Didier Dagueneau, whose piercingly pure wines helped set a new standard of excellence for the Loire's Pouilly-Fumé appellation, was killed Wednesday when the ultralight aircraft he was piloting experienced trouble on takeoff, and crashed. The accident occurred near the commune of Hautefaye in the Dordogne region of southwest France. Dagueneau was 52.
Dagueneau, who made his wine debut in 1982 with less than 3 acres of vines, steadily built his domaine up to its current 27 acres, which annually produced about 7,000 cases of Sauvignon Blanc. Based in the town of St.-Andelain in the eastern end of the Loire valley, Dagueneau's eponymous domaine became synonymous with high-quality, richly layered but intensely minerally Sauvignon Blancs that stood dramatically apart from many of the wines produced in the appellation.
"I want to be the best," he told Wine Spectator in 1995. "If you want to be the best, you need the methods and techniques to get you there: Your vines must bear the best grapes; your vinification must be the most rigorous. There are no recipes. It's all the details of viticulture and all the details of winemaking, the assemblage of little things, which makes for the minute differences between a good wine and a great one."
Known for his wild mane of unkempt hair and bushy beard, Dagueneau was an iconoclast among vignerons. He had no formal wine training and used methods uncommon to Pouilly-Fumé, including severe pruning for drastically low yields, hand-harvesting of fruit over several successive passes through the vineyards (known as tris in French), vineyard specific bottlings and barrel-fermentation. Dagueneau's wines steadily became the unchallenged qualitative leaders of Pouilly-Fumé. Of the 46 Dagueneau wines reviewed by Wine Spectator, 31 received 90 points or better on Wine Spectator's 100-point scale, with nine of those wines earning a classic rating (95 points or better), including his Pouilly-Fumé Pur Sang 2005 (97) and Pouilly-Fumé Silex 2005 (96).
"I think Sauvignon is one of the most complex and subtle grapes," he once said. "But it's very hard to extract that complexity."
Dagueneau's personality was as powerful as his wines. He was incredibly competitive. After a youth spent racing motorcycles, he switched to dog sled racing later in life. His wild, sometimes confrontational style occasionally ruffled feathers among his fellow vignerons, as he tirelessly pushed for higher quality in the appellation. In one sign of how he typically tried to set himself apart from others, he began using the older name of the appellation — Blanc Fumé de Pouilly — on his labels.
Dagueneau was also known for his outgoing nature and generosity during tastings in his cellars. "He was the most generous person I ever met, with his time and knowledge," said Michael Sullivan of Beaune Imports, who has represented Dagueneau's wines on the U.S. west coast since 1996.
In addition to his domaine in Pouilly-Fumé, Dagueneau was also developing vineyards in Jurançon. He is survived by four children, including two with his first wife, Martine; his older son, Benjamin, and daughter, Charlotte, had been working alongside their father at the domaine over the past few years. Dagueneau also had two younger sons, Aaron and Léon, with his partner, Suzan Cremer.