When I visited venerable Alsatian wine icon Hugel on a media jaunt earlier this year (2017), they were nary a year removed from the family tragedy of Etienne Hugel’s untimely death, and their CEO had left the company the week prior to my visit. When I mentioned to 13th-generation family member Marc-André Hugel that many of the faces in their most recent welcome video could no longer be found with the company, he quipped “You remember [the tv show] Dallas? It’s just like that here.”
If anything defines Hugel, it’s probably that combination of reverential, hard working focus and tongue-in-cheek, cavalier acceptance that Marc-André displayed with affable gusto during my visit. Which isn’t surprising, considering that if you took too seriously the things with which Hugel has to deal on a regular basis, you’d probably blow a gasket. As Marc-André put it, “having a company in the middle of a 2,000-year-old city is… not easy…”
Hugel makes about one million bottles of wine annually, exporting them to over 100 countries, and is fond of testing out new tech in the cellar (to wit: they claim to be the first company in the world to employ a robo-palette). But that cellar dates from 1543, and happens to be near the center of the improbably precious town of Riquewihr. The oldest barrel therein dates back to the early 1700s (full disclosure: I might have crawled inside of it… also, they generate some downright impressive tartrate deposits). The combination of relatively large production, modern touches, and ancient surroundings requires the careful use of their restricted (and highly regulated) space.
Life in the vineyards is equally “not easy.” Their most famous is probably Schoenenbourg (which Marc-André described as “my whole fortune!”); not only does it sits within spitting distance of Riquewihr, but it has, at its steepest extent, slopes that are around thirty-five degrees. Add to that farming difficulty the pressure of maintaining a site that has been revered for hundreds of years (Voltaire is said to have once owned holdings there, for example, which might explain where the Hugel clan gets some of their humor)…