Domaine Huet tasting 1934 to 1989 – 80 years of history in a glass
Chenin Blanc has been associated with the Vouvray area since the 9th Century, but there is little doubt amongst Loire wine lovers about the best producer in the region, if not the entire world. Domaine Huet make Chenin Blanc across the entire spectrum, from sparkling to dry, semi-dry to super-sweet; Huet does the lot… and they do them all better than anybody else. A recent tasting at The West London Wine School provided a spectacular opportunity to taste the domaine’s wines back as far as 1934. Every wine we tried represented an important milestone in the domaine’s history, and I hope I can do a small justice to the wonderful story told to us by WLWS’s main wine dude, Jimmy Smith, who loves Chenin, loves the Loire, and loves Huet more than any other person I have met in the wine business!
Victor Huet, originally a Bistro owner from Paris, was forced from the army with chronic lung disease after WWI and told to do something relaxing and un-stressful; he decided to buy some land, grow some grapes and make some wine! The domaine was officially founded in 1928 when Victor bought 7 hectares of Le Haut Lieu; Victor’s son Gaston 18 at the time was encouraged by his father to study agronomy before returning to join his father at the domaine. In 1934, Gaston married his sweetheart Germaine Foreau… and what better place to start our tasting.
Domaine Huet Le Haut-Lieu Sec 1934 (Vinaturel £538)
A beautiful golden, amber colour and a nutty, slightly oxidative nose but with plenty of fruit in the form of dried apple pieces, pear and even a touch of orange peel; still very much alive 80 years on! The palate leads with raisiny fruit but there is apple freshness and tangy orange rind; the flavour is tart and fresh and the acidity is incredible. After the fruit there is a deliciously long nutty finish. This is a pure and precise wine, smooth and elegant; a wine as much about the texture as the flavour… but the layers of flavour are incredible and the length is astonishing. A truly remarkable wine. 95 points
Our next two wines came from the 1938 vintage, which marked not only the birth of Gaston’s first daughter Jacqueline, but also celebrated his first vintage as the main winemaker at the domaine.
Domaine Huet Le Haut-Lieu Sec 1938 (Vinaturel £362)
A slight nutty note as you raise the shimmering golden nectar to the nose but there is an abundance of apple and citrus defying its age. The apple flavour is tart and the texture is glacial; the acid hits the top of the mouth hard (and wonderfully!) on the attack but disappears almost as quickly. There is a touch of marmalade on the clean and mineral, though not overly lengthy, finish. 92 points
Domaine Huet Le Haut-Lieu Demi-Sec 1938 (Vinaturel £428)
Now this has a nose to write home about! There’s burnt orange, bruised apples, a hint of toasted nuts, a touch of smoke and a lingering nuance of marzipan. On the palate the fruit is beautifully sweet with lots of fresh apple, dried orange and that familiar Chenin-honey note. Overall here we have a perfect balance of acidity and off-dry sweetness that leaves your mouth watering and tingling for minutes not seconds. Brilliant. 96 points
Gaston was drafted into the army at the outset of the war, but not before hiding his wines in secret cellars, safely out of the grasp of the Nazis. Wine continued to be made at the domaine by Germaine with some help from Victor; although not the best examples of Huet’s output, it was still a pleasure and an honour to get the chance to try a bottle from the 1943 vintage:
Domaine Huet Le Haut-Lieu Moelleux 1943 (Fine & Rare £352)
A very different wine altogether than what has gone before; an earthy and caramel nose with something floral and wild about it, a slight whiff of ammonia perhaps? The texture is rich and there is some apple fruit but it somehow doesn’t all quite fit together. The freshness is there but the promised sweetness is missing, perhaps disappeared forever; its earthy and mineral but closer to a Sec than Moelleux. 88 points
The Nazis captured Gaston in Calais in May 1940 as he attempted to escape to England; he spent the rest of the war in a POW camp in Silesia. While a prisoner Gaston was able to work a deal with his captors that led to a wine tasting event for over 4,000 captives, with wines arriving from all over France; each prisoner enjoyed a single glass of wine, which Gaston described as the best glass of wine he ever drank in his entire life. After the Liberation, Gaston arrived back at the Vouvray domaine in February 1945, to discover his vines and vineyards in poor condition; nevertheless that 1945 vintage has stood the test of time:
Domaine Huet Le Haut-Lieu Demi-Sec 1945 (BBR Singapore £283)
Lovely richness on the nose with withy apples, fresh peaches and dries apricots, all supported with layers of honey; it’s like a crème brulee in a glass. There is weight on the palate with some citrus, notes of caramel and what I can only describe as caramelised marmalade… does this product exist? It probably should! Unfortunately the palate doesn’t quite deliver what the wonderful nose had promised; I’m not sure this wine was ever great but I think it has certainly seen better days. 89 points
In the following years Gaston set about making some of the best wines to come out of The Loire. The 1947 is considered perhaps the greatest Loire vintage of all time; there were a few at the tasting who have actually drunk this mythical Huet vintage and the looks on their faces as they described the flavours almost drove the rest of us to murder! 1947 also saw Gaston appointed Mayor of Vouvray, a position he kept until his retirement in 1989. Along with 1947, Gaston rated 1959 and 1989 as two of his very best vintages and we certainly wouldn’t disagree with him as we enjoyed an example from 1959 and two from 1989:
Domaine Huet Le Haut-Lieu Moelleux 1959 (The Wine Society £135/375ml)
Oh yes! Lots of pithy orange on the nose with waves of citrus and apple in support, along with layers of honey and cool minerality. The acid on the attack is brilliant – tongue-stingingly brilliant – but I there are a couple of us in the room that can’t find the middle of this wine… The start and finish is delicious but the richness I was expecting on the mid-palate just never quite materialises. An excellent wine but not my favourite of the night. 93 points
Domaine Huet Le Mont Moelleux 1er Trie 1989 (Bordeaux Index £70)
As we come into modern times we get a very modern wine. An amazing amount of fruit on the nose with ripe peaches, crisp apples and touches of mango and pineapple; pure and rich and ever so inviting. All of the fruit carries onto the palate but there is a delightful cool minerality underpinning the whole thing, giving it a purity and freshness I associate with the best Rieslings of the Mosel. I talk a lot about the importance of balance and this has the lot; acid, sugar, length and texture. Brilliant. 96 points
Domaine Huet Clos de Bourg Moelleux 1er Trie 1989 (Fine & Rare £138)
Rich and weighty on the nose and palate with caramelised oranges, marmalade and sweet apple and notes of sweet toffee, the palate is thick and gloopy (that’s good!) and the sweetness is tooth-rottingly good. It is super-charged and brash and in need of a desert to bring out the best of it… luckily it was my birthday the following day and a giant Jaffa Cake (thanks Sarah!) was just the ticket. Pow! 94 points
Gaston lived for at Le Haut right up to the time of his death at the age of 92 in April 2002. These days the domaine is run by Gaston’s son-in-law, Noel Pinguet, who converted the operation to Biodynamic in 1990 and continues to produces Chenin in all styles from the three vineyards of Le Haut Lieu, Le Mont and Clos de Bourg.
There are many stories like Huet throughout the world of wine and what a pleasure it was to taste our way through the history of such an important domaine, which continues to make some of the World’s greatest wines to this day. Thank you Victor, Gaston, Germaine and Nöel.