The melody of a flute

At an unusual dinner in Penang, Olivier Krug walks guests through the pairing of his family’s eponymous champagne with music.

Olivier Krug, sixth-generation descendant of the founding family (Photo: Krug) 

If music be the food of love, play on,” said Duke Orsino in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. Though he was referring to his love for Countess Olivia, he could have swapped the woman for champagne and found himself in an unorthodox, but no less thrilling, experience.

Neuroscientists from Oxford University’s Crossmodal Research Laboratory have discovered that sound can communicate a vast range of information. If hearing is given sole — and therefore heightened — focus, it could even discern the difference between hot and cold beverages being poured into a glass. Every temperature has a different pitch and elements such as carbonation and viscosity allowed the lab’s participants to aurally distinguish hot liquids, champagne and sparkling water.

An employee at champagne house Krug happened to be in the audience when this research was presented at a conference a few years ago. He returned to work excited by its possible applications and invited Olivier Krug, sixth-generation descendant of the founding family, along with other senior managers, to a dinner.

“We went in thinking we were about to have a traditional Krug event,” recalls Olivier. “Instead, he had invited a solo violinist from the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra to play and poured us flutes of Clos du Mesnil, which is the purest expression of Krug. He explained the links between sound and taste, and asked us to sip the champagne, close our eyes and follow the music and taste. I could immediately see what he meant, I felt the purity of both champagne and music. That day, we saw the light and knew exactly what we had to do. There was not one person in the room who did not understand what was in the glass, and that was fantastic.”

Since then, Olivier has been travelling the world to showcase the pairing of champagne with music. Various genres invoke different experiences with the same champagne. “I sometimes like to play with the same champagne served in two glasses with two pieces of music,” he continues. “Classical music tends to emphasise the purity and length of the champagne — you taste it more at the back of your throat. Jazz is more physical; it draws your attention to the fruit, its richness. I personally prefer contemporary music but I find classical evokes some of the most beautiful pairing experiences. It raises the champagne to a much higher dimension.”

Krug: “I was learning about champagne and was told the cellar master is like a conductor, every year taking some instruments and musicians to play the music of Krug." (Photo: Krug)

It’s not so far-fetched an idea — musical descriptors are often used in the articulation of wines and champagnes, after all. We speak about symphonies of bouquets and describe tasting notes as crystal clear and harmonious. A certain musicality has always wound its way around Krug, and while growing up, Olivier himself had heard — without realising its later implications — a musical metaphor about the way champagne is produced. “I was learning about champagne and was told the cellar master is like a conductor, every year taking some instruments and musicians to play the music of Krug,” he relates.

Olivier is speaking from across the table at Maple Palace Restaurant in George Town, Penang, where he is about to host a music pairing dinner. This might be the first time the exquisite Chinese cuisine at this renowned restaurant comes in third on the priority list, with four vintages and their musical accompaniments dominating the agenda. A room full of guests would sit down to a six-course dinner later that evening and find themselves enjoying a surreal perspective of champagne.

The Krug Grande Cuvée 166 carries a starting platter of barbecued suckling piglet, crispy roasted Peking duck, soft shell crab salad and prawn balls coated with almonds. Amid the contrasting textures, the toasted grains, spices and fruit of the aperitif opens the palate. Then the music begins playing, something contemporary and performed with wind instruments. The brilliant and round sound of the trumpet comes through and a sense of anticipation builds. The champagne seems to expand in body, becomes fuller, in an almost visceral reaction on the palate. Anticipation heightens as flutes are refilled and the second course, double-boiled fish maw soup with cordyceps and Japanese dried scallop, is served. This is liquid gold cupped in a coconut shell, a blend of brine and tropical sweetness boiled to smooth intensity.



After a day at sea with Krug Grande Cuvée #KrugxFish (6/6)

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After the 2004 vintage is poured to accompany the braised South African abalone with Brazil mushrooms, a songstress takes to the stage and her powerful vocals, smooth and jazzy, calls out an additional luminosity in the already radiant bubbly. This extra sparkle in turn lends itself to uplifting the earthiness of the mushrooms and the abalone’s bite. In short, the drink, and consequently, the dish, tastes distinctly different at the end of the course, with music the catalyst of this change.

Alas, the venue’s popularity then becomes its undoing as the chatter outside our private room reaches a crescendo and overwhelms the music. It remains so the rest of the night, but the reciprocal relationship of champagne and music has been sufficiently proven, the complex notes of the two speaking to each other.

“It completely alters the perception of what you taste,” says Olivier. “I remember my first experience vividly — Clos du Mesnil to a piece by Isaac Stern — and it was mind-blowing. I understand how people can be intimidated by the idea. Krug is such a sophisticated champagne and music can be complicated in theory, so people worry they might not understand it. But they will, even if they can’t articulate it, because both talk to your senses. When my daughter was eight years old, I was driving her somewhere when she asked me what music was playing on the radio. I asked her why she wanted to know, and she said, ‘Because I can hear all the instruments playing.’ She was by no means a musician but she instinctively appreciated it.”

Oliver still honours the spirit with which his ancestor Joseph Krug created this most prestigious of maisons, described as “the Rolls-Royce of champagne”. He defines a great champagne as one that is rich and intense with a strong backbone of finesse and freshness that should remain intact long after the swallow. “It must also have very fine bubbles,” he says. “They should explode on the palate and allow the flavours to develop. I truly believe Krug releases the richest music of champagne.”


This article first appeared on July 2, 2018 in The Edge Malaysia.


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