Never mind soaring oil prices and the credit crunch. The champagne business has been effervescent lately, and the bar for high-end bubbly just got higher. After more than a decade of secrecy, Champagne Krug has uncorked an extraordinary new sparkler, the 1995 Krug Clos d'Ambonnay. Only 3,000 bottles were produced; retailing from between $3,000 and $7,000 per bottle, it is the most expensive champagne in the world. And I recently became one of the very few who will ever taste it.
As I hold up a sparkling glass of Krug's latest creation in the walled vineyard that produced it just over half a hectare of perfectly manicured Pinot Noir grape vines in the village of Ambonnay I try not to do the math that makes this the costliest tipple I am ever likely to have on a Tuesday afternoon. Determined not to be dazzled by its price and rarity, I take a sniff and a sip. The bright golden elixir smells at first like almond blossoms, but the aroma quickly ripens like dark fruit. An exceptionally fine mousse of bubbles seems to linger forever on the tongue.
The wine was harvested back in 1995 and first fermented slowly in small oak barrels, instead of the more commonly used stainless-steel vats. This gives it tremendous depth of character and toasty brioche notes, yet the fruit is surprisingly fresh and youthful a flavor oxymoron that has become Krug's signature style.
Although the wine's taste is a revelation, the price also reflects the character of its production: it's 100% Pinot Noir, made from a single harvest from a single tiny vineyard. Most champagnes are traditionally blends of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier grapes harvested from different vineyards (there are over 270,000 individual plots in Champagne) in different years.
Recently, the terroir concept that a wine should express the specific soil, microclimate and cultural traditions that produced it has become more widespread in the Champagne region. In exceptionally good years, some houses are now producing vintage wines profiling a single year's harvest, or single-vineyard wines made from a particularly outstanding parcel. But not without controversy: at the Champagne Information Bureau's annual tasting in London in March, some winemakers wrote off the single-vintage mono-parcel champagnes as a ploy to market novelties as luxuries.
Even Olivier Krug, director of the house, admits that the single-vineyard Clos d'Ambonnay is one of "the simplest Krug wines to produce." As far as I am concerned, though, it is simply stunning, and I find myself thinking of every possible excuse to make a toast. Here's to Tuesday afternoons.