Krug Opens its Kimono

The top Champagne house wants to share its stories

The house of Krug is well-known for its Champagnes, among the best and most-expensive in the world. It has also been well-known for not talking much about them.

Last week, it opened its kimono — to use the business transparency phrase from the 1990s — by inviting a dozen wine writers from Asia, Europe, and the U.S. to its Reims headquarters to taste, tour, and talk in what Krug president and CEO Maggie Henriquez termed “a journey into the art of blending.”

And what we saw under the Krug kimono was quite fascinating. Since it was founded in 1843 by Joseph Krug, the maison has specialized in high-end Champagnes instead of the typical something-for-every-pocketbook line that most houses have. Currently, it produces a vintage when the year is good, a Grand Cuvée blend usually of the current vintage, and reserve wines, two Champagnes from single vineyards and a rosé. Prices start at around $170 a bottle for the vintages, bubbles up into the high fives for the all-Chardonnay Clos du Mesnil, and pops well into four figures for the Pinot Noir-only Clos d’Ambonnay.

“Little by little, I have been pushing the house into transparency,” says Henriquez, who has been at Krug since late 2008, when she was transferred by the conglomerate LVMH, which has owned the brand since 1999.

Henriquez has a keen nose for branding and has a willing partner in director Olivier Krug, the sixth generation of Krug to run what was once a family business. There are four key aspects in Henriquez’s branding of Krug, beginning with her quoting liberally from the notebook the founder kept in the 1840s. Second, she looks for the “story” in every wine, which helps make, explain, and sell it. Third, the house insists on a group of key winegrowing principles that, taken individually, are not necessarily unique, but, taken together, are quite compelling. Fourth, is to get the word out to the wine trade and the Krug fanatics about the first three.

This bundle of factors that is key to Krug’s extraordinary Champagnes includes:

• Krug keeps most parcels separate during fermentation to give more blending choices later and to understand the strengths and weaknesses of each vineyard in each vintage. That is how it decided that Clos du Mesnil deserved its own bottle rather than being a part of a pre-fermentation blend of its Mesnil regional grapes.

• Krug uses two-year-old, specially aged barrels of various sizes to ferment its wines. This is not to give the sparklers a woody, tannic or “older” taste, as many people believe, and a point on which Krug is quite sensitive. “It’s easier to ferment small batches in a collection of barrels rather than in larger tanks,” explains winemaker Julie Cavil. The house also believes this micro-oxygenation in the barrel “immunizes” it against deterioration. As Olivier Krug puts it, “Our wines are born in the barrel, but not aged in the barrel.”

• The house keeps a vast reserve of small cuvees stored in special stainless steel vats to keep them fresh. Indeed a 1995 tank sample – 16 years old – used in a blending exercise was so crisp and fresh it could be used as a blend’s backbone. “Our owners asked us how many years of reserve wines we have,” says cellar master Eric Lebel, “and we told them two years, which should cover everything. They said, ‘Why not four?’”

• Krug is not obsessed with the Champagne-ranking pedigrees of the vineyards where it purchases grapes. And it uses more Pinot Meunier – the region’s third, and least-prestigious, grape – than is present in most competitors’ prestige cuvees. If a grand cru vineyard is picked too ripe, it may be rejected, while an unknown plot that has been well-tended and had optimal growing conditions may take its place. Pinot Meunier is a favorite at Krug because of its spice.

• Although Krug recognizes it may have a “house style,” it is more interested in getting the most out of a final blend and cares little if one vintage is similar to a prior one.

During the course of our fantastic journey, we tasted dozens of different finished wines and tank samples, both reserves and from the 2010 vintage. Almost all had great structure and acidity, but they varied considerably in how the fruit presented and what kind of fruit it was. Among the wines to be released this fall, the 1998 Clos d’Ambonnay is incredibly rich, full and savory, the 2000 Clos du Mesnil is mouth-filling with great structure and length and, at this stage, dominated by apple fruit, and the 2000 Krug Vintage has lots of floral notes with a touch if vanilla and hints of spicy white pepper.

More of these will be kept in Krug’s cellar than in the past, when little emphasis was placed on constructing a library of wines. “Krug is now committed to the long term,” Henriquez says, the, for emphasis, “I am committed to the long term.”