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Wine Legend: Hugel, Riesling Selection de Grains Nobles, Alsace, France 1976

The facts

Bottles produced 5,500
Composition 100% Riesling
Yield about 15 hl/ha
Alcohol 12.8%
Release price 130 French Francs
Price today £209 (found on a Dutch restaurant wine list)

Hugel, Riesling Sgn 1976 is a legend because…

Sweet wines from Alsace had probably been made for decades, if not centuries, but it was the Hugels who from 1865 developed the styles that later became known as Vendange Tardive and Sélection de Grains Nobles.

The latter is produced solely from grapes affected by noble rot and with a potential alcohol of 15.2%, although in practice the sugar levels are considerably higher. The 1976 vintage proved ideal for these styles, and the Hugels produced quite substantial quantities of them, from Pinot Gris and Gewurztraminer as well as Riesling, and made them commercially available, rather than keeping them as wines for special occasions within the family.

They were rapidly recognised for their outstanding quality, and the SGN style was well and truly established.

Looking back

Hugel was founded in 1639 in Riquewihr and has remained in family hands ever since. In 1976 the company was run by the much admired Johnny Hugel, who in addition to maintaining high standards at the firm, acted less formally as a kind of ambassador for the region as a whole. As the major producer of Vendange Tardive and SGN styles, Hugel played a major role in laying down the regulations for these styles. These were promulgated in 1984, though subsequently revised on two occasions. Until 1971 what is now known as SGN was labelled, German-style, as Beerenauslese. Riesling was, and remains, the scarcest of SGN wines, as the variety succumbs to botrytis less easily than Pinot Gris or Gewurztraminer. Thus in 1985 Hugel produced a mere 250 litres of Riesling SGN, and subsequent vintages were 1988, 1995, and 1996, as the company only releases such wines when its own high standards are met. At Hugel and indeed many other producers, the legal minimum must weight for SGN is rarely considered sufficient.

The vintage

As in the rest of France, 1976 produced an exceptionally hot summer, but Alsace’s mostly white grapes benefited from occasional storms that refreshed the fruit and aided ripening. The harvest began on 20 September, and Riesling enjoyed particular success in this year. Hugel picked this SGN on 20 October.

The terroir

Like Trimbach and some other Alsace producers, Hugel has never played the grand cru card, even though it owns substantial vineyards within two of them, Sporen and Schoenenbourg. The Riesling SGN generally comes from its best parcels within Schoenenbourg, which has a soil mostly composed of marl and gypsum, plus gravel, sandstone, and fossil limestone. This is a very large site for a grand cru, with 53 hectares in Riquewihr, and is inevitably uneven in quality. (This is the main reason the Hugels are reluctant to identify the site on the label, since they don’t want to validate lesser wines produced by other growers from parcels inferior to their own.)

The wine

The art of making great SGN is practised almost entirely in the vineyard, where individual berries with the right amount of concentration by botrytis are picked one by one. The baskets are then taken to the winery for pressing, and after settling for a few hours, this must is fermented in either vats or barrels at a temperature no higher than 24ºC. The 1976 fermented quietly until 26 July 1977, when it was racked. Every time Johnny Hugel walked past the cask where the wine was stored, recalls Etienne Hugel, he removed his hat. Once the wine was bottled, his good-humoured reverence was seen to be fully justified.

The reaction

In 1989, Michael Broadbent described the wine as ‘buttercup yellow; grapey, ripe, fragrant; medium-sweet though rich with a marvellous uplift of acidity’€™. By 2002 his assessment was: ‘€˜now a brassy touch to its old gold, but very bright; perfectly harmonious, creamy nose; very sweet, lovely texture, peachy flavour, complete, well balanced.’€™ Steven Spurrier recalls: ‘€˜Johnny Hugel told me that each year he ‘€œplaced the bar a little higher’€ in what the profile of an SGN should be. With the 1976 he surpassed substantially even his own high standards.’€™

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