I received an announcement this morning from the Hugel family in Alsace that their beloved Jean Hugel had passed away.
I didn’t really know "Johnny", as he was called, having met him only a few times; Jean retired from running the family business in 1997, the year I began my Alsace beat. Yet, even before I worked in the wine industry, as a budding wine lover growing up in Canada, the name Hugel was synonymous with Alsace.
Alsace was a very different place when Jean Hugel was born in 1924. Like the 10 generations of the family before him (the estate was founded in 1639), he tirelessly built the business and promoted Alsace wines. Today, Hugel wines are sold in more than 100 countries.
The region was particularly ravaged during WWII. Alsace was annexed by the Germans and toward the end of the war, tanks and land mines destroyed vineyards, and thousands of young men from Alsace died during the fighting. Jean survived the war and with his brothers André and Georges, rebuilt the company.
Jean Hugel’s legacy will live on in Alsace. It was through his efforts that vendanges tardives and sélections des grains nobles became part of the Alsace firmament. Hugel first used the term "VT" on the label of his 1959 vintage. Prior to that, the wines were called auslese and beerenauslese, terms used in Germany. When the Institut National des Appellations d'Origine met in Alsace in 1977, its members had the opportunity to taste the VTs and SGNs from the excellent 1976 harvest. At the time, there were no regulations controlling these wines, yet their quality impressed the INAO delegates enough to inspire them to pass legislation concerning late-harvest wines in time for the 1983 harvest. This forced growers to respect a minimum ripeness and standardized the names throughout the region, helping create a demand for these styles.
Hugel also served as the founder-president of the Alsace Grand Cru commission from 1975 to 1978, though in the end he became frustrated with the process. Despite the fact that Hugel makes wines from several grand cru sites, they do not designate the vineyard or appellation Alsace Grand Cru on the label.
Hugel was honored with many national and international awards, including the Ordre du Mérite and Officier du Mérite Agricole for his contributions to winegrowing and promotion of Alsace wines.
The house is run today by Jean Hugel’s nephews Jean-Philippe, Marc and Etienne, the 12th generation of the Hugel family. This continuity of pride and passion from generation to generation is perhaps the brightest star in Jean Hugel’s legacy.