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Three on the quality ladder

I’m often asked by students in my wine classes to define the term ‘Reserve’. While ‘Reserve’ does indicate a superior level of quality, that level varies from producer to producer. ‘Reserve’ is often the highest level of quality but I’ve seen it on the least expensive label of at least one winery. It’s a bit like the bars that indicate the strength of the signal on our smartphones. Three bars on an iPhone is not the same as three bars on a Samsung Galaxy or a Vodaphone Huawei.

The gap in quality between wines at different prices can vary a lot. I’m always a little sceptical when I learn that the flagship wine is simply a selection of best barrels from the regular label. The difference in quality can be significant but does it justify doubling the price?

I attended a tasting of Hugel wines (tastings) presented by Mark André Hugel during a flying visit to New Zealand. Three rieslings were offered at dramatically different prices, from NZD $39 to NZD $207. The rise in quality was equally dramatic albeit on a smaller scale. When price doubles, the quality rarely rises by more than 10-15%.

Mark André Hugel (Photo: Bob Campbell MW)

Good

The 2014 Hugel Classic Riesling was a delicious start to the tasting. A satisfyingly dry wine with tangy acidity and accessible fruit and floral flavours. Visions of freshly shucked oysters garnished with a squeeze of lime made the wine taste even better. Made from grower fruit selected from vineyards within 20 kilometres north and south of Hugel’s Riquewihr winery. I would imagine that it is quite a large production wine. Harvesting lasted a month which suggests that it was manual rather than mechanical. Winemaking is straightforward. The vintage was good, according to the Hugel website. (NZD $39)

Grosse Läue vineyards (Photo: Hugel)

Better

2011 Hugel Grossi Läue Riesling was more than three times the price. It was clearly a better wine though not by a factor of three. “Grossi Läue” is a Hugel-inspired term indicating that the wine is from the finest vineyards in Alsace, equivalent to German Grosses Gewachs or Grand Cru sites in Burgundy. This is a selection of grapes from the finest blocks in Hugel’s famous Grand Cru Schoenenbourg vineyard. The wine is bottled early and help to develop a bit of bottle age before release. A big leap in provenance has created a big leap in quality. (NZD $134)

Schoenenbourg vineyard (Photo: Hugel)

Best

The 2008 Hugel Schoelhammer Riesling is the flagship label made from grapes grown in the finest plot in the Grand Cru Schoenenbourg vineyard where the soil is a mix of ancient marl and clay. Hugel has been in business for 369 years by my calculation, plenty of time to identify their best vineyards and vineyard plots. This is a seriously concentrated and potentially long-lived wine that clearly deserves its exalted reputation. Would I prefer one bottle of this wine, nearly two of the Grossi Läue and five of the Classic? I think I’d buy all eight bottles. (NZD $207)

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