It’s 1928 again as Krug pops out perfect champagne
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 .