John Szabo’s report on luxe Champagnes is part two of WineAlign’s series on bubblies for the holidays. Just before New Year’s Eve, part three will provide a shopping list of more affordable sparklers. All recommendations below are currently available somewhere in Canada. Readers in B.C. and Ontario can check out nearest store inventories through WineAlign, or you can contact the importing agent. A feature on Maison Krug follows John’s report – in which Olivier Krug reveals the vision of his great-great-great grandfather and the not-so-secret secret of the champagne house’s success, as well as his (grandmother’s) recipe for killer ratatouille.
Luxe Bubbles for 2013
plus a profile on Maison Krug
by John Szabo
Champagne, by virtually any definition, is a luxury product. But there’s an awful lot of poor quality champagne, made from some of the highest yielding vineyards in the world (relative to average selling price) with questionable attention to detail, and defects neatly, and legally, masked by a generous dollop of sugar (“dosage”) at bottling. And uniformly high pricing based on the weight of the collective “brand champagne” makes shopping by price a roll of the dice.
But as Treve Ring explored in her article last week entitled Farmer Fizz, real champagne is a wine, not a brand. As such, quality and style are as diverse as the 275,000 or so vineyard parcels in the region, the 19,000 registered growers who farm them, and the several thousand enterprises that produce and sell champagne. So here’s a short list of the best wines I’ve tasted recently that deserve the luxe tag, divided into a couple of unofficial style categories that I find useful. Unlike cheap fizz, I’d suggest serving these luxe champagnes in large white wine glasses rather than straitjacket-like flutes in order to enjoy their full aromatic complexity and layered texture.
Toute En Finesse et Fraîcheur
These are champagnes focused on delicacy and elegance rather than sheer power, perfect for sipping or serving alongside luxury shellfish for a classy pairing.
Cristal Brut Champagne 2005 (ON $287.95)
Made from select parcels of vineyards owned by Maison Roederer, the 2005 Cristal is a surprisingly delicate and floral wine despite the power of the vintage and 20% barrel fermented base wine. It offers ethereal notes of ripe, toasted citrus-lemon-bergamot, fresh sweet herbs and striking wet-chalk minerality. There’s plenty of action on the palate, with immediate mouth-filling impact focused by laser sharp definition. Flavours reverberate and expand beautifully.
Ruinart R De Ruinart Brut Champagne (ON $77.95)
A classy, elegant and very refined example, replete with almond, hazelnut, white chocolate and fresh baked croissant-type aromas and flavours. Excellent length and depth; crisp and dry.
Henriot Souverain Brut Champagne (ON $59.95)
A classy, heavily autolytic (biscuity, yeasty) champers with terrific complexity and more than an average measure of finesse. Delicate citrus and white fleshed fruit linger with blanched almond and fresh hazelnut.
Piper Heidsieck Brut (ON $54.95)
Piper is the fresher, leaner and crisper bottling relative to stable-mate Charles Heidsieck. Considerable flavour intensity is wrapped around lightly caramelized citrus-lemon-orange peel flavours, and autolysis character is modest. It’s lip-smackingly dry, crisp and precise on the palate, making for a fine aperitif, or oyster accompaniment.
Gosset Brut Excellence (ON $53.00)
Gosset lays claim to being the oldest house in Champagne, dating back to 1584. Despite recent reports by several authorities that the wines have grown too oxidative in style (a big discussion point in Champagne these days), I find this latest release of the Brut Excellence to be neither overtly fruity, nor markedly mature or oxidative, but rather quite right. This presents itself as properly lean, tight and lively, on the drier side of brut.
Rich, Mature and Toasty
These are powerful and intense champagnes, often made with a high proportion of reserve wines (older vintages used for blending), with extra long ageing on the lees, or mature vintage champagnes.
Krug Grande Cuvée Brut Champagne (ON $271.95)
The latest release of the Grande Cuvée falls squarely within the Krug house style of intensely autolytic and mature wine, with its pronounced honeyed, toasted wheat bread, roasted almond and hazelnut profile; massively complex. The palate is generous, densely concentrated and compact, powerful yet finessed. Certainly an outstanding Grande Cuvée. See the article below for more details on Krug.
2004 Moët & Chandon Grand Vintage Brut Champagne (ON $83.95)
Moët’s ’04 vintage displays immediate class, even if the palate is tightly wound and a bit shier than expected. Yet there’s more than sufficient density and extract to evolve further over the next few years. This is very nearly as good as the Dom Pérignon prestige cuvée, at 1/3 the price.
Jacquesson Champagne Cuvée 736 Extra Brut (ON $67.95)
Jacquesson’s Cuvée nº 736 is based on the fine 2008 vintage with 1/3 of reserve wines, made from just over half chardonnay. It’s mature and developed, with flavours shifting into the caramelized, honeyed, candied citrus zest and sautéed apple-pear-peach spectrum. The palate is gentle and relatively soft, with enough dosage to buffer acids. Wonderful balance and length all around.
Charles Heidsieck Brut Réserve Champagne (ON $59.95)
Charles Heidsieck Brut Reserve – lot number 3006442 – is another fine example offering an enticing juxtaposition of freshness and elegance with maturity and complexity. Precise, tart citrus fruit flavours mingle with plenty of toasty-biscuity notes from reserve wines and considerable time on the lees. Outstanding complexity.
Fleury Champagne Blanc De Noirs Brut (ON $56.95)
A biodynamically-grown grower’s champagne. Notably deep golden colour, and intensely rich and toasty aromatics to match, wonderfully mature, focused on toasted almonds and hazelnuts, dried fruit, and plenty of toasted wheat bread with honey and apple turnover. The palate is very dry, braced by riveting acids with excellent length. Best served at table, with, say, a hazelnut-encrusted sea bass.
Château De Bligny Champagne Blanc De Blancs Brut (ON $43.95)
Here’s a classy, vinous, evidently concentrated and superb value grower champagne. It displays uncommon richness and flavour intensity for a non-vintage offering at this price, and drinks more like a table wine than a sparkling wine. I’d confidently serve this alongside veal scaloppini or poached fish in beurre blanc, or white truffled pasta or risotto.
Brut Non-Dosé (or so it seems)
Champagnes made with low, or no added sugar after disgorging, bracingly dry and crisp, perfect to start off the evening (or afternoon).
Champagne Agrapart Terroir Blanc De Blanc Grand Cru (Lot From May 2010, Disgorged February 2013, ON $68.95)
The latest release of Agrapart’s Terroir Blanc de Blancs Extra Brut is a particularly dry and firm bottling, and flavourful to be sure, with mainly sour citrus and green apple fruit. I found that aeration made a profound improvement in both flavour and texture, so in this rare instance I’d recommend decanting for now, albeit gently to avoid losing too much effervescence.
José Dhondt Blanc De Blancs Brut Champagne (ON $53.95)
A somewhat rustic, if authentic, grower’s champagne, with a range of aromatics far outside the traditional profile of commercial champagne brands, that draws you inexorably in. Very mineral and lightly vegetal, with discreet fruit, and very dry and crisp yet balanced on the palate, with genuine concentration and complexity. Well worth a look for intrepid consumers.
Tarlant Champagne Brut Reserve (ON $40.85)
Tarlant’s Brut Reserve is very dry and crisp in keeping with the house style, very close to the brut zéro for which the house is best known (6 grams/liter residual sugar here). You’ll find plenty of toasted wheat bread, almond, buckwheat, and sautéed lemon flavours, while the palate is lean, rivetingly tart and seemingly bone dry.
André Clouet Silver Brut Nature Champagne (ON $57.95)
There’s a good reason why this became my ‘house champagne’ a couple of years ago – it’s simply outstanding value. This latest release from the dedicated grower André Clouet is a complex, toasty, yeasty, vinous and concentrated wine, with a broad and appealing range of aromas and flavours, full, intense and marvellously apportioned, which drinks the equal of many vintage cuvées at double or more the price. Ready to savour now, preferably at the table alongside fish or poultry in cream sauce.
Rare and frequently over priced, this is one of the toughest categories to find quality and price matched up. Here area couple that make the cut.
Devaux Cuvée Rosée Brut Champagne (ON $59.95)
The terra cotta-tinged appearance foreshadows a highly evolved aromatic profile, leading off with toasted walnuts and caramel, followed by ripe cherry and pomegranate fruit. Acids are sharp and bright and length very good – this has some rustic appeal and solid flavour intensity all around.
Legras & Haas Brut Rosé Champagne (ON $64.99)
A refined and elegant rosé, pale pink, fully focused on delicate red fruit, strawberry, cherry, raspberry and fresh pomegranate, alongside floral-rose petal tones. This is a champagne of delicacy and finesse, with very fine and gentle mousse, and very classy indeed. Note that this is available through private order only so you won’t be drinking it this New Year’s Eve, but it was too fine not to include.
Profile: Maison Krug – A Vision Revealed
After nearly 170 years, Olivier Krug, the 6th successive generation of Krugs to run the famous Champagne house, finally understood the essence of his family’s business. He did so after discovering some writings in the family archives a couple of years ago written by his great-great-great grandfather, Joseph Krug. The letters reveal the origins of Krug’s somewhat unique position in the champagne world in that they present the Grande Cuvée, a multi-vintage champagne, as the company’s flagship wine, rather than the vintage-dated prestige cuvée of the majority of other champagne houses. “The day I read Joseph’s words was the day I understood Krug” relates Olivier.
Joseph Krug founded his eponymous champagne business on November 7, 1843. He was born in Mainz, then part of France, and grew up in a French school before moving to Paris to live large. After meeting the agent for Champagne Jacquesson, the largest company in Champagne at the time, he got his start in the champagne business in 1833 working for, and eventually co-managing Champagne Jaquesson along with M. Jaquesson himself.
Olivier continues the story: “five years after Joseph joined Jaquesson, he sent a memo to his boss, which we recovered, stating quite simply that “we should aim to offer the best every year”. “And by definition you cannot offer the best possible champagne every year from a single vintage.” Joseph wished to make a more consistent, and original, house style of champagne.
But Jacquesson was not interested in changing his company’s policies, so Joseph started working with a negociant on the side to discover the best parcels of land in the region. He wanted to go beyond the “three colours” of champagne: chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier, and look more closely at the different expressions of these grapes in different terroirs. “Since every terroir is going to give something different, expressing something of each parcel could be enriching, and could be the base for an even better, even sharper selection”, explains Olivier.
The Birth of Champagne Krug
So when Krug left Jaquesson to start his own company, very much against his wife’s wishes who was happy with their already comfortable life, “he knew exactly what he had to do and how to go about creating a champagne that would offer not only the best possible quality every year, but also go beyond vintage, which is only a single expression of a single year”.
At the age of 48 in 1848 Joseph Krug wrote a note in his diary to his six-year-old son, saying that “there are times that you might be tempted to use some grapes of a lesser, or even mediocre quality, and you might even succeed. But these are cases on which you should never rely otherwise you may lose your reputation.”
Joseph continues in his writings: “A good [champagne] house should aim to produce two cuvées of the same composition and quality: number one is the Grande Cuvée – this should be the focus, to offer everything that champagne can offer every year, whose quality should be unquestionable every year, a champagne that goes beyond vintage. Cuvée nº2 depends on the circumstances of the vintage and the climate, as good as the first cuvée, but which is only the product of one year, the result of the climate, the story of a single year”.
This was a radical notion at the time since then, as is still true today, the hierarchy in champagne is reversed: non-vintage is subordinate to vintage wines. But this philosophy was not clever marketing or promotional material for the fledgling House of Krug, but a private note to his son and eventual successor, written in a diary. The same uncompromising standards have been upheld at Krug ever since, and has made of Krug champagne an icon of the industry and the champagne of choice for those who can afford it whenever the moment calls for celebration and pleasure. “Joseph understood that champagne is about pleasure. Whenever you open a bottle of champagne it’s for pleasure”, says Olivier.
Olivier had spent over twenty years trying to describe the vision of Maison Krug, struggling to explain to customers that Krug Grande Cuvée is not a “non-vintage” champagne, nor is it a “vintage” champagne, but rather that it’s a unique wine assembled from a vast and ever-changing puzzle that includes the different pieces provided by the authorized grapes, the 275,000+ potential parcels of vineyards, as well as the variations imposed on both terroir and grape by the yearly climatic conditions. Reading the words of Joseph outlining his vision for great champagne put everything into perspective for Olivier, as though everything he had always believed but had had difficulty expressing suddenly became clearer, as though he had been handed the company’s original mission statement and a justification for its continued implementation.
The Secret: Plot-Based Contracts
In addition to the grapes supplied by the company’s own vineyards, one of the secrets to Krug’s success is their unique contractual arrangements with growers. Most grape contracts are volume-based (in fact, contracts are based on the number of hectares agreed upon for sale, but since yields and pressings are fixed across the region each year by the authorities, it amounts to a volume-based contract), which is to say that a grower will sell the equivalent amount of must produced from a given number of hectares, even though the specific physical plots of origin are not specified. But Krug ties its contracts to specific parcels within the holdings of any individual grower, in effect both a volume and terroir-based contract, plot-by-plot.
“Take a single grower in Bouzy, with five hectares” begins Olivier. “Even such a small holding is divided into fifteen different plots, and not all are equal. The grower might agree to sell one-fifth of her total production each year (the equivalent from one hectare of vineyards) to five different houses, including Krug. But we will go to that grower and ask her to identify the best, say 3-4, parcels that total one hectare, those which she thinks will meet the standards and expectations of Krug. The growers often look at us with big eyes and say, “you mean I can choose grapes for you?” For most people, grapes are grapes. Not for us.”
The system works because Krug vinifies all the individual plots of their growers separately – in 2013, for example, Krug vinified 300 separate lots. The precision often goes as far as vinifying the three legally permitted pressings of each lot of grapes separately. Krug then invites the growers back later in the year to taste the result of their work in the vineyard. “We’ve seen vignerons shed tears when they taste how beautiful their wine turned out” says Olivier. The pride of the growers drives them to reserve their best plots of grapes for Krug, knowing that they won’t disappear anonymously into a huge tank.
Olivier draws a cooking analogy to explain the small lot production philosophy. “Take ratatouille. To make a quick dish, you start with all of the vegetables, put them into a big steam cooker, cook them for 40 minutes, add some salt and pepper and voilà you have ratatouille, and it’s very good because you started with good ingredients. And then you have ratatouille like my grandmother used to make. She would take the tomatoes one by one and peel off the skin, and reduce them slowly on their own for two hours. And then she would take the onions separately and sauté them, and then she would take the eggplant and… Only at the end would she assemble everything. Both ratatouilles are made with essentially the same ingredients, with the same percentages of each vegetable. But you taste them and they are totally different. This was the philosophy that Joseph had in 1843.”
The Krug ID System
But even with the incredible mosaïque of material to work with, Grande Cuvée displays variation from bottling to bottling. “Grande the cuvée is not the same every year. It always delivers the same house expression, but tasted side by side there are differences” Olivier reveals. To address this issue, one that continually plagues me as I wonder which specific bottling of a particular champagne I’m drinking and when it was disgorged, Krug introduced a unique ID system in 2011 that allows you to look up details on specific bottlings at Krug.com. The current release of Krug Grande Cuvée, in the LCBO as of the November 23rd, 2013 release, bears I.D.# 411045, which according to the website “left the Krug cellars to receive its cork in autumn 2011. This is the last step after more than six years of ageing in the cellars to acquire finesse and elegance. This bottle is an extraordinary blend of 134 wines from 12 different vintages, the oldest from 1990 and the youngest from 2005.”
A “Rich and Generous Expression of Champagne”
As though to underscore the primacy of Grande Cuvée within the house’s range, we taste the 2000 vintage Krug first, the opposite of the customary champagne tasting which begins invariably with the non-vintage cuvée. It is of course excellent wine, but when we move on to the current release of the Grande Cuvée, the wine has an extra dimension absent in the vintage cuvee. It falls squarely within the immediately recognizable Krug house style of intensely autolytic and mature wine, “rich and generous” as Krug describes it, with its pronounced honeyed, toasted wheat bread, roasted almond and hazelnut profile offering amazing complexity. There are few wines in the world I’m prepared to pay such a princely sum for, but if you derive pleasure from Krug, it really is quite unique.
Need a last minute gift? Consider Pairing Food and Wine For Dummies by John Szabo MS, published by John Wiley & Sons Canada. It’s the go-to guide for getting it right every time food and wine are involved, including getting the most for your money in restaurants, home entertaining, gift giving, and even what it takes to become a sommelier. And if you don’t believe me, read what respected drinks critic Stephen Beaumont (Books, Books, Books. What to buy for whom; Coffee table eye candy edition) had to say about it. It’s available online and in fine bookshops all over the English-speaking world.
That’s all for this week. I wish you a safe, happy holiday and a new year full of fine bubbles.
John Szabo, Master Sommelier