Under my byline

Light head, liquid shoulders

Posted in Diet, Living, Profiles by Rrishi on 24 November 2007

Krug chief Panos Sarantopoulos on how the Grande Cuvée comes into being

“I tell my son Romanos — he’s seven years old — to run every day, to develop his lungs, so that when he grows up he will be strong and healthy,” says Panos Sarantopoulos, president and CEO of Krug, the world-renowned champagne marque.

Sarantopoulos is a big man — physically big, well over six feet tall — and he looms up on the other side of the low table, which is loaded with rich tandoori foods and scattered with flutes of gently fizzing Krug Grande Cuvée champagne.

It’s a peculiar combination: fine champagne, heavy, spicy food, and a giant Greek steering the fortunes of a small and aristocratic French family firm. But the champagne gives a touch of lightness and three-dimensional sweetness to the high-calorie fare; and Sarantopoulos is friendly, personable and very civilised. The champagne has to work hard against the overpowering flavours of Mughlai, but Sarantopoulos will probably find it easy to get Indians sold on his quality wine.

There’s something about Europeans who make their living from and take creative joy in fine food and drink, prepared laboriously. They seem to belong to another time altogether, when everything worth having was made by craftsmen with massive investments of time and quality local raw materials. They take for granted the sensual pleasure of tastes, textures, smells and companionship. These days, one has to be either very rural or very rich to indulge in such guilt-free physical encounters. Modern mass production, even of “ordinary” luxury goods, is just that: mass.

Krug’s Grande Cuvée is far from ordinary. In the first place, it is not mass-produced. Sarantopoulos says Krug produces just 0.2 per cent of all the champagne made in Champagne. By law, only grapes grown in that region of France can go into any beverage calling itself a “champagne”. So Krug, even though it has small volumes and grows some of its own raw material, finds itself in direct competition with other champagne houses when it comes to snagging the best grapes every season.

What makes it trickier for them is their long-established procedure of taking only the best. Sarantopoulos calls this their “parcel area approach”, in which Krug’s purchasers check every vineyard and buy only the very best grapes from the best-located portions of land. One imagines this must infuriate the poor growers, but, says the CEO, the system works on “courtesy and relationships”. For instance, “We have been working for 60 years with Tomas, or Georges or Jean, and his parents and grandparents. He will be able to say with pride, ‘My grapes are in Krug’s Grande Cuvée.’” Only in France!

The fluid from the pressed grapes then goes into oak casks — which makes Krug the lone holdout in an industry that has switched to steel vats. Grapes from different locations are never mixed. The wines sit in the casks for six years. When it’s time, seven expert tasters tap this library of flavours to “assemble” the perfect, recognisably Krug champagne blend. They rely on memory as well as experience — a member of the Krug family, currently in its sixth generation, is always on the panel. (For the 2007 Grande Cuvée, 92 wines were blended.)

The oak casks, says Sarantopoulos, are what give the champagne its “shoulders”. Just as he wants his son to run and breathe hard and grow himself a broad chest, his champagne has to “breathe” through the oak to give it longer life.

Finally, it must be served with flair. It’s not a mere champagne, he says. “If you’ve put all this energy into making it, you call it by its name: ‘Messieurs, votre bouteille de Krug!’”

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