28 July At the beginning of this month I reported on the last time I saw Denis Dubourdieu, at a lunch in his honour at Ch Haut-Bailly to celebrate his appointment as Decanter magazine’s man of the year. The news of his death earlier this week, so sadly not unexpected, prompts me to give thanks that I was there and us to republish this account of the lunch and the man (pictured right by Jon Wyand), a great loss to the world of wine. This has been a terrible year for premature loss of remarkable life in wine. See, for example, our tributes to Paul Pontallier and Etienne Hugel.
2 July A shorter version of this article is published in the Financial Times. See also Underrated Ch Reynon.
At the dining table shown below we were sipping the most beautiful 67-year-old Sauternes, 30 luminaries of the Bordeaux wine world. Pierre Dubourdieu, owner of Ch Doisy Daëne, born 1923, stood up and told us, glass of liquid gold in hand, ‘in 1949 I was blessed with two beautiful harvests, this wine, and my son Denis, who has given me even more satisfaction'.
The rueful smile from his son, the world’s best-known wine academic to produce wine and act as wine consultant, was particularly poignant in view of the ill health he is currently so valiantly battling. The occasion was a lunch to celebrate Denis Dubourdieu’s appointment as Man of the Year by Decanter magazine at Château Haut-Bailly in the pretty Graves region that Denis has known so well throughout his life. His family have been vignerons since 1794 and he has lived at Château Reynon, his wife Florence’s family wine property, since he married her 40 years ago – so long that its appellation has changed several times. It is currently simply Bordeaux for the zingy dry white and Cadillac Côtes de Bordeaux for the underrated red.
The 10 wines with lunch were all provided by the guests, some of the many clients of Denis Dubourdieu’s consulting business, and included the first growth Château Cheval Blanc (whose Pierre Lurton can be seen, bearded and facing the camera in the middle of the picture below taken on the terrace before lunch) and super-second Pichon Lalande. But one of the most memorable wines was a dry white made by Denis himself, Clos Floridène grown on an estate he and Florence created from scratch in the nether regions of Graves, a 2010 that was still as fresh as a daisy and bursting with life.
Châteaux Haut-Bailly and Cheval Blanc 1998 celebrated the year in which Denis was officially recognised as a prime red-wine consultant, almost a quarter century after his first post at Bordeaux university. That it took so long for this hugely admired researcher to be employed to maximise the quality of Cabernet and Merlot grapes was simply because he and his team had made such ground-breaking discoveries in white winemaking – such as his researches into the aromas of Sauvignon Blanc, the problems of premature oxidation, the clarification of wines made from grapes affected by noble rot, the role of yeasts – that he had become compartmentalised as Bordeaux’s king of white winemaking.
Véronique Sanders, who runs Haut-Bailly for the owner, American banker Bob Wilmers, had been so impressed by the subtlety and freshness of Château Reynon, grown in the boondocks of Bordeaux, when she tasted it in New York, that she wondered what Denis could achieve with her much more propitiously sited vines. When she interviewed him for the job, she was struck by the fact that he said what he would most like to do was to bring out the character of Haut-Bailly’s unique terroir. People say this all the time nowadays but this was in 1998 when, as she puts it, ‘the fashion was for signature wines, when other consultants wanted to stamp their own personal signature on the wines'.
Dubourdieu was arguably always ahead of his time. Philippe Castéja of Châteaux Batailley in Pauillac and Trottevieille in St-Émilion remembers that when he wanted to take on Denis as consultant winemaker at more or less the same time, he was struck by his insistence on walking the vineyards first. Again, the mantra now, even among oenologists, is ‘wine is made in the vineyard’ but it wasn’t then.
He has always had his principles. Dubourdieu was an early critic of overripe wines, even losing the odd client over his refusal to keep grapes on the vine so long that they started to shrivel. ‘At Reynon we have never had cooked berries', he told me with pride last year, presenting a collection of Château Reynon reds back to a surprisingly fresh 1986, made when he and his wife were still renovating her family estate. ‘We always picked when I decided the grapes were good for winemaking – not eating.
‘It’s quite simple. We have identified the chemical compound responsible for the premature oxidation of Merlot. It tastes pruney – and some people like it. All the people making wine by raisining the grapes have it. But', he added, referring to the spoilage yeast brettanomyces that can develop in overripe, low-acid wines and that appeals to some palates in small doses, ‘I like my wines to be clean, to have no brett.’
The wines he makes or consults on – his team has long included the widely respected wine academics Valérie Lavigne and Christophe Olivier – could not, however, be accused of being overly technical and soulless. They can boast a wide array of different styles and personalities in the wines for which they are responsible, as is the case in the wines that he and his two oenologist sons Fabrice and Jean-Jacques make on their own 135 hectares (334 acres) of vineyards – not just the bargains that are Reynon red and dry white and Clos Floridène nowadays but also Doisy-Daëne (currently being reunited with Doisy-Dubroca that has been acquired from the tentacular Lurton family) and Cantegril in Sauternes and Haura in Graves (red) and Cérons (sweet white).
Over the years he has taken his expertise all over the world of wine, even making wine in Japan, Greece and both North and South Africa. See the list below.
At the Haut-Bailly lunch Pierre Dubourdieu remembered that even as a boy, his only son was more interested in books than television, and told Bordeaux-based wine writer Jane Anson, 'Denis wasn't the most absorbing of children to bring up – he never did anything wrong.'
An array of glorious wines apart, the most tangible legacy of Denis Dubourdieu’s tenacity is Bordeaux’s relatively new ISVV, L’Institut des Sciences de la Vigne et du Vin, a first-class research centre in a first-class building that he managed to nurse to fruition over the first decade of this century despite a distinctly lukewarm response from some of his university colleagues.
His acceptance speech for the Legion d’Honneur is one long list of the students and research colleagues of whom he is most proud. What I have appreciated so much about this hugely capable titan of wine is his approachability. He has none of the hauteur and formality of some of the Bordeaux establishment but was always eager to help, even to the extent of agreeing to be the oenology editor of the recent new edition of The Oxford Companion to Wine – concrete evidence of his irrepressible desire to share his unparalleled knowledge.
DUBOURDIEU WINES TO ENJOY
This is just a small selection of particularly successful wines from the Dubourdieu family stable that I have tasted and been particularly impressed by. Hundreds of other producers’ wines have benefited from the advice of Denis and his team. You can find reviews via our tasting notes search.
Ch Cantegril, Sauternes 2015, 2014, 2012, 2010
Clos Floridène, Graves dry white 2015, 2014, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007
Ch Doisy-Daëne, Sauternes 2015, 2011, 2009, 2007, 2005, 2001, 1996
Ch Doisy-Daëne, L’Extravagant, Sauternes 2014, 2010, 2006
Ch Haura, Cérons sweet white 2007, 2006, 2005, 2004
Ch Haura, Graves red 2008, 2007, 2004
Ch Reynon, Bordeaux dry white 2015, 2014
Ch Reynon, Cadillac Côtes de Bordeaux red 2010, 2005, 2004, 2003, 2002, 2001
Pavillon blanc du Ch Margaux
Numéro 1 de Dourthe blanc et rouge, Compagnie des Vins de Bordeaux et de la Gironde (CVBG)
Ch d’Yquem , 1er cru supérieur classé en 1855
Ch Lafaurie-Peyraguey, 1er cru classé en 1855
Ch de Malle, 2ème cru classé en 1855
Ch La Lagune, 3eme Cru Classé en 1855
Ch Giscours, 3ème cru classé en 1855
Ch du Tertre, 5ème cru classé en 1855
Ch du Glana, cru bourgeois
Ch Pichon Longueville Comtesse de Lalande, 2ème cru classé en 1855
Ch Batailley, 5ème cru classé en 1855
Ch Lynch Moussas, 5ème cru classé en 1855
Ch de Pez, cru bourgeois
Ch Beau-Site, cru bourgeois
Ch Haut-Bailly, cru classé de Graves
Ch La Tour Martillac, cru classé de Graves
Ch Carbonnieux, cru classé de Graves
Ch Olivier, cru classé de Graves
Ch Couhins Lurton, cru classé de Graves
Ch Couhins, cru classé de Graves
Ch La Louvière blanc
Ch Rochemorin blanc
Ch Cruzeau blanc
Ch Picque Caillou
Dom de L’Eglise
Ch La Croix Ducasse
Ch Cheval Blanc, 1er grand cru classé
Ch Trottevieille, 1er grand cru classé
Ch Yon Figeac, grand cru classé
Ch Coutet, grand cru
Producteurs de Saint-Mont
Maison Louis Jadot
Dom de la Poulette à Nuits Saint Georges
Paul Jaboulet Ainé (La Chapelle, Thalabert, Roure…)
Cave de Tain l’Hermitage
Dom du Baron d’Escalin
Ch Romanin (Baux de Provence)
Doms Ott (Côtes de Provence et Bandol)
Cave des Sieurs d’Arques (Limoux)
Vallée de la Loire
Dom de Bellerive (Quart de Chaume)
Ch de Tracy (Pouilly-Fumé)
Giani Zonin Vineyards (Friuli, Chianti, Maremma, Sicilia, Puglia)
Pio Cesare (Piemonte)
Donatella Cinelli Colombini et Casato Prime Donne Montalcino (Toscana)
Angelini (Brunello de Montalcino, Montepulciano)
Feudi di San Gregorio (Campania)
Julian Chivite (Navarre)
Marques de Vargas (Galicia, Ribera del Duero)
Quinta da Aveleda (Vinho Verde)
Ramos Pinto (Douro)
Egyptian International Beverage Company
4G Wines (Cape Town)
Shizen, Koshu, Mont Fuji
Roslane Wine and Spirits