Louis Dressner Selections - Wine Importer

Didier Dagueneau RIP

We visited Didier Dagueneau this summer to taste the 2007s and the bottled 2006s.

Didier had recently renovated The Temple, an ancient chapel next to his home which had fallen into ruin. He had decided to turn the Temple into a cultural center and had mounted an exhibition of Jean-Marie Périer's photography for its inauguration this summer. Périer was the most famous French photographer of the 1960s and the Temple was filled with photos of celebrities from that epoch.

Didier took us on a tour and Denyse and I had to name each celebrity. Of course, even I know Claude François but only Denyse knew Dani, Sylvie Vartan and Sheila. I didn't recognize Françoise Hardy but I did recognize Jacques Dutronc. Dylan, the Rolling Stones and all the stars of the Anglophone world were easy enough for me.

You could see how proud and joyful Didier was of putting together such an art show. While we were in the Temple, Didier talked about how every year he organizes a lavish dinner called Les Anciens, where he invites all the older vignerons of the area for a great meal, old bottles and good times. Didier was a maverick and a rebel, but he had great respect and love for all these anciens, like Edmond Vatan and Claude Thomas, who had taught him his métier.

Didier Dagueneau died this morning, September 17th, in a small plane crash in the Cognac region. The wine world has lost a great vigneron and the world has lost one of the most original, charming and mischievous characters to ever grace a vineyard row.

More Thoughts on Didier Dagueneau

It is easy to talk about Dagueneau in bigger-than-life clichés. He had the presence, the provocative manner, the wit, the bravado, the cutting edge and the courage to take risks. There was never anyone else like him and no one will ever take his place. But all these clichés, no matter how true, miss what was essential about Dagueneau and the contribution he made to viticultural life.

What many of us take away from knowing Didier is his total dedication to his vines. Didier started with nothing and became an international celebrity because he brought an insane level of rigor, love and attention to his vineyard. He was intense and extreme in everything he did but nothing matched his fanatic devotion to his vines.

Didier had one worker per hectare, the same ratio as Domaine de la Romaine Conti. That one worker had to spend time in every other aspect of the winery to learn the entire process of making wine. The vines were increasingly selections massales and were trained to suffer and ripen at low yields. Some of his finest wines came from his recent plantings in Monts Damnés, in an insanely inclined site, where the plantings were from cuttings Didier took from old sauvignon vines all over Sancerre and Pouilly. Dagueneau acted as a reverse Johnny Appleseed and put together a genetically varied, rich and interesting vineyard population that made sensational wine even though the vines were less than ten-years-old.

I talked today with Didier Barrouillet at Clos Roche Blanche. That Didier was a great admirer and student of the other, now gone. Barrouillet told me that Dagueneau would do chemical analysis of all his vineyards three times a year and would make adjustments by adding organic materials to insure the health of his sites. Barrouillet said that he doesn't know anyone else in France who worked that way and insisted on such preciseness.

Didier was not an advocate of biodynamie, he was not an advocate of natural wine, he used some sulphur, disliked natural yeast fermentations and did not want to sell his wine because it was organic. He wanted to make the very best wine imaginable by guiding the minerality of his sites into the bottle. He was a strong-willed guide and didn't suffer detours and dogmas.

In some ways he was an exception to every rule. Dagueneau didn't have a recipe, all he wanted to do was make great wine and he was prepared to sacrifice everything to get it done. Dagueneau became bigger than the AOC Pouilly-Fumé but he started with nothing and built it all by sheer will. Barrouillet told me how in the early years, Dagueneau didn't have hot water in his home, but the cellar was well equipped and well maintained.

Dagueneau's first vintage of Jurançon had some cork stain so he destroyed everything. Denyse and I visited him two years ago as he was about to bottle and he found the bottles that had been delivered to the winery had a small taint of plastic smell from the external wrapping. He called off the bottling immediately and told the bottle distributor to take it all back. It was summer and the distributor was closing. All the wine had been prepared for bottling, the equipment was in place, and Didier was not going to get replacement bottles for a few weeks. All his shipment schedules were going to be turned upside down and his cash flow would be hurt.

He didn't care, he was not going to risk the wine.

This winter we received a bottle of one of Didier's cuvées in our office before our shipment left France. There was no explanation why it arrived and we contacted his office to find out what happened. We were told that there had been a radioactive leak at a local nuclear plant and that Didier feared that the wine might have suffered from contaminating contact. He told us we were not obligated to take the wine if we tasted it and felt it was defective.

The three partners at Louis/Dressner Selections all did frantic internet searches and couldn't find a story about a radioactive leak, although there is a nuclear power plant in the area. Why was the leak so hush-hush? I volunteered Kevin to taste the wine who volunteered Denyse who volunteered me. Then the three of us suggested that Sheila, who runs our office make the definitive decision. Somehow, no one was in a rush to taste the wine.

Weeks later we finally opened the bottle. We found it reduced but felt worried we might anger Dagueneau if we didn't take this bottling. We sent a note and were told that the wine was no longer available and had been sold out.

Denyse and I visited Dagueneau this summer. We asked Nathalie, who runs his office, what the real story was with the radioactive wine. She looked surprised and fatigued at the same time and said: "Don't you know Didier?"

Turns out the wine had taken forever to ferment and Didier was unhappy with the results. He didn't want any of his customers to be stuck with the wine or take it out of obligation so he gave everyone an easy option out. Finally, his Belgian importer bought a large quantity.

That one bottle aside, tasting and drinking Didier's wines was always a wonderful experience. I don't know what the mineral Silex tastes like, but I can only imagine it must taste like Didier's cuvée of that name. I can't imagine it any other way.

Denyse said to me last night that when people die it is like when a light goes out. But Didier was more than a light, he was a natural phenomenon, a storm, a commotion and a celebration in a world that is often too dull and glum.

Yes, he was bigger than life. But Dagueneau was a man who didn't suffer fools and clichés lightly.

-Joe Dressner