‘It talks to your senses’: Olivier Krug on Champagne and music

The Krug director talks to Adam Lechmere about soundtracked wine flights, working with big-name musicians and commissioning compositions that express a cuvée

Words by Adam Lechmere

olivier krug in the vineyard
(Photo: Jenny Zarins)

Before I met Olivier Krug I would never have associated Champagne Krug with legendary rockers the Clash. But my first conversation with the house’s director and sixth-generation member of the Krug dynasty, some years ago, turned quickly to music and to punk in particular. The quietly-spoken Champenois loves the bands of that noisy, sweaty, peculiarly British era. After one conversation (we were on the same Eurostar) he DM’d me a couple of selfies, with Clash guitarist and founder Mick Jones, and a second with a more contemporary name, Bobby Gillespie of Primal Scream.

The last time we met was over Zoom, for a wide-ranging discussion about Champagne Krug and music. It’s a very different vibe from our relaxed train chat. Krug is standing at a marble table with an unopened bottle of Grande Cuvée and two glasses. There’s a metallic gold wall behind him and he’s between two enormous speakers. It feels like an audience with a minor Pharaoh, albeit a music-loving one – Krug reaches down and grabs a guitar – ‘I’ve bought this in with me in case you want a song.’

The idea of winemaker-as-composer or conductor is a well-worn trope but Krug takes it to a different level. With the Krug Echoes project the house invites a composer to immerse themselves in the Krug ethos – ‘to translate their perception of the new edition of Krug Grande Cuvée into Music.’ The latest to take part was none other than the Japanese composer and polymath Ryuichi Sakamoto. He has scored films for Bernardo Bertolucci and Pedro Almodóvar, Oliver Stone and Alejandro González Iñárritu, and his collaborators include Iggy Pop and David Bowie among many, many others. One of his first films was the extraordinary ‘Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence’, in which Sakamoto acted alongside Bowie, as well as wrote the score.

Krug stresses that he’s not interested in bagging stars: ‘It’s not about that. It’s about the right way of working’

He’s prolific and experimental. His 1983 album ‘Futurista’ referenced the Italian Futurist movement and included samples of the voice of Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, the visionary and eccentric foodie who tried to get pasta banned in Tuscany – so a perfect fit for Krug?

‘We all remember Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence, don’t we? Sakamoto San is a part of our lives. When you make contact with Sakamoto, you don’t break it. It was a natural thing.’ There’s also the important consideration that Japan is Krug’s biggest market, as well as being a country close to Olivier Krug’s heart (he started his career there, working for his father Henri Krug in the early ‘90s).

The première of Sakamoto’s three-part symphony ‘Suite for Krug in 2008’ took place in London’s Alexandra Palace last year and attracted the likes of Gillespie and Janet Jackson. Sceptics might suggest that association with world-famous composers does the brand no harm at all, but Krug stresses that he’s not interested in bagging stars. ‘It’s not about that. It’s about the right way of working.’ He politely rejects all the big names – Kraftwerk, Nick Cave, David Byrne – I throw at him as possible collaborators.

composer sakamoto at piano with krug bottles
Ryuichi Sakamoto working on a composition inspired by Krug

For Krug, the point of the music-and-wine combination is educational. The only way to appreciate wine is through the senses: likewise music. ‘If we bring someone who knows very little about music to an outstanding music moment, that person will feel something. You might even be moved by your music coming from a style that you don’t like. Because it talks to your senses.’ This is reinforced by the idea that chef de cave Julie Cavil ‘auditions’ 400 wines for her final blend, ‘like a conductor before an orchestral performance.’

He’s carried this idea to its logical extreme by asking the French sound laboratory IRCAM (the Institute for Research and Coordination in Acoustics and Music) and the composer Roque Rivas to set 10 different parcels of Champagne to music. You can listen online, or – as Krug prefers – in the ‘360-degree ambisonic environment’ of the Krug tasting room. It’s really rather lovely: Pinot Noir from Les Champs Muets in Ambonnay begins with deep bass notes which build to higher, more ethereal sounds; Chardonnay from Les Jutées in Mesnil-sur-Oger is all trembling, high treble notes. It connects, in some indefinable way, to the wines themselves. It’s what Krug describes as ‘this connection between taste and music, and the vocabulary we have created to describe music and taste.’

olivier krug juggling champagne
(Photo: Jenny Zarins)

You get the feeling he’s only scratched the surface. Krug has initiated so many different projects, with musicians as varied as Jools Holland and Neneh Cherry, Sakamoto, Rivas, a troupe of German electronic pioneers, and the cellist Richard Bamping, playing in halls from the Brooklyn Museum to ‘a big warehouse in Japan’ to Ally Pally. There are celebrity events like the Krug Encounters (Holland played at one and Cherry at another), and the quasi-scientific stuff – as he says, it’s practically impossible to monitor how the brain reacts to music, especially when you add Champagne to the mix.

Krug claims that at one of his first events, in Hong Kong ten years ago, ‘there were Chinese Krug lovers bursting into tears’. Whether that’s true or not (maybe they’d just been presented with the bill), his endeavours to get to the heart of the matter – to just what it is that is so compelling about Champagne – are admirable.

And Champagne, of course, is what it’s all about. Krug never loses sight of the fact that he’s in the entertainment business. ‘If you say, “this is a blend of 195 wines with no malolactic” people will fall asleep. The people who know, don’t need any explanation, but 90 per cent of the time we’re speaking to people who have no clue.’

Olivier Krug’s mission is to use music to bridge the gap between the concept and the reality of Champagne, to explore the myriad ways that both can transport you. And if he meets his musical heroes, and sells a vast amount of Champagne into the bargain, well, so much the better.