Douglas Blyde explores Alsace wine with Etienne and Kaoru Hugel on their “working honeymoon”
I reflect, an hour afterwards, on the lightening that threatened to lash my City Jet’s slim belly as it was hassled by turbulence heading back to London. Now, with every sip of soothing Alsace wine savoured in Hakkasan’s dining room of ebony and Chinoiserie, tension steadily slips away.
“We make a gift of Japanese chopsticks,” says nimble, Etienne Hugel, while gifting me “Hugel & Fils” inscribed utensils. “We’ve got to help the Vietnamese who make them,” he adds. I am introduced to Etienne’s fresh-faced Japanese wife, Kaoru. It transpires this press meal is part of their working honeymoon. Tomorrow they take-off for New York for Wine Spectator’s Wine Experience (a must for this member of the 12 family-strong, Primum Familiae Vini cartel). Then they continue to Toronto for the Grand Cru Culinary Wine Festival and Tokyo.
I describe the wine, Hugel Gentil, of which 400,000 bottles are made per year, as “a nice smile to come home to.” Etienne nods, then smiles slightly wickedly. “I used to say ‘wine is the best social lubricant’, but I realise this can be misinterpreted…” The blend of Gewurztraminer, Pinot Gris, Riesling, Muscat and Sylvaner retails for approximately £11, which nets Etienne £3 ex-cellar, he says. This means restaurants, such as High Holborn’s just opened Rosewood Hotel, where it is offered by the glass from magnum, can see the sommelier achieving a considerably more attractive return personally through the 12.5% “optional” service charge than the people who made it.
Although Etienne, tonight dining at this Michelin-starred Chinese restaurant, is always “amazed” at Asia’s influence over cuisine internationally, including the “sushi places” he gleaned “popping-up like mushrooms in Warsaw,” his palate is broad. On this visit to England, he also dined with friend, Gerard Basset at his New Forrest property, Hotel Terravina, “along with 38 paying guests,” and also The Harlington Tandoori, Hayes. There, he enjoyed “BYO-ing some leftover Alsace wines after a tasting with the Wine Society.” He approved of the chef “who came from Bradford.” Together, both Kaoru and Etienne have an interest bordering on “obsession” with Indian food, despite the fact Etienne’s “daily consumption of Imodium” was “at its highest level” on his multiple visits to India. My attention is later drawn to a video interview Etienne conducted with his erudite and gentlemanly importer for India, Sanjay Menon.
Assertive, immediate and almost thunderous, Riesling Jubilee 2007 follows – a wine served at Etienne and Kaoru’s wedding on October 8. If one is light with the chilli oil, it works well with Hakkasan’s sticky, steamed scallop dumplings. Their 88 guests also consumed no fewer than 80 magnums of Pol Roger over the two day event, 1970 Beaucastel gifted by fifth generation family member and best man, Marc Perrin, and 1961 Tawny Port bestowed by Paul Symington. “Kaoru would have gone after Paul if he wasn’t already married,” Etienne half jokes. Balinese suckling pig was the main culinary act…
Next, ample, supple, gliding Pinot Gris Jubilee 2008, fermented in old Pinot Noir barrels, comes from “a similar vintage to 2007.” I struggle to see how both it and the Riesling before could come across as how Etienne describes - “meagre without food” - so he explains. “Seeing sweetness as richness is misleading… the dinner table is the natural destiny for our wines.” It adds more weight and a sense of skin to deeply-coloured, jasmine and tea fragranced pork ribs.
Another guest asks how much these wines retail for. “I never buy them,” Etienne says, initially. “Our home is right above where our family keep the library wine. We also have a private cellar, which is not too badly stocked.”
Today, Etienne favours DIAM processed cork closures, being “French-made with a guarantee of zero TCA”. As if his decision needed validation, serendipitously, the first bottle of next wine, harvested 15 years ago and sealed with more primitive a cork, sadly suffers the dreaded 2,4,6-Trichloroanisole.
Gewurtztraminer 1998 is “Hommage” to Etienne’s late uncle Jean (“Johnny”) inventor of Hugel’s late harvest style.” 2009, aside from climatic conditions, proved a double-edged sword for Etienne. During it, Jean died. But he also met Kaoru. “I’m Lutheran,” says Etienne. “If I tell a lie, I’ll be punished. I saw the beauty of the woman I was to love the day I started picking that year. Before that, I’d never received visitor on the first day of harvest.”
Etienne describes Gewurztraminer as a variety “resistant to any kind of weather.” With poise, this gracefully maturing rendition calls forward the subtle use of Szechuan pepper spicing a rib eye.
After conferring with the sommelier to ensure it is served strictly at 16 degrees Celsius, the only red of the meal follows. Pinot Noir Jubilee comes from vines sown in the first vineyard Etienne, three years into the company, his brother and cousin bought in 1985 with their own money. It is “probably Alsace’s most Burgundian vineyard,” he says.
Etienne quotes Erasmus as the wine, one of but 4,000 bottles of the 2009 vintage torpidly flows: “‘In the kingdom of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.’” He qualifies the centuries old words: “Most Alsace light bodied Pinots are not much worth watching…”
On serving wine at “room temperature”, Etienne is blunt: “Heat your house at the same temperature as 1930 – before petrol flowed from the North Sea!” Serving the wine three degrees higher would make it “all about alcohol!” The already voluptuous wine, which accrued “the highest ever score of an Alsace red by Parker (92)” is a natural-seeming match with roast pipa (butterflied) duck, which is, alas possessive of fairly soft-skin where it should be crispy. Alongside, the “seasonal Chinese vegetables” advertised on the menu transpire to be a plate of asparagus. The hotter climate of today means the wine needs not be Chaptalised.
Both Kaoru and Etienne are fanatics of Pinot Noir, and Etienne calls its’ homeland, Burgundy “the Holy Grail of red wine.” Kaoru realised an affection for wines while living in New Zealand in 2000 initially on a working holiday at a restaurant and wine bar. After two years, she returned to Tokyo as wine advisor at Enoteca Wine Shop. Her most formative role occurred at Toyko’s Mandarin Oriental, where she was “Cavist” at MO Cellar from opening day in 2005 for seven and a half years.
Kaoru recalls the earthquake of 2012. “2:46pm on 11th March. I remember it as clearly as if it was yesterday. It was absolutely the biggest ‘quake I’ve ever experienced, and I was on the 37th floor. Bottles fell down. Broke. A wine ship in the sky.” Afterwards, the GM decided to close for a month. “So I spent time with my parents.”
As well as supporting her husband on their unconventional honeymoon, Kaoru is ambassador for Govino, the lightly made but in fact shatterproof, ergonomic glassware. Although adjusting to village life around Riquewihr, Alsace is proving mighty a contrast, she is embarking on learning French with gusto.
Etienne pours SGN ‘S’ 2007, a wine which French critic, Michel Bettane rated 20/20, leading to comparisons with young Château d’Yquem. “We’ve done the splits, from modest Gentil to the cuvée I’m most proud of.” Of the diminutive allocation of 2,500 bottles, Etienne is “embarrassed.” He concertedly focuses on his glass, which I note is poured smaller than his guests, then nods boldly three times. “As pure as any other!” With 180g/litre residual sugar, but plentiful acidity, it is utterly smart. “Amazingly desirable now, but it will get better.” Etienne looks at the company around the table. “When you get drunk on these wines, you’re either wealthy or a journalist!”
Unfortunately, rather than the advertised peach melba pudding, a vanilla brûlée swamped by utterly unnecessarily sweet berry coulis lands. It features gold leaf peelings. “If we keep all the gold from the dessert, we may get a ring?” says Etienne to Kaoru.
Talk returns to the wedding. Kaoru wore Hugel-label yellow, while Etienne briefly sported a kind of kimono – “but just for the ceremony, and not a second more.” Also present were the owners of Summergate, Hugel’s importers in Hong Kong, Macau and mainland China.
Hugel is so export-oriented (up-to 90%), that their website is available in eight languages, with domain names registered with suffixes for China and Hong Kong. Elsewhere in Asia, Etienne mentions that he sells more wine in Japan than France. “There are more Michelin-starred restaurants in Tokyo than Paris, shame on the frogs!” Apparently, “so outstanding” is the level of attention to detail in Japan, a market for Hugel for 60 years, that the importer “opens every case of wine to check the labels are properly placed
Although Hugel remains a traditional, family firm - “we have no desire to have a winery in the New World, for example” – Etienne is keen to embrace new technology. “I am obsessed with blogging and Twitter,” he says, withdrawing an iPhone.
Although my evening began with a rough ride in, it has ended with a sublimely crafted final glass.
* Hugel & Fils is imported in the UK by www.fells.co.uk