Eric Lebel was brought on board Krug as chef de cave in 1998 by Henri Krug, the fifth generation of the family leading the house. He was in charge of the winemaking until early 2020 when Julie Cavil, second-in-command, took the relay. A man of natural elegance, warm spirit, and clear thinking, he details the complexity of crafting Krug Grande Cuvée, one of the finest champagnes that exist. If you had the chance to taste it, you will agree, and if you haven’t, it’s time for you to indulge in a special treat.
The spirit and style of Krug, as for most Champagne houses, are embodied by its brut 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?
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 depend 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 dubbed 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 dubbed Cuvée No. 2, but only in the best years to capture their 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 to four vintage champagnes per decade and it is neither a need nor the result of a marketing strategy. But the priority of our work is the creation each year of Krug Grande Cuvée, which is “the richest expression of champagne.” This phrase is engraved in the spirit of our house.
Joseph Krug introduced the principle that a great Champagne house should make two champagnes, of equal quality: a non-vintage and a vintage.
How do you create Krug Grande Cuvée?
Every year, between the end of March and the beginning of April, after over five months of tastings wines of each parcel, the whole enological team, President Maggie Henriquez, and Olivier Krug 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 a vast 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.
To create Krug Grande Cuvée, you need still wines with different temperaments.
Why do you emphasize each edition of Krug Grande Cuvée on the bottle?
There are interesting differences between each edition of Krug Grande Cuvée, 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, for example, 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.
In Krug Grande Cuvée 160th Edition, there are 121 different wines from 12 different years from 1990 to 2004.
Krug Grande Cuvée evolves with time. The Champagne AOC requires non-vintage champagne to age in the cellar for a minimum of 15 months, but at Krug we raise this requirement to seven or eight years. Krug Grande Cuvée is a prestige cuvée, which must grow over time, not merely going through it, and 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.
What is the common thread of all the editions of Krug Grande Cuvée?
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, and it’s warm. I like to think of Krug Grande Cuvée as peace in the world. Krug is the awakening of the senses, with the aromatic intensity that doesn’t stop. Even once empty, the glass continues to express all the aromatic richness of Krug. In all the editions of Krug Grande Cuvée, we find the fullest expression of Champagne. There is the world of fruit, with aromas of yellow fruits and citruses. This yellow fruits can be fresh and mature with time and become a little stewed and even dry fruits in older Krug Grand Cuvée. Then there are floral hints, with notes of white flowers that are more discreet. Then we find the richness with toasty and pastry notes. All this is held together by the vivacity, the tension of the wine, which is the common thread.
Krug, it’s serene, it’s calm, it’s voluptuous, and it’s warm. I like to think of Krug Grande Cuvée as peace in the world.
Krug Grande Cuvée is one of the few prestige champagnes to include pinot meunier besides pinot noir and chardonnay. Why?
We always use the three grape varieties of Champagne in Krug Grande Cuvée and Krug Vintage. We are the first custodians of the expression of meunier 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 a priori. 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.
What is the role of the different crus in the composition of Krug Grande Cuvée and Krug Vintage?
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 vine growers. 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 that will likely 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 vine growers who supply us, some of them since 1876, and with whom we are in close and constant contact. We are often invited to taste their champagnes and we also invite them to taste the wines that we produce from their parcels.
At Krug, we do not refer to grand cru or premier cru. We refer to specific parcels and specific vine growers.
You also produce two single-parcel champagnes. How do they fit into the spirit of Krug?
We produce Krug Clos du Mesnil (Vintage, 100% chardonnay) and Krug Clos d’Ambonnay (Vintage, 100% pinot noir) with the grapes of two very specific plots, in very small quantities and only in the years that express circumstances that we wish to capture. If Krug Grande Cuvée is a philharmonic orchestra and Krug Vintage is a concerto, these champagnes are soloists.
Parcels, grape varieties, assemblage; what else is needed in the creation of Krug?
These components are all determinants, together with another fundamental one: time. If Krug Grande Cuvée did not rest at least seven years in the cellar and Krug Vintage at least 10 years, Krug would not be what it is. Krug is the precision in the supply, the relation with the vineyard and the vine growers, the art of the assemblage with a library of 400 wines–which is extraordinary compared to our very limited production volumes–and finally, time.
If Krug Grande Cuvée did not rest at least seven years in the cellar and Krug Vintage at least 10 years, Krug would not be what it is.
Also, we perform a very “light” enology, the least intrusive possible. We ferment the wines in a natural way, and we do not induce or stop malolactic fermentations, they just happen naturally, or not. The settling and clarification of the wines, kept in 4,700 casks, is done by gravity and we perform only one filtration before bottling, without any centrifugation.
What is your approach to dosage?
Henri Krug told me once something that came from his father and grandfather: “If you don’t 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.
Krug insists on the importance of not using flute glasses to taste champagne. Why?
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 and with a tightening rim to concentrate these aromas. 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.
You have introduced Krug ID, a digital platform to know the details of each of your champagne. Why the need to share this information?
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. We try to go beyond the technical information with a complete description and tasting tips for food-pairing, and even music-pairings. I invite you to try, it’s another way to taste and understand our champagnes.
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?
Champagne is the king of quality sparkling wines and we shouldn’t try to compete with lower segments. These new players have grown but still do not offer the same quality that we do. It’s a different offer. The issue in champagne is not anymore the increase in the production volumes but the pursuit of value. We must, therefore, continue to work meticulously on the creation of quality sparkling wines: champagne!
What is champagne to you?
Authenticity, a unique terroir, the work of the man to emphasize the spirit of the Heart.