Riding the High Notes

At the house of Krug, blending champagne is raised to a fine art

Fifty glass beakers of different base wines, a large test tube and several pipettes were laid out before me on a circular table. The beakers contained wines made from grapes acquired at the best villages in Champagne—the likes of Verzy, Bouzy, and Ambonnay for the pinot noir and Cramant, Epernay and Avize for the chardonnay. I was among a select group of journalists who had been invited to a very special "art of assemblage" seminar at the House of Krug in the heart of the Côte des Blanc, in Reims, France. It was the first time the hermetic house had opened its cellar doors to outsiders to reveal its blending secrets.

For the next few hours, two master winemakers showed "teams" at six different tables how to draw drops from the various beakers into the pipettes and pour them in the test tube. Our mission was to replicate an ’09 Grande Cuvée by mixing pinot noir, chardonnay and pinot meunier (providing roundness, spice and mid-palate). No easy task as we learned.

Krug’s specialty lies in its obsessively precise and intricate blending. Hundreds of individual wines go into its annually released Grande Cuvée, at $180 a bottle the world’s most expensive non-vintage cuvée de prestige. Each bottle is aged six years before its release. All this creates a prestige cuvée known for its fresh acidity and elegance with both rounded and razor sharp facets. I’ve always found the flavors to unfold like a rolling ocean wave, swelling higher and higher and then breaking at the shore with a long high-tide finish.

Olivier Krug, fourth generation family member, compared the taste to a symphony. "The pinot noir from Montagne de Reims brings the base notes," he said. "A violin section of Côte des Blancs brings fresh acidity. High dramatic notes from select villages—Trépail, Oger and Chouilly—provide the soloist melody."

Ultimately, none of us managed to capture the ’09s distinctive taste. In defeat we retired our lab coats and got back to the business of tasting other’s blending performance.

And taste we did. First, the single vineyard, single variety 1995 Krug Clos du Mesnil ($1,200 a bottle) made from grapes grown in a tiny stone-walled vineyard in the Côte des Blancs. In 1698, the villagers, finding this particular vineyard to be exceptional, constructed an enshrining wall (clos) around the vines—a practice that’s rare in Champagne.

Next, a hush fell over the room when a magnum of Krug Clos D’Ambonnay 1996 ($2,500, 750ML) was uncorked and poured. (In the 1990, the Krug family found another tiny walled vineyard in the Montagne de Reims pinot noir region, and bought the Clos D’Ambonnay.) Whether it was the thrill of draining wide-lipped tulip flutes of a bubbly costing hundreds of dollars a swallow or the beguiling taste of this superstar blanc de noirs, I’ll never know. I have to admit I was simply star-stuck. But take heart: while most mortals can’t afford the Clos D’Ambonnay (right now the most expensive Champagne upon release in the world), Krug’s Grande Cuvée provides that frisson of excitement at a fraction of the price.


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