£3,000 a bottle? Yum.

(by peter)

Though you might not realise it from first appearances, I’ve been led down a fair few dodgy alleyways and corridors in my time.

Some were notably dead-ends. Others were mildly diverting. And some, very rare ones, led to pots of gold. Today’s dodgy corridor was decidedly one of the latter.

Today was lunch in the Krug Room at The Dorchester. With Olivier Krug. Tasting Krug – the headline event being the launch of the Clos d’Ambonnay 1996.

This is a wine that makes headlines all by itself. This is partly down to the price: actually something of a grey area but quoted at round €1,500-1,600 per bottle RRP. If you want it in more tangible format, you can pick up a bottle in the Dorchester bar for a cool £3,000. (The 1995 is on at £4,200.)

It’s also because of the way it was first released. The debut 1995 vintage was drip fed to a very select few, including celebrities, who presumably were falling over themselves to offload tens of thousands of Euros for a piece of the magic.

And then there’s the usual wine stuff – tiny production quantities (Krug are reticent to disclose actual figures but it’s around 3,500 bottles – ie minuscule for Champagne), single site (again, rare for Champagne, especially when it’s only 0.68 hectares), fermentation by parcel in 28 barrels and long ageing (releasing the 1996 now in 2010 isn’t a bad effort).

And, of course, the fact the whole project was kept a secret for nearly 15 years (it was codenamed “ABC” by the Krugs) – not bad for a company that’s part of LVMH, one of the world’s biggest multinational luxury goods companies.

So is it all worth the hype?

This is where we come back to the dodgy corridor.

Said corridor was the one that thick-set Mohammed led us down, which led alarmingly swiftly from the plush reception area of the Dorchester into the bowels of the kitchens.

This isn’t normal, I thought, as we breezed through a door, on the back of which was a full-length mirror with the words “THIS IS HOW OUR CUSTOMERS SEE YOU” emblazoned on it. (Now that’s what I call a service ethic.)

We filed past the chef’s canteen, past the employees of the month, past the serene mise en place until we arrived at a roped-off area next to the gleaming stainless steel surfaces of the working kitchen. There was a clue: a silver bucket featuring several bottles of Krug Grande Cuvée.

We had arrived.

This, to our surprise, was where the Krug room could be found. Not in the kitchen itself – that would be taking the chef’s table concept a touch too far, and I’m sure The Dorchester’s executive chef Henry Bosi would have booted us out in a jiffy for being namby-pamby wine geeks – but there, discreetly off to the side, a glass-walled room just oozing chic and privilege.

The Krug room. One of just four in the world (the others being in Hong Kong, Berlin and, wonderfully, Vegas).

We stood outside, deferentially, letting the rich millefeuille layers of Krug Grand Cuvée wash over our palates and fuel our repartee. Olivier explained how, for Krug, the essence of complexity lies in the amount of wines used in the final blend of each finished champagne, the reason why they ferment all their wines in small 205-litre barrels, and hence the allure of Grande Cuvée, which can comprise anything up to 30-50% of reserve wines, some dating back 20 years.

“I like to say it takes 20 years to make our Grande Cuvée,” smiles Olivier.

The substantial Henry Brosi ushered us into the room with his thick Germanic brogue. When we sat down, Olivier gave us an informal presentation of the Clos d’Ambonnay, part of which you can witness on the video below:

It soon became clear this was to be a gastronomic tour de force.

Henry Brosi’s cooking was impeccable. Nowhere was this more evident than in the magnificent pairing of roast calf’s sweetbread with white Alba truffle risotto to match the Clos d’Ambonnay 1996. Richness met power melded with grace and tantalising, effortless delight. Until that moment I firmly believed anyone who tried to convince you that Champagne made a match for meat-based dishes was deluded or a Champagne producer. Now, I believe.

Here’s Henry introducing the complexities of this particular match:

The pairing of Krug 1998 with turbot with ginger and parsley crust and Cromer crab lasagne was similarly inspired.

Many good chefs try and fail to design a tasting menu to complement a range of Champagnes. Brosi is different, partly because he clearly drinks (or tastes, at the very least) a lot of Krug. And the painstaking thought behind the conception of the dishes was clear to see, and to taste, because the flavours worked so well together.

At no point did I find myself desperately hankering after a glass of red, which is usually what happens during an all-Champagne lunch. This was different. Was it the wines? Or was it the food? It was a combination of both – the way all the best meals are.

As a brief postscript before the tasting notes, it was surprising given the context (ie launching the 1996) that Olivier was openly ambivalent about the 1996 vintage itself, which he clearly doesn’t rate as highly as many of his champenois peers, noting its almost excessive richness and describing it as a “difficult” year, in contrast to the “vintage of the century” superlatives that have been bandied about. (“Sometimes in Champagne we can be a bit bordelais,” smirked Olivier.) He also agreed with the opinion that some of the 1996 champagnes are ageing atypically and losing balance.

Personally, being something of a closet hedonist, I welcomed the blend of almost aggressive richness and taut acidity. But I also recognise it may not be to everyone’s taste.

Krug Grande Cuvée (£95-110, Sainsbury’s, Majestic, Berry Bros & Rudd, Harrods, Oddbins) – rich and notably exotic in style, the kind of Champagne that flaunts both its obvious charms and its hidden depths at the same time in an utterly beguiling way. Layered, deep, complex and harmonious. Exciting and self-assured: settled, generous, shows largesse and tenacity. Very long. Delicious. 9/10

Krug 1998 (£130-150, Farr Vintners, Berry Bros & Rudd, Fortnum & Mason) – served after the Clos d’Ambonnay, which was a little unfair (but we wouldn’t have had it any other way – there would have been a stampede otherwise). One of only four vintage wines made by Krug in the 1990s (the others being 90, 95 and 96), this shows vanilla pod and honey on the nose, with brioche and apple rind. Smoky dried apricot. The palate is fine and deep, refreshing and finely structured, with very vibrant acidity. A wine that plays out its allures more in a minor key than the Clos d’Ambonnay, or previous Krug Vintages I’ve tried. Still young. 8.5/10

Krug Clos d’Ambonnay 1996 (€1,500-1,600, Farr Vintners and Bordeaux Index by the case until April 2010, thereafter by the bottle from selected retailers, which may include Berry Bros & Rudd) – pale gold colour (appropriately given the price) with super fine bubbles. The nose exhibits rich golden honeycomb notes, red fruit bread and brioche, with a buttery edge but also a perceptible chalky mineral undertow. Vanilla pod hints. Savoury and saline. The palate is full, rich, demanding attention – very Krug. It’s also very elegant and refined, though, both in texture and structure: under all the sumptuous richness there’s a serious, invigorating core of chalky acidity and noble backbone. It’s deep and complex, mouth-filling and utterly satisfying, a wine for both the hedonist and the true amateur. Beguiling golden limpid depths. Suave bubbles. The Corton-Charlemagne of Champagnes? Its richness may not be to everyone’s taste – and this character is exacerbated by the character of the vintage – but it’s utterly thrilling nonetheless. Some, including Olivier, think it needs time to become more harmonious. But I’d enjoy this now. For the thrill of it. 9.5/10