Often when champagne pairings are discussed or enjoyed, the complementary partner is food, with an end game of flavors mingling and aromas matching up. The tastebuds are the target audience. While that makes sense, within the context of one of our five physiological senses, the team behind prestige brand Krug Champagne—in many ways the epitome of thoughtful luxury—observed that this was merely one element in the grander sensory experience. Krug invited CH to Berlin to learn how to partner their champagne with music (after all, musical descriptors are often used to describe wines and champagnes) and through dialogue with two Oxford neuroscientists and an in-depth look at the Krug ID app, we came away with mind-bending insight.
“How many of you think that with your eyes closed, you could tell the difference between a hot and cold drink?” asked Charles Spence, Professor of Experimental Psychology and head of the Crossmodal Research Laboratory at Oxford University. His implication was one must use sound alone, and no other form of sensation. Spence proceeded to play two sound clips—one of a hot liquid being poured and one of a cold liquid being poured. Almost unanimously, attendees in the room could recognize the difference. Every temperature has a different pitch, due to viscosity, when poured—and it is noticeable. He proceeded to do the same test with sound bites of champagne and sparkling water. Again, people could easily tell the difference. There were notes of carbonation levels and further insight regarding viscosity. Sound communicates information. But, as we already know, sound also communicates pleasure. In fact, they can go hand-in-hand.
Spence and his colleague Janice Qian Wang (who is specifically researching the interaction between sound and flavor) have gathered information on such associations through study and after study. That said, “Wine drinking isn’t just about analysis. Drinking wine should be about pleasure and enjoyment,” Wang explains. “The point of our research is how to use all our senses to enhance the enjoyment of food and wine.”
Their studies involve engaging people from across the globe. Surveys include questions such as “What instrument are you thinking of when you smell this aroma?” Or, “Do you associate this flavor with high notes or low notes?” They’ve found that a majority of people (80–85%) are in agreement. The duo then works with composers, sound designers and instrumentalists to develop music that represents such flavors. They’ve already developed soundscapes that correspond to sweet, bitterness, sour and saltiness. And they’ve learned that properly pairing the senses can lead to 10% to 15% more enjoyment in an overall experience.
In a way, Krug has invoked this mentality and research within their free Krug ID smartphone application. The app triggers a phone’s camera, which then allows users to photograph and upload the ID on each bottle (every Krug bottle contains an ID). After uploading, an array of information becomes available—from the story of the bottle’s contents and its composition and tasting notes, to a recommended playlist. While jazz and classical music feel like natural partners, Krug has been developing relationships with musicians across all genres.
Krug collaborated with composers like jazz pianist Jacky Terrasson for the app, and Bryan Ferry’s contributions will be unveiled later this year. As representatives of the masses, these musicians were asked for their interpretations of music based on personal interactions with Krug’s various iterations. The result is an appropriate fit. Even across the diverse musicians, through-lines manifest that also bolster Spence and Wang’s research. The sound palette and taste palate make connections. (Also worth noting, Krug has their own handmade speaker system in development.)
It’s this attention to detail that makes Krug different than most champagne houses. As well as the fact that their primary offering, the Grande Cuvée, functions as the brand’s centerpiece, as opposed to their vintages—though they do have stellar vintage options, including two which hail only from one grape varietal from one specific plot of land. When the brand was founded in 1843, the vision was to offer consistently superb champagne, regardless of the weather or other elements that could alter a year. Six generations of the Krug family have overseen the act of “recreating” the original Grande Cuvée every single year—something that is artfully achieved through blending. Each year, more than 120 wines from at least a ten-year span come together in a bottle. The result is a distinctly complex bouquet in every bottle, that does not waver from expectation.
“You can take a very complex flavor profile, which could be in champagne or even chocolate, and then draw the mind of the taster toward one element or another in the mix. By concentrating on the high notes or the low notes in the wine with music, they become more salient to you, more perceptible, and intense to you,” Spence concludes. This makes Krug an ideal playground for music pairing. Over 5,000 tasting notes go into the bigger picture of the Grand Cuvée, all for the sake of harmony.
Spence and Wang’s proposals contain a depth of thought and research, and yet one important fact remains. Senses are deeply personal—much like one’s own tasting notes when trying something analytically or how an individual can associate a song with a moment in time. Emotions factor in, filtered through history and set within personal values and aesthetic interests. Many of us may be able to remember our first sip of Krug, and that has resonance as well. If looked at from afar, however, it’s remarkable to trace the elements that unite the deeply personal within us all across all senses.
Berlin sensory lesson image, Riedel glass image and cellars image by David Graver, all other images courtesy of Krug