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Maison Huet, Loire with Noël Pinguet


by Tom Cannavan, 05/04

Vouvray is a wine-producing area on the right bank of the river Loire in north-west France. It is a single-grape variety Appellation, where Chenin Blanc (sometimes known locally as Pineau) is fashioned into dry, sweet and sparkling white wines. Maison Huet, founded in 1928, is undoubtedly the biggest name of Vouvray, and one of the great fine wine estates of Europe.

Gaston Huet was the driving force that established the global reputation Huet enjoys today. When he died in 2002 aged 92, control was handed to Noël Pinguet, Gaston's son-in-law, who had assisted Huet during the preceding three decades. The estate has recently been sold to a consortium of business people, including Tokaji producer István Szepsy, one of Hungary's most influential wine figures. Monsieur Pinguet continues to run the estate on the same principles and is a significant shareholder.

The venue for this tasting was Christie's sale room, off St James' in London. Christie's is a leading auction house, with regular fine wine auctions held in London and overseas. On the 20th of May 2004 Christie's will stage an auction of some of the best ever vintages of Huet, sourced directly from the estate's cellars, so the provenance could not be better. Details of estimates are given with the wine reviews below.

The Huet estate covers 35 hectares, and is divided into three vineyard sites: Le Haut-Lieu, Le Mont and Le Clos du Bourg. The top bottlings of Maison Huet will carry one of these designations, but the line-up of wines can be a little confusing at first, because there are dry (Sec), off-dry (Demi-sec) and sweet (Moelleux) versions of each, plus a premium "Moelleux 1er Trie", or "first picking" selection. There is also the super-sweet Cuvée Constance, which can have as much as 220gms of residual sugar.

  winemaker

Le Mont is an eight hectare plot with a pebbly soil, mainly of green-coloured clay and silica. The estate describes the wines of Le Mont as "elegant and feminine". Le Haut-Lieu is slightly larger at nine hectares, with very deep limestone soil, with a lot of heavy brown clay. According to Huet, this gives "supple" wines. Finally, Le Clos du Bourg (which is an old-walled Clos) is only six hectares, located above the church in Vouvray. The soil here is thin - one metre in depth - over limestone. Le Clos du Bourg is generally considered the "best" terroir of Huet, and wines are described as "powerful and well-structured". Vines are re-planted every 30 years or so, and each vineyard aims to have a balance of vines that are one-third under 15 years of age, one third 15 - 30 years of age, and one-third over 30 years of age. Generally speaking, these are used for the dry, demi-sec and sweet wines respectively.

Noël Pinguet was responsible for moving the estate into Biodynamic viticulture in the 1980s, so it is also organic of course, and ambient yeasts are used exclusively for fermentation. Ageing of the wines is in the natural chalky caves, which maintain 100% humidity and an ambient temperature that never varies beyond 10 - 11 Centigrade. They spend a maximum of only six months in barrel - with no new oak used - before transfer to bottle.

the tasting

These wines, particularly the dry and off-dry cuvées, can be quite shocking to taste at first. Though I have tasted Huet's sweet wines before, and some of the dry wines from this and other quality dry Chenin growers like the Savennières of Clos du Papillon, it is difficult to adjust one's mind-set to the searingly concentrated, purposeful nature of these wines at first. Like tasting the Chablis of Raveneau too young, or one of Nikolaihof's trocken Rieslings, there is an assault on the senses of concentrated minerality that buries the fruit and more luscious characteristics that will emerge with time.

Once that mental adjustment has been made, and especially as the wines gain substantial bottle age, the balance shifts slightly, but at all times retaining that knife-edge precision and purity. Recurring themes in the younger, driest wines for me were grapefruit pith and minerals, whilst the off-dry wines expressed more orange character, on finally to the limpid honey and caramel of the oldest and sweetest wines. Throughout there is just stunning concentration (though never through over-extraction or high alcohol), and there is terrific balance. These are occasionally rather austere, but always intellectual wines, that with patience evolve into some of the most complex and distinctive white wines on this planet.

The tasting was not blind. Auction estimates from Christie's are shown in Pounds Sterling (approx £100 = $177US / €150 at time of writing). To keep things simple, I have shown prices for three-bottle lots where available. Many of the wines are also available in other lot sizes, from two- to twelve-bottles. If a three-bottle lot is not available, I have shown the twelve-bottle lot estimate. I have also included a wine-searcher link if there are any current UK or US stockists of these wines.

The tasting order was not chronological by vintage, but from dry to off-dry to sweet, and only within each subset, from youngest to oldest. Anthony Hanson MW and David Elswood of Christie's added some commentary after we tasted each wine.

Maison Huet (Loire) Vouvray Le Haut Lieu Sec 1995
This has a pale gold colour and quite a subdued nose, licked with background honey and a mineral quality, with delicate apple aromas, some floral nuances and a leafy, herbal note. On the palate it is very, very concentrated with searing orange pith, dry acidity and notes of lemon peel. There is a great thrust of freshly cut, under-ripe apple fruit too and really immense concentration. Quite full-bodied feeling through concentration rather than absolute viscosity, there is a core of citrussy acidity that is very pure and does not disrupt the long finish. This needs time, but is very good indeed/excellent. Not in auction. See all stockists on wine-searcher.com / wine-searcher US.

Maison Huet (Loire) Vouvray Le Clos du Bourg Moelleux 1970
Like the members of the SAPROS organisation, on whom I reported recently (click here) Huet never chaptalises, so the sugar is all natural in the wines. This wine, classified as Moelleux by Huet, has around 30-35g per litre of residual sugar, though the acidity and concentration masks this. With a deeper, but still quite pale gold colour, there are notes of dried flowers, hints of honey and a certain nuttiness. There is also some straw-like, herbal character. The palate is beautifully poised and just off-dry. There is more of that herbal, slightly hay-like quality, and a waxiness to the texture. The fruit is very concentrated again, with an orange and pear-skin flavour and very dry, pithy acidity. Though there is amazing concentration here it is also elegant, with terrific authority and finesse. It finishes pretty dry, with just a lingering suggestion of honeyed richness. Excellent. Auction estimate: twelve bottles £440 - £550. See all stockists on wine-searcher.com

Maison Huet (Loire) Vouvray Le Clos du Bourg Moelleux 1ère Trie 1961
This wine, from a vintage that was not as great for the Loire as for Bordeaux, was recorked by Huet in 2002. The 1ère Trie cuvées are the first hand-pickings of selected grapes and bunches. It has quite a deep, buttercup/gold colour. There is a slightly salty note on the nose at first before a more honeyed character shows through, with notes of brioche and toast and some bruised pear fruit suggesting maturity. There is much more obvious sweetness in the mouth, and quite a rich texture (though again this is somewhat a trick of concentration, as these wines are not glycerol-thick). There is excellent buttery, greengage and yellow plum fruit that is ripe and concentrated, matched by sugars and acids. There is a touch of apricot skin bittersweetness and a hint of caramel into a fine, long finish of unraveling complexity. Excellent. Auction estimate: twelve bottles £720 - £950.

Maison Huet (Loire) Vouvray Le Haut Lieu Moelleux 1935
Amazingly youthful and vibrant golden coloured, just burnished but not browning. Amazing to think this is 70 years old (though Noël Pinguet confidently predicts it is good for another 40 years). There is a distinct nutty note, minerals and some hay, with just a touch of caramel. On the palate it is quite dry, but the intensity of the fruit suggests sweetness, with toffeed and honeyed notes, plus the resolved residual sugar now filling out the mid palate with weight and texture. It is complex and mouthfilling, whilst remaining fantastically precise and authoritative, showing absolutely no syrupy qualities, but just a fine spine of orangy acidity extending the finish. A beautiful wine from a moderately good vintage. Excellent.
Auction estimate: three bottles £420 - £550

Maison Huet (Loire) Vouvray Le Haut Lieu Moelleux 1924
And on to an 80-year-old wine. With many of the wines, sweetness is more from shriveling of the grapes on the vine rather than Botrytis (though the 1ère Trie cuvées have much more Botrytis, and in some years almost 100%). Unlike Sauternes, conditions for Botrytis are less systematic in Vouvray, and late-harvesting of raisined grapes is more common. 1924 had a fair proportion of Botrytis though, and this wine has the darkest colour so far, but still there is no brown; just a deep amber/gold. This is much more aromatic than the 1935, with a pungent perfume of concentrated, herbal, almost vegetal and silage aromas, as well as some honey and ripe, fruity notes. On the palate it is very sherbetty and bright by comparison, with keen, crisp acidity and some mandarin fruit, as well as spice. It has lovely poise and elegance, and wears its 80 years very well, with good length, touches of honey and cinnamon, and plenty of orangy acidity into the finish. Very good indeed/excellent. Auction estimate: three bottles £200 - £260. See all stockists on wine-searcher.com

Maison Huet (Loire) Vouvray Le Mont Moelleux 1ère Trie 1990
Now onto a trio of 1ère Trie wines with a much higher Botrytis level. Monsiuer Pinguet makes the point that since 1989 harvest has been earlier, yet sugar levels higher, and believes this is conclusive proof of global warming. This wine enjoys around 120g of residual sugar. It has a very dark, caramel colour; very luscious. This is the first wine to really wear its Noble Rot on its sleeve, with a flood of butterscotch, honey, fig and toast on the nose, with a lovely limpid quality and Brazil nut richness. The palate is equally toasty and rich, with warm, honeyed flavours. This is stunningly pure, washing over the palate with unctuous fruit, but balanced by a lovely tea-leaf finesse, burnt caramel, and an immense core of acidity that leaves the palate tingling, whilst coated with flavour and texture. Superb stuff, with more lush toast and spice into the finish. A baby too. Excellent/outstanding. Auction estimate: twelve bottles £720 - £950. See all stockists on wine-searcher.com

Maison Huet (Loire) Vouvray Le Mont Moelleux 1ère Trie 1959
A great year in the Loire as elsewhere in France. This has a gorgeous golden, caramel colour. It has fine notes of leaf tea and espresso, with honeyed nuances and a background of subtle, figgy, warmth. There is even a little sweet suggestion of coconut. On the palate it is extremely smooth and sweet-fruited, with a real marmalady character to the fruit and beautiful sweetness. There is an intriguing note of chicory (endive) and very solid acidity at the core of this wine. A mélange of sweet orange and pear, coffee and honey makes for a decadent finish, whilst the shimmering acidity keeps all in check. Fantastic stuff, and outstanding. Auction estimate: three bottles £260 - £340.

Maison Huet (Loire) Vouvray Le Haut Lieu Moelleux 1ère Trie 1947
And so to the grand finalé, and one of the wine world's legends. 1947 is an outstanding year for the sweet wines of the Loire, with full Botrytis. This is reputedly one of the best ever Huet wines. As always with such a reputation, it pays to be cautious and vigilant in tasting. It is certainly the darkest wine of the night; a dramatically deep, caramel-tinged umber. It has a wonderfully intense nose; almost mint-leaf, spearminty concentration. There are some vegetal, herby notes of nettle, leaf tea and and bark, as well as a deep, luscious, honey bouquet. The palate is just superb. After an initial blast of honeyed, figgy, quince-like rich flavours, the thick texture is cut by notes of caramelised orange, candied tropical fruits, and coffee flavours. There is a nice bittersweetness here; and interplay between limpid butterscotch and honey, and tangerine skin bite and freshness. It has outstanding concentration and length still, with that great, vibrant tang of Seville orange and burnt brown sugar playing against all the sweetness and fruit. A truly memorable and remarkable wine, and worthy of its reputation on this evidence. Outstanding. Auction estimate: three bottles £600 - £800.

See all Maison Huet Vouvrays on wine-searcher.com

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