5 July 2018 We're reviving this three-year-old article as background to today's Alsace tasting article with its references to various Hugel bottlings. We're still so sad to have lost Etienne Hugel since this article was written.
17 April 2015 Three generations of the Hugel family came to London this week to celebrate the newest addition to their family: their first single-vineyard wine, Schoelhammer Riesling from the grand cru Schoenenbourg.
There is a definite familial resemblance in the Hugel clan, both among the wines and among those who make them. The 11th, 12th and 13th generations of this Alsace dynasty are more similar in personality than in appearance. All three are self-assured, entertaining and extrovert, and each has a twinkle in his eye that speaks of the sincere enjoyment they feel for the family business.
Jean-Frédéric, on the left, is as articulate and knowledgable as his pink-shirted father Étienne, though perhaps less irrepressible. Meanwhile André (centre) was content to deliver occasional wisdom from his long life in wine while countenancing some good-humoured irreverence from his descendants. Their combined presentation was a performance that almost threatened to upstage the wines themselves.
When they were able to get a word in, however, the wines were quite able to speak for themselves. The Classic range is their largest-volume brand, and Jean-Frédéric emphasised how much harder it is to create good quality at lower than higher prices. They have been focusing on improving their Classic Riesling in recent years, by ensuring that the fruit that goes into it is of the best possible quality – something that resulted in their terminating a contract with one long-standing grower whose crop wasn't up to scratch.
The next step up is their Jubilee bottling, which I liked enough to make a wine of the week in 2011 – and still think is superb. This is sourced from up to six plots, all from the Schoenenbourg grand cru – though it is not bottled as such. In earlier incarnations, this cuvée wine was known as Réserve Personnelle, two older vintages of which were presented for tasting. The 1983 was magnificent, but it was the 1953 that showed just how long lived and excellent this particular Riesing can be.
Then came the first vintage of their next generation Riesling: Schoelhammer, from a single vineyard in the heart of Schoenenbourg (pictured below). The name references the hammer from the Hugel coat of arms and the shells found in the soil of the vineyard. While the wine from this site had always been vinified separately, 2007 was the first vintage that it was bottled by itself and 4,288 bottles were produced.
The result is every bit as impressive as its siblings, exhibiting all the classic attributes of dry Riesling with an exuberance that reflects the family personality perfectly.
Jancis writes - Allow me to muscle in here. I had the pleasure of spending an evening with the three generations of Hugels the night before their presentation in London's new landmark, The Shard. Irrepressible is the word for Étienne, but, as Richard has written, each generation has a powerful presence. I thought I would add a little explanatory note to the map above. In 1989 when the house celebrated its 350th anniversary, they invited a host of wine luminaries from around the world to the little village of Riquewihr to celebrate with them. On his iPad the other night Étienne showed me a succession of pictures of the great and the good looking extraordinarily youthful. To pick a few names at random there was Len Evans, Robert and Margrit Mondavi, Piero Antinori, Alexandre de Lur-Saluces, Anthony Barton, Robert Drouhin, Patrick de Ladoucette and, among scribes, Edmund Penning-Rowsell, Steven Spurrier, Tony Aspler and incredibly hirsute versions of Robert Joseph and James Suckling. Gérard Jaboulet was invited but nominated his father Louis instead 'because I'll have lots more chances to visit you' (which was sadly not the case whereas Louis died only recently). This array of names shows how much affection was felt for the Hugel family in general and chain-smoker Johnny H, who died in 2009, in particular. (His brother André observed wryly the other night, 'the only chance the rest of us had to speak was when Johnny drew breath'.)
Because when we were there in 1989 we had all been charged with planting a vine, the original intention had been to have their first Grand Cru Schoenenbourg wine made from the vineyard we all planted, the one in olive green above, or at the very least marketed as such. This was discussed among the many family members but in the end 'we Lutherans', as Étienne describes the family, decided that a plot 150 m away, the one in red above, made better wine - indeed makes their very best dry Riesling – and that this should be made clear. 'We only do things if we can decide unanimously', said Étienne, recognising the huge debt they all owe to his brother and winemaker Marc Hugel. 'He was the first to vinify each plot separately – as long as 25 years ago.' The vines responsible for Schoelhammer are 22 years old, and the soils a marl that yields wines that are particularly austere in youth, which is why they have waited so long before releasing it.
André, born in 1929, is not only extremely spry but speaks excellent English, which he perfected when working in Reading in the early 1950s with the father of Geoffrey Jamieson, who used to run Justerini & Brooks. He reminded us that when Alsace was occupied by the Germans during the second world war (a picture of Riquewihr village street bedecked with swastikas was also on Étienne's iPad), they were not allowed to speak French. On returning home, he felt particularly lucky to have the 1953 as his debut vintage as winemaker, 'the first great vintage after 1949'. He used a Willmes press to make it, 'the first in France'.
Richard's tasting notes are presented in the order tasted, with a reminder that RS stands for residual sugar.