Henri Krug: Winemaker who kept his family in the vanguard of champagne production

 

With his younger brother Rémi, Henri Krug was the fifth generation of the family to lead the house that makes the consistently best champagne. Achieving this while at the same time being responsive to fashion – goals that were sometimes almost contradictory – was his great contribution to Krug.

Krug's founder, in 1843, was Henri's great-great-grandfather Johann-Joseph Krug, a German from Mainz, who learned to make champagne at the house of Jacquesson. His son Paul carried on the business, succeeded in 1910 by his son Joseph II, who was replaced in 1924 by his nephew, Jean Seydoux, and by Joseph II's son, Paul II. The latter pair created something like the Krug style we know today, with the now obsolete label "Private Cuvée". In a celebrated 1993 tasting of bottles made since 1929, "by my grandfather, my father and myself," Henri said, "Everyone agreed that [there was] a consistent Krug style all the way through."

Henri was born in 1937 to Paul II and Jacqueline (née Fort). Henri always seemed a little diffident compared to his more outgoing younger brother, discreet, even shy – a true descendant of the high society French Huguenot Protestant tradition.

After school in Reims Henri got his business degree in Paris and acquired his perfect English in London. Following military service in Algeria he joined the family firm in September 1962, working closely with his grandfather, Joseph II. After three years Rémi joined as well, and the responsibilities were divided exactly as they remained until the brothers retired. Rémi, with a gift for social life and making friends, dealt with business decisions and marketing, while the more reserved Henri managed the vineyards, the all-important cellar where the reserves are kept, and made the wine with Eric Lebel.

"We were gifted with very different tempers," Rémi said, "but welded by our common vision, commitment and culture. I know how much we owe to our parents for that, and in particular our father Paul's serene authority, demanding generosity, absolute commitment to the pursuit of authentic excellence and total absence of ego."

In 1965 Henri married a physicist, Odile Burkard. They had five children, the eldest of whom, Olivier, entered the family business in 1989. In 1969 Henri and Rémi sold the business to Rémy-Cointreau, continuing to make and market the wine, and in 1999 Krug was again bought by the luxury brand conglomerate LVMH, retaining its independent identity and management, despite the large number of champagne houses in the portfolio.

The secret of Krug's greatness and consistency lay in the blending. Even with the fairly recent acquisitions in 1971 of an enclosed chardonnay-producing vineyard at Le Mesnil and a small pinot noir property in 1994, Krug's holdings are small, and they buy in grapes from several growers. Most of these, however, are rated 100 per cent on the champagne quality scale, and, contrary to the usual secrecy, they are proud to say they grow exclusively for Krug.

Like other champagne houses, Krug releases vintage in particularly favourable years. However, Henri and Rémi maintained that these were not necessarily better than their standard-bearing Grande Cuvée, but different, and interesting mostly for the different character of each vintage.

One outcome of making Krug from so many vintages was that, in the mid-1980s, Henri decided that the blend had too much vintage character – and this was one of the spurs to the creation of the Grande Cuvée. By the late 1980s they had repackaged (in the familiar elegant fluted bottle) the Private Cuvée as the Grande Cuvée, a non-vintage champagne that is a blend of at least six, and often 10 or 12, different years of as many as 40 or 50 different wines. It is this complexity that assures that you can always pick out the pinot noir-dominated Krug, and they have never shunned the use of pinot meunier – which is sometimes dismissed as inferior by other houses – as it seems to have a very good effect on the nose of the wine (some tasters say it is responsible for the yeasty, toasted-bread aroma).

The chardonnay gives Krug its racy character, Henri said; and many wine writers have had the great pleasure of attending a blending session with him, at which he would demonstrate the astonishing effects caused by even small additions of vintages, varieties and wines from different vineyards. Keeping track of these was much of the art of the blending room.

In 1979 Krug made and released its first Clos du Mesnil, an all-chardonnay single vineyard, single vintage blanc de blancs. In 1983 Henri and Rémi got their father to taste blind a rosé they had produced surreptitiously; he agreed it could be called Krug; and in 2009 they released an all-pinot 1995 vintage that now costs more than £1,800 a bottle.

Henri made the occasional foray into Krug's brand-promoting activities; I remember his benign presence with Rémi at the 1985 three-day birthday banquet at the Hong Kong Mandarin Hotel. Down the years Krug has tried to be subtle in its PR, realising on the whole that it has to sell on its intrinsic merits, not on being associated with bling-packing celebrities; and perhaps partly owing to Henri's reticence, it has avoided the lapses of taste (and damage to sales and reputation) of some other houses.

In retirement Henri shunned honours and medals, saying he preferred to be known and remembered as a good patron, or boss.

Henri Krug, winemaker: born Reims 10 July 1937; married 1965 Odile Burkard (four sons, one daughter); died Reims 7 March 2013.

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