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The latest release from legendary Champagne house Krug has caused quite a stir in the world of fine wine, as Mark de Wesselow reports
When Krug unveiled Clos d’Ambonnay 1995 in April this year, the world as we knew it changed. Not because it was Krug’s first new wine in 22 years or because it was a single-vineyard blanc de noir, but because of its staggering retail price of between £1,500 and £2,000. At the time of writing, a bottle can be yours for £1,950 at Berry Bros & Rudd, credit crunch or no credit crunch.
At this price it’s not just the most expensive fizz by a considerable margin, it seemingly redefines the position of Champagne in the pantheon of trophy fine wines, putting it alongside the Bordeaux and Burgundy greats. It costs more, for example, than a bottle of La Tâche Grand Cru Domaine de la Romanée-Conti 1995. And which collector, connoisseur or oligarch would have predicted that?
However, the fact that early allocations to ‘friends’ of the house were taken up in full and that two half-cases have already sold at a Zachys auction in the US for $26,000 each, suggests the pricing is no flight of fantasy.
If wine followers are surprised by Krug’s latest move, perhaps they shouldn’t be. The house has consistently set its own standards and occupied the vanguard of Champagne innovation. In 1843, Johann-Joseph Krug was one of the first to introduce non-vintage fizz in response to customers’ desire for a predictable taste rather than something that changed with each vintage.
This independence of mind is also seen in the way Krug still makes its wine. Long after fermentation in oak fell out of fashion with all the other major houses, Krug remains true to its tradition of fermenting all its wines in small, wooden casks. ‘Besides opening up the wine and making it more complex,’ explains director of the house Olivier Krug, ‘it vaccinates the wine against the effect of oxygen and allows it to retain its freshness and ability to age slowly.’
Krug’s launch of Clos du Mesnil in 1986 was, according to Olivier, revolutionary. Up to this point no one had released a single-varietal, single-vineyard Champagne of a single vintage – at least not on any scale – and at the time, it certainly contravened the accepted modus operandi of always blending grapes and vineyards.
But, with Krug, single-vineyard Champagne was no leap of faith. Its huge stock of reserve wines made from individual parcels of grapes and used in the blending of the multi-vineyard, multi-vintage Grand Cuvée, meant its winemakers were already familiar with the concept of single-vineyard wines.
‘The making and release of a new wine happens just once a generation,’ says Olivier with quiet understatement. ‘Such was the success of [the blanc de blanc] Clos de Mesnil, that my father and uncle wasted no time in trying to find a Pinot Noir vineyard of similar potential.’ It didn’t take long for the perfect opportunity to arise in the Grand Cru village of Ambonnay. ‘We had bought grapes from this beautiful clos [walled vineyard] for a while and knew this particular terroir was very special. We knew the character of the grapes and felt we could increase this character,’ says Olivier. ‘My grandfather always described Ambonnay as the Margaux of Champagne. Delicate, fruity and fresh, it has charm and character in abundance.’
According to the winemaker, Ambonnay has both the raciness of Verzenay and the fruity concentration of Aÿ (both Pinot crus), which suggests it has the ideal natural balance to make a great single-vineyard wine.
Clos d’Ambonnay is a tiny walled vineyard (a mere 0.6 ha, it is a third of the size of Clos du Mesnil) at the base of the Montagne de Reims. Krug’s key viticultural contribution has been to change the way the vines are pruned and trained, and it has also lowered yields substantially in its quest to produce grapes of supreme quality and concentration.
Witness this vineyard during harvest and you start to understand Krug’s obsessive attention to detail. With only those bunches of grapes that are perfectly ripe being picked on any given day, the harvest can take several days. Once picked, the grapes are pressed and the juice is fermented in small oak casks in the dedicated chai, or winery, next to the vineyard, thus preventing any damage to the grapes in transport. Three to four months later the rich and complex character that is so distinctively Krug has started to develop, and the wine is bottled and taken to Krug’s cellars in Reims, where the patient maturation on lees – at least 10 years – begins.
Reviews of the Clos d’Ambonnay 1995 have started to appear, capped by the award of an impressive 97 points from Wine Spectator. The wine itself is full of the usual Krug contradictions: power with elegance, complexity with purity, charm and finesse underpinned by substance and character. It tastes exhilaratingly fresh, while managing at the same time to be ample and mature. On the palate it reveals an explosion of flavours: candied lemon, grilled almonds, acacia honey, brioche and lush red fruits, with cigar box and leather in behind, and it has a light mousse and an endless, elegant finish. In fact, a hugely classy Burgundy comes to mind.
‘It’s a wine of great gravitas, unmistakeably Krug, with this lovely Pinot Noir structure and potential for ageing,’ says fan Serena Sutcliffe, head of Sotheby’s international wine department. Add the brand equity of the Krug name – a byword for artistic quality and luxury with a capital L – to this critical approbation and exuberant taste, and Clos d’Ambonnay’s place in fine wine nobility seems assured. But it’s when you take into consideration that a mere 14 casks – or around 250 cases – are made, that the wine’s rarity really hits home. This, combined with insatiable collector demand, means the price is anything but pie in the sky.
Some industry commentators suspect the success of Clos d’Ambonnay may trigger a rise in prices across the Krug range and possibly the wider but still small group of prestige cuvée collectibles (Krug, Dom Pérignon, Cristal, Salon). Sutcliffe feels the market is somewhat distorted by the tiny supply but doesn’t deny the Clos d’Ambonnay effect, pointing to the current value in vintage Champagne. But one prediction no one’s disputing comes from Olivier himself: ‘Clos d’Ambonnay will become the most coveted Champagne on any restaurant wine list.’
Editorial feature from Square Meal Lifestyle Magazine Summer 2008