‘I love the whole process of champagne making,” says Olivier Krug, standing in one of his vineyards in northern France and laughing at the mud on his stylish shoes. “I love the harvest as much as I love going to a bar in a city and meeting a beautiful 23-year-old sommelier.”
Krug, 44, has probably one of the best jobs in the world. The sixth generation of his family to run the eponymous champagne house, now owned by the corporate but relatively hands-off Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy, he travels the world, meets a diverse range of interesting people and drinks immoderate quantities of his own expensive bubbly (although he does also profess to enjoying beer).
Krug makes an average of only 450,000 bottles a year – well under one per cent of the world’s champagne – but it is often described as the Rolls-Royce of the industry. Its devotees, who have called themselves “Krugists”, include Ernest Hemingway, John le Carré, Sir Alec Guinness, Naomi Campbell and the late Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, who used to sneak in bottles whenever she was in hospital. Their biggest market is Japan, followed by the US and Europe, and they will soon be shipping bottles to Nigeria, where the president’s wife is a fan.
Today, Olivier is in Mesnil-sur-Oger, a pretty village near Reims in Champagne, supervising the second day of the harvest – a job that involves hard-nosed business negotiations (one contracted grower has just threatened to sell his crop to a rival), plenty of charm and trying not to drink every glass pressed into his hand.
Krug owns a tiny, 1.84 hectare vineyard in the village called Clos du Mesnil, protected by the warm walls of the surrounding houses. Although vines were first planted on this spot in 1698, it has only belonged to the Krug family since 1971. “We had no clue what a gem it would be,” says Olivier. “It’s a darling vineyard.”
He bends down to pluck one of the chardonnay grapes. “You see how beautiful they are?” he enthuses. “They are all the same size. Very juicy, a hint of pineapple.”
Could he sell them in the local market, I ask. He laughs: “I think we make more money out of champagne.” Later, I look up 1998 Krug Clos Du Mesnil on the Berry Bros website. It retails at £751.30 for a standard bottle.
As someone who doesn’t know a great deal about wine with bubbles – like many in Britain, I suspect, I glug it happily at weddings, blissfully unaware of whether it’s Prosecco, Cava or something more expensive – I’ve always been sceptical about the champagne industry. How hard can it be: leave some not very good wine to go off; wait for the fizz; put a fancy cork in it; get protection from the EU; quintuple the price. Santé!
After spending a day with Krug for the harvest, however, I realise just how much care, expertise – and, indeed, love – goes into the whole fascinating process.
Julie Cavil, 37, is the wine-maker in charge of Clos Du Mesnil. “We are at the extreme northern limit for wine-growing,” she says. “We get scared every time we watch the weather forecast. Ideally you want everything in moderation – a mild spring, some sun, regular rain, but not storms.”
In 2003 an April frost damaged 80 per cent of the grapes. This year, despite some bruising from a hail storm, they’re looking in excellent shape. And after a warm spring they’re ready for picking earlier than ever. Speed, as always, is of the essence. Wine-makers are fond of sharing the story of a woman who delayed her harvest by a few days so she could attend a wedding. She lost the entire crop.
Krug employs some 40 seasonal pickers, mainly factory workers who have been doing the harvest for generations. “Line sheriffs” gently chivvy along their snapping secateurs. Olivier walks around greeting familiar faces. “It’s not as much fun as it used to be,” he confides, a grin on his face. “There used to be a lot of parties, and a lot of babies born nine months later.”
Olivier, who in accordance with Krug family tradition had a sip of champagne as a newborn baby, before tasting his mother’s milk, used to help with the harvest as a child. Janine, a no-nonsense lady driving a forklift in the courtyard, jokes that he wasn’t much help.
Harvest is a joyful, sociable time in the calendar – but it’s also a hectic one. Candles are lit in the local churches to St Vincent, the patron saint of wine-growers. After the grapes have been picked, they’re loaded, 4,000kg at a time, into a giant pressing machine. Calibrated to squeeze the grapes no harder than if between two fingers – snails and ladybirds caught up in this most organic of fruits always survive the process – it takes four hours to produce 2,550 litres of juice.
The last 500 litres of each press, a more acidic juice known as les tailles, are sold to less discerning houses. The other 2,050 litres – not looking too dissimilar to sewage – are put into oak barrels for eight to 12 days’ fermentation.
They won’t know how good the harvest really is, however, until the wine returns to Krug headquarters, a cobbled courtyard on a quiet street in Reims, which will be its home for at least six years.
Here a tasting committee has the enviable task of trying thousands of wines, including a huge selection of reserve wines stored in vast underground cellars. Unique to Krug is its long-term isolation of wines from different vineyards – even different parts of a vineyard – whereas most champagne houses will mix each year’s harvest together.
This process not only provides invaluable quality control over individual growers, it allows Krug, even in a bad year, to create its signature Krug Grand Cuvée, a blend of 100 or so wines, made of 10-12 vintages, and ideally tasting the same each year.
The attention to detail to produce this is quite remarkable, part-art, part-science; by the time one of those 100 wines reaches a single bottle it might have been in Krug’s cellars for 25 or more years, awaiting its perfect blend. Olivier is able to tell any one of his wine growers that certain grapes they grew eight years ago are in this year’s Grand Cuvée.
Krug makes vintage champagne, too – if less often than its competitors. We try a Krug Clos Du Mesnil 1998 and a Krug 1998, as well as the Grand Cuvée. They inspire Romain Cains, Krug’s business development manager and our charming guide for the day, into paroxysms of delight. The Clos Du Mesnil is “misty on the nose; ethereal; soft; citrus; vanilla; strong, but not aggressive; full of minerality; chalk; touchable; beyond an aromatic nose; precise; neat; impressions of a meringue; like a line going down your chin…”
The Krug 1998 is “pear; pineapple; peach juice that’s all over your face it’s so good.”
He is so endearingly enthusiastic that I have to pretend I, too, can taste the chalky, touchable meringue – as opposed to something nice and chilled and bubbly.
I have a cold. And probably an appalling nose. But I do at least feel wonderfully tipsy. And intent on taking my respectful time over the next glass of wedding champagne.
Written by: Iain Hollingshead