THE GOCHISO GOURMET: The Five Kings of Champagne


During the first week of September, Food & Wine magazine, Chef Roy Yamaguchi and Chef Alan Wong hosted the second annual Hawai‘i Food & Wine Festival at multiple locations in Honolulu. The four-day event featured numerous dinners, cocktail seminars and educational tours highlighting locally grown products. Since Food & Wine magazine was one of the hosts, several master sommeliers offered several wine tastings.

Way back in April when tickets first went on sale, I knew I had to attend the Krug Champagne tasting, which included the NV Brut, NV Rose, the 1995, 1996, 1998 and 2000 vintages, plus the 1998 Clos du Mesnil and the 1996 Clos d’Ambonnay. Of course, my enthusiasm in attending the tasting was purely altruistic in nature, since several local charities were the beneficiaries of ticket sales, including the Hawaii Agricultural Foundation, the Culinary Institute of the Pacific, Leeward Community College, Paepae o He‘eia and Papahana Kuaola. OK, I can’t lie. The only thing on my mind was Krug Champagne; that the event benefitted charity made it cooler.

The House of Krug
Started in 1843 by Joseph Krug, the vision was to create the ultimate pleasure in Champagne that transcended individual vintages and was available every year. While all Champagne enthusiasts won’t name Krug as their favorite, most tasters can identify it in blind tastings. From the barrel fermentation of wine up to 15 years old, which imparts just a hint of oak to the use of only designated vintages — 10 to 15 different vintages — in their NV or multi-vintage Cuvee, to the extended period on the lees (expended yeast), Krug has a characteristic richness that you find in their Grande Cuvee and Rose.

The Lineup. photo by Ryan Tatsumoto
The Lineup. photo by Ryan Tatsumoto

The Distinguished Panel
The tasting panel included master sommeliers Richard Betts, formerly of the Little Nell Hotel in Aspen, Colo., and the Betts & Scholl wine label; Joseph Spellman of Justin Vineyards and Winery; Hawai‘i’s own, Roberto Viernes of American Wine and Spirits; along with Seth Box, director of education at Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy, which owns Krug.

As the host Master Sommelier, Viernes introduced the panel, then immediately stated for the record that if he had to list the top wines he’s ever sampled in his career, Krug Champagne would occupy several spaces on that list. And although the Halekulani hotel graciously provided “spit cups” in case you didn’t want to swallow each Krug Champagne, Betts immediately chimed in that “this is a Krug tasting, we don’t need these” and tossed his “spit cup” off of his table.

The Tasting
I’ve included the lowest price I found on the Internet in the United States. My rating system is on a five-point scale, and I personally would purchase any wine with a 4/5 rating, barring any cost prohibitive wines; most of these fall into that category.

NV Grande Cuvee ($179, 4/5)
As Box stated, tastings at the Krug house usually end with the NV, since it’s the most complex Champagne to produce. He likened it to visiting a nursery with 100 infants and accurately predicting that one infant would grow up to be a physician, while another would be the head of Malaysia, and a third would be in jail by the time they were 17 years old. AND, you had to predict how well everyone would play with each other. Such is the predicament of blending multiple lots of wine for a classic house Champagne taste.

Freshly baked bread on the nose, with ripe stone fruit and citrus peel that expands on the palate with a seamless flow and a medium long finish.

NV Rose ($250, 4.75/5)
It was first released in 1983 after the younger Krug generation spent years trying to convince the older generation to produce a Rose Champagne. Supposedly, after a blind tasting in the winery, the ruling Krug generation told the younger generation that if Krug released a Rose Champagne, it would taste like this sample, which actually was the experimental Krug Rose. Complexity wise, combine the complexity of the Grand Cuvee, then add some still Pinot Noir to the mix.

Light ripe cherry and orange peel on the nose, with a lush mouth filling palate with a touch of mineral on the back end and new flavor sensations that emerge with each sip with a long finish.

1995 ($194, 4.5/5)
This was one of the few samples of Krug that I had actually tasted beforehand, as I had purchased a bottle for my 50th celebration. Slightly toasted brioche and citrus curd on the nose, with toast and rich citrus on the full rich palate with a very long finish.

2000 ($200, 4.5/5)
This is the most recent vintage released by Krug, due to the extended aging on the lees, plus several more years of final bottle aging before release. Most other Champagne houses have already released their 2004 vintage.

It has a very perfumed nose of citrus, brioche and a touch of mineral. It is rich on the palate, with a seamless flow and a medium long finish. It’s drinkable now, but definitely hasn’t hit that sweet spot of consumption.

1998 ($219, 4.8/5)
This is one of the few Krug Champagnes that was produced predominantly with chardonnay. It has a very perfumed nose of citron and a touch of mandarin, freshly baked brioche and mineral, with loads of finesse on the palate and a very long finish. This is my personal favorite to drink right now, though it still has room to improve with additional aging.

1998 Clos du Mesnil
($680, 4.5/5)
It is produced only from grapes from the vaunted Clos du Mesnil vineyard — arguably the greatest source of chardonnay grapes worldwide.
Rich citrus curd and toasted brioche on the nose, with a touch of minerality. There’s an initial toastiness on the palate, which gives way to citrus curd, leading to a long finish.

1996 ($319, 3.75/5)
This is the latest of the 95-plus point Champagne vintages. The previous 95-plus point vintages include the 1990 and 1985.
With citrus on the nose and brioche on the palate and a medium long finish this Champagne is definitely years away — probably 5 to 10 — from hitting its sweet spot of consumption, hence the sub 4-point score. If you uncork a bottle for me in this timeframe, my personal rating will probably improve, so I’ll be waiting for the call.

1996 Clos d’Ambonnay
($1,900, 4.5/5)
This is probably the most expensive wine straight out of the winery. Mainly due to basic economics, the purely Pinot Noir vineyards of the Clos d’Ambonnay are only about a third of the acreage of the Clos du Mesnil (and look at how expensive that Champagne is). Ripe semi-dried cherry and candied citrus on the nose, with hints of mineral then expanding on the palate with each sip. Unfortunately, at this point, it’s still very young, at least 5 to 10 years from its sweet spot, with prominent acid on the finish. Give me a call in five to 10 years when you uncork your bottle and it may end up close to a 5 out of 5 rating!

Final Words
If you add the lowest price of each Champagne, you’ll see that this dream eight-pack would run just south of $4,000. Of course, if you stumbled upon these Champagnes in your neck of the woods, the cost wouldn’t undoubtedly be a lot higher. During the tasting, they poured about 2 ounce servings (and the Mrs. and I finished all of our samples), which translates to about $328 worth of Champagne. Considering that the tickets were $200 per person, I felt that I fully received my money’s worth and more, especially since I won’t be purchasing any of these bottles any time soon, unless Lotto allows ticket sales to Hawai‘i residents over the Internet.

The Gochiso Gourmet is a column on food, wine and healthy eating. Ryan Tatsumoto is a graduate of both the Univ. of Hawai‘i and UC San Francisco. He is a clinical pharmacist during the day and a budding chef/recipe developer/wine taster at night. He writes from Kane‘ohe, HI and can be reached at

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