I have to admit that I have always been big fan of Krug Champagne; I drink it whenever I can afford it and it was the last drink I ever had as a single man before putting pen to paper with my lovely wife all those years ago. So, hearing that Krug’s Chef de Cave Eric Lebel was in town I jumped at the chance to interview the man whose champagne will forever be etched into the part of my brain that harbours the emotions of love, fear, apprehension and excitement – for those four feelings I can attest to feeling on the day of my wedding.
Eric Lebel was himself born in the Champagne region of France, studied winemaking at the University of Reims and attained his diploma from there. For a decade he was making Champagne at the De Venoge Champagne house until he was spotted by Henri Krug where upon he was made Chef de Caves at Krug in 1998 – a job that requires a meticulous attention to detail and one that requires a preservation of the tradition of both Krug the winery and Krug the brand name.
Eric is in charge of the tasting committee that oversees the selection of both the vintage and non vintage Krug releases. Together with Olivier Krug they decide each year which are the perfect wines to go into their house style non vintage Champagnes and whether or not they will declare a vintage that season.
I caught up with Eric in the Mandarin Oriental’s Grill room recently and, over a bottle of Krug Grand Cuvee, we had a chat about what inspired him to become a winemaker and where his love for champagne stems from.
WTHK: So what inspired you to be a winemaker?
EL: “Firstly the region, it’s the region I was born in and spent most of my time in and secondly it is a job that really matches my character and personality. It’s a job I love because it’s all about constant movement; you are not settled into one set routine day to day. Every year everything is different so each year you wipe the blackboard clean and start all over again taking into account the different conditions of the vintage”.
WTHK: Was wine something that was always around you when growing up?
EL: “When my parents moved to the little village I grew up in they started drinking a brand of Champagne and it was somewhere many years later I became the chef de caves at! Of course, being in the Champagne region there was always Champagne being drunk at home”.
WTHK: Do you love Champagne or is it just a job?
EL: “I love Champagne! It’s almost beyond love, more like a passion! Most importantly I love the part of my job that is the long term human relationship I forge with the growers. I love the Champagne and those associated with it and all my growers champagnes I keep for my own personal consumption in my cellar. So yes, I do truly love Champagne”!
WTHK: If you are not drinking your own wines from Krug what do you like to drink?
EL: “I love the diversity of Burgundy wines, I love whiskies too and cognac too”!
WTHK: Of the three Cepages (Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay); do you have a favourite to work with?
EL: “No. For me it goes beyond the importance of each individual cepage. I don’t just want to qualify them as Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay and then put them in their own little boxes; what is important is the individuality of each separate plot and what each can bring to the blend itself. When I arrived at Krug I understood that there was no generic mindset of the region of Champagne; it’s all about the little individual parcels that each cepage comes from. The only time I take each separate cepage into account is the final blending for the grand cuvee itself”.
WTHK: Obviously working for Krug is a high-pressure job. Do you take it in your stride or have sleepless nights worrying about each vintage?
EL: “I need to sleep at least 8 hours a day to fully operate properly. I need to be extremely faithful to my own internal clock to be productive and to be able to carry the level of stress and pressure that comes at the two most important times of the year – harvest and blending. During the blending processes last few weeks (which is the most stressful) my team always says ‘leave Eric in the office and wait for him to come to you’ – and at home my wife says the same thing too”!
WTHK: Is there a time of the day that is not best suited to tasting Champagne?
EL: “Much of creating Champagne is about the tasting of the still wines and we found that there are certainly better times of the day to do it. Firstly, at four o’clock in the afternoon when we tried it, it was a catastrophe – so we stopped doing afternoon tasting. We saw that tasting at this time the palate was not as receptive to the wine. We changed the tasting time to 11am the next day and found the results were completely different. So we stopped afternoon tasting and made sure it was done in the morning”.
WTHK: And for the consumer, is it ok to open a bottle of Champagne at any time?
EL: “For the consumer yes, anytime is good. But we do not open a bottle of Champagne when we are depressed. Champagne is about pleasure and should really be drunk when happy”.
Krug Champagne is available in Hong Kong from MHD.