Champagnes Pol Roger, Krug, Giraud & Coulon

These producer profiles and tasting notes accompany our in-depth feature on Champagne. Please also see The future for vintage Champagne


xClaude Giraud has vineyards in the district of Aÿ, and produces two labels: Champagne Francois Hemart and Champagne Henri Giraud. Francois Hemart is a non-vintage range, with all fruit coming from Grand Cru villages in Aÿ, whilst wines under the Giraud label are only released as vintage wines, again with all fruit from the best vineyard sites in Aÿ. The vintage wine sells for upwards of 100 euros per bottle, putting it slap-bang in prestige cuvée territory.

Claude tells me that Aÿ is known for low acidity, on average yielding only around 4gm/l of total acidity. Yet despite this, Claude’s wines do go through malolactic, and he harvests late. He pays great attention to the ‘natural balance’ of the harvest, and finds that carefully managed S02 levels are one of the keys to the ageability of his wines.

xIn Champagne there are around 150 houses that vinify in wooden barrels. Claude started to use barrels in the early 80s, after researching how Champagne was made in previous centuries. He found that the local Forest of Argonne had been the source of much of the village’s wood, but the forest having not been managed for decades, he bought 2nd hand Vosges barrels from Meursault.

Now, Claude has worked with other growers in the village and has managed to revive a barrel industry in the Argonne Forest, and is proud of these barrels in his cellars. The Henri Giraud wines spend 12 months in wood. He explains that his 10 hectares of vineyard is on a south-facing slopes with only 20cm of topsoil on 200 metres of chalk. His youngest vineyard is 30 years old, and he farms with minimum use of chemicals.
He believes the reason he can make a vintage every year is because of the quality of his vineyards, and the care he takes of them. Certainly a tasting of Vin Clair from oak was extraordinary: a round, full Chardonnay of 12% ABV, as rich and mouthfilling as a white Burgundy.

See current stockists of Henri Giraud on wine-searcher.

Francois Hemart Brut Grand Cru
Briefly, Giraud’s non-vintage is worth a mention as it is a terrific Champagne with fat, lemony fruit and real structure, whilst the two vintages tasted showed the ripeness and richness of Giraud’s vineyards and his use of oak.

Champagne Henri Giraud Grand Cru Fut de Chêne 1998
70% Pinot Noir, 30% Chardonnay. Quite a bold lemony colour with green reflections. Very fine nose, with just little lime zest notes and almost tropical hints of waxy citrus fruit and some ripe cherry nuances. There are hints of dried apricot in a subtle, stylish nose. In the mouth the mousse is quite fine and races across the tongue, with very crisp fruit – lots of lemon and lime that is zesty and racy. There’s breadth and a mouthfilling weight, but it stays very focused and structured. 91.

Champagne Henri Giraud Grand Cru Fut de Chêne 1993
Darker, burnished golden colour. More mature, truffle and undergrowth notes with a toffeed element and quite ripe, cabbagy notes not unlike a ripe white Burgundy. Low carbonation, with a gentley prickly mousse, and again a very nicely lively palate. Racy orange notes, and loads of zippy lemon fruit and acidity. Lovely boiled sweet edges of sour plum and green apple, and fine length here. Just a hint of sweet fruited and buttery richness, but stays razor sharp in the finish. Very fine. 93.

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Roger Coulon

xEric and Isabelle Coulon run a successful and sizeable business. Their annual production of 90,000 bottles compares to an annual production at a house like Pol Roger of 1.5 million bottles. At their immaculate cellars in the village of Vrigny, Rogers shows me a map of his vineyards, with nine hectares spread across five different villages. Around 40% of his plantings are of Pinot Meunier and he is fiercely ready to defend this variety, which he says is more than capable of the highest quality, especially with his old vines (average age of 38 years). His is a massal selection, with no ‘clones’ used, which he insists preserves a character for these wines that his been in his family for eight generations.

Like Claude Giraud, the Coulon’s practice Lutte Raisonée, ‘reasoned agriculture’, where minimal herbicides and pesticides are used, and instead techniques like ‘sexual confusion’ are employed to limit the breeding of pests. Eric Coulon also uses only wild yeasts in fermentation, which he says “bring to the wine all their subtlety, allowing the soil to ‘express’ itself.” Wooden barrels are also used to age some of reserve wines.

Coulon’s wines are very much like the man: he is an exuberant and passionate character, who opens each bottle with a ferocious pop, and pours each glass with gusto. The wines are vivacious and lively.

Champagne Grande Reserve
This is a fine NV, somewhat in the rich, brioche style of Gosset’s Grand Reserve, though sharing the fruity and direct character of the vintage wines, it lacks the quite steely character at their core.

Roger Coulon Champagne Vintage 2002
At time of writing it is the 2000 that is on sale. This wine will be shipped in Spring 2008, and is not yet disgorged. It is a blanc de noirs, made with 50% each of Pinot Meunier and Pinot Noir, the Pinot Meunier almost 60 years old. Exuberantly bubbly, with a powerful stream of tiny bubbles streaming through a light golden wine, flecked with emerald green. Fine vinous nose, with lemony notes and a small biscuity background. Some spice and herbal nuances add interest. On the palate it is very fruity, with small nuances of luscious, almost tropical pineapple fruit playing against a lemony, firm, pithy acidity. This is a hugely vivacious wine, with plenty of racy elegance. 91.

Roger Coulon Champagne Vintage 2000
80% Chardonnay with 20% Pinot Meunier. Bold golden yellow colour. As always with this house, exuberantly bubbly. He chardonnay performed very well this year, whilst the Pinot Meunier was unexceptional. A touch of buttery vegetal quality on the nose here, with really quite lush fruit. There’s a touch of rotted orange and rancid butter that gives quite complex notes to this wine. In the mouth it is quite rich and full, still with a very lively, racy mousse, but with that slightly sour apple and sour orangy fruit quality. This is a less linear, focused style perhaps, but has plenty of mouthfilling fruit and good balance. 90.

Roger Coulon Champagne Vintage 1999
80% Chardonnay with 20% Pinot Meunier. Very pale lemony gold colour – paler than the 2000 at this stage. Very appealing, vinous nose, with a vanilla and ripe orchard fruit character, and no sign of any oxidation or yeasty notes. A very clean style of wine, which at this stage is tight and a touch closed. On the palate the mousse is quite crisp and a touch aggressive (but this was served slightly too cold). Fine, tight, very steely character to this wine, with plenty of lemony fruit. There’s a sherbetty brightness to this wine, and the acidity is terrifically vibrant, but I feel the too cold serving temperature is making it feel rather too aggressive in this tasting.

Roger Coulon Champagne Vintage 1990
Pale to medium gold colour. Lovely nose, with gentle yeastiness and notes of spices and coffee coming through. Biscuity, with some vanilla and little floral scents. Plenty of fruit, with peach down and still some lemony freshness. On the palate the generosity fills out, with a very racy, steely character. Crisp mousse, terrific fruit here, and the maturity really allows charm and fullness to come through that for me complements the firm structured, very steely character. Served from Magnum. 90.

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Pol Roger

Pol Roger is one of the best-loved names in Champagne. The house has had a long and particular association with the UK, perhaps immortalised by Sir Winston Churchill, who was a life-long devotee of the house.

I met with Pol Roger’s charming and welcoming Chief Executive Patrice Noyelle, who has steered this house since 1997 along with Christian Pol Roger and Hubert de Billy of the owning families. Patrice spent many years running the house of Mommessin in Burgundy, and he sees his job as blending the best of Pol Roger’s illustrious past, with a more modern thinking. This extends from a subtle but telling re-working of Pol Roger’s packaging, to the massive investment in technology in the cellars.

xPol Roger remains a family house, owned jointly by the Pol Roger and de Billy families, and is of a moderate size, producing around 1.5 million bottles annually. Their cellars in Epernay are a wonderful labyrinth of slumbering bottles stretching under the city streets, yet up above the 19th century buildings contain a gleaming array of purpose-built tanks and vinification technology that speaks of recent, and considerable investment.

Amongst other innovations is a brand new wine, Pol Roger zero dosage cuvée. From the annual production of 1.5 million bottles, 300,000 are vintage wines: Pol Roger Vintage, Chardonnay Vintage, Rosé Vintage and Cuvée Winston Churchill.

Patrice Noyelle says they plan to double production of the latter wine if, but only if, quality can be maintained. I’m sure it is not only Patrice’s Burgundian sensibilities that make this house so committed to vintage wines, nor so committed to terroir, the house owning 50% of its vineyard requirements. These wines – and perhaps particularly the Chardonnay Blanc des Blancs – are clearly conceived as fine wines, to be laid down until ready, and it was on these wines that my tasting was concentrated.

The wines

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Pol Roger Vintage Blanc de Blanc 1998
Lovely streaming bubbles. Lovely pale lemon colour tinged with light gold and emerald. Hugely aromatic, fragrant nose, with plenty of sherbetty lemon aromas at this stage, but also a fine biscuity creaminess and an underlying herbal, lightly nettly note. On the palate the mousse is opulent yet racy, and the mouth is filled with a lovely weight of broad, generous, almost peachy fruit that is very sweet and full, yet the thrust and precision of the lemony fruit really cuts and supports, giving this terrific length. Beautiful shimmering quality. 92

Pol Roger Vintage Blanc de Blanc 1996
Very bright, distinctive yellow/green. Lovely stream of very steady, miniscule bubbles. Fantastically mineral, almost flinty nose, with A Pouilly-Fuissé quality, lots of herbal notes and plenty of crunchy orchard fruits. A little toasty quality emerging. On the palate the mousse is fine and racy, and a streak of fine, zesty, lemony fruit races across the tongue. It broadens on the mid palate, with an orangey quality. Fabulous wine, tingling with nervosity and with wonderful structure into an elegant, endless finish. 95

Pol Roger Vintage Blanc de Blanc 1995
A rich yellow colour, verging on gold, but still with a tinge of emerald. Fine streaming bubbles, and a nose that his some of the 1996’s minerality and almost flinty notes, but more closed, showing less fruit than the 1996 and a tighter, very sinewy personality. The palate by contrast seems quite broad. The mousse is generous and quite opulent – though still racy and tongue-tingling – and the fat, lemony fruit floods across the palate. There are nutty, quite toasty notes emerging here, but it is a baby, with that tightly structured acidity giving a lemon and grapefruit tang into a long, beautifully poised finish. 94

Pol Roger Vintage Blanc de Blanc 1993
Quite a deep buttercup yellow, but with a distinctly emerald hue. Very tiny bubbles, rising gently and evenly. Plenty of flinty, slightly smoky and schisty qualities, with a little more honey coming through and a little more fat about it. There’s a bruised pear fruit quality showing just the beginnings of maturity, but this is a baby still. On the palate the mousse is quite full and generous, with a huge sweep of fat lemony and lemon-balm fruit, with a creamy background to it, and little complex suggestions of basil and herbs. Terrific acidity here, in a fabulous wine that is decisive without being aggressive and has lovely balance. 94

Pol Roger Vintage Blanc de Blanc 1990
The 1990 still has a distinct emerald hue to rich buttercup yellow. A big, fast stream of miniscule bubbles rises at the centre. The flinty, smoky character that typifies these wines is still there, but it is softened by a rich, Burgundian ripe fruit quality, with nettles and a vegetal quality and a backbone of fine lemon and white fruit. The palate hits with an initially sweet rush of really ripe Chardonnay, with a softening gently persistent mousse. There’s a broadening effect on the mid-palate, with nuances of peach and nectarine, but then waxy lemon and kaffir lime leaf notes add such complexity and tension. The smokiness is there too, and fabulous lemony acidity that cajoles and caresses this wine into a terrifically long finish. 96

Pol Roger Vintage Blanc de Blanc 1988
Still has a brilliant green tinge to its yellow colour. Still a steady but small stream of miniscule bubbles. Very nicely maturing nose, with a lovely toffeed note beginning to emerge. Very fine apple and pear fruit here, with plenty of ripeness and a herbal tinge to the fruit. Gorgeous palate, with plenty of fruit that is sample and generous, but as is characteristic here, all constrained and made elegant by pinpoint acidity that runs like a steel core through this wine. Perhaps lacks the ultimate complexity of the 1990, but delightful and has more time yet. 93/94.

Pol Roger Vintage Blanc de Blanc 1986
Still a green colour to a deepening yellow/gold. Very small bubbles, gently effervescing. An almost Riesling like waxy lime leaf and lemon rind quality, and a mineral smoky note. A little caramel and nutty note comes through. On the palate again there is a little suggestion of Riesling, with that waxiness coming through. The mousse is very gentle, with a seamless quality, leading to a plump, full, fantastically opulent and rich wine that is extraordinarily vinous. 94.

Pol Roger Vintage 1914
What an extraordinary opportunity this was, to taste a wine that, according to Patrice was “Harvested to the sound of cannon fire, but drunk to the sound of victory trumpets.” This is not a Blanc des Blancs, but a 50/50 blend of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Deep, rich golden colour, slightly hazy, with perhaps a tiny effervescent still discernable. The nose has a fabulously rich opulence, with honey and buttery mint aromas, and a sherried background showing some toffee and nuttiness and touch of wild mushroom. On the palate it is oily and buttery in texture, with plenty of sweetness (this may well have been a rich style), with little notes of Cognac and nuts, and a lovely freshness still. There is still harmony here, with really quite a pure character into the finish, perhaps just showing a little oxidised edge. What a brilliant experience to taste this wine. 95.

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My previous meetings with representatives of the house of Krug had been with Rémi Krug, and never his brother Henri. The urbane Rémi was always the more natural ambassador and front man for the house, whilst winemaker Henri stayed firmly in the background. Now, well into their sixties, both have taken a back seat and I was greeted in Krug’s business-like offices in Reims by Henri’s son Olivier, who has taken over the reins as head of this house.Olivier, who has recently turned 40, bounds into the room and leaps (elegantly) over a couple of low tables to reach the water that had been left on the sideboard by an assistant moments before. Clearly this is an athletic and youthful new broom in the corridors of Krug power.

Olivier Krug tells me that he is the “old man” of the senior team at Krug: most are in their thirties. Olivier has worked in the family business for 17 years, including a two-year stint as Krug’s man in Japan, a language he speaks fluently. Now his duties include Director of Production, as well as being in charge of relationships with Krug’s family of growers, a job which he says is his “main challenge,” as access to the highest quality fruit becomes increasingly competitive. Olivier’s father and uncle still sit on the tasting committee, as the Krug family has always done, responsible for blending decisions.

Although he knows my visit has a specific vintage focus, Olivier stresses that Krug’s NV Grande Cuvée is the essence of Krug, with the current disgorgement featuring reserve wines stretching back to 1990.

Indeed, the release of a vintage-dated Krug is still comparatively rare, the current vintage on the market being the 1995 and the one before that, 1990. Olivier says “Krug releases a vintage not just when the year is very good, but when it is ‘exceptional’ or ‘different’. There was no Krug 1983, ’86 or ’93 for example: all very good years, but not ‘unique enough’ for Krug.

“With vintage Krug there are no rules on grapes, proportions or style. We will choose fruit from the villages that perform best. For example, 1981 remains our only Chardonnay-dominated vintage, because the Chardonnay was uniquely good. In 1976 we had 20% of Meunier, for exactly the same reason.”

Olivier states that is “always looking to find a balance between Champagne excitement and fine wine finesse.” He has just installed 72 new small vats, to allow the vinification of more small, separate batches, and although the house is famous for its fermentation in oak, the first three years of a barrel’s life are used to ferment ‘taille’ (press wine rather than free-run juice) which is sold off and never used. Olivier says “really, Krug hates wood and tannin.”

Krug’s ‘no rules’ policy on vineyards and blends is of course the antitheses of a many grower-houses, where the same plots of land are responsible for each vintage. But this array of beautiful wines does say something about the year, like the remarkable trio of 1998 – 1990. But it perhaps says more about a recognisable ‘house style’, which I guess is the most crucial aspect for Krug.

The wines

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To keep Olivier happy, my tasting of eight of their extraordinary vintage wines begins with a tasting of the latest release of the Grande Cuvée – “after all,” he says, “you are tasting around 20 vintages in this wine.”

Krug Grand Cuvee
Very delicate pale green colour, with little golden hints. Beautifully fresh aromatics, with green apple, a touch of green fig, but a lithe, creamy quality with plenty of lemony vibrancy. The palate has a very fine, crisp, vibrant mousse, with lots of life and richness, masses of lime like fruit and that very delicately nutty and spicy background. All sort so small exotic spice notes and lovely harmony and length. 93

Krug Vintage 1995
Quite a pale green/yellow colour. Vinous nose, with quite Burgundian character of ripe orchard fruits and lemon, and a herbal, nicely vegetal background. There is a nutty, pistachio note too, but this is mostly about the fruit. On the palate this is lively and bright, with a very crisp mousse and at the moment plenty of zesty lemony fruit. This is deliciously lively and fruity, with a very fine, ripe apple and pear quality, but the fine mineral and lemony structure of the acidity adds plenty of precision. The tension and interplay between the bright fruit, lovely acid structure and little creamy background hints of richness is fabulous. 95

Krug Vintage 1990
Light to medium gold/straw colour. Extremely vinous nose, with fine vegetal aromas, reminiscent of ripe pear and pear skins, lovely little overripe melon and rotted orange notes add plenty of complexity and interest. The palate has an immediate fruit sweetness, running crisply through the fine, elegant mousse. There’s a richness here that is almost peachy, with nectarine sweetness of fruit, but all tensioned by a nervosity of lemon zest and mineral acidity. Lovely balance here, with plenty of fruit and plenty of structure, and still seems young. 95

Krug Vintage 1989
Pale lemony gold colour. The nose seems more developed than the 1988 (tasted before the 1989 in this tasting). There’s a hint of mushroomy, truffly character, with plenty of bruised pear and apple fruit. Lovely finesse again here and seems a little more open that the 88 or 90. The mouth has scintillating, racy fruit and acidity, with the mousse crisp and racy, though softer than some here. The palate is full of maturing Champagne character with lots of herbal notes, apple and some almondy notes. Beautiful, open Champagne, perhaps without quite the structure of the 88 and bright fruit of 1990, but just beautiful stuff. 94

Krug Vintage 1988
Emerald highlights to a medium golden colour. Tiny streaming bubbles. Orangy fruit dominates, with a touched of rotted orange character, and plenty of bruised pear fruit. There’s a developing biscuity presence here, with a hint of fat, but fine, fine still tight character. On the palate this is lean and mineral at first, with a precise, crisp mousse and lots of vivacity. There’s a zestiness and fabulous acidity, with a grapefruit and lemon pithy dryness and beautiful finesse here. Gorgeous wine, with scintillating balance and huge, huge length as it begins to open. A more intellectual style of Krug vintage perhaps, but superb. 96

Krug Collection Vintage 1985
More colour here, with a deeper golden colour but still hints of emerald. Beautifully small bubbles. Lovely mature quality here, with plenty of truffle and mushroomy notes and just a suggestion of Sherry. There’s a touch of chocolate too, and some nutty notes adding layers of interest. Bruised pear and apply fruit and a touch of preserved lemon. There’s even a hint of something minty here in a very complex aromatic profile. The mousse is gentle and relatively broad for Krug, with lovely ripe fruit flavours with a certain creaminess. There is such lovely depth here, with endless layers of nutty, mature notes, but still great freshness. Acidity here has lost its iron grip perhaps, but it still supports, freshens and lengthens beautifully. 94

Krug Vintage 1982
Quite a solid medium yellow/gold colour. Extraordinary difference here, with a nose that on first impression is like a young, heavily wooded white Burgundy. There is coffee and toast, and yet an apple and lemony freshness. Quite exotic nuances begin to emerge, like green fig and some sesame seed nuttiness. The palate has a lively, crisp mousse and plenty of bright citrussy, orangy and mandarin fruitiness. This has lovely freshness on the palate, with a really racy, almost Mosel like combination between a crisp, racy, mineral and lemon linear acidity and gentle pear and apple fruitiness. The little toasty, nutty character builds into something more dominant in the finish. Intriguing stuff and delicious. Perhaps doesn’t have the interplaying layers of complexity of a wine like the 85, 88 or 95, but brilliant – in all sense of the word. 95

Krug Collection Vintage 1981
Very pale lemony colour, with a vinous nose. Plenty of gently waxy, nectarine fruit quality. A lovely background vegetal, truffly note, but really quite fresh. There’s some figgy, lemon zest notes, but all very subtle and subdued compared to the 1982, but full of finesse. The palate it rounded and flooded with quite a fat lemony fruit. This seems like a much simpler wine, with beautiful fruit quality. It seems positively one-dimensional compared to many here, though there is undoubtedly a wonderful purity and beauty. Nutty almond and hazelnut toasty notes begin to come through, and the acidity is lovely. Beautiful wine to drink and thoroughly enjoy now though. 93

Krug Collection Vintage 1971
Quite a medium-deep, burnished gold colour. Very tiny bubbles still rising intermittently. Clearly some age here (served blind). Fabulous old Champagne nose. Wonderful waxy parcel string and old brown paper notes. Terrifically nutty, with walnut and hazelnut, chestnut puree notes. Coffee and chocolaty notes really start to build. At the core still something of a fat lemony, waxy character. On the palate an immediate burst of fruit sweetness. The palate is beautifully harmonious, with gorgeous roundness of fruit, that broad coffee and nutty spice background. There is a beautifully rounded but bright orangy acidity with a real mandarin orange note and lots of finesse here. Similar to the 1982 in some ways, but has a little plumpness and comfortable, settled character of fruit yet still marvellous freshness. A beautiful wine and wine experience. 94.

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