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Didier Dagueneau, 1956-2008

September 18, 2008 |  5:58 pm

Pouilly_3We learned this morning of the death of Didier Dagueneau, one of the most gifted and iconoclastic producers in France's Loire Valley. It’s reported that he died when the ultralight single-engine plane he was flying stalled just after takeoff –- a daredevil demise of a man whose winemaking was every bit as daring.

Dagueneau made wines mainly with Sauvignon Blanc grapes from the inland Loire region called Pouilly-Fumé, but his wines bore no resemblance to other wines in the region. Dagueneau’s Sauvignons, given fanciful proprietary names like Silex and Pur Sang, were the product of some of the most meticulous, radically natural wine-growing in the Loire Valley. He embraced organic farming long before his fellow vignerons (growers) had even considered that option, and in 1993 was one of the first in the region to adopt biodynamics at his family estate in Saint-Andelain....

... But Dagueneau’s real innovation in Pouilly-Fumé was to slash the yields in his vineyards, harvesting just a fraction of the tonnage that his neighbors would on a similarly sized plot. Other producers were accustomed to setting large crops and making up for less-than-fully-ripe fruit by adding sugar -- often resulting in thin, fairly insipid, very ordinary wines.

A typical Dagueneau wine, by contrast, was characterized by uncompromising purity of flavor, and astonishing concentration. That concentration actually allowed him to do the unthinkable -- to age his Pouilly-Fumé in oak barrels.

Silex, his flagship wine, was typical. Silex refers to the flinty rock that characterizes Pouilly-Fumé soils, and so when you tasted the wine, you expected that dusty, flinty minerality to dominate. Instead, it was fruit -- fruit of such clarity, intensity and pure expression that the overlay of nutty spice from oak, while seeming to be out of place for the Pouilly-Fumé, was very much at home in this wine, giving it the kind of amplitude and richness that no one else in the region could achieve. Only then did the minerality make its presence known, providing perfect contour to the rich palate experience.

Wild-haired, outspoken, Dagueneau looked more like a Humboldt hippie than a French vigneron, but his influence on his region, and on France, will not be soon forgotten.

-- Patrick Comiskey

Photo: A bottle of Blanc Fume de Pouilly bearing Dagueneau's signature. Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times