Last summer, at the end of June 2013, I visited the wine producer Huet in Vouvray together with a friend from Brussels. We did a two day visit to the middle part of Loire, i.e., the land of Chenin Blanc wines. Only one of the four producer visits – the one to Moulin Touchais – resulted in a blog post before the end of last year. However, last week Domaine Huet L’Echansonne – their full name – featured in several wine dicussion forums and blogs because of something that took place at the major annual Loire wine exhibition, Salon des Vins de Loire. What happened was that Huet refused to let two British wine writers/bloggers try their 2013 wines since they hadn’t written sufficiently positively about Huet’s 2012s. More about that story at the end of this blog post, but the whole thing reminded me that I had some tasting notes laying around somewhere, so why not write them up to a delayed blog post on the subject of Huet.
Some words on Vouvray in general
For a long time, Huet been considered to be the leading producer of the Vouvray appellation. So let’s begin by taking a look at the map to see where this appellation can be found. Vouvray is located just east of the city of Tours, on the right bank/northern side of the Loire river, which means that the appellation contains some south-facing slopes. Touraine is the collective name of this part of the Loire Valley wine region. The Chenin Blanc-dominated part of Loire stretches from just upstream of Vouvray to just downstream of Angers, where Savennières (dry wines) is located on the northern side of the river and the western outposts of Coteaux du Layon (sweet wines) on the southern side. The part of the Loire Valley including these latter two appellations is called Anjour-Saumur, and this is where most of the red Loire wines are produced, mostly using Cabernet Franc. Further upstream, Sauvignon Blanc dominates, and further downstream, around Nantes, Melon de Bourgogne dominates and is used to produce Muscadet.
In this Chenin Blanc-dominated area, the western part tends to produce more powerful wines and the western part tends to produce somewhat lighter wines higher in acid, due to the influence of the climate which among other things is influenced by the distance from the ocean. Since this is a cool and northern viticultural region, the topography – hills and slopes – plays an important role, and in France the importance of the soil is always stressed in all wine region discovered so far. Vouvray is one of the eastern appelltions, and therefore has the conditions to produce elegant wines with a fresh acidity, which means that the level of acidity is sufficient to balance the sweetness in off-dry and sweet wines in a good way. The combination that makes the area around Vouvray particularly well suited for these wines is a lot of chalky Tuffeau soils and the south-facing location by the river. Similar to the chalk in Champagne, Tuffeau has also been used to dig out underground cellars for wine storage. On the opposite side of the Loire river from Vouvray, the Montlouis-sur-Loire appellation is located, which doesn’t have the south-facing slopes and more sand in the vineyards. In general, Montlouis-sur-Loire yields more acidic and tart wines of less substance, but good Montlouis wines are very similar to those of Vouvray, and my impression is that Mountlouis has received more attention in recent years. In any case, Vouvray has the conditions necessary for producing very fresh and elegant Chenin Blanc wines, that are balanced also when they are sweet, and that are very long-lived irrespective if they are dry or sweet.
The Vouvray appellation consists of 2 200 hectares/5 500 acres of vineyards.
The history of Huet goes back to 1928 when the domaine was founded by Victor Huet and his son Gaston Huet. Or rather, they bought an existing domaine that I’ve never seen named and which was based on the Le Haut-Lieu vineyard. The Le Mont vineyard was added in 1957, and Clos du Bourg in 1963. From 1976 and until a couple of years ago, the domaine was run by Noël Pinguet (born 1945), who is the son-in-law of Gaston Huet. The wines were top notch already before, but it was Pinguet who was in charge when the wines really got international attention. He also was the one who converted the domaine to biodynamic farming in 1990. After Gaston Huet died in 2002, the Huet family sold their domaine in 2003 to Anthony Hwang, a New York based Chinese-American who already owned Királyudvar in Tokaj. Noël Pinguet stayed under the new ownership, but suddenly left Huet in early 2012, despite plans that he should stay until 2015 and 70 years of age. Apparently there was different opinions about the running of Huet, in particular regarding which wine styles to produce, and Pinguet therefore chose not to remain. Online articles about this can be found in Decanter, at Winedoctor and at the Jim’s Loire blog. The writers behind the last two blogs are those that are no longer welcome to taste the wines of Huet.
I can understand how such a conflict occurs. Sweet wines are unfortunately very difficult to sell, and also many well-known and highly regarded producers that focus on sweet wines have problems to sell and make a profit. That’s why we see an increasing proportion of dry white wines being produced in e.g. Sauternes and Tokaji. So I’m not surprised if dry Vouvray (sec) is easier to sell than the off-dry (demi-sec) and sweet (moelleux) versions. Huet has a tradition of producing very varying proportion of dry/off-dry/sweet wines in different vintages. At Huet, it is the character of the vintage that controls which types of wines they produce, which is an adaptation to the inevitable vintage variations in this northerly wine region, and which furthermore fits well into the biodynamic thinking about vintages, as far I understand them. It is using this production philosophy that the quality reputation of Huet has been built-up. The dry and off-dry Huet wines also enjoy an excellent reputation and are very long-lived, but it is without doubt the sweet wines that have the place of honour in their range. In order to produce sweet wines, it is usually necessary to harvest later, at a higher grape maturity, and this means a higher risk that things go wrong.
It’s therefore not too difficult to understand if an owner is hesitant to continue to focus on producing a wine style that is expensive and risky to produce, if these wines have become more difficult to sell. After all, wine production is a commercial activity, so we can’t really expect wineries to continue in the long run to produce wines that have few buyers or where the production cost is higher than what the market is willing to pay. This is to me a question of adaptation to long-term market trends, i.e., to the preferences of wine drinkers, rather than any short-sighted capitalistic focus and the belief that the seasons and vintage variations must adapt to quarterly financial reports. The latter form of view – if it exists in reality rather than in strawman arguments – is hardly compatible with quality production in cool wine regions where much is controlled by weather conditions.
On the other hand, I can also understand when long established customers, fans and writers get worried when the see changes that are perceived to originate from commercial concerns they feel are not long-sighted enough. I do believe that there can be a middle ground here, because I do believe that it must be possible to modify the production to a higher proportion of dry wines without changing the basic view that the character of the vintage is allowed to influence the mix of wine types produced in any given vintage. Since the sweet wines have been considered the most difficult to make, surely more dry wines could be made without compromising the quality of the sweet or the dry wines? I suppose that future will tell what the result will be, if the high quality of Huet stays at its previous level or not. I don’t have any opinion of the 2012 Huets – those that the banished wine writers didn’t lavish with sufficient praise to please the new management – since the youngest wines on tasting last summer were some 2011s. Both the 2012 and the 2013 vintages have apparently offered difficult conditions. During the visit to this part of Loire I heard some other producers shake their head at the mention of 2012. On the other hand, the difficult vintages are usually the best to gauge how good a producer really is.
Most Huet wines have a vineyard designation from one of their three mjor vineyards, all located above the village of Vouvray, but with different soils and with different resulting wine styles. The description below is based on information from the website of Huet and information from Wine Anorak.
- Le Mont covers 8 hectares in a good slope and has stony soils that primarily consist of green clay and silica. This vineyard produces elegant and feminine wines.
- Le Haut-Lieu covers 9 hectares and has deep soils that are dominated by brown clay. This vineyard produces wines that are usually a little lighter in character.
- Le Clos du Bourg is a wall-enclosed vineyard of 6 hectares in a good slope, and has a thin soil on top of limestone, I suppose that’s the tuffeau. This vineyard produces wines that are powerful and structured, and are the most long-lived of the Huet wines.
In total, Huet owns 35 hectares/87 acres of vineyards, which means 12 ha in addition to the three vineyards listed above. The remaining vineyards, that are located near the three main ones, are presumably used mainly for the sparkling wines.
The harvest is performed in several passes (tries) through the vineyard and usually rather late, in October and early November. The vinification takes place in a mixture of small oak barrels of 225 liter, larger barrels of 600 liter and steel tanks. These oak barrels must be older and well used, because I can not remember that I’ve ever felt anything I’d consider to be an oak note in a Huet wine.
Among the sweet wines there is a division between those that are simply designated moelleux and those that are also called Première Trie, that means the first pass through the vineyard. The latter are somewhat sweeter than the regular moelleux wines, and usually a little better and more expensive. They also produce a very sweet wine called Cuvée Constance, which doesn’t carry a vineyard designation.
The wines were tasted at the end of June 2013.
Pétillant Brut NV
Nose with ripe yellow apple, some honey, and some of the spice notes typical for Chenin Blanc. Fruity palate with ripe yellow apple, some citrus, high acidity, and spice notes. 85 p
A good sparkling wine, but not very Champagne-like, and unexpectedly shows some notes typical for Chenin Blanc.
2011 Le Haut-Lieu
Residual sweetness approx. 7 g/l.
Nose with perfume, ripe apple, and pear. Dry palate with rather good concentration, high acidity, pear, some mineral. Young, rather approachable, 87(+) p
Of the three dry wines, Haut-Lieu was the most fruity wine and the one that came across as most easy to drink today.
2011 Clos du Bourg
Nose with ripe apple, some spice, and some perfume. Palate with good concentration, mineral, apple, some spice notes, and high acidity. Young, 88+ p
Compared to the previous wine, Clos du Bourg shows more mineral, slightly more pronounced acidity, and a more cellaring-friendly style.
2011 Le Mont
Nose with somewhat smoky slate notes, mineral, and a discrete perfume note; elegant. Palate with good concentration, more sweetness of fruit in the impression (but still a dry wine), spice notes, and a good acidity. Young, 88+ p
A style suitable for cellaring, and most in need of more time of the three, a nose with more mineral character than the other two, and a heavier style on the palate.
2007 Le Mont Demi-Sec
Nose with ripe yellow fruit and some dried fruit, some honey, discrete perfume note and some development. Off-dry palate with good concentration, honey, good acidity, spice notes, shows development, a heavy style. Rather developed but can take more, 89 p
2008 Le Haut-Lieu Demi-Sec
Nose with citrus, yellow fruit, some mineral, perfume, a somewhat peculiar note that I would describe as earthy or possibly a bit truffle-like. Palate with good concentration, the impression is “off-dry minus”, with citrus, high acidity, and a long aftertaste. Elegant palate, rather young, 89+ p
The nose of this 2008 gives a drier impression than that that of the 2007 Demi-Sec.
2007 Clos du Bourg Moelleux
Nose with honey, mineral, yellow fruit, citrus, and elegance. The palate is “sweet minus” with good concentration, mineral, citrus, some honey, and high acidity. Elegant, rather young, and citrus-dominated, 89+ p, should eventually reach higher.
2009 Le Haut-Lieu Moelleux
Nose with ripe yellow fruit, dried fruit, honey, and a discrete perfume note. The palate is “sweet minus” with honet, citrus, dried yellow fruit, mineral, and a rather high acidity. Rather young but approachable now, 90+ p
2003 Le Mont Moelleux
Bright yellow colour. Nose with some smoke, a hint of nuttiness and dried yellow fruit. The nose doesn’t really indicate a very sweet wine. The palate is sweet with honey, dried yellow fruit, good acidity, and Chenin Blanc-typical spice notes. Developed, can take more, 90 p
2006 Clos du Bourg Première Trie Moelleux
Nose with dried yellow fruit, discrete honey notes, spice, and some smoke. The palate is sweet with dried yellow fruit, honey (heather honey), noticeable spice notes, and good acidity. 90 p
2010 Le Mont Première Trie Moelleux
Nose with minty mineral notes, concentrated yellow fruit including yellow apple, and some slightly odd notes that I couldn’t really find a description for. The palate is sweet with good concentration, honey, citrus, good acidity, spice, and a fresh honey-dominated aftertaste. 90 p
1993 Le Haut-Lieu Première Trie Moelleux
62 g/l. The bottle had been opened a week earlier.
Nose with dried yellow fruit, yellow winter apples, spice, straw, a hint of petroleum, and somewhat developed notes. The palate is semi-sweet with good concentration, spice notes, yellow apple, some citrus, rather high acidity, and a long aftertaste. (No score written down.)
Below a video clip from a French wine series with English subtitles where this episode (recorded in 2008) takes place at Huet featuring Noël Pinguet. Some biodynamics is featured, including the common references to astrology and alchemy.
Some words about the recent banishment of two wine writers
I first noted this turn of events at a Swedish wine discussion forum (finewines.se), but the best way to get to know what happened is probably by reading the original Winedoctor blog post.
It’s worth reflecting that while the wines have many fans among true wine geeks and featured in the dialogue of Sideways, I don’t think that either Chenin Blanc wines in general nor sweet Loire wines sell themselves too easily. Although Loire is a wine region that does get a reasonable amount of coverage in many wine magazines, it is definitely not as thoroughly or regularly covered as e.g. Bordeaux, Burgundy or Rhône if we look at each producer and each vintage. This should mean that those few international wine critics and writers that are more or less Loire specialists, are rather important for this region and its producers. Those two I could name offhand, Chris Kissack and Jim Budd, turned out to be those two who had been banned from tasting the wines of Huet. Chris Kissack a.k.a. Winedoctor doesn’t just have Loire as one of his specialities, but is also one of those who have written most about Huet throughout the years.
Naturally, wine producers are free to decide who gets to taste their wines for free. To be disinclined to make special arrangements, such as private tastings of old vintages, for someone who consistently writes badly about your wines would be fully understandable. Despite this, I could see some rationally acting producers do such a thing if they felt that it was good for business, i.e., if being covered at all was more important than the risk of receiving low scores or other criticism. However, to refuse established and well known wine critics to taste at a large exhibition simply comes across as an extreme position, and downright rude when it takes place in this environment. When it is combined with a dressing-down for being to negative about their wines, and possibly other insults, it even comes across as less than smart, to put it mildly. Honestly, this must be one of the dumbest things done by an internationally well-known wine producer over the last couple of decades. When I try to recall something similarly misguided, I think of when Robert Parker was bitten by a dog at Cheval Blanc, and when he was sued by Domaine Faiveley for the content of one of his books (which contributed to him never covering Burgundy in person again). Although no bloodied fangs were included this time, more than one wine critic was targeted this time. One possible consequence may be that many serious wine critics will avoid writing at all about the wines of Huet, since writing about them may put them in a lose-lose situation. If they write something negative they risk being criticized by the Hwangs, and if they write something positive and avoid criticism, some of their readers may think that they are “bought” by or allow themselves to be controlled or censored by Huet.
By the way, here is a video of Sarah Hwang (who were the Huet representative-in-charge of the banishment and dressing-down) from 2011 when she presents wines from Huet and Királyudvar at the offices of a US distributor. I’ve only embedded part 1 of 4 below, proceed to Youtube (click on the icon below right) to see the other parts.
Swedish version here.