Krug Grande Cuvée NV
What can you say about Grande Cuvée, Krug’s non-vintage – or multi-vintage, as Krug prefer it to be known – ‘entry-level’ wine? Perhaps not much more than I have already documented in a recent Krug article, written after a tasting and dinner with Julie Cavil, one of the Krug winemaking team, in the summer of 2009. On the other hand, perhaps a lot more, particularly when we look at the varied opinions on the quality of this particular wine that have been published, especially over the last few years. First though, for the non-Krugists unfamiliar with the wine, a quick analysis of its DNA.
The ‘multi-vintage’ soundbite stems from the extensive use of reserve wines in this cuvée, accounting typically for 35 to 50% of the final blend (although it can go higher, such as 59% in 1988). These wines are sourced from a multitude of mature vintages held in stock. All of the three main Champagne grapes can play a significant role, although Chardonnay is usually in the minority behind the two Pinots. Thus a typical Grande Cuvée will be an assemblage of up to 50 wines from between 20 and 30 separate crus; with between 6 and 10 reserve vintages blended in. It is clearly a highly crafted wine, which is said by Krug to take precedence over the release of a vintage cuvée, so it is perhaps unfair after all to bracket it with the usual non-vintage cuvées. Perhaps Krug are justified in their insistence that it is multi- and not non-vintage.
That’s the science bit over and done with. What about the actual wine though?
As is the case with any vintage cuvée, it seems reasonable to expect that quality and even style will surely vary somewhat from year to year, from one release to the next. The Champagne marketing machine tells you that non-vintage (or indeed multi-vintage) wines are finely honed cuvées, the product of great skill on the part of the chef de cave, the person – or in some cases a team of people – responsible for blending the wine prior to it going into bottle for the second fermentation. And as a result of this proficiency there is a house consistency, the wines tasting the same even though the underlying vintages and blend is different. Patently this isn’t completely true, as anyone who has tasted a non-vintage Champagne based on the 2003 vintage (admittedly, an extreme and perhaps unique example) will tell you. Quality and even style may vary from one cuvée to the next, especially if other variables are added into the mix, such as differing disgorgement practices.
Of course this doesn’t really matter if these variations are very small, mere nuances, with consistently high quality, but a few years ago there were many reports of a drop-off in quality of Krug’s Grande Cuvée, with plenty of tasters reporting that more recent cuvées were less appealing than they previously had been. But how did the tasters know they were drinking a new release, when unlike some houses who declare this – such as Charles Heidsieck, to cite one example – Krug never provide this information on the label? The answer is simple, and in fact it was down to the label; there was a change in design, moving from a striking red and gold (as below) to a less unique matt-yellow paper. And many published opinions, on online fora and in online tasting note databases, suggested many were unhappy with the wine. Indeed, at the time, I sensed an real shift in how the Grande Cuvée was perceived (albeit in the highly self-selected online community).
Although I have tasted the later releases bearing the new label, I have never had the chance to compare side-by-side, and I have always worried that a comparison of differently aged non-vintage cuvées in this manner is a little like the proverbial apples and oranges anyway. Nevertheless, my impression was that quality remained very high. Did the psychology of a label change influence people’s opinions, either by negative reaction to the label itself, or perhaps merely by informing them that this was a new release? Of course it is not for me to say whether or not this might be the case, but I do think that when people know they are drinking something different, they naturally start looking to identify the differences. This is, I suspect, a natural aspect of human behaviour that discourages the Champenois from declaring base-vintages and disgorgement dates on non-vintage wines. Although the provision of information would be welcomed by the more geeky Champagne drinker, myself included, it would also inevitably lead to published opinion regarding the quality of disgorgement date X versus disgorgement date Y, and sales of one might suffer as a result. It may also, of course, simply confuse people. I don’t expect many houses to follow the examples of Jacquesson and others in identifying their non-vintage cuvées.
Enough of this speculation, however, and back to the wine that started this train of thought, the non-vintage Grande Cuvée from Krug; this is (as is obvious from the images above) an ‘old label’ bottle which I have cellared since purchase in 2003. A rich straw gold hue, with tiny bubbles evident as soon as poured into the glass. They are a delight to see, and the pleasure is consistent from this moment on. On the nose, as we might expect, notes of honeyed and toasted nut aromas, and oiled wood, all the classic Krug aromas derived from the mature wines blended in and, in this case, a little bottle age too. But combined with these there is a glorious citrus freshness, reserved but still very apparent, with notes of orange peel and lemon, along with a minerally streak, of smoke and stone. On entry, a fabulously broad but elegant arrival, a paradoxical synthesis of the smoky, minerally maturity and the citrus freshness seen on the nose. A fine, prickling mousse, great incisive acidity and a long, fading finish. Great wine, drinking beautifully now, but there would have been room to age this further judging by the firmness of the composition. But I believe this is the last of my ‘old label’ bottles, so sadly I won’t be able to test that theory for myself. 18.5/20 (1/2/10)