Champagne is the most powerful brand name in wine. For many consumers, Champagne is sparkling wine, the drink with which they celebrate weddings, anniversaries and holidays, especially New Year's Eve. Though the producers of the region in northeast France have mass-produced their wine since the 19th century, they have been able to retain such an aura of exclusivity and luxury that Veuve Cliquot is able to sell an estimated 10 million bottles a year at $40 to $60 a bottle - a remarkable feat in a market where price generally derives from scarcity. Other brands sell for far more.
Alan Tardi tells the story of perhaps the most exalted of those brands in his new book, Champagne, Uncorked: The House of Krug and The Timeless Allure of the World's Most Celebrated Drink (PublicAffairs). Tardi, a chef turned food and wine writer and consultant, interweaves the history of of Champagne with the story of a year at Krug, a structure that mirrors the seamless integration of wine production and marketing in the region. Even Krug's decision to cooperate with Tardi seems to be part of a broader effort to position the brand for a contemporary audience.
The distinctive way in which Champagne is made stems from its location at the northern edge of where wine grapes can be successfully grown. Historically, many harvests yielded under-ripe, acidic grapes that produced thin, unappealing wine, especially since fermentation often stopped prematurely because of the cold autumns in Champagne.
Even so, by the 17th century the Champenois were exporting their wines in barrels to England, and in the spring the warmer weather would often kick-start fermentation of the wine in barrel, which added more alcohol and carbonation. (When wine ferments, the sugar turns into alcohol and carbon dioxide, which has nowhere to escape when the wine is in an enclosed vessel.) The English, accustomed to beer and cider, loved the sparkling wine, and their glass-making industry was sophisticated enough to produce bottles that could withstand the pressure generated by the wine's effervescence. The French realized that they could standardize the process by making a base wine and then adding sugar to it before bottling. To create a standard product - and to smooth the acidic edges of wines made in cooler vintages - they blended wines from different vintages, then as now an uncommon practice in the wine world.
Nicolas Ruinart, the son of wealthy textile merchants in Reims, the largest city in Champagne, started selling sparkling wine in 1729, and a host of imitators followed, including the founders of many of the grandes marques or "big brands" that still dominate the Champagne trade. Joseph Krug, the son of a German butcher, came to Champagne in 1834 as the accountant for Jacquesson and opened his own company nine years later. By the time he died in 1866, the region as a whole exported three-quarters of its wine, much of it to the U.K. and Russia, where the nobility preferred a sweeter beverage. The Russian market disappeared when the Communists came to power, but by then, the Champenois had the U.S. to sell to.
Krug, like many Champagne houses, remained family-owned through most of the 20th century and managed to survive the German occupation in World War II thanks in part to the formation of the Comité Interprofessionnel du Vin de Champagne, which allowed the producers to present a united front in dealing with the German. The CIVC still exists and remains a powerful force in the region by regulating numerous aspects of grape-growing and wine-making and coordinating research and promotional efforts.
The Krug family sold a 33% stake in their company to cognac maker Rémy Martin in 1977, and in 1999, LVMH paid $200 million for Krug. A decade later, the luxury goods giant installed Margareth Henriquez, a U.S.-educated Venezuelan who ran Nabisco's Mexican unit and Bodegas Chandon in Argentina, another LVMH subsidiary.
Shortly after Henriquez arrived at Krug in 2009, she tells Tardi, "I realized that a luxury house with an unknown story must be developed in a totally different way." That meant focusing on the care with which the wine is made and, as she puts it "the meticulousness with which the grapes are sourced" rather than how much it costs or its symbolic status as a luxury good, an oenological equivalent of the Louis Vuitton bags that LVMH also sells.
Henriquez's strategy was both a response to a common wine-world critique of Champagne and a recognition of changes in how high-end food and beverages are marketed. Some wine professionals complained that the success of the big Champagne houses was a triumph of marketing over substance. In the critics' view, small family producers were doing a much better job of making distinctive, soulful wines than their much larger rivals. That view mirrored a preference for smaller-production, individualized offerings in categories like bourbon and whiskey.
Henriquez was able to position Krug as intricately crafted wine. Because of CIVC regulations, Krug must buy most of its grapes; the 30% of its grapes that it sources from its own vineyards greatly exceeds the percentage that most of its rivals are able to self-source. But Krug buys from some of the best growers in Champagne, including organic and biodynamic producers who feel they aren't able to use that label for some of their parcels. Krug is obsessive about blending dozens of different wines to create its flagship Krug Grand Cuvée, and in certain years it produces two single-vineyard wines that underscore the company's skill in making high-end wines just as a producer in Burgundy would.
On the palate, the wines are rich and luxurious but also complex and thought-provoking. On a visit to Krug's headquarters at Rue Coquebert in Reims, a host will pour a guest two samples of the Grand Cuvée, each based on a different vintage, and the variation between the two is clear, which suggests thoughtful winemaking. Since 2011, Krug has simultaneously tried to eliminate counterfeiting and encourage collecting by putting a bottle-specific six-digit number on the back label. A consumer can enter the number into the Krug website for detailed information on wine, an effort to appeal to even the most obsessive wine geeks. As has happened often in Champagne's history, one of its producers has adapted to changing consumer demand in a way that only strengthens the brand of both region and winemaker.