A chance discovery in the company safe has inspired the prestigious Champagne house to return to its historic winemaking values. Essi Avellan MW pays a visit.
Krug, a name so fabled and evoking in emotion. This small but great house stands alone atop the Champagne pyramid, admired and respected but still distant, mysterious; its critics would even say elitist. This was the situation when the Venezuelan Margareth ‘Maggie’ Henriquez, an experienced LVMH director, took the reins at Krug in 2009.
After 10 years in the LVMH group (during which time the late Henri Krug officially retired in 2001 but kept a hand in, until his younger brother Rémi Krug followed suit in 2007), the house was drifting without clear direction. Henriquez took her time to form a new strategy for Krug, but by 2010 it was ready to roll.
The little red book
How Krug has improved might not yet be obvious to the consumer, but there has been a dramatic change in the company’s management, communications and spirit. Firstly, Henriquez looked back to establish the new guidelines for Krug. She found an old cherry-red notebook in the company safe belonging to founder Johann-Josef (Gallicised to Joseph) Krug and written in 1848, five years after he started the company.
The notebook was written to Joseph’s six-year-old son, Paul, outlining the principles of the house. Joseph, German by birth, had made a career at the house of Jacquesson and married the English sister-in-law of Adolphe Jacquesson in 1841, which led everybody to assume his future would be there. Apparently, however, the Champagne quality at Jacquesson disappointed Joseph, driving him to establish a company of his own, Krug et Cie, together with Hippolyte de Vivès, a négociant and a member of the founding family of Veuve Clicquot.
Krug at a glance
House established: 1843
Vineyards: 20 hectares
The family line
In 1866 Joseph passed away and left control of the thriving business to his only son, Paul, who moved the company to its current premises at Rue Coquebert in Reims and produced a bundle of heirs – 10 children – of whom Joseph II was running the house alongside his father by 1903. A succession of father and son duos has been the tradition at Krug; after Joseph II came Paul II and his sons Henri and Rémi, who formed a remarkable duo from the early 1960s. Henri took a winemaking focus and stayed in the background, whereas Rémi was the public face. Henri’s son, Olivier, continued the family succession, joining in 1989. The brothers led the company first into the Rémy Cointreau group in 1969, and then to LVMH 30 years later.
Prosperity or pomposity?
The brand prospered and the cult of ‘Krugists’ grew. However, in the early LVMH years the marketing was verging on arrogance, with 2004’s ‘No Krug, no thanks’ campaign. This era of pomposity climaxed in 2008 with the launch of the new single-vineyard Champagne, Clos d’Ambonnay, at between £1,500 and £2,000 – four times the price of its sister single-vineyard, Clos du Mesnil, once the world’s most expensive Champagne.
‘Olivier Krug is still not able to say out loud the base year of any Grande Cuvée, but somebody always says it for him’ – Maggie Henriquez
The company was far from what Joseph Krug had written in his book, which focussed on wine quality. On page one, he declares that the house policy is to produce two cuvées of the same grape composition.
‘In Joseph’s vision both cuvées were of the same quality, not one above the other,’ Henriquez points out. Cuvée one was to offer ‘everything every year’, the blend of vintages to be altered according to the year; the second was to be vintage-specific, taking annual circumstances into account.
This was how Krug was presented – as Grande Cuvée (or Private Cuvée as it was until 1979) and vintage. A rosé came in the 1980s and the two single-vineyard Champagnes, Clos du Mesnil and Clos d’Ambonnay, were added – the first vintages of which were 1979 and 1995 respectively. They very much stole the show, at least in marketing terms.
The grandest of cuvées
As long as I can remember, Grande Cuvée has been the favourite wine of any member of the Krug staff.
But why is it the least expensive? The issue lies in the non-vintage nature of Grande Cuvée. There are only non-vintages and vintages in Champagne – prestige cuvées have no official status. Despite Grande Cuvée undoubtedly being a prestige cuvée, its non-vintage status places it in the same class as wines the fraction of its price, and quality. This is a lapse the region should rectify, as Champagne’s very nature as a blended wine should provide non-vintaged prestige cuvées at just as high a status as the vintaged ones.
Ageability & Krug ID
It is not wine quality that compromises the non-vintage prestige cuvées, but the difficulty in appreciating their age worthiness. Every Krug lover knows that Grande Cuvée ages magnificently, but until now it has been near-impossible to follow.
It used to be a question of principle for the Krugs never to mention the base year of the wine. We were to settle for knowing that Grande Cuvée ages five to seven years on the lees, and to count back and guess the vintage. Truthfully, Krug itself did not value the ageing capacity of Grande Cuvée enough; only the most recent release was served, and very little stock kept back. ‘Many Krug lovers have larger stocks of old releases than we have,’ Henriquez says regretfully.
Henriquez soon started buying back old lots and now often showcases older Grande Cuvées alongside vintages to prove its ageing capacity and potential complexity. This is a big change, and the transition is not easy for all, notably Olivier Krug, the house’s ambassador. ‘Olivier is still not able to say out loud the base year of any Grande Cuvée, but somebody always aids him and says it for him,’ she laughs.
Tasting, for instance, Grande Cuvée based on 2000, Vintage 2000 and Clos du Mesnil 2000 side by side, it is the harmony, complexity and richness that lifts the Grande Cuvée onto the highest pedestal. ‘An entire cellar in one bottle,’ Henriquez summarises.
To give full justice to the Grande Cuvée, Henriquez has started to keep back significant stocks, alluding to the possibility of commercialising old releases in the future.
In order to make the cuvées’ ageing more transparent – in line with its open communication strategy – the company has launched a revolutionary Krug ID concept in 2011, where anyone entering the back label code on the Krug website is able to get the full technical information on the wines.
The guardian of quality
Cellar master since 1998, Eric Lebel is the guardian of Krug quality. ‘What we need is good terroir, good growers and good plant material,’ he says. The house has only 20ha of its own vineyards, which are being converted to organic. ‘We will not seek certification, because if disease pressure mounts up we will still choose to use products in order to rescue the crop.’
Getting premium grapes is not an obstacle; visiting growers it is clear how proud they are to supply Krug. The house actively encourages quality improvement by inviting growers to come and taste their individual base wines – a rarity in Champagne.
The core of Krug style is vinification in 205-litre oak barrels of 20 years’ average age. The barrels for each lot are randomly selected, and Lebel cherishes the complexity given by the versatility of individual barrels.
The second important stylistic issue is abstinence from malolactic fermentation, contributing to the great acid line and ageing capacity of all Krug cuvées. The third major step is the blending, where decisions are made by tasting only. The Grande Cuvée often comprises some 120 individual base wines. It is a Pinot Noir-dominant wine with both Chardonnay and Meunier. The proportion of reserve wines is high, often around 40%, with wines as old as 15 years included.
Krug’s greatest asset is clearly its library of 150 reserve wines that are kept in small stainless steel tanks. Henriquez supports Grande Cuvée being prioritised over a vintage. ‘In 2012 we will not be making any vintage, even if the quality is up there,’ she says. ‘The problem is the small volume, and we choose to use it to build up reserves for the years to come.’
The financial crisis has touched Krug, too, but Henriquez uses it to the company’s benefit: ‘In addition to extending ageing on lees, I am also working on lengthening the post-disgorgement ageing. For Grande Cuvée we are now at eight months, but I wish to achieve a year,’ she concludes. For the wine used at disgorgement I go back to Eric Lebel. ‘According to Joseph Krug, if the balance was right at the blending phase there is no need to adjust it at disgorgement,’ he says. Therefore Krug most often uses the same wine it is disgorging for the liqueur d’expédition. Being a perfectionist from the beginning to the end, making no compromises, is what has made Krug into what it is today. As the mysteries are unveiled with the new open policy of the team, we can enjoy Krug’s magic free of arrogance. With this new strategy, the house will have many more Krug lovers to please.
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