Monday, 23 January 2012

Hugel et Fils - The Ambassadors of Alsace

In the middle of Alsace’s recent Indian summer,  I met with 12th generation winemaker Etienne Hugel, the debonair face of renowned family winery Hugel et Fils.  Here's my article.  An edited version of this appears in the January 2012 edition of Flavours Magazine (download published article here)

Riquewihr is your archetypal fairytale village, with vibrantly-coloured wood-framed houses and crooked cobblestone paths straight out of some Brothers Grimm story.  When you walk through the town gates, you are greeted by the fragrant smells of the countryside: the aroma of potatoes frying with chunks of sausage and onions wafts from the outdoor markets, the spicy notes of fresh-baked gingerbread from hole-in-the-wall boulangeries, the musty, yeasty bouquet of fermentation as streetside vendors offer a taste of the new season’s wine for the princely sum of 1€. 

The fantasy is abruptly dashed as a torrent of tourists cascades down the main street, clicking away with their Nikons and haggling with the local merchants.  After fighting our way through the tide, the great stone building on Rue de la Première Armée beckons like a lighthouse, proudly proclaiming the names of its masters: Hugel et Fils. 

Hugel is undoubtedly one of the world’s most important wineries, and its history reflects that of Alsace and Alsatian wine.  In 1639, Hans Ulrich Hugelin established the family in Riquewihr, among the first of the Swiss migrants brought in to repopulate the province after the devastation of the Thirty Years’ War.  The legendary Jean “Johnny” Hugel drafted the stringent laws governing the production of late harvest (VT and SGN; see box) wines in 1977 and presided over the first advisory committee on Alsatian grand cru vineyards from 1975-1978.  His nephew Etienne inherited his mantle as the company’s travelling face, with such success that over 90% of Hugel’s annual million-bottle output is now destined for overseas.

Riquewihr today is a village of some 1,000 inhabitants, overwhelmed by the 2 million visitors who pass through every year.  “Can you imagine”, Etienne asks, motioning at the hubbub outside, “Thirty years ago, tourists only came in the summer.  Now, every day it’s like this.”  I ask him how he feels, having witnessed this transformation first-hand.  He shrugs, preferring to focus on the positive.  “It is good for our people because the tourists spend their money and support them.  We have many small growers and they get the chance to sell their wine”.

Together with his brother Marc (winemaker) and cousin Jean-Philippe (CEO), Etienne runs Hugel’s operations in his own unique style.  Apart from travelling the world to convert new tasters and build relationships, he actively uses Twitter (“I swear I was one of the first in France to get a Twitter account!”), Facebook, YouTube and blogs to spread the gospel of Hugel and Alsace.  “The web offers an amazing opportunity to have direct contact with people”, he says.  “I started on Facebook with a personal identity and one for the company.  I now find myself not always quite knowing where is the limit between work and private; some may say I am candid but to me, the sharing is what wine is all about”!

Vines and Wines

As we walk into the courtyard, a well-dressed elderly gentleman walks up to Etienne and kisses him on both cheeks.  “Daddy”, admonishes Etienne fondly, dabbing his father’s cheek with a handkerchief where he nicked himself shaving that morning.  Despite the size of its operations and polished professionalism, you are continually reminded that Hugel et Fils is strongly anchored around family and community - the Hugels live here, work here and are fiercely proud of what they have built. 

After saying goodbye, Etienne drives us around the vineyards in his VW Phaeton (which Etienne calls his “Protestant Bentley, bought second-hand”), firstly to the slopes of the grand cru Schoenenbourg, which rise steeply over Riquewihr and provide the Hugels’ best Riesling.  Even though it’s late September, there are no harvesters here, just verdant vines and plump grapes basking in the sunshine.  “The simpler regional grapes are being harvested now”, Etienne explains.  “Our estate fruit gets harvested later”.  Our next stop is the marly-clay grand cru Sporen, where tight clusters of Pinot Gris and Gewurztraminer’s trademark blush dot the vines.  We taste the Gewurztraminer straight off the vine, sweet with flavours of tropical fruit; despite the cool August, recent unseasonal warmth has allowed the grapes to ripen beautifully. At the low-lying regional plots, we watch the harvesting crew squatting by the vines, secateurs speedily clicking away.  Hugel insists that all grapes are harvested by hand, even for its entry-level wines.  “Our philosophy is that the wine is already in the grape”, shares Etienne.


After a quick tour of the cellar, we head to the underground tasting room to sample some of the current vintages.   Hugel owns around 29 hectares of vineyards with a further hundred hectares under long-term contract, but has a relatively compact and easily understandable range of wines.   Its dry wines fall within three categories, Classic (made from bought fruit), Tradition (from the younger estate vineyards) and Jubilee (from the best estate fruit, often grand cru).  For the Classic and Tradition ranges, vintage variability is subtle, with an almost Champagne-like “house-style” consistency (and a very un-Champagne-like value for money!).
First, we sample the Gentil, a fruity and refreshing blend, then a simple Muscat, light and grapey.  Pinots Noirs are next; I’m not a fan of Hugel’s 2007 and told Etienne as much, but the 2009 Classic is far superior, with lots of aromatic fruit upfront.  The single vineyard 2009 “Les Neveux”, named for Johnny’s three nephews who now run the family business, has a beguilingly subtle nose but packs serious black fruit on the palate with hints of roast meat.  “Robert Parker gave this 92 points”, says Etienne, matter-of-factly, “not bad for a white wine region”.

A series of impressive Jubilee Rieslings and Pinots Gris follows, before the house specialty: late-harvest wines of astounding complexity and character.   We start with a mystery wine: Etienne will only disclose that it is a Gewurztraminer VT, and invites us to guess the vintage.  We are astounded to learn it is a 1991; amazingly fresh and vibrant, it typifies the tremendous cellaring potential of Alsace late-harvest wines.  “The year my daughter Charlotte was born”, Etienne explains proudly.  “1991 was a great year for vintage port and I didn’t want her drinking fortified wine her entire life!”  But the 2005 Gewurztraminer SGN (97 Parker points) steals the show, with intense flavours of dried fruit, figs and butterscotch.

Asian Focus

Etienne has trained his sights on Asia, believing that it represents the future for Alsace wine.  “I love Singapore!” he exclaims, excitedly describing his recent breakfast at Tiong Bahru Market where he paired his wines with local hawker favourites. “While sales are not that big, it represents what the rest of Asia is going to be in 15-20 years, so it is very important to us”. 

Despite concerted efforts from various wine producers and marketing bodies, Etienne acknowledges that Alsace remains a hard sell. “Alsace is made up of mostly small private and family producers that do not have the marketing muscles of the industry's corporate giants.  In Asia we have the huge handicap of not being red.  In China, for example, red wines account for 90% of the market and many consumers don’t even know that wine can be white!  But the more people are educated, the more they will discover the beauty of Alsace wine with Asia's amazing cuisines”.   Hugel has spared no effort in this respect, with Etienne spending a good deal of the year in Asia and setting up websites in Japanese, Korean and Chinese (both simplified and traditional).

There are sure signs that his “Look East” policy is paying dividends, although we come across one of the more unlikely.  “For Mongolia”, Etienne laughs, indicating a pallet in the loading area.  “It will travel by train all the way through Europe and Asia to Ulaanbaatar.  I told them they had better get the wines on the train soon otherwise it will reach Mongolia frozen!”

Family Matters

Management also has further duties, such as overseeing the induction of the 13th generation into the family business.  Earlier this year, Etienne allocated responsibility for the US market to his son Jean-Frederic - “I have been travelling to America for 27 years and there is only so much big talk and bullshit I can take”, he jokes – and had him, Charlotte and their cousins work the Hugel booth at June’s Vinexpo in Bordeaux.

“Their involvement is a blessing for me and the family,” Etienne enthuses.  “At this point our youngsters are still in their exploration phase, summer jobs in the tasting room but also in the vineyards or in the harvest.  Our job for now is to let them discover and understand all aspects of our business as the choice will be theirs one day.  But we didn’t need to force them: they discovered that when your name is Hugel there is probably no better thing to do than continuing the family tradition.
“After all”, he concludes, "how many of us can afford doing a job that is also a passion?

Rue du Premiere Armée
Riquewihr, Alsace

Tasting room and boutique open 7 days a week; appointments for cellar tours must be made in advance.   Hugel is distributed by Muihua in Malaysia and by Monopole in Singapore.

Related Posts: 

An Evening with Etienne Hugel -


This is a blog of my journey in the world of eating and drinking. I am no expert and am certainly not an authority, but I believe I have a decent palate and I try to do right, whether by myself or by the hardworking souls who devote their lives to creating experiences for us. 

While the Internet has generally been a force for social good, it has also allowed a gaggle of barely literate teenagers with kick-arse cameras to pollute the ether with food blogs. Enough has been written about the problems with these blogs so I shan’t add my two cents on this topic, suffice to say I’ll try my best to ensure I don’t fall into the same trap. 
I have limited time to devote to my writing, so you won’t read about every cafe or foodcourt sandwich joint I visit.   But, if there is something which I hope will be of interest to you, whether because it’s a special event or a place that is not often reviewed and is worthy of greater publicity, I would love to share it with you.

Welcome and I am honoured that you are sharing this journey with me.