Friday, October 27, 2017

Wines Without Make-Up: An Alsatian Dinner With Jean-Frédéric Hugel

Back in August 2008, I participated in one of the first Twitter Wine Tasting events, held by Bin Ends, and which featured Etienne Hugel of Hugel et Fils. Etienne participated from Alsace, having remained awake until early in the morning so he could join us on Twitter. We tasted through five Hugel wines, from the Gentil to their Late Harvest Gewurtztraminer, and the general consensus was that these were delicious and compelling wines. Sadly, Etienne Hugel, at only the age of 57, passed away in April 2016, though the rest of his family continues to operate their successful winery, continuing his legacy.

Flash forward to October 2017, and I had the honor of attending, as a media guest, an Alsatian wine dinner at Bistro du Midi, with special guest Jean-Frédéric Hugel, Etienne's son (pictured above). Ray Osborne, the new Head Sommelier at Bistro du Midi presided over his first wine dinner, acting as an excellent host. Some of the other attendees included Brett Marcy, from the importer Frederick Wildman, representatives of the distributor MS Walker, and Len Rothenberg of Federal Wine & Spirits. Overall, it was a tasty and informative evening, with plenty of delicious food and wine, accompanied by lively conversation and a jovial atmosphere.

Jean-Frédéric was both personable and humorous, leading us through a discussion of Alsace, its wines, and the Hugel winery. He began the evening with a bit of history, highlighting the Golden Age of Alsatian Wine. Back in the 15th-17th centuries, the region of Alsace, which wasn't a part of France at that time, was considered the shining star of Europe and its wines were the most expensive in Europe. In addition, especially due to the efforts of Dutch merchants, about 600K hectoliters of Alsatian wines were annually exported all across Europe. Alsace's proximity to the Rhine river, the most important artery of communications in Europe, was a significant reason for Alsace's prominence.

Everything came crashing down in 1618, as the Thirty Years's War began, and would eventually devastate much of Central Europe, including Alsace. For example, as the war began, the town of Riquewihr, well known for its beautiful architecture was occupied by about 2200 inhabitants. It was also known as a winzerdorf, a wine village (and I love that term!). However, by 1648, at the end of the war, the town was nearly empty, with only about 122 residents remaining. Vineyards were abandoned and the quality and amount of wine decreased dramatically.

Back in 1639, while the war raged, Hans Ulrich Hugel settled in Riquewihr, entering the wine business and eventually became the leader of the powerful Corporation of Winegrowers. Despite the devastation sustained by Riquewihr and Alsace, Hans persevered and the Hugel family began its lengthy history of wine production, nearly 380 years. 

Today, it's the modern era of Alsatian wine, a new beginning for their industry, trying to recapture the glories of the past. The Hugel winery currently owns over 25 hectares of vineyards in Riquewihr, almost half of in the Grand Cru zone. Within those vineyards, the vines average about thirty years of age, have low yields, are hand harvested, and fertilizers are not used. The winery produces about 110,000 cases annually, with twenty different wines each vintage, and approximately 90% of their wine is exported to over 100 countries.

Jean-Frédéric provided some intriguing insight into Alsace and winemaking. He noted that culturally, Alsace is neither French nor German, though it might share some elements with each, especially as those countries have both owned the region multiple times. Instead, he stated it would be better to think of the Rhine river when thinking of Alsace. That is the key to the region, and historically it certainly played a major role.

He also stressed another important point, which can be summed up in the adage that: "In the vineyards, you make wine. In the cellar, you ruin wine." To Jean-Frédéric, vineyard management is much more important to the final product in the bottle than the work in the cellar. As he said, "it takes more than a person to make a wine" and during harvest, everyone is a vintner. He would rather have people ask the identity of the vineyard manager rather than the name of the winemaker.

Jean-Frédéric also believes that there is too much interest in the way the wine is made in the cellar, such as the type of yeast, length of fermentation, maceration periods, oak maturation, etc. Though those factors play their role, he feels that the majority of the interest should be properly directed toward what happens in the vineyard, such as cover crops, organic farming, herbicides, replanting, selection, root stock clones, soil probing, and more. Those factors play the most dominant role in the final product.

I've heard a similar sentiment from other winemakers, and have to agree that many wine writers, including myself, have devoted far more attention to what occurs in the cellar. That probably should change and we should pay more attention to vineyard management than we currently do. Jean-Frédéric was proud that their wines are "as natural as it comes," describing their wines as being "without make-up." That is certainly an interesting description for Hugel's wines.

Jean-Frédéric told me that every Monday there is a family meeting at the winery, discussing potential changes and other issues. He notes that there aren't any serious revolutions at the winery, merely little tweaks at various times, though those tweaks can add up over time to make big changes. He also noted that their wines have possessed the same label for 25 years and probably need a little refreshing. Though they are very good at making wine, they are not as good at marketing their wines. Jean-Frédéric mentioned that their approach to winemaking is simple in many respects, as they make wine as if they had to drink it all themselves. How many wineries actually follow that concept?

I asked Jean-Frédéric about the biggest challenge faced by the winery and he stated that it was the reputation of the Alsace region, and trying to get consumers to embrace it. He noted that sommeliers and the wine trade already have a passion for Alsatian wines, but it still needs to seep down to the average consumer. Part of the problem is that too many wine stores lump in Alsatian wines with their German wines so consumers are confused about the differences. They need their own identity, to stand out as a separate region with its own uniqueness.

I've echoed this sentiment numerous times in my own writings, noting how Alsace needs greater recognition with consumers, especially considering they make so many delicious and excellent wines. You should check out some of my prior articles on Alsatian wines, to understand better why you should be drinking these wines. A number of Alsatian wines have also been included in my annual Top Ten Wine lists.

I suggest you read some of my Alsatian articles including Crémant d'Alsace: A New Year's Eve Recommendation, Alsatian Wines & Pheasant at Craigie On Main, Gustave Lorentz: More Alsatian Wine Treasures, Crémant d'Alsace & The Spartans At Thermopylae, 2011 Kuentz-Bas Pinot Blanc: Alsatian For The Win, Puritan & Co.: Alsatian Wine Advice, Schoenheitz Winery: A Taste Of Beauty, Boston Wine Expo: Wines of Alsace & Luxembourg, and Summer White Wines? Think Alsace and Dopff & Irion.

Our five-course dinner was prepared by Executive Chef Josue Louis (pictured above), who has worked at Bistro du Midi since its opening and was promoted to Executive Chef in April 2016. Like Alsatian wine, this chef is worthy of more attention for the fine culinary offerings he prepared.

Our first course was a Romesco Soup, with stuffed calamari. The calamari was stuffed with raisins, olives and swiss chard, olive, and the soup was lightly spiced with a little chili. The savory soup had a mild kick of heat, and the tender calamari had a hint of salt and sweet. A well-composed, intriguing and tasty dish.

The first wine pairing was the 2015 Hugel Gentil (about $12), a blend of 50% Sylvaner & Pinot Blanc, 22% Pinot Gris, 15% Gewurztraminer, 7% Riesling and 6% Muscat. "Gentil" is an old word meaning "Noble," and refers historically to the Noble Grapes of Alsace, which were permitted to be used in a blend. This is the only blend that Hugel produces and they don't have a specific recipe for it. They simply have a broad idea of how it should taste and make the blend each year, with the grape percentages varying year to year. I should note that the 2015 vintage was considered exceptional in Alsace, and actually all across France.

This was an excellent value white wine, with lots of character and complexity at this price point. From its aromatic nose to the delicious melange of flavors on the palate, this was a wine for everyday drinking, especially with food. There were tasty flavors of pear, lemon and melon, with a hint of spice, and plenty of crisp acidity. It was fresh with a pleasing finish and pairs well with seafood. A Must Buy!

I also wanted to highlight that all of Hugel's wines possess good acidity. Acidity is a flavor enhancer and also cuts through fat. As such, you can drink their white wines throughout a meal, without a need for red wines. Though they do make a red wine, a Pinot Noir, if you really want one.

My favorite dish of the evening was the Flammekeuche, a deconstructed version with pork belly and goat cheese. Alsace has a love affair with pork and it is sometimes said that "Pork is the national vegetable of Alsace." The pork belly in this dish was tender and succulent, enhanced by the creamy goat cheese, creating a wonderful taste. My only complaint was that I wanted more of this dish and probably would have been satisfied just devouring a few more plates of this rather than having anything else.

The 2014 Hugel Cuvee les Amours Pinot Blanc (about $14) is a blend of 50% Auxerrois and 50% Pinot Blanc, and it does not spend any time in oak. This wine is dry and crisp, full-bodied and elegant, with delicious fruity flavors of pear and lemon. Pleasant clean flavors and a lengthy finish. Another excellent value at this price point.

The next course was Loup de Mer, with parsnip, crispy kale, and a Pinot Noir barigoule. The flaky white fish had a delightful crispy skin and was paired with a red wine, a Pinot Noir, which is the only red permitted in Alsace. Only about 8% of the wine production in Alsace is Pinot Noir. The 2012 Hugel Pinot Noir (about $16) is made from 100% Pinot Noir and sees no oak maturation. It's important to realize that though some people seem to think acidity is primarily for white wines, it is also important for red wines too, bringing freshness. The cool climate of Alsace gives increased acidity to all of its wines, white and red. The wine has an intriguing aroma of black fruit with a mild herbal note. On the palate, there is cherry, ripe plum and raspberry, with a hint of earth and herbs.  A pleasant, easy-drinking wine that worked well with the fish.

The fourth course was a Pork Loin, with coco beans, quince jus, and champagne mustard (though I failed to get a photo of this dish). The pork was tender and flavorful, cooked perfectly and certainly would please any lover of pork. Would you normally pair pork with a white wine? Well, they certainly do so in Alsace and we got to experience such a pairing, with the 2007 Hugel Schoelhammer Riesling (about $140).

This is the first release of this wine, a 100% Riesling which comes from the historic Schoelhammer vineyard, which has marl-rich soils. It took the winery 5-6 years to decide whether this wine should be bottled and sold or not. Then, it took another five years before they placed the wine on the market. It is a special, terroir-driven wine which should be able to age for one hundred years. This is an incredible wine, complex and beguiling, with sharp acidity, rich mineral notes, and some intriguing fruit flavors, including some green apple and lemon with a mild saline character. It is dry and full-bodied with a lingering finish that continues to please long after you swallow a sip. It is strong enough to stand up to pork but would be great with more subtle seafood as well. Highly recommended.

Finally, dessert was a Cardamon Cake, with almond brittle, ginger cremeux, and pear ice cream. This was a tasty and creative blend of flavors and textures, sweet and spicy. A fine ending to our dinner.

The final wine was the 2009 Hugel Vendange Tardive Gewurtraminer (about $55), a late harvest wine from a great vintage. It was certainly an impressive wine, with a mild sweetness, balanced by its crisp acidity, and with a complex melange of concentrated flavors that will tantalize your palate. You'll find orange, apricot, cardamon spice, floral notes, herbal accents and much more. It's nose alone is complex and alluring, calling to you like a mythical Siren. It is lush and decadent, and Jean-Frédéric said that it was an aphrodisiac, the best possible pairing for your "honey," the one that you love. He also stated that he loved pairing this wine with Jamón Ibérico de Bellota, the famed Spanish ham from the black-footed pigs.

Once again, I found plenty of reasons to enjoy and recommend Alsatian wines. The Hugel winery produces some excellent value wines as well as higher-end wines of great complexity and quality. Jean-Frédéric was a passionate and persuasive advocate for Alsatian wines as we as his own winery. He gave me much fodder for thought and it was a sheer pleasure to share a table with him.

I'll repeat once again, Drink More Alsatian Wine! 

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