Saturday, 27 April 2013

Alsace Wine and Gastronomy Society Launch with Etienne Hugel, 26 January 2013

On a Saturday afternoon in January, eighteen lovers of Alsace wine convened at the private rooms of Chui Huay Lim Teochew Cuisine to inaugurate the Alsace Wine and Gastronomy Society, Singapore.  Presiding over this auspicious occasion was our dear friend Etienne Hugel, the 12th generation proprietor of the prominent Alsace winery Hugel et Fils.

All photos courtesy of Dr Peter Wong.


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It's Riesling o'Clock...again!  Etienne mugs for the camera
Etienne and his lovely fiancee Kaoru Matsuyoshi (erstwhile sommelière at the Mandarin Oriental Tokyo) were in Singapore for a series of trade appointments and the Marina Bay Sands Epicurean Market, at which they were running a series of Alsace wine masterclasses and minding the Hugel booth.  However, I managed to borrow him for four hours on a Saturday afternoon to share some lovely food and (his) wine.  And just before a masterclass too, so there was a risk that we would reduce him to a gibbering mess before his presentation.  But your family doesn't run a winery for 374 years without developing some serious alcohol tolerance, so he remained an articulate, fun and informative host throughout the afternoon.


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Etienne Hugel - singing for his supper
Knowing Etienne's penchant for Chinese food, and suspecting that he may have been worn out by one Cantonese (often the obvious Chinese food match for white wines) meal too many, I decided to go Teochew at the Chui Huay Lim Club, the gathering place for Singapore's Teochew elite.  Great Teochew restaurants are not common, and one of Singapore's plus points is its richness in the diversity of Chinese dialect group cuisines.  Sure enough, Etienne and Kaoru confirmed that they had never tried Teochew cuisine before, so this was truly a groundbreaking experiment in pairing food with Hugel wines!

When I first walked through the doors at Chui Huay Lim, I thought they were going to kick my skinny Hokkien behind back out onto the street, but thankfully, the restaurants on the ground floor are open to the general public.  The full menu with wine selection (thanks to Etienne, Hugel et Fils and Monopole, Hugel's Singapore distributors) is below:

Teochew Classics Platter
2011 Hugel et Fils Gentil

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Teochew-style Steamed Pomfret
2010 Hugel et Fils Riesling "Classic"

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Stir-Fried Deshelled Prawns with Yellow Chives
2005 Hugel et Fils Riesling "Jubilee" (Grand Cru Schoenenbourg)

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Teochew-style Roasted Suckling Pig
2009 Hugel et Fils Pinot Gris "Tradition"

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Teochew Braised Duck
2009 Hugel et Fils Pinor Noir "Classic"

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Fried Kai Lan with Crispy Dried Sole
Preserved Olive Leaves Fried Rice
2007 Hugel et Fils Gewurztraminer "Jubilee" (Grand Cru Sporen)

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Sweet Yam Paste with Gingko Nuts (Orh Nee)
2001 Hugel et Fils Gewurztraminer Vendanges Tardives
1998 Hugel et Fils Gewurztraminer Sélection de Grains Nobles

By common consensus, the wines of the sitting were the 2005 Riesling Jubilee and the 2001 Gewurztraminer Vendanges Tardives.  The Riesling is vinified from grapes grown on the slopes of the Schoenenbourg Grand Cru.  Yet there is no mention of this august vineyard on Hugel's trademark yellow labels.  Not because the Hugels do not regard it as significant; Etienne's late uncle Johnny, perhaps Alsace's greatest ever ambassador, asked for his ashes to be scattered on the Schoenenbourg.  Rather, the Hugel view on Alsace's grand cru system is that it does not respect the differences in soil types, and that its delineations owe more to political expediency than scientific fact and tradition.  The Jubilee is not a lesser wine for not being an official "grand cru", however, with that gorgeous honeyed, petrolly and white flower nose and a load of cool minerals and tangy citrus on the palate - a classic grand cru Riesling.  While the Hugels regard the 2007 as possibly their greatest Schoenenbourg, that monumental wine is, for my palate, still closed as at mid-2012 and less approachable than the 2005.

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As for the Gewurztraminer, it comes from late-harvest grapes from Hugel's substantial holdings in the Sporen (again, no grand cru on the label due to Hugel's opposition to the system).  Elegance and power given liquid form, with a melange of floral, spicy and honeyed characteristics.

A meal with Etienne is always a wonderfully stimulating session, and while we sipped the Jubilee, he lobbed in a hand grenade by proclaiming "The Trimbachs believe that they make better Gewurztraminers than we do.  But I know that we make better Rieslings!"  This is a big statement, especially considering that Trimbach's Clos Ste Hune is often regarded as Alsace's greatest dry Riesling.  If anything, the Clos Ste Hune is painfully (literally) inaccessible in its youth, and the general improvement across the board for Hugel's entry level Riesling in recent years has been simply remarkable.  Couple that with a great 2007 Jubilee and a trilogy of reportedly mindblowing Riesling Sélections de Grains Nobles from 2009-2011 (which I haven't yet tasted but will do my best to get my hands on!) and you start to see where he is coming from.

For my part, I was just glad that the food and pairings did justice to the excellent wines.  After the meal, Kaoru asked how we finalised the wine pairings.  Fully expecting to be evisceratedI admitted that I had never tasted the food at Chui Huay Lim before, but was simply guided by my recollections of the Hugel wines and a little commonsense.  She looked at me with no little incredulity.  "Fantastic, you made really good choices!" she smiled, to my immense relief.  But I could hardly take much credit; as I reminded her, she was about to marry into a family that specialised in producing food-friendly wines!

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Well-watered, well fed: some of the guests at the end of the party
Of course, the last word must go to Etienne.  "I thought this lunch was a real eye-opener, this time to Teochew cuisine but also to the great group of fascinating people that you gathered around the food and wines", he said.  "The fantastic world we lives in makes this all possible and we should enjoy every opportunity we have, sharing and exchanging and making our hearts richer".

"I felt very privileged to have participated in the initial gathering of the Alsace Wine and Gastronomy Society.  Your energy to share your passion for Alsace is simply remarkable and my whole region should be behind you supporting the Society".

As always, merci and arigatoo gozaimashita, Etienne and Kaoru.  Your friendship and support has been priceless, and we look forward to welcoming you both back to Singapore before too long!

If you are interested in joining the Society mailing list, please drop me a line at julianswriting AT gmail DOT com.

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