There's a school of economic thought that maintains that the more expensive something is, the more valuable it becomes to people. In several markets—real estate and art come to mind—an often successful strategy for moving sluggish inventory is to raise the price. Why else would collectors slug it out at auction over works comparable to ones they could buy in galleries for a fraction of the cost?
The disproportionate importance that is placed on price as opposed to quality affected my thinking about Champagne from the start of my four-decade love affair with the stuff. As much as I'd like to think I'm above such things, I now realize I've never been immune to the subjective character of its mystique.
On my very first day as a Columbia freshman in 1966, I bought a bottle of Piper Heidsieck to celebrate my newfound freedom, iced it in my dorm room sink, popped it, and promptly got smashed. I knew nothing about Champagne, but the Heidsieck name had sounded foreign and classy and I could (barely) afford it.
For our wedding reception in 1978, my wife and I chose the perfectly respectable Lanson Black Label, largely because it was then being promoted at the bargain price of, if my memory serves me right, $10 a bottle. Conventional wisdom holds that only a gangsta or profligate nouveau riche would give Dom Perignon to a crowd. (Indeed, at their Hamptons houses these days, both hedge fund billionaire George Soros and Barnes & Noble CEO Leonard Riggio serve their guests Veuve Cliquot, a sign that they're generous but not pouring their fortunes away.)
With the prosperous eighties and late nineties came the craze for Louis Roederer Cristal, which then reigned as the most costly grande marque Champagne. Most recently, the vogue for small-production artisanal Champagnes has led me to embrace Egly-Ouriet, a subtly nutty wine which, at about $45 a bottle, proves that a fine and distinctive Champagne need not be ruinously expensive.
Only lately have I come to understand that the cult status of today's costliest Champagne, Krug, has both everything and nothing to do with its inherent quality, just as it is paradoxically both artisanal and high-volume. To be sure, Krug's renown is wrapped in its being the most expensive of all Champagnes, selling for between $170 and $750 and often topping the thousand-dollar mark on restaurant wine lists. Until now, though, Krug has kept a comparatively low profile, rarely advertising and seemingly content to confine its relatively small output to those who already know about it.
"Krug occupies a fairly unique niche," explains Jean-Louis Carbonnier, former director of the Champagne Bureau in New York and a knowledgeable observer of how prestige becomes destiny. "The company holds the position that all its Champagnes are exclusive cuvées, and yet Krug has not yet broken beyond the brand awareness of consumers in the way that Dom Perignon and Cristal have."
One reason Krug costs so much is because of the firm's dogged refusal to depart from traditional production methods and materials. For centuries after the legendary monk Dom Perignon began perfecting Champagne in the late 17th century, it remained an unpredictable and often literally explosive wine until several innovations during the 19th century at last ensured its consistency and stability. Krug was founded in 1843 (relatively late among the big names of Champagne). The company certainly embraced the advances made in the 1800s, but Krug's techniques have changed very little since then.
While its competitors have switched to large stainless-steel or concrete vats for the first of Champagne's two fermentations, Krug has stuck with smaller, more expensive oak casks. Other makers have mechanized some of the elaborate multistep processes that stimulate fermentation and clarify the wine, but Krug continues to perform these tasks by hand. For example, the company even labels some of its bottles manually—a time consuming process. The real art of Krug, however, lies in its attentiveness to the mixture of grapes it uses to produce sparkling wine.
Champagne is blended from several wines, just as port is, with percentages of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay varying from firm to firm, along with small amounts of other varieties, most notably Pinot Meunier. Krug is made from what the house identifies as the best fruit grown in the Marne River Valley, in proportions it keeps a closely guarded secret. When competition for the top fruit grew too intense—as the best brands expanded in the sixties—the Krug family sold a large stake in the company to Rémy Cointreau to raise capital for buying the region's finest vineyards. (Among them is the tiny, walled Clos du Mesnil, which is the exception to the Krug rule in that the Champagne bearing the coveted property's name is 100 percent Chardonnay—versus a blend—a bold move justified by the exquisite quality of the single ingredient.)
I respect the other top Champagne makers far too much to name names in what I acknowledge is largely a matter of taste. Still, I must say that in my opinion Krug supersedes them all, because most others are essentially one-note wines. After coming to appreciate the formidable body and multilayered complexity of Krug in recent years, I now find one former Champagne favorite of mine overbearingly yeasty, another cloyingly peachy, and others best zapped with cassis or elderflower cordial to lend them sufficient flavor.
The novelist and bon viveur William Makepeace Thackeray preferred a Champagne style he termed "a winey wine," and Krug is that for me. Tellingly, Krug's effervescence is minute compared with that of lesser marques. As 29-year-old Nicolas Audebert, the firm's frighteningly precocious winemaker, insists, "Krug is a wine with bubbles, not bubbles with wine."
The French luxury conglomerate LVMH bought Krug from Rémy Cointreau in 1999 and hired a quietly dynamic new managing director, Mark Cornell, in 2003. Cornell immediately began rethinking Krug's profile in the marketplace. Jean-Louis Carbonnier predicts: "In order for the new owners to generate real profit, they will probably increase production. A luxury label must be visible everywhere in order to bring the returns today's conglomerateurs expect. Dom Perignon and Cristal are ubiquitous, Krug is not."
Here Carbonnier pinpoints a big dilemma confronting Krug today, one that other high-end brands also face. The proliferating notion of mass luxury is a conundrum exemplified by once-exclusive jewelers opening outlets in every shopping mall and airport from Shanghai to Secaucus. Expensive, yes. Exclusive, no. Krug is at a crossroads, for although it produces 300,000 bottles of Grande Cuvée each year, the firm's grape quality and labor-intensive vinification methods mitigate against its output ever increasing much. The danger in overexpansion is Krug becoming the LVMH equivalent of the goose that laid the golden egg.
What I'm equally convinced of, though, is that in purely oenological terms, Krug remains in top form. Cornell and Audebert personify the company's willingness to take risks in order to maintain excellence. For example, Cornell recalls his trepidation at having to inform the family's senior incumbents, Charles and Rémi Krug, that Audebert had deemed that the 1988 vintage needed six more months of aging, and thereby they would miss the lucrative end-of-year holiday season when most Champagne is sold.
To Cornell's astonishment, he met no opposition from the Krugs, and the '88 will become a rare vintage to be issued out of chronological sequence, following the '89. Rare among its peers, Krug Grande Cuvée is aged for a minimum of six years; its vintage bottlings are cellared for at least 15 years. Latest on the market is the spectacular 1990. (In contrast, Roederer has already launched Cristal's '96, '98, and '99 vintages.)
All Krugs are preternaturally long-lived thanks to the house's practice of allowing the fermenting wine to have controlled exposure to a minute amount of oxygen during early stages when it is stored in oak casks. The winemakers have found that this step helps the wine age more slowly and gracefully. As a result, the Champagnes are amazingly immune to the depredations of age. Several of the four- and five-decade-old vintages I've sampled somehow manage to taste younger than some recent bottles, while retaining a consistent style that reminds you that Krug is as serious a wine as any of the Bordeaux premiers crus classés. As the brand seeks to broaden its appeal beyond the group of well-heeled insiders who have cherished Krug as the best-kept secret in Champagne, it is likely that its incomparable character will finally attract more attention than its price tag does.
KRUG TO GO: AN OENOLOGICAL ODYSSEY
This summer Krug's president Rémi Krug, managing director Mark Cornell, and winemaker Nicolas Audebert hosted a trip they dubbed the Krug Odyssey, a prototype for an ultra-deluxe bespoke travel service still in the planning stages—but ready now if the right clients come along. Boarding LVMH president Bernard Arnault's private jet in Paris after a night at the Ritz, a small group flew south to Avignon, where it was met by a fleet of sixties Citroën DS sedans. In the picture-perfect village of Ménerbes, the town's mayor led a tour through the homes of several very stylish residents and ended with outdoor dinner and dancing at the Maison de la Truffe et du Vin du Luberon.
The following morning two-star chef Edouard Loubet guided the group through the market in Lourmarin, assembling ingredients for the lunch at his nearby farm. Waiting in a nearby field were helicopters that swooped everybody to Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat to meet up with the 150-foot-long yacht Ohana for a cruise along the Côte d'Azur and a full-scale vertical tasting of Krug in several notable vintages.
Krug's idea is to customize similar sky's-the-limit itineraries for six or eight guests. Trips would include wine courses by experts and equally extraordinary food, accommodations, and transport, with entrée to places that less branchés travelers never experience. Contact Laure Merillon at Krug Communications, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
TASTING NOTES: STANDOUTS IN THE COURT OF KING KRUG
Though all Krug Champagnes are superb, there are subtle distinctions to be made among the various incarnations of this grande marque. Krug's flagship Grande Cuvée is the most readily available. Finding some of the older Krug vintages may be difficult, but Internet search sites such as www.wineaccess.com are a boon in tracking down these and other rarities. Also, the useful comparative pricing information available on the Web can take some of the sting out of buying this pricey indulgence—even though devoted Krugistes will swear that it's worth every cent, as I concur.
KRUG GRANDE CUVEE BRUT The basic nonvintage Krug is so consistently stunning that it makes as eloquent a case for the brand as do its less-frequent vintage designations. The only top-tier Champagne available in half bottles, Krug thereby entices sub-billionaires into discovering what all the fuss is about. I'd much rather have a glass and a half of Krug with my wife than more of any other. $172 ($86 for half bottle)
KRUG ROSE The mixed berry flavors of this ultimate Rosé—a category I'm not terribly fond of in any of its other forms—makes this the ideal partner for a host of unexpected dishes. Try it with a classic choucroute garnie at Christmastime or simply savor its fruitiness with the closest natural counterpart—fresh local raspberries in season. $295
KRUG 1990 One of the top three Krug vintages of the last century (after '28 and '45), this landmark reconfirms the towering stature of northern French whites at their greatest. It opens with an explosively fragrant nose, develops big, opulent, and creamy, and crests with an incredibly long, lingering finish. This blockbuster would elevate a main course of cream-sauced veal, lobster, or sole to nirvana. Given Krug's uncommon longevity, I'm laying some '90 down for the most special occasions—and hang the expense. $225
KRUG CLOS DU MESNIL 1990 Costliest of all Krugs, this single-grape Montrachet-like Champagne from a tiny walled plot acquired by the firm in 1971 offers a bold counterpoint to Krug's long history of masterful blending techniques. It's a bravado concept and the stratospheric price reflects its tiny production, as little as 7,000 bottles when a vintage is declared. Though undeniably majestic, I actually prefer the greater complexity of other Krugs. $750
KRUG COLLECTION 1981 Less than 5 percent of a Krug vintage is set aside for future rerelease in its Collection series. The '81, the youngest now on the market, combines a compelling mixture of notes not often associated with Champagne, including sweet spice, mocha, and mushrooms. But as with all Krug blends, the components quickly meld into a symphonic whole. $640
KRUG COLLECTION 1961 What's most amazing about the great older vintages of Krug is how uncannily fresh they taste decades later. You begin to wonder if Krug is the Dorian Gray of the wine world, with portraits of decaying bottles hidden in some attic. Not only was 1961 an epic year in Bordeaux, but Champagne also did spectacularly well. This classically balanced vintage, with its subtle scent of hazelnut and elegant pale straw color, can easily hold its own alongside any of '61's legendary premiers crus classés. $2,000