Krug: Clos du Mesnil 1979-1998

1988 Krug Clos du Mesnil100
1989 Krug Clos du Mesnil96
1990 Krug Clos du Mesnil97
1992 Krug Clos du Mesnil96
1979 Krug Clos du Mesnil99
1980 Krug Clos du Mesnil94
1981 Krug Clos du Mesnil?
1982 Krug Clos du Mesnil94
1995 Krug Clos du Mesnil95
1996 Krug Clos du Mesnil100
1998 Krug Clos du Mesnil96+
1983 Krug Clos du Mesnil94
1985 Krug Clos du Mesnil93
1986 Krug Clos du Mesnil (magnum)      93
1996 Krug Vintage98
1996 Krug Clos d’Ambonnay97+
1995 Krug Clos d’Ambonnay98

This complete vertical of Krug’s Clos du Mesnil was one of the most amazing tastings I have ever attended. The event was organized by my New York tasting group and was important enough to attract Olivier Krug, who added his invaluable commentary to the wines. I am not sure Krug himself had ever tasted so many vintages side by side in one setting. The wines were tasted in thematic flights rather than in strict chronological order, which is how I have listed them here. The 1979, 1988 and 1996 form the triumvirate of the truly eternal, epic Clos du Mesnils, but there were many, many fabulous wines in this tasting. We finished with a look at the estate’s other 1996s, plus the 1995 Clos d’Ambonnay, a wine that continues to grow in bottle.

Few estates in Champagne are more closely identified with the art of blending than Krug. It is not unusual for Krug to serve their multi-vintage Grande Cuvée – the winery’s largest production and least expensive wine – after all of the heavy weights in their lineup. Krug’s Vintage Champagne is also built on the concept of blending. I have seen the house’s records of purchased grapes going back to the 1940s, and it is amazing to observe, even then, the number of villages from which Krug sourced fruit. For those reasons, it was quite a surprise when Krug released their first single-vineyard Champagne, the 1979 Clos du Mesnil, in 1986. The project had been so secret and closely held that only a few insiders knew of the existence of the wine prior to its commercial release. Since then, Clos du Mesnil has rightly established itself as one of the world’s most iconic wines.

The Krug family purchased Clos du Mesnil in 1971. Krug had sourced fruit from other vineyards in Mesnil for years, but had never even known of the existence of the Clos until the property was put up for sale, which is hard to imagine in today’s world of satellite imaging and technology. The early vintages from Clos du Mesnil were used for the Grande Cuvée. Like all wines at Krug, the parcels from Clos du Mesnil were vinified and aged separately. Over the course of the years, Krug noticed that the wines from the Clos were unique, and in 1979 bottled a trial version of Clos du Mesnil as an experiment. It was the first single-vineyard wine Krug had ever produced. The wine was released in 1986 and the rest, as they say, is history. Since then Clos du Mesnil has become the crown jewel in the estate’s lineup. It may get some competition from the more recently introduced Clos d’Ambonnay, which is the Pinot Noir version of Clos du Mesnil.

Clos du Mesnil measures 1.84 hectares and is farmed and vinified in five or six separate parcels, some of which may be excluded from the final assemblage. Part of what makes the Clos unique is the walls themselves, which act to preserve heat and protect the vineyard from the elements, never a bad thing in a cold region like Champagne. Clos du Mesnil is maintained as a separate winemaking facility that handles all of the wines made in the Clos, plus other wines from the village of Mesnil that are vinified by Krug. Oenologist Julie Cavil oversees the small-scaled, artisan level production at the winery.

Krug only releases Clos du Mesnil in extraordinary years. Recently the estate made the decision not to release the 1999 after it had been fully aged and disgorged. The labels were printed, and the wine was ready to go, but at the last minute Krug decided the vintage was not worthy of their rightly lofty standard of quality. Based on the bottle I tasted a few months ago, I have to agree. The next Clos du Mesnil is the 2000, which is scheduled to be released in November 2011.

You know you are in for a special night when the first wine served is Krug’s 1988 Clos du Mesnil. Where do I start? Everything about the wine is sensational from start to finish. An endless array of crushed rocks, minerals and bright citrus emerges from this intensely pointed, chiseled Champagne. The elegance, though, is really in the texture. The wine has acquired an element of vinosity over the years, with the tiniest and finest of bubbles and simply extraordinary finesse. It is a wine of mind-blowing purity and breathtaking elegance. Simply put, wine does not get better than this. The 1988 Clos du Mesnil is an eternal wine. The 1989 Clos du Mesnil, from a warmer year, makes for a fascinating contrast to the cool inward 1988. It is a bigger, fatter wine that caresses the palate with layers of expansive, generous fruit. Sweet scents of caramel, hazelnuts and honey add complexity to the fruit. Despite its burnished, textured fruit, the 1989 remains light on its feet and superbly well-balanced but it is at, or close to, peak. To put things in perspective, the 1989 was harvested at the beginning of September – the 7th and 8th to be exact – while the 1988 was harvested between September 30th and October 2nd. The 1990 Clos du Mesnil captures the warmth and opulence of the year, yet preserves fabulous minerality and freshness. It is a beautifully balanced, harmonious wine that delivers on so many levels. There is plenty here to satisfy both the intellectual and purely hedonistic senses. Layers of fruit build effortlessly to the seamless, glorious finish. This is a dazzling Clos du Mesnil. The 1992 Clos du Mesnil require quite a bit of air to open up. It is an unusual Clos du Mesnil marked by elements of botrytis that lend it an exotic air. There is plenty of power and the reserve to age well for many more years.

The 1979 Krug Clos du Mesnil is one of my all-time favorites. It boasts mind-blowing intensity in its dazzling layers of mineral-infused fruit. At times the 1979 comes across as intensely pointed and focused, but it changes constantly in the glass, showing elements of richness and creaminess as well. There is fabulous depth and purity in the 1979, not to mention an insanely beautiful, palate-staining finish. The 1979 was picked on October 9th, one of the latest harvests on record for the Clos. The 1980 Clos du Mesnil had to follow the 1979, not exactly an easy task. Yet the wine shows beautifully. The 1980 is not a blockbuster Clos du Mesnil, but is rather a wine that impresses for its sense of balance, harmony and roundness. Subtle notes of caramel and roasted nuts linger on the finish. While most of the epic wines in this tasting are still young, the 1980 is an excellent choice for drinking today.

The 1982 Clos du Mesnil is another pretty wine that is drinking beautifully today. It is the product of a vintage that produced a Clos du Mesnil with higher alcohol and lower acidity than is normally the case. To put that into perspective, the 1982 clocks in at just 6.5% acidity as compared to 9.45% for the 1988, which represents the other end of the spectrum. Still, it is amazing how much chalkiness and pure minerality comes through regardless. The 1982 is a pretty, complete Clos du Mesnil that shows the riper, open style of wine that this site is capable of in hotter years. Sadly, the 1981 Clos du Mesnil was corked. As unfortunate as that was, better the 1981 than the 1979, 1988 or 1996!

We then made the jump so a set of younger wines that had been opened in advance. The 1995 Clos du Mesnil shows pretty notes of autumn leaves, truffles and citrus. It is a rather fat, texturally rich vintage that probably won’t age forever, but rather a wine that offers rewarding drinking at a relatively young stage by Clos du Mesnil standards. I suppose the 1996 Clos du Mesnil can’t get any better by my standards. It never fails to leave me speechless. The 1996  is a modern-day 1988 or 1979, which is to say a classic among classics; in fact the 1996 may very well be the greatest Clos du Mesnil period. Smoke, bright fruit, crushed rocks and smoke inform the kaleidoscopic, breathtaking finish. The 1998 Clos du Mesnil keeps getting better and better each time I taste it. This bottle was dazzling. The 1998 is probably never going to be one of the icons here, but it is stunningly beautiful just the same. The finesse of the mousse and the persistence, especially on the finish, are pure Mesnil.

The wines from the mid-1980s were very good, but not as viscerally thrilling as some of the very top vintages. I am not sure why these wines were served last; I imagine some of us wanted to get to the legendary vintages right away! It didn’t much matter, though, as the small group setting gave everyone a chance to revisit their favorite vintages. The 1983 is a beautiful, soft Clos du Mesnil endowed with layers of soft, expressive fruit. It is a nicely balanced, harmonious Clos du Mesnil that is not going to improve much from here, but that is drinking very well today. The 1985 Clos du Mesnil is soft, delicate and forward. On its own, I am sure it would be fabulous, but this is a tough set of wines to follow. The 1985 is another vintage that needs to be enjoyed sooner rather than later. The 1986 Clos du Mesnil, from magnum, is an understated wine that has been very well preserved by the large format. Here, too, I would choose to drink any remaining bottles in the near future.

This flight of 1996s provided plenty of context. The 1996 Krug Vintage remains one of the greatest Champagnes ever made. It is also far less expensive than either the Clos du Mesnil or Clos d’Ambonnay but equally as delicious. This bottle is stratospheric, with layers of explosive fruit that flow effortlessly to the multi-dimensional, captivating finish. It is another eternal Champagne from Krug. The 1996 Clos d’Ambonnay is very similar to the Clos du Mesnil in this vintage. It has the same piercing purity and minerality with the heft of the Pinot still to fully emerge. Hints of menthol, spices and berries wrap around the eternal finish. Clos d’Ambonnay, from a single, walled-in parcel in the village of Ambonnay, is in many ways the red equivalent of Clos du Mesnil. The 1995 Clos d’Ambonnay has only recently become expressive. It emerges from the glass with endless layers of fruit, vibrant minerality and a big, building finish. The 1995 is a riper, more generous Ambonnay than the 1996. It will be fascinating to follow both vintages over the coming years and decades.

—Antonio Galloni