Saturday, 4 February 2012

An Evening with Etienne Hugel

My tribute to Etienne Hugel is here.

I first met Etienne Hugel at a wonderful Hugel et Fils wine dinner at the Mandarin Oriental’s Cherry Garden restaurant in January 2011.  What wasn’t so wonderful was the attendance, a real shame considering the quality of the food and the thought that had gone into pairing it with Hugel’s exquisite vintages.

So when our paths crossed again at Hugel HQ in Alsace last September, I suggested to Etienne that if he was open to the idea, I could assemble a decent crowd of wine lovers to welcome him back to Singapore.  As it turns out, he had a big surprise in store for us. 

Emily, me, Etienne and Kaoru

Now for all of Hugel’s successes and triumphs throughout the centuries, if there is a single achievement that burnishes the family’s legacy on Alsatian winemaking, it would be the revival of quality late-harvest wines, spearheaded by Etienne’s uncle, the late Johnny Hugel (please read my earlier post to learn more about Johnny’s efforts on this front).  A month before our tasting, he wrote to me saying he would bring the “Gewurztraminer Collection”, a vertical of Hugel’s house specialty late-harvest gewurztraminers – VT ’01, ’03, ’05 and ’07, and SGN ’88 and ’98 – all courtesy of Hugel et Fils and the good people at Monopole, Hugel’s exclusive Singapore distributors effective 1 February 2012.

Wow.  With effusive thanks, I volunteered to provide the dry wines for the post-tasting dinner; some friends have decent collections and this was surely the time to break them out!  “No”, came the reply, “Please leave all wine arrangements to me.  I will bring some great bottles along, trust me!”  And what would he like for dinner?  “Chinese, of course”!

And so we turned out to Kam Boat Chinese Cuisine (Level 5, Shaw Centre), an old-school Hong Kong-style Cantonese restaurant for our tasting and banquet.  And with many thanks to Etienne, his gorgeous partner Kaoru Matsuyoshi (sommelière at the Mandarin Oriental, Tokyo) and a good group of friends, we had a fantastic night.
Our hosts - I'm just glad they could put up with us all
night and still have such big smiles on their faces.

I won’t delve into detailed tasting notes, suffice to say that a vertical tasting is always an educational experience, telling the story of each vintage (in this case, conditions for that year and the extent of botrytis influence) and ultimately, the ageing ability of the wines.  So the 2003 VT, so high in sugar ripeness as a result of the canicule (heatwave) that ravaged Europe that year, had some volatile elements and lacked proper structure (gewurztraminer as a varietal typically lacks acidity), despite its baser appeal to our desire for sweetness.  The 1988 SGN is not going to get any better due to that vintage’s lower acidity, although the residual sugar was nicely integrated after 24 years’ bottle age.  However, the 1998 SGN is still going strong, 2007 VT was excellent (will improve with time) and the 2001 VT was the unanimous favourite of the Collection, with sprightly tropical fruit and spice, great definition and a lengthy finish – drinking beautifully at the moment.  Sadly, it is not for sale in the Singapore market except as part of the Collection case.
Six Golden Wines!

As a marketing and promotions guy, Etienne could probably sell sand to the Arabs, and true to form, he ended the tasting as follows: “As you so often see in DVDs and CDs, there is a bonus track!”  But this was no B-side filler, rather a vin liquereux par excellence – the 2007 Gewurztraminer Sélection de Grains Nobles “S”, a special cuvée made only in exceptional years from an even more stringent selection of botrytised grapes.  Whereas a “regular” (if such a word could ever be used to describe a Hugel SGN) cuvée may be made only once every 3-4 years, the “S” is made perhaps only once a decade - as in 1976, 1989, 2000 and 2007. 
Some of the session's less animated participants

Just a little story behind the bottle - I had crashed Etienne’s Marina Bay Sands sommelier tasting the Thursday before, and he cracked open this very bottle.  As with so many other excellent entries in the Hugel library, it is not for sale here and given the very limited production and an ex-domaine price tag of 135€, this is not entirely surprising. “This is the only bottle in Singapore and there is no allocation, so we are now drinking the entire stock!” he announced gleefully.   After pouring out a little slosh each for the assembled cast of wine stewards from Santi, Guy Savoy, Les Amis and db Bistro and the MBS Wine Director, Etienne recorked the remaining half-bottle and placed it in front of me.  “There you go, for Saturday”.  Being a highly-strung paranoid person, I guarded this bottle over the next few days in my highly-strung paranoid way, so no cooked food, no durians, no pungent exotica found its way into my fridge for the next few days.  The thought of letting my guests down was incomprehensible.  In the grand tradition of self-harming gourmands, I started actively contemplating a Vatel-esque suicide should anything happen to this liquid treasure; it was probably the least I could do to preserve my family honour.

Anyway, back to the SGN “S”, which I got to the dinner in good shape.  One of only seven wines given the perfect score of 20/20 in the French wine bible Bettane & Dessauve (along with the likes of 2005 Yquem and 2006 DRC Le Montrachet), this is one of those ridiculously intense, luscious elixirs that causes one to go weak at the knees and contemplate the meaning of life.  Now, I must admit I am divided over whether I prefer this or the excellent 2005 SGN, which Etienne graciously poured for us in Riquewihr, but having had the good fortune to taste them both, I am not going to complain!

To go with a luxurious eight-course banquet from Kam Boat, Etienne provided nine different labels of his dry wines to demonstrate their synergy with Asian food.  For me, the standouts were the 2010 Gentil (a blend of sylvaner, pinot blanc, riesling, pinot gris, gewurztraminer and muscat, in order of proportion), 2010 Riesling Classic, 2009 Pinot Noir and 2007 Gewurztraminer Jubilee (from the Hugel’s family holdings in the heart of the grand cru Sporen).  2010 looks to have been a great year for riesling, with explosive aromatics also beefing up the normally gentle (geddit?) Gentil.  As for the pinot noir, I did give Etienne a hard time over the 2007, but the '09 has a lot more fresh fruit and floral quality, an excellent Alsace red.
Roasted chicken stuffed with glutinous rice - looks like
she was taken by surprise

A valuable wine pairing lesson we learnt: do try an auspicious golden gewurztraminer VT/SGN (Hugel, of course) with your yee sang.  The combination of sweet and fruity with, well, sweet and fruity, actually works wonders.  And the wine actually stands up well to the overwhelmingly saccharine, syrupy yee sang sauce, which was a big surprise to me.

Etienne, thank you and Kaoru very much for your generosity, hospitality and for being all-round amazing hosts.  You have given all of us a truly wonderful evening and a lasting memory of your wines and of Alsace.

This is not a token cork photo - Hugel wines are now all sealed
with DIAM, cork-based stoppages treated to remove all trace of TCA

Sincere thanks go also to the kind folks at Les Amis – Armin Leitgeb for entertaining us before dinner, and Royston Soo, Timothy Goh and Daisuke Kawai for helping to store our wines in their state-of-the-art cellars and their generous loan of wine glasses for our special guests.

Related Post: Hugel et Fils - The Ambassadors of Alsace


  1. A wonderful man and wonderful life! Etienne the world has lost a champion. You departed us too early, but our memories will endure. It is a sad sad for Alsace.

  2. Thanks Mabel. My tribute to Etienne is here: