When he died during a light-plane crash in September 2008, Didier Dagueneau, then 52, had already become a legend in the world of wine. A perfectionist, he almost single-handedly changed the image of Sauvignon Blancs from Pouilly-Fumé and Sancerre in France’s Loire Valley.
Rather than shrill, feisty whites tasting of grass, green beans, gooseberry or pipi de chat (the somehow more polite French term for cat’s pee), Dagueneau’s Sauvignons were statuesque, beautifully balanced wines with flavors reminiscent of citrus zests, apricot, fig, passion fruit and minerals. They cost as much as a Grand Cru from Burgundy’s Cote d’Or, and consumers did not hesitate to pay: a Dagueneau wine was a work of art.
His funeral, which drew wine people from all over France, was held on a sunny afternoon one day before the start of the 2008 Pouilly-Fumé harvest. And many in attendance wondered whether his son, Louis-Benjamin, then 25, would be able to cope with this challenge, which even in calmer circumstances would have been daunting. The Dagueneau domaine consists of 27 acres of vines in Pouilly-Fumé, a couple of rows of vertiginously steep vines on the famous cru Les Monts Damnes in Sancerre, and a small vineyard in Jurancon. Merely harvesting and fermenting all those grapes would be an accomplishment; producing wines on a par with those of his father seemed beyond the realm of possibility.
We need not have worried. Louis-Benjamin has now completed two vintages on his own, and his 2008 and 2009 vintages are nothing less than splendid, fully the equal of any wine made by his father. The 2008 “Pur Sang” is the apotheosis of the Loire. Voluptuous yet finely etched, it wraps its flavors of crystallized grapefruit and lemon zests around the tongue. Grandiose. A vin de meditation. David Schildknecht in the Wine Advocate sums it up with: “the 2009 collection … promises to be the best group of Sauvignons rendered in that year.… The 2008s are also superb.”
Still. It must have been agonizing, surreal?
“No, it was very easy. Everyone gave the best of themselves,” Dagueneau says, sitting in the small house in front of the wine cellar that the Dagueneaus call La Maison d’Henri. It has an office downstairs and a couple of bedrooms on the second floor.
I had lived in the Maison d’Henri for a couple of months in 1990 while researching a book on the Loire. At the time, Louis-Benjamin was a droll and dreamy little boy of 7. Now he’s tall, muscular and bearded, and every bit as opinionated as his father.
In fact, it seems if I close my eyes, it sounds like Didier and not Louis-Benjamin who is talking. And, as articulate as his father was, Louis-Benjamin brings Didier and his convictions even more clearly into focus.
Since he worked side by side with his father from 2004 on, he seems to take his success as a matter of course. “I started working in the vineyards and tasting wines when I was 10,” Dagueneau says. “When Didier opened a great bottle — a Jayer, say, or an ’89 Chinon Dioterie, or a Mas Jullien — we tasted and I listened to what he said and tried to find what he described in the glass.
“When I was about 14 or 15, I really started tasting Sauvignon Blanc. Our own wines. We’d taste those made from grapes that had been de-stemmed and from grapes that hadn’t been de-stemmed, for example, wines that were filtered or not filtered, sulfured or not sulfured; wines aged in different types of barrels or barrels with different levels of toasting. We’d taste the lees, the grapes, oxidized wines.”
Dagueneau went to several professional schools, earning a degree in viticulture and oenology. Before returning to the family property in 2004, he apprenticed with vintners as exigent as his father, spending at least a year with Francois Chidaine in Montlouis and Vouvray in the Loire and another year with Olivier Jullien at Mas Jullien in the Languedoc. He remains close to both.
“But I really learned everything from Didier,” he says. “In essence, a wine must reflect its terroir and its vintage. No. 1: Wine is made in the vineyard. Everybody says that, but no one does it. You need to be rigorous and to have good sense. Second: Respect for nature. We converted to organic farming back in the 1990s. We tried everything in the vineyards and the cellar. We kept what we liked, and we ignored the rest.”
So-called natural wines have become an important trend — the word “natural” subject to many interpretations but often embracing some variation on the noninterventionist, less-is-more philosophy: no weed killers or commercial fertilizer in the vineyard, for example, and, when it comes to winemaking, no added anything, starting with sulfur, sugar and yeast, and no manipulations like controlling the temperature of fermentation, or fining or filtering the wine before bottling.
Louis-Benjamin, like his father, thumbs his nose at the natural-wine dogma: “We’re noninterventionist, but it’s not nature that prunes the vines or that presses the grapes,” he says, and spells out some of the techniques they adopted and those they discarded.
“Working the soil — by plowing, sometimes with a horse — is something we kept. We don’t use weed killers and we kept some of the infusions [essentially homeopathic vine treatments], others not. And we don’t work with laboratory analysis. We decide the date of harvest by tasting the grapes. We decide if we’ve decanted the wine sufficiently by looking at the juice, and so forth. We rejected working without sulfur or without added yeasts. You can’t make dry wines without yeast. There’ll always be some residual sugar or, if the fermentation goes too slowly for lack of yeast, there may be some off-flavors like volatile acidity. We do everything to keep the fermentation temperature cool. We don’t fine, but we do filter the wines.”
“Another thing Didier taught me,” Dagueneau says, obviously warming to the subject and sounding more and more like his father with every sentence, “wine has a certain potential at harvest. Every intervention you make, if it’s not at exactly the right moment, you lose something. You have to make the right decision at the right time in order to keep what nature has given.”
Now, in mid-October, Dagueneau is delighted with what nature has given.
First, he became a father (of a son named Lou) on Sept. 20, a week before harvest began. And then he succeeded in bringing all his fruit in before the rains began at the beginning of October and is jubilant about the quality — comparing it to 2002, one of his favorite vintages.
Thinking back on the 2008 harvest, Louis-Benjamin reflected, “I had a difficult moment of feeling that I was living Didier’s life, that I’d stolen something. Then I realized that I was lucky. For me the hardest thing has been that my father didn’t live to taste my first vintage. This is a regret that I’ll always carry with me.”
Jacqueline Friedrich is author of “A Wine and Food Guide to the Loire.”