One of the highlights of the Salon des Vins de Loire is getting to grips with the latest releases from Domaine Huet. Long regarded as the appellation leader, alongside Philippe Foreau (Domaine du Clos Naudin), the wines made here ever since Victor Huet acquired the estate in 1928 have defined what it is for a wine to be Vouvray. They are benchmarks for the appellation, prize examples of what can be achieved with a biodynamically-managed vineyard (this has been the case since the late-1980s) even in a cool climate, and quite rightly the domaine has risen to the top in the region on the back of these successes. On turning up at the Domaine Huet stand at the 2014 Salon des Vins de Loire, however, I was told that I was not permitted to taste the 2013 vintage.
Before I explain how this came about, and why I won’t be making my usual post-Salon report on the Huet tasting (it is usually one of the first reports I write), a little background information. I first visited the Loire Valley in 1993, and even on that first visit my main focus was the wine. Even on some of my earliest visits I called in on Domaine Huet, and I still have some wines in the cellar, from the 1989 and 1993 vintages, acquired during those visits. With time the visits to the Loire and to Vouvray in particular became more regular, and as my obsession with wine evolved and I began writing about it online, eventually I became what can only be described as a wine critic. In doing so I tasted more and more wines from Domaine Huet, not only on visits to the domaine but also at the Salon des Vins de Loire (with Noël Pinguet at first, more recently after Noël’s departure with Benjamin Joliveau), as well as a notable tasting of demi-sec wines in London with Noël a few years ago. My profile of Domaine Huet is the largest of all my Loire profiles (first published eleven years ago, now expanded to eight pages) with nine separately published ‘tasting updates’ added to Winedoctor over the years, and over two hundred tasting notes all told, from 2012 back to the 1949 vintage. A look through any of these articles would make clear how highly I have rated the wines over the years. Unsurprisingly, during this time the number of Huet wines in my cellar grew, not only with the addition of recent vintages, but back-filling older ones too, as I was keen to enhance my understanding of the domaine. The oldest wine in my cellar is a 1946 Huet.
In all cases these reports were dispassionate judgements on the wines; they were not praised out of loyalty, or love of the Loire, or of Vouvray, or the domaine, but because the wines deserved it. To write usefully about wine – or indeed any aspect of modern culture that attracts the ‘critic’ – I am certain that you have to, above all else, be true to yourself. You have to say what you really feel about the wine in question, and that is exactly what I was doing, giving praise where praise was due. With the 2012 vintage I saw something different in the wines though; they lacked the usual Huet grace and substance, reflecting what had been a difficult vintage for the region. Against the backdrop of all my previous reports on the wines of Domaine Huet, and in the context of an extensive four-page report which also focused on the sec and pétillant wines of the 2002 vintage (where some in the USA have reported premature oxidation, although I found no systematic problem), sec cuvées from other recent vintages (2010 back to 1995, featuring some excellent wines) and recent pétillant releases (2007 back to 2001, again, lovely wines) I stated that I did not like the two wines tasted from the 2012 vintage, that it had indeed been a tough year for the team at Huet, and my tasting notes made clear why. My comments were direct, not mealy-mouthed, but were carefully considered. Nobody would mistake my words for the work of Ambrose Bierce or AA Gill, that’s for sure. I concluded with an open question on the 2013 vintage, and looked forward to tasting it at the Salon.
Turning up at the Salon des Vins de Loire hoping to do just that, I was taken inside the Domaine Huet stand (a fairly grand affair) by Sarah Hwang, current president of Domaine Huet. Expecting to hear some information on the 2013 vintage, I opened my laptop, but I was asked to close it as Sarah informed me that we should talk now, and I could type later. It was made clear that my opinions on the 2012 vintage weren’t welcome, as I was asked “just where do you think you’re coming from with what you write about Domaine Huet” and accused of not engaging with “the spirit” of the domaine or appellation. In a series of quick-fire questions I was quizzed on who I knew at the domaine (my tastings have always been with Noël Pinguet or Benjamin Joliveau, as described above, but it seems I am supposed to know the whole team to be able to comment on the wines) and whether or not I even knew who the winemaker was. When I asked who, if not Benjamin Joliveau, the winemaker was (Benjamin has told me, during previous tastings, that he was now winemaker after Noël’s departure), instead of a simple answer (apparently Jean-Bernard Berthomé, the hugely experienced cellar-master, now has this title) I received more questions fired back at me. I was even quizzed on whether or not I had taken photographs of Huet vineyards, as if that was somehow inappropriate. In the culmination of what felt like a long conversation, but which probably lasted mere minutes, I was accused (after stating that I will always write for my subscribers first and foremost) of “using” Domaine Huet merely to build Winedoctor subscriber numbers.
Oscar Wilde once said “the critic has to educate the public; the artist has to educate the critic” and I think he had that right; I’m always willing to be educated, which is why I try to meet as many growers as possible, to hear about their vineyards and their philosophies, and to taste their wines. But this was not an educational meeting, as it much more resembled a dressing-down. When it seemed as though we had reached a stalemate I asked whether I could taste the 2013 vintage. The answer was no. And at that point I left.
As a consequence, I am currently unable to report on the 2013 vintage at Domaine Huet, and will crack on with my proposed Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé (and Menetou-Salon and Reuilly) updates and reports instead. I will continue to provide tasting reports on the many older wines from my cellar, and in order to keep up to date with recent releases I will look for other tasting opportunities, which may well involve buying newly released bottles on the open market. I am not sure if the ban is a permanent one, but I certainly don’t feel that I would be welcome at Domaine Huet at the moment. I sincerely wish all the Huet team, including Jean-Bernard Berthomé, Benjamin Joliveau and Sarah Hwang all the best for great success in future vintages. Their wines have given me (and so many thousands of others) so much joy over the years and I am sure with continued good efforts from the team, and with more favourable vintages in the future (I am told by a reliable palate that the 2013s are pretty good, by the way), there is no reason to see why that success will not continue into the future.