Tribute to Didier Dagueneau
HOMMAGE TO DIDIER DAGUENEAU
(The tribute begins with my post of September 18th, when I heard of Didier's death. I then post the entry on Didier from my Loire book -- for those who never knew him. The last post is from January 2009.)
September 18, 22, 2008:
I'm in the Manduria region of Apulia at the moment. This morning I learned that Didier Dagueneau had died in a flying accident in the Dordogne when his microlite stalled after take-off, plummeting some 50 meters to the ground. I've since learned that Didier was on his way to Jurancon to check out the ripeness of his vines there. He'd stopped in Cognac to refuel. His passenger, a flight instructor from Nevers, was thrown from the plane and escaped with a broken leg. The wing of the plane pierced the fuel tank and the plane caught fire or exploded. We hope that Didier died immediately upon impact.
(For those who don't know about Didier, I've included the text from my first Loire book, below.)
I hope to share some memories of Didier with you over the next couple of days -- particularly after I return to France. I lived in Didier's guest house for several months in 1990 when I was researching les vins du centre for the first version of my Loire book. While many of the Loire's wine bureaucrats and its vintners and negociants doubted I'd ever write the book -- six Loire books were published between the time I start my research and the publication of my book -- Didier always believed in me. He "got it." When I held some post-publication tastings in New York he insisted that his importer donate all the bottles of Silex I would need.
I helped harvest the 1990 vintage. It was a Saturday. Didier, like his uncle, Serge, got his harvesters from the local wine school. As the students had no school on Saturday, they didn't come to harvest. So all friends within spitting distance came and harvested. There wasn't much left to do. We had finished by lunch time -- even with a break for wine (Chinon brought by Charles Joguet) and a snack -- and then Didier bought us all a super lunch in downtown Pouilly s/Loire.
The student harvesters also ate great lunches: Didier spared no expense. He would buy artisanal cheeses, confit de canard for the days when a copious lunch wasn't prepared at home. We all ate at long tables in the winery. And even at the height of the harvest we wouldn't have needed those tables: the winery was at all times clean enough to eat off the floor.
And speaking of eating: Didier believed in taking his vineyard workers to high-end restaurants on the principle that they should understand first-hand where the wine they had helped make ended up.
The house was always full of wine-nuts. Eric Bordelet, now making sublime cider, was then the sommelier at Arpege in Paris. He came down on weekends. And it was then that he told me he was leaving his 3-Michelin-star post to go back to the family farm in the Mayenne and make cider with the same perfectionist principles that guided Didier's winemaking. Philippe Catusse, who earned a living driving a moving van, was another regular. He now has the wine shop in Beziers and recently opened a wine bar.
I hope to share more memories later. I just want to say that, saddened as I am by Didier's untimely death, I can't help but feel that this was the way he would have wanted to go. He was always defiant, always in search of the next challenge and ever more daring risks.
MORE THOUGHTS, REFLECTIONS -- from Paris
Thinking about the introduction of the second version of the Loire book, I’ve been reflecting on the past twenty years and on how our understanding of wine and winemaking has evolved.
A principle factor has been the concept of phenolic maturity. When I began my research in the Loire, we were all still judging ripeness by sugars and potential alcohol. One person alone was talking about phenolic maturity. That was Didier. And it made so much sense. And now it’s part of our daily vocabulary.
Then, in the summer of 1990, when I was on my way to research the wines and cheeses of the Auvergne, I stopped off at Didier’s house in St. Andelain to drop off most of my gear.
Didier had organized a tasting of sauvignon blanc that evening. The kind of thing he often did.
There were his wines, wines from uncle Serge, the Cotats, Alphonse Mellot, the Masson-Blondelets, and many others, including wines from California.
But it was the Pouillys and the Sancerres that derailed me. It was the first time I’d encountered so many really ripe versions. They were ample – some were even blowsy – not shrill or scrawny; their aromas recalled white peach, melon, fig, grapefruit, not cat’s pee, asparagus or bourgeons de cassis. I wasn’t sure what to think. The new “Sancerre/Pouilly” was an acquired taste. Or at the very least, I had to put aside the shrill, raw, wine-as-wake-up-call template that seemed to be the conventional view of Loire sauvignon. And there was minerality. Indeed, Didier’s best cuvees – Silex and Pur Sang – were more evocative of stones and minerals than fruit. And that’s the expression I adore. Now, nearly 20 years later, I’m finding that an increasing number of the region’s sauvignons convey that sublime minerality. And, Didier, again, managed to push the envelope: he’d recently gotten a very small plot of land in Chavignol (Sancerre AOC). The 2005 utterly blew me away. I think it’s the most exquisite Sancerre I’ve ever tasted and, perhaps, the best wine Didier ever made.
Text from A Wine & Food Guide to the Loire:
Didier Dagueneau, St. Andelain: My last visit to Didier Dagueneau's
winery was on a bright December morning. Didier was about to set off for
Slovakia to compete in dog sled races. As his crew swept cages, he broke
off to taste through his '94 Pouilly Fumes, ending in a dimly lit cellar
lined with barrels. Taut, bone-dry, with bracing acidity, the wines were
the best reflection imaginable of one of the worst vintages in recent
memory. "This year my neighbors made cocktails of '94, '93 and sugar,"
Fighting words? You bet. Dagueneau, the 40-ish enfant terrible of
Pouilly, means them to be. Central casting's dream of a rebel, with his
tangled mane of flame-red hair, his ice-blue stare, his grunge garb
(logger shirt, baggy jeans, trucker's cap), Dagueneau crusades for his
idea of authentic Pouilly Fume, denouncing its infidels anywhere he
finds an audience.
On French national tv Dagueneau inveighed against over-production.
At home he leads visitors on tours of Pouilly's vineyards like a
prosecutor marshalling evidence, showing not just his own impeccable
plots but a sampling of neighbors' high-yielding, weed-infested parcels
as well. He also sent journalists his declarations of harvest, covering
yields, chaptalization and his bill for harvesters. Like a politician
revealing his tax returns, he was providing proof of purity. And like a
politician, he was throwing down the gauntlet to his confreres. (Like a
politician, he sometimes exaggerates: while his claim about "cocktails"
may be true in some cases, it does not apply across the board -- at
least according to my tastebuds.)
In any event, Dagueneau's best gauntlet is his wine which has become
the region's new benchmark. Many concur with Denis Dubourdieu, the
Bordeaux enologist credited with revolutionizing white wine production
in that region, who says, "Dagueneau is one of the great winemakers of
our generation; an artist in the truest sense of the word. He makes wine
according to an ideal in his head. His wines reveal the finesse of
Dagueneau cultivates 11,5 hectares spread over St. Andelain. When he
made his debut in 1982, he had had no training in wine. He spent his
youth as a motocross racer and credits its spirit of competition --
which he recaptures today in dog sled racing -- for his rigor as a
winemaker. "I want to be the best," he says. "If you want to be the best
you need the methods and techniques to get you there: your vines must
bear the best grapes; your vinification must be the most meticulous."
In the vineyards Dagueneau goes well beyond the mandates of the
INAO. Vine density ranges from the legal minimum of 6000 to 14,000
plants per hectare. He prunes severely, de-buds, de-leafs, cluster thins
and keeps yields under (often well under) 45 hl/ha. He judges ripeness
not merely by levels of grape sugars but by "aromatic maturity," which
will produce flavors like apricot, fig, grapefruit, passion fruit and
cassis rather than vegetal ones like green beans or pipi de chat. Grapes
are then hand harvested by successive passes through the vineyard.
Dagueneau's costly investments include his winery. Built in '89, it
looks like a cathedral -- or at least like a church in an affluent
suburb. It operates on the gravity principle and is so clean you could
eat off the floor. After the devastating spring of '91 he installed
Chablis-style anti-frost equipment in his vineyards. And he positioned
weather posts in key parcels to monitor temperatures, rainfall, humidity
and so forth and thereby to fine tune his treatment of vine maladies.
Dagueneau claims his winemaking is not systematic. Broadly, grapes
may or may not undergo skin contact. If the harvest is ripe and healthy,
grapes are not destemmed. Several varieties of yeast are added.
Fermentation occurs in small, thermoregulated stainless steel tanks or
in oak barrels (some designed to his specifications). After an initial
racking the wines stay on their fine lees until bottling. (He is opposed
to malolactic fermentation for sauvignon blanc no matter how acid the
As might be expected, Dagueneau produces some novelties: Pouilly from
ungrafted vines, riesling and an off-dry sauvignon which he calls Maudit
(cursed) because it was denied the Pouilly appellation as it was not
Tasters accustomed to feisty sauvignons may find none of Dagueneau's
wines typical. In his Pouilly Fumes, a creamy texture replaces raw
acidity; mineral flavors combined with exotic fruit often recall the
wines of Alsace. He currently bottles four versons: En Chailloux
represents half of production. It's a big, friendly wine; as I often
find it soft, I tend to prefer years like '94 when it's bracing and
steely as well as aromatic.
Next is the single vineyard Buisson Menard, a flinty, mineral-rich
Pouilly.'92,'93 and '94 should develop great complexity. The barrel
fermented Pur Sang (Thoroughbred) tends to be the bridge between En
Chailloux and Cuvee Silex. I loved the mellow, pear and mineral '94 and
the suave, almost viscous '93.
Silex, also barrel fermented and aged, is made from 35 to 60 year
old vines on the silex-rich soils which Dagueneau believes make the most
structured, "intellectual" Pouillys. The '94 was tart, minerally, with
flavors of red currant and grapefruit when tasted from barrel.
Promising. The multi-layered '93 was a great wine. Wine in capital
letters. As were the opulent '90 and '89, and the rectilinear yet
sumptuous and complex '88. All confirm Dagueneau's view that sauvignon
is one of the most complex and subtle grapes and that its wines are as
noble as great white Burgundies. (Silex is also priced like one, at
roughly $45. But, cognizant of the work that goes into the wines,
customers -- collectors and restaurateurs alike -- never balk.)
"I'm lucky," Dagueneau reflects, "I make wine without regard to cost.
I don't want to know how I'm doing financially otherwise that will
dictate how I make my wine."
Banks underwrote Dagueneau's dazzling ensemble of vineyards, cellars
and seven full-time employees. After his winery was built Dagueneau
conceded that its expense was "disproportionate," adding "But I didn't
want to wait and do it bit by bit. You've got to move quickly. Life is
short. I hope in five years I'll still want to be a winemaker but maybe
I'll want something else."
Five years have passed since that statement and Dagueneau is still
making wine. And he recently replanted a historic vineyard and bought
and trained a mare to maneuver its tight rows.
I realize, sadly, that if I delete the last paragraph and the last sentence of the preceding paragraph, I've written Didier's epitaph.
December 2008/January 2009
This Christmas season, before leaving Touraine to meet long-lost, newly refound American friends in Paris, I was feeling nostalgic about my days in France, about how quickly the nearly 20 years had passed, about the people I’d met when they were young, change-the-world, reinvent the wheel winemakers and how, now, as I’m preparing the second edition of the Loire book, these former firebrands were in the process of passing the mantle to the next generation or, without heirs to succeed them, psyching themselves up to sell their domaines.
And then there was Didier. And I can’t bring myself to say the next word. So I won’t. But there were three bottles he’d sent me in the beginning of September, with a card picturing a Riesling leaf and a note telling me to come to visit and taste the rest.
One bottle was the 2006 Silex.
I opened it. It’s been cold this winter. So the wine room temperature, probably somewhere around 14C. As I pulled the cork, aromas of grapefruit and grapefruit zest drifted off the damp bottom.
Pale gold verging on platinum, the wine was rich, broad and creamy, flowing over the palate and finishing ever so slowly on notes of citrus zests, stone and light, mellow flavors of oak.
It brought me back to a frequent reflection that Pouillys tend to be more expansive than Sancerres and that here was an example of the Loire in its most Cote d’Or expression. Though I hate saying that the Loire is anything but the Loire.
The wine was tight but supple, stern but generous. A tough love Pouilly. As it opened, it revealed deep aromas of minerals and vibrant grapefruit juiciness along with a the seductive herbaceousness of freshly mown spring grass. The discoveries kept on coming yet the wine was all of a piece.
There’s also quite a bit of varietal character here. I’m wondering if that has anything to do with Didier’s use of selected yeasts. Which makes me think of Didier's cuvee Buisson Renard. Now I’m convinced that the wine was originally called Buisson Menard, after its lieu-dit. The wine, to me, always had a foxy taste. (As do many Pouillys.) And I wondered if he didn’t change the name from Menard to Renard, which means ‘fox’, because of that. (One of the many questions I had been hoping to ask Didier was where he thought that foxy aspect in Pouillys came from.)
Ok. My tasting methods have changed. When I’m going to write seriously about a wine – more than a quarter of a ‘tweet,’ for example – I taste the wine over a couple of days, following its evolution. So I put the bottle in the fridge.
Evening of Day 1: the wine is tight and creamy, with a long mineral-stone-grapefruit finish. The colder temperature focuses it and its race and power come to the fore. It’s statuesque, big-boned, self-assured. The touch of oak is masterly.A superb wine.
I have decided to pair the wine with very good store bought (Giovanni Rana) ravioli. These were filled with pesto, pecorino and pine nuts which I tossed with butter and parmesan. A full-force Loire Sauvignon is my first choice for pesto but I thought that straight pesto would have been too loud for a wine this elegant. But the ravioli preparation softened the expression. If anything, the ravioli was less forceful than the wine but it didn’t disappear. It graciously allowed the wine to star while playing the role of a delicious and appropriate partner. The flavors were complementary, the balance was perfect and the gentle texture of the ravioli married well with the creamy, broad texture of the Pouilly. The wine’s fresh finish revived the palate after each sip.
Day 2: If anything, the wine is more crystalline and the mineral expression even more potent. Tight, with lipsmacking viscosity, the flavors of grapefruit zests and grapefruit are oh-so subtly underscored by oak. The finish is slightly saline. The problem is that the wine is so damned good that, although I had been expected to drink it once again with dinner, I polished off the bottle then and there.
This is Didier demanding to be the best. And succeeding.
It turns out that Didier’s son, Benjamin (or Louis-Benjamin, as he is now calling himself) made the wine – with his father over his shoulder. I had seen Benjamin at Didier’s funeral in September but hadn’t spoken to him. There were so many people and I was sure he wouldn’t remember me. I certainly didn’t recognize him, having last seen him when he was a small, sweet and droll boy of about 8. Now he’s taller than Didier was, lanky, with a scrubby beard and a gentle manner. Louis-Benjamin.
The next time I saw him was in December at a tasting in Paris put on by Les Gens du Metier, a group of vignerons founded in 1990 by Didier, Charles Joguet, Mark Kreydenweiss (Alsace), the Foucault brothers (Saumur-Champigny), Eric Bordelet (then sommelier at Arpege, now making cider) and others.
I introduced myself . Louis-Benjamin thought a minute and said, “Were you the one with the cheese?”
“That’s me!” I laughed, cutting him off. When I was living in Didier’s guest house (la maison d’Henri) while researching Loire #1 I was also visiting food producers, notably cheese makers. Often I’d bring home samples to taste and take notes on. I kept them in the guest house fridge which was also where cellar workers kept their snacks. One day a cellar rat (who, to my distress, had the physique of an ex-boyfriend) took some of my untasted samples for his casse-croute. I told Didier the samples were for everyone after I had sampled them. An insignificant story but somehow it lived on.
There were plenty of reminders of Didier at that Gens du Metier tasting. Eric Bordelet had posted a black-and-white photo of the group’s first meeting – at Arpege – with a young(er) Charles Joguet and a young Didier. Didier’s daughter, Charlotte, four years old when I lived with them, was there, a young woman with a helmet of black hair as brilliant as a scarab, and Didier’s companion Susie. Philippe Catusse (see earlier , September tribute on homepage) had come from Bezier. And Didier and Marie-Christine Clement of the wonderful restaurant Lion d’Or in Romorantin-Lanthenay had come with their grown daughter.
At Didier’s funeral, Marie-Christine tearfully told me that she and her husband had spoken to Didier every single day. Their restaurant is one of my favorites and I recall a brilliant game dinner I had there once with Didier, Martine (Didier’s first wife) and a friend from Canada. Had Eric been there too? Maybe.
There were always people around. The day I first arrived in September 1990 – wanting to drop of my bags before heading down to the Auvergne (where I would research four minor Loire appellations and some major cow’s milk cheese) I was greeted at the door by a large, R.-Crumb-zaftig woman wrapped in a bath towel. “Martine?” I asked. “Sabine!” she crowed.
Sabine was one of three women camping out in La Maison d’Henri while painting a wine-related mural on the walls of the small barrel cellar Didier kept for aging Silex.
Sabine had happened to be eating in the same restaurant in Bordeaux as Didier about 6 months earlier. Both being flamboyant personalities, they met, they spoke and Sabine arrived with her team to paint the cellar. And there were always other people. Eric and Philippe, as I’ve said. Serge Dagueneau, Didier’s uncle, and his daughter, Valerie, cellar workers, Alphonse Mellot, winemakers from other regions, state-employed wine technicians from Tours. It was the proverbial auberge espagnol.
And guests whose palates Didier respected would get free run of his cellar, picking any wine they wanted to drink. I do believe the only time I’ve drunk a Burgundy from Henri Jayer is chez Didier.
Didier never did things halfway. His phone machine messages – I particularly recall one about a jumping dog circus act – were so hilarious I’d call hoping to get the machine. And once, while trying to make an appointment with someone over the phone, I saw Didier listening with an air of mock consternation while I spelled out my name, “F comme France, R comme Robert.” When I had finished, he laughed “Jacqueline, you can’t do that. Every letter has to be wine related.”
Here, to the best of my recollection, is what we came up with:
F comme fermentation
R comme rendement
I comme ivresse
E comme echantillon
D comme degustation
R comme remontage
I comme inox (acier inoxydable or stainless steel)
C comme cuvaison
H comme hectare
When leaving messages for winemakers now I spell out my name this way. I rarely do the whole shmeer, getting as far as the first “I”, but I always get laughs.
Didier’s funeral was held on a perfect autumn day, the day before the 2008 harvest was to begin. The little church in St. Andelain was filled to the rafters. Most of us stood outside in the crisp air and almost blinding sunshine. Friends who were musicians played. A number of people spoke. But they never spoke too long and they never were flowery or generic. You recognized Didier in everything that was said. One remark touched me in particular. Recalling the susceptibility hidden behind an often gruff veneer, the elegist (whose identity I do not know) said that Didier had taught us all an expression of wonderment: when something moved him, he would say that it was “de toute beaute.”
Didier didn’t invent that expression. It’s in the dictionary. But I, for one, learned it from him. I use it often and under the same circumstances that Didier did. But I forgot that it was Didier who gave me those words until the reminder, at Didier’s funeral, hit me like hard blow from an unseen source.
That 2006 Silex? De toute beaute.