Krug enjoys a unique position among the top Champagne houses. It is not only considered one of the 3 bests (with Salon and Bollinger), but it is known to be somehow unique in the way it makes its wine, with a mostly very traditional process, and a skillful blending of dozens of millesimes/vineyards for each wine.
Its name is less flashy than other well-known brands as it does not advertise, but with 90% of its production being exported, it holds a solid position and a cult status among the Champagne lovers of the world.
The steady success and high prices of the top-tier
Champagnes have some
analysts think that elaborate and subtile marketing strategy are at work behind the scene, like in this article by Forbes, but at Krug, immutable quality and costly tradition seem to be the real drive behind its mythic status.
Krug is not open for visits, but thanks to Frederic Ballario, whom I met in a Loire wine gathering and who works at Krug, B. and I could live the rare experience (and share it) of visiting the winery and learning to know the wines.
Johan Joseph Krug, the founder, arrived alone in Reims from Germany somewhere between 1815 and 1820. He began to work as an accountant at Jacquesson Champagne in 1834 and in about 10 years, became the second in charge of the Champagne House, learning meanwhile everything about Champagne, the terroir, the tastings, and travelling a lot. Unsatisfied with the Champagne style of his boss, he finally creates his own Champagne house, with the help of Jacquesson in 1843, where he will materialize his search for the unique Champagne style.
The underground facility and cellars were built in 1870. From the beginning Johan Joseph Krug set the guidelines that made this Champagne different : First vinification in 205-liter casks, successive tastings to sort the dozens of vineyards/millesimes to find the best match for the Krug style, and bottles spending many years in the cellar (from 6 years for Krug Grande Cuvée and Krug Rosé, to 15 years for vintages) before being disgorged so as to have this long contact with the lees. The methods and rules of procedures were transmitted from generation to generation (now the 6th) among the Krugs (Johan-Joseph left many notebooks full of notes), and the first oenologist ever hired here was in 1985... Even though LVMH, the french luxury group, bought Krug in 1999, the Krug family remains at the wheel and keeps doing the utmost important tastings and blendings choices. Like all Champagne houses, Krug uses both the grapes from its own vineyards (now 20 hectares) and grapes from contracted vineyards in the region. Krug's production is 500 000 bottles a year.
Frederic shows us the cooperage [picture above] where they repair the casks. At Krug, they only use old casks for the first fermentation, and they regularly have to repair them. The (empty now) casks are stored in a large room. they have a life expectancy of 35 years, and the oldest was made in 1966. The fermentation will take place for 5 to 10 days in these casks (no temperature control), and the wine will stay about 2 months in there.These old casks allow a natural micro-oxygenation which will bring a sort of vaccination against future oxygenations : the wine will be more robust and the slight oxygenation will bring some structure. This is an essential moment and Krug's wine is born at this stage. The tastings of the many wines/plots begin after the end of the fermentation, while the wine is still in the casks.
This picture was shot at Krug, and these new casks are full, but not with Krug's wine : At Krug, the new 205-liter casks have to go through two years of successive "rinsings" with wine, to get rid of the new wood characteristics. The wines used for this stage are wines which have not been selected for Krug's wine, or lees from the decanting stage. The new casks will store successively several of these wines during 2 or 3 years before being used for the fermentation. The goal is to neutralize the casks.
These vats are where the wine goes right after the press. After decantation, it is mixed with the yeasts (that are cultivated by Krug) and goes into the casks for fermentation.
Krug makes several Champagnes. the first of them is :
__The Grande Cuvée. It will make up 85% of the total volume. This Champagne is as the founder wanted it to be, not a "cuvée de base" like elsewhere (there are only "cuvées d'exception" at Krug). No real recipe, every year they have to make the blend with 25 to 40 plots of Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier. The reserve wines part will be 30 to 50%, from 6 to 8 millesimes... This selection through multiple tastings is Art : The Grande Cuvée 2005 is made with 82 different wines when you count the varieties, the plots, the villages and reserve wines...
Here are the reserve wines that will be part of the final blend: a few dozen vats holding reserve wines from 1990 to 2004. Krug is the only Champagne house to use such a big proportion of older millesimes (reserve wines) for its blends. They can make up to 50% of the wine. The oldest reserve wine today is the a Mesnil 1990. It was part of the Grande Cuvée 2005, but every year is different. For the Grande Cuvée 2004, for example, there was no need to add the reserve 1990 in the blend. After the blending, the Grande Cuvée wine is bottled with yeast and sugar (for the second fermentation) and spends 6 years in the cellar. For the 2005 : until 2012.
The second Krug Champagne is :
__Krug Rosé. Also a blend of several varieties, villages and reserve wines, but a little less : 40 to 50 wines here, plus 10% of Pinot Noir vinified in red. The rosé here is not a Krug Grande Cuvée with red wine : it is a completely different sort of blend. Very small quantity produced. First release was 1983 (after 10 years of experimentation). Sells very well in Japan.
the 3rd Krug Champagne is :
__Krug Millésimé. The idea is to translate a particular year with Krug's signature. The Krug Millésimé is not made every year, plus it is released after a long elevage in the cellar (10 to 14 years) : the 1995, for example, was released last may 2006. The goal with these wines is to express something exceptional, the Krug Millésimé must transmit a different emotion, compared with the Krug Grande Cuvée. The tastings by the Krugs and the oenologists are central to decide when a Millésimé can be released. The 1989 for example, was released before the 1988 (which was not ready yet). I have read somewhere that Krug Champagnes have an extremely long lifespan, and Frederic says he personally tasted a Krug Millésimé 1904, and that it seems that the spine of the wine, its structure, doesn't die. He still remembers the aromas of mokka and caramel... Instead of a curve going down, it is a straight line entering different stages every 10 years or so.
The 4th wine is :
__Krug Collection. A proportion of the Millésimés wines is put aside and reoffered a second time after 15 to 20 years of aging in Krug cellars, to show the immanence of Krug Champagnes. The 1981, for example, has been released first in 1992 or 1993, and now again, as Krug Collection 1981. Frederic says he tasted a Collection 1961, it was superb, like the subtile aromas of fresh chanterelles. They had opened the bottle here because the closure was damaged and there was no gas anymore, but in spite of that, it was perfect. He tasted a Krug 1929 last week, it had all its bubbles. The long years of elevage and the Millésimés that are put aside explain why Krug has so many bottles in its cellars : 3,5 millions[pictures right and left]. When the bottles finished their riddling-table stage, they are stocked upside down ("sur pointe") to keep the lees in the bottleneck [picture upper left] until disgorgement.
The last Champagne :
__Krug Clos du Mesnil. In 1971 the Krug family in an effort to have more vineyards of its own, bought the Clos, intending to use the grapes for the Grande Cuvée blend. The clos is a 1,87-hectare walled vineyard in the middle of the village of Mesnil sur Oger, with houses all around magnifying the reverberation. Only 20 cm of earth, then chalk. The Krugs will test and taste the wine of two consecutive harvest, and the results are so outstanding that they decide to vinify separately. So, this Champagne (8000 to 14000 bottles a year) is one variety (Chardonnay), one plot, one year, but still with the Krug signature.
Some modern features are incorporated in the winery when preliminary tests show it does not alter Krug's specificity : Riddling machines capable of manipulating mechanically hundreds of bottles on a pallet are used, on pair with the traditional riddling tables. Along the 3-4 months of the riddling stage, the machines can rotate the bottles to the desired up-side-down verticality (to bring the lees into the bottleneck) with a perfectly delicate and precise movement. The fermentation in stainless steel vats was also tested a few years ago, but never incorporated. This practice, which was endorsed by many Champagne houses, would have altered the Krug Champagne for the worse, and they clinged to the old barrels.
About the central role of the tastings by the Krugs cum oenologists : From october to march, 2 to 3 per week, and 30 to 40 wines each time. In march, the Grande Cuvée blend is approved. Even before the second fermentation and the 6 years elevage, they have a mental gustatory anticipation of the wine. Making the real blend after selecting the miniature blend will take 1-2 months. The old casks which were empty since december, are humidified continuously on 1-2 months to be tight again.
Tasting now :
__1 Grande Cuvée. Clear wine with a bit greenish. Bit of spices, pepper. Gingerbread, B. says. A mouth feel thats asks for more.
__2 Krug Rosé Brut. Onion skin colour. Delicate, light. Neat end of the mouth. The 3 varieties, plus 1% of red Pinot Noir.
__3 Krug 1995. From bottles opened this morning. Very vivid and fresh for an 11 years old. Frederic says that it is still a baby... Green lemon, citrus. 1995 was a hot-summer year with cool nights here, especially the 2 weeks before harvest.
__4 A surprise: he pours the wine, saying the bottle was opened a few days ago. Lots of complexity, intensity of the mouth. I also like the light oxydative feel, but he says it was not there at opening. It is Krug Collection 1981...B. says : refinement without weaknesses.
__5 Other surprise : That is superb. very "lemon zest" on the nose, B. says. Bubbles are more present. Very rich structure. Spices. This is Krug Clos du Mesnil 1995, reaching the market now. Really nice. Even 10 minutes after, the nose has new notes of honey, hazelnut... Very pure, long mouth. And the Chardonnay typicity. I guess the fact that the Clos and its 1698-built wall are embedded in the middle of the village, coupled with the soil characteristics, explain the wine.
Rare visit with rare wines, thank you Frederic.