Founded in 1843 by Joseph Krug and handed down through the subsequent five generations to Oliver who runs it today from the original property in Reims, it was once the Champagne of choice for the party-hard set of the 20th century – Ernest Hemingway, Oscar Wilde and Coco Chanel were all fans, and Prince, another follower, may well have been celebrating in 1999 to the nutty, dry and soft mousse of the Krug Grand Cuvée.
A chilled glass of this, their signature bubbly, is offered as I enter the grand Parisian art school along with sommeliers, chefs and fellow journalists from across the world. We are here to spread the word that Krug wants to reconnect with its long history of exuberance and legend and, at the same time, to demonstrate how Champagne is not just an aperitif but an ideal accompaniment to food (the “Thank Krug it’s Friday” fish’n’chips night at Guy Ritchie’s pub the Punch Bowl in Mayfair over the summer was deemed a successful foray into making the wine more accessible).
Tonight at L’Ecole, where Monet studied, six chefs (most with a Michelin star or two) have been invited to create dishes to be accompanied by the Krug Grand Cuvée, the Krug 1995, the 1998, a rosé and the Clos du Mesnil 1998 (see box). It’s a jolly good way to prove a point.
Despite its exclusive image, Champagne is actually a hugely productive area, although the number of bottles shipped varies from year to year. The recession caused a slump in demand and therefore a huge reduction in production in 2009. ‘The idea was to try to rebalance things and keep stocks down,” says Adam Lechmere, editor of decanter.com. “In 2008, the average yield across Champagne was 14,200kg of grapes per hectare, making 405 million bottles in 2008. The 2009 harvest had to be 8,000kg per hectare, which produced 230 million bottles.” The yield for 2010 is set at 10,500kg per hectare and the number of bottles will be known early in 2011.
But, despite the recession, the long-term appetite for one of the most successful of all global brands – if Champagne can be called that – means there has been a move to increase the production area of the appellation and, in 2008, 40 new growing areas were approved. In a country strictly regulated in its wine production and which has encountered high-level wrangling over the ins and outs of expanding the region, planting is unlikely to start before 2017 and, some say, may not even take place at all.
The morning after the party, my group from the UK takes the train directly from Paris to Reims, in just 45 minutes non-stop. My travelling companions include Master Sommelier João Pires of the eagerly awaited Dinner by Heston Blumenthal opening at the Mandarin Oriental in Knightsbridge in January, and Master Sommelier Isa Bal of The Fat Duck. Both are devoted followers of Champagne and food matching.
We arrive at the main courtyard of the property where Oliver Krug, 44, comes to greet us. He is one of the world’s great enthusiasts. In perfect English he talks about how, uniquely, his champagne is 100 per cent fermented in barrels. These barrels are stored row upon row inside a great building on the left of the courtyard as we enter. Inside, the smell of oak is rich and warm. Krug explains that, back in the 1950s, as a more scientific approach to wine-making was adopted, vintners abandoned casks for the ease of fermentation in steel because “you don’t have to work weekends”. It was at this time that his grandfather took “his biggest decision”: to stick with barrels. “The taste of Krug can’t be born without cask fermentation,” says Krug. “However, Krug doesn’t taste like wood. It will clarify in cask in two or three weeks – it is born in cask, we are not maturing in cask.”
We follow him through the rows of barrels and down into the cellars, carved out of the chalk soil and lined with bricks where the Champagne rests at 10C to 12C for its second fermentation, in bottle, for a minimum of six years. Walking through these vast tunnels, we arrive at the “library of reserve wines”. Vats of Champagne are clearly labelled with their year, and each comes from a specific parcel of vines from a specific vineyard. It is these reserve wines that are added to the current vintage – the base wine – to recreate the specific taste of the house Champagne, the Grand Cuvée, at around £110 a bottle (see box).
Coming back up into the room of barrels from the cellars, the aroma is even more potent. It smells like Christmas: all warm and spicy. And as we walk out into the fresh air of the courtyard, a whole collection of tasting glasses awaits. Oliver Krug is now ready to take us through his selection of wines for our enjoyment – and we are more than ready to join him.
For information on restaurants that offer Krug food and champagne pairings, visit krug.com. Website relaunches 24 January 2011.
TWO UNIQUE CHAMPAGNES: THE KRUG GRAND CUVÉE VS KRUG CLOS DE MESNIL
KRUG GRAND CUVÉE
How it’s made: The Grand Cuvée is the Krug house fizz. It is a multi-vintage wine precisely blended each year to taste as identical to the original Grand Cuvée of 1843 as possible. To achieve this, there are 150 Krug wines in its reserve library, dating from 1995, which are carefully selected and blended with the current vintage. “Every year we start from scratch to recreate the Grand Cuvée, based on what we’ve felt during the tasting of 800 to 1,000 samples,” says Oliver Krug.
Tasting notes: Gleaming gold colour, extravagantly expensive bouquet, creamy texture with hints of toast, soft spices, dried and candied fruit.
KRUG CLOS DE MESNIL
How it’s made: After this single parcel of vineyard (1.85 hectares) was bought by Krug in 1971 and replanted with Chardonnay, it became clear that it had something extra special to offer. “My father suggested one grape, one vineyard, one year,” says Oliver Krug. It is the purest expression of this singularity – one soil, the Chardonnay grape and a single vintage, producing just 9,000 to 12,000 bottles annually.
Tasting notes: Luminous pale gold colour, with rich, ripe aromas. It is extremely intense, incisive freshness, with candied citrus, nougatine and honey flavours.
FOOD AND CHAMPAGNE PAIRINGS FROM THREE OF THE WORLD’S GREAT CHEFS
Angela Hartnett (right), Murano in Mayfair, one Michelin star
● Main course: Tea-smoked guinea fowl and fois gras, ceps purée and spiced chestnut velouté.
● Dessert: Gingerbread perdu, orange sorbet, candied ginger and foam Paired with Krug 1998: "An astonishing and vibrant expression of a rich year with a warm summer."
Arnaud Lallement, L’Assiette Champenoise in Reims, two Michelin stars
● Main course: Grilled turbot with yellow wine and gnocchi
● Dessert: Vacherin vineyard peach
Paired with Krug Grande Cuvée: “The peak of richness and elegance in a Champagne.”
Tim Raue, Tim Raue restaurant in Berlin, one Michelin star
● Main course: Hamachi sushi, green curry and ginger
● Dessert: Lemon, shiso and jalapeno
Paired with Krug Clos du Mesnil 1998: "The metaphor of spring from a petit jardin of Chardonnay."