Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Krug Champagne: First, Learn Patience (Part 2)

"Krug is a real wine; most champagne is fizzy celebration drink."
--The Los Angeles Times, September 14, 1975, A quote from Remi Krug

As I mentioned yesterday, Krug & Co. was founded by Joseph Krug in 1843, and only six years later, his Champagne was available in the United States. Joseph's philosophy and beliefs about Champagne production still have a significant effect on Krug's current winemakers. The company has remained true to its roots, yet still has looked to the future, innovating when they feel it will lead to better Champagne. That may be an important reason why this House has such a stellar reputation.

Recently, I interviewed Julie Cavil (pictured above), the Wine Director at Krug, delving deeper into the world of Krug, gaining a better understanding of what lies behind the production of their esteemed Champagnes. Julie was personable, sharing numerous stories about her time at Krug, and her passion for Champagne and Krug was more than evident. To her, this is the best job ever and she is quite sincere in her love for Krug and Champagne.

Julie began her career working in customer relations for an advertising agency, but in 2001, desirous of a career change, she moved with her husband to Champagne. She studied winemaking at the University of Reims and worked during four harvests at Moët & Chandon. In 2006, she was hired as a winemaker at Krug. As the Wine Director, she works with four other team members, and she is involved in the production of all of their different Champagnes. She only has praise for her team members.

Compared to some of the other major Champagne Houses, production at Krug is relatively small, possibly around 600,000 cases as contrasted to the millions of cases produced by other Houses. Most of their production is for their Grand Cuvée. Julie stated that Krug possesses the autonomy of the small Grower but the means of a big House. Their production level is likely to remain relatively the same for years to come, with no desire to increase their output. They don't want to sacrifice quality for quantity.

As Julie put it, at Krug, they never blend an element they don't know. Currently, their winemaking team is able to handle the amount of wines and samples they possess, with the ability to properly understand each and every separate element. That is vital when you are blending wines to create Champagne. If they suddenly doubled the amount of samples, they would be overwhelmed, unable to properly devote sufficient time to each sample, Their understanding of the sample wines would suffer and they couldn't properly blend what was needed. They require a certain level of intimacy with the sample wines that cannot be achieved by them past a certain point.

It is a great challenge, as Julie mentioned, to make the very best Champagne, year after year, replicating the same quality. The object of Champagne is to pick and select grapes from all over to produce the desired blend. It is about the expression of the grapes and vineyards, despite annual variations due to vintage. For the blend, you "need strong voices in individual elements" and want to preserve individual typicity, what makes each plot unique.

However, at Krug, there is no compromise permitted when selecting the wines for their blends and Julie provided a fascinating example. Krug had produced about 12,000 bottles of 1999 Clos Mesnil, from one of their top vineyards. The tasting committee sampled this wine on numerous occasions, and Julie mentioned that though it was good, there was something missing from the middle of the palate. Their opinion was that the Champagne didn't meet their standards and they proposed to the President of Krug that the Champagne shouldn't be released. That is a huge statement! The President eventually agree with them, the Champagne wasn't released and most of it ended up being used as a reserve wine. Julie was extremely proud of her decision being backed by the President.

"Krug has body, you have something to eat in Krug, a roundness, a fairly strong bouquet. That's why you can even drink it after coffee."
--The Los Angeles Times, September 14, 1975, A quote from Remi Krug

Julie mentioned that one of the first lessons you learn at Krug is to have patience. The production process is a lengthy one, including at least 7 years of aging for their Grand Cuvée, and even longer, 0-12 years, for their Vintage champagnes. When you consider the addition of reserve wines to each blend, it is easy to see why they sometimes say that at least 20 years go into the production of each bottle of Krug.

Around 1848, Joseph Krug penned a notebook of his beliefs and philosophy on Champagne, giving a sense to what he was doing, one that is still used at Krug. Joseph wrote the notebook for his son, Paul, who was only six years old at the time. In time, Paul would assume the leadership at Krug, bringing an equal passion as his father. Joseph's first belief was that you need good elements for good champagne, and his second belief was that a good House should only create two cuvées of quality, a Good Cuvée and a Cuvée of the Circumstances. Currently at Krug, their first cuvée is their Grand Cuvée and the second is their Vintage. There isn't a hierarchy of quality between these two Champagnes, merely a difference in price.

Everything begins in the vineyard, where Krug seeks the best elements for their Cuvées. Each Clos is the best illustration of the House, presenting 1 plot, 1 year, 1 variation. Their vision of the cuvée is to push each unique plot. They are referred to as a soloist wine, and by the end of harvest they will have about 250 soloist wines. They must respect what they harvest, and fortunately have the luxury of being at the right time at the right plot during harvest. They sleep little during the pre-harvest, as they must taste all of the lots each day before harvest, to monitor the aromatics. Once they detect no more vegetal notes, when the taste of the grapes is fruity, they know they have about 24 hours to pick them all.

However, they will only use the best, as they don't want to make an average wine. For example, the Clos de Mesmil plot is only 1.84 hectares, yet there could be a difference as much as 1.5% alcohol in different parts of that small plot. As such, not all of the grapes are the same, and Krug must differentiate the best.

Everything will then be vilified separately, the preservation of their individuality, best reflective of the specific vineyard. This is a time of close attention to details, of intense monitoring, as a small mistake can ruin everything far too easily. They need a naturally clarified must and Krug is very demanding with all of their pressing houses, keeping them to a 24 hour deadline.

The musts are initially kept in casks, with an average age of 17 years, and Krug owns about 4700 casks. Sometime in November or December, the tasting committee, which is composed of six people, equally split between male and female, will taste all of the musts, which are still young, with an understated personality. Each of the six people has a different personality, and some are more sensitive to certain aromas than others. They know each other well, working as a collective for the blending process. At this point though, no decisions are made, simply initial observations.

Traditional racking is then done and the wines are isolated in small stainless steel vats. At this time, the tasting committee will also taste all of the reserve wines, about 150 in total from 15 different harvests. It won't be until the Spring that the tasting committee will return to the wines from the last harvest. The wines open up more in Spring, and they can witness the evolution of the wines from winter to spring. For one hour each day, they will taste about 15 wines, giving descriptions to each wine, including deciding whether the wine will go into the Grand Cuvée, the reserve wines, or even the Rosé.

Finally, they construct a blueprint for the Cuvée, based on their tasting notes only, and in the last week of March, they create their blend. This year, they will bottle the 174th edition of the Grand Cuvée, which won't be released until 2026. With all of the different wines they have available for blending, it isn't too difficult to make the Grand Cuvée. It is more difficult to decide on whether to bottle a Vintage or not. One of the toughest challenges is choosing whether to use a wine for a Vintage Champagne or to give it to the Reserve wines. There is a definite need to replace Reserve wines to preserve future creators of Grand Cuvée. For example, the 2012 vintage was great, but there was a small yield, and they made the touch choice not to make a Vintage that year and give all of the wine to the Reserve wines.

"Private Cuvee is Krug. A vintage Krug is a marriage between Krug and the year."
--The Los Angeles Times, September 14, 1975, A quote from Remi Krug

I tasted through three Krug wines, including the 2004 Vintage, the Grand Cuvée, and the Rosé. My personal favorite was the Rosé, though all three were excellent and I wouldn't be disappointed drinking any of them.

There is always a story to tell about a Vintage. At Krug, Vintage is how they tell the story of the tasting room after the harvest, how they personally felt about that year. Their Vintage Champagne is always a blend of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier. They also prefer to have two different Vintages available in the market for comparison purposes. Julie stated that her favorite more recent Vintage was 1988, which was an austere year. She loves that austerity, feeling it is a signifier of elegance and an excellent aging potential. 1988 is a Vintage for connoisseurs, and will become even better with more time. Julie is also a fan of the 2002 Vintage.

"...the 1928 vintage Krug, which many experts call the champagne of the century."
The Los Angeles Times, September 14, 1975

The 2004 Vintage (about $250) is part of a trilogy of excellent, consecutive years, from 2002 to 2004, and is only the second trilogy in the history, the other being 1988 to 1990. The 2002 to 2004 wasn't released in chronological order but in tasting order, so the 2003 Vintage was released first. The 2004 Vintage, which Julie has given the nickname "luminous freshness," is a blend of 39% Chardonnay, 37% Pinot Noir, and 24% Pinot Meunier. I found this Champagne to be fresh, elegant and complex, with intriguing notes of citrus, brioche, and honey. Intensely aromatic, dry, refreshing, and with a lengthy, pleasing finish. This is an absolutely delicious Champagne, where each sip brings something new to your palate.

The Grand Cuvée (about $180) is usually a blend of about 150-250 wines, and at Krug, they like to use musical references to explain their Champagne. Sometimes they refer to the "music of the year," comparing specific vintages to types of instruments. For example, 1990, which was a hot year, is compared to brass instruments while 1998 is compared to a string quartet. Then, when they put together all of these varied ensembles, they can create a full symphony orchestra in their Grand Cuvée. 

This particular Grand Cuvée is the 167th edition, which is a blend of 48% Pinot Noir, 35% Chardonnay, and 17% Pinot Meunier. The blend also contains 191 different wines, including 13 vintages (the oldest from 1995, the newest from 2011), and 42% Reserve wines. Once again, this Champagne was fresh, elegant and complex, and seemed to possess even more complexity than the Vintage. Besides fascinating notes of citrus, tropical fruit, floral elements, candied fruit, and toast, there was a subtle earthiness as well. Excellent acidity, a powerful finish, and this is certainly a Champagne to slowly savor, enjoying each intriguing moment, bringing subtle differences with each sip.

Krug values transparency in most matters, so each bottle of Grand Cuvée now possesses a special ID code on their label, which can be used on the Krug website to provide information about that particular edition of the Grand Cuvée. One of the only pieces of information you won't find is the disgorgment date as they feel it gives the wrong message to consumers.

My favorite of the three Champagnes was the Rosé (about $300), which Julie stated is the toughest blend to produce. For a long time, Krug was opposed to producing a Rosé, as initially Rosé was seen as a simple wine, and not a high end product that would fit within the Krug portfolio. It was the 6th generation which decide to experiment with Rosé, using grapes from the 1976 harvest, which was a hot year. They kept the Rosé a secret as it aged in their cellar. Finally, during a Sunday lunch, they poured some of the Rosé, blind, for their father, Paul Krug, who had long opposed Rosé. He approved of it and Krug finally began to create this blend each year.

Julie stated that the Rosé doesn't possess the same depth as the other blends as it contains far less wines. A significant aspect of the difficulty of producing this wine is the addition of some red wine. Thus, they have to anticipate what the blend will offer after about seven years of aging. The red wine changes everything, making that anticipation more formidable. However, this Rosé was my favorite of the three Champagnes.

This Rosé is the 22nd edition, a blend of 51% Pinot Noir, 17% Chardonnay, and 32% Pinot Meunier. The blend also contains 22 wines, 5 vintages (2005-2010), 47% Reserve wines, and 9% macerated Pinot Noir. Elegant, complex, and subtle, it seduces your palate with its compelling melange of flavors, from red fruits to citrus. It is delicate and fresh, with crisp acidity and pure deliciousness. Each sip tantalizes and satisfies, and will make you yearn for another sip. While it might not possess the depth of the other two Champagnes, it still pleases on many levels. This is a Champagne of romance, a bottle to share with your significant other for celebrations, or simply to make any night even more special.

Krug doesn't produce inexpensive Champagnes, and for most people, they would be a significant splurge. If we look back almost fifty years, we can find a newspaper which addressed this very issue. The Pottstown Mercury, September 8, 1972 (PA) published an article, High Cost of Champagne Due to Process of Making Wine, and primarily used the example of Krug. As the article stated, "Krug is the champagne house that nearly every connoisseur ranks first, as one of three or four favorites, or in a class by itself." The article discussed a number of reasons why Krug incurred significant costs in producing their Champagne, such as the cost of its grapes to its small oak casks. The article concluded, "Such scrupulous rejection of everything but the best, vigilent control, retention of innumerable hand operations, and long years of cellar age result in superb champagne. Naturally it's expensive."

What is the future of Krug? At Krug, they are always questioning their methods, processes, and technology, seeking ways to optimize their work and bring more precision. Despite their strong foundation in the past, in the philosophy of Joseph Krug, they still value technology. However, their primary question when addressing new technology is, will it bring change for the best? And often, they need to wait seven years, when the Champagne ages in the cellar, before determining the effect of many changes. Sustainability is a priority to them and they are always learning more and more about this issue. They also have been accumulating mounds of data about each of their vineyard plots, a repository of information for future generations.

Finally, Julie also mentioned that a dream of hers would be to one day make her own type of Krug. To her, Champagne is charismatic, possessed of great expression. Her vision would be to "try to reconcile all the elements into one," to put the power, elegance and aromatics into "one sip." That sounds like quite the challenge and I hope that Julie gets that opportunity one day.

"Only by blending, do you get balance. It is like a symphony as opposed to a sonata. From beginning to end, we make choices of what fits with our quality."
--Chicago Tribune, August 26, 1976, quote from Remi Krug

No comments: