In February 2014, i.e., almost a year ago, I arranged a tasting of Krug Grande Cuvée tasting. This was a vertical tasting of the “non-vintage” Krug, or multi-vintage as Krug prefer to call it.
This was a tasting in our wine tasting club that I combined with a small democracy experiment. The theme chosen for this Thursday was “prestige Champagne au choix“, and I offered three choices: Dom Pérignon, Cristal, and Krug Grande Cuvée. Those who signed up the first day were given one vote each, and at the end of the day the theme was announced. The votes were as follows: 5 for Krug Grande Cuvée, 3 for Dom Pérignon, and 2 for Cristal, making Krug Grande Cuvée the winner.
The six Krug Grande Cuvée of different ages were supplemented by a Krug Vintage (2000) and a non-vintage Charles Heidsieck, a house that in similarity to Krug uses quite a high proportion of reserve wines of a high age in their blend. (There is however also a lot that differs: Charles Heidsieck doesn’t use oak and doesn’t avoid malolactic fermentation, and as far as I know they don’t quite practice the same “small batch handling” of the base and reserve wines.)
This tasting took place the week after I visited Krug together with some friends (thanks to M.), so I figured I’d spread out my Krug blog posts somewhat, and didn’t immediately write about this tasting.
About Grande Cuvée
Krug Grande Cuvée, which is the most common Krug Champagne in terms of production volume, has existed since 1978, when it replaced the earlier Private Cuvée. Its price is at the same level as the prestige cuvée of many major Champagne houses, but so is the quality. As a well-known Champagne writer once put it: “There is Champagne and then there is Krug.”
Characteristic for all the Champagnes in Krug’s range is that they are vinified in small oak barrels – but using older barrels that are not intended to give a toasted oak aroma – and that the wines don’t go through malolactic fermentation. This means that the acidity is high, making Krug suitable for extended cellaring.
In similarity to simpler non-vintage Champagnes from other houses, Krug Grande Cuvée consists of wines from several different vintages: a base vintage (the youngest of the blend) and reserve wines from earlier vintages. What is special for Krug Grande Cuvée is that the proportion of these reserve wines is unusually high, typically 30-50%, and that they are unusually old. For example, the youngest Grande Cuvée of this tasting, that had the 2005 vintage as base, was a blend of 12 vintages with 1990 as the oldest vintage.
The reserve wines are stored as separate components in small batches that are kept apart from vinification until they are used in a blend. Each of these batches will therefore typically be one grape variety from one vineyard and one vintage. Following vinification, they are stored in steel tanks. We’re typically talking of a couple of thousands of liters each. There are a total of several hundreds of these blending components in the cellars of Krug waiting to be used. As the example above shows, some of these will wait for over a decade before going into a blend. (In other Champagne houses, the number of reserve wines is much smaller, and the amounts per wine much larger.) In the Grande Cuvée mentioned above, with 2005 as the base vintage, a total of 134 blending components were used. This number includes both the base wines from the 2005 vintage and the reserve wines from 11 previous vintages that together were chosen to form the batch of Grande Cuvée that was bottled in 2006.
The very special handling of the blending components at Krug, together with the high proportion of reserve wines together with their age, makes it possible for Krug to keep a very consistent style and quality of the Grande Cuvée. This also explains why they prefer to use the term multi-vintage, since their handling differs significantly from that used for non-vintage “standard Champagnes” at other addresses in Champagne.
Another characteristic of Krug is that they are very careful with their selection of grapes. This is not too much different from how other major houses (at least those with a reputation for good quality) go about when choosing grapes for their prestige cuvées. However, Krug does not care that much what classification the village of origin has, only if the grapes are good. This means that Krug Grande Cuvée (as well as Krug Rosé and Krug Vintage) partly originates from “simpler” villages that are neither grand cru or premier cru, but then we’re talking of very selective sourcing in those villages. Krug also uses Pinot Meunier in their Champagnes, and not just Pinot Noir (the dominant grape variety) and Chardonnay. It should also be noted that Krug has rather little vineyards of their own, so most of the grapes are bought-in. Being highly dependent on purchased grapes and working only at the prestige level, which means an exclusive need for particularly good grapes, requires a very special way of working. This includes finding small growers with good vineyards, in some cases vineyards with old vines, and by making sure that these vineyards are properly handled. As I understand it, the quality demands of Krug often means that they are only interested in a smaller part of the grapes of a particular grower, perhaps from a good plot of half an hectare or a hectare. And they obviously succeed in sourcing those grapes. This is made possible by good and long-term relationships with the small growers suppling them. The growers can also come and taste the base/reserve wines made from their grapes, since everything is kept separate in the cellars of Krug until the wine goes into a blend.
It it turns out that a certain wine from a the vineyard of a certain grower doesn’t measure up (or has the wrong profile for Krug) in a certain vintage, it’s simply sold off to some other Champagne producer.
Krug are always careful to point out that Krug Grande Cuvée has a higher priority than Krug Vintage in their production. It’s not enough that the vintage shows good enough on its own for Krug Vintage to be produced, they must also be able to spare wine from the vintage from the production of Grande Cuvée. At the visit in Febrary 2014, we were told that there won’t be a 2012 Krug Vintage. The quality was high but the quantity small, and the store of reserve wines needed to be topped up for use in upcoming batches of Krug Grande Cuvée. The decision regarding the 2013 vintage had not been taken yet, but was due soon.
Bottles of Grande Cuvée rest about six years on the lees before being disgorged and given their cork. In the last couple of years, Krug seems to have increased the time the bottles are kept on cork following disgorgment but before being shopped. Some years ago, this seems to have been half a year, but in the last couple of years I haven’t seen any bottle in a shop that has had its cork for less than a year, and two years has been quite common, since some bottles can also spend some time in the distribution chain. It is therefore quite common for there to be about eight years between the base vintage and the bottle being sold. This means that all recently sold Krug Grande Cuvée is likely to be slightly more ready to drink than it could be a few years ago.
The week of the tasting, I checked what I could buy off shelf in Stockholm, and that was bottles with 2005 as the base vintage, although they were disgorged in 2012 rather 2011 as the bottles I already had. Later in 2014 I bought Grande Cuvée with 2006 as the base vintage. Demis are 1-2 years younger when they are sold, last year I saw demis with 2007 as the base vintage. Magnums are reasonably older, but here I don’t have a figure to give, since I haven’t been able to check many of those. It does seem that same batch is being filled in different formats in one and the same year, although they are disgorged at different times.
The ID code and the age of the bottles
All bottles of Grande Cuvée leaving Krug’s cellar since mid-2011 carry an ID code on their back label. (For a picture, see below, next to the tasting notes.) This code makes it possible to get information about vintages in the blend, disgorgement dates and so on. This page at the Krug website can be used, and this is where I got the information about the Grande Cuvée with 2005 as the base vintage (ID 411046) that I used as an example above.
For older bottles, that don’t have an ID code, the age can often be judged from the label design and in some cases a code printed on the cork. There’s a 2012 blog post where I’ve summarised how to draw conclusions from the label and cork.
Conclusion of this tasting – how consistent in style is Krug Grande Cuvée?
The most important reason to do a vertical tasting of Krug Grande Cuvée is that many who love Krug considers that it becomes even better, with more mature notes, if it is allowed some years in the cellar. Since Grande Cuvée has a good concentration of flavours and definitely a high acidity, it keeps for quite a long time under proper cellaring conditions. Real enthusiasts of mature Krug therefore don’t mind bottle with 10-20 years of cellar age. In that perspective, the ID code and the identification of the bottles’ age via the cork and label is mostly a way to keep track of the age of the bottles.
But the ID code also means that it is now possible to know which base vintage that a specific batch of Grande Cuvée has. I therefore chose to include three relatively young Grande Cuvées with different base vintages, 2003-2005, in the tasting. The most striking impression of these three is that they are quite even in style and quality, given how different these three vintages are, in particular the very hot and low-acid 2003 vintage compared to the classical high-acid 2004 vintage. Despite this, the vintage character does come through somewhat once young know what to look for, both in terms of “type of fruit” (that differs between the more ripe 2003 and 2005 and the more classical 2004) and to some extent in the level of acidity. Since something like 50-70% of the blend is made up of the base vintage, it is of course to be expected that there are some differences between the batches, although they are small. The moderate differences in acidity is likely to make different batches of Krug Grande Cuvée mature at slightly different rates. I’d expect those from high acid vintages such as 2004 and 2007 to take longer to mature than those of average or lower acidity, such as 2003 and 2005. Do notice that “lower acidity” here is very much a relative term, as Krug always is high in acidity compared to the average Champagne!
Actually, the philosophy of Krug used to produce Grande Cuvée means that it might be worth keeping an eye out for batches that has “weak vintages” as their base vintage, in particular if you wish to drink them young. In a difficult vintage, it is likely that they have to plunder more reserve wines than usual from their cellars to keep the quality high… 🙂
The bottles that were included in the tasting looked like this:
And these were my impressions of the wines, together with the votes of those who tasted the wines blind, 1 best and 1 worst vote each and usually evaluated on the basis how the wines show now, i.e., with premium on those that are in their drinking window:
Charles Heidsieck Brut Réserve
Put into the cellar in 2008 (i.e., 2007 base vintage), and disgorged in 2011.
Rather light golden colour. The nose is quite smoky, toasted and bready, with yellow winter apples and more citrus notes with time in the glass; noticeably developed. Palate with ripe yellow apples, some old/winter apples, good concentration, spice notes, rather good acidity, some citrus and mineral. Rather long and spicy aftertaste. A very pleasant Champagne that is ready to drink, but next to the Krug it doesn’t show the same minerality and elegance. 89 p
3 worst votes, so voted the worst/least good wine of this flight. However, no-one reacted to this standing out so much that it was immediately labelled a ringer. To me as non-blind taster, there is a however a noticeable difference in e.g. acidity and elegance. On the other hand, there’s about a factor of three in price difference between them. Both Charles Heidsieck and Krug feature on my personal shortlist of favourite Champagne houses.
Krug Grande Cuvée, beige with ID code, base vintage 2004
ID 111004. A blend of 44% Pinot Noir, 33% Chardonnay, and 23% Pinot Meunier. Disgorged Jan-Feb 2011, base vintage 2004, oldest reserve wine 1990.
Light golden colour. Nose with citrus, mineral, yellow apples, some bready and toasted notes, some dried fruit. The nose shows noticeable elegance. Palate with yellow and green apples, citrus (in particular grapefruit), loads of mineral, high acidity, and a hint of grapefruit bitterness. The aftertaste is long and citrus-dominated together with green apple. Very fresh and elegant, has acquired some nuances but could develop more. 93(+) p
1 best vote.
Krug Grande Cuvée, beige with ID code, base vintage 2005
ID 411046. A blend of 44% Pinot Noir, 37% Chardonnay, and 19% Pinot Meunier. Disgorged July-August 2011, bas vintage 2005, oldest reserve wine 1990.
Nose with yellow apples, citrus, bread, brioche, dried fruit, some smoke, and elegance. A more apply nose than the Grand Cuvée base 2004. Palate with yellow apple, some green apple, minerality and some citrus, noticeably apply in impression, some spice notes, and high acidity. A long, apply and fresh aftertaste with mineral. More apply and fruity than the other ones, could develop more. 92(+) p
1 best and 2 worst votes.
Krug Grande Cuvée, beige without ID code, disgorged 2010/base vintage probably 2003
Cork code V1051, disgorged September-October 2010
Light golden colour. Nose with ripe yellow apples, some peach, some baked apples, smoky with bready notes, mineral, elegance, probably a bit more developed than the base 2004 & base 2005. Palate with yellow and green apples, peach, an impression of “sweetness of fruit” (but of course dry), spice notes, rather high acidity, and an apply aftertaste with mineral. A fruity style with some development, 93 p.
1 best and 1 worst votes.
2000 Krug Vintage
A blend of 42% Pinot Noir, 43% Chardonnay, and 15% Pinot Meunier. Krug Vintage also has a cork code. This bottle was disgorged in March-April 2010.
Golden colour. Nose with ripe yellow apples, noticeable honey notes, dried fruit, citrus and zest, bread, toasted hazelnuts, and slightly “sweeter and more ripe” fruit notes than the rest. Palate with yellow and green apples, spice notes, citrus, some mineral, high acidity and a long aftertaste. The palate does not give quite as sweetish an impression as the nose does, and it could devlop more, 94 p.
4 best and 1 worst votes, therefore voted the best wine of the flight.
Krug Grande Cuvée, beige without ID code, disgorged 2008/base vintage approx. 2001
Cork code V821, disgorged March-April 2008, base vintage approx. 2001.
Rather light golden. The nose is noticeably bready with yellow apples including some winter apples, some perfume, citrus, mineral, and toasted notes with hazelnuts. (Not so much more developed than those with base 2003, 2004 and 2005.) Palate with ripe apples, noticeable spice, powerful concentration, rather high acidity, some citrus, mineral, and an apply and spicy aftertaste. Wonderful development but not “old”, 94 p.
2 best and 3 worst votes. I didn’t note down what those that held it as least good didn’t like about it.
Krug Grande Cuvée, gold with red text, disgorged 2002/base vintage approx. 1995
Cork code M221, disgorged March-April 2002, base vintage approx. 1995?
Golden colour. Unfortunately, this wine showed a tiny bit of cork taint, but a very good example of “sneaky cork”, which meant quite differing opinions depending on the tasters’ sensitivity to this note. I have tasted this specific batch before so I know how fantastic it is, and without the taint this had definitely been a strong candidate for the best wine. Nose with dried wood, some moldy cellar note, very smoky notes of the “burnt match” type, old apples/winter apples, toasted hazelnuts, some butter with a good oak note. Palate with yellow apples, ripe fruit, some honey, citrus, mineral, a light bitterness that remains in the aftertaste. In this somewhat affected state still a good wine to me, 92 p?
3 best and 4 worst votes.
Krug Grande Cuvée, white (light yellow), base vintage 1980s?
No information on the cork, base vintage perhaps in the 1980s.
Deep golden colour. Nose with old apples/winter apples, oranges, zest, dried fruit, some perfume and flowery notes, a light sherry note, nuts, and noticeably developed with acceptable oxidation notes. Palate with quite good concentration, citrus notes with oranges and zest, some spices, high acidity, and fine nuances. Fully mature and still with life in it, the power and complexity when in this state made me score it 95 p.
2 best votes including mine, ended up being second.
Following popular demand, I also include a rerun of my friend Bisty’s movie about our Krug visit in February 2014: