The news itself was inevitable, but the timing and immediacy of the news which broke yesterday certainly came as a surprise. Noël Pinguet, who has for years been the face of Domaine Huet, and who has long stated his intention to retire in 2015, is to part company with Domaine Huet and its main backer Anthony Hwang, with immediate effect. A source in Vouvray tells me that there is certainly acrimony behind the split, and that Anthony Hwang will be installing family members to take over the management of the domaine. “Pinguet is not leaving a happy man“, my source says.
The news broke on the 24th with this article from Le Revue du Vin de France; the article suggests some differences of opinion as responsible for the unexpected split. First it is claimed that, contrary to Anthony Hwang’s wishes, Noël (pictured right) was against broadening the production of sec cuvées, presumably at the expense of reducing the amount of sweeter demi-sec and moelleux wines. I can understand this in principle; the sec cuvées are probably more of a commercial success, whereas the demi-sec and moelleux wines probably appeal to a much narrower band of consumers. Having said that, the balance of sec to demi-sec and moelleux cuvées depends very much on the vintage, and 2010 and it seems 2011 were both strong on dry rather than sweet wines. Second, there seems to be a disagreement on distribution policy, Noël’s more measured approach apparently conflicting with Anthony Hwang’s desire to fulfil the largest orders. If this is true I would not be surprised; Hwang’s stake in Huet is large and he comes in as an outside investor. Noël is the son-in-law of Gaston Huet, whose father Victor bought the domaine in 1928. I know his quality-orientated decisions have sometimes caused friction between the two; his desire to use older vintages of very precious première trie moelleux wines as dosage for his superb pétillant wines was not a popular decision with Anthony Hwang. I note the 2007 has been dosed with a less precious blend of demi-sec from two vintages; is this significant in view of Noël’s departure?
Although the split seems to be tainted with acrimony there are suggestions that it may be merely overzealous reporting by La RVF. Jim Budd reports here on news from Huet’s American importer who play down the departure, putting a positive spin on how this development will (a) not affect quality at the estate and (b) more sec wines will mean lower volumes but better quality sweeter wines. Most of these words sound like standard fair from a merchant with a vested interest in marketing and selling the wines of the domaine though, so I’m inclined to reject these points. And as I indicate above, a source in Vouvray tells me otherwise.
As I mention above, Noël has been very open about his retirement in 2015, when he will be 70 years old. With his replacement Benjamin Joliveau having three years under his belt now, and régisseur Jean-Bernard Berthomé staying on, it is understandable that some might think maybe be felt it was safe to go a little earlier than planned. But, as charming as this idea might seem, there seems no doubt that this departure represents more than mere early retirement. Noël has invested much of his life in Huet, working alongside his father-in-law Gaston, a partnership that was reputedly not always as warm as it might have been, converting the domaine to biodynamics in 1990, pushing quality higher and higher. And of course he holds a minority stake in the company. And in recent months when I have met him – in November 2011 and February 2012 – he seemed as interested and enthusiastic for his wines as ever. There was nothing of the man who longed for retirement about him. Discord and acrimony between Hwang and Pinguet have, it seems, resulted in Vouvray’s leading domaine parting company with its most talented winemaker. I wish Noël well for the future.