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Champagne – what makes it the perfect party drink?

Is there a sound more synonymous with celebration than the delicious, distinctive pop of a Champagne cork leaving the bottle?

In a triumph of marketing that began back in the Industrial Revolution, Champagne has well and truly established itself as the drink of choice for any big occasion.

And we Brits have certainly bought into it. The UK is by far and away Champagne’s largest export market, and has been for the past 16 years, beating its nearest rival, the USA, by 78 per cent. Although the recent economic woes have put a dent in sales, with shipments to the UK falling by 2.7 per cent in 2011, an incredible 34.5 million bottles still made their way here in 2011.

The vast majority of this is so-called non-vintage Champagne, which is a blend of wines from multiple vintages. The Champagne houses keep a collection of ‘library wines’ made from grapes grown in previous years, and each year, they add these to the wine from the current year as they attempt to create a blend that conforms to the house style. In this way, a bottle of non-vintage Champagne from a particular house will taste roughly the same, year after year, regardless of the growing conditions.

In particularly good years, however, some producers release ‘vintage’ wines, at least 85 per cent of which must be made up of wine made from grapes grown in that year. These wines will show more year-to-year variation than the non-vintage wines, their flavour profiles determined by the conditions of the year in which their grapes were grown.

The traditional method for making Champagne, known as Méthode Champenoise, involves two main stages. First, the grapes are crushed and the juice fermented to produce wine. This wine is then bottled and induced to undergo a secondary period of fermentation through the addition of yeast and sugar. It’s during this fermentation that the characteristic bubbles of carbon dioxide gas form within the wine.

Eventually, the bottles are turned upside down so that the lees – the dead yeast and other debris that’s left behind after fermentation – settle into the neck, a process know as remuage. The bottle is then chilled and the neck frozen, which causes a plug of ice to form around the lees. When the cap is removed from the bottle, pressure from within forces out this plug, and after a little bit of syrup – le dosage – is added, the bottle is quickly corked.

The three main grapes used the make Champagne are the white Chardonnay and the dark-skinned Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. Typically, a blend of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir is used; if only the former is used, the wine is known as Blanc de blanc (‘white from white’), and if only one or both of the two red grapes are used, it’s known as Blanc de noir (‘white from black’).

The grapes can come from all over the Champagne region, which contains 33,500 hectares of vineyards and around 319 villages. Some will have been grown in vineyards owned by the houses themselves, while others will have been produced by the more than 19,000 independent growers who operate in Champagne, about a quarter of whom make their own wines – so-called grower Champagnes.

The villages in which the vineyards are found are classified according to the quality of the grapes they produce. The best come from villages rated either premier cru or grand cru, and Champagne made with grapes that come from such villages may reflect this on their labels.

Champagne’s popularity has been seized upon by supermarkets and wine merchants alike, and these days you don’t have to look far to find discount bubbly. While the better known houses such as Moët & Chandon and Veuve Clicquot are often still on the expensive side, even after the price cuts, wine from respected houses such as Nicolas Feuillatte and Heidsieck & Co. can sometimes be found for less that £15 a bottle.

It’s also worth checking out the supermarket own brands. Waitrose’s blanc de blancs has won several awards in recent years and Tesco produces a very good Grand Cru vintage bottling that can occasionally be had for less than £20 a bottle.

But for really special occasions, it’s worth splashing out on the good stuff – the so-called luxury cuvees. And for many Champagne connoisseurs, that means Krug.

Based in Reims, Krug was established in 1843 by a German immigrant by the name of Johann-Joseph Krug. The house itself owns 20 hectares of vines in the villages of Aÿ, Le Mesnil, and Trépail. The rest of the grapes that go into its wines come from 70–100 contract growers, some of whom have associations with Krug that go back to the house’s inception. ‘For six generations, they’ve been working to produce the best grapes possible for Krug, to enable the richest expression of Krug,’ explains Olivier Krug, the house’s current director.

Although virtually all of the grapes come from grand cru villages, what’s most important to the winemakers is the diversity of flavours and aromas that the grapes will eventually impart on the wines that are made from them.


In all, they end up with grapes from almost 250 plots. But unlike most other producers, they keep each parcel of grapes separate. The wine they produce undergoes its first round of fermentation in 205-litre barrels made from oak from the Forest of Argonne and Central France. There’s no mixing at this stage, either – all of the different parcels are kept separate to give the winemakers as much flexibility as possible when it comes to blending.


At Krug, they take blending extremely seriously. Some 45 tasters work their way through all of the individual wines – both those from the current vintage and the 150 or so library wines, which are kept in steel tanks in Krug’s extensive cellars to retain their freshness – eventually generating in the region of 5,000 tasting notes. Each wine’s deficiencies and strengths, its individual character, are noted, and the results are used to slowly build up the recipe for the latest incarnation of Krug Grand Cuvee, the house’s non-vintage offering.

The current release of the Grand Cuvee is based on wine from the 2004 vintage, but it also includes another 11 wines, including library wines going back to 1990. In total, 122 different wines were used to create the final blend. The wine then spends six years in bottle before it’s released.

While as a general rule, the production of any Champagne requires blending – it’s widely held that no single vineyard will produce grapes that will make a well-rounded wine – there are, of course, exceptions, and in Krug’s case, they make for some very expensive exceptions. In good years, Krug releases two single-vineyard wines: the Clos du Mesnil, a Blanc de blancs, made completely from Chardonnay grapes from a 1.84-hectare walled vineyard, and the Clos d’Ambonnay, a Blanc de noirs Champagne, made entirely from Pinot Noir from a single 0.68-hectare walled vineyard. These wines can command incredible prices – you would be lucky to find a bottle of the 1995 Clos d’Ambonnay for less than £2,000.

The winemakers at Krug consider the Clos d’Ambonnay the easiest Champagne to make – both due to the quality of the grapes that the vineyard produces, but also thanks to the simple fact that it doesn’t require all of that complicated blending.

The year, Krug inaugurated a Celebration Week to honour of the art of blending. The house hopes that it will eventually become an annual event in which the other Champagne houses will also participate.
And what is Krug Grand Cuvee like to drink? It has a lovely, subtle, almost floral bouquet, with hints of brioche and citrus. In the mouth, it has a lovely crisp acidity, with an array of flavours – apple, almond, honey, brioche – that linger in the mouth long after you’ve swallowed. It’s dry, but with just enough sweetness to create balance. But what really sets the wine apart is its incredibly fine mousse – the tiny, soft bubbles that caress your tongue (and incidentally make it a good wine to drink with food). The overall impression is an almost paradoxical combination of finesse and elegance with power and richness.

But most of all, it’s simply a joy to drink, which, really, is what Champagne is all about. As Margaret Henriquez, the president and CEO of Krug, says: ‘Krug illustrates the amazing adventure of a visionary, Joseph Krug, who understood that the essence of Champagne is pleasure itself.’

Words and Photographs by Geordie Torr

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