Wines of war

Hugel’s Schoenenbourg Vineyard (Photo: Adam Baker)

Hugel family patriarch, 86-year-old André Hugel, walked into the tasting room and asked, “Is anyone here from Texas?”

Considering we were a small group of Australian wine writers (and one Frenchman), there were some quizzical looks. We were half-way through a tasting at the Hugel establishment in Riquewihr, Alsace, conducted by André’s grandson Jean Fréderic Hugel.

Jean Fréderic had just opened a bottle of 1945 Hugel Vendange Tardive Riesling, a wine harvested just after the end of the second world war, which of course deeply traumatised Alsace, the wine region which sits on the French-German border and was part of Germany before the end of World War I.

Why was Hugel senior asking for Texans? So that he could thank them.

“We were liberated by Texans at the end of the war,” he said.

There was a great feeling of gratitude towards Americans in general and Texans specifically.

The 1945 was very dark amber in colour and very old, but still drinkable and indeed, enjoyable. André said he hadn’t tasted the wine for 20 years and was pleased to see it was still alive. He recalled the season was extremely cold, and that there’d been a frost on May 6, two days before VE Day – a rare event so late in the spring.

“The frost was very late and very cold: minus seven degrees Celsius.”

André also recalled that the vineyards were in bad shape because there were few men available to work in the vines.

“There was a lot of botrytis in the fruit.”

But the ’45 Vendange Tardive was one of the good news stories, thanks in part to a heavy botrytis infection. The sweetness and botrytis no doubt helped the wine live so long.

My notes:

“Slightly cloudy dark amber to orange colour; the bouquet very rich and aged, toasty and malty with raisin and bitter marmalade aroma and flavour. The sweetness has mellowed out of it substantially, and it has a rich palate with some phenolic grip and a warm alcohol afterglow. A lovely old curio.”

This wine came from the Schoenenbourg, Riquewihr’s great grand cru vineyard which overlooks the walled Medieval village. The Hugel family is privileged to own 6.5 hectares of the vineyard, and I was most interested to taste for the first time a new wine, called Schoelhammer, which is a single-block wine from the best part of the Hugel Schoenenbourg holdings. Selling for 89 Euros ex-cellars, the 2007 is a wonderful wine of tremendous concentration, richness and power. With a bouquet suggesting poached peach and pear, and finishing dry on the palate, this is an outstanding wine.

More approximating the sweet botrytised style of the ’45 today was the climax of our tasting: 2009 Hugel Sélection de Grains Nobles ‘S’ Riesling, a mind-blowing, luscious wine. Full yellow hue; citrus, marmalade and honey aromas; luxuriously sweet; an exquisite wine which I scored 98 points.

Alsace is fascinating for war historians, each village bearing its reminders. Some have very old buildings which survived the bombing, others were razed and totally rebuilt. In Ammerschwihr, near Colmar, is the winery of Kuehn, with one of the oldest cellars in Alsace, dating back to 1675. Its deepest part is the arched Cellar of Hell, seven metres below the road outside, whose depth enabled it to resist the bombing and shelling. Indeed, it served as a refuge for the villagers: 120 people locked themselves in this cellar – with their saints borrowed from the church, but without sanitation – for a month, from December 10, 1944 to January 10, 1945.

Today, just a few barriques are stored in there, while the main cellars house many large, old foudres.

Kuehn (tastings) is a large co-operative sourcing grapes from 12 hectares of estate vines and 40 hectares of growers’ vines. They make superb wine including a large volume of crémant, their top vineyard being the grand cru Kaefferkopf.

“We in Alsace like to say we kept the best of both the French and German cultures, not the worst.”

Says Valérie Dirringer, the export manager.

Kuehn wines are imported by National Liquor Wholesalers and retailed in Mr Liquor stores. Hugel wines are imported by Negociants Australia and are widely distributed.

*First published in Gourmet Traveller Wine magazine, October-November 2016.

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