The launch of Famille Hugel’s 2007 Riesling Schoelhammer in April 2015 took most wine lovers and students of Alsace by surprise. It wasn’t simply the wow factor of this remarkable dry Riesling, which has already acquired cult status – though that undeniably played its part. Eyebrows were raised, rather, at the fact that the Hugel family, winemakers in Riquewihr since 1639 who for the past 40 years have shied away from any mention of classified grand cru slopes or other named sites, suddenly released a wine that proudly declares its precise provenance: a plot-specific cuvée from a mere 30 rows of vines hidden in the heart of Grand Cru Schoenenbourg, celebrated since the 17th century as one of Alsace’s finest sites.
The Hugel brand, with its distinctive canary-yellow labels, has long enjoyed extraordinary recognition outside Alsace; 90 per cent of its wines are exported to over 100 different countries. Whereas in the past all the emphasis was put on the Hugel name, now came a significant shift in favour of "terroir", that trendy but ill-defined concept that seeks to pin a sense of “somewhereness” on a wine. “You could call it a kind of “terroir coming-out” for us”, admits Etienne Hugel, the firm’s commercial director.
A mere 4,288 full bottles of Riesling Schoelhammer (compare this with the 240,000 bottles of Riesling across the whole Hugel range) were made in 2007, a year generally acknowledged as a textbook Riesling vintage, producing wines of extraordinary complexity with huge ageing potential. Hugel describes the wine, which sells for around £90-£100, as “un vin de patience” – the family sat on it patiently for seven years before allowing it to make its debut. You could steel yourself and stash it away in your cellar for at least another seven, but it’s a thing of beauty already – tasting notes from Serge Dubs, a Meilleur Sommelier du Monde, evoke the wine’s crisp bouquet of spring flowers and fruit, and its precise minerality with appley, peachy notes and lime, lemon balm and verbena thrown in for good measure. Uncork it alongside a noble fish like turbot or John Dory, or a sweet and succulent roast lobster, or a dish of pasta liberally laced with white truffles. Better still, lose yourself in its limpid depths without the distraction of food and with (a little) help from a handpicked, wine-loving friend.