Grapevine Archive for Hugel
It seems not long ago that we were grieving for Laurence Faller. Yet Alsace is now faced with another desperately premature loss as it was reported that on the morning of Saturday 9th April, Etienne Hugel very suddenly passed away, aged just 57.
Etienne always seemed to be in a hurry, no less so than in this sudden exit from the world’s stage, and it leaves us desperately sad and empty. Such a loss seems impossible to comprehend.
He entered the family business in 1982, not the best of vintages for Alsace. But his uncle, the irrepressible ‘Johnnie’ Hugel had made sure there was enough good claret to make up for any shortcomings. Château Léoville Barton1982 would thereafter always be associated with the Hugel family. Etienne was the twelfth generation of Hugel, along with his cousin Jean-Philippe and winemaker brother Marc.
Family meant everything for Etienne. Indeed, the official name of the business was recently changed to Famille Hugel to reflect this indelible bond. Each active member of the family had a role, and for Etienne this was sales and marketing, to which he was admirably suited. As roving brand ambassador, replacing his revered uncle Johnnie, he was in his element.
Selling Alsace wine has never been an easy proposition and so a successful salesman has needed the skills akin to those of a proselytiser. Here, Etienne excelled with his energy, undying love and passion for the wines, his charisma and his unfailing ability to engage with everyone who fell under his spell.
Etienne was the master of communication in all its forms. The Hugel website is a model in interaction. Twitter, Facebook and YouTube were the tools of his trade. In this regard he was my mentor, teaching me the importance and vitality of social media. Not so long ago I had my first Facetime conversation with him. Not an experience I particularly enjoyed!
He was a constant traveller and globe trotter. At first he shared the accumulation of air miles with Gérard Jaboulet, often appearing together at venues, including several memorable Wine Society tastings. It is impossible to think of Etienne without recalling that sad July day in 1997 when, with Johnnie and Nick Clark MW, we were all sweltering by the Chapelle on Hermitage Hill to say adieu to Gérard Jaboulet.
Of late, Etienne’s travels seemed to have become more focused on the Far East and indeed he regularly spent the first few weeks of the year based there. He was surely at his happiest in Singapore or Japan. He shared some of his impressions with wonderful photos which he posted on Facebook. His love for Kaoru, his Japanese-born wife, was immense and he was especially proud when together they won a contract to supply Japan Airlines.
As Hugel brand manager, Etienne was always keen to raise the family image at every opportunity. Joining forces with other great wine families seemed a most natural way forward and he was a fervent supporter of the Primum Familiae Vini which included Pol Roger, Symington and Drouhin among others.
Etienne was always keen to innovate. With his brother Marc, he created a new cuvee of pinot noir. Nobody had believed that Alsace could produce great red wine. The new cuvée, ‘Les Neveux’, proved everyone wrong. The first vintage, 1990, remains an exceptional red wine showing no signs of dying.
One of his last acts was to help modernise the famous yellow labels. They now seem bolder, more confident, reflecting the renewed dynamism that is clearly evident at Hugel. At the top end, the name Jubilee, coined to mark the firm’s 350th in 1989, gives way to something that has the touch of the atavistic and archaic and yet equally bold. Grossi Laüe is Alsacien for ‘Grand Cru’, and will replace the name Jubilee.
And there was still more. Amidst great pomp and ceremony last year at The Shard building in London, a new wine was revealed. This was a 2007 riesling, a great vintage and from a very particular plot of vineyard on the grand cru Schoenenbourg and called Schoelhammer. This is undoubtedly a grand statement of a wine and already hailed as one of the world’s finest dry rieslings.
Riesling is at the core of what Alsace and Hugel are about. It was also Etienne’s particular passion; riesling in all its forms, from steely dry to lusciously sweet. And his brother Marc made riesling in all those styles, providing Etienne with a showcase that was second to none.
However, we did think he had gone a little too far when out of his briefcase came a handful of riesling tattoos. Still we were game and for the next few days, some of us were sporting ‘riesling’ tattoos on our forearms.
Though selling Hugel was the aim, Etienne quite happily sang the praises of other vignerons and more than once made recommendations of who I should visit. The Hugel shop in Riquewihr has a formidable range of Alsace wines.
He never missed a Wine Society tasting, and was due to co-host a tasting of botrytis-affected wines with Fabrice Dubourdieu. More often there was the Wine Society Alsace roadshow, often with his cousin Jean Trimbach.
After a Chester tasting we danced a cancan on stage for the amusement of members. After an equally memorable tasting in Bradford we booked into the best curry House in town. The Maitre d’ did show some surprise when we turned up with a case of gewurztraminer but he took it surprisingly well!
He was generous with his time, welcoming me in my early days with The Society and sharing his Alsace with me. There must be many other wine buyers, wine writers and sommeliers who will today be thanking him for all those hours he spent preaching his gospel.
Etienne helped bring on board the thirteenth generation. His son Jean Frédéric is part of the sales team while his nephew Marc-André is on the production side, working with Marc. A cousin Christian is in accounts and is daughter Charlotte is currently working in London, learning her craft at the offices of wine importers John E Fells.
Our heartfelt sympathy goes out to them, to his father, wife and brother and to the many Hugels that make up this great and indomitable family.
We shall miss you Etienne.
And to finish my piece on the ‘Alsace spring’, events relating to visits by the Hugel family…
Hugel is The Society’s oldest supplier for Alsace. We are not sure when the romance started; suffice to say that The Society is Hugel’s second-oldest customer in the UK after The Savoy!
Our first purchase was likely to have been a modest chasselas-sylvaner blend. This has now evolved over the years and today The Society’s Vin d’Alsace (£7.95) is a very smart dry white indeed. Sylvaner remains the base but nearly all the region’s grape varieties are included in the blend. Currently we are on the 2013 vintage which is the best made for a while. 2014 promises also to be pretty special.
This year Hugel et Fils changes its name to Famille Hugel: recognition that three generations now work for the business and that at least one of them is not a man! Times are a-changing.Not to be outdone by their cousins, the Trimbachs, Hugel are also releasing something grand and mature for the first time. And what is really exciting is that it’s a completely new wine made from riesling.
This will be a riesling, from the great 2007 vintage and it will come from a single vineyard called Schoelhammer, a small plot of old vines on the grand cru Schoenenbourg above the town of Riquewihr.
Such an event had to be marked by a grand occasion and so journalists, buyers and sommeliers were invited to taste the new baby on a wonderfully sunny spring day in London. The event was not disappointing. Riesling Schoelhammer is unquestionably a great dry riesling and I can’t wait to have it here in Stevenage for members to buy.
Three generations from the Hugel family came to London that day. Etienne Hugel was there together with his son Jean-Frederic. Better still, André came to represent the senior generation at the unveiling of Schoelhammer Riesling. Etienne’s father is 86 years old and hasn’t really retired. (The senior Trimbach, Bernard, 83, is much the same.)Born in 1929, André Hugel is the survivor of three extraordinary brothers whose lives encompassed the tragedies of the war years. Alsace did not just suffer occupation as with the rest of France: it was officially annexed by Germany which meant that Alsace men could be called up. Georges, the eldest was called and was wounded on the Eastern Front. Johnny fared better, serving mostly in Italy and avoiding any fighting, acquiring fluency in Italian instead.
Johnny would come to occupy a central place in Alsace not just for Hugel but as a veritable ambassador for Alsace wines in general. André was 15 when on 5th December 1944, Riquewihr was liberated by a Texan regiment. Andre Hugel ensures that the flag of the lone star state is hoisted above the town hall every year to mark the anniversary.
For André Hugel this was his first ever visit to the UK. As Riquewihr’s residential archivist and historian, a visit to London seemed long overdue and thanks to Ray Bowden, one time chairman of The Society, visits to the Cabinet War Rooms were duly arranged. That was in the morning before all three Hugels travelled up to Stevenage. They were greeted by both past and present Chairmen of the Society and by our Chief Executive for a guided tour of the premises followed by lunch.
A Note on Trimbach
Trimbach have also been busy buying up vineyards, never too far away from Ribeauvillé, but these will allow them to improve quality and launch new wines. Indeed, a new Trimbach riesling will be launched this year and it promises to be something very special. Watch this space.
Also exciting from Trimbach is the new bottling machine, an expensive investment, but one which will have a positive effect on quality and even allow for bottling under screwcap. We’ve just taken delivery of the 2013 Pinot Blanc (£8.95) under screwcap, and the wine is quite delicious.
Find wines from Hugel and Trimbach in our current offer of the 2013 Alsace vintage.
Evidence of war is ever present in Alsace with innumerable castles and war cemeteries to prove it, but mercifully all that belongs to the past. The 30 Years War had brought to an end a golden age for Alsace wines. But today we are surely at the beginning of a new golden age, and members of the Wine Society Dining Club went out for a week?s tasting and dining to find out more.
I am of coursed distinctly biased in all this, strongly believing that Alsace is fully capable of producing exceptional wines. Challenges abound. First the fact that, notwithstanding the fine climate, Alsace is France?s most northern wine region after Champagne. Another complication is that though Alsace enjoys very low annual rainfall, most of it falls during the summer when the grapes are trying to ripen.
There is as well a human element to Alsace?s complications. Growers, remembering the hard times of the past, fall into two schools. There are still those that believe in quantity as the best sort of insurance. Most of Alsace?s grape varieties are quite capable of producing big crops but the results are invariably disappointing. A growing number of producers have gone the other way, becoming perfectionists and optimising the full potential of their vines. Alsace growers were among the first to take up biodynamic farming practices, and with them much reduced yields and bigger, more concentrated wines. Sometimes, too concentrated for their own good and as a result these wines can seem unbalanced. But that is the down side and in reality there is more and more coming out from Alsace that is spectacular.
This year I will have visited twice and am delighted to report that we will be buying wines from Albert Boxler in Niederhaussen; and that means a first listing at The Wine Society for a wine coming from the Grand Cru Sommerberg. We will also introduce wines from André Kientzler, another great house from the historic town of Ribeauvillé.
Back to Dining Club visit. The vintage uppermost in tastings was 2010 which from the start, I believed to be one of Alsace?s greatest vintages. That impression was more than reinforced by a week tasting in Alsace. This was not an easy vintage and the crop was tiny. Everything was late and the perfect Indian summer only really benefited the best exposed sites.
It is in such a vintage that the Grand Cru system suddenly becomes abundantly clear. The aim of the visit was to take in some of the great vineyards, starting with the Kitterlé and Rangen in the south, then via the Hengst, Brand and Eichberg to the Schoenenbourg in Riquewihr. The wines throughout the week were often astonishing with several producers choosing to pull out examples from the 1989 vintage to prove another point: Alsace wines keep very well!
Dining Club members were there to learn as well as profit from a memorable week going from cellar to cellar. At the end and after André Hugel had taken us on an architectural tour of Riquewihr, members were subjected to a blind tasting. Bravo to Ann Edwards who gave in a near perfect answer, winning herself a bottle of 1988 Gewurztraminer Sélection de Grains Nobles from Hugel.
The Society?s current offer of the 2010 Alsace vintage is open until this Sunday, 17th June.
Last week a very fresh-faced Marc-André Hugel was over in the UK for his first solo appearance presenting his family?s wines at our tastings in London and Leeds. He also visited our offices in Stevenage to talk us through a range of Hugel wines, some of which he has had a hand in.
And if the proof of the pudding is in the ?. well, let?s just say that it looks as though the 13th generation of this great Alsace house will be continuing its good name long into the future.
22-year-old Marc-André (?almost 23?, he pointed out), is Etienne Hugel?s nephew (Etienne?s son, Jean-Frédéric is going to follow in his father?s footsteps and concentrate on sales). Despite his youth, he has been working in the family business since 2005. ?I originally wanted to sell the wine?, he said, ?but I did my first holiday job working in the vineyards in 2005, this and a work placement in California made me realise that I love viticulture and cellarwork.?
Marc-André?s first harvest chez Hugel was the 2009 vintage ? an auspicious start if ever there was one, but also a significant year in the Hugel household as this was when the late, great ?Johnny? Hugel passed away. 2010 was the first vintage Marc-André had a hand in vinifying ? a potentially unpromising year that was saved by a glorious Indian summer, to make for a smaller crop with good maturity underpinned by balancing acidity.
Although Marc-André will eventually become the winemaker at Hugel, he has to serve a pretty long apprenticeship: his uncle Marc is not going to be handing over the reins for many years yet. When we asked Marc-André about his ideas for the future, he was pretty sanguine about the fact that he would be spending the next 10-15 years learning the business and trying out new things. He says that he would like to produce a Crémant d?Alsace one day (his father is from Champagne). He also spoke about biodynamics and his desire to investigate the feasibility of working along these lines. He recognises that he may have a job convincing vineyard workers to change their ways though and prune ?because the moon is in the right place.?
From the 2010 vintage we tasted our own Society?s Vin d?Alsace ? a good introduction to the region?s wines, containing four of the noble grapes, gewurztraminer, riesling, pinot gris and muscat, plus sylvaner and pinot blanc. Completely dry yet tastes round and fruity with a touch of spice, it?s very versatile, making for a good ?house? white.
We also tasted the Tradition label Muscat and Pinot Gris. Marc-André told us that only 2% of the total Alsace vineyard plantings are made up of muscat and it is interesting to see what a different kind of wine it makes here in Alsace compared to its Mediterranean counterparts ? wonderfully aromatic, fresh and floral with a subtle power and touch of spice on the finish, this is a beautifully poised wine with some grapes coming from the grand cru Schoenenbourg vineyard. Marc-André recommends it as an aperitif or partner for asparagus.
The pinot gris was a real revelation, not as aromatic as muscat but with flavours that built on the palate as you tasted it, really quite full, with a long finish. You could imagine it partnering lots of dishes well, particularly Asian cooking.
From 2009, Marc-André?s first vintage in the family firm, we tried the pinot noir. Reds are only made in the best years and 2009 is one of the best for a long time. Marc-André told us that with global warming they are noticing that the reds are getting better and better and more pinot noir is being made (now 8% of total production of Alsace). ?We won?t be making Alsace Syrah though? he reassured us! He also told us how he had quite literally had a hand in making the wine, plunging down the cap of grape skins two or three times a day for a week.
Footage of him doing just that can be found below (NB: the talking is, alas, in French):
There was a lovely purity of fruit to the ripe cherry-like flavour ? a wine for charcuterie, cheese or poultry, Marc-André says.
From Marc-André?s holiday-job vintage, 2005, we tasted Hugel?s Riesling Jubilee. ?It was very hot in the vineyards in 2005,? he told us, ?but although the grapes were very ripe there was also a good minerality.? The Jubilee wines are all from grand cru vineyards and this is from the best plots within the Grand Cru Schoenenbourg vineyard. The wine has everything you would expect from a great riesling ? full, but dry flavour, floral, turning to kerosene bouquet and long, classy finish. ?Good with shellfish or smoked fish,? we were told.
If you didn?t get to our Alsace tastings, you can still enjoy the wines. The 2010s are showcased in our current offer from Alsace and the others are online and in the List. Take a ?schlück? as apparently they say in Alsace, we learned, and see what you think.
You can watch our own Marcel Orford-Williams (buyer for Alsace) discussing and tasting Alsace wines with Joanna Simon in the latest in a series of videos made for Wines of Alsace.
Society members can order the 2010 vintage of the sylvaner now, while the muscat will be available soon.
Look out for our offer of 2010 Alsace next month!
Day two and the weather’s not so good: damp and foggy. Up to see the vineyards overlooking Riquewihr: really very steep and difficult to work. Cheerfully told the Moselle is worse.
Extraordinarily, Hugel’s whole operation is in the centre of this pretty and cramped medieval village – underground. Little sign of it in the entrance room until an almost secret door is opened…
Hugel, Trimbach and others don’t use the Grand Cru designation for their best vineyards and wines. Hugel uses ‘Jubilee’ to denote their third level, above ‘Classic’ and ‘Tradition’, and they are good. No fertilisation, sweetening (chaptalisation) or oak (of course). Founded in 1639, making The Society (1874) a recent invention by comparison.
Then onto Trimbach (1626) to taste with the 12th generation and to meet the 13th. We worked our way through the ‘09s. Austere rieslings; again hard for me to imagine how these would emerge eventually. The pinot gris and gewurz are rounder, easier to understand now. Finally a few ‘05s and a 2002 gewurztraminer Vendange Tardive, which was remarkable.
Then off to lunch: pig’s knuckle and sauerkraut. Delicious. I was warned that Jean (Trimbach) might have a quick burst of song and was not disappointed!
35 more wines at Beyer, including the 2010 pinot blanc, which was fresh and very pleasant. Again Marcel is focusing on the 2009s for his May/June offer.
Back to Basle for the flight home after not far short of 200 wines tasted in 2 days. Marcel will continue for 3 more days: 500 wines. Last year’s offer contained 35. This careful selection and expertise is at the heart of The Society – does any other merchant taste 500 Alsace wines with their growers? Marcel deserves the Specialist Merchant of the Year award.
Then, as I began, Gatwick, rain, M25, roadworks …