“Sod the wine, I want to suck on the writing. This man White is an instinctive writer, bloody rare to find one who actually pulls it off, as in still gets a meaning across with concision. Sharp arbitrage of speed and risk, closest thing I can think of to Cicero’s ‘motus continuum animi.’

Probably takes a drink or two to connect like that: he literally paints his senses on the page.”

DBC Pierre (Vernon God Little, Ludmila’s Broken English, Lights Out In Wonderland ... Winner: Booker prize; Whitbread prize; Bollinger Wodehouse Everyman prize; James Joyce Award from the Literary & Historical Society of University College Dublin)





04 April 2009


Whitey Learns A Thing Or Two
Krug And Yabbies At Stephanie’s

by PHILIP WHITE – A version of this was published in The Advertiser 14 MAR 1990

There is a walled village called Mesnil-sur-Oger in the Champagne district of France. Like many a mediæval village, it has a lovely jumbled clutter of houses and alleys, a monastery, an exceptionally good baker and an unabashedly agricultural pace. Except, during vintage, there is nothing that ever needs doing so urgently as to be done before one can select a desirable leaf of tobacco, studiously roll it into a ball, and tamp it down in one’s pipe, carefully applying gentle, even pressure to ensure a cool, slow fire in the bole. Only after this, and a few measured sucks to ensure the whole operation is successful, can one go, slowly, to work. As you would expect of a mediæval village, Valium is not on the agenda.

There is another highly unusual aspect of this village: something about Champagne priorities. It is, in its entirety, built outside its wall. While the beautiful stone houses and barns are exposed to the raider, be he Hun, Viking or Goth, safe inside the wall, in the centre of town, lies the legendary Clos du Mesnil. One of the world’s most remarkable vineyards, this tiny 1.8ha patch of chardonnay produces that true diamond of drinks, the pristine, glittering Krug Champagne Clos du Mesnil Brut Blanc de Blancs. The 1982 vintage is about to be released. I am having a difficult time trying to shake its memory off. Spoiled for life, I think you could call it.

The Krug family has been making various types of exceptionally fine champagne since 1843. Of all the great champagne houses, none is quite so understated, consistent and revered. It is not your trendy rock star label, but a subtle, elegant, wondrous creation that is never taken lightly. If you must relate it to anything other than diamonds, the best I can suggest is Dame Margot Fonteyn.

The wine’s sheer spellbinding, dancing quality ensures that even the most unsuspecting recipient of a glass of Krug becomes a convert, a Krugist, the moment the stuff slides off the back of the tongue. It’s a magical, rare, heaven-on-Earth drink. Once Krugged, always Krugged.

Remi Krug, one of the two aristocratic brothers who run the business, has quite a lot more pace than you find in the narrow lanes of Mesnil, but the same powerful confidence as those somnambulent, pipe-smoking peasants. He is alarmingly candid in his praise for his family’s product.

“It is for people who put taste above status symbol and who don’t drink it to impress with a label”, he told me during lunch last week. “You drink Krug because you are in love with it. Because you like the taste. Because it is your pleasure. It’s your heartbeat; it’s your culture. You reward yourself. You know you deserve Krug. It’s a very personal thing. You’re not trying to wear someone else’s appearance as your own. You’re not dreaming to be James Bond. You are yourself, and you treat yourself with Krug. You drink Krug because you know.”

In an impeccable sidestep to avoid uttering the words Dom Perignon, he surged on.

“I have a friend, a crazy Krugist, who drinks Krug but offers the other champagne when he’s on business. He keeps the Krug for himself. It’s like somebody said to me the other day, ‘You know Remi, it’s not enough to be rich to drink Krug. You must also have taste’.”

Apart from the Clos du Mesnil, there are various sublime Krug products. The Grande Cuvée is a multi-vintage blend of up to sixty different parcels of champagne from six to ten different vintages. The wine is “composed” by Remi, with his quieter brother Henri, “not by science, but by its quality.

“There is no chemistry at Krug, Remi said. “There some oenology behind my brother’s taste to control certain things, but not to decide. What decides the making of Krug is taste – my brother and my father and myself – we taste together, and we compose the cuvees only by taste. Oenology is a number of analyses to control. If these analyses turn out to be great and good in certain ways they go into filing immediately. But there is no chemistry at all. There is nothing to adjust. We adjust things by yes or no, we keep or we reject. By blending we compose.”

Now this may sound like a considerable degree of rich man’s self-indulgence to us chug-a-luggers of drinks much more pedestrian, but the famous Krug family palate has been tested by the wine hacks of Australia and passed with dazzling colours. Offered an unmarked glass with an impish blend of Krug and another champagne at dinner in Melbourne, Henri, without any warning of its contents, sniffed long and hard and announced “Yes. There is some of my wine in here, and some of someone else’s. It’s not so good, eh, this blend?” He thought again and named the intruding house. Of course he needs no chemistry.

While the Grand Cuvée is a blend of wines from the family’s enormous stocks of aging “reserve” champagne, collected from various vineyards and vintages, good years also see the release of a Krug Vintage, a blend of the best wines from just one year. Remi explained the difference: “My grandfather used to say, with a twinkle in his eye, that the Cuvée was the dearest to him because it was his own creation. With Krug Vintage, he said he had to share the compliments with God.”

Krug also makes an extremely rare champagne rosé, which is a devilishly successful bed wine, and occasionally releases some mature champagne from the family’s private stocks to show the world that Krug, unlike most of the lesser sparkling wines, continues to improve for many decades in the bottle, developing an intensely nutty, complex aroma while retaining it astonishingly fresh, uplifting flavour. These wines are too expensive to mention. You must believe me. They are much more expensive, say, than the Grande Cuvée (about $129 a bottle), or the Krug Vintage (about $150). They are even more expensive than soon-to-be-released Clos du Mesnil 1982, which tips the scales at a modest $390 a bottle.

This new wine is everything a pure chardonnay champagne should ever be: pristine, almost crystalline with its staunch acidity, but nevertheless showing incredible delicacy and finesse. It has none of the almost strawberry fullness of the 1981 release, but rather a delicious, lissom stiletto of pure chardonnay flavour that goes singing through one’s soul so simply, just once but forever.

As we sat there savouring this new wonder of the world over a big bowl of yabbies at Stephanie’s, I inquired how much of the wine was made. “Oh, Clos du Mesnil averages about 12,000 cases a year”, Krug breezed. I remarked this figure seemed very high for such a tiny vineyard. “Oh, no, no, no,” he explained. “With Clos du Mesnil there is just one bottle per case.”

CLOS DU MESNIL - click image for link
I suggested that no amount of writer’s skill, or Krug’s eccentric technique of fermenting the wine in thirty and forty year old oak, could ever truly convince a reader such wines are so much better than others as to warrant more expenditure than many folks’ weekly wage. “It’s bloody hard to convince the punters”, I explained. As always, M. Krug responded with great vigor.

“Well the first thing is you must never compare Krug to somebody else’s champagne”, he chirped. “You don’t compare Krug. You only ever compare it to the Krug you had yesterday or months ago. You compare it to your memory of Krug.”

The fellow is infuriating in his insistent failure to name any other brand but his own. But pressed harder, he did eventually manage a comparison, which, combined with a bellyful of yabbies blended with about 500 knickers’ worth of one of the best drinks a chap could ever hope to have, seduced your correspondent completely.

“It’s like music”, Krug pondered aloud. “There is real music, like Duke Ellington and Ella Fitzgerald. And then there is airport music. Unfortunately, too much champagne is airport music. When I met my wife, she drank the airport music, and she always said it gave her a headache and she would not marry me. So I gave her some Krug, and when she had it she said ‘Ah, this is good, I don’t have a headache’, and so she could marry me. Of course when I discovered she did not have a headache, I could marry her. And so for many years we have Krugged along together.”

Half their Kruggin’ luck, I say.

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