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Q&A: Denis Dubourdieu, Bordeaux Oenologist

L-R: Château Cantegril; Denis Dubordieu; Clos Florideen Grand Vin de Oraves
© Denis Dubourdieu Domaines | L-R: Château Cantegril; Denis Dubordieu; Clos Florideen Grand Vin de Oraves
Denis Dubourdieu is professor of oenology at the University of Bordeaux, as well as being a winemaker and consultant. With his wife and sons he runs estates in the Sauternes, Graves and Cadillac appellations, covering 135 hectares.

Where did you grow up?

I was born in Barsac, in the Sauternes region of Bordeaux. My childhood was spent on the family vineyards of Doisy-Daëne and Cantegril. Even today, I have a deep attachment to the countryside – the ability to closely observe plants and animals – and I still try to go horse-riding as often as possible among the vines and forests near my childhood home.

How did your relationship with wine start?

Clearly, there was a strong family influence. My father and grandfather were both winemakers, and they instilled the passion in me – as I later did with my own sons. I'm certain I recognized the aromas of wine before its taste: the fermentary aromas during vinification, and the perfume of great bottles of Sauternes, Médoc and Graves wines which were served at the family table. Later, from adolescence, I discovered the savor, finesse and complexity of great wines.

Is great wine made in the vineyard or the winery?

Great wines are made as much in the vines as in the cellars. Clearly, you can't make good wine from bad grapes. Terroir expresses itself through the ability of a certain place to produce, thanks to human intervention, a wine with a particular sought-after character. And it is only fully expressed when grapes are grown on the outer limits of geographical zones, meaning they can ripen slowly on suitable soils.

At the same time, even good grapes can be ruined by badly managed extraction, sloppy fermentation or numerous potential spoilages from vat or barrel.

Which oenological techniques have made most difference to wine?

Oenology has uncovered the causes of these risks and offers solutions to avoid them. The art of vinification comprises guiding the natural process of turning grapes into wine, in order to attain whatever objective has been set by the winemaker – and for the greatest wines, to steer them towards their almost unknowable complexity. The best vinification methods are always the most simple. We should never be able to distinguish a specific technique in the final wine. 

Can anyone learn to taste wine?

Of course. Great wines are beauty in liquid form that enter our body and make us certainly better. In order to taste that beauty, it's necessary to learn how to recognize it, for tasting is, above all, an exercise in recognition. It's a question of reliving sensations that are ingrained in our memory, and that we have learned to appreciate.

In the same vein, we can't appreciate music unless we have previously discovered it with someone who knows it well. The first time we discover, then we taste. Chablis or Barolo, Purcell or Shostakovich. You can't taste a wine without knowing the model of its category.

Château Doisy-Daene
© Denis Dubourdieu Domaines | Château Doisy-Daene

You are famous for white wines and sweet wines. Beyond those of Bordeaux, which are your favorite examples of both styles?

The great whites of Burgundy and the great rieslings of Germany, made from noble-rot grapes.

Who are your wine inspirations?

My father, Pierre, taught me to taste white wine, and in particular Sauternes. He passed to me his obsession with purity on the nose and palate of a wine. At 89 years old, he still participates in the blending sessions of Doisy-Daëne and Cantegril. I also had the great luck at the beginning of my career to taste regularly with two exceptional tasters: Pierre Coste, a négoçiant from Bordeaux, and Robert Goffard, a Belgian importer. In the 1960's, alongside oenologist Jacques Puisais, they both invented and popularized the more natural, even poetic, description of wines.

Later, I greatly enjoyed regular enlightening exchanges with my great friend Didier Dagueneau, until his brutally early death in 2008. More recently, I have very much benefited from tasting alongside Jacques Lardière, oenologist at Maison Louis Jadot in Beaune. I discovered through him the subtlety and profound humanity of Burgundy and its great wines. I have not looked at wine in the same way since.

What has been your best experience in the wine industry?

My great joy has been to create and grow Clos Floridène, the estate that I founded ex nihilo with my wife Florence in the Graves in 1982. But I've also derived great satisfaction from my work as a wine consultant, where I work alongside two associates and friends, Valérie Lavigne and Christophe Ollivier. Together we work with Yquem, Cheval Blanc, Grillet, La Chapelle and many other estates both well known and less so, who have shown confidence in us to guide them – a trust which never ceases to give pleasure.

And the worst?

I have forgotten. It's not important. Never explain, never complain.

What is it you most dislike in a wine?

Imposture. The exorbitant price of some wines despite obvious faults. Wines without subtlety – ones which can be tasted but not drunk.

What is your view of awards?

Artists and chefs have long recognized the importance of critics, but in the sphere of wine, the influence of critics is more recent. In the 1970's, it was purely the domain of a few English wine merchants who enjoyed writing and visiting vineyards, and several wrote some beautiful books on the subject. Bordeaux was very happy to welcome these often extremely talented tasters, whose writings were destined for a small elite of readers, but their words had no great impact on pricing or market movements.

L-R: A cellar view; grapes affected by noble rot; a selection of Dubourdieu's Sauternes wines
© Denis Dubourdieu Domaines | L-R: A cellar view; grapes affected by noble rot; a selection of Dubourdieu's Sauternes wines

When did that change?

The influence of wine criticism really arrived in France with the advent of Gault et Millau, Revue du Vin de France, Guide Hachette. At the same time came Wine Spectator, Decanter, Gambero Rosso… and, of course, Robert Parker. 

Clearly, the objective of many producers is to please the most influential critic in the world, whose points have a real influence on pricing. Many wine merchants will select wines to buy not through their own palate, but those of leading critics, because those wines will be easier to sell. Nevertheless, I do my best to forget all of this when I am vinifying or working on a blend. I believe that the style of wine I defend and make is one in which purity, subtlety and finesse are paramount. As Molière said, 'The essential thing is to please.' Not to flatter at all costs.

What music do you listen to in the winery?

None. There is too much noise in the cellar. But in the rest of my life, classical music is a constant presence. My taste in music ranges from baroque to contemporary, with a particular interest in Russian music and The Doors.

What wine do you drink at home?

My wines, of course, but not systematically. Wines which I am given, also, but only the good ones; the rest will go down the kitchen sink, regardless of price.

I drink the wines I like, and those that my family and friends like. Non vanity-driven wines. Bordeaux, Burgundy, Loire, Alsace, Barolo, Hermitage – it doesn't matter as long as it is a good representation of its category, and that it gives pleasure.

If you are not drinking wine, what are you drinking?

A good water or a light beer. I dislike soft drinks.

How many wines do you have in your cellar?

No idea. Several hundred.

What do you think is the most exciting development in wine today?

What's happening in China.

What do you see when you look in the mirror?

A man who is beginning to run out of time to accomplish all that he still wants to do, and be able to enjoy himself as well.

What would you want the last wine you taste to be?

I'm not entirely sure I want to think about that, but perhaps an old, excellent vintage of Doisy-Daëne made by my father or grandfather, so I can tell them, when we meet again, that it was still holding up admirably. That would make them happy.

Where would you like to be buried?

In the memories of the people I love.

What brings you the greatest happiness?

Relishing nature, being able in some small way to create things, and contributing to the happiness of the people I love.

In the end, what really matters?






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