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The House of Krug and the Timeless Allure of the World’s Most Celebrated Drink
By Alan Tardi
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In Champagne, Uncorked, Alan Tardi journeys into the heartland of the world’s most beloved wine. Anchored by the year he spent inside the prestigious and secretive Krug winery in Reims, the story follows the creation of the superlative Krug Grande Cuv’e.
Tardi also investigates the evocative history, quirky origins, and cultural significance of Champagne. He reveals how it became the essential celebratory toast (merci Napoleon Bonaparte!), and introduces a cast of colorful characters, including EugÃ¨ Mercier, who in 1889 transported his “Cathedral of Champagne,” the largest wine cask in the world, to Paris by a team of white horses and oxen, and Joseph Krug, the reserved son of a German butcher who wound up in France, fell head over heels for Champagne, and risked everything to start up his own eponymous house.
In the vineyards of Champagne, Tardi discovers how finicky grapes in an unstable climate can lead to a nerve-racking season for growers and winemakers alike. And he ventures deep into the caves, where the delicate and painstaking alchemy of blending takes place — all of which culminates in the glass we raise to toast life’s finer moments.
IN THE BEGINNING
THE BIRTH OF CHAMPAGNE
WHAT LIES BENEATH—LA CHAMPAGNE VITICOLE
CHAMPAGNE is not like other wine regions. It’s not as dramatic or picturesque as many of the other famous wine areas, and it’s much more spread out and disjointed. You can get an idea of this just by looking at the map: where most other wine regions appear as a contiguous blob or swath, Champagne looks as if someone splattered paint on a canvas, creating a hodgepodge of small irregular splotches over a wide-open space, more concentrated in some parts and sparser in others.
And that’s basically how it is: the splotches represent the official Champagne growing region (known as la Champagne viticole) and that’s where the vines are; no splotches means it’s not part of the appellation, which partly explains why it’s possible to find dense forests or fields of sugar beets right next to prestigious grand cru vineyards.
Now, if Jackson Pollock had designed it, this might be pure artistic fancy. But this map was essentially created by nature and articulated by farmers and winemakers over a long period of time. (See the map of the Champagne area on page 1 of the glossy insert.) The vines are where they are mostly because those particular places have been proven, by trial and error over hundreds of years, to be good places to grow grapes.1 And while many of the common factors of terroir, such as altitude and exposition, do have an impact, in Champagne what really makes these places good—and significantly different from the vineless ones right next to them—has much to do with what lies beneath the surface.2
The principal section of the Champagne zone, in the northern department of the Marne, lies on the eastern side of a geologic formation called the Paris Basin, a large indentation in the earth that extends from present-day Alsace in the east to coastal Normandy in the west, with Paris roughly in the middle. The dip was originally formed in the Triassic period about 250 million years ago and partially filled in during the subsequent Jurassic. Most of the critical activity, however, occurred during the turbulent Cretaceous period, when the earth was lifted by seismic activity, causing the water that covered it to retreat and leave behind a thick sludge of marine material, including huge deposits of a now extinct type of squid known as a belemnite and an ancient type of sea urchin called a micraster. Left high and dry, the stuff decayed, dried out, and, over millions of years, turned into a compressed layer of chalk.
Finally, during the Tertiary period (about 68 to 1.8 million years ago), a series of geologic events lifted some portions of the chalk into cliffs and displaced others, covering just about everything with a sedimentary layer of varying thickness consisting of various combinations of limestone, clay, sand, and marl.
In some places the chalk is hundreds of feet thick and vine roots are forced to grow deep down into fissures to find moisture, while in others the chalk layer is thinner or broken up and mixed with other types of matter, all of which makes a big difference to the grapes that are grown in it. Most of the belemnite chalk is found on higher elevations, while the micraster is usually present on lower slopes and valleys. But even more important than the type of chalk is how it was displaced and reshaped by geologic upheaval. The Vallée de la Marne, for example, is a flatter valley with more soil on top of the chalk and alluvial deposits left by the river that cuts through it, while certain areas of the Montagne de Reims and Côte des Blancs consist of very deep veins of chalk with a shallow layer of topsoil.
“Champagne owes its greatness as a wine province to the chalk of the Upper Cretaceous,” says geologist James E. Wilson. “Champagne’s vines have their heads in the Tertiary and their feet in the Cretaceous. . . . The trunks and branches of the vineplants, the ‘heads,’ grow upward from the soils of the Tertiary slope wash, while the roots, the ‘feet,’ explore the underlying, fractured Cretaceous chalk.”3
So what’s so great about chalk?
Chalk is softer and more porous than limestone and less dense than clay. This means it offers excellent drainage, which is important for avoiding root rot, but also acts like a sponge to retain water and release it to the roots of the vines when they need it. Deposits of chalk under a thin layer of topsoil absorb heat from the sun during the day and release it at night, helping to protect the vines from cold temperatures, which helps explain why vines in Champagne are densely planted and trained low to the ground. Finally, the organic composition of chalk gives the wines made from grapes grown in it distinct mineral flavors, crisp acidity, a lighter, more elegant body, and even a natural tendency towards a slight fizz (known as pétillance in French), all of which helps increase the wine’s potential for longevity.
But geology is just the tip of the iceberg.
Besides soil, the other critical factor in understanding la Champagne viticole is the climate.
The region is located in northeastern France near the 49th parallel north, the invisible boundary beyond which it becomes too cold for grapevines to grow.4 Days of sunlight are relatively few and annual rainfall is moderate.5 While oceanic influences help mitigate extreme temperatures in both winter and summer, the continental effects of an inland location often get the upper hand, resulting in devastating spring frosts and sporadic hailstorms during summer and early autumn.
The combination of a northern climate and complex geology makes for a unique, extremely fragmented, and particularly challenging environment in which to grow wine grapes. Were it not for the stubbornness, stoicism, and ingenuity of its inhabitants (as well as, perhaps, their determination not to let their southern neighbors in Burgundy get the upper hand), winemaking in this area would probably have been abandoned long before the name Champagne became familiar throughout the world.
La Champagne viticole covers a vast surface area comprising five départements (the French equivalent of a county) in three different regions: Marne, Haute-Marne, and Aube in the region of Champagne-Ardenne; Seine-et-Marne in the region of Île de France; and Aisne in the region of Picardy.6 It contains 320 towns and thousands of named vineyard sites (known as lieux-dits) extending over a huge surface area of over a hundred miles from north to south and over sixty miles from east to west. But of this extensive area, only 33,500 hectares (nearly 83,000 acres) under vine (represented by the splotches all over the map) comprise the Champagne AOC appellation.7
There are four main growing areas. In the north, the Marne, with its two commercial and administrative capitals of Reims and Épernay, is divided into three main sections: the Montagne de Reims, the Vallée de la Marne (also known as the Rivière), and the Côte des Blancs. The fourth main area, the Côte des Bar in the department of the Aube, consists of two parts, the Bar-sur-Aube and Bar-sur-Seine. Besides these four main sections, there are a number of satellite areas, including the Vallée de la Vesle, Vallée de l’Ardre, and the Massif de Saint-Thierry to the northwest of Reims; the Côte de Sézanne just south of the Côte des Blancs; Vitry-le-François off by itself to the southeast; and the towns of Les Riceys and Montgueux in the Aube.
While each area, each town, and indeed each vineyard has its own unique features, there are major differences between the north and the south: the Aube has a different geologic composition than the Marne, with significantly less chalk and more limestone and clay.8
Adding to the complexity of terroir is the fact that there are a number of different grape varieties.
Seven different grape varieties may legally be used to make Champagne; three of them—the white chardonnay, red meunier, and pinot noir9—are by far the most important and most widely planted. The four other permitted grapes, the so-called lost varieties—arbane, petit meslier, pinot blanc, and pinot gris—are quite obscure and today make up less than 0.3 percent of the vines planted.10
Over time certain areas have demonstrated themselves to be particularly well suited for certain grape varieties. The Montagne de Reims is most renowned for its pinot noir, the valley along the Marne River is ideal for meunier, and, as its name suggests, the Côte des Blancs is almost entirely devoted to white grapes, principally chardonnay.11 The Aube grows pinot noir and chardonnay as well as its local specialty, pinot blanc, though with its more southern position and limestone-clay soil, the character of the grapes is distinctly different from those of the Marne—riper, rounder, and darker in color, with a bit less mineral finesse.
In most areas, winemaking is a fairly straightforward process: grow the grapes, pick them when they’re ripe, crush, ferment (red grapes are typically macerated with the skins to extract color), and voilà!—wine. Not so in Champagne.
Ripening is not always easy in the volatile northern climate, and due to the diversity and expanse of the growing area, some subzones and some grape varieties do significantly better in some years than others.
Over centuries of grappling with the unpredictable forces of nature only to have the fruit of their labors destroyed by a flash hailstorm or other devastating act of God, winemakers in Champagne, unable to change the weather and unwilling to go anywhere else, eventually realized that the best, if not only, way to hedge their bets was to source different grape varieties from different areas throughout the zone.
Besides helping to ensure they would have something to make wine with, the superior qualities of one grape variety from a particular area in a given year helped compensate for the shortcomings of another. Given the great variations in quality and quantity from one year to the next, winemakers began to set aside some wine in excellent bountiful years to help make up for shortfalls in the inevitable poor ones.12 Thus, blending—an essential and fundamental aspect of the wine that developed into what we now know as Champagne—was born.
INTO THE VINEYARDS—VINTAGE 2013
“C’EST pas gagné cette année, non, pas du tout.” We haven’t won this year yet,1 says Eric in response to my casual question about how the vintage is shaping up. His low, scowling voice suggests a French version of Clint Eastwood on his way to a shoot-out.
We’re sitting in his Audi, which has been decked out like a mobile command post with his smartphone hooked into the car’s audio and digital display, radar detection device, and GPS navigation, crawling through morning traffic out of Reims, on our way to visit some of Krug’s suppliers and their vineyards. Eric’s been doing this for nearly a month now and has already logged over a thousand miles on his odometer.
“It’s mid-September,” he says. “Usually harvest is starting to wind down about now. This year we haven’t even started yet.”
Without taking his eyes off the road, he takes a square piece of chewing gum from the plastic receptacle in the cup holder and, popping it in his mouth, gives me a snapshot of the growing season thus far.
Heavy snows along with frequent subzero temperatures were recorded from mid-January to mid-March. The month of March was the coldest since 1971 and the cold hung on through the spring, except for a mini heat wave in mid-April that shot temperatures up to a balmy seventy-seven degrees Fahrenheit.
This burst of warmth had a positive effect on the vines, he tells me, causing bud break, the first step in the annual growing cycle of the grapes, which took place between the twenty-fourth and twenty-ninth of April, about two weeks later than usual. But the clement weather was short-lived.
While May began relatively warm, things quickly deteriorated into a burst of exceptional cold, as if winter was trying to make a comeback, with heavy, nearly continuous rain that dumped four and a half inches on Épernay and nearly eight on the Côte des Bar.
Luckily, spring frosts were relatively few, but warmer temperatures in June brought with them a series of violent thunderstorms accompanied by scattered hail that did substantial damage while strong winds broke branches and upset the fragile baby grape clusters.
Happily, the end of June segued into a warm, sunny, and mostly dry July, and, as if seizing their opportunity, the nascent clusters went quickly into flower and pollination. Conditions stayed favorable for the most part, with the exception of sporadic hailstorms, and the pinot noir and meunier began to change color around mid-August, a good two weeks later than what is normal for the region.2
“Et voilà. That’s it, up till now,” he concludes. “It’s like being on a roller coaster at Disneyland, except there you know how it will end: the ride stops, you get off, you go get an ice cream. Here we have no idea.”
Outside Reims we enter a traffic circle, and Eric accelerates quickly to prevent another car from entering in front of him. Eric likes driving and likes cars. He helped locate and supervise the acquisition and restoration of a stunning 1979 Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow II, and he has a vintage automobile of his own that he uses for relaxed cruises around Champagne. But now is no time for relaxation.
It’s the beginning of the third week of September and the grapes are only at 65–70 percent veraison, a term of French origin that refers to the color change of grapes from green to red (or golden yellow in the case of white grapes).
“That means we’re going to harvest pinot noir and meunier around mid-October,” Eric continues. “That hasn’t happened here since 1979. A late harvest can be very tricky. The light is different, less intense, so it’s harder for the grapes to mature properly. I suspect we’ll see many cases of clusters that haven’t ripened sufficiently or evenly. There’s a much greater risk of problems due to rain, like mildew, oidium fungus,3 and rot. Then there’s the human factor: it’s uncomfortable to pick in the rain and the vendangeurs [grape pickers] don’t work as well.”
What’s more, because of the wet spring, the grapes have already absorbed an excess of water. At a certain point they can’t take anymore and the skin explodes, which causes surrounding parts of the cluster to rot and attracts fruit flies that puncture the grapes. “It’s not very pretty,” says Eric. “And the meunier, with its soft skin, is especially vulnerable this year.
“It’s a very delicate moment,” he sums up, quickly accelerating along a straightaway to pass a slow-moving tractor. “Anything can happen.”
WHEN the ancient Romans first began colonizing the Champagne area around 300 AD, they quickly discovered that the thick vein of chalk beneath the soil made an excellent building material that was fairly easy to excavate, and excavate they did, leaving large conical caverns beneath the ground. (These underground caverns would turn out to be the perfect environment for the aging of Champagne, but that comes later.)
Once they had constructed their fortifications and settled in, the Romans started planting vineyards.4 Then they discovered something else: despite the difficulties caused by the northerly climate, the poor, chalky soil made exceptional wine.
With the fall of the Roman Empire and the rise of Christianity, winemaking shifted to the monasteries.5 Besides being necessary for the celebration of the Mass, wine was an important part of the monks’ diet as well as a source of income for monastic communities. Monasteries often received land as a gift and, more importantly, had the labor force to cultivate it and the knowledge to transform the grapes into wine. Winemaking thrived in the monasteries of northeastern France during the Middle Ages, and viticulture made significant advances. Most of the monks who orchestrated these advances remained anonymous; some of them did not.
In the eleventh century, the Cistercian Order was flourishing in Burgundy and the Cistercians were as renowned for the cultivation of grapes and the making of wine as they were for their pristine architectural style. In 1115, a Cistercian monk named Bernard—later Saint Bernard—was sent to the Aube in the southern part of Champagne to start a monastery, and he brought his wine savvy along with him, planting vineyards and building wine cellars to support the fledgling community. Thanks in part to the success of its winemaking activities, the monastery, which became known as Abbaye de Clairvaux (Clear Valley Abbey), thrived. The charismatic Bernard rose to great heights in the church and developed a reputation for his holy powers, which attracted so many new monks to the monastery that additional monasteries had to be built to hold them all. Trois-Fontaines Abbey was created near Châlons in 1118 and many other offshoot communities quickly followed, spreading sophisticated winemaking operations throughout the region.
Five hundred years later, another monk had an even greater impact on the development of winemaking in Champagne.
Pierre Pérignon was born to a well-to-do family in early 1639 in the Marne town of Sainte-Menehould and was baptized on January 5 of that year. His father held the respectable position of clerk for the local marshal and was a vineyard owner. At the age of seventeen, Pierre entered the Benedictine Abbey of Saint-Vanne in Verdun and shortly thereafter took his monastic orders.
Dom Pierre evidently distinguished himself during his years at Saint-Vanne because in 1668, at the age of twenty-nine, he was sent to the Abbey of Saint-Pierre in the town of Hautvillers as procurer, an important position that involved overseeing everything that came into and went out of the institution. The monastery, founded in 650, had been devastated during the French Wars of Religion, leaving it with only a handful of monks, crumbling buildings, and sparse resources, and the substantial holding of land it had acquired was in pitiful condition. Pérignon’s task was to help get the religious community back on its feet.
The first thing he did was to get the vineyards in order, instructing his fellow monks to prune the vines short and low to the ground in order to obtain high-quality grapes.6 In addition to the grapes from its own vineyards, the monastery also received grapes as tithes from landowners, and Pérignon insisted that vignerons supply only fruit of optimal quality. He was a stickler for harvesting at just the right moment and demanded that the picked grapes be brought immediately to the winery for pressing.
Dom Pérignon was one of the first on record to recognize the distinct differences of various micro-terroirs in Champagne and was one of the earliest advocates of conscientious blending. It was said he tasted the various lots of grapes as they arrived at the monastery (it was rumored he could tell exactly where they came from just by tasting them) and composed blends of complementary parcels to go into the press. Because at that time the wines of Champagne were prone to spoil quickly,7 Pérignon favored pinot noir over chardonnay and made major advances in the specialized technique of extracting white juice from red grapes. He also recognized the qualitative differences in the juice produced at various stages during the pressing process—he found the first free-run liquid too weak and the juice extracted by heavy pressure at the end too bitter—and developed sophisticated practices of grape pressing that formed the basis for what became standard procedure and remains so to this day.
Dom Pérignon died in 1715 and was buried in the church at Hautvillers, but the popular myth of him as the father of Champagne was invented much later. Actually, it was invented twice: In 1821, one of his successors at Hautvillers named Dom Groussard attributed the creation of Champagne to Pérignon in order to enhance the reputation of the struggling monastery. A hundred years after that, the image of the monk as the creator of Champagne was put forth yet again by market-savvy entrepreneurs at a company called Moët & Chandon who were getting ready to launch a new Champagne called Dom Pérignon.8 They were also probably the ones who were responsible for coming up with the now famous image of a blind monk who had just created sparkling wine exclaiming, “Brothers, come quickly! There are stars in my glass!”
In reality, Pérignon, like most other Champenois at that time, viewed bubbles as a flaw and did everything he could to prevent them.9 Oddly enough, it was his unrelenting efforts to get rid of the bubbles and his strict insistence on quality that led him to make major improvements in winemaking, which spread throughout the area and paved the way for the development of the Champagne we know today.
Another monk who made a significant contribution to the development of viticulture in Champagne was a contemporary of Pérignon named Jean Oudart, of the Saint-Pierre-aux-Monts Abbey in Châlons-sur-Marne, who managed the abbey’s vineyards and cellars in Pierry.10 As Saint-Pierre-aux-Monts and Hautvillers were sister abbeys, Oudart and Pérignon surely collaborated in their winemaking activities and Oudart surely adopted the practices devised by his illustrious colleague. What’s more, because Oudart was active nearly thirty years after Pérignon’s death (he died in 1742), he was part of the evolution of Champagne from a still wine into an intentionally sparkling one and thus carried Dom Pérignon’s legacy into the bubbly era. Oudart made significant contributions to the development of the Champagne method, and the wine of Pierry became quite well known.11 Unlike Dom Pérignon, however, Oudart was largely forgotten and stayed that way until his tomb was rediscovered in 1972 by Claude Taittinger, who was then director of the house of Taittinger.12
During the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, as Champenois continued to strive to refine their winemaking techniques and gradually come to terms with its natural inclination to sparkle, they also began to focus on solidifying the market for their wines, especially at the influential royal court of Paris. But they were not alone. The neighboring regions of Burgundy and Champagne—along with their respective noble rulers, the dukes of Burgundy and the counts of Champagne—had vied against one another for power and influence since at least 987, when Hugh Capet became king of France and instituted the Capetian dynasty, which would rule the country for more than three hundred years. And this competition naturally extended to the regions’ wines.
Burgundy and Champagne have always been among France’s most important wine-producing areas, and while the chief protagonists of both areas are the same—pinot noir and chardonnay—the wines they produce have always been quite different.
Lying to the south of Champagne, Burgundy has a slightly warmer and slightly less volatile climate, and the soil of its most important grape-growing area, the Cote d’Or, consists primarily of limestone and clay. These factors conspire to produce darker, riper, fuller-bodied wines, while those from Champagne’s cooler climate and predominantly loose, chalky soil typically result in lighter-bodied, slightly transparent wines with more pronounced mineral characteristics.
Both Burgundy and Champagne were close to Paris and along the path of the lucrative trade routes to the north, and their wines competed for the favor of the court, just as their respective noble families did. Royal preference in wine, as in most everything else, dictated fashion and had a trickle-down effect that impacted heavily on the image and success of the region that produced it.
On the advice of his doctor, Antoine Daquin, Louis XIV drank nothing but Champagne at every meal, medical advice with which the Sun King was more than happy to comply. But as the king got older, his ailments inevitably increased. In 1693, a doctor named Guy-Crescent Fagon conspired with the king’s mistress to undermine Daquin and get appointed as royal physician. Fagon attributed the king’s health problems to the unstable nature of the wine from Champagne and insisted that only Burgundy be poured at the royal table. While this certainly came as a big blow to the Champenois, when Louis XIV died in 1715, Dr. Fagon was disgraced and sent into exile, and the competition between the two regions, along with the polemical debate about the relative health benefits of burgundy versus Champagne, raged on.13
It should be remembered that the Champagne Louis XIV drank was not the bubbly beverage we know today but rather a still wine (albeit one that frequently had a slight fizz or pétillance). And on this playing field, even with Dr. Fagon out of the way, the Champenois were at a distinct disadvantage: their reds were paler and their whites more volatile than those of their southern neighbor. Eventually they came to the realization that the best (if not only) way to gain the upper hand was to play an entirely different game. It would, however, take them a while to figure out what the “other game” was, and the answer would come from a rather surprising place.
Champagne, Uncorked is a page-turner that offers up the wine's history, the characters who made it and, with appealing intimacy, those of the House of Krug from top to bottom. It is a must read for any Champagne lover and of course for Krugistes.'” Stephen Spurrier, consulting editor of Decanter
A fascinating account of the making of one of the world's great wines, and one that will thrill both novice and connoisseur alike. This is one of the best books to ever be written about champagne, and it should be on the reading list of anyone interested in wine.” Peter Liem, senior correspondent for Wine & Spirits and founder of Champagneguide.net
Alan Tardi's background as a restaurateur, chef, and wine writer makes him uniquely qualified to write this exceptional book on Champagne. Throughout, he integrates the history of Champagne, the making of Champagne, along with the production of Krug's Grande Cuvée, one of the world's greatest Champagnes. Alan is a truly gifted writer, not only teaching us, but weaving a story that is fascinating and illuminating.” Ed McCarthy, author of Champagne For Dummies
The fascinating story of the most loved wine.” The Washington Book Review
Tardi chronicles his time following a tense year in the life cycle of champagne, from harvest to bottling, at the renowned Krug house, expertly balancing his personal experiences with extensive historical research of the development and sophistication of champagne as well as the establishment of the Krug winery. Part memoir and part history, Tardi's love letter to champagne can inspire the reader to delve deeper into viticulture.” Booklist, Starred Review
Champagne, Uncorked packs an enormous amount of detail and complexity (historical, chemical, biological, emotional) into a rather small packagea fitting tribute to the nuance and complexity found in every glass of champagne Krug has produced A fascinating and detailed history.” Shelf Awareness
An unprecedented look into the process of crushing grapes, fermenting, tasting, blending, bottling, and aging that leads to the Krug Grande Cuvée, one of the most prestigious non-vintage champagnes on the market Compelling and interesting [Champagne, Uncorked] carries a wealth of information for a reader at any level of wine expertise.” Publishers Weekly
Knowledgeable and meticulously researched
[Tardi] takes the reader through the whole process, from picking and pressing the grapesthe vendangethrough the storing, tasting and blending of the wine to its bottling and aging
A colorful history of Champagne.” Moira Hodgson, Wall Street Journal
Sparkles with information about the beverage of celebration and specifically the making of Krug Grande Cuvee, a great Champagne from arguably the greatest producer. History, harvesting, tasting, blending, marketing, presented with easy going style. You'll want to make a pilgrimage to Le Mesnil-sur-Oger.” Peter Gianotti, Newsday
In Tardi's fabulous new book, he explains the history of the Champagne region and why the land produces the grapes it does while weaving together a rich cultural overview of the sparkling elixir's wild rise to becoming the world's symbol of celebration. When people try [Krug] for the first time, they talk about it effusively like love-struck Romeos. Don't believe me? Try it for yourself. But first read Tardi's book.” San Antonio Express-News
A book as effervescent and fascinating as the product it describes. Readers gain insight into a world as complex as the blending of a fine bottle of Champagne.” Galveston County Daily News
- On Sale
- May 24, 2016
- Page Count
- 296 pages