From Burgundy, we flew to Reims for two days of spectacular private tastings, lunches and dinners with some of the greatest names in Champagne.
Our tour began at Krug, where we were welcomed by the brilliant Julie-Amandine Michel who looks after all their VIP visits. Krug of course is no longer family-owned but is part of the ever-expanding LVMH stable. However, the Krug family continues to maintain an operational presence with Olivier Krug (who is the sixth generation family member to be involved in the business), present throughout all crucial points of the production process.
Above: Display in VIP Reception room at Krug.
Olivier was in Japan at the time of our visit, but Julie-Amandine expertly explained how little the family winemaking philosophy has actually changed since the founding of the maison in 1843. This adherence to tradition has even extended to the current management learning from Joseph Krug’s original 19th century diaries, in which he set out his exacting vision for the future of Krug Champagne.
In those original entries, Joseph mandated that the multi-vintage blend was to be the first priority for the house – above and beyond any specific vintage considerations. Today the production approach remains exactly the same, with Krug’s multi-vintage Grande Cuvée receiving the greatest attention of all the wines.
Nevertheless, over the past 168 years, a few things have changed. The first is that the Krug range of prestige cuvées has expanded beyond the Grande Cuvée and Vintage to include a rose and two single vineyard vintage Champagnes (the Clos du Mesnil and the Clos d’Ambonnay) as well as the Krug Collection series.
One of the most distinctive aspects of the Krug house style is its oxidative richness. This results from the small oak barrels in which all the vins clairs are fermented and matured. This unique production technique is the maison hall-mark and is no easy feat. The difficulty was amply demonstrated during our visit by the fact that they were right in the middle of scrubbing all 5,000 barrels used in the process. This vital process is an astonishing and labour-intensive task - as well as something of a logistical nightmare to accomplish. As hard as it may be to complete each year, it was quite spectacular to see so many barrels out and being prepared by the winemaking crew. Normally, the process wouldn’t begin in June, but with the earliest Champagne harvest on record set to begin in August, the timetable had to be moved up.
Above: Barrels awaiting their annual cleaning.
However, it takes more than oak to make great Krug. Deep in the cellars, Julie-Amandine proudly showed us the state-of-the-art stainless steel storage tanks that have been custom built to fit snugly under the curve of the vaulted ceiling. Each tank holds the equivalent of just ten barrels, she told us. ‘It enables us to blend our wines much more accurately. Assemblage is as important today as it has ever been.’
Above: Custom stainless steel blending tanks at Krug.
We also toured Krug’s magnificent library collection where it holds vintages dating back to 1880. Sadly though, the door was well and truly locked. Equally impressive was the strength and depth of the estate’s reserve wines, which are vital for maintaining the quality and house style. At Krug, the Grande Cuvée could have as many as 100 different vins clairs and up to twenty different vintages in the final blend.
Then came the tasting, which was conducted by Krug’s charming young winemaker Julie Cavil, whose birthday it also happened to be that day. What better way of celebrating than with a glass of 1998 Clos du Mesnil at 10.30am?
As Cavil pointed out, ‘Clos de Mesnil is the simplest of all our wines to make - being from a single year, a single vineyard and a single grape – Chardonnay.’ If the winemaking is straightforward though, the final product is anything but. The 1998 remains fresh, linear and elegant. It is drinking beautifully - just as a great blanc de blancs should – with notable complexity.
The regular 1998 vintage Krug was a bit more voluminous than the Clos du Mesnil, partly due to the inclusion of Pinot Noir fruit. However, as Julie pointed out, because of the year, it had a greater percentage of Chardonnay in it than usual.
We ended the tasting with the Grande Cuvée. As ever, it was rich, round, fresh and full joie de vivre. This wine never disappoints and it is always a pleasure to drink – especially at elevenses!
One of the advantages of visiting Reims is that many of the city’s great Champagne houses are very close to one another. So, it was just a short walk to our next appointment at Champagne Louis Roederer on the Rue de Savoye.
Here we were met by the company’s Communications Director, Martine Lorson, who explained the house’s extraordinary history and heritage. Roederer is, of course, most famous for the luxury cuvée Cristal which was first created in the nineteenth century for Tsar Alexander II of Russia. Martine began our visit by taking us through the history of this privately owned estate. Today it is led by Frederic Rouzaud, who is the sixth generation to manage the company.
Louis Roederer is unusual in Champagne in that it has managed to survive and prosper under private ownership while many of the other great Champagne houses have been bought up, slowly losing their independence to large luxury holding companies. One reason that Roederer has been able to stay independent is that, of the major Champagne producers, it owns the highest percentage of its own vineyards. Many of these assets were gradually built up in the 1930s and 1940s by Camille Olry-Roederer who cannily grabbed them when prices were severely depressed.
Above: Martine takes us through the family history and maps of ancient vineyards.
This has made Roederer largely self-sufficient in terms of its grape supply, guaranteeing both quality of raw material and financial stability. Consequently, the company’s cash reserves and balance sheet are the envy of Champagne. This surplus has also allowed it to significantly diversify its portfolio, with estate purchases in California, Portugal and France. Consequently, Roederer now owns the likes of Ramos Pinto, Domaine Ott, Château Pichon Longueville Comtesse de Lalande and Roederer Estate.
A tour of Roederer’s immaculate cellars followed - complete with a viewing of its more than 17 million bottles of gently maturing champagne. Although that sounds like a lot, Roederer produces a scant 3.5 million bottles each year – which equates to just 1% of the total region’s production. A particular highlight was visiting its remarkable reserve wine cellar – comprised of massive oak tuns, several of which are intricately and exquisitely carved. ‘These are the crown jewels,’ Martine said. ‘These reserve wines are what make Brut Premier and Cristal so special.’
Above: How do you keep track of where all the bottles are in the riddling process when you're turning each one by hand? With a good old slate and piece of chalk (pulled directly from the cellar walls of course).
The Roederer style always hinges on elegance and finesse but also walks the fine line between reductive and oxidative styles. Brut Premier is a blend of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir enriched with an average of 20% reserve wine, giving it a richness and roundness which counterbalances the freshness.
For Roederer’s vintage wines (including Cristal), chef de cave Jean-Baptiste Lecaillon has introduced more barrel-fermented wines and generally eschews malolactic fermentation in order to preserve the freshness. ‘We want to maintain that acidity so that the wines remain fresh and will age for a long time,’ added Martine.
We were honoured to be invited and hosted for lunch by head of the company, Frederic Rouzaud, at Roederer’s grand and majestic Hotel Particulier in the centre of Reims. Over an aperitif of Brut Premier, served from magnum, Frederic told us that when the house was built in the nineteenth century, it was situated out in the countryside. Since that time however, the city has completely enveloped it and now it is in an entirely urban setting.
Shortly thereafter we moved into the dining room for an exquisite meal. A salad of langoustines and shaved truffles was paired with the sublime 2000 Cristal, which was just starting to show its class. This was followed by a classically elegant and restrained 1995 Pichon-Longueville Comtesse de Lalande with filet de boeuf aux girolles. With the cheese and dessert, we enjoyed a 1997 vintage port from Ramos Pinto.
Rather like the different wines and vintages, the conversation ranged far and wide, from how the Champagne market will develop in China to the most recent en primeur campaign in Bordeaux and global demand for port. It was also fascinating to learn about Roederer’s ability to trace an individual bottle of wine through its entire distribution chain and throughout all of its various global sales channels. This wonderful – and extended - lunch was but a preamble to our evening dinner at Taittinger…