Olivier Krug, of the esteemed champagne maison, talks family secrets and serving faux pas (rule no 1: forget the flute).
By LEANNE CLANCY
IN THE RAREFIED world of champagne, few names command quite the same reverence as Krug. Should you have the chance to experience a sparkling splash of Reims’ finest for yourself, know this: the Krug you are drinking today is the embodiment of a bold, 179-year-old dream.
Founded in 1843 by the German-born Joseph Krug in Reims, France, The House of Krug has established itself as a true icon, guided by a vision that has redefined winemaking and elevated French champagne to new levels of excellence.
In the 1830s, Joseph was employed by Jacquesson, the leading champagne house at the time. It was there that he came to understand the impact of the limitations set by the industry (which, at the time, favoured the use of single-vintage base wines), particularly the effect it had on the consistency of the finished product.
The global acclaim and prestige afforded to the maison today has its foundations in the simple philosophy Joseph laid out almost two centuries ago: to create the fullest expression of champagne every year, regardless of annual variations in climate and soil. Essentially, Joseph sought to subvert the prevailing notion of a “good vintage” being something that could only happen every few years. His dream was to create exceptional champagne every year, and he did so by mastering the very precise art of the cuvee (blending).
Olivier Krug is the current directeur de la maison and the sixth generation of his family to be involved in the company. When asked to define the Krug approach, he does so with a typically French lyrical flourish – using the metaphor of an orchestra. “Imagine that Krug Grande Cuvee is like a piece of music,” he explains from his home in the Champagne region of France’s north-east. “Every year, we aim to play a new version of the same piece of music that Joseph wrote for the cuvee back in the 1840s. But every year, we must rely on new musicians [in the form of different base wines, sourced from different years and vineyards] to help ‘compose’ the year’s release.”
The Krug method means you don’t have to wait for a good year to have exceptional champagne. When care is taken to master the blend, consistency can be maintained for years. But with much of Krug’s production relying on methods that are undertaken by hand, the process is incredibly time-consuming, likely the most intensive used in all of Champagne.
Olivier explains that each release of Krug Grande Cuvee requires a committee of six people tasting a mix of about 250 new vintage and 150 reserve wines of varying ages, up to 15 years old. These individual base wines (pinot noir, chardonnay and pinot meunier, sourced from hundreds of vineyard plots in 300 different villages in Champagne) are held in reserve at Krug to be used at their optimal age, which explains why Krug Grande Cuvee is so remarkable.
“First of all, people say it is delicious,” Olivier says. “You have a sip of Krug for the first time and it strikes your senses, literally. When you have a very special champagne, it tastes like nothing else.”
Creating each year’s blend is a long process, requiring 12 to 15 blind tasting sessions held over several weeks. The practice isn’t typical of champagne maisons, but it is de rigueur in the world of Krug. “This is what makes Krug so special,” Olivier says.
Another reason for Krug’s elevated status is its superior ageing potential, making it a sought-after addition to restaurant wine lists and serious home-cellar collections. “A great champagne can age really well over a very long time. You can take a bottle of Krug that is 20 to 30 years old and it still tastes like a baby.”
When pressed to name a particular release that might lend itself to home cellaring, Olivier says: “All of them! Krug does not have what you would call an ‘entry point’ range. We will not release a bottle of Krug unless it’s at its peak. The price differences that you will see are all based on scarcity.”
This scarcity can be attributed to Krug’s extremely limited production. It’s also what makes it attractive to collectors, who, Olivier says, will be rewarded if they exercise restraint and cellar for several years or decades. “Over time, it will develop. In 10 years, it will be exceptional. It will be different, richer – a deeper and more mature type of refreshment.”
And the best way to appreciate a bottle of Krug of any age? “A great champagne should not be served too cold. And I would certainly not use a narrow glass like a flute. It is like going to the opera with earplugs – you lose everything.” He advises opting for a white wine glass instead.
Olivier believes Australians are often better than the French at enjoying the sense of occasion that comes with opening a special bottle of champagne. But no matter where you are in the world, he says, champagne is synonymous with living well.
“Champagne has long been associated with pleasure,” Olivier says. “I sometimes have to explain to sommeliers that the selling point for champagne cannot be technical. When people ask for a bottle of champagne in a restaurant, it’s because they have something to celebrate and to share – it is not the time to tell them about the process. Champagne should always be about the pleasure and the experience.
“Whenever I arrive at a party or a friend’s home and bring a special bottle of Krug champagne, it’s always a joyful moment. You can see the sparkle in people’s eyes, and the ritual of sharing that special moment creates even more sparkle and expectation. This is the true magic of champagne.”