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Whites that last a century

31 Aug 2013 by Jancis Robinson

This is a longer version of an article also published in the Financial Times.

See tasting notes on Huet wines back to 1924.

I've just been re-reading what I wrote about my encounter with the late Gaston Huet, the most respected producer of Vouvray in the Loire. 'He believes in hanging on to his wines for years before selling them', I wrote in 1981. I suspect that even he might be surprised to see a wine as old as 1919 from his beloved Domaine Le Haut-Lieu being released by Berry Bros. By several curious turns of events, the London-based wine merchant is in the process of acquiring nearly 2,000 cases of grand old Huet Vouvrays. Along with Huet's German importer Vinaturel, they will be offering various combinations of this historic stock over the next few months and I would urge anyone interested in fully mature white wine to register their interest.

Cheap Vouvray may be one of the nastiest of wines - equal and unresolved parts acid, sugar and sulphur - but Huet Vouvrays can be some of the greatest wines in the world, or at least they have been. There has been a small revolution at this historic domaine, which is why these wines are being put on sale now.

The domaine consists of three of the best vineyards in the Vouvray appellation, arguably the world's Chenin Blanc capital. The Huet family bought the initial vineyard, Le Haut-Lieu, with its old wine stocks, in 1928. When I visited Monsieur Huet in 1981 he was still enjoying the 1921s and 1913s. To Haut-Lieu's 10 hectares, Gaston Huet added 8 ha of Le Mont in 1957 and the 6-ha Clos du Bourg in 1963. At that point, he felt he had acquired the crème de la crème of the appellation and had a domaine he could personally manage.

A quiet, bespectacled administrator, he had been mayor of Vouvray since the great 1947 vintage and gradually began adding more and more duties so that by the 1970s he was constantly in demand in Paris for meetings. How fortunate, then, that his daughter married Noël Pinguet, ex-mathematician son of the local butcher who was already rather smitten by wine. From 1976 Noël steadily took over running the domaine from a father-in-law he described to me as 'méticuleux et maniaque'. Noël was pretty meticulous and maniacal himself and by 1990 had won any family arguments about biodynamics to the extent that the domaine was now farmed entirely according to phases of the moon and without chemicals in the vineyard.

He became increasingly absorbed in how these new methods emphasised the different characters of their three vineyards, each of them on the plateau high above the river and facing south. Le Haut-Lieu around the original house and set back from the river has several metres of brown clay and generally produces the simplest and most forward wines (even though Pinguet managed to celebrate his 60th birthday with an 1893 Haut-Lieu). The longest lived, most structured wines tend to come from Le Clos du Bourg, which has very shallow, well-drained, clay-limestone soils and is usually the first picked. Substantially replanted in the 1970s, it is responsible for particularly supple wines. Usually last picked is low-yielding Le Mont, whose compact, silex soils stretch in front of the house towards the Loire.

Classic Huet winemaking is the antithesis of, say, Chardonnay vinification. The last grapes may not be picked before November, ideally shrivelled to super-sweet raisins (Pinguet prefers shrivelling to noble rot for sweet Chenin). The wines never see new wood but are fermented slowly in cellars that are by then pretty chilly. The second, softening malolactic fermentation is avoided at all costs and the wines put into bottle early, with eye-watering acidity, to do most of their maturing in glass. The acid level is more or less the same in all bottlings, but the amount of sugar in the grapes, and resulting wines, can vary enormously according to the growing season. There are four basic styles of still wine, as well as some stunning gentle fizz labelled Perlant or Pétillant that is one of the all-time great contributions to the canon of sparkling wine, the honey and apples character of Chenin producing something quite distinct from champagne.

Sec has residual sugar of 6-7 g/l. Most dry white wines have a sugar level under 2 g/l but, according to Pinguet, a Vouvray this dry 'would be horrid for the first 20 years'. Demi-Sec Vouvray is one of my favourite styles. The sugar level is typically 20-25 g/l but all the acidity makes the wine taste just off dry. These sort of wines, preferably with a bit of age, can be a beautiful match with creamy, savoury sauces. Then there is full-on sweet Moelleux (literally 'like marrow', pronounced 'mwah-lurr') with between 40 and 60 g/l of sugar and then, occasionally, an even sweeter Première Trie wine is made from the very ripest grapes.

In 2002 Gaston died. Death duties in France are well named. In 2003 a major share in the business was sold to Filipino-American businessman Anthony Hwang, who had already invested in an estate, Királyudvar, in another great centre of sweet winemaking, Tokaji in Hungary. Then in February last year Pinguet shocked le tout Vouvray and beyond by announcing his departure, three years before it had been planned when he reached 70.

The estate is now run by his old team, aided and abetted by the next generation of Hwangs, Hugo (34) and Sarah (31). According to Noël, the Hwangs decided not to acquire the family stocks of wine comprising everything prior to 1975 plus wines from the great 1989 vintage - not necessarily just the best vintages but family anniversary years. According to Sarah, they saw them as part of the family heritage of the man she lovingly refers to as 'Mr Gaston' - and the Hwangs thought they had exclusive distribution rights whenever the time came to sell them. Pinguet decided otherwise. She describes the day the old wines left the cellars (to be labelled and so on) as 'a chilling day'. There is clearly ill feeling, accentuated by claims, disputed by her, that the Hwangs were putting pressure on Pinguet to produce more dry wine than he wanted to.

The last Pinguet vintage was 2011. The domaine suffered almost 50% hail damage in both 2012 and 2013.

You can buy a fine representative of Noël Pinguet's last vintage in Clos du Bourg Sec 2011, which is already a charming, vibrant Loire Chenin - and £22.95 from Uncorked, London EC2.

You can also also find the following older Huet Vouvrays in stock at The Wine Society:

Le Mont Moelleux 1971, £180
Clos du Bourg Moelleux 1971, £180
Le Mont Moelleux 1961, £180
Le Mont Première Trie Moelleux 1961, £215

MATURE HUET FAVOURITES

I have been lucky enough to taste 13 wines from this Huet family collection and my lowest mark was 16.5/20. The wines below, listed in declining score order, scored between 18 and 19.5.

Le Haut-Lieu Première Trie Moelleux 1959

Le Haut-Lieu Première Trie Moelleux 1989
Le Mont Moelleux 1971
Demi-Sec Pétillant 1969
Le Haut-Lieu Demi-Sec 1957

The photograph of Noël Pinguet and his artist wife Marie-Françoise (née Huet) was taken earlier this year by Richard Kelley MW, whose excellent, detailed profile of the domaine can be found here on his website devoted to Loire wines: www.richardkelley.co.uk.

Tags:  Loire
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