Stephan Reinhardt - 30/06/2017
About this WINE
Hugel et Fils
Now run by the 13th generation, Hugel is one of the oldest family estates in Alsace. Hugel enjoys a well-earned reputation for its wines at every level, but particularly for its dry Grand Cru Riesling and the sweet late-harvest and botrytised styles.
About the producer
Hugel was founded in Riquewihr in 1639 by Hans Ulrich Hugel. It has remained in the family ever since. The modern era here began in 1902 when Frédéric Emile Hugel moved the business to premises in the centre of the village. He was a true pioneer of Alsace wines, responsible for obtaining official recognition for the late-harvest Vendange Tardive and botrytised Sélection de Grains Nobles wines. The domaine continues to make some of the finest examples of these styles.
The family makes wine using fruit from its own vineyards and from local growers with whom they have long-term contracts. The range includes wines from all the regional varieties, though as with most top Alsatian producers, it is Hugel’s Rieslings which are most highly prized.
In the vineyard
The Hugel family’s vineyards cover more than 25 hectares, exclusively in Riquewihr, almost half of which are classified as Grand Cru. The vineyards, whose average vine age is at least 30 years, are managed organically. Yields are rigorously controlled by trellising methods, canopy management and thinning of excess bunches. Harvest is done by hand, where careful selection also manages yields.
As well as farming their own estate, the family purchase grapes from growers under long-term contract, farming more than 100 hectares. This enables Hugel to use fruit from a dozen of the best villages in the surrounding areas.
In the winery
Grapes are inspected and sorted on arrival to the winery, and presses are filled by gravity. Both stainless-steel tanks and oak foudres are used for maturation, varying depending on the grape variety and quality level.
Hugel divide their extensive range into four levels: Famille Hugel Classics, made from purchased fruit; Famille Hugel Estate, made exclusively from estate-grown grapes; Hugel Tradition and Famille Hugel Grossi Laüe (formerly Hugel Jubilee), both using a combination of purchased and estate grapes, from the most favoured sites in the portfolio.
The range also includes separate categories for their Vendange Tardive and Sélection de Grains Nobles wines, Gentil (a blend of regional varieties) and a wine from Grand Cru Schoenenbourg called Riesling Schoelhammer, launched in 2007.
While Alsace's 16,000 ha may have accounted for only two percent of France's vineyards in 2004, and although 50 percent of the production is still made by cooperatives, paradoxically the region remains the source of some of the world's finest white wines.
There are several reasons for this: the region's 47.5 degrees north latitude ensures high sunshine levels; it has a deep continental climate and superb mesoclimate created by the sheltering presence of the Vosges Mountains, whose foothills have in turn provided excellent aspects and elevation (up to 360m), notably along the southern, east-facing Haut-Rhin region; the diverse array of soil types (13 in all); the cultural meticulousness of the local French/Swiss/German people; and finally, the choice of noble varieties such as Riesling, Pinot Gris, Gewürztraminer, Muscat (Ottonel and d'Alsace), Sylvaner and Pinot Blanc.
Alsace is also famed for being the birthplace of biodynamic viticulture in France, dating back to 1924; hence it has the country's highest proportion of biodynamic producers.
Furthermore, the region enjoys a rich viticultural heritage stretching back to the Roman Empire; their good work was briefly interrupted by the marauding Alemanni hordes before being revived by the Church. Riesling was first documented in 1477, Muscat and Traminer first appeared in 1500, while Tokay Pinot Gris surfaced later in 1650. The region returned to France in 1648 at the end of the Thirty Years' War, when Louis XIV offered free land to the French, German and Swiss immigrants. The commercial imperative of the time was one of quantity fuelled by the anodyne Elbling grape and exported widely.
The French Revolution did nothing to reverse this trend, resulting in nearly 7,000 ha (John Baxevanis’s ‘The Wines of Champagne, Burgundy, Eastern and Southern France’ quotes 30,000 ha planted in Alsace by 1828, p.28) being planted by the time of the Franco-Prussian War; the province becoming German momentarily before being plagued by oidium, mildew and latterly phylloxera. Cheap blends predominated until the territory was handed back to France after the First World War. Plans to join France's Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée system in 1933 were postponed by the Second World War until 1962.
Alsace differs stylistically from its German cousins further up the Rhine in that the wines are typically fermented dry in large old oak foudres at ambient temperatures to give a fuller-bodied wine that is a natural accompaniment to the finest fare (unsurprisingly, Alsace boasts one of the highest concentrations of Michelin-starred restaurants).
Alsace is unique for a French wine region for many reasons, but perhaps most significantly in its labelling laws that stipulate that producers must specify the grape variety used on the label. Riesling, Pinot Gris, Gewürztraminer and a little Muscat are the noble names, along with some Pinot Blanc and Sylvaner for thirst- quenching purposes, and Pinot Noir for those who wish for red wine – not much of the latter travels to export markets.
There are three superior categories of wine to look out for: The best vineyards have been designated Grand Cru (25 of them appointed in 1983, a further 25 in 1985, and just one in 2008), while late-harvested wines achieving specified sugar levels may be labelled Vendanges Tardives or, for exceptional items, Selection des Grains Nobles. Apart from these two categorisations, there is no indication as to whether the wine will be fully dry or possibly contain residual sugar.
As elsewhere, it pays to follow the producer, both in the pursuit of quality and also for security of style. Some growers look for mineral intensity (Ostertag, Trimbach, André and Lucas Rieffel), others achieve an awesome opulence (Zind Humbrecht). An impressive number of top names have converted to biodynamic farming in recent years.
Riesling's twin peaks are its intense perfume and its piercing crisp acidity which it manages to retain even at high ripeness levels.
In Germany, Riesling constitutes around 20% of total plantings, yet it is responsible for all its greatest wines. It is planted widely on well-drained, south-facing slate-rich slopes, with the greatest wines coming from the best slopes in the best villages. It produces delicate, racy, nervy and stylish wines that cover a wide spectrum of flavours from steely and bone dry with beautifully scented fruits of apples,apricots, and sometimes peaches, through to the exotically sweet flavours of the great sweet wines.
It is also an important variety in Alsace where it produces slightly earthier, weightier and fuller wines than in Germany. The dry Rieslings can be austere and steely with hints of honey while the Vendages Tardives and Sélection de Grains Nobles are some of the greatest sweet wines in the world.
It is thanks to the New World that Riesling is enjoying a marked renaissance. In Australia the grape has developed a formidable reputation, delivering lime-sherbet fireworks amid the continental climate of Clare Valley an hour's drive north of Adelaide, while Barossa's Eden Valley is cooler still, producing restrained stony lime examples from the elevated granitic landscape; Tasmania is fast becoming their third Riesling mine, combining cool temperatures with high UV levels to deliver stunning prototypes.
New Zealand shares a similar climate, with Riesling and Pinot Gris neck to neck in their bid to be the next big thing after Sauvignon Blanc; perfectly suited is the South Island's Central Otago, with its granitic soils and continental climate, and the pebbly Brightwater area near Nelson. While Australia's Rieslings tend to be full-bodied & dry, the Kiwis are more inclined to be lighter bodied, more ethereal and sometimes off-dry; Alsace plays Mosel if you like.