While I’m chatting to representatives of the great champagne house of Krug, one word seems to crop up regularly in our conversations: “generosity”.
They use it when talking about the maison‘s incomparable Krug Grand Cuvée, a blend of more than 120 wines, three grape varieties – Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier – and vintages from at least 10 different years, whose journey from vine to glass takes at least a couple of decades. They use it when enthusing about their partner, two-Michelin-star chef Tim Raue, whose Asian-inspired cuisine has been chosen by the house for a night of champagne, food and music at this year’s annual Krug Celebration, held in Berlin on April 1. And they use it when describing the extraordinary talents of Franco American jazz pianist Jacky Terrasson, a recently recruited ambassador, whose powerhouse quartet creates a complex, absorbing and yet exuberantly playful sonic backdrop to the same evening’s festivities – very much, in fact, like the glasses of champagne that we’ve been steadily imbibing all day.
I’m also thinking that “generosity” perfectly encapsulates the largesse and bonhomie that have brought me, together with writers and winelovers from around the world, to the German capital, for a day of learning, indulgence, fun and genuine warmth – the latter being a most effective antidote to the blustery winds, snow flurries and rain showers that sweep across the European plain in a last-ditch attempt to arrest the arrival of spring.
We’re staying at the ultra-hip Hotel Zoo on Kurfürstendamm, a tree-lined boulevard at the edge of affluent Charlottenburg, which fell out of fashion after the fall of the Wall and the rush to the former East Berlin. Now, as the style pendulum swings westwards once again, the neighbourhood’s undergoing a renaissance.
From here we’re whisked across town to areas such as Mitte (Berlin’s historic centre) and Prenzlauer Berg – achingly trendy today, though just 25 years ago slowly waking from four long, drab decades under the dead hand of Soviet-style socialism. En route we traverse Potsdamer Platz, when I last visited a bomb-flattened wasteland bisected by the Wall, from where we used to gaze out to the East across the stark, graffiti-covered barrier. Now transformed into a gleaming steel-and-glass testament to the triumph of capitalism, it’s unrecognisable from its former incarnation.
Our first stop is a tenement building on Hirtenstrasse, whose peeling interiors evoke an air of elegant distress. Known as The Grand, it houses restaurants, bars and lounges on its several floors, and it’s here, around 10.30am, that the day’s activities and the consumption of Krug begin in earnest.
In an upstairs meeting room, Oxford University neuroscientists Professor Charles Spence and Janice Qian Wang are waiting to explain to us how sound can interact with flavour. After being reminded that musical terms often serve as descriptors for wine, we spend the next hour and a half matching sound and music to flavours and textures, starting with simple demonstrations of the audible difference between hot and cold drinks being poured into a cup (it’s due, we learn, to changes in such factors as viscosity), and sparkling water compared with champagne.
Sound, say Spence and Wang, communicates information such as pleasure and displeasure. Working with composers and musicians, they create soundscapes conveying sweetness, bitterness, sourness and saltiness, which are interpreted similarly by most listeners, ourselves included.
After concluding from our workshop that appropriate pairings of sound and taste can enhance the pleasure derived from both, we move to an adjacent room. We’re joined by winemaker Julie Cavil for a tasting of four champagnes, which we savour while appreciating pieces chosen by partner musicians Terrasson, Marcela Roggeri, Keziah Jones and Khatia Buniatishvili as being representative of each wine, and played through a wine-cooler-cum-speaker-system currently under development. The latter is evidence that this august house is not only bang on trend, but also has an impish sense of humour, as is the Krug app that we’re encouraged to download to our smartphones (by reading the QR code on the label it lists exactly which wines go into each bottle of Grand Cuvée, the bottling date, tasting notes and recommended musical accompaniments).
Lunch is served at one of Chef Raue’s three Berlin restaurants, La Soupe Populaire on Prenzlauer Allee, a vast space occupying a crumbling former brewery where a “people’s cuisine” based on old and sometimes forgotten German staples is served on rudimentary furnishings alongside vast works of contemporary art. Here, while indulging in yet more Grand Cuvée and our day’s first sampling of the maison‘s brilliant Rosé, we gorge on such traditional fare as hearty smoked sausage, pickled cucumber, sourdough bread with dripping, herring salad and Königsberger klopse, a Prussianstyle meatball with beetroot and potato purée in a cumin-flavoured lentil stew.
Fortunately I’ve already been in Europe for a few days, so even with several glasses of Krug inside me I’m not about to curl up for a post-prandial snooze quite yet. And that’s just as well, as we’re soon popping round the corner to Berlin’s Soho House, where Olivier Krug, sixth-generation descendant of the house’s founder Joseph, is in residence to greet us. Ensconced in his vast penthouse loft, replete with professional kitchen, old-school record player, a pile of rare vinyl and a football table – on which he’s happy to take on all comers – this eloquent and amusing ambassador for the family firm (though now it’s part of luxury empire LVMH) regales us with the story of the house and why his ancestor decided to take on the seemingly impossible task of creating and re-creating, year-after-yearafter- year, the world’s most consistently great champagne.
It’s a theme explored in even greater detail during the afternoon’s last stop at the Schirner Zang Foundation, where, glasses (which, we’re told time and again, must never, ever, be flutes: a tulip-shaped bowl enhances the flavours far better) in hand yet again, Chef de Cave Eric Lebel talks us through an artistic reinterpretation of Krug Grand Cuvée, with room-sized installations representing the huge number of wines, vintages, flavours and aromas that go into the creation of each bottle.
It’s at dinner, a joyful affair combining the more Asian-influenced side of Chef Raue’s inspired yet idiosyncratic oeuvre, a stirring set from Terrasson’s virtuoso quartet and, of course, yet more lavish pourings of Krug, that it all comes together. We’ve been bussed to a cavernous event space in the former East of the city, where we’re now seated at tables surrounding a central stage. It’s all delightfully informal, as Olivier Krug and the maison‘s charismatic President and CEO Maggie Henriquez welcome us and then invite the musicians to step up and play.
And what a performance it is, the pianist combining the muscularity of McCoy Tyner, the Latin soul of Danilo Pérez and the eclecticism and funk of Herbie Hancock with the sensory beauty of the French Impressionists. Underpinning his daring improvisations are bassist Burniss Earl Travis II, who exhibits the swing and harmonic sensibility of a younger Richard Davis, drummer Lukmil Perez, whose economy and attack recall the great Al Foster, and fellow Cuban percussionist Mauricio Herrera, a rolling thunderstorm of rhythm.
Midnight comes and goes, and there’s still more – or at least more champagne and more music. We pile into the buses for a final ride back to Hotel Zoo, where Terrason is already at the piano for an impromptu set that lasts well into the night. As I sip on my nth glass in the past 15 hours, revelling yet again in the complexity, balance and elegance of its contents, I grasp the opportunity to tackle Olivier Krug about that word, generosity.
“It’s about what you get in the glass,” he says. “’Generous’ describes very well the way it fills your mouth like an explosion of flavours. There’s no other champagne as generous. It not only has fullness, but also intensity.
“With four instruments tonight, there’s generosity. And champagne is generous by definition. You don’t drink champagne on your own. You don’t hide it. It’s something you share. And Krug is a very generous house, so if you come to Krug our doors are open and you will be welcomed.
“Luxury,” he concludes, “is very much about the heart. For me a luxury product is one that feels as if it’s been made for you. Love is very important in luxury.”
After a day like today, I’d definitely drink to that.