Few would argue that the reputation of Vouvray as the producer of great wines lies with the influence of a single individual – Gaston Huet. Not only was Gaston a legend within the region, but his tireless work sitting on various national committees helped shape the future of French wine culture.
Gaston was born in Plauzat, a village vigneron in the Auvergne on the 4h April 1910. He came from a modest family. His father, Victor, ran the village café, which is where he met and married Anna-Constance Moreaux, Gaston’s mother, in September 1908. Victor served his country in the Great War, but as a victim of mustard gas, he suffered respiratory problems and, at the advice of his doctor, he gave up the bistro in search of another career.
Victor’s own father was an Angevin, so it was decided that the family would relocate to the Val de Loire. He was considering a future in forestry when, by chance, the couple happened upon the appropriately named Le Haut Lieu, high up on the plateau above Vouvray. It was Constance who fell in love with the low manoir with its pretty shutters and its south facing views over the valley. As it was, Victor became a vigneron instead.
The Huet’s bought Le Haut Lieu with its seven hectares of land from Monsieur and Madame Massé on the 27th November 1928. Wine had been produced from the three hectares of vines planted across the street, although M. Massé had business interests elsewhere and the house had been kept as a maison secondaire.
Gaston, now 18, was encouraged to attend college where he studied general agronomy before returning to the domaine. Between 1929 (the first Huet vintage) and 1934, the wines were made at Le Haut Lieu.
In August 1934, Gaston married Germaine Foreau, sister of André, whose family had installed themselves as vignerons in Vouvray in 1923. The couple’s first daughter, Jacqueline was born in 1938. That same year, Gaston was destined to take over the running of the domaine from his father, although with an impending war, he found himself drafted into the French army as a lieutenant instead.
Before leaving for the front, Gaston ensured that wines from their first few vintages were safely secreted in cellars along the Loire, away from the pilfering hands of the Nazis. With Gaston absent, it was left to Victor to receive the occupying German soldiers when they came calling, pouring them only fermenting wine. The family was not troubled much after that.
Despite his legacy of time spent in the trenches, Victor lived to be 88, dying in March 1971 and outliving Constance by eleven years.
Back at the front, Gaston was captured, along with his division of 200 men, in Calais on 24th May 1940, whilst trying to escape to the safety of England. He spent the rest of the war in a prisoner of war camp in Silesia.
For those interested in learning more about Gaston’s exploits -including the story of him organising a celebration of seminars and exhibits on French viticultural life, culminating with a wine tasting for over 4,000 POWs – there are numerous references to him in the book Wine & War by Don and Petie Kladstrup.
Following his liberation, Gaston made his way back to Vouvray, arriving at the domaine in February 1945, only to discover unpruned vines and vineyards that had not been ploughed and covered in weeds, the German soldiers having commandeered all the horses. Gaston set about restoring the vineyards, but on May 1st the warm spring weather turned, and the region was severely hit by one of the latest frosts ever recorded. Whilst many producers lost their entire crop, Huet recorded only a 50% loss. Thankfully, the summer and autumn were excellent, with the reduced harvest going on to produce one of the greatest vintages of the 20th century.
In the years that followed, Gaston and Germaine had two more children; a son, Jean, who duly followed his father by studying as a winemaker, and a daughter, Marie-Françoise.
In 1947, the greatest vintage of the century, Gaston was elected Mayor of Vouvray, a post he held for 46 years, retiring only in 1989, another great year and a fact that Gaston never tired of reminding visitors of. During his time as Mayor, he also sat on various committees including being the local representative of the C.I.V.T.L. (Comité Interprofessionel des Vins de Touraine et Loire) where he was responsible for liaising with the I.N.A.O. He also held the post of Conseiller Général of the département of Indre-et-Loire and was instrumental in the early 1980s in ensuring that the Paris-Bordeaux TGV line made an expensive detour under, rather than through, the vineyards of Vouvray.
Gaston was also starting to enlarge the domaine. From the original three hectares, Le Haut Lieu grew to become nine and, in 1953, he added Le Clos du Bourg which is still considered by many to be the greatest single site within the appellation, and was followed, in 1957, by the addition of Le Mont.
From the modest cellar at Le Haut Lieu, the marriage to Germaine meant that the cellar was moved to caves owned by the Foreau’s, just down the lane at La Croix-Buisée. The cellars were extended and all Huet wines from around 1935 onwards were vinified and aged here. Gaston, however, maintained his office and the family home at in the manoir of Le Haut Lieu.
In 1968, the year of the Paris uprising, Jean who had never had a good relationship with his father, elected to leave Vouvray and live the life of a bohemian, tending goats in the south of France.
In the same year, Marie-Françoise married local butcher’s son, Noël Pinguet, a beer drinker by his own admission who just happened to fall in love with the daughter of a vigneron. The couple had met on a camping expedition in Le Mans.
At the time. Noël was at university in Paris studying mathematics, whilst Marie-Françoise was installed at the École des Beaux-Arts in Tours. To celebrate their marriage, Gaston commissioned a staircase carved in the rock to connect the cellar in La Croix-Buisée with the old pressoir chamber located above at Le Mont. The dépendence here was destined to be the couple’s future home. They relocated from Paris in 1971, just in time for the harvest, where Noël spent time in the vines, working as a vendangeur.
For the next five years Noël worked alongside his father-in-law and, although having no formal winemaking training, he took over the running of the cellar from the 1976 vintage. He once stated to me that he had changed very little in the winemaking process during his tenure, although he did introduce a pneumatic bag-press in 1982.
Gaston remained an integral part of the domaine, meeting guests and arranging an annual reunion with fellow POWs from Oflag IV D until, in 1997 when there was no meeting; there being too few men left to constitute a gathering.
Apart from his five years spent in the POW camp, Gaston had lived the whole of his adult life at Le Haut Lieu; right up to the time of his death in April 2002. He was 92 years old.
Domaine Huet, post Gaston
With no natural family successor (the Pinguet’s had two daughters but neither Anne nor Carine showed any interest in taking on the domaine), the property was offered up for sale and in 2003, Anthony Hwang, a Filipino born, New York based businessman took a controlling share, adding Domaine Huet to his existing winery interest in Tokaji. The Kiralyudvar estate was once owned by the Hapsburg dynasty and a supplier to the Royal Court since the 11th Century.
Between 2003 and 2012 there were no real changes in the day to day running of domaine. Noël continued to tend the vines on its biodynamic principles, aided by the genial Jean-Bernard Berthomé, a local lad who had worked closely with Noël since 1978, joining directly from college.
Following the sale in 2003, the Hwang family purchased both the cellar along with 35 hectares of vineyards. The manoir where Gaston lived for most of his long life remains under the control of Jacqueline, although the house is sadly unoccupied, as is the abandoned dépendence within Le Clos du Bourg.
Noël had a contract with Société Huet to work ‘part-time’ until his 70th birthday in 2015, although he and Hwang decided to part company in 2012. Jean-Bernard elected to retire in 2021.
Today, it is Vouvrillon, Benjamin Joliveau, who officially started working at Huet in May 2009 (having just completed a stage at Hoopenburg in the Cape) who heads up the cellar and vineyard team, whilst Sarah, Anthony’s daughter, is in overall charge of domaine.
Le Haut Lieu
The late 16th Century closerie of Le Haut Lieu is situated at the top of the rue de la Croix-Buisée, with the vineyards sitting at the summit, off to the right. In the introduction to his 1823 novel Quentin Durward, Sir Walter Scott mentions time spent at the ‘chateau of Hautlieu’ on the banks of the Loire, although reading through the work, it becomes evident that it is unlikely to have been the same place, unless Scott has used some artistic license in embellishing the standing of the Marquis of Hautlieu and his chateau.
From the initial three hectares of vineyards that were purchased by Victor Huet, Le Haut Lieu has since been extended to nine hectares. As the name suggests, the house and the vineyards are situated on a plateau with a slight south facing gradient at one of the highest points of the appellation.
The Le Haut Lieu itself consists of 3 to 4 metres of heavy clay soil mixed with chalk, known locally as aubuis, which lies over a bed of limestone. It is this limestone subsoil that proves to be the constant link between the three vineyards owned by Huet. It is the vines proximity to the porous, yellow tuffeau that is responsible for the overriding style of wines produced from each of the sites.
This friable rock is from the Turonian Age and was laid down during the Cretaceous Period, which dates them at between 67 and 137 million years. The tuffeau is made up of fragments of bryozoa, sea creatures that lived in vast numbers in tropical oceans which, when mixed with fragments of mica and grains of sand then compacted, gives notable physical and chemical properties to the soil. The chalky, brittle quality makes it ideal for excavation; and the reason why Vouvray is made up of a labyrinth of caves and troglodyte dwellings.
Of the three sites, Le Haut Lieu regardless of their style or sweetness, tends to offer the most precocious of wines, although this should be seen as a relative statement given that they are still capable of lasting many decades.
Le Clos du Bourg
Also referred to locally as Chatellenie du Bouchet or Le Clos du Bouchet, Le Clos du Bourg is a six-hectare vineyard and a true clos, being surrounded by an ancient stone wall. It is acknowledged as the oldest cru in the appellation. The site is recognised by name in eighth century records belonging to the Collégiale de Saint-Martin de Tours.
The vineyard sits on the first coteaux above the town (le bourg) and directly behind the town church. The soil here is less than one metre deep, allowing the vines easy access to the tuffeau directly below. Le Clos de Bourg is perhaps recognised as the most likely source for moëlleux, from grapes that have been affected either by botrytis or passerillage.
Prior to Gaston acquiring the vineyard in August 1953, it was owned by Russian born Charles Vavasseur, distinguished, along with Gaston, as a longstanding Mayor of Vouvray. In addition to Le Clos du Bourg, Vavasseur also owned Domaine des Biduadière and Domaine de l’Auberdière between the late 1800s and early 1900s.
A tariff issued by Domaine des Biduadière dating from the first decade of the 1900s was offering the 1904 and 1906 vintages of Le Clos du Bourg for a couple of Francs each per bottle.
Recognised since the 15th Century as being one of the most distinguished sites in the appellation, Le Mont was also known locally as Perruches, a local name for the greenish tinged clay soils flecked with perrons, fist-sized pebbles of flint. This eight-hectare vineyard is situated below Le Haut Lieu and abuts the vineyards of Domaine Foreau. As with Le Clos du Bourg, it is positioned on the first coteaux, around two kilometres further to the east although the soil here is more profound and the vines need to delve deeper to access the honeycomb coloured tuffeau below.
Regardless of the style of wine produced, Le Mont is usually the last vineyard to be picked, the retarded ripening is reflected in the maturation of the wines as they are usually the last to develop, even if they remain very long lived.
Le Mont was purchased by Gaston in November 1957 from the Saumur based sparkling wine producer, Ackerman-Laurance. They had previously sold the wine under the lieu-dit name of ‘Clos le Mont’, with the 1945, 1946 and 1947 all listed by London based wine merchants, Saccone & Speed, in their 1951 catalogue. Price: 16 shillings and sixpence.
At the foot of the vineyard is a semi-troglodyte house, which became the home of the Pinguet’s. Cut into the honey-coloured rock at the back are the old cellars where the wines would have once been matured.
To the side is an old cave with two ancient wooden presses, last used in 1935. It is from here that one takes the 62 stairs cut in the rock in 1968 to access the main Huet cellar. At one point in time, Le Mont was also home to the gendarmes, and within one cellar in the house there is an old holding cell.
The house is now privately owned.
In the vineyard
Over half of the current vineyards were planted between the 1950s and the 1970s, and the general philosophy is to replace individual ceps rather than systematically remove parcels, so younger vines of between one and ten years account for around 15% of the total. The vendange at Domaine Huet is all performed by hand, which is unusual in an environment where around 90% of the appellation is harvested by machine.
In the 1970s it would have been considered unusual for the harvest to begin before the 10th October and could be expected to last for a month. The last time the vintage extended into November was in 1989. Then, it was a conscious decision due to the exceptionally kind conditions rather than out of necessity.
For the past two decades, dates have been creeping steadily forward. Previously, the earliest harvest was following the canicule of 2003, when the picking started on the 14th September. The 2022 harvest started on the 8th September, even earlier… If anyone needed proof that global warming exists, one simply needs to analyse the average harvest dates in Vouvray over the period of the last quarter century to see a clear trend.
It was ten years after taking control of Domaine Huet, when a chance meeting with Jacques Puisais, oenologue, philosopher, founder of l’Institut du Goût and long-time resident of Chinon, that Noël first turned his attentions to biodynamic farming methods. He started experimentally, identifying a single hectare within Le Clos du Bourg in 1986 in which to conduct trials. From there, he decided to embark on full conversion from 1988.
To question the practice of biodynamic farming here is beyond the remit of this profile, but needless to say that the domaine follows the guiding principles, using the three essential preparations of compost manure which is applied directly to the soil (for aiding the decomposition of existing organic matter), Horn manure, also known as ‘Preparation 500’ which is said to stimulate root growth and improves absorption of nutrients, and ‘Preparation 501’, which involves ‘dynamising’ a mix of trace minerals, primarily silica (quartz) with water for one hour before being sprayed on the leaves of the vine at sunrise.
The principle here being that the amount of light generated by the quartz will be better assimilated by the plant. These three ‘fundamental medicines’ are supplemented, when necessary, by Bordeaux Mixture to help prevent outbreaks of mildew. Herbal tisanes, infusions using nettles, horsetail and valerian help to combat oidium. It is also common to see pheromone traps at the end of the rows of vines. These are designed to attract male moths and act as an early warning system for identifying prolific amounts of cochyllis and eudemis.
The domaine has been certified biodynamic with Demeter since the 1990 vintage.
In the cellar
As previously mentioned, between 1929 and 1934, the wines of Domaine Huet were made at Le Haut Lieu but with Gaston’s marriage to Germaine Foreau came access to larger cellars en-bas, some of which are believed to date back to the 15th Century. The current cellar was erected in 1982 and is attached to a network of galleries that run off into the hillside, deep below Le Mont.
There are several key factors which account for Vouvray yielding some of the world’s most age worthy wines. The most important of which is the cépage. Chenin has possibly the highest levels of malic acid of any other mainstream variety. This, coupled with Vouvray’s northerly location, means that the malic acid present within the grape is not respired into the softer tartaric acid on the vine during ripening. Neither is it replaced by softer lactic acidity through secondary fermentation.
The wines are fermented in the cold and humid conditions of the subterranean cellars using indigenous yeasts in a battery of tanks, squeezed into crevices within the caves, or in older demi-muids with temperatures controlled via a bespoke cooling system installed in 2005.
The malo-lactic fermentation is never encouraged at Domaine Huet, and in most cases is impossible to conduct since the pH levels are normally below the 2.9 required for this to occur. The influence of the malic acidity remains constant regardless of the type of wine being produced, which is why even the sweeter examples have a succulent, juicy acidity to help balance out any residual sugar.
The wines age worthiness is then compounded by early bottling, in either March or April following the vintage, so that all the maturation occurs slowly in bottle. The wines stored at the domaine are conserved in the tuffeau caves, where temperature is a constant 12 degrees centigrade and humidity levels are high. These are the perfect conditions to ensure a long life.
Unlike in most other regions of the world, it is solely the climate that dictates the overall style of wine that will be produced from any given vintage, which is why it is common to find wines that might be bone dry one year, only to encounter sweet wines the year after.
Vouvray Mousseux and Pétillant
Sparkling wine is important business in Vouvray with around 70% of the grapes grown within the appellation committed to its production, with the high acidity required to make quality sparkling wines perfectly suited to the profile of Chenin.
The original idea to create sparkling wines came from Charles Vavasseur during the First World War when Champagne was in short supply however, the fashion for sparkling Vouvray only really began around the start of the 1950s, just at a time as demand for sweet wines was beginning to diminish.
There are two distinct styles of bottle fermented Vouvray.
The classic and most widely available within the appellation is mousseux, which at around 5.5kg of pressure conforms to that of traditional Champagne.
The creation of pétillant, the alternative method, is attributed to Maison Brédif in the 1920s, and demands a more fastidious approach to its production. At between 2.5 and 3.00kg of pressure, it requires a higher quality of base wine and greater skill in its manufacture, notably when it is degorged. Pétillant is certainly more vinous and should be probably thought of more as a table wine than anything celebratory.
Although the two styles are produced in equal proportion, it is generally the better growers, or at least those with the right technology, who attempt to make pétillant as there is little room to hide behind any imperfection in the raw material.
At Domaine Huet the production of pétillant is a challenge but offers a greater reward, since it is believed this style is more capable of displaying a true sense of origin and best exhibits the varietal quality of Chenin. Both these factors can be easily lost as soon as the internal pressure moves towards a fuller mousse. This, of course, is all open to debate.
Levels of dosage are generally consistent with Champagne, although as the wines receive extended ageing on their secondary lees, there is less reliance on sweetness to replace built-in complexity. Here, dosage levels are generally around 10 grams per litre, with the liqueur d’expédition often originating from decanted bottles of an older vintage of moëlleux.
It will generally be lesser vintages or where a copious harvest allows for base wine to be converted into fines bulles, when acidity levels are likely to be at their highest.
The legal minimum for ageing sur latte is nine months, although typically the domaine will only consider releasing vintage pétillant after the wines have spent at least four years on their lees.
As a historical footnote, Huet, until 1986, had a parcel of Grolleau planted within Le Haut Lieu which was dedicated to the production of Touraine Mousseux Rosé. The wine had a strong following in Nantes and Lille, where Gaston himself would set off and set up stand at the annual agricultural shows there.
Sec and Demi-Sec
Traditionally, the drier styles (known as sec) have always had around 4 or 5 grams of residual sugar to help reign in the striking acidity. More recently though (and see this as more evidence of global warming) the levels of residual sugar have been gradually rising. One should not be too concerned over the rise in sugar levels, as ultimately the quality rests with the overall balance of the wine.
It is normal in most vintages to produce a demi-sec, literally meaning half-dry. This much maligned category is recognised by the purists as the defining style of the appellation. On average the wines will have about 18-20 grams per litre of residual sugar (although like with sec, these tend to be rising) but retain perfect poise and balance due to the acidity. Those who follow Vouvray on a superficial level tend only to get excited by the quality of the great sweet wine vintages and whilst these are indeed spectacular, one has to understand that these have less universal appeal and tend only to be broached at celebratory dinners, whereas examples of Sec and Demi-Sec can be served on a more regular basis, especially when matched with appropriate savoury dishes.
Moëlleux and Moëlleux Première Trie
The defining, classic Moëlleux (best translated as meaning ‘full of marrow’, this term refers more to the textural quality of a wine than the sweetness) will have approximately 30 grams of residual sugar. The elevated classification of Première Trie doesn’t automatically mean that these grapes have been harvested on the first passage as the name might suggest but are selected on any one of the three separate visits to the vineyard when bunches affected either by botrytis or dried by wind and sun are selected, often grape by grape.
This is an occasional release, the first being from the 1989 vintage and made only when conditions allow. It was named in homage to Gaston Huet’s mother. The criteria for Constance is made exclusively from berries fully affected by botrytis.
Typically, all the wines are harvested at between 12 and 13% alcohol, with the objective of selecting picking dates and fermenting the wines to remain within this range. Anything either side of this should be considered exceptional. Similarly, with total acidity which is normally between 5.5 and 6.5 g/l, regardless of the style of wine being produced.
As a result of the diverse climatic influences of any given year, Vouvray remains one of the world’s most versatile, if unpredictable, white wine appellations. Any systematic approach to winemaking ultimately dismisses the nuance presented to the vigneron by that season’s weather conditions. At Domaine Huet, it is true to say that immediately prior to the harvest the team doesn’t necessarily know the type of wines that will be made that year. The quantity may have already been determined by way of a late frost, uneven flowering, or hail during the summer but the decisions as to the style are likely to be made just a few days before or, in some cases after, the picking has commenced.
Those familiar with the ‘traditional’ labeling of Domaine Huet, it should be made clear that this design is under the ownership of Société Huet. After the sale of the property in 2003, the Huet family elected to sell off most of their private stocks of older (some might say ancient) wines under a separate négociant label created to help distinguish between the two.