Janet Wynne Evans
Fine wine editor Janet Wynne Evans recalls a very special tasting and rounds up the buying team's memories of The Society's 54-year relationship with a Loire legend.
Synonymous, for so many years, with the appellation of Vouvray, Domaine Huet is one of The Society's oldest and most valued suppliers. The first vintage we bought was 1962, and although nothing from that year remains to add to the collection currently being offered in the Christmas Fine Wine List, there is plenty of history to sample, spanning half a century.
Looking back over half a century
They include 1924, the vintage that followed the arrival in Vouvray of the Foreau family, who would be Gaston Huet's in-laws and 1953 when he acquired the Clos du Bourg vineyard. 1971 was a tumultuous year, marking the death of Gaston's father Victor, the birth of his grand-daughter Anne and the return from Paris of her proud parents, Noël Pinguet and Marie-Françoise (née Huet), to join the family business. 1973 was an important milestone too, with the birth of the Pinguets' younger daughter Carine. Viticulture is surely as much about family as doing battle with the caprices of Mother Nature, though she smiled especially brightly on Vouvray in the splendid vintages of 1959 and 1971.
Gaston Huet, in the cellars he saved from the high-speed trainline (TGV) by insisting a tunnel was built below the property and that special rubber sleepers be used to prevent his precious wine from being disturbed!
Sebastian Payne, MW recalls annual buying visits to Domaine Huet and Gaston's quiet but eloquent demeanour.
Sebastian Payne, MW
'He never spoke while we were tasting (an admirable trait) and if he approved of our comments, he would disappear into another room and return with an older vintage or two, which we had to guess. If we got it right we were given a bottle or two to take away!
When Gaston died in 2002, Noël Pinguet converted the vineyards to biodynamic cultivation and the wines remain astonishingly pure and true. I once took the back roads after a long tasting in his cellar, ending with the 1945, but was waved down by the gendarmes about an hour later for a random breath test. In spite of my fears, I was below the limit! (Ed's note: please don't try this at home, and certainly not in France!)
Gaston Huet had been mayor of Vouvray since 1947, and he it was who twice said "non" to the French government when they said they were going to route the TGV through his vineyards. They could not go through his vineyard, nor could they go by his cellars. Eventually they went right underneath on specially cushioned rails so as not to disturb the wine.'
The Society's subsequent Loire buyer, Marcel Orford-Williams, remembers fondly his first visit to the aptly named Le Haut-Lieu in 1987.
'There, I was transported to "la douce vieille France" of timeless gentility and courteousness. And yes there was always a vin d'honneur, served with modesty and simplicity. It might have been one of many sweet wines made in the legendary 1959 vintage.
At that time Gaston Huet was still mayor of Vouvray and at one time was a regional councillor and much involved in local wine politics. Yet for all of that, Gaston Huet was only a second generation vigneron. His father Victor had been a café owner but had been gassed during the Great War and sought a change of life. It is his wife, Constance, Gaston's mother who noticed and fell in love with Le Haut-Lieu and so they moved in. The year was 1928, a fine vintage and Gaston was 18, soon to go and study agronomy. In 1934, Gaston married a Foreau, another new arrival in Vouvray and soon to be the other great name here. It was also another excellent vintage. I still remember a fine 1934 pétillant.
The war came and Gaston Huet served as a lieutenant, being caught up in the maelstrom that was the Battle of France. He always made it to safety but was eventually captured and spent the rest of the war as a POW. At one time he conducted seminars for fellow inmates on the subject of wine. He always took his duties as a veteran seriously, meeting up every year with fellow prisoners, until he was the last one left.
Of his children, it was Marie-Françoise who married the mathematician and local butcher's son, Noël Pinguet. Noël learned everything from his father-in-law and went further, adapting the vineyards for biodynamic farming and a leap in quality that came with it.
Incidentally, Marie-Françoise was an exceptional pastry cook. Her tartes aux pommes have never been equalled and what better dish to go with Domaine Huet's many nectars?'
Marcel also recalls that she was a dab-hand at coquilles Saint-Jacques, the secret of which was deglazing the pan with mature demi-sec, and that the 1961 was quite handy for that. (Ed's note: don't try this at home either - we only have 1961 Moelleux on offer!)
Marcel duly handed the Loire reins, and responsibility for the Special Relationship to Juliet Bruce Jones, MW, now herself a winemaker in the Languedoc. Casting her mind back to her days as a Society Buyer, she recalls "the January visits would start with a tasting of the latest vintage, its 'character' always explained with such quiet precision by Noël. Then he would bring out an older vintage for me to guess. I was often about 20 years out!" Easily done, given the continued vitality of the venerable collection assembled in the Christmas Fine Wine List.
The Society's current Loire buyer, Joanna Locke MW regrets not having met the legendary Gaston Huet, but she counts herself 'supremely lucky to have met Noël Pinguet. Relatively early in my wine buying career I met Noël, both in the UK and at home in the Loire and, frankly, was hooked.
Joanna Locke MW
There was something about the combination of this challenging, cerebral grape variety in the hands of such a modest, sensitive, philosophical yet focused individual that made me a committed chenin blanc fan ever after. That and tasting some extraordinary and frankly ancient examples, and it is one of my favourite white grape varieties as a result (fashionable or not!). The cellars at Huet were an eye-opener to a still young-ish recruit schooled more on high-tech modern cellars. How could something so exquisitely fine and pure emerge from such old casks which, on the outside, displayed the black cellar mould that results from the natural humidity in those fine old limestone cellars?
Attention to detail was acute, however, keeping the barrels healthy and the wines in perfect condition. In one hot year, Noël's intuitive response to such an atypical vintage was to make a small winemaking trial and then revise his approach accordingly. A little more time on skins, to give the wines a touch of tannin to help provide the necessary cut on the palate that was missing in this low acid vintage was the successful result.
But it was Noël's description of how the chenin blanc grape matures that became firmly fixed in my mind, and it was along these lines: like a child, chenin blanc is rewardingly expressive and easy to love in its early youth, but good Vouvray will often pass through a rather dumb or unattractive (teenage) phase for a few years, before returning to a path of steady development until it blossoms into a long and healthy maturity. This resonated with me at the time, and even more now, as the mother of a teenage daughter, and after experiencing the joys and lows of chenin blanc from a variety of origins and birth years.'
Selecting the wines from the family archives
Noël Pinguet: former winemaker at Domaine Huet
The opportunity to taste from the family's archives, and to make a selection for Society members was an invitation that was accepted with alacrity and a number of buyers past and present convened at the domaine in September 2010, just before Noël's retirement. My fine wine editor's hat emboldened me to indent for a place at the table, along with Jo, Marcel and Sebastian and did not let a prior booking for a bracing rest-cure on the hardly convenient Ile de Ré get in my way. We just went the long way round.
In fact, our respective routes to get to Domaine Huet on that day would not have looked out of place in an updated version of Chesterton's Rolling English Road. Only Jo could be said to be on the spot. Marcel was in France ex officio, albeit in Champagne while Sebastian was on his way to a late-summer break in Biarritz, We all made it, though.
Evoking personal memories
Looking back over my notes on one family treasure after another, I'm struck by the little piece of history each represented, not only in the global or even local, but personal scheme of things. I wondered what my late mother would have made of a rare 1921, her birth year., and marvelled that my own vintage, the usually grim 1951, had yielded a Haut-Lieu demi-sec that was much fresher than I have been for some time, and gentle in a way I could never aspire to. 1970 brought back memories of my very last term as a schoolgirl, the beginning of student life and an unexpected triumph for my alma mater in the National Eisteddfod.
Noël's insights and asides are crammed in the margins of my notebook: his comment, for example that chenin is the cousin germain of riesling, bolstered by striking acidity and inclined, sometimes to take on a touch of petrol on the nose; the creation of Cuvée Gaston Huet, in homage to his father-in-law, to combat what was then something of a prejudice against the demi-sec style, surely the point of Vouvray for many foodies; the potential of refermenting an especially yeasty and spritzy 1938 demi-sec to make a fine solera-style pétillant; his regret that his fellow-growers in Vouvray don't share more insights, as they do in other small appellations, like neighbouring Montlouis, and reap the benefits of standing united.
We duly made our selection, from the vintages that were available in sufficient quantities to delight rather than frustrate our fellow-members and earlier this year, we tasted them all again, not, this time, around a knotty wooden table as the light began to fade elegantly outside, but in the much more practical, prosaic and unflatteringly bright surroundings of the tasting-room here at Stevenage with its outstanding view of the other side of Gunnels Wood Road.
Of course this did not faze the wines in the slightest. Marks and impressions, for me, at any rate, were pretty consistent with those of 2010, with the exception of just one wine that confused me then but got the thumbs-up from my more expert colleagues. I won't say which one it was because when I retasted it in 2016, I saw they had been right.
Well, it only took me five years to see the light - the equivalent of a mere moment in the life of a grand old bottle of Vouvray.
> Find the Domaine Huet archive Vouvrays here
Vouvray, Sweetness and Food
Attempting to define what makes Vouvray bone-dry or pudding-sweet is not a matter merely of comparative sugar levels. While the secs and botrytised premières tries are relatively straightforward, as you'd expect the two extremes of this broadest of style portfolios to be, the demi-sec and moelleux styles can be confusing. A moelleux can often taste as dry as, or drier than a demi- sec from a different vintage, vineyard or even winemaker.
Richard Kelley MW
Richard Kelley MW -- also known to members as the 'Liberator' of some of the inspired South African blends we list (many of which include chenin blanc) - reminds us in his authoritative online guide to Domaine Huet that 'moelleux' is merely the adjectival form of moelle, or 'bone-marrow'. My French dictionary proffers 'supple' and 'velvety', textural descriptors that, when applied to wine, are less indicative of pure sweetness than a silky richness on the palate.
For the purposes of recommending Vouvray with the dishes described below, we have focused on The Society's sweetness codes in recommending the right wine for the job, whatever its official designation. All the mature wines on offer, both in our Christmas Fine Wine List, were retasted in August 2016, and the codes have been updated, to reflect with more accuracy the tendency of these old chenins to become drier with age.
Members interested to dig deeper into an analysis of the styles and the detailed history of the domaine should follow the link to Richard Kelley MW's Definitive Guide.
> Browse the selection of archive Vouvrays
Serving Suggestions & Recipes
Vouvray being the most versatile of wines, we were spoiled for choice in recommending solids for these golden nectars. Age has made them drier than they were in their youthful pomp but the underlying richness remains, along with that characteristic acidity that makes mincemeat of saturated fat. They are wonderful with cheese, with rich fish and chicken dishes, with pork in any guise and even with mild to medium curries.
Perhaps the only caution we should issue is not to bludgeon the sweeter Premières Tries with extravagant puddings, but to reserve them with gentler desserts like apple tart and other incarnations of baked orchard fruits.
The other point to note is that although these wines are wonderfully preserved and still delicious, they should be drunk up once uncorked, not eked out over a couple of days, tempting though that may be. Once the genie - and it is, truly, a magical thing - is out of the bottle, its presence is fleeting: catch it while you can.
> Find the Domaine Huet archive Vouvrays here
Rillettes De Tours
While these can be made at home (Delia Smith has a nice recipe for a duck version), you may not wish to see just how much fat goes into their making!
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Festive Roasted Salmon With Wild Mushrooms & Chenin Blanc Sauce
An easy dish which would make a wonderful Christmas main course for pescivores and carnivores alike and to go with any style of Vouvray.
> View the recipe
Christmas Eve Pork
This almost effortless dish from Philippa Davenport, renders inexpensive belly rashers into melt-in-the-mouth luxury, merely by dint of three hours in a slow oven.
> View the recipe
Fourme D'ambert & Pear Salad With Walnuts
Inspired by Madame Pinguet's recommendation and designed to make the most of the Comice pears; the blue cheese calls for sweeter Vouvrays.
> View the recipe
Tarte Tatin Of Onion & Roquefort
A savoury tarte tatin with tangy Roquefort cheese to match with Vouvrays of sweetness code 5 and above.
> View the recipe
A Nice Bit Of Crumpet
More of an assembly job than a recipe, this combination of grilled goat's cheese and tart apple and fennel salad would be a welcome starter or light lunch dish.
> View the recipe
Roasted Vegetable Curry With Yoghurt & Coconut Milk
Creamy, coconut-infused, mildly spicy dishes are an unexpected delight with softly sweet Vouvray and this curry, based on a recipe by Rachel Allen is a sure-fire hit.
> View the recipe