Denis Dubourdieu, a Bordeaux vigneron and one of the region’s most prominent academics and winemaking consultants of the last 40 years, died this week following a protracted battle with brain cancer. He was 67.
Born in 1949 in Barsac, the town that lends its name to some of Bordeaux's famed sweet wines, Dubourdieu earned the moniker "The Professor of Bordeaux" for his accomplished academic career. At the University of Bordeaux, he mentored innumerable winemakers now working around the world. As a winemaker, he brought improved quality and new techniques to cellars, and helped revitalize the white wines of Bordeaux.
"It is a huge loss for Bordeaux," said Véronique Sanders, director at Château Haut-Bailly, one of Dubourdieu's many clients. "Being head of the University [Oenology program], flying winemaker, and producer of red, white and Sauternes, Denis was involved in every aspect of modern wine. He was a joy to work with as his culture, his talent and his sensibility were very rare."
Dubourdieu was born into a winemaking family—his grandfather Georges purchased Château Doisy-Daëne, located in Barsac, in 1924, and Denis grew up on the estate, learning from his father, Pierre. After studying agronomy and economics in Montpellier, Denis went on to earn a master's degree in enology at the University of Bordeaux. In 1978, he completed his doctoral thesis on the molecular structure of botrytized grapes. Four years later he completed a second doctorate on the filtering and fining of botrytized wines.
The University of Bordeaux appointed Dubourdieu Professor of Oenology in 1987. During his lengthy career as a teacher, he mentored and influenced two generations' worth of students who went on to staff countless wineries throughout Bordeaux and beyond. He was named the inaugural director of Bordeaux's Institute of Vine and Wine Sciences in 2009.
Dubourdieu’s influential research on white-wine vinification and aging helped revolutionize how white Bordeaux is made today, shifting the general style of the region from dull, soft, slightly oxidized wines toward a fresh, brisk style with minerality that is now the norm for white Bordeaux.
"For the public, Bordeaux is red wine. But the whites are excellent now. Truly," Dubourdieu told Wine Spectator earlier this year. "While in the 1960s, there was more white than red planted, quality was low, because the whites were on the wrong terroir. Today, they're relatively microscopic in terms of plantings, but generally the whites are now on the better spots. Of course, the changes with temperature control, stainless steel, etc., are important too. But the technique is less important ultimately than the terroir."
Dubourdieu began working as an enology consultant in 1987 through his company Denis Dubourdieu Domaines. For a decade he worked only on white wines, quickly earning a global reputation. He cherished the opportunity to work in the Rhône Valley at Château-Grillet (prior to its purchase by the Artemis Group) and Paul Jaboulet Aîné.
It wasn’t until 1998 that Dubourdieu branched out to red wines, when Sanders successfully solicited him for help on the red wine at Haut-Bailly. Eventually, he would consult at more than 80 estates in Bordeaux, including Cheval-Blanc, Yquem and Margaux.
Dubourdieu took a professor's approach to his winemaking, moving thoughtfully and carefully. He continued traditional techniques, such as remontage, or pumping over, but experimented with the volume of each vat and the frequency of pump-overs, helping to develop techniques for longer but gentler extraction of reds. “A wine shouldn't be from every part of the grape. It should be made from the best part of the grape,” Dubourdieu said in 2011.
For whites, he aimed for purity and freshness, using minimal oak to age his predominantly Sauvignon Blanc cuvées, in part because he believed that climate change was impacting the grapes of Bordeaux. “The climate is changing, and we need to adapt our winemaking to that," said Dubourdieu. "I am doing less skin contact and using less new oak than 10 years ago. I only like oak if it adds complexity to the wine."
Dubourdieu was also a successful and respected vigneron, running his family's small cluster of estates in Barsac and the Côtes de Bordeaux. The flagship property was Doisy-Daëne. After taking over in 2000 from his father, Dubourdieu built the estate's reputation on a rapier-styled dry white–a wine his father had introduced at a time when a dry white was unheard of from a Barsac estate.
Dubourdieu also made two scintillating sweet wines, including a small cuvée of only botrytized Sauvignon Blanc called l'Extravagant produced in top vintages. Today Château Doisy-Daëne is considered among the elite producers of Barsac and neighboring Sauternes.
All told, Dubourdieu owned and managed more than 300 acres of vines in Bordeaux. His home estate was Château Reynon in Béguey, where he lived with his wife, Florence, since 1976. Originally purchased by his father-in-law, the property eventually became a steady source of excellent values, both red and white, under Dubourdieu's stewardship. Dubourdieu also owned Château Cantegril in Barsac (inherited from his father), Clos Floridène in Graves (a joint venture he and his wife started in 1982), and had been renting and managing the Graves estate of Château Haura since 2002.
Dubourdieu loved living in the quiet region south of Bordeaux. He enjoyed walking and riding horses in the vineyards and forests. "He was somebody who was passionate about all he did, including sailing and horse riding," said Sanders. "In his professional life, he was always searching, developing and progressing. His life was full of modesty, humility and conviction."
Dubourdieu is survived by his wife, Florence, his sons Jean-Jacques and Fabrice, and one grandchild.