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House of Krug and the Quest for Perfection

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Krug CEO & President Maggie Henriquez with K&L's Gary Westby at Quattro Krug CEO & President Maggie Henriquez with K&L's Gary Westby at Quattro

What is the greatest, most reliable producer in Champagne across the board, especially when money is no object? For me, without a doubt, it is the House of Krug.

Krug has long been the source of some of Champagne's most complex, satisfying and pleasurable wines, as well as its most expensive and sought after.

Over the past several months, I have had the privilege not only to taste through Krug's current releases with President and CEO Maggie Henriquez, but also to learn the secrets of the Grande Cuvée's assemblage from cellar master Eric Lebel.

I also spent two days in St. Helena this past week celebrating the 60th birthday of a very generous friend who collects lots of wonderful wines. Of the 50-plus great wines we enjoyed in honor of that occasion--from numerous Champagnes to Burgundy grand crus to Napa cult wines--it was the Krugs, both vintage and multiple magnums of the Grande Cuvée, that most stood out as thoroughly delicious and delightful.

This shouldn't be surprising given Krug's history. Krug was established, in 1843, with the express aim of producing Champagne's best wines. The fact that the company has somehow, through six generations and a change in ownership, continued to achieve at that extremely high level is, however, pretty astonishing.

In 1848, Joseph Krug, the house's founder, wrote out his philosophy on creating great Champagne, year after year. It called for making Champagne only out of the best base wines available. His idea for the first cuvée was that it should be altered according to the year, using stocks from prior years as needed to complement and complete what was missing from that particular vintage.

To carry out his vision, Joseph would taste the wines from each individual parcel separately, blending them as necessary with selected wines from his reserves. As a result, Krug Cuvée No. 1 was a rounded, full, complex wine every year. The second cuvée, the vintage Champagne, was only created when the house decided to express the story of a particular year. For Krug, this is usually only about three years per decade--four at the very most.

In 1999, Krug was acquired by the luxury goods conglomerate Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy. LVMH named Venezuelan Margareth "Maggie" Henriquez as President & CEO of Krug in 2009. Maggie, a Harvard grad, had been head of LVMH's Argentine operations, Bodegas Chandon. She therefore became one of only a handful of women chief execs in Champagne, and Champagne's first Latina chief executive.

I got to meet Maggie at a dinner at Quattro Restaurant in Palo Alto's Four Seasons Hotel last December featuring fabulous food pairings with six Krug bottlings.

Quattro Chef Marco Fossati had worked with the Krug team to come up with ideal pairings for each of Krug's current releases. Among other things, a Paine Farm squab en roulade--inspired by the traditional Champagne region dish "pigeon en croute"--was a perfect partner to the 2000 Vintage Krug Brut. A rich risotto with white truffles was made even more wonderful by being paired with the Grande Cuvée bottling based on the 2003 vintage, and the Brut Rosé fully stood up to a tender, slightly gamy, Elysian Fields lamb loin.

Elysian Fields lamb course at Quattro
Elysian Fields lamb course at Quattro

Assemblage of the Grande Cuvée

Maggie explained that, unlike other great Champagne producers, Krug makes only prestige cuvées. Instead of its multi-vintage Grande Cuvée being a secondary wine, created after the vintage wine is assembled, Krug has, from the beginning, turned the region's usual practice on its head by devoting its attentions to the multi-vintage cuvée first, as the house's flagship.

The Grande Cuvée is the most affordable of Krug's luxury wines, averaging $171 in the U.S., and available for as low as $125 at a few outlets. The Rosé averages $338, but can be found for as low as $270.

I learned even further from cellar master Eric Lebel--whom I met at the pop-up Krug hospitality house, created last month in a rented, architecturally interesting home in Woodside--exactly how the Grande Cuvée is assembled from all the various possible individual component wines of a particular vintage, as well as the 150 or so reserve wines always kept on hand.

According to Eric, the Grande Cuvée is like an "aroma wheel or disk, where all the aromas you like in the Grand Cuvée you should be able to find again each year." The vintage and single vineyard wines, by contrast, will always be "just a slice," not the full disk.

Krug vinifies a separate still wine from each of the different parcels it draws from. Eric explained that the committee of six tasters over which he presides regularly tastes, starting in September and continuing into March of each year, the wines vinified from each of up to 250 or so parcels in a vintage, as well as the 150 or so reserve wines always kept on hand. Eric keeps a notebook with notes and descriptors on each of the parcels, identifying how each is progressing.

The crucial week for the creation of the blend that is the culmination of all the tastings is called Semaine de la Laboratoire, or week of the laboratory. This begins on a Friday in April when Eric gives the team his three possible "propositions" of blends for the final version of the Grande Cuvée.

Krug U.S. Business Director Carl Heline left with Eric Lebel
Krug U.S. Business Director Carl Heline left with Eric Lebel

The following Monday, Eric's team starts putting together each of the three creations, aiming to finalize them for tasting by the committee on Thursday of that week.

Eric always has in mind one of his three propositions as being his likely final blend, and says that in the last several years, the committee has always ended up choosing the proposition that was his secret number one.

This April, they ended up with a blend of 198 wines from 12 different vintages--the oldest being a Pinot Noir from the 1996 vintage. The 2012 vintage wines made up 58% of this wine, with the reserves comprising 42%. Reserves usually amount to 40-50% of the Grande Cuvée blend. This wine will be aged for six years and then go through disgorgement and back into the cellar in bottle for at least another six months.

When I tasted with Eric, we drank from a glass he developed with Riedel specifically for the enjoyment of Krug. It's called "Le Joseph," after Krug's founder.

Le Joseph glass made by Riedel
Le Joseph glass made by Riedel

As they say at Krug, it isn't one single thing that makes Krug's wines so extraordinary--it is the cumulative effect of an agglomeration of careful choices and minute details. This is the great legacy of the house's founder--Joseph Krug.

Joseph was driven to produce the best product possible in Champagne, a quest for perfection that has somehow been maintained and enhanced by thousands of choices made by his descendants over the years. The result are vinous masterpieces that are among the most reliable sources of pleasure and deep enjoyment not only from Champagne, but in the whole world of wine.

For my tasting notes on both current release and older Krugs sampled over the past several months, see the full version of this piece on my blog here.