The death of the Pouilly-Fumé winemaker Didier Dagueneau on September 17 in a plane crash was a blow not only to his family and friends, and to lovers of fine wine, but also to the Sauvignon Blanc grape, which was Dagueneau’s chosen medium of expression. No single person may have ever done so much to elevate the reputation of a grape.
Dagueneau was known as much for his reputation—garnished by his huge, shaggy beard, wild eyes, tendency to shoot off at the mouth, and penchant for sled dog racing—as he was for his wines. But make no mistake, his wines were incredibly fine. And despite the immense boost in commercial popularity that New Zealand’s wines gave to the Sauvignon Blanc grape, what the late Loire Valley winemaker brought forth from his vines was something truly unique: wines that were majestically complex, intellectually captivating, yet also delicious and full of life.
I never had a chance to meet the man, but I greedily read everything I could about him and of course avidly tasted his wines. Dagueneau’s most famous is called Silex, named for the flinty rock that comprises Pouilly-Fumé’s soils, but the one I fell in love with is named Buisson Renard, one of his smaller, rare cuvées.
Before we were married, my wife and I packed a bottle to take with us on a trip to a remote fishing village on the east coast of Baja California. We fished and also bought fresh catch from local fishermen, ending up with tuna and mackerel. And while the sand-blown atmosphere might have seemed more appropriate for popping a Corona, we uncorked the elegant, expensive French wine. And part of its power and beauty was that it spoke to me even there on the beach in a palapa powered only with a small solar battery. (The wine provided plenty more electricity.)
I’d always prized Sauvignon Blanc for its exotic fruit and herbal complexity, but this wine was something altogether different, more serious. It had a deeply mineral core, as finely textured as beach sand sifting through my fingers. Atop that, there were classic Loire Sauvignon notes of green apple, lime, hay, and flowers. It seemed transparent and deep at the same time, like peering through 20 feet of perfectly clear water to the rocky sea bottom. I was hooked.
I had always been a fan of Sauvignon Blanc, and I even worked a harvest in New Zealand because of my love for it. But I’d never had a wine like this. Dagueneau’s approach to the grape was notoriously rigorous. Though he was from a wine family in the famous Loire Sauvignon Blanc town of Pouilly-Fumé (the “Fumé” part was adopted by Robert Mondavi to create the wine name Fumé Blanc, which he thought made Sauvignon Blanc sound more sophisticated and attractive), Dagueneau had a dispute with his father and started his own wine business from scratch.
His approach was to work the vineyards as few, if anyone, in his region ever had before. He was organic before the word had its current cachet. He farmed some vineyards with horse and plough, as he thought the impact on the vines was less than that of a tractor. He and his workers spent months and months adjusting crop levels to make the most intense, ripe, expressive wines possible. And Dagueneau often harvested his vineyards over several passes, something rarely done in the case of dry wines.
He also vinified most of his Sauvignon Blanc in oak casks, something not practiced so much in the Loire anymore and hardly at all in the New World. His wines were rarely oaky, though. What I learned about the Sauvignon Blanc grape from Dagueneau is that if the yields are low enough, the grapes healthy enough, and the wines intense enough, even a white wine can stand up to oak, and also benefit from it. In the case of Dagueneau’s wines, the use of oak somehow teased out a deeper sense of minerality and complex structure. I’m not sure how this happened, but it has to do with the wine interacting slowly with small amounts of oxygen at the right time in its life. Wines like this require rare talent to make.
I don’t know what will happen to Dagueneau’s estate. In a recent interview with Decanter magazine, when asked if his son, Louis Benjamin, who had been working with him, would take over the family business, Dagueneau said, “I would have liked him to work with me but he wants to set up on his own. So I said ‘… I’ll lend you the stuff you need, and you can make your first vintage in my cellar, but after that, you’re going to have to buy my equipment because that’s setting out on your own.’”
Louis Benjamin is now on his own. I hope he is allowed to take over his father’s work and, if so, that he can figure out how to elevate Sauvignon Blanc in the same way his father did.