“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)





19 December 2011


Krug Top Pop In Turbulent Year
... Sell Your Car, Kids, House ...
And Ponder A While About Oak 

The drink of the year?  Easy. Krug Champagne 1998.    

I can’t afford it.  Nobody I know can afford it, really.  It’s about $550.  

But it’s one of those things that once tipped in recalibrates your expectations at such a brittle pinnacle that you know you’ll never get there again, so resort to the routine of a sort of undead teetotal ghoul.

Until you get more. 

I walked into a parable at Krug.  First visit, dangerously belated, 1992.  I learned a thing or two about oak barrels.  Krug was then one of the few, if not the only great Champagne house to employ a cooper and age most of its blending wines in oak.

Krug uses really old barrels. Eventually they wear out.

Their replacements must endure many years of wear and tear to ensure their fresh oak flavours, sugars and tannins no longer influence the wine to any normally discernable degree.  So these training barrels are filled with changing generations of good Champagne and carefully watched for decades - thirty years or more.  

Once they have become reliably neutral, they get the tick, and are then promoted to the loftiest realm of barrels anywhere: their new job is to contain the precious components of Krug. 

I had left an Australian wine business festering with blasé nonsense about how much new oak they used.  I walked into the tiny cooperage at Krug and the gentleman cooper rolled his eyes to the heavens when he saw my camera.  He had been sprung at the most embarrassing moment that was possible: inserting new oak in a grand old Krug barrel.  He had just finished replacing a bung stave, which is the weakest one in the container: after many years, splits open beside the bung hole, and the barrel leaks when it is turned.  So there it was: a bright flash of brash new white oak in the mysterious blackness of that ancient container.

And in walks an Ocker wine hack with a Nikon.  


When I asked Henri Krug what happened to the wines used in training these barrels for Krug, he suggested his friendly Champenoise neighbours and rivals paid good money for blending wines from the Krug training barrels.

Australia has a lot to learn about oak.  The industrialists must soon have to admit their oaking rarely involves barrels alone, if any barrels at all.  As a container, the barrel is really difficult and hopelessly inefficient.  Chips, sawdust, shavings, teabags, planks – most oak is purely a flavourant. You dial up the amount of caramelized sugars you want - "toast" - in your oak, it’s accordingly roasted, and you shovel it into your tank.

Krug sees the barrel as the ideal traditional container: neutral, but sufficiently porous to permit the gradual, steady oxidation of the contents.  

Krug is about maximum oxidation before assemblage.  Once the incredibly complex formula is determined on the tasting bench, they hoik the chosen barrels up from the chalk drives deep below, open them, and tip the wine on the chais floor to blend it.  It runs down a wide pipe to the blending tank buried beneath.

"Yes," said Henri. "The winery smells good at assemblage."

While many Australian winemakers admirably spend more time examining the location and nature of their vineyard sites, it is tragic to see their wine eventually enter the market with its most prominent aromatic and flavour ingredients coming from the forests of Europe or the USA.  

As far as Australian fruit goes, oak is generally a masking agent.

But Bacchus knows – Wolf Blass knows – that many people really like the smell of smoky oak.  The most influential proponents of this, in the Barossa, at least, were Max Schubert, Peter Lehmann, Wolf Blass and John Glaetzer. Schubert grew up with the smell of his father’s smithy.  Three of them chain-smoked; I think Glaetzer’s still at it.  They grew up in old smoky German kitchens; most of the meat they ate was smoked to some degree.

These are the types who can spend several bottles of red - or port - discussing which local butcher had the best smoked belly bacon, or blood pudding, or whatever.  They know immediately if anyone's recipe changes, or the smoke is different, and surmise about where the wood came from.

The Australian wine show system made obvious oak a yardstick of quality, and here we are.

However.  These evocative aromas might fit well into a mighty Grange, but Champagne? Uh-huh.

Somewhere between that new toasted American oak and the old black buggers of Krug, there is a lot of ground for people to recalibrate their lumberjackedness.

Especially since the smokers and woodfire stoves have diminished to such a degree.

Anyway, have a really special rest, and stay off the roads when you imbibe. 

And do imbibe, there’s a dear.

When your windfall hits, here’s my advice from earlier in the year:

Krug Champagne 1998
$550; cork; 12% alcohol; 97+++ points

There's an apocryphal yarn about the murderer who, upon being strapped into the electric chair, looked at his executioner and said "This'll teach me". This wine always reminds me of that. I don't really know why: the damned thing is so profoundly confronting in its beauty and intensity that the mind does go silly, in a willy nilly, electrocuted sort of way. Thoughts fall to the floor and shatter harmlessly about the drinker: they no longer count. Perhaps it's also the serene expectation that one will soon be found dead in one's chair with a really silly smile and a glass, empty, clutched in a grip that makes Charlton Heston's rifleman speech look like something uttered by a total softcock. 

The smell of an organic wheatfield, almost ripe, after the lightest rain. The smell of the most delicate brioche. Hazelnut. Wet chalk. Sliced, poached almond being fastidiously placed on a perfect marzipan icing in the kitchen of La Crayere. Oyster mushroom, and enoki. I can smell it for an hour, happy to postpone the execution. But finally, involuntarily, the glass finds its way to the lips, and like all Krug, just seems to evaporate into my organs. My body. The corpuscles, the genes, the chromasomes vibrate in immaculate harmony, and purr. This must send a transmission so powerful it can be received by other life forms, billions of light years away. 

I remember Remi Krug remarking twenty years ago that he admired the way I guzzled the Grand Cuvee, rather than inhaling common air through it to make that obscene gurgling noise and spitting it like an Englishman. "But I am a Vikin, and Krug comes properly perforated with bubbles installed by the Krug family," I responded. "It needs no other air buggering it up." And so it goes. No need to change the technique. Gulp it down! Have it from a bigger glass! Pour yourself a tumbler! Do it again! Sell your house!


If you can’t manage the spendy bit, try Old Mill Estate’s Langhorne Creek Touriga Nacional Sparkling Brut Rosé.  It’s about $20, and its bubbles look very much like the ones in pink Krug.  Like: small, round, persistent, and full of CO2.


Click here for another aspect of all this ecstacy.


kev the krugiste said...


Anonymous said...

So what do the whitecoats at Australian Wine Research Institute think of these mucky old barrels?

Anakha said...

Took a punt and grabbed one of these from a top cave in Paris back in September on the way back to Sydney. €195 less the VAT I claimed back. I hope the cork gods are kind.

How long would you recommend cellaring it for Philip? That said after reading that piece I'd love to grab it and saber the top off right now.

Philip White said...

It'll last for many years, cork willing, as you say, but you need a very steady cellar to make that reliably worthwhile. If the cork is poor, keep the wine, and take it back asap.