Wednesday 14 March 2018

A Huge-ly Important Wine Producer

Producer: Famille Hugel

Mention Alsace and wine in the same conversation, and chances are high that the name Hugel will also pop up. It is one of the oldest producers in that region, based in the town of Riquewihr which is said to be the inspiration for the design of Belle’s village in Beauty and the Beast. As a standard bearer for Alsace, Hugel wines can be found all over the world. Marc-Andre Hugel, who is part of the company’s 13th generation, was recently in Singapore for a trade lunch and shared some updates from the family business.

The venue for the luncheon was Racines, a high-ceilinged restaurant located at the new Sofitel Singapore above Tanjong Pagar MRT. Helmed by chef Jean-Charles Dubois, the menu draws inspiration from French and Chinese influences. Alsace has a similar dual-identity. Although it is part of eastern France, it shares many cultural similarities with neighbouring Germany. Riesling and Gewurtztraminer, both white varieties, play the starring role here, but Alsatian wines tend to be drier and higher in alcohol than German wines. The only red grape of any note is Pinot Noir, although there have been some recent experiments with Syrah in anticipation of climate change.

The luncheon inclined more towards French dishes, with a starter of Foie Gras Pate and Walnut Toast followed by Halibut with Char-Grilled Baby Romaine and Confit Shallot. Each dish was paired with two wines drawn from Hugel’s Classic and Estate range. The former represents their largest volume; solid varietal wines made from estate-grown and contract fruit. The Estate wines, as the name implies, are made solely from Hugel’s own vineyards. There is a noticeable step up in concentration between the Classic and Estate ranges, made more pronounced when we tasted them side by side. The beauty of these wines lies in the clarity of fruit. Hugel does not use new oak to impart any additional flavours and any sweetness is natural. The wines are aged in bottle to develop complexity for a period ranging from a few months to six years depending on the quality of the fruit.

Marc-Andre plays a technical role as Assistant Winemaker at Hugel where he understudies his uncle, winemaker Marc Hugel. He cut his teeth making wine in New Zealand, California, Germany and Australia, travelling between the North and South hemispheres to rack up experience. Previously it was Etienne Hugel who was a regular face in Asia promoting the wines of Hugel with great enthusiasm, but his untimely passing in 2016 means that Marc-Andre has had to step in to fill in some very big shoes. While it was only three years ago that Marc-Andre joined the company full-time, his easy-going nature and studied responses indicate that he will be a worthy ambassador for Hugel.

One of the most significant changes recently was Hugel’s relabeling of their top wines from Jubilee to Grossi Laüe, meaning “great growth” in Alsatian. This is an interim measure until the 2015 vintage is released and paves the way for Hugel to finally participate in the Alsace grand cru system. Although Jean “Johnny” Hugel was instrumental in pushing for the grand cru designation during the 70s, in the end he chose not to support the final boundaries, feeling that the committee had been too generous in deciding the limits. Explaining the change in mindset, Marc-Andre said that “It is more than time now to move on to the grand cru system. We do not want to be a handbrake to the whole region. If you do not have the main producers declaring grand cru the region will never be famous; even Beyer and Trimbach are now starting using the grand cru label. It took forty years but now we are finally joining the game – I think every wine lover on the planet knows that as long as you have the term grand cru on the label it is going to be the top cuvée of the producer.”

You will also notice that the corks used for all of the wines look a little bit different. Hugel uses DIAM, a processed cork that has had the lignine, or woody component, removed and then treated with supercritical carbon dioxide to remove any impurities, including the component that cause TCA. TCA, or cork taint, is a particularly vexing problem because it can impart off-flavours to the wine, and once a bottle has been affected it cannot be redeemed. I have tasted many a disappointing wine affected by this flaw and commend Hugel for taking bold steps to solve the problem. Marc-Andre comments, “It took almost ten years for my uncle to make the decision to move 100% to DIAM, but now the wines show better, age better and are guaranteed against cork taint and pre-oxidation. It was a big change for us but we are really happy with it”.

Looking through the Hugel portfolio, I asked Marc-Andre if there were plans to include a crémant. Crémant d’Alsace is the name given to the region’s sparkling wine, an appealingly fresh tipple that goes through the same production method as champagne. Marc-Andre himself was born in champagne country in the town of Epernay. “I am pushing my family to do it because I really enjoy sparkling wine,” said Marc-Andre. “Now there is a demand for sparkling and I hope that we will do something good and unique for the future.” In the meantime, Hugel can depend on its own unique aperitif, a wine that is a blend of the noble grape varieties of Alsace called Gentil. This aromatic white is perhaps the best introduction to Alsace and has been a tremendous success for Hugel.

Those with a sweet tooth will be delighted with Hugel’s Vendange Tardive (late harvest) Gewurtztraminer. Made from botrytis-affected grapes, this sweet wine is a specialty of Hugel and it was Johnny Hugel who drafted the rules for producing this style of wine in Alsace. This was paired with a feathery dessert of chocolate parfait, kumquat compote and cocoa coral sponge. It was a satisfying finish to the meal with the sweetness of the wine playing a counterpoint to the light bitterness of the cocoa.

Tasting notes:

Famille Hugel Classic Gewurtztraminer 2014 – Off dry and well made with aromatic notes of rose petal and lychee. This is a light, classic wine with good balance – not easily achieved with this grape variety. Marc-Andre recommends Munster cheese as the best pairing for this wine

Famille Hugel Estate Gewurtztraminer 2014 – Lean and bright with more grip than the Classic version. A noticeable step up in concentration with lychee and floral spices. Showing very well at the moment.

Famille Hugel Classic Riesling 2015 – Light and characterful with punchy lime fruit, medium length with good concentration. 

Famille Hugel Estate Riesling 2014 – An energetic, zingy wine showing flavours of green apple and lime. Plenty of quality fruit in evidence here, leading to a long, charged finish.

Famille Hugel Vendange Tardive Gewurtztraminer 2007 – For a sweet wine this is quite delicate, possessing a languid energy that charms and envelopes the palate. Fresh honey and grapefruit flavours come to the fore, while a still vibrant acidity keeps the palate lively.

Hugel wines are distributed in Singapore by Monopole

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