GERRIE LIM witnesses the spills and thrills of non-vintage champagne blending at this year’s Krug Celebration in London
THERE’S NOTHING QUITE LIKE affecting world-weary nonchalance while drinking Krug Grande Cuvée by candlelight on an unusually warm April evening in East London, but there I was, inside the famous Old Truman Brewery in Shoreditch. Jessica Julmy, my blonde host fetchingly attired in an elegant black dress, hails from Switzerland and is by day a Krug business development manager who pulls double duty on nights like this as the translator for Eric Lebel, Krug’s Chef de Cave since 1998.
Julmy is explaining to an assortment of Asian and European journalists the very libation passing our lips, since we’re not yet inebriated and presumably eager to know. “This Krug Grande Cuvée is a blend of 142 different wines from various vintages,” she tells us, after Lebel’s delivery in his native French, “with the youngest coming from 2006 and the oldest from 1990.”
Earlier, we had all met with Olivier Krug, now the sixth-generation director of the House of Krug, during an informal tasting of the same delicious bubbly at Fitzroy Square. “Krug has very, very tiny bubbles and very, very subtle aromas but at the same time a richness and freshness,” he observed. “You have a sip of the Grande Cuvée and it’s almost like fireworks. It’s very intense. There’s the open, ripe fruit – citrusy, with pineapple, honey, almond, vanilla, such aromas. I think that champagne is about pleasure because no one would buy a bottle of champagne for any reason other than pleasure.”
This Krug Celebration event I’d flown in for was being held in London for symbolic reasons: Olivier’s venerable ancestor Joseph Krug, who in 1843 founded the champagne house in Reims, had two years earlier married one Emma Jaunay, who happened to be half-French and half-English. “So I know my blood is also English, and this is not in your press kit,” Olivier quipped. “And when Joseph was in his twenties, in 1862, his dad sent him to England to learn the language.”
Just like Olivier’s father did to him, too, but to Japan. Henri Krug dispatched the eldest son to Tokyo in 1989, when Krug was almost completely unknown there, and the two-year stint reaped rewards when Japan eventually became the company’s biggest export market for Krug Grande Cuvée. It was in Hong Kong last October that I’d first met Olivier and also, on a separate occasion but at the same venue (the Krug Room in the Mandarin Oriental), Maggie Henriquez, Krug’s president and CEO since 2009.
And it’s Henriquez who walks me over to this dinner tonight, after hosting for us a slightly surreal multimedia show called Re-Rite, staged at The Loading Bay Gallery, a cavernous art space nearby on Dray Walk. Recordings of the Esa-Pekka Salonen-led Philharmonia Orchestra performing Stravinsky’s once-controversial The Rite of Spring play on a variety of monitors, as several actual orchestra members sit to play their individual parts in front of us; we’re able to engage them in casual banter (quite a contrast to Stravinsky’s own 1913 Paris premiere of the piece, during which most of the perplexed audience walked out).
Simultaneously, Lebel and his tasting team in Reims demonstrate for our collective scrutiny, on another large screen, their intricate Grande Cuvée blending nexus, sampling wines harvested from some 250 plots along with 150 reserve wines from previous years. They scrunch their noses, sip and spit, Lebel himself occasionally punching numbers on a calculator, apparently working out base wine percentages. (This same show opens to the public a week later, at the same venue, as Krug and Philharmonia.)
I ask Henriquez, as we stroll over to dinner nearby on Brick Lane, about Krug’s unique oak regime and separate-plot fermentation that yields that gorgeous almond-and-hazelnut flavour profile. “The little barrels are oak, from three years to 40 years old, but what we want is not the oak but rather the flexibility to isolate, to separate every plot,” she clarifies. “If we put everything in tanks, we have to mix the plots and our philosophy is you cannot mix the plots if you want to have the best. So we isolate the plots and use the little barrels, which are very small in volume – when the plot is little in size, we have five barrels, or if the plot is a little larger, we have 10 barrels. We need the oak barrels because it is a natural component and it is with them that we define this structure. We are a small house and we couldn’t do it otherwise.”
Now that was what I wanted to hear, especially after sitting through some “blending” workshops that morning, which I’d found rather amusing. For instance, a beaming Norwegian named Ole Hansen from the salmon smokers Hansen & Lydersen presented his Faroe Islands salmon, smoked (or, by analogy, “blended”) with beechwood and juniper, after which the master tea blender Alex Probyn of the Blends For Friends tea consultancy introduced various green, black and herbal teas (hibiscus, orange blossom and elderflowers combining right before our eyes, for an ambercoloured liquid with subtle citrusy characters). It was, philosophically, a stretch but surely we could all see the point of this multidisciplinary showcase – smoked salmon, exotic teas and orchestral manoeuvres in the dark, anyone?
That’s what they’d flown us here for, though I found myself anticipating the kind of blending I usually prefer (that of food and wine) as I arrive at the dinner. The meal is by Gregory Marchand of Frenchie fame, direct from his Rue du Nil gastro haven in Paris, tonight revisiting his roots (since it was at Fifteen in London that Jamie Oliver nicknamed him “Frenchie”) and he’s actually here with us tonight. “The purity, elegance and the attention to detail,” Marchand believes, makes Krug compelling, particularly “the citrus and spice aromas which are gripping for chefs. Each champagne becomes an invitation to travel, which has inspired me to create multicultural dishes with Moroccan, Japanese and French touches.”
The four courses are, as expected, engagingly excellent: foie gras with wild strawberries (paired with Krug Rosé), Scottish crab with grapefruit and pickled daikon (with Krug brut blanc de blancs Clos du Mesnil), Gloucester Old Spot pig loin and belly with kumquat and red chilli (with Krug vintage 2000), and Meyer lemon curd with oat crumble and tonka beans (with Krug Grande Cuvée). The crab gets my vote for best dish, though by the end most people agreed that the Grande Cuvée held its own and we didn’t even need the dessert.
Perhaps the surfeit of lemon flavours was intended to take us to the very limit, where pleasure knows no bounds? “I’ll never forget something Maggie once said, that I always use to improvise on,” Julmy tells me. “She was asked what her favourite champagne was and she said, ‘The best champagne for me is the champagne that gives me the most pleasure’. And in my case, that’s Krug. For a long time, many people felt that the oak was the difference but there is so much behind the oak. It’s about our approach, craftsmanship, individuality, the time that we dedicate to the whole blending process.”
She’s preaching to the converted, though I voice a minor gripe – why hadn’t they served the just-released vintage, Krug 2003? Yes, that came from a hot and difficult year, but then so did Krug 1982 and 1989. Even the 2000 that we’d just finished was dubbed “Stormy Indulgence” for that year’s chaotic weather, and I’d loved it. Krug 2003 has already been called “Vivacious Radiance” so surely they had some to spare? (Secretly, I wanted to compare it with Dom Pérignon 2003, but I didn’t tell Julmy, of course.)
The crop wasn’t big enough, she concedes apologetically, and so the output was much too small and the wines insufficient for tonight’s feast ostensibly celebrating the non-vintage Grande Cuvée. Well then, I say as I take my leave, she’ll just have to pour me some the next time we meet. She nods agreeably and we part on that promise, spiritually echoing an inscription I’d read on a wall plaque at Fitzroy Square right after I’d been greeted by Olivier Krug earlier in the morning.
“Life is full of challenges,” it said. “Being happy shouldn’t be one of them.”
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