The Epicurean's Atlas: Krug Collection 1959
Region: Champagne | Variety: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier
“Krug vintage is not the selection of the best wines of the year, but of wines that best express the year in question”
K rug “Champagne Number 2”, aka Krug Vintage, has always been about the circumstances of the year. This was certainly the case with 1959. Olivier Krug, the sixth generation of the family, remembers his grandfather Paul reminiscing that 1959 was a harvest unlike any that preceded it; one that quickly claimed a place among the finest vintages of Champagne – and one that, despite being more than half a century old, is still occasionally available to the lucky few. Although keeping back older vintages was not normal practice at that time, the Krug family wisely developed the habit of holding on to some bottles each year. It was this that later enabled them to create the Krug Collection: releases of older bottles that have earned a cult following among Krug lovers.
From the day in 1843 when Joseph Krug founded his Champagne house, his aim was to produce only top-quality Champagnes. Already, on page one of the dark cherry-coloured notebook he began in 1848, Joseph recorded his vision of Krug: two Champagnes of equal quality, Number 1 and Number 2. Over time, these would respectively become Krug Grande Cuvée, a Champagne whose composition “should be altered every year to recreate the most generous expression of Champagne”, and Krug Vintage, the “Champagne of circumstances”. Even today, the house has a unique way of producing non-vintage Champagne: the Grande Cuvée may be multi-vintage, but it is unquestionably a prestige cuvée.
Every great wine has its origins in great vines. Despite Krug owning a mere 21 hectares of vineyards, the house has no difficulty sourcing the top-quality grapes it requires. Relationships with grape growers established over generations, together with the prestige and power of LVMH, which has owned Krug since 1999, ensure that. Among the grape growers of Champagne, it is considered a badge of honour to supply Krug.
Part of the attraction, for growers as for drinkers, has always been Krug’s unique style. All Krug Champagnes are born in the oak barrels, which, unusually for the region, are used for fermentation, and every plot is vinified separately. This means that when the time comes to create the Grande Cuvée, Krug’s Cellar Master Julie Cavil has a formidable range of potential inclusions – in addition, of course, to Krug’s vast library of reserve wines spanning 150 wines from at least the past 10 vintages. This idiosyncratic way of making Champagne is one of the keys to the peerless complexity of Krug.
Along with oak and the library of wines, the third vital ingredient at Krug is time. The Grande Cuvée is aged for about seven years. Krug Vintages age even longer, spending more than 10 years in the depths of the Krug cellars. Contrary to what many believe, Krug Vintage is not the selection of the best wines of the year, but of wines that best express the year in question – its “circumstances” as Joseph Krug originally put it. Thus, the Krug Tasting Committee has started to give nicknames to each vintage that eloquently describe the character of the wine and year in question. For example, the elegant and racy 2008 is known as the “Classic Beauty”, whereas the bold and sun-kissed 2006 is referred to as “Capricious Indulgence”. This was not the practice back in 1959, although if it had been, perhaps its nickname might have been “Dark Horse”.
The house stayed loyal to Joseph’s initial vision of two Champagnes from 1843 until the mid-1980s, when Krug rosé was launched by the dynamic duo of the era, Henri and Rémi Krug. Later, two single-vineyard Champagnes were added to the repertoire: Clos du Mesnil in 1979 and Clos d’Ambonnay in 1995. Between these two came the Krug Collection: small quantities of Krug Vintage bottles, aged for an additional decade before being released onto the market. These were initially bottles from the original disgorgement, with no difference in lees-ageing time or dosage. At the time, almost nothing was put aside: the notion of longer ageing was not considered a priority given that the Champagnes were already aged for a considerable time. Nonetheless, even with the quality and longevity for which Krug was already famous, there were dedicated Krug fans interested in getting hold of a bottle from a particular year – perhaps in order to celebrate a special birthday or commemorate a particular historical event. The Krug Collection proved hugely popular, and the concept has changed since its inception, with the bottles offered now with a later disgorgement date, so that they have enjoyed extended periods of time on lees, the wine evolving until it displays a sumptuousness and complexity that are markedly different from those disgorged at the original time. These wines, lying quietly and patiently in the cellars on that rich sediment, are tasted regularly to ensure that when they blossom into their second lease of life, the house will be ready… as will the world’s many Krug aficionados.
The whole concept is a gift to those aficionados and the 1959 expression of the Krug Collection is a delicious proof of that. Despite an eventful growing season that included spring frosts, temperature variations, hailstorms and even drought, this was a year when Mother Nature gave both quality and quantity. Perfect weather at harvest time helped to ensure grapes with robust health and high sugar levels. As with 1947 and, later, the notoriously hot 1976, this was a vintage classed by Paul Krug (who, as it happens, took charge of the house in 1959) as exceptionally warm. The result of all that sunshine was wines of monumental richness and lower levels of acidity, which have stood the test of time exceptionally well. Indeed, the 1959s serve as an interesting example in favour of the current thesis that high acidity levels are not essential for a Champagne to age beautifully – a notion that may offer some comfort, given the current pattern of climate change. In any case, whether as confirmation of a scientific thesis or simply a delicious example of the power and longevity of great Champagne, Krug Collection 1959 is a rarity that merits a very warm welcome.