It’s 1928 again as Krug pops out per­fect cham­pagne

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Indulgence - James Halliday

IHAVE pre­vi­ously re­counted how tast­ing a bot­tle of 1938 Ro­ma­nee-Conti in 1982 at La Pyra­mide Restau­rant in Vi­enne, France, caused tears to run down my face. It came from my birth year but it was the per­fec­tion of the wine, rather than sen­ti­men­tal­ity or the mild hang­over I was suf­fer­ing, that over­whelmed me.

The other day I was given a wine that nearly had the same ef­fect. My eyes mo­men­tar­ily filled but, to my re­lief, did not over­flow. Not that the other five peo­ple at the ta­ble would have cared too much, but it’s not what you ex­pect at the lunchtime launch of a wine.

The defence is that this was, and will be for many years, an ut­terly ex­tra­or­di­nary wine, as per­fect in its way as was the Ro­ma­nee-Conti. It is the 1996 Krug, the last to be blended by three gen­er­a­tions of the Krug fam­ily: Paul, brothers Henri and Remi, and Olivier.

The vin­tage was a mem­o­rable one in Cham­pagne, with most houses mak­ing wines of ex­cep­tional qual­ity.

They were born from a year of tur­bu­lent and ex­treme weather con­di­tions, which at times threat­ened the ex­is­tence of a vin­tage worth declar­ing. (Like port, poor vin­tages are blended away and not sold as a sin­glev­in­tage wine.)

The sum­mer al­ter­nated pe­ri­ods of heavy rain and scorch­ing heat; not un­til the be­gin­ning of au­tumn were there calm, sunny days and un­usu­ally cold but clear nights.

The re­sult was grapes with higher than usual lev­els of sugar and acid­ity and bit­ingly in­tense, yet bal­anced, flavour.

Of all the great­est cham­pagnes, Krug has the most com­plex­ity and pro­fun­dity; Bollinger can come close, while Moet et Chan­don’s Dom Perignon is at the other ex­treme, a wine of haunt­ing fi­nesse and del­i­cacy. The ’ 96 vin­tage of those wines is be­yond re­proach, but Krug is in an­other realm.

Krug re­gards the ’ 28, ’ 90 and ’ 96 as its three finest wines of the 20th cen­tury. Tom Steven­son, in his 2003 edi­tion (the most re­cent) of The World En­cy­clopae­dia of Cham­pagne and Sparkling Wine, rates the ’ 90 in front of the ’ 28 but had not tasted the ’ 96 at the time. (In 1957, Michael Broadbent de­scribed the ’ 28 as the great­est cham­pagne he had tasted.)

I first tasted the ’ 28 in 1979 and again in ’ 82 (on both oc­ca­sions at Krug) and stood in awe of the wine. I have been priv­i­leged to taste older vin­tages (’21, ’ 14 and ’ 11 Pol Roger, and 1906 Hei­d­sieck re­trieved from the Baltic Sea), all glo­ri­ous wines in their dif­fer­ent ways, but none with the majesty of the ’ 28.

Olivier Krug, di­rec­tor of the House of Krug, says he clearly re­mem­bers Paul Krug’s re­ac­tion when he first tasted the newly fer­mented base wines from 1996.

‘‘ Through­out his life, my grand­fa­ther shunned ex­ag­ger­a­tion of any kind, but on this oc­ca­sion he looked at us and said: ‘ I think this may well be the next 1928.’ ’’

Paul Krug was of the view that the non­vin­tage Private Cu­vee (now called Grand Cu­vee), com­posed as it is of up to 50 base wines from 20 to 25 vil­lages, with 35 per cent to 50 per cent of re­serve wines of six to 10 vin­tages and con­tain­ing 25 per cent to 35 per cent chardon­nay, 45 per cent to 55 per cent pinot noir and 15 per cent to 20 per cent pinot me­u­nier, was the work of the fam­ily, whereas a vin­tage such as ’ 28 (or ’ 90 or ’ 96) was the work of God.

In say­ing this, he was not down­play­ing the vin­tage wines; there is still a mul­ti­plic­ity of sites and the vary­ing per­cent­ages of the three va­ri­eties to give rise to a be­wil­der­ing num­ber of op­tions (be­wil­der­ing for those with­out Krug run­ning in their veins).

A fi­nal word on the Grand Cu­vee (al­ways aged for six years in the cel­lars be­fore re­lease) and the vin­tage. If you wish to ex­pe­ri­ence the max­i­mum im­pact of a wine still full of vi­brancy, drink the Grand Cu­vee within 10 years of re­lease. When it comes to vin­tage Krug, the span ex­tends to 20 to 30 years, de­pend­ing on the vin­tage.

So it is that the ’ 28 has be­come an old wine, to be revered as such by those who have or are able to find a bot­tle.

The ’ 90 will com­fort­ably cruise to 2020 and quite pos­si­bly longer. For more on the ’ 96, see my notes, right, in FromtheRe­gion .

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