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Krug: How to be the Best
By Michael Apstein
Aug 23, 2011
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Although Olivier Krug, Krug’s House Director, and Maggie Henriquez, Krug’s President and CEO, both deny it, Krug is the best Champagne in the world.  While Krug and Henriquez both agree that Krug is “unique,” they refuse to describe it as “the best.” 

It’s obviously hard to assess what’s best.  Assessing Krug’s wines using the typical 100-point scale is meaningless since most reviewers wind up using a five-point range, from 95 to 100.  Market price, while perhaps not perfect, is one good measure of quality.  After all, the famed Médoc Classification of 1855, which enumerated the “best” wines from the Médoc, was put together basically by the price the wines commanded at that time.

Price as an Indicator of Quality

So let’s look at pricing.  Krug’s least expensive bottling, Grand Cuvée, their non-vintage blend and standard-bearer, sells for more than most houses’ super premium bottlings.  According to wine-searcher.com, the nation-wide average price for a bottle of Krug Grand Cuvée is $173.  By comparison, a bottle of 2002 Dom Perignon is $157.  Krug’s 1998 vintage, the one currently available, averages $277 a bottle, nearly three times the price of Bollinger’s current release, the 2002.  The current releases of Krug’s single vineyard Champagnes, the 1998 Clos du Mesnil and the 1996 Clos d'Ambonnay, carry an average retail price far in excess of any other Champagne, $863 and $2,389 a bottle, respectively.

One could argue that the current prices of Champagne, unlike the prices of the Médoc wines in 1855, are a reflection of marketing.  But a well placed source at LVMH Moët Hennessy-Louis Vuitton, the company that owns Krug and many other Champagne houses, says that the marketing budget for Krug is actually less than for other brands. 

In June, I was one of three Americans included in a group of about 20 journalists from the United States, Japan, China, and Europe that Krug brought to Reims for what they called, “Voyage d’Assemblage,” an in-depth view of the exceedingly complex art of blending Champagne.  Although I was fascinated at the prospect of learning the intricacies of creating this marvelous beverage from still wines, my deeper mission during our 36-hour visit to their cellars and vineyards was to discover why Krug is, in the microcosm of Champagne, simply the best. 

A Misconception

The usual explanation for Krug’s stature is that they ferment and age all of their base (still) wines in oak barrels.  “That’s not the reason,” emphasizes Olivier Krug, who practically bubbles (no pun intended) with enthusiasm when he speaks, “and it’s only partially true.  It’s true that we are the only house that ferments all the wines in small 225-liter barrels [the average age of which is about 20 years] but after about three months they are transferred either to vats or bottles.  And 40 or 50 years ago most houses fermented in oak, but Krug was still unique even then.” 

Henriquez emphasizes that small cask fermentation is important--they’ve tried and opted against fermentation in small stainless steel vats--but believes the real advantage is that it allows them to keep the wines separate to see how each evolves.

What They Don’t Do

What Krug doesn’t do to create Grand Cuvée is as amazing as what they do.  They don’t follow the usual conventions for making a super premium wine.

Krug doesn’t farm biodynamically or use natural yeast.  Since they own only about 60 acres of vineyards, which supplies them with only about one-third of their needs, Krug does not have complete control over their grapes.  They buy the rest of what they need from growers, not all of whom are even located in Grand Cru villages.  Krug has three growers in Vaudemange, a Premier Cru village in the Montagne de Reims known for its Chardonnay, from whom they get about 20 wines.  They even get wines from the Aude, the most down-market part of the Champagne region.  And get this; they actually buy from a cooperative.  Moreover, the coop is located in the Vallée de la Marne, an area that lacks the prestige of the Côte des Blancs or Montagne de Reims.  They include Pinot Meunier, the least prestigious Champagne grape, in their blend. Henriquez is adamant, “Everything is determined by tasting.  Since we keep every wine separate, we know every plot.”

“If it’s not the oak, and you don’t follow the usual blueprint for super premium Champagne, what is it?” I asked.  Olivier Krug stated matter of factly, “There is a constant obsession with detail.”  As it turns out, that may be an understatement.

Keep Everything Separate

For Olivier, it’s an extension of the philosophy of Joseph Krug, who founded the company in 1843.  Joseph Krug wanted to create the best Champagne consistently, year after year.  To do so, he insisted on obtaining the best grapes from the best vineyards and blending them to create the best Champagne.  He astutely noted in his diary that the temptation would be to use lesser quality grapes occasionally.  Sometimes you would still succeed, but ultimately you would fail because the inconsistency would damage your reputation.  Wise advice for life as well as Champagne.

The founding Krug initiated the concept of “parcelization.”  He felt it was essential to keep the wine made by different growers separate because the potential for greatest would be lost if a superb plot was mixed with a mediocre one.  By comparison to other regions, it is especially difficult to adhere to the “keep it separate” philosophy in Champagne, where there are thousands of growers and vineyard ownership is fragmented.  In the commercial aspect of this context, economies of scale make the prospect of combining everything into a single vat very appealing.  For Krug, keeping everything separate throughout the entire process is extraordinarily expensive and time consuming because there are hundreds of wines that comprise the final blend of Grand Cuvée. 

The numbers are staggering.  One third to one half of the final blend of Grand Cuvée comes from their stock of 150 reserve wines, which date back 15 years.  The current vintage produces about 250 different wines, according to Eric Lebel, Krug’s head winemaker.  That makes about 400 wines that must be taste--just to get the blending started.   Nevertheless, according to Henriquez and Olivier Krug, it’s what continues to make their Champagnes unique.

Olivier Krug emphasizes that their obsession with parcelization allows them to find the “right” wines for their blends,  “It’s all about individuality, not necessarily quality, because they [Brut Champagnes] all have high quality.  Krug stands apart because of its individuality.”  He relates the example of a grower who had tears in his eyes after tasting the wines made from grapes he supplied to Krug.  They came from two separate small plots separated by a narrow road.  Krug fermented and aged them, like all their wines, separately.  The grower couldn’t believe the difference. 

Olivier Krug echoes Henriquez, “It’s all about the tasting.”  They rejected a wine in 2010 from a grower in Bouzy whose wines they’d used for 15 years.  Indeed, the grower’s 1995 was Krug’s oldest reserve wine and is still used in constructing the Grand Cuvée blend.  But in 2010, the wine didn’t have the precise character Krug wanted.  It turned out that the grower had misjudged and had waited an extra day before harvesting that year. 

Krug explains, “That’s why the Pinot Meunier from the co-op is included.  When you taste it, you see immediately the character it can bring to the final blend.  But if we didn’t keep it separate, we’d never know.”  Which explains the origin of their famed Clos du Mesnil.

Clos du Mesnil

Mesnil sur Oger, an unassuming village in the Côte des Blancs, hides one of France’s most famous vineyards, Clos du Mesnil.  Similar to Burgundy’s Romanée-Conti, Clos de Mesnil is small (just under 5 acres) and has a sole owner, in this case, Krug.  Unlike Romanée-Conti, which sits among a sea of vineyards, Clos du Mesnil is surrounded by houses.  One of world’s greatest vineyards appears to be in a housing development!
   
Olivier Krug explained, “It was purchased without knowing what we had.”  Having lost some of their growers, Krug felt purchasing additional vineyards was a strategic move to guarantee supply for Grande Cuvée.  In 1971 they had the rare opportunity to purchase 12 different plots in the village, totaling about 16 acres, as a package.  One of the plots was the Clos du Mesnil.  Adhering to their philosophy, wines from all of these new plots were vinified and aged separately.  After eight years, they realized that the wine from Clos du Mesnil had, according to Olivier, “An unusual dimension, a purity, and intensity, unlike anything we had had from elsewhere.”  Instead of using it as part of the blend of Grand Cuvée, they decided to bottle it separately, releasing the first vintage, the 1979, in 1986.

Ironically, Olivier points out, the Clos du Mesnil would never have been discovered without their established practice of compulsive tasting of wines from individual parcels to create Grand Cuvée.  Had they just incorporated Clos du Mesnil with the rest of the wines from Le Mesnil or other areas, as other houses do, its individuality would have been lost.  Although Joseph Krug may be rolling over in his grave at the thought of a non-blended, single vintage Champagne, it was his idea of how to create Grand Cuvée that allowed them to ultimately identify the uniqueness of Clos du Mesnil.

How to be The Best?  The Answer:  Pay attention to the details.  Again, good advice for life as well as Champagne.

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Comments or questions?  Write to me at mapstein@winereviewonline.com