Olivier Krug is like the unicorn of Champagne: a near legendary figure almost impossible to catch, but if you persist and succeed, the experience is always memorable. After a lengthy correspondence and much proposed rescheduling, it was thanks only to a fortunate (for us, anyway) last-minute cancellation of an event in Italy that we managed to pin him down to a meeting in June (indeed, it’s likely Olivier woke up on the morning of our appointment in a different country – if so, he was too gracious to admit it, and too professional to show any sign of fatigue).
The tireless great-great-great-grandson of founder Joseph Krug, Olivier has quite literally devoted his life to sharing the Krug doctrine around the world – a role in which he undeniably excels. The Maison he represents is synonymous with hedonism, making it hard not to imagine the Director’s role as one of languishing opulence. However, a cursory glance at his social media activity exposes the reality of a modern luxury goods salesman’s bustling – albeit up-market – international schedule.
Staying connected with his loyal and growing Instagram following alone is a tremendously time intensive task. “It can sometimes take up to an hour a day,” Olivier admitted, though it is work he clearly enjoys. He told us of a friendly competition he is engaged in with Arnaud Lallement – the three-star chef of family owned restaurant l’Assiette Champenoise, located just outside of Reims. Olivier and Lallement are the two most followed people in Champagne and supposedly joke about who will become more famous. At the time of our meeting, Lallement just about had the upper hand. A little over two months down the line however, and Olivier is leading by nearly a thousand followers.
It is testament to Olivier’s hard work and air miles that Japan is now Krug’s biggest market – a fact he was rightly chuffed to announce during our visit. Olivier has a particular fondness for Japan. He worked there for two years in his early days at Krug, speaks the language proficiently and affectionately refers to the export market as “his baby”. Following quite far behind in terms of export volume are the US, UK, Italian, and then French, markets.
Though he must surely have vocalised the phrase countless times this past month alone, it was with seemingly authentic conviction that he shared once more the vision of his ancestor: “A good house should offer two champagnes of the same quality – one to tell the story of the year [Krug Vintage] and one to tell the story of the Maison [Krug Grande Cuvée].”
With this he introduced the latest chapter in the Maison’s tale: Grande Cuvée 167th Edition NV. Following the tough financial years of the late 2000s – during which production was intentionally restricted – Edition 167, which is made primarily from wine of vintage 2011, is, according to Olivier, “the largest ever release, as far as I know.”
The introduction of the Editions programme, whereby each annual release is numbered, has given rise to a new and delightful past-time: Grande Cuvée vertical comparisons. As Olivier put it himself: “Tasted alone, one might guess [their glass] is Grande Cuvée… tasted alongside each other, their distinct personality is clear.” We went back as far as Edition 161, primarily vintage 2005, and they really are very individual creations. The reserve wine content yoyo’s year upon year, from as low as 25% to as high as 42%, presumably to prevent strong vintage characteristics from dominating. However, they are far from the identical, and the decision to treat each blend’s unique personality as a virtue to be celebrated, is a move we will never tire of praising.
|Krug Grande Cuvée 167th Edition NV | Krug ID: 118008 | 17.5+/20
47% PN, 36% CH, 17% PM | Base Vintage: 2011 | Reserve Wine: 42% | Lees Ageing: 5 Years | Disgorged: Winter 2017 | Dosage: 6 g/l | Post-Disgorgement Ageing: 2 Years
That distinct Krug aroma grabs you, very youthful and you get all the aromas of bright yellow fruits like peach and pineapple and that citrus peel. As you go on to taste you get some of those other dried fruits, so the baked bread, roasted almond, smoked walnuts and then the lees ageing shows. Layers of texture and a crisp finish that lasts long. Drinking well now, but would benefit from a couple years and will drink well for at least 20+ years.
|Krug Grande Cuvée 166th Edition NV | Krug ID: 217017 | 18/20
45% PN, 39% CH, 16% PM | Base Vintage: 2010 | Reserve Wine: 42% | Lees Ageing: 6 Years | Disgorged: Spring 2017 | Dosage: 6 g/l | Post-Disgorgement Ageing: 2 Years
The generosity of fruits as always is there. This has real concentration: dried apricots and heaps of cashews and that rich ripe collection of yellow fruits like plum, pineapple and exotic hints of papaya. The texture has a real rounding effect on the palate, with freshness, acidity and a hint of salinity that really lifts up the finish being clean and light. Very good.
|Krug Grande Cuvée 163rd Edition NV | Krug ID: 215031 | 18+/20
37% PN, 32% CH, 31% PM | Base Vintage: 2007 | Reserve Wine: 27% | Lees Ageing: 7 Years | Disgorged: Spring 2015 | Dosage: 6 g/l | Post-Disgorgement Ageing: 4 Years
Starts a little tight on the nose; this is definitely having a period where it has closed down; the palate shows plenty of dark fruits like cherry and spicy black currants and then layers of dried fruits and roasted nuts. This is really refreshing and has a lightness that dances on the palate leaving you refreshed after a pretty big mouthful of champagne.
|Krug Grande Cuvée 162nd Edition NV | Krug ID: 416037 | 18+/20
44% PN, 35% CH, 21% PM | Base Vintage: 2006 | Reserve Wine: 40% | Lees Ageing: 9 Years | Disgorged: Autumn 2016 | Dosage: 6 g/l | Post-Disgorgement Ageing: 3 Years
Has a lovely up front charm right from the beginning, you get lots of tropical ripe fruits, really juicy pineapple and crunchy pears with hints of spice and creamy vanilla. On the palate you get more of the dried zesty lemon, smoked nuts and the lees texture with ageing adds such richness. Really wonderful moment this Edition is at right now, longer lees ageing of some 9 years is really paying dividends to the champagne.
|Krug Grande Cuvée 161st Edition NV | Krug ID: 312036 | 18.5/20
44% PN, 37% CH, 19% PM | Base Vintage: 2005 | Reserve Wine: 32% | Lees Ageing: 6 Years | Disgorged: Summer 2012 | Dosage: 6 g/l | Post-Disgorgement Ageing: 7 Years
This is the first of the Krug’s today that shows what happens when you wait; you can see hints of those beautiful creamy notes that only come out after about five years. This combines with layers of dried fruits like pineapple and lemon, combined with smoky roasted cashews and hints of almonds. Showing very well currently, I think this is the start of what I would call their best drinking window, some 6+ years after release. This will drink well for at least 20+ years.
Perhaps due to there being so few champagnes in the range (up to a maximum of five in a good vintage and potentially just two in a poor vintage) or maybe simply a de facto of being a Grande Marque, Krug are guilty of engaging in more than their fair share of ostentatious marketing. Musical tastings have been an important part of their development recently and one shudders to think how often Olivier has uttered the words opera, soloist, orchestra, or symphony over the past year.
The metaphor stems from the number of wines that constitute a Grande Cuvée blend. Typically in the region of 120, these wines are the separate elements of the ‘orchestra’ that performs the ‘symphony’ of Grande Cuvée. To take the metaphor further (than it needs to go, perhaps), the single vineyard champagnes Clos du Mesnil and Clos d’Ambonnay are the gifted ‘soloists’; the top of the class virtuosos whose melodies deserve to be heard unaccompanied.
This interest in the parallels and symbiosis between music and champagne eventually led to a collaboration with IRCAM (the Institute for Research and Coordination in Acoustics/Music), a French organisation that explores the science behind music and sound. Chef de cave Eric Lebel has been working with a semiologist to translate the words used in the notes of the Krug tasting committee to describe champagne as music. They’ve even gone as far as constructing a 14-seater yurt in the garden of their newly renovated premises in Reims that is dedicated to this sensorial experience.
We listened to a few pairings in the new tasting room, which, of course, was fitted with an impressive sound system during the renovation. One particularly dramatic score, a thunderous Baroque number with hair-raising string obligatos, was used to introduce their latest ‘soloist’ release, Clos d’Ambonnay 2002.
When this rockstar was bottled in 2003, Clos d’Ambonnay was still very much an experiment – and a top secret one too. The unique properties of this 0.68 hectare plot were first discovered in 1991 and the land was eventually purchased by Krug (one can only imagine at what cost) in 1994. They produced vintages 1995, 1996 and 1998 without telling anyone – even luxury goods conglomerate LVMH, who bought the brand in 1999.
It was codenamed ‘ABC’ (‘Ambonnay Clos’) and was revealed to the world in 2007 with the release of Clos d’Ambonnay 1995. Nowadays, it is gradually being replanted “the Krug way”. Over the last three years, half of the vineyard – 0.34 hectares – has been completed. Clos d’Ambonnay 2002 is the fourth release of this ultra-exclusive champagne and just 4,743 bottles and 240 magnums were made.
Our tasting concluded with the newest rosé addition, Krug Rosé 23rd Edition NV. The ‘pink Grande Cuvée’, which has been numbered since Edition 21, is the only prestige cuvée rosé that utilises all three of the dominant champagne grape varieties. Somewhat overshadowed by its blanc sibling, the rosé is nevertheless a real powerhouse, often coming up trumps in our blind rosé comparisons.
Edition 23 has a considerable 56% reserve wine content, combining a total of nine different vintages. A selection of 2007 Pinot Meuniers from Saint-Gemme, a little-known Autre Cru on the right bank of the Marne valley, were added for their fruit structure; while some 2009 Chardonnay plots from Trépail, the prized Premier Cru in the Montagne de Reims renown for producing tropical white grapes, were chosen for vivacity and tension.
|Krug Clos d’Ambonnay 2002 | Krug ID: 415067 | 18.5+ /20
100% PN | Lees Ageing: 12 Years | Disgorged: Autumn 2015 | Post-Disgorgement Ageing: 4 Years
Served blind with a few hints from Oliver on the music. Has a Pinot Noir character; richness of red fruits and really ripe peach. On the palate, it has a lightness and elegance, shows some age, perhaps the 2002 Clos d’Ambonnay? Has great length and is like a symphony of fruit; loads of rich pineapple and a distinct kick of freshness from a saline finish. Going back a few minutes later you can see the precision and purity with richness and lees texture… more dark fruit showing now, as well as plums, peaches, redcurrants and spice. Turned out to be CdA 2002.
|Krug Rosé 23rd Edition NV | Krug ID: 217014 | 18/20
45% PN, 29% CH, 26% PM | Red Wine: 13% | Base Vintage: 2011 | Reserve Wine: 56% | Lees Ageing: 5 Years | Disgorged: Spring 2017 | Dosage: 6 g/l | Post-Disgorgement Ageing: 2 Years
Like all previous Krug rosés, this has really up front fruit that is showing off its vibrancy; red berries and pink grapefruit dominate with lots of spicy loganberries. The red fruits again dominate the palate where you get more spice, great lees texture broadens out the palate with hints of the red wine tannins adding to the power of the champagne. Very youthful and vibrant with a long finish. You wonder how this will age, it seems ridiculously young at present, not yet in harmony; perhaps we can come back and enjoy this in 10+ years!