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Champagne Krug

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Joseph Krug was born in 1800 in the German town of Mainz, part of France’s Napoleonic empire at the time. Growing up at the heart of the Moselle, he was exposed early on to a winegrowing heritage as fragmented as the Champagne region he would one day call home. He became a talented, purposeful young man and he spoke three languages.

Setting off at the age of 24 as a trader and commercial traveller, he finally arrived in Paris in 1834. Dreaming of making his mark in the world of Champagne, Joseph leaped at an opportunity that would eventually lead him to greatness: Joseph Krug was employed by Jacquesson, the leading Champagne house of the time. He quickly became a partner, travelled widely, mixed with the influential, but was far from satisfied.

For him, the essence of Champagne was pleasure, yet variables in the weather could make quality waver dramatically from one year to the next. Joseph dreamed of another way beyond the constraints that compromised Champagne quality.

At the age of 42, a time when most in his position would be close to retiring, he left the security of a comfortable career to risk it all. It was not an easy decision to take, especially considering he had married into the Jacquesson dynasty. But he was ready to put his vision to the test.

In 1840, Joseph met Hippolyte de Vivès, a highly regarded wine merchant in Reims. Over the next three years, the two undertook a secret but fruitful collaboration, testing new blends. This friendship became something of a trial run for the defining Krug approach. In 1843, with the support of de Vivès, Joseph Krug founded the house of Krug & Compagnie. At last he could pursue his dream: to create the very best Champagne every year, regardless of variations in climate.

To immortalise his vision, Joseph confided in the pages of a cherry-red notebook, his enduring testament which survives to this day at the House of Krug. As he wrote in the notebook, passing on his knowledge to his son Paul, he was convinced great Champagne could only be achieved using good wines, tasted separately plot by plot, from good vineyards. Terroir was crucial.

But there was one more key to unlock guaranteed undisputed quality: he needed to free the process from climatic moodiness. So he began to build a reserve of wines, each made of grapes from a separate plot of land with its own specific character. It soon became an extensive mixing palette. Determined to create the most generous expression of Champagne every single year, he drew upon his vast library of reserve wines to compose his prestige wine. In this way, whatever the weather, whatever the harvest, Joseph would always be able to create a Champagne abundant in nuances and of unequalled generosity.

His notebook refers to it as Champagne No.1: Krug Grande Cuvée was born. It was a revolution, an approach beyond the notion of vintage. Joseph had turned his back on the accepted rules of Champagne making. Yet none could deny the exceptional richness, elegance and distinction he achieved in every Krug Grande Cuvée he crafted. From its very inception, Krug would be first in creating only prestige Champagnes every year, a unique and defining trait of Krug to this day.

"A good House should create only two Champagnes of the same quality", Joseph Krug wrote in his notebook; Champagne No. 1, to be the fullest expression of Champagne every single year, and Champagne No. 2, the expression of the circumstances of a particular year captured by Krug, and created only in the years where there is an interesting story to tell. We know it today as Krug Vintage. It is a Champagne which is not a selection of the best wines of a superlative year, but the blend of beautifully expressive wines from the year.

With each new generation, Joseph’s original vision continued to be passed on, cherished and enhanced. In the 1970s, rosé Champagnes were enjoying increasing popularity. Fifth generation brothers, Henri and Rémi Krug, decided to try an experiment. They worked on developing a rosé in authentic Krug style, inspired by Pinot Noir grapes.

Finally, in 1983, Henri and Rémi Krug blind-tested the bouquet of this mystery drop on their father, Paul. Their father was alarmed. “We’re in trouble - somebody in Champagne is copying Krug!” Quickly reassured that this was indeed a Krug, he recovered his composure. To their relief, he liked this bold new creation and gave his blessing to elaborate the house’s first Rosé Champagne.

In 1971, Rémi and Henri Krug made an exquisite, albeit accidental, discovery. Having bought fifteen plots of vines in Mesnil-Sur-Oger, the Champagne region’s most renowned village for Chardonnay, they realised that their purchase included a walled vineyard in the heart of the village. This small plot of only 1.84 hectares soon proved to be a truly fabulous discovery. An ancient inscription reveals its age: “In the year 1698, this wall was built by Claude Jannin and Pierre Dehée Metoen and in the same year the vines were planted by Gaspard Jannin, son of Claude.”

Soon enough, Krug uncovered the plot’s outstanding nature. The walls protecting this small garden create a veritable micro-climate that gives unique character to the Chardonnay grapes within. Its special quality came to light through Krug’s idiosyncratic process of following each plot as an individual wine. After numerous tasting sessions, the wine from Clos Du Mesnil clearly stood out from all the others. They had stumbled upon one of the clearest examples known of the magic of terroir, and it inspired the house of Krug to innovate once more, in the finest tradition of Joseph Krug’s anti-conformism.

For the first time in its history, Krug created a Champagne devoted to a single plot of land, first revealed as Krug Clos du Mesnil 1979. One plot, one grape variety, one year. Thus was born the purest expression of Chardonnay.

Following the sheer serendipity of Krug Clos Du Mesnil, another delightful gem awaited Rémi, Henri and Olivier Krug, the sixth generation. But it was not immediate. For seven years, they searched around the village of Ambonnay, looking for an exceptional plot which might allow them to pay tribute to Pinot Noir, the grape variety closest to the House of Krug’s heart, in the same way that Krug Clos Du Mesnil glorified Chardonnay.

Ambonnay is renowned in Champagne for its Pinot Noir grapes, having been the primary source for Krug since its beginnings. In the 20th century, it seemed all the most worthwhile plots must have been already identified. Yet a hidden treasure did exist. In 1991 they found it. Tucked away on the edge of the village was a minuscule garden plot of just 0.68 hectares: the site we now know as the Clos D’Ambonnay. Although its vines had only been planted in the 20th century, this forgotten corner of terroir proved outstanding.

Purchased by Krug in 1994, the plot produced a harvest worthy of its own vintage just one year later. Krug applied its meticulous savoir-faire to create the extremely rare Krug Clos D’Ambonnay 1995, finally revealed in 2007. A new name was added to the pantheon of great champagnes.

The legacy of Joseph Krug lives on. It is a passion and a unique savoir-faire that have been handed down in a direct line from Joseph Krug to his son Paul, then Joseph II, Paul II, then his sons Henri and Rémi. Today, Henri’s son Olivier Krug represents the sixth generation. It is what makes each bottle of Krug so precious.

At Krug, individuality means distinction, uniqueness, originality and singularity: everything that is expressed by Krug Champagnes. It is also the pursuit of character. This begins with the meticulous, individual selection of each plot of vines. Owing to this exceptionally individual attention, the Chef de Caves gives Krug Grande Cuvée its unique personality and reveals the sublime in each Krug Champagne.

It continues with the vinification of the grapes coming from each plot in separate oak casks. Contrary to popular belief, this is not to lend a woody, tannic or vanilla flavour; oak casks are neutral and Krug vins clairs, or base wines, do not age in oak casks - they are simply born there. They spend a few weeks in these casks just after the grape harvest. During this very short but decisive period, the small volume of these casks gives the still wine the freedom to develop its character and maintains each wine’s individuality. This is vital for creating the blend. These special conditions present at the Champagne’s genesis multiplies rewards later, increasing the Champagne's high ageing potential, enhancing its freshness.

Lastly, its individuality continues with the separate conservation of each wine featuring in Krug’s impressive repertoire of some 150 reserve wines. There are wines from 10 to 12 different vintages, some of which may reach up to 15 years of age. The wines are kept in small vats, allowing aromas and flavours to be preserved for long periods of time. This is a key element, which allows Eric Lebel to compose Krug Champagnes year after year.

The Krug family has always orchestrated the blending of its Champagnes. It is this longstanding tradition that has allowed the living memory of wine years and tastes to remain vibrant. In 1969, in anticipation of his retirement, the visionary Henri Krug brought on board a Chef de Caves, a role admirably filled today by Eric Lebel.

From the very first day of the grape harvest, Eric Lebel is already thinking about blends: just a simple grape, picked from the branch of a vine can give him an indication. Eric Lebel and the Krug Tasting Committee taste and award marks to the wines of that year from some 250 plots, as well as the 150 reserve wines from previous years. These tastings take place during the winter and spring months when the wines can sometimes be more expressive or reveal other facets of their personality. Around 400 wines are thus awarded marks and comments two or three times over the course of the year by each of the members of the Committee. Nearly 5,000 tasting notes are collected and meticulously recorded in the big black tasting book.

At the end of April or the beginning of May, during the burst of creation, Eric Lebel composes the year’s Champagnes, guided by his intuition and talent. On the strength of the teamwork carried out with the Tasting Committee, he proposes three blends to re-create Krug Grande Cuvée. Of these, one is chosen and blended only once. This is the most important time of the year at Krug. Eric Lebel and the Committee also decide to create a Krug Vintage when they sense an interesting personality in that year’s wines during the tasting sessions, believing that Krug lovers will appreciate this tale of the year narrated and signed by Krug.

For Krug, time is not a constraint, it is a strength. It is essential, for it is present at every stage of Champagne creation at Krug, from vinification right through to the extraordinary ageing of Krug’s cuvées. Time is one of Krug’s fundamental guiding forces. The notion of time at Krug is different - take for example the oak casks. In addition to the 200 years needed to obtain a finely grained oak of high quality, due to the slow rate of growth in Haute Futaie, Krug requires that its coopers season the wood for a minimum of three years, in the open air, without the use of artificial acceleration techniques and without making any compromises.

Time’s ultimate contribution is in giving Krug Champagnes their unique fullness and elegance, the result of a stay in the cellar that largely exceeds official requirements. Krug Grande Cuvée, a blend of wines of more than ten different years, some of which are 15 years old, matures in the cellar for at least seven years, and Krug Rosé for at least five years. Krug Vintage and the unique crus of Krug Clos Du Mesnil and Krug Clos D’Ambonnay spend at least ten years in the cellar. Patience, that most unyielding of tests, is priceless here. Time reveals those fine bubbles, sculpts the Champagne’s volume, unfurls its length, affirms its longevity and proves its unparalleled quality. Without this radical, uncompromising stance, it would be impossible to achieve the excellence of Krug Champagnes.
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