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Feature: Chilled and Thrilled

Jack Smith

During dinner with Olivier Krug in the gardens of his eponymous Champagne house in Reims, France, the conversation takes a confidential turn. "You know," our host begins, lowering his chocolate-laden dessert fork, "people often presume that I was born with a silver spoon in my mouth."

The genteel clinks of knives and forks against china cease, and a hush falls over the table as his guests turn to listen. None of us had suggested as much, but now that he mentions it, well, it certainly seems plausible that M. Krug had enjoyed a comfortable upbringing. After all, the very word Champagne evokes privilege and aristocracy, and, in this milieu, no name is more prestigious and aristocratic than Krug.

It is well known that some oenophiles will go to any lengths to get their hands on a bottle of Krug or to savor a sip of a particular vintage. Indeed, Krug Clos du Mesnil, from a tiny plot in a nearby village, might be the world’s most coveted Champagne and one of its priciest, costing at least $1,000 a bottle.

Nevertheless, the silver-spoon presumption is false, explains Krug’s directeur de la maison. When he entered the world, something far more rare and precious crossed his lips. "As soon as I was born, my father placed a drop of Krug in my mouth," he says. "When my children were born, I did the same with them. It is a tradition we have upheld for generations."

Krug’s anecdote provokes laughter of delight from the ladies and chuckles of appreciation from the men, and we all raise our glasses of Krug Grande Cuvée to toast the family custom.

The company’s managing director, Panos Sarantopoulos, then chimes in, noting that though he had not been baptized with Krug, he remembers well his first taste of the libation. Several years before he joined the Krug company, he recounts, a friend invited him to a fine restaurant in Champagne. When the sommelier arrived at their table, proudly cradling a bottle of Krug Grande Cuvée, he addressed Sarantopoulos’ friend, "Monsieur, your bottle of Champagne."

With indignation, Sarantopoulos says, his friend responded, "I did not order a bottle of Champagne. I ordered a bottle of Krug."

In time, says Krug’s managing director, the reason for his friend’s dudgeon became clear. "When you appreciate the attention to detail, the time, passion, and precision that go into crafting a bottle of Krug," he says, "you call it by its rightful name, not by a lesser one."

Another of the company’s executives then reminds us that the act of imbibing Krug marks us as ladies and gentlemen of distinction. "Typically, the people who drink Krug are cultured and accomplished," says Alexander Gilkes, Krug’s director of communications. "If you see a waiter in a club delivering a bottle of Krug, it will never go to a loud, flashy table. It will go to a quiet, more understated group. These are people who drink it because they enjoy it, not because critics say they should, or because they think it is trendy. They are the kind of people who might drive a Ferrari, but they do not drive a Lamborghini."

Some people, interjects Krug, revere his Champagne too much. "They are intimidated by us," he says. "They think of us as a distant goal, almost unachievable. They save us for special occasions or put us away for that one moment that may never come. But I would like to see people drinking Krug at a picnic. It is meant to be savored and enjoyed."

Again, his guests hoist their glasses in honor of this sentiment, for this is where we come in. The nine of us—three affable gentlemen and six obviously charming young ladies from Paris, Germany, Switzerland, Japan, Spain, Italy, the United Kingdom, and the United States—are assembled here for the Krug Odyssey. This is the third such event that the Champagne house has hosted; previous Odysseys had brought together other small groups of collectors, wine merchants, and writers for excursions to Switzerland and Italy. This trip, a four-day affair, will take my fellow travelers and me from Reims and the Champagne district to Andalusia and Seville. Our mission will not be just to sip and analyze and exchange learned observations on structure, acid, texture, and complexity; we also will be expected to quaff and experience Champagne on a more spiritual level, while disporting ourselves in lavish surroundings with amiable, comely companions. Afterward, we will no doubt share the details of our Odyssey with others, and, in doing so, spread good tidings about Krug. As Gilkes notes during dinner, "The best advertising medium for Krug is a taste of Krug."

That may be true, but the Champagne house runs an advertising campaign nevertheless. "The slogan," Krug notes during dinner, leaning forward expectantly, "is, ‘No Krug? No thanks.’ " Polite smiles and nods follow, whereupon Krug shrugs and says, well, then, if his guests think they can do better, what might they propose? Numerous catchphrases are aired before someone offers the motto "Now you’re Krug’in’!" and accompanies it with a vigorous thumbs-up gesture.

Krug rolls his eyes, but the phrase seems to catch. Throughout the Odyssey, particularly memorable moments will be punctuated with cries of "Now you’re Krug’in’!" As testimony to the excellence of the experience, the phrase will be invoked frequently—which will please and at the same time chagrin our hosts.

Our Odyssey is off to an auspicious start. Besides the Krug 1995 Grande Cuvée, Krug Rosé, and Krug Grande Cuvée NV, tonight’s dinner by Arnaud Lallement, Michelin two-star chef at the nearby L’Assiette Champenoise, features a glazed piglet served with Cheval Blanc 1982, which, as the normally ratings-averse Krug informs us, received a 100 from Robert Parker.

Equally lavish feasts, accompanied by no less rare and delectable wines, await us. In the days ahead, we will be whisked from place to place in private planes and helicopters. We will be houseguests in some of the most majestic homes in Europe. The doors to private palaces will swing open at our approach. All the while, we will do our best to comport ourselves with distinction, not ostentation. Should the car keys in our pocket bear a Lamborghini logo, we will keep them out of sight.

With the demand for premium French bubbly greater than ever, these are heady times in Reims. In England, historically France’s largest wine market, sales of Champagne have doubled since 1998. In response to the rapidly increasing demand from Russia and China, French bureaucrats are contemplating regulation changes that would allow Champagne’s vineyards to expand beyond their hallowed 86,000-acre limits. In casinos from Las Vegas to Macao, high rollers call for bottles of Dom between rolls of the dice, and in hip-hop videos, Roederer Cristal has become a staple prop.

Yet against this backdrop of economic, social, and oenological ferment, the principles of winemaking at the House of Krug remain much as they were in 1843, when Johann-Joseph Krug, an immigrant from Mainz, Germany, who toiled as a winemaker for Champagne Jacquesson, introduced a new way of making Champagne. Until then, says Krug’s current director, a Champagne’s taste was a matter of chance. "Its flavor depended on what kind of grapes happened to grow on your vineyard, when they were picked, the terroir, and what kind of weather you had," says Olivier Krug.

Consequently, the wines from Champagne Jacquesson, like those of every other Champagne maker, were inconsistent; buyers sometimes complained that Jacquesson’s Champagne was not as flavorful as it had been the previous year.

After nine years in France, Krug devised a method that would compensate for swings in temperature and climate and that ultimately would enable him to control the taste of his Champagne. His plan required the château to withhold a certain allotment of its finest vintages, so that he could blend them with lesser wines from later years. When Jacquesson’s owner rejected his suggestion, Krug struck out on his own.

It is a measure of Johann-Joseph’s success that, 164 years later, the mention of Krug sends veteran oenophiles into rapture. "Krug is a great, classic, handmade Champagne," says Michael Aaron, chairman of Sherry-Lehman, a Manhattan purveyor of wines and spirits. "It is so rare and precious, you can never get enough."

Especially remarkable, says Aaron, is that although the LVMH conglomerate now owns the company, Krug continues to operate as a small, family-run firm. "The Krugs are very hands-on," he says. "They are very protective about where their Champagne is sold. Their relationship with their customers is a highly personal one."

If, as our hosts are wont to remind us, no other Champagne tastes like Krug, it is because no other Champagne is made like Krug. The house’s sun-drenched vineyards, on southerly slopes of the Montagne de Reims, are France’s northernmost. The soil there is 98 percent chalk, which keeps the vineyards warm at night and also forces the grapevines to send their roots as deep as 200 feet beneath the surface to reach water. The size of the plots, too, distinguishes Krug. The company grows its vines in an intricate patchwork of 90 or more plots, many of them no larger than gardens but selected for their distinctive terroirs. Cultivating the same grape varieties in many minuscule vineyards, say the Krug executives, produces their Champagnes’ countless nuances of flavor.

Krug’s initial fermentation process also is distinct from that of other Champagne makers. Krug still ferments its wines in small oaken barrels. Once the grapes are picked—by hand—and pressed, the must is transferred to the cellars to ferment in 54-gallon oaken casks, each of which is labeled with the name of the grapes’ vineyard.

During fermentation, a notable alchemy takes place between the wine, the wood of the casks, and the oxygen in the atmosphere. The process will enable the Champagne to continue evolving for decades after it has been bottled.

Elsewhere in the cellars lies what the company calls the Krug "family treasure," the stocks of reserve wines. These have been selected from the best wines from previous harvests, and they enable Krug to guarantee consistent excellence despite the vagaries of climate and harvest.

No less vital in this blending process are the palates of the Krugs themselves. For 163 years, a member of the family has conducted the blending, the secrets to which fathers pass down to sons, grandsons, or nephews. "It is taste and memory alone that re-create the taste of Krug every year," says Olivier Krug. "There can be no formula, no recipe, just as no two harvests are ever quite the same."

The Krug Grande Cuvée is the ultimate expression of those tastes and memories. It can comprise as many as 50 wines from six to 10 different vintages. "If we have a year like 2003, we may blend that with some 2001 and 2002; the acidity and freshness will counterbalance the heaviness of the 2003," explains Krug. "The person in charge of the blending has to be like a symphony conductor. Whether he is playing Mozart with the London or the Tokyo orchestra, he should always sound the same, even though the musicians are different."

After bottling, all of the company’s Champagne is aged for at least six years before it is labeled "Krug." Some of the brand’s loyalists—Krugists—insist that a bottle of Krug should age at least 10 years before being opened.

One Champagne, however, contradicts the company philosophy of blending, and among cognoscenti it is the most treasured Krug. The next morning we will make a pilgrimage to its vineyard and discover why.

A fleet of vintage Citroën sedans, white-gloved chauffeurs at their wheels, picks us up at the Château Les Crayères, and an hour later, after passing a sign that points quaintly in one direction to Bouzy and in the other to Dizy, our convoy arrives in the village of Mesnil. Here, more than 250 years ago, a pair of friends built a wall around a five-and-a-half-acre plot and planted it with grapes. Krug acquired the land in 1971 with an eye toward producing grapes for blending. The family soon discovered that the plot, with its gentle slope and with its wall and surrounding houses sheltering its southerly exposure from the winds, possessed an ideal microclimate for Chardonnay.

Eight years later, after the family had replanted the grapes in stages to produce subtle shades of flavor, the first Krug Clos du Mesnil debuted. It proved to be so sensational that the family decided to continue bottling the wine instead of blending it into lesser wines. "We make a Clos du Mesnil once every two or three years," says Krug. "It is actually the easiest to make. It is the product of a single grape, a single vineyard, and a single year, but it is a dazzling Champagne."

We are about to find out just how dazzling, after we take part, on the edge of the vineyard, in a most unusual kind of tasting, one involving the senses of touch, smell, and sight, as well as taste. "A normal tasting is a waste of time with Krug. You have to have all your senses involved," explains Gilkes, who has divided us into three teams seated at separate tables. He presents each team with a half dozen silver cocktail shakers, each containing a different object, and asks us to identify the aromas emanating from them. My team identifies preserves, French toast, coffee, donuts, cookie dough, and a stuffed lion from Steiff. "Very good," says Gilkes, explaining that all these aromas can be found in Krug Champagnes.

Next is the test of touch, which requires us to reach inside a container and identify such items as a flannel blanket, a boy’s cowboy shirt, and silk lingerie. Then we step to a trio of easels to interpret these sensations on canvas. One team produces a series of minimalist stripes, another shows an array of abstract patterns, and the third, a heavily mascaraed woman’s eye, a stiletto heel, and a swatch of lacy lingerie.

Although the canvases all are different, explains Sarantopoulos, they represent a variety of sensations that link the visual and the tactile. "In life you make many discoveries," says the company’s CEO, "and one of the most delightful discoveries you can make is your first taste of Krug."

With the purpose of the exercise explained and our confusion addressed (I think), lunch is served, and, as promised, the Clos du Mesnil is spectacular. We are indeed Krug’in’.

We discover, in conversation with Krug and Sarantopoulos, that in addition to the refined, cultured types who are most characteristic of the Krug clientele, a number of celebrities and cultural luminaries cannot get through the day without a glass or two of Krug.

To my relief, Hemingway, not Sting or Madonna, inspired the theme for this year’s Odyssey. "When Hemingway lived in the Hôtel de Crillon he began every day by ordering two bottles of Krug to be sent to his room," says Sarantopoulos, explaining the connection between Krug and our next destination. The Citroëns whisk us out of Mesnil to a nearby airport to board a private jet for the flight to Andalusia, Spain. Good-bye, clos. Hello, corrida.

In Spain, we drive deep into a forest populated by olive and oak trees and large, ill-tempered beasts with razor-sharp horns. Here, waiters lure us from the safety of our Range Rovers with glasses of Clos du Mesnil ’96. The property, declaims Sarantopoulos, is La Ganaderia, where some of Spain’s most famed fighting bulls are bred. What more fitting backdrop for a glass of Krug? Both bull and Champagne, he pronounces, are examples of nature being transformed and glorified by the hand of man. Both, too, are the products of centuries, and both reflect noble characters and unique personalities.

And could it be just a coincidence that the bulls, like Krug, reach maturity after six years? "Then," Sarantopoulos says, "like a bottle of the finest Champagne, their lives culminate in 20 minutes of grace."

We ponder these parallels while climbing back into the Range Rovers and then silently watching as a dozen or so of the muscular bulls are herded toward us. They snort and thrust their horns this way and that. Each animal is a half ton of pure aggression. The Hemingway connection notwithstanding, it is difficult to imagine anything further removed from a glass of Krug.

As the sun dips below the Andalusian mountains, our convoy of Range Rovers rolls up to Trasierra, the sprawling hillside villa that is home to the Scott family, a clan of wealthy Brits. Here, too, parallels with Krug abound, for just as Johann-Joseph moved from Germany to France in the 19th century, notes Sarantopoulos, the Scotts moved from England to Spain in search of the Andalusian soul.

Regardless of whether they have succeeded in that search, the Scotts have discovered a variety of interesting Spanish cult wines, several of which we enjoy at dinner that night. These include an Apostoles 2005 white Rioja, Marques de Riscal 2001 (a blend of Malvasia and Viura), and an incredibly sweet Pedro Ximenez 1967. In customary fashion, before each wine is poured a local expert stands and describes it in detail.

That practice, Olivier Krug says the following morning, as we sip coffee on a terrace of the villa, is misguided—not because the vintners spoke only Spanish, which few of Krug’s guests understood, but because they spoke at all. "They wasted time talking about technicalities," says Krug. "They should simply have poured the wine and let their guests enjoy it."

This has been Krug’s approach since he joined the family firm 17 years ago. Soon after entering the fold, Krug moved to Japan and spent two years there, building the brand in Asia. At wine tastings he would advise participants to forgo scientific analysis and just enjoy what they were drinking. "I saw smiles all around," he recalls.

As he later learned, the Japanese palate is broader than Europeans’ and capable of discerning more flavors in Champagne. "The Japanese also have a deep appreciation of history, craftsmanship, and tradition, which we represent in abundance," says Krug. "When I first went to Japan, Krug was unknown. Now Japan is one of our biggest markets, and the brand is iconic."

The odyssey is airborne again the next morning, as three helicopters lift off from an improvised landing zone atop a hill. We swoop low over the Andalusian countryside before descending into the center of Seville, where another cadre of white-gloved chauffeurs awaits, this time with a fleet of new Mercedes-Benz S-Classes. They bring us to the ancient palazzo that is home to art and antiques dealer Manolo Morales.

The Spaniard first takes us on a tour of his own objets d’art, antiquities, and paintings before leading us out into the streets to some of the city’s tapas bars. The first is El Rinconcillo, a marvelously atmospheric bar lined with 17th-century Moorish tiles, where the specialty is the jamon de bellota, a flavorful ham served with espinacas y garbanzos (garbanzo beans and spinach). At Las Teresas, a few blocks away, we enjoy calamari and Cruzcampo beer before regrouping at La Casa Salinas, a 16th-century Italian Renaissance palazzo, for a light luncheon of lobster, shrimp, oysters, crab, shellfish, and glasses of Krug.

Dinner at the Casa de Pilatos, the 16th-century, Moorish-style palace, is hosted by the daughters of the duke and duchess of Segorbe and draws numerous local celebrities and a friendly English lass in cowboy boots who is known for painting portraits. The dinner is no less noteworthy than the attendees, with glasses of Krug Grande Cuvée, Krug Collection 1985, Flor de Pingus 2003, and more Krug Grande Cuvée.

Following this repast, we descend the grand staircase for a performance by jazz flamenco pianist Diego Amador. At about 2 am, the Odyssey guests, now augmented by our new friends from dinner, spill out into the streets to go taverna-hopping until morning, when it will be time for a vertical tasting of more Krug.

By this time we have imbibed numerous glasses of every iteration of the elixir, yet there remained one dimension of the Krug experience that the Odyssey had not explored. For the true Krugist, the only thing more pleasing than a glass of his favorite Champagne is that same glass imbibed in one of the four Krug Rooms. These are private dining rooms in exclusive locations—the Dorchester hotel in London, the Restaurant Tanga in Tokyo, the Lausanne Palace & Spa in Switzerland, and the Mandarin Oriental hotel in Hong Kong—where connoisseurs assemble to savor Krug and top-flight cuisine in the company of other devotees of the brand.

The patrons at these places are, no doubt, knowledgeable, the ambience refined, and the Champagnes exquisite. But no one will blame you if, between sips of Krug, you lift a glass to your fellow patrons and proclaim, "Now you’re Krug’in’!"

Krug, www.krug.com

One for the Ages: Krug ’96
Krug declares a vintage only in those years in which the wine demonstrates truly outstanding character and quality, and 1996 was one such year. The elements conspired with Krug’s unique techniques to elevate to unprecedented extremes the intense contrasts that define the taste of Krug.

It was a highly changeable summer, with periods of scorching heat followed by spells of heavy rain. As harvest time approached, the daytime weather was dry and sunny while nights were unusually chilly, nurturing wines of character and contrast.

Eleven years later, the result, Krug 1996, is an extreme, even eccentric Champagne that beguiles the senses with rich aromas and a firm texture before exploding into freshness that is quintessentially Krug. Olivier Krug recalls his grandfather Paul Krug’s reaction when he first tasted the newly fermented ’96: "I think this may be the next 1928."

Alas, the Champagne might prove to be like the ’28 in another respect: rarity. Immediately upon its release earlier this year, the Krug 1996 sold out.

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