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Champagne comes with a rare fizzbomb


Philip White tastes the newly released Krug Champagne Vintage 2004 – a wine that’ll have hardcore fans shimmering with delight.

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Olivier Krug had barely got back to vintage in Reims, Champagne, after releasing the new Krug Champagne Vintage 2004 in London, and there was Peter Gago AC and the Penfolds Magill Estate people pouring one in Adelaide.

It was a generous thank-you to a few privileged souls who had foregone the Royal Adelaide Wine Show tasting to respond to Treasury’s invitation to Magill to taste the new Penfolds Collection.

On rocket week.

The Magill Estate restaurant people pride themselves on offering bottles of nearly 100 small Champagne producers barely known (yet) in Adelaide; scoring this baby was like having the King or the Pope or somebody in the room to visit them.

Encouragement, you know.

It wasn’t all that long back Mr and Mrs Prince of Wales dropped in there for a schlück, but they drank only Grange, poor dears.

Hardcore Krugistes will shimmer with delight at this 2004: it’s a finer, tighter, meaner drink than other recent vintages. It seems Olivier was so excited that it had finally begun to sing that he simply had to get it out and on the market: the wine was disgorged way back in 2014.

It is 39 per cent Chardonnay, 37 per cent Pinot noir and 24 per cent Pinot meunier.

One could say it’s the unusual Chardonnay dominance of the year that’s beginning to give the wine some fru-fru and frisson, but while the Chardonnay produced a generous crop in 2004 the full assemblage story will be a much more complex business than Chardonnay alone.

While I said “sing” I didn’t mean to suggest you should expect the full mezzo soprano Dame Joan thing. So far this is more your Girl From Ipanema slinking by, the bright mirage shimmer of the ocean behind, blurring her sandy, slightly breathless edges.

For now.

Only once you get to look properly into those eyes do you realise the steely resolve and determination that will keep this show on track for what Olivier says will be a good 30 years.

Julie Cavil, the Krug oenologist, calls this bright demeanour “luminous freshness”.

That’ll almost do me. But I reckon it’ll be so wild and bright you could add the possibility of that husky voice growing all silvery and shattering glasses in a decade. Empty ones, anyway.

Krug’s Clos du Mesnil Chardonnay vineyard.

While all this kerfuffle and vintage and everything being coincident was tricky enough, Olivier dropped a rare fizzbomb in the water by suggesting too much of Champagne was picked too late this year.

His candid criticism was a rare enough event for any Champenoise, but coming from such a mighty house whose wine usually makes all the speeches, Olivier’s opinion sure rattled some parochial French rafters. And he wasn’t talking about the management of the huge houses being responsible, or the Champagne committee which makes the annual vintage date announcement: he blamed village politics.

And business. Local parsimony. While the Comité Champagne had set a start date of August 26, which was very early due to unseasonal heat then humidity, Olivier told The Drinks Business that “the responsibility should lie with decision-makers among the grower-community in each village, who are tempted to wait until September for the start of the harvest to save on paperwork”.

“Usually there are people with a bigger voice than others who decide the start date in the village; it is not coming from the houses,” he said. “And these big muscle people said … ‘begin on Monday 4 September’ because they didn’t want pickers to start in August because then they have to make two payrolls for thousands of pickers … to pay a salary for the work in August and then another for September.”

Ha. On my way to the Penfolds tasting, a Persian friend, a cab driver, had asked how it was possible that using the same common plant, some winemakers charged hundreds of dollars for a bottle of their wine, while others charged only four or five. It was confronting, but refreshing to be asked such a simple question.

My answer was about laziness, disease, greed, stupidity and such, as opposed to conservative and responsible garden husbandry and the respect of quality and provenance.

Pity I’d not really been fully aware of Olivier’s thesis until after I’d tasted the wine and taken my boggled brain home to do some proper research. Around the digital chat alleys his harvest criticism was a bigger deal than the launch of one of the world’s truly great wines of recent decades.

If you read my in-tray after I’d written whatever I have describing recent less-than-ideal years in Australia, you’d think it was impossible for two-thirds of an industry to make a dumb mistake about something as straightforward as a picking date. They give me hell if I say they left it too long. What would I know.

This is Champagne. And it’s simple.

“Some might say start on 1 September, but, because it was a Friday, they waited until Monday,” Olivier told London. “By delaying the beginning picking to 4 September, it meant that the harvesters could avoid working over two weekends.”

One can only forecast that when these 2017 village wines emerge, there’ll be some riper fizz in that special big fridge at Magill. It’s been a tricky year, rain and botrytis following a blistering summer. Krug sensibly started early, picking Chardonnay in Clos du Mesnil when the grapes offered alcohols between 10.2 and 10.3 per cent and natural acidity of 7.5 to 8 grams per litre.

It’s another “Chardonnay year”.

But Bacchus be damned if we can afford to wait as long as the exquisite 2004 has taken.

In fact, Bacchus can be damned that I can’t possibly afford the hundreds that sublime luxury will cost once it more formally lands on our shelves.

Speaking of impossible-to-afford, I shall write of the Penfolds Collection tasting, just by the way, once their embargo is lifted at 1am Thursday.

Fair dinkum.

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