What it takes to assemble a flagship from the King of Champagnes
The 166th edition of the Krug Grande Cuvee is a blend of 140 wines from 13 different years, with the oldest being a 1996, and the youngest, a 2010.
While most winemakers are worried about global warming, Eric Lebel of the House of Krug, thinks it’s advantageous for the region of Champagne. “[With global warming], we now have a higher concentration of sugar in the grapes. We are getting more consistent ripeness, which is crucial to a good harvest,” said the 57-year-old, who joined Krug as its chef de cave or cellar master in 1998.
Consistency is the key word for Lebel, the man responsible for putting together the assemblage or blend for Krug Grande Cuvee, the maison’s flagship, non-vintage bubbly. Every October, Lebel pores over more than 250 wines from the harvest, and a further 150 wines from the house’s reserve collection in the cellar. Come March, Lebel rounds up his tasting notes and those of his tasting committee, and starts creating the blend for the Grande Cuvee, which is then aged in the cellar for at least seven years before release.
Unlike for vintage champagnes, Lebel’s aim is to make the Grande Cuvee taste the same with each edition. Each Grande Cuvee is usually a blend of over 120 wines from 10 different years or vintages; a style that Lebel says is the “fullest expression of Champagne”. (No other maison has that many wines in their non-vintage blend.)
Assemblage-wise, no two Grande Cuvee editions bear the same recipe, and Krug fans had little idea about the exact number of wines and the base (youngest) wine that went into in each blend. This all changed in 2011, when Lebel and his team introduced the Krug ID, a six-digit code on the wine’s label that lets you access the bubbly’s background information – number of wines in the blend; base wine; oldest wine; disgorgement date; vineyard regions; vintage conditions – via the maison’s website. For wine geeks, this is the equivalent of a watch collector learning when and where his timepiece’s tourbillon was put in place.
“This inclusion [of the ID] was something we were not used to at first, since champagne houses prefer not to reveal information about their assemblage,” said Lebel. “We initially wanted to include just the disgorgement (removing of yeast sediments before bottling) date, but Olivier Krug, our director and the sixth generation of the Krug family, noted that other maisons were already displaying disgorgement dates, so we should share more with our customers.”
Lebel is currently promoting the 166th edition of the Grande Cuvee. Via its ID code, we learned that this edition is a blend of 140 wines from 13 different years, with the oldest being a 1996, and the youngest, a 2010. Because of a difficult vintage in 2010, the Chardonnay from the Cote de Blancs lacked the usual freshness, and the maison had to balance that with livelier fruit from the villages of Sainte-Gemme and Courmas. The final composition of the blend is 45 percent Pinot Noir, 39 percent Chardonnay, and 16 percent Pinot Meunier.
The 166th edition of the Grande Cuvee is fresh and vibrant, with notes of bread, almonds, and honey. For fans, this edition offers no eccentricities, which is how a non-vintage should be – it’s a rendition of their favourite song, played with the same cadence, the same flair.
Lebel likens his job to a chef’s: He visits vineyards to pick the best grapes, much like how a toque would prowl the market before his shift at the restaurant. This allusion led him and the maison to launch the Krug Single Ingredient programme – a food-pairing exercise with chefs or Krug ambassadors – five years ago.
This year, the Krug ambassadors – chefs Kirk Westaway of JAAN, Kenjiro ‘Hatch’ Hashida of Hashida Sushi, and Tristan Farmer of Zen – were challenged to work with pepper and pair their dishes with the Grande Cuvee. Westaway rustled up a grilled langoustine with a Mexican-inspired mole made from poblano peppers; Hashida brewed a crab and sea eel dumpling soup with Timur pepper; and Farmer created a sorbet with Yubari melon, strawberries, Espelette pepper and nasturtium.
“Pairing food with the Grande Cuvee is easy because the champagne’s taste is always consistent,” said Lebel. “We haven’t tried pairing with a vintage champagne [in our Single Ingredient programme] yet. That would be interesting; it is something we can definitely do in the future.”