Embarking upon the task of getting to know Champagne is a bit like going down a rabbit hole. It is a world of twists and turns that take you from Champagne houses, to growers, to cooperatives, to arguments over prestige and fashion, and the question of how many vintages are in each cuvée. It feels like a daunting mess of strict traditions and French set rules that make one’s head ache.
Yet Champagne has such a place in our social structure that even those who don’t drink wine would agree that no wedding, christening, or maiden voyage of cruise liner would be complete without Champagne.
So perhaps, instead of trying to dissect the minutiae of the Champagne world we should take a closer look at two well known, classic and respected houses, and see if they can shed some light on things.
Champagne can only be called as such if it is a sparkling wine made from specific grape varieties grown and produced in a clearly defined area in northern France. These strict rules do not mean that each Champagne will be unidentifiable from the rest though. A myriad of styles have evolved over time and each house approaches each style in a differing way.
Both Bollinger and Krug are well respected, high quality Champagne houses that command high prices and prestige. They both have a tendency to use a higher percentage of Pinot Noir rather than Chardonnay in their Champagnes as well as a small amount of Meunier (something other houses are less keen on mentioning). They both age their wines in old oak casks although Krug’s are notoriously smaller and made from a type of oak that is relatively neutral in flavour. They both make a cuvée, a vintage and a rosé Champagne as well as specialising in small plot blanc de blancs (100% Chardonnay) and blanc de noirs (white Champagne made from 100% Pinot Noir).
But what of their differences in style? Why would you choose one over the other?
We shall start with Bollinger. Mainly because this is a more approachable and open Champagne both in style and reputation. Bollinger is the tipple of choice of James Bond; it is often described as a muscular Champagne; it feels decadent yet feasible due to its expensive but not unreasonable pricing. But these generic descriptors should not take away from the wines complexity, grace and ability to age. The vintage cuvée in good years can last 20 years or more and should be drunk mature to really understand the many layers this wine can offer. The rosé is a relatively recent addition to the Bollinger repertoire due to Lilly Bollinger’s distaste for the style. Champagne is the only region in France where rosé is allowed to be made by mixing red and white wines together and the best houses will ensure only the finest red wine is allowed to play this key role. Bollinger use a small percentage of their La Côte aux Enfants Pinot Noir to make theirs.
The talk of the town when it comes to Bollinger though is their Vieilles Vignes Françaises Blanc de Noirs. Made from grapes grown in a tiny plot from un-grafted vines this is a fairly special Champagne not only for its scarcity and eye watering price but also because some would argue it’s not true to the Champagne style. Rebels have a tendency to get their way in the end though and this particular wine of Bollinger’s is doing wonders for the Champagne houses reputation as an expert winemaker.
And so to Krug, the house that divides opinion. On the one side you have those that balk at Krug’s prices and see them as elitist and unapproachable and then there are those that believe them to be the king of Champagne, the house that has set the bar and no other Champagne comes close.
When you look at the price of Krug you can appreciate where the first camp are coming from. But a little further reading allows you to appreciate the work that goes into each bottle and the production costs behind them make the prices a little more justifiable.
Even so, regardless of whether they should be costly, should we be saving our pennies to sample one?
To quote one of us at Nemo Wine Cellars “this is still the best Champagne I have ever drunk and I have since been unable to beat that small glass of brownish bubbly”. Being privy to a vintage bottle of Krug at the age of 18 has rendered all other Champagnes average.
Krug is in a class of its own: its rich, biscuit flavour along with its golden hue that becomes stronger and darker with age sets it apart from the others. The fine, soft bubbles that over time start to soften even more make this a decadent and heady Champagne that does feel special. Their Grande Cuvée which is a blend of several vintages along with that years harvest famously contains more vintages than any other house cuvée with some dating back to the 1920’s. The cellar master puts the blend together each year by tasting hundreds of vintages and working out which ones and in what percentages will best showcase the Krug style. If you are going to try a Krug the Grand Cuvée is certainly the one to go for to get a true picture of what this Champagne house is about.
Like Bollinger Krug also have a piece de résistance of their own, Le Clos de Mesnil, a blanc de blanc from a tiny walled vineyard where they say the Chardonnay grapes thrive due to the micro-climate created by the high walls that surround the plot. Whether this is true or not this Blanc de Blancs is certainly viewed as the crème de la crème of blanc de blancs.
Each bottle of Krug Grand Cuvée has a unique code on the back which when searched on their website tells you the exact blend of vintages that made it. This one is based around the 2007 harvest and is still fairly young for a Krug. NV Krug Grande Cuvee 163eme Edition Brut Champagne £157 per bottle
An underrated but good vintage that has provided value amongst some of the higher priced years. 1995 Krug Brut Champagne £333 per bottle
Bollinger vs. Krug: this is definitely an example of how two Champagnes that on paper seem similar are anything but when they finally reach the glass. Bollinger is lighter and friskier than its rich and complex peer but still holds its weight as one of the top performers. Krug is in a league of its own but should not be viewed as exclusive. You may not drink Champagne every day but a special occasion of some magnitude may be the perfect excuse to finally try the king of Champagne.