Monday, February 16, 2009

Benjamin Dagueneau

One last post on the Loire before getting back to Champagne. I was due in Paris on Sunday the 8th, but I was keen on accompanying the Dressner gang for a visit to the Didier Dagueneau estate in St-Andelain along the way. As all the wine world knows, Didier Dagueneau was killed last September in a tragic accident, when the ultralight plane he was piloting crashed in the Dordogne, in southern France. His children Louis-Benjamin and Charlotte have taken over the reins of the estate, and I think it’s fair to say that the wine world is collectively holding its breath to see what happens.

I had met Benjamin briefly once before, on a previous visit, but had never spoken with him. He has been working alongside his father for the last four years or so, and certainly knows all the ins and outs of the estate. Yet this can’t be an easy position for him to be in—not only has he just lost his father, but he also faces the impossible pressure of following in the footsteps of a legendary personality. Didier was an icon, a giant of a figure not only in the Loire Valley, but in the world of wine. He can never be replaced, but surely this is not Benjamin’s goal. His responsibility now is to continue producing wines at the estate, opening a new chapter in its history, and while this may have come sooner than anyone, including Benjamin himself, would have liked, the early indications are that he will run the estate with thoughtfulness, intelligence and care.

We began by tasting the 2007s, which as a collection impressed me a great deal with their impeccable balance and intense expression of terroir. I often prefer these quieter vintages at Dagueneau, where the alcohol is low but the wines are still ripe and complex, showing a compelling detail and harmony. The Blanc Fumé de Pouilly was still in tank, waiting to be bottled in a few days, and it was immediately, effortlessly inviting, making me want to drink my entire glass and ask for a refill. The recently-bottled Pur Sang, from glaciated, well-draining clay and flint soils, felt subtle and airy, all silk and finesse, with gorgeously fragrant length; Buisson Renard, from heavier soils at the foot of the St-Andelain butte, clearly demonstrated the contrast in terroir with its richer body and more opulent texture, although this, too, felt very pure and racy in its undertone. The 2007 Sancerre Monts Damnés, the third vintage of this wine, expressed an even more pronounced contrast in soil: “The difference here isn’t really between Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé,” said Benjamin. “It’s between calcaire and silex.” Dark in tone, almost brooding, with a broadly expansive fragrance and marvelous length on the finish, the 2007 Monts Damnés reflected all the majesty of this dramatically steep site. Returning to Pouilly-Fumé, the 2007 Silex was my pick for favorite wine of the vintage at Dagueneau—as great as the other wines were, the Silex demonstrated an extra dimension and complexity, with a breathtaking sense of grace and a poignant, subtly intense expression of soil. “It’s really the style of wine we like to make at the domaine, with a lot of freshness and tension,” says Benjamin. “Nowadays the demonstration of style is often a demonstration of force. People are looking for more power, more alcohol, more oak, more tannin. This is not at all what we seek. We’re looking for more drinkability. The sign of a good bottle is that you want to finish the whole thing.”

Tasting the 2008s in barrel proved to be no less compelling. Benjamin says that the 2008s resemble the 2007s, but there were some difficulties during the growing season, particularly with hail, and two wines in particular, Buisson Renard and Silex, were altered in character by hailstorms at the end of the flowering. I absolutely loved the Blanc Fumé, perfectly balanced and vibrant at 11.5 degrees of natural alcohol. Pur Sang, at a mere 12 degrees, was utterly profound in its expression, precision and sheer class: this is my favorite of Dagueneau’s 2008s, and the one I’m going to load up on. I’m not going to be able to ignore the Monts Damnés, however, with its sleek, stony raciness and incredible length.

Dagueneau wines are often noted for their concentration, perhaps because their vinosity and complexity make them stand out in a region that still produces too many overcropped and diluted wines. In fact, Didier Dagueneau was never a fan of ultra-concentration, and neither is his son. “Yields that are too high are of course bullshit,” says Benjamin, “but yields that are too low are also bullshit.” He was forced to confront low yields in 2008, however, due to the hail, with Buisson Renard being the wine most obviously affected: the vineyard produced a mere 15 hl/ha, and the resulting wine was harvested at 14.5 degrees of potential alcohol. What impresses me about this wine is that Benjamin decided to leave it the way it is, untampered with and unmanipulated, even though it’s not the style of wine he’s looking for. He could easily have chosen to blend it with some other barrels of lower-alcohol wines, but he left it alone because it’s a truer and more honest expression of what nature gave him in this vintage. The wine is terrific as well, feeling dense and ripe but perfectly balanced, without any sense of excess alcohol at all. The balance, in fact, reminded me of some of F.X. Pichler’s most successful wines in the late 1990s or the early part of this decade, where the label says 15 percent alcohol yet on the palate it feels like 13, as the alcohol is so perfectly integrated into the wine. Or, for a more direct comparison, Dagueneau’s wines from previous vintages: the 2006 Pur Sang was 14 percent alcohol, and that wine was terrific.

Dagueneau’s Silex comes from parcels of hard, dense clay and flint on the upper part of the St-Andelain hillside, and these were also hit by hail in this vintage, reducing yields to between 16 and 19 hl/ha. Like the Buisson Renard, this possesses an elevated level of alcohol (14.2 percent) yet also a lovely balance, perhaps due to both its rich depth of fruit and its unusually high acidity (6.2 g/l). It projects a feeling of great energy, both potential and kinetic, and even in this embryonic stage it already has a great deal to say. Benjamin thinks that it’s reminiscent of the 1996 Silex in its high sugars, high acidity and concentrated feel, and, well, that wine was outstanding, and still a pleasure to drink even today. He notes that the problem in selecting a date of harvest with highly concentrated wines such as these is really finding a balance of malic acidity and ripeness, as Dagueneau’s wines never undergo malolactic. “It’s no problem to wait for malic acidity to decrease when the grapes are at 12 degrees [of potential alcohol],” he says. “When they’re at 14 and you still feel that you have to wait for the malic, then that’s what gives you anxiety. We’d rather make a wine with a little more alcohol than we’d ideally like, rather than pick earlier and still have herbaceous flavors. There’s nothing worse than sauvignon with green flavors, like asparagus.”

This flexibility is one of Dagueneau’s greatest strengths, seeking to do what is right for the wine and working with nature rather than striving to impose willpower or force a preconceived pattern on it. At Dagueneau’s property in Jurançon this year, they picked the grapes for the 2008 Les Jardins de Babylone at only ten degrees of potential alcohol, since Benjamin felt that at that stage the grapes were already physiologically ripe and capable of making complete wine, without need of further concentration. He loves the results, and didn’t chaptalize the wine at all. “It has a balance like a German riesling,” he says. Unfortunately, he thinks that he will have problems getting the wine certified by the AOC due to its low alcohol, but he doesn’t really care. Somehow, I feel that his father would approve.


Samantha Dugan said...

Thank you for this very detailed report from an estate that is very dear to my heart. Dider was one of the most compelling figures I had ever met, he scared the shit out of me and made me laugh. His wines, like the man are intense, complex and beautiful in a way unlike any others.

The Bullshit comment from Benjamin, (along with the shrug about the AOC) made me smile and tugged at my heart a bit...sounds as if things are as they should be at Chez Dagueneau. Cannot wait to taste the new wines.

Brooklynguy said...

this post demonstrates exactly why I think yours is among the very finest wine blogs there is. soulfully written and packed with detailed information that i would not otherwise have access to. great post!