Interview With Eric Lebel Chef de Caves of KRUG

BEST CHAMPAGNE had the pleasure of interviewing Eric Lebel, Chef de Caves of KRUG, the haute couture champagne.

ERIC LEBEL KRUG CHEF DE CAVE

Eric Lebel was brought on board KRUG as Chef de Caves by Henri Krug in 1998.

The House was founded in 1843 by Joseph Krug, a visionary man that marked forever the spirit of this high-end Maison, and the way champagne is crafted.

Born in 1800 in Mainz when the city was part of France before returning to Germany a few years later, he was exposed early on to winegrowing.

A talented man who spoke three languages, he moved to Paris in 1834 where he lived in a creative milieu of artists.

Dreaming of making his mark in the world of Champagne, he first worked at Jacquesson, the leading Champagne House of the time, becoming one of its directors.

Being frustrated with the inconsistent quality of champagne at that time, which was greatly dependent on the weather of each vintage, he envisioned a way to overcome this constraint, by blending wines of different years to produce a rich and consistent expression of pleasure.

At 42, when most in his position would be close to retiring, he left his career to implement his vision by funding its own Champagne House.

He was firmly convinced that it is possible to make a good wine only from good elements and good terroirs. Unsurprisingly, the prestige of KRUG was acknowledged in the main champagne markets.

The Krug generations that followed at the helm of the business always abided by its founder’s precepts, ensuring consistent, superior champagnes.

Today KRUG is part of luxury group LVMH, although the Krug family remains actively involved in all the key winemaking decisions that are overseen by Chef de Caves Eric Lebel.

A man of natural elegance, warm spirit, and clear thinking, Lebel carefully designs every year a number of blends to recreate KRUG champagne, by using hundreds of different wines.

These blends are then discussed by the tasting committee that always includes, among other, Director Olivier Krug, and CEO Margareth “Maggie” Henriquez.

Once consensus is reached, Lebel proceeds to the creation of KRUG Grande Cuvée, that incarnates, year after year, Joseph Krug’s vision of “the richest expression of Champagne.”

In this interview, Lebel explains in details how to craft one of the very best champagne that exists, that he defines as “peace in the world.” If you had the chance to taste KRUG, you can only agree. And if you haven’t, it’s time for you to discover one of life’s greatest pleasure.

BEST CHAMPAGNE: The spirit of KRUG, as for most Champagne Houses, is embodied by its non-vintage champagne, Krug Grande Cuvée. But unlike other Houses, your vintage cuvées are not superior to it. What is the origin of this choice?

ERIC LEBEL: At the time of the founding of KRUG in 1843, wine knowledge was still limited and the decisions in wine production were based primarily on common sense.

Joseph Krug, our founder, realized that in great years we made great wines, but in more challenging years, quite common in Champagne, winemaking was also more challenging, and so the quality of champagne was completely dependent on the vintage and its climate.

Because of this, he wanted to create a champagne that did not exist yet, to obtain, as he explains in his life book, “the richest expression of champagne, year after year, regardless of the climatic hazards”.

Not to be dependent on the climatic conditions of the harvest of the year, he developed the notion of non-vintage champagne, putting aside each year a portion of the wines – called reserve wines – for its creation.

Joseph Krug called this champagne Cuvée No. 1, which is embodied today by Krug Grande Cuvée.

But he believed that one could also make a vintage champagne, which he called Cuvée No. 2, but only in the best years, to capture its circumstances.

So Joseph Krug introduced the principle that a great Champagne House should make two champagnes, of equal quality: a non-vintage and a vintage. This principle is still relevant at KRUG where there is no hierarchy between our different champagnes.

We produce an average of three vintages per decade. This is therefore neither a need nor the result of a marketing strategy.

So the priority of our work is the creation each year of Krug Grande Cuvée, which is “the richest expression of champagne”. This phrase is still engraved today in the spirit of our House.

BC: How do you create Grande Cuvée?

EL: Every year, between the end of March and the beginning of April, after more than 5 months of tastings wines of each parcel, the whole oenological team, our President Maggie Henriquez, and Olivier Krug who represents the 6th generation of the founding family, taste the various blending projects of Krug Grande Cuvée and share opinions.

To create Krug Grande Cuvée you need still wines with different temperaments. The fact that we keep them separate by parcel and by vintage gives us an array of opportunities. My job is to create the richest expression, based on the wines of the year and with the help of reserve wines.

We will, therefore, identify the best blending projects, perhaps mix them, for an individual edition of Krug Grande Cuvée.

BC: Why do you emphasize each years’ edition of Krug Grande Cuvée?

EL: There are interesting differences between each edition of Krug Grande Cuvées, which result from the number and profile of the wines used that do not come from the same climatology, but always with certain similarities.

In Krug Grande Cuvée 160th Edition, built on the 2004 harvest, there are 121 different wines from 12 different years from 1990 to 2004.

On the other hand, in Krug Grande Cuvée 164th Edition, based on the 2008 harvest, there are 127 different wines ranging from 1990 to 2008.

Krug Grande Cuvée evolves with time. The Champagne Appellation requires a non-vintage champagne to age in the cellar for a minimum of 15 months but at KRUG, this requirement is raised to 7-8 years.

Krug Grande Cuvée is a prestige cuvée, which must grow over time, not merely going through it, interact with it. So the notion of Edition exists to emphasize that Krug Grande Cuvée can continue to mature in the cellars of the consumers, with its own identity according to its Edition.

BC: What is the common thread of all the editions of Krug Grande Cuvée?

EL: Krug Grande Cuvée makes everybody vibrate, there is a connection with the wine, with always this finesse, this elegance, this uniqueness, and a great balance.

KRUG, it’s serene, it’s calm, it’s voluptuous, it’s warm. I like to think of Krug Grande Cuvée as peace in the world.

KRUG is the awakening of the senses, by the aromatic intensity that doesn’t stop. Even once empty, the glass continues to express all the aromatic richness of KRUG.

In all Grande Cuvée, we find the richest expression of Champagne, but this is not necessarily the same for everyone.

On one side there is the world of fruit, with aromas of yellow fruits, and citrus. This yellow fruit can be fresh fruit that matures with time and becomes a little stewed and even dry fruit in older Grand Cuvée.

Then we find the richness with toasty and pastry notes.

And then there is a floral hint, with notes of white flowers that are more discreet in Krug Grande Cuvée.

All this is held together by the vivacity, the tension of the wine, which is the common thread.

BC: Krug Grande Cuvée is one of the few prestige cuvées to include Meunier in addition to Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Why?

EL: We always use the three grape varieties Champagne in Krug Grande Cuvée and our Vintages.

We are the first custodians of Meunier’s expression and for us, there is no hierarchy in the grape varieties because they all bring richness to our champagnes.

The contribution of wines of different varieties in the blends is only decided during tasting; we have no apriori.

In addition, it is not just a question of grape variety but also of cru of origin, and especially of how the vines and the grapes are worked until their pressing.

BC: What is the role of the different crus in the composition of Krug Grande Cuvée and Krug Vintage?

EL: At KRUG we do not refer to Grand Cru or Premier Cru. Our approach is based on the distinctive character of the parcels. Hence we refer to specific parcels and specific vinegrowers. The parcels that interest us must have personality.

To maintain the identity of each parcel we vinify them separately. Then in the blend, we will manage these personalities, the contrasts of each parcel, to obtain a balance likely to grow over time.

Joseph Krug was very close to the vineyard and this remains a particularity of our House. Above all, we have human relations with the vinegrowers who supply us, some of them since 1876, and with whom we are in constant exchange. We are often invited to taste their champagnes and we also invite them to taste the wines that we produce from their parcels.

BC: In addition to Krug Grande Cuvée and Krug Vintage, you produce two single-parcel champagnes. How do they fit into KRUG’s spirit?

EL: Clos du Mesnil (Vintage, 100% Chardonnay) and Clos d’Ambonnay (Vintage, 100% Pinot Noir) are produced from grapes from two very specific plots, in very small quantities only in the years that express circumstances we wish to capture.

If Krug Grande Cuvée is a philharmonic orchestra, and our Vintages are concertos, then these champagnes are soloists.

BC: Parcel, grape variety, assemblage. What is the most important in the creation of KRUG?

EL: They are all determinants, with another fundamental component: time. If Krug Grande Cuvée did not stay at least 7 years in the cellar and our Vintage at least 10 years, KRUG would not be what it is.

KRUG it is the precision in the supply, the relation with the vineyard and the vinegrowers, then the art of the assemblage with a library of 400 wines which is extraordinary compared to our very limited production volumes, and finally time.

Also, we perform a very genuine enology, the least intrusive possible. We let the wines undergo fermentation in a natural way. The bottling of wines of the year is done by gravity, and we perform a filtration before bottling, without any other mechanical filtration beforehand.

BC: What is your approach to dosage?

EL: Henri Krug (5th generation of the founding family) told me once something that came from his father and grandfather: “if you do not add dosage to your champagne you will feel it, and if you do it you must not feel it”.

So dosage is an accompaniment to the richness of the assemblage and time. This is the only thought that guides us during the tastings to decide the dosage of our cuvées, which is often between 5 and 6 g/l.

BC: KRUG insists on the importance of not using flutes to taste champagne. Why?

EL: The flute, with its very narrow circumference, does not allow the aromas to expand properly, and when the bubbles, which carry these aromas, burst on the edge of the glass they produce a carbonic sting in the nose.

It is, therefore, preferable to use a larger glass that permits the aromas to open up in the glass, and with a tightening rim to concentrate these aromas.

A good glass is therefore essential and for this, we have developed in partnership with the glassmaker Riedel a special glass, the “Joseph” (in tribute to Joseph Krug), tailor-made to sublimate the tasting of our champagnes.

BC: You have introduced KRUG ID, a digital platform to know the details of each of your champagne. Why the need to share this information?

EL: Nowadays, consumers demand information, they want to know the origin of products and how they are developed.

Through KRUG ID, six digits on the back of the bottle, we share the details of each KRUG champagne: from the parcels used to the assemblage. We show the story of each bottle.

With KRUG ID we try to go beyond the technical information with a complete description and tasting tips for food-pairing, and even music-pairing. I invite you to try, it’s another way to taste and understand our champagnes.

BC: You are one of the most prestigious Champagne Houses. How do you see the future of your world, with growing competition from other sparkling wines?

EL: The Champagne Appellation is the queen of quality sparkling wines and we shouldn’t try to compete with lower-end segments.

These new players have grown but still do not offer the same quality of sparkling wines. It’s a different offer.

The issue in champagne is not really its geographic expansion (hence the increase in the production volumes) but rather the pursuit of value.

We must, therefore, continue to work meticulously on the creation of quality sparkling wines: champagne!

BC: What is champagne for you?

El: The authenticity, the terroir, the work of the man: being able to emphasize the heart’s spirit.

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