Post # 78 – Tasting the Hugel et Fils 1976 Tokay D’Alsace Selection de Grains Nobles

It is much harder to restart writing wine blogs than it is to stop. In 2020 I wrote only 4 blogs, in 2021 I wrote only 3, and in 2022 I did not write any blogs at all. A large reason for that was of course the COVID-19 crisis, and the profoundly negative effect it had on social gatherings and all activities that revolved around wine tastings, wine shows, and celebrations of all types involving wine. At times I felt that it was just not right to talk about wine drinking and social gatherings when the world was in crisis. Furthermore, wine topics were just not all that appealing to me during this time, and I lacked the motivation to push it forward without a higher level of enthusiasm. I needed something to kick start the engine again.

So I recently decided it was time to restart the engine by going back to my favorite Alsace wine producer, Hugel et Fils. I decided to uncork a rare gem, the 1976 Hugel Tokay D’Alsace Selection de Grains Nobles. I have only tasted this wine once, in September 1986 with Jean Hugel in Riquewihr, where it was divine. I returned from that trip with 3 bottles of this wine and have never tasted it since. So this wine was chosen to be my motivator, hoping that it would reignite that creative engine that it takes to write these blogs.

The wine did not disappoint. The cork came out of the bottle nicely (which is often not the case with a 47 year old cork), on January 22nd 2023. The wine was a rich, deep, golden yellow color, with modest glycerin tears flowing down the inside of the glass. Large white tartrate crystals lined the bottom of the bottle.

On the nose and palate I was treated to aromas and tastes of apricot, licorice, peach, apple, and gooseberry. This symphony of taste was backed by a smooth but strong alcohol backbone that immediately led me to believe that this wine was still young and vibrant, and had many good years ahead of it.

The aftertaste was very interesting, I had expected to taste caramel, since so many of these fine sweet wines end with caramel on the palate, and you can usually get a pretty good idea of how many years the wine has left by how evolved the caramel tastes. Much to my surprise, there was no caramel on the aftertaste, instead there were raisins. Those raisins were not sweet either, they were semi tart, leaving you with dry raisins on the tip of your tongue. So rather than being sweet and cloying, the wine was rich, fat, and tart. There was also a component of cinnamon on the finish, leaving my palate a little dry and salty. This reminded me very much of how a smooth well-aged whisky finishes.

This Tokay did not taste like this in 1986 when I first tasted it. The front end on the nose and palate was pretty much the same as it is today, just a lot younger. However, the back end aftertaste was sweeter with those tell-tale caramel nuances, replaced today with dry raisins, cinnamon and the saltiness of a grand old whisky.

So how long will this wine last? Will it stay pleasant and drinkable in its final years of decline? Well, there is no question that this wine, at 47 years of age, is probably a good 5 years past its peak, and is slowly and very elegantly declining into old age. I estimate that this wine peaked from 2000 to 2017. I rated it at 95 points in 1986, and it probably peaked at 97 points between 2000 and 2017, and currently I am rating it at 95 points again as it slips into old age. What I especially like about this wine is the elegance and class that this wine shows as it ages past its prime. I am left with the impression that this wine can stay as is for another five years until 2028, and then continue to be very enjoyable for another five years after that until 2032. In those last five years I would expect the fruit intensity on the front end to dry up a little more, but I would still expect it to rate about 93 points at that time.

There is no guide to indicate when SGN wines will reach their peak, how long they will stay there, and how well they will taste as they begin to decline. In addition, there are just not that many SGN wines produced, and not in every year, so they are quite rare. When I compare the 1976 Tokay D’Alsace SGN to the 1976 Gewurztraminer SGN (which you can read in my previous blog # 77), they are quite different. The Tokay behaves more like an old whisky while the Gewurztraminer behaves more like aging caramel. Both are beautiful in their own way.

I remember asking Etienne Hugel in 2016, shortly before he passed away, what he thought about the Hugel 1976 SGN wines (the Riesling, Gewurztraminer, and Tokay D’Alsace Selection de Grains Nobles wines), and specifically how long he thought they would survive and continue to show well in tastings. I was looking for information because the Hugel website had no tasting notes on older vintages. Etienne told me that he had no idea how long they would last, because these bottles were so rare, there were none left in the winery or their own personal collections, and they had not tasted this vintage in years.

The mark of a truly great winemaker is how well and how long his wine behaves. 1976 was a fabulous year for Alsace SGN wines, with perfect late harvest conditions, and Jean Hugel crafted memorable SGN wines that have stood the test of time. If you have one of these fabulous wines in your possession, do yourself a favor and open one of your last remaining bottles. Enjoy it while it continues to show so well.

Tasting fabulous old wines is so rewarding, and so motivating. I am pleased to report that I have found the motivation to continue writing wine blogs, so you will hear from me again shortly.