
This golden wine has a marvellous, lushly fruit y aroma that’s quite a bit rounder than the CDM. Honey, peach, and syrup combine to deliver a scent that’s strikingly like that of a Criots Bâtard-Montrachet (perhaps the most succulent of Burgundy’s six Grand Cru whites). The rotund flavour suggests Mirabelle, endive, and baked apple. Fresh and flowery, it is more enticing than the CDM and has a lovely finish with lift. It should blossom spectacularly in about 2 years but real maturity won’t arrive before 2017-18 and should persist for several more years.

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This champagne cries out for food: sweetbreads in cream sauce with morels or Bresse chicken with girolles…

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1996 KRUG CLOS DU MESNIL ****
A limpid green-gold, this has a swirling, aerial scent, very malic, of russet apple, pistachio, and fennel. Plenty of mousse. The lovely flavour suggests cooking and crab apples, gooseberry, and dough. After a moment an agreeable endive-like bitterness makes itself felt. The flavour is dry and uncompromising, with minerality, and one is reminded of Grand Cru Chablis with bubbles. There’s a flinty accent to the full but extraordinarily buoyant finish. Long. Three years to open then 5-6 + of further development.

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1996 KRUG VINTAGE *****
The rich green-gold colour gives this the look of a Bâtard-Montrachet. The noble, very round aroma lives up to this, being of great intensity and superb balance, though more akin to a Chevalier-Montrachet – the most refined of white Burgundies. Totally alive on the palate, without a scrap of aggressivity, it tastes in succession of bitter orange, grapefruit, lemon, chalk, and mineraIs. Of exceptional purity, this great Krug has a multi-facetted quality, like a cut diamond. Still needing 2-3 years to open fully, it will go on revealing fresh nuances for many more.

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A truly great champagne.

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Krug’s Clos du Mesnil – a miniscule plot, 1.85 hectares of Chardonnay, giving one of the world’s rarest and most complex champagnes (the 1998 costs 690 euros a bottle in France).

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1998 KRUG CLOS DU MESNIL ***(*)
This has a noble, very subtle aroma of russet and crab apples, cloudberry, and sweet almond. The microscopic bubbles cause it to shiver gently in the mouth accentuating a distinctly malic flavour that is, however, free of sharpness. The amply fruity, very true flavour has the restrained bitterness of a perfect endive and the steely structure of a top Chablis. The finish continues to expand, giving hints of corn-on-the-cob and pistachio. Already good to drink, it will improve for the rest of the decade.

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1998 KRUG VINTAGE ****
The same year but a very different aroma: yellow plum, russet apple, walnut. The flavour is rounder, more viscous, and more forceful than the CDM’s. Quite forward, with a chiselled quality, it seems to hover in the mouth, almost weightless. The aftertaste is long and delicate, very clean-cut and a shade less bitter than the CDM. There’s a hint of something like silex on the very finish. A long, very pure champagne to enjoy around 2014-20 and doubtless beyond.

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This particular vintage is made from 36% Pinot Noir, 19% Pinot Meunier, and 45% Chardonnay – the latter an untypically high proportion. “There’s no formula for the grape mix,” says Eric Lebel, Krug’s wine-maker. “Nor do we decide whether or not to have a malolactic fermentation. We leave it to nature to decide that. The Pinot Noir is usually the dominant grape but, as it happened, the Chardonnay was the most successful variety in 1998 – a very hot vintage – so for once it was the main one.”

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It’s now time to taste three versions of the Grande Cuvée, described by Henri Krug, as we have seen, as a “multi-vintage” champagne. This, the house of Krug has always insisted, not only represents the bulk of their production but also corresponds to their notion of excellence.

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By using only top years, and by incorporating only those elements that contribute some precious additional nuance, they endeavour to make a wine that could not be created from any single vintage.

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What quickly becomes clear is that none of the Grandes Cuvées is in any way overshadowed by any of the vintages, not even the 1996, though it should be noted that all three of the former are more fully-evolved than any of the latter. (it would have been fascinating to see at least one vintage that was old enough to be wholly mature).

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The Grande Cuvée is made from 100-150 different wines from “a multitude of plots, sometimes smaller than a domestic garden,” we are told. Seven to twelve vintages go into each successive bottling of the Cuvée and of the reserve wines used, 30-50% are already around 15 years’ old. The G.C. then undergoes a minimum of six more years’ maturation.

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As I understood it, the three samples began with the oldest and progressed towards the youngest.

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KRUG GRANDE CUVEE I ****(*)
This limpid green-gold wine has a vital aroma, noticeably chalky, that’s more flowery than any of the pure vintage wines, exhaling a meld of elderflower, acacia honey, and yellow plum. I’m struck by the complexity of the very focused nose. On the palate, steely, crisp, with suggestions of yellow plum, baked apple. Sub-flavours spring up, bringing hints of sweet apple and grapefruit peel. Gently seething, in no way gassy, this stylish, medium-bodied wine is structured enough to go on improving for at least five years. It goes on – distractingly – to show fresh nuances even as one turns to the next sample.

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KRUG GRANDE CUVEE Il ****(*)
Tasters sensitive to colour nuances will be reminded of a top Puligny like Les Pucelles (one of the most refined). The delectable bouquet, fully mature, is both complex and complete. Deliciously fruity on the palate, highly complex, this ethereal champagne is bone-dry without austerity and exhibits a honeyed mellowness. Tasting like a Chevalier-Montrachet with bubbles it shows a faint, agreeable bitterness on a finish that comes in waves. The middle flavour swells into a discreet richness and the aftertaste is highly mineral. Still able to improve.

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KRUG GRANDE CUVEE III ****
Similar appearance, with a chalky aroma with real lift. White peach and honey come irresistibly to mind. There’s a reprise of white peach on the palate, with a hint of peach-stone, with a suggestion of quinine on the extremely long finish. An ethereal champagne. Lovely.

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© Frank Ward 2011

Photos : courtesy Krug

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