Krug Clos d'Ambonnay 1996 on Guy Fawkes

POSTED ON 09/11/2009

I’ll say that again: Krug Clos d’Ambonnay 1996. I think that Krug Clos d’Ambonnay is the most expensive individual bottle of champagne in the world, on release at least, so when I was invited to join Olivier Krug and a group of the specialist champagne press for lunch on Guy Fawkes in the Krug Room at The Dorchester for the launch of the second vintage of this super-cuvée, the 1996 Clos d’Ambonnay, you can probably guess how long it took me to work out if I could squeeze it into my, er, crowded schedule for the day.

I don’t think I can describe the reverence or the awe in which people around the globe hold Krug. It’s not like Dom Pérignon or Cristal, the other two most famous prestige champagne icons, or the less-well-known but perhaps equally iconic Salon le Mesnil. Krug is different. It’s the only champagne to describe its non-vintage champagne, Krug Grande Cuvée, as multi-vintage. ‘It’s the Taliban of multi-vintage blending’, as Olivier Krug puts it, although no dinner with the Taliban has yet been arranged. Krug does vintage champagne too and it releases older, mature champagnes under the name Krug Collection . And it has two sparkling jewels which any champagne producer or investor would give a limb to get their hands on: the tiny walled chardonnay-based vineyard of Clos du Mesnil in the Côte des Blancs, and the even tinier pinot noir-based plot of Clos d’Ambonnay in the Montagne de Reims.

It was a well-kept secret, until in May 2008, the 1995 Krug Clos d’Ambonnay was released to great fanfare at a heartstopping $3,500 (£2150) odd a bottle, yes a bottle. It spends 12 years on its lees and comes from pinot noir vines with an average age of 25 years in the 0.685 hectare site at Ambonnay. I never thought I’d get to taste it but I was recently invited by Andrew Fairlie to a Krug dinner at Gleneagles held for the Roux brothers, where the magnificent 1995 Clos d’Ambonnay was rolled out. With a tart of sliced cep topped with rich sweetbread, it was a magnificently winey champagne of great finesse, whose red berry fruit and toasty, grilled nut and ginger spice elements complemented each other seamlessly.

Back to London and the Krug Room at the Dorchester, to get to which you have to be guided through the Park Lane hotels’ labyrinthine kitchens. This is an experience in itself, a feeling of being on the inside for once, but to sit in the Krug Room looking through a glass panel to the kitchens waiting for the meal about to be made by the Dorchester’s head chef Henry Brosi, doesn’t half make the mouth water. And we had plenty of time for it, because we stood around sipping Krug Grande Cuvée for a good hour and a half before sitting down to the following mouthwatering menu:

Amuse bouche with 1996 Krug Clos d’Ambonnay
Roast calves sweetbreads with risotto of white Alba truffle with 1996 Krug Clos d’Ambonnay
Turbot with ginger and parsley crust, Cromer crab lasagne with Krug 1996
Strawberry soufflé with basil and black pepper-flavoured coulis with Krug Rosé
Coffee and petits fours

I hadn’t met Olivier before although I have met Rémi and Henri Krug, the two brothers who have steered Krug seamlessly from its identity as a family company to its new ownership by LVMH. I say seamlessly because it’s clear that both Rémi and Henri, and now Olivier who’s been passed the baton, are desperate to retain Krug’s consistency of quality, not to mention its image as one of the greatest luxury products in the world of wine. Image is all in the case of such a luxury item. As we talked before the lunch, Olivier said that a good champagne grower could make a decent profit owning 4 hectares of vineyards and selling their champagne at 13 – 15 euros. The release price per bottle of the 1996 Clos d’Ambonnay is between 1,500 and 1,600 euros a bottle.

You don’t have to be a genius therefore to work out that the bottle price for this wine has nothing to do with value and everything to do with its prestige as a must-have luxury good for the super-rich. Having said that, prestige doesn’t exist in a vacuum and with it has to come unequalled quality. So no expense can be spared, every sacrifice has to be made, to ensure that the image and prestige of the famous name of Krug is maintained. ‘Krug is an encounter, an experience, a revelation’, as the publicity has it. Krug Rooms in the Dorchester, Las Vegas and other international cities, lavish parties and dinners, gentle massaging of journalistic egos testify to the huge efforts going into ensuring that while Krug may have passed into the hands of a multinational luxury goods empire, there is no diminution of quality. And that, after all, is in everyone’s interest.

So, two years after the release of the 1995 Clos d’Ambonnay, comes the 1996, and with great expectations because, as Olivier Krug pointed out, the 1995, released at around £2000 a bottle, was a huge success. And of course while the 1995 was released just before the recession kicked in, the release price of the 1996 is lower (a) because it has to take account of the very different economic picture that the post-recession hangover brings in its wake and (b) because the 1995 ‘has a special collectible value as an inaugural release’. The vineyard at 0.685 hectares, Olivier told us, is a third of the Clos du Mesnil’s 1.85 hectares, and since Clos du Mesnil ‘wanted a brother’ as Olivier put it, it was acquired from one of Krug’s existing suppliers after an offer was made in 1994. 3000 – 4000 bottles are made on average and 17 casks in 2009 (trivial pursuit question: how many litres in a champagne cask? Answer 205, so 3,500 odd bottles made). The scarcity equation was never more stark.

This event was really a ‘soft launch’ for Krug, a chance to dip a toe into the water, with a few pre-release cases of the 1996 through their partner merchants, Farr Vintners and Bordeaux Index while the full international launch will not take place next spring. So what’s it like, I hear you ask? Surprisingly rich in an evolved golden colour with an intense, complex aroma of toasty baked bread with honeyed undertones of evolution and even a touch of liquorice spiciness. The aroma however gives no clue to the palate, which is youthfully lemony, fresh and angular, with the tart and tangy acidity that’s the hallmark of the 1996 vintage, but equally a chalky minerality that suggests this wine will age very well over 10, 20 and maybe even 30 years. For those who can’t get their hands on the 1996 and want to know which is the next vintage of Clos d’Ambonnay, the answer is 1998. Oh and how did the Krug Rosé go with the strawberry soufflé? I wish I knew but sadly I had to skip the strawberry soufflé and coffee and petits fours as I had to see a man about a dog.

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