There are similarities between the two men responsible for the two Champagnes I like best, and the first and most obvious is personality.
But finding a single word or phrase to describe the demeanors of Remi Krug and Christian Bizot is difficult. At first, I felt the perfect word was gasconade, which emanates from the ancient French district of Gascony and which, like the people of that region, refers to a bit of arrogance.
But arrogant these men are not. Perhaps smug comes closer, though that implies a kind of distance, and neither are they distant or remote. Both merely exude confidence that they make the world's most perfect sparkling wines, exceeding all others. This fairly flows from their faces as would bubbles from a Champagne flute.
What you see, then, is a paternal pride at the accomplishments of their regimes.
The fact is that Champagne Krug of Reims and Champagne J. Bollinger of Ay represent more than just my personal favorite houses in the world of bubbly. They also represent, historically, two of the most esteemed properties in the world of wine, and, remarkably, have remained so despite economic pressures and demands of a fickle and changing marketplace.
It is a marketplace that has elevated Dom Perignon, that fine and full-bodied sparkling wine of the house of Moet and Chandon, to pre-eminence among many of the world's wine consumers. "DP," as some call Dom Perignon, commands a high price and today is made in large quantities to supply demand worldwide.
Yet, when I first tasted Krug and Bollinger, the moments became etched as a moment in memory.
Taste of Tradition
British author Cyril Ray in the introduction to his excellent book, "Bollinger, Tradition of a Champagne Family" wrote:
"Almost . . . invariably, if I asked the maker or agent of one of the great Champagnes what wine he would drink if he did not drink one of his own, the answer would be either Krug or Bollinger. . . . These two small but immensely distinguished houses (are) universally recognized as producing wine of quite outstanding character by sticking stubbornly to traditional methods of vinification and by paying the highest prices for grapes--by always, in short, putting quality first, whatever the cost, in money, in time, in labor, or in anxieties."
So, clearly, a touch of smugness is to be expected if these two men joyfully note, without arrogance but with deft accuracy, that their best wines are the best sparkling wines made in the world.
The fact is, they usually are.
Another fact, unfortunately, is that the wines of these two masterful producers are not cheap. The least expensive wine Krug offers is $70 a bottle. Bollinger offers a wine (Special Cuvee) at a more moderate $22.
Even those with no understanding of great Champagne will like the house style of Krug and Bollinger. Both produce wines that exhibit the rich, full-bodied taste that only long-term aging in the Champagne cellar can produce, along with lingering flavors of maturity and depth that typify Champagne at its best.
At the upper price levels, Krug and Bollinger make wines priced with Dom Perignon. And to me, these are utterly magnificent wines that consistently rate well above DP in terms of pure enjoyment.
"People remember the first time they ever drank Krug," said Remi Krug the other day, and I recall my first experience, a day in 1977, well enough. That first whiff was intriguing, that first sip a revelation.
I immediately tried to compare it with Dom Perignon or Roederer's famed Cristal, which until then were my standards for great Champagne, and I realized this was a whole new experience.
Recently, Bizot, president of Bollinger since 1978, mused over the comparison so many people make with the Champagnes that are accorded the biggest headlines and those of his own lesser-known house: "DP and Cristal, they are drunk by the trendy people, those who want to prove their social status. Our R.D. is consumed by wine lovers. These are usually not merely wealthy people who want to show off.
"I do not mean to say that Dom Perignon and Cristal are not good. They are very good, but our R.D. is very special and simply not as well known."
The R.D. stands for Recently Disgorged, meaning that the sediment left after completion of the wine's second fermentation, carried on inside the bottle, is removed only after the wine has aged for many years.
It is this sort of wine that gives Dom Perignon a run for its money. The recently released 1979 Bollinger R.D., which sells for about $80, is one of those remarkable experiences that shows off the house style of racy, spicy fruit and deep, complex flavors to perfection.
Krug, which is now sold in a proprietary thin-necked bottle, also offers a house style that stamps it as unique and special. I was particularly impressed with the Krug Grande Cuvee, the wine without the vintage date that sells for $70.