The 13th generation has just started working at this famous Alsace producer, notable for setting the rules for (and later boycotting) the region’s grand crus. Margaret Rand meets a few of the family.

Hugel at a glance
Holdings 30ha of estate vineyards plus grapes bought from another 100ha
Grape varieties Riesling, Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc, Gewurztraminer, Muscat, Sylvaner, Pinot Noir
Annual production 1 million bottles
Key personnel Marc Hugel, winemaker; Etienne Hugel, sales and exports; Jean Philippe Hugel, CEO
Exports 90% of production Wines produced Classic (including Gentil), Tradition, Jubilee, Vendange Tardive, Sélection de Grains Nobles; new Schoelhammer

It is said – usually by the producers themselves – that there are Catholic and Protestant wines in Alsace. The former are more oxidative, forward and ebullient; the latter more reductive, austere and slower to reveal themselves. Riquewihr is a largely Protestant village, and the Hugels of Riquewihr are Lutheran. So there you have it, the style in a nutshell: Hugel wines are tight, structured, mineral and dry – unless they’re sweet.

The last point sounds obvious until you remember that for years now, Alsace sweetness levels have been rising faster than Greek borrowing. Thirty years ago, says winemaker and viticulturist Marc Hugel, the problem in Alsace was getting ripe grapes. Now the issue is avoiding overripe ones. Wines that were routinely dry are now regularly off-dry or sweet, and sweet ones are super-sweet.

To insist on dryness for anything not labelled Vendange Tardive (VT) or Sélection de Grains Nobles (SGN) is to swim against the tide. To refuse to put the words ‘Grand Cru’ on the front label when your Jubilee range comes from the grands crus of Schoenenbourg and Sporen – Hugel’s finest estate vineyards, with Jubilee wines only made in the very best vintages – is also to swim against the tide. And the irony is that Johnny Hugel had been in charge of setting the grand cru rules.

Hugel family, Alsace

Three generations of Hugel. From top left: Etienne, Andre, Jean Philippe, Marc, Jean Frederic & Marc Andre

Johnny Hugel (his name was Jean, but the British trade renamed him) also drafted the guidelines for the 1984 regulations governing VT and SGN; before that, the German designations were used. He was an influential figure in an influential family: the Hugels, like so many wine families in Alsace, arrived during the Thirty Years’ War (1618-48) and have made wine ever since. Johnny ran the company, with his brothers André and Georges, between 1948 and 1997, when the next generation came to the fore. André still visits the office every day and is a formidable historian of Riquewihr. His mission now is to obtain fair treatment for Alsace veterans of the Second World War, who were conscripted into the German army and receive no pensions.

Johnny tramped all over Alsace with a geologist for three years, examining where the grand cru boundaries should go. ‘If the classification had been honest,’ reflects André’s son Marc, ‘it would have taken one minute, because everyone knew where the boundaries should have been.’ Instead, they were drawn generously. ‘There should probably be 20 grands crus, and the rest should be premier cru,’ says Marc’s nephew Jean Frédéric. So Hugel, having been instrumental in setting up the classification, walked away from it. Trimbach did the same; so did Léon Beyer. No Hugel wine has ever been declared as grand cru, even though many could have been.

The trouble with making a high-minded decision is that the rest of the world goes on without you. Everyone agrees the Alsace Grand Cru classification is not all it should be; but at the same time, most people accept that, overall, it has been a good thing. The decision to boycott it is clearly a difficult one to rethink, yet one wonders how much it benefits Hugel these days. In some Alsace tastings, its flagship Jubilee wines will be ranged with basic Alsace – and that is not necessarily an advantage, given that the former are tight and reticent, and the latter mostly off-dry and come-hitherish. And so Hugel’s grand cru position is under discussion.

There is something else: the best parcel of Riesling in Hugel’s Schoenenbourg holding has just been released, in April 2015, as a separate bottling called Schoelhammer. The first vintage will be 2007, which neatly gets around the grand cru problem, because if you want to declare a grand cru, you must apply to do so before the vintage. So it won’t be. But it is splendid.Hugel

What makes it so good? Tension, in a word. If you want another word, minerality. Schoenenbourg is impressive to look at – it rises steeply from just outside the old walls of Riquewihr – but it’s not homogeneous. Schoelhammer is a perfect kernel of 30 south-facing rows mid-slope, and it was the first Hugel parcel to go organic. ‘It’s clear to the taste when a wine is terroir-driven or varietal,’ says Etienne; and it’s clear here.

The world moves on. They’re all keen to stress that they’re not averse to change; it’s just that they like to do things gradually – change the details rather than take U-turns. The Jubilee range, named to mark the company’s 350th year in 1989, is being renamed because few people know what it refers to; each wine will now have a separate name.

Does this, along with the Schoelhammer launch, constitute a grand cru coming-out? ‘It’s a terroir coming-out,’ says Jean Frédéric. They’re going to make more of a fuss about their undoubtedly excellent vineyards. And Marc is the person to talk to about these: geology has become a passion of his. Did you know that the old vineyard roads in Alsace follow geological fault lines? There are umpteen faults running southwest to northeast, with other, transverse faults running across them. It’s as complicated as the Côte d’Or, which explains why the soils are so many, and so varied.

Obsession with precision

Marc’s winemaking style has evolved over the years. He loves finesse and elegance, and he doesn’t want the mechanics of winemaking to show in the wines, but in 2007 he started doing a little battonage (lees stirring) – not much, and only when it suits the year – just to open up the wines. And he wants absolute accuracy in everything. When he picks for SGN these days, it’s individual berries, not whole clusters. ‘The first 15 minutes of picking [for SGN] are the most important,’ he emphasises, for pinpoint accuracy and purity in the final wine. ‘If you want the best possible wine, you have to be incredibly precise.’

Sweet wines – VT and SGN, and especially the former – are flagships for Hugel. ‘Gewurztraminer VT is 90% of our sweet wine production,’ says Etienne, Jean Frédéric’s father. ‘People confuse sweet wines with dessert wines; it goes beyond pairing them with dessert.’

But the same climate change that has made the general run of Alsace wine sweeter than it used to be has made VT and SGN less exceptional. When Jean Frédéric lists great sweet-wine vintages, he names 1989, 1997, 2000 – then 2005, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010 and 2011. Yes, they are more selective than ever, make less per year than they used to, and, says Etienne, sweet wine is still only 2% of their production, but still. Great sweet wine is no longer a rarity in the world – and world demand has not risen. ‘We sell all we produce,’ says Etienne, but one might surmise that shouting a bit louder about the rest of the range might not be a bad thing.

The world moves on. If Schoelhammer is the future, then it works.

Margaret Rand was the 2013 Louis Roederer Feature Writer of the Year for her articles in Decanter

Hugel: a timeline

1639 Hans Ulrich Hugel, who settled in Riquewihr during the Thirty Years’ War, is made freeman of the city

1672 Hans Ulrich’s son builds a house in Rue des Cordiers; the shield he carved over the door still appears on Hugel labels Hugel label

1802 Earliest existing records of Hugel owning land in Sporen and Schoenenbourg. Earlier records were destroyed during wars

1865 & 1876 The last Hugel to be a cooper as well as a grower builds, and dates, casks that are still in use today

1871 Alsace annexed by Germany after the Franco-Prussian War

1902 Frédéric Emile Hugel buys the buildings in Riquewihr where the company is still based

1911 Hugel starts bottling its own wines

Le Petit Journal1918 Alsace is returned to France under the Treaty of Versailles

1940 Alsace is occuped by Germany

1945 Alsace is returned to France

1948 Jean Hugel’s son Johnny (right, with mother Mimi and brother André) joins the company. Hugel begins working with other growers

1980 Hugel is the first company in Alsace to introduce temperaturecontrolled fermentation

Early 1980s Jean, as president of the Alsace Grand Cru delimitation committee, was charged with drawing the boundaries of the new grands crus. INAO also asked him to draw up rules for VT and SGN wines

1982 Marc starts to take over as winemaker

1983 Etienne starts to take over as head of sales

1984 VT and SGN regulations come into force

1989 The Jubilee range is launched at Hugel’s 350th anniversary partyHugel Jubilee Riesling

1992 The decree governing Grands Crus Sporen (above) and Schoenenbourg come into force; Hugel decides not to use the designation

1994 Jean Philippe takes over as CEO

2009 Organic viticulture starts in Schoelhammer. Now, most Hugel vineyards are farmed organically

2011 Jean Frédéric, (above left with Etienne) joins the company, initially running the tasting room

2014 Marc André joins the company

2015 Schoelhammer is launched

  1. 1. Introduction
  2. 2. Hugel: a timeline
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