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Q&A: Olivier Krug, Maison Krug

Q&A: Olivier Krug, Maison Krug
© Krug
Krug is still managed by descendants of the original family, despite being purchased by luxury goods company LVMH in 1999. Sixth-generation Olivier Krug told Caroline Henry about his family history, playing football in the cellars, and why producing Krug is like making ratatouille.

Let’s start with the results of the recent Krug auction at Sotheby’s, which realized 50 percent over the pre-sale estimates. Were you surprised?

No, I was not surprised. This was a very rare auction as it was the first time in many years all the bottles had been supplied by the House of Krug. The 'known' origin of the bottles was key and all the bottles were very hard to find or trace. For example, before the Krug ID it was impossible to trace when a Grande Cuvée [the non-vintage house style] had been put on the market.

My great-great-grandfather, Joseph Krug, would have been very proud to see that the Grande Cuvée was as 'hot' as some of the extreme rarities we sell!

You represent the sixth generation of your family to run the Krug Champagne house.  It must be an enormous responsibility.

Yes, I have the responsibility to stay true to the reason why my great-great-grandfather created the house in 1843 at the age of 43. When he founded Krug he had a very well-paid position at the largest Champagne house of the time, yet still he left everything behind to create a new house where he made a Champagne unlike any other.

His vision was to bring the 'ultimate expression of pleasure' every year, by creating the most generous, yet elegant, expression of Champagne. So in all decisions and developments we have to follow 'le Joseph' – i.e. we ask ourselves the question: 'Would Joseph would have done it?' If yes, we continue, if no, we stop.  

Where did you grow up?

I was born next door [to Krug] and grew up in Reims.

So you were surrounded by the production of Champagne from an early age?

Yes. Even if I was officially not allowed in the winery I spent a lot of time here. In fact, I am the only employee at Krug who cycled and played football in the barrel hall and cellars.

It’s said that you were given a taste of Champagne as a newborn before tasting your mother’s milk. Is this true? 

Yes. I am probably the only person who does not remember his first Krug!

How has Krug changed since being taken over by LVMH in 1999?

When this new generation of people took over we rediscovered our history. We all learned a lot of things about the past – even I did. We started to focus on why the house had been founded, and how the house had differed from all the other houses. But the focus remained on the principles which Joseph Krug had written down in a little black book for his then six-year-old son.

An embossed leather journal once owned by Joseph Krug (R)
© Krug | An embossed leather journal once owned by Joseph Krug (R)

Which sparkling wine region in the world, if any, do you think can take on Champagne?

None. Champagne is unique.

What do you think of the zero dosage trend?

I am not really interested in trends. Joseph Krug did not do this either. I do not understand, however, why we would want to choose to speak about Champagne in technical terms, as Champagne is so much more than technical details. We should rather talk about what people feel. It is the sensation they experience, rather than the technology, which makes people fall in love with Champagne.

So you don't think you will ever make a no-dosage Krug?

No. To give the most generous expression of Champagne we need a little sugar.

Tell us about the 2012 vintage. Will it be a vintage year for Krug?

2012 was indeed a great year, but it also was a year with only small volumes. Our first priority every year is to release the Grande Cuvée. To do this, we have to add every year what that vintage has not offered to create again the most generous expression of Champagne. The wines of 2012 will make the Grande Cuvée of 2020 and to create it we will use wines going back till 1996 – this means some of the wines in the blend will be more than 20 years old when they are tasted.

Our next priority is to guarantee the future of the Grande Cuvée by investing in reserve wines, and we believe the 2012 reserve wines will be a treasure. After all of that is done, and we feel the 2012 wines would be a good recount of the circumstances of the year, we will think about a vintage – that is, if we have enough wine left. 

You use oak barrels to produce Krug. This is quite unusual today. Why have you stuck with them?

Our chef de cave, Éric Lebel, compares the barrels with the principle of la petite casserole (small pots). To make ratatouille one can either take all the vegetables, add them in one pot at the beginning, and let them cook together. Alternatively, one cooks all the ingredients separately in small pots: e.g. caramelize the onions; in another small pot we cook the courgette; in another the peppers; in another we reduce the tomatoes; and when everything has been cooked separately then we assemble the ratatouille in the end.

In the second version of the ratatouille, often the flavors are more intense and we can add the ingredients in the exact amount we need in order to create the richness and elegance we are looking for. The same goes with winemaking. The barrels are our little pots, which we use to prepare our ingredients from different plots separately. Their main use is allowing us to vinify plot by plot in the richest possible way.

What does this bring to Krug's wine style?

Again, by doing this we are following the vision of Joseph Krug, who decided to vinify the same grapes from different villages separately, in order for the grapes and wine to express their individuality. Barrels are also ideal to keep a vast library of reserve wines, which is again something Joseph Krug saw as being essential to be able to create the Grande Cuvée; it allows us to add what the year did not give us.

In the end, we do hundreds of tastings and create many blends before we decide on which one will become the new Grande Cuvée. Just as in the kitchen, the barrels allow us to create something richer than a big tank would do.

L-R: Krug Grande Cuvée; wooden barrels in the winery; Krug Clos du Mesnil Blanc de Blancs
© Krug/Caroline Henry | L-R: Krug Grande Cuvée; wooden barrels in the winery; Krug Clos du Mesnil Blanc de Blancs

You’ve said that Krug should never be served in a flute. What is the correct glass?

A glass that will allow the wine to tell its story. For Krug, what we are aiming for is the ultimate expression of pleasure by creating the most generous and elegant wine. A flute can never express this generosity; instead, we need a glass which allows the wine to do so. We worked with Riedel for over five months to design and develop what we feel is the optimum glass.

What makes Clos d’Ambonnay worth the high price tag? And does it represent value for money?

Of course it does. The Clos d’Ambonnay is a tiny plot of 0.68 hectares from a village which has always been very important for its contributions to La Grande Cuvée. The Clos d’Ambonnay is hence very rare; we make about half of what La Romanée Conti makes.

Furthermore, it is made à la Krug – very meticulously – and has been called an extraordinary wine and rated very highly by all the experts in the world.

You travel a great deal. What are your best tips for travel?

I don’t really have a lot of travel tips, but have a long-term love story with Japan as it is where I started my career. The Japanese, I feel, are very passionate people and are all about giving pleasure rather than collecting. It’s a wonderful place to visit!

Tell us about a surprising wine in your cellar.

I think it would have been a 1915 Krug which my great-grandmother made during the First World War whilst my great grandfather was a prisoner of war in Germany and the city was invaded. It was an amazing feat that she managed to secure the relationship with the growers, and made the wine under these difficult conditions.

Legend says that it was the first Krug Rosé as the wine was slightly pink. In any case, it is a legendary bottle. We tasted this wine, which was more than 90 years old, and it still was amazingly fresh and delicious.

If you are not drinking wine, what are you drinking?

Green tea. I fell in love with green tea in Japan and have promised my family to have a proper Japanese tea ceremony at home one day soon.

Do you have a wine and food match you find hard to resist?

Grande Cuvée and an old Parmagiano.

In the end, what matters most to you?

Family.  

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