Pierre, Denis & Jean-Jacques: Doisy-Daëne & L’Extravagance 1942-2013


Following my recent reassessment of the 2001 vintage in Sauternes, it’s time to examine Doisy-Daëne, one of the region’s outstanding estates. I have always admired Doisy-Daëne’s crystalline purity that effortlessly scythes through that gorgeous honeyed fruit. Last June, I ventured down to the château to undertake an extensive vertical tasting of Doisy-Daëne with co-proprietor, Jean-Jacques Dubourdieu. My tasting notes extend back to the Ninety-Forties. But, the narrative of this article focuses not so much on the wines, but rather on four generations of the Dubourdieu family that have run the estate for almost a century.

The history of Doisy-Daëne predating the Dubourdieu’s tenure is rather muddied by time. “Doisy” is first mentioned by André Jullien in Topographie de tous les vignobles connus published in 1832. The Doisy vineyard was originally owned by the Védrines family and split either in the 1830s or 1840s, one part acquired by the Bordeaux négociant, Jean-Jacques-Emmanuel Daëne, who appended his name. The estate passed to his three sons in 1875, one part sold to the Dubroca brothers and another to Jean-Paul Billot. His only daughter, Pauline, married Jean Lodoïs Juhel-Renoy, a Parisian négociant. The couple inherited the estate in 1884, before selling their holding to the Debans family in 1889. It is from the Debans that Doisy-Daëne passed to the Dubourdieus. At this point of the timeline, I present a translation of the reading that Jean-Jacques Dubourdieu gave at the funeral of his grandfather, Pierre Dubourdieu, this summer. He said that it would give me everything that I needed to know about him…

On the left, Georges Dubourdieu, who bought the estate in 1924. On the right, his son Pierre aged 25. My sincere thanks to the family for sharing these photos.

Pierre Dubourdieu

Jean-Jacques Dubourdieu: “It was the maternal grandfather of Pierre Dubourdieu, Fernand Lacoste, who acquired Doisy-Daëne in 1924, although the family can trace their winemaking roots in Cérons back to 1794. Pierre was born in the nearby village of Illats and grew up with his brothers Jean and André. Never a model pupil, Pierre Dubourdieu was happier out in the vineyards where he worked in evenings and weekends. His mother, Margueritte would invite the children of the village for snacks whilst his father, Georges Dubourdieu, worked in the winery and acted as Justice of the Peace in Barsac.”

Jean-Jacques Dubourdieu mentioned that Margueritte disliked the fact that her husband worked in a winery surrounded by women. So, she encouraged him to join the army. He was taken prisoner in World War One. During this time, he was put to work in the vineyards in Würtemberg. Working among the Riesling vines, the ethos of capturing the purity of fruit that has run through subsequent generations of the Dubourdieu family was born. A priori, Denis Dubourdieu eschewed high levels of residual sugar, which is why he was displeased about the 2011 Doisy-Daëne that came loaded with 168g/l. Read Denis Dubourdieu’s thoughts on “purity” the matter further down. Georges Dubourdieu worked at Doisy-Daëne until 1949.

“Pierre spent summers with his grandfather Fernand in Mimizan, fishing for cockles that they would eat together on the Landes beaches. Too young to see military action during the Second World War, after Liberation, Pierre enlisted in the army and served in Bad Kreuznach, Germany, as well as Italy and then southeast of France. Returning to Barsac in 1947, he took over the running of the estate. He was constantly thinking of ideas to improve winemaking and helped develop equipment such as the automatic press, the Picquet sink and cold stabilization. Pierre always welcomed innovation. He adapted from horse to tractor to drones, though he always had a preference for the horse. In 1948, he vinified Sauternes’ first dry white, quite revolutionary for the time, though in hindsight it was a prescient decision. 

A trio of Doisy-Daëne made by Pierre Dubourdieu during the Second World War.

Pierre then met his wife Jeannine on a canoe trip on the Ciron. Her parents were not overly keen on their daughter’s relationship with a young lad known for his insubordination; however, they became a second family, and every Sunday at Château Cantegril, he would prepare spatchcock chicken with a glass of Barsac. In 1949 they had a son, Denis. From 1976 to 2016 they were a double act, Denis the scientist and his father, more intuitive. In his spare time, Pierre would go fishing in the Arcachon Basin, alone on his boat.” [End of the reading]

Denis Dubourdieu

I only met Pierre Dubourdieu a few times. My abiding memory is just a couple of years ago, when he was in his mid-nineties, cycling into the courtyard at Doisy-Daëne as fit as he must have been as a young man. It conjured feelings of sadness. What can be worse than outliving your son? Professor Denis Dubourdieu passed away far too early in July 2016 (not 2015 as I read in a recently published tome.) We became well acquainted in 2007, when I took over duties reviewing Sauternes from Robert Parker at The Wine Advocate. I cannot remember him without a smile on his face, self-effacing about his formidable knowledge and always willing to share a bottle. He did more for white Bordeaux, both dry and sweet, than any other person. He consulted at numerous estates across the region. So, this next section comes from an interview with Denis that I published 15-years ago. As usual, he had all the time in the world to discuss wines, including his special cuvée, L’Extravagance de Doisy-Daëne. Like all great Bordeaux winemakers, I feel his spirit whenever I visit Bordeaux…

“We have a small team of pickers, just five or six persons, never more than ten,” Denis Dubourdieu explains as we walk into the vineyard. “We use one-third new barrels for Doisy-Daëne and one-fifth for Château Cantegril. I like the Russian oak, which was used in the 19th century before the French started cutting down their own forests. My grandfather used to buy 50-60% of his oak from there. The ageing in cask is short. It was short even during the time of my grandfather. Just one year, followed by six or seven months in stainless-steel tanks without oxidation. I prefer the non-oxidized style of Sauternes. Hungarian sweet wines are oxidized, and that is their style, but for me, Sauternes is without oxidation, so that a bouquet develops through reduction over time. They are two different aspects of aroma. I prefer one style but many other people prefer the other oxidized style. The residual sugar is never more than 120gms/L, and all my life I have resisted against the friendly advice of my ‘friend writers’ to make Sauternes with higher sugar levels. There are only special occasions you can do that. It is my personal taste.”

Denis Dubourdieu out in the vines at Barsac back in 2006.

Neal Martin: Denis Dubourdieu is the doyen of white winemaking in Bordeaux. I reckon Sauvignon Blanc pumps through his veins. I asked him how his dry wine came about.

Denis Dubourdieu: “My father started to produce a dry wine in 1950. He was obliged to a ‘yellow’ harvest when the bunches were too close, and he picked some of the bunches before noble rot arrived. Those went to make the first dry white wines.”

At the other extreme is his rare L’Extravagance de Doisy-Daëne, one of the most coveted wines of the region. 

DD:“The first L’Extravagance was produced in 1990 and the next was in 1996. Since 2001, we have produced it every year. I made it because in the first half of the 19th century, the amount of Sauvignon Blanc in Sauternes was higher than in the 20th century. This is because the Sauvignon Blanc was ‘delicate’ to grow and sensitive to flower set and oïdium [in other words, a fickle grape variety.] People decided to grow Sémillon as it was easier. In order to avoid grey rot I wanted to produce pure Sauvignon Blanc-based Sauternes [since Sémillon tends to be more susceptible.] We only had four or five bunches per vine and conducted a severe yellow harvest. In 1990, Sauvignon Blanc was easy to ripen, and when we pressed the grapes, the accumulation of sugar indicated 30% potential alcohol, which was crazy. I was interested in finding the best conditions to ferment that, and at that time, I was involved in the selection of yeasts. Only a small number of yeasts can complete the alcoholic fermentation at that level. The 1996 was the first year that I could do that, and I only used 50% Sauvignon Blanc. I reduced the sugar level as I felt it was too high with respect to the 1990, and thereafter, we have continued at this level [of residual sugar]. It is a unique Sauternes wine. It is something special that we like to do.”

DD: “The first challenge was the fermentation* and the second was to keep the freshness in such a rich wine. The key to maintaining the freshness is that the botrytis must arrive early, when the grape is fruity and able to react. Sauternes is not a concentration of botrytis, it is a reaction between a fruit and a fungus, the fruit reacting to the fungus and producing an enormous amount of aroma and flavour. It is a defence mechanism for the grape. If the grape is green or over-ripe, then it cannot react. Secondly, the reaction must be fast, one week and no more. The sugar content before the noble rot must be high, about 14% to 15% potential alcohol, so you need a very small crop and good soil to do that. That sugar level can double in a few days, so you can have all the freshness with a huge amount of sugar. But you must pick berry-by-berry, so that it takes one hour to fill a basket of berries. It is not really a commercial wine.”

* [Post-script. Just before publishing this article, I discussed L'Extravagance with Sauternes-expert Bill Blatch. He told me how the inaugural 1990 was really Pierre Duboudieu's pet project. Pierre had told him that in order to enable the yeast to work with such high levels of sugar, he encouraged alcoholic fermentation by introducing the yeast to must at lower levels of residual sugar, then once that got going, progressively blending it with musts picked with higher levels of sugar.]

One of the little-known facts about Doisy-Daëne is that they produced a one-off equivalent of an Eiswein. When I bring this up, Denis Dubourdieu has a look of surprise on his face. I suspect that nobody has asked him about it since it made its one-off appearance.

DD: “Yes, we made an Eiswein in 1978. We covered the vine with plastic sheets and we picked the grapes on the 23 December when the grapes were frozen. It is not Sauternes…it is another thing.”

I ask Denis the simple question: What makes a great Barsac wine?

DD:“Botrytis is not a truffle. We are not interested in the taste of this fungus. We are interested in the taste given by the fruit when mixed with botrytis. Botrytis itself is a bad taste. Barsac is not Sauternes, even if I put Sauternes on the label. Great Barsac is the purity…the perfect purity, the freshness, the acidity, complexity of the aroma first and the alcohol afterwards that is caressing on the palate. By that I mean like a child, when your mother kisses you. Then the ability of ageing, which is impossible if a wine has been oxidized either in the grape, the cask or the bottle. It is a fight against oxidation, which is fundamental to allow the reductive bouquet.”

DD:“What is fascinating is that the fruit is corrupted by a fungus, but in the end the wine has much more intense taste of fruit than any other on the Earth. It is not easy to produce in the vineyard but not so difficult to vinify. When I blend, some parts are very rich, but if they are not perfectly pure, then I exclude them. I learnt that from my father. Do not worry about the richness: focus upon the purity. If you have that, then you can have the richness. Complexity is also very important. The problem in our life is ennui…we lead boring lives. Boring life is a boring taste and boring taste is when wines are always the same. If everyone wants to do the same thing, then the wine becomes boring.”

Current proprietor Jean-Jacques Dubourdieu.

Jean-Jacques Dubourdieu

Denis’s son, Jean-Jacques Dubourdieu, now runs Doisy-Daëne and kindly organized a vertical whose notes accompany this report. His brother Fabrice oversees Château Cantegril, which his maternal ancestors bought in 1924, the same year as Doisy-Daëne. It was a blissfully hot day and it was pleasing to see a group of enthusiastic tourists visiting after so many months when it was forbidden. Bill Blatch joined us for the tasting. I remember him frantically reinserting corks back into the opened bottles of wine. “He’ll hate it if they’re left open,” he told me, as if to be visited by an army corporal. It was a sign of the respect he had for Pierre Dubourdieu, and sadly, he could not make it that afternoon and passed away not long afterwards.  

Neal Martin: Can you tell me what kind of man Pierre was like? Any interesting or funny stories about him. When was his first vintage? 

Jean-Jacques Dubourdieu: Pierre was a really incredible guy. He invented many things by pure instinct: cold stabilization, de-leafing and automatic pressing. He was the self-made man with a great intuition.

NM: Tell me about growing up with your late father, Denis. Did you always know that you would become a winemaker? What did you learn from him? 

J-JD: I had the chance to grow up at Château Reynon with Florence and Denis, my parents. I had a great oenology professor directly at home! I did my first cuvée when I was 12. It was in 1993 with Sémillon from Clos Floridène.

NM: How did you learn winemaking? At Doisy-Daëne with your family, university or working in other wineries?

J-JD: I learned winemaking very young with Denis. I haven’t missed any harvest since I was 12-years-old, even when I was studying at the University. I had the chance to work also in Spain and the United States.

NM: I know that the vineyard is planted with 78% Sémillon and 22% Sauvignon Blanc. Can you tell me about the vineyard at Doisy-Daëne?

J-JD: It is Barsac soil: 40cm of clay on a limestone bedrock with a vine planting density of 7,100 vines per hectare. It is pure Sémillon for the Barsac and pure Sauvignon Blanc for the dry white. The vines are pruned “Évantail Sauternais” [This literally translates as “fan” pruning with multiple branches each with a spur or cane.] We use organic fertilization, always ploughing the soil and we never use herbicides. We are certified ISO 14001 and we are bee-friendly. But our best certification is our history. The Dubourdieu family has grown vines here since 1794, and I think everything was organic at that time!

NM: What is your approach to the harvest. What do you look for in the fruit in terms of sugar levels, botrytis formation etc? How do you sort the fruit?

J-JD: First of all, we have the chance during the harvest, with the entire team of Dubourdieu estates, to have a large permanent team and a few seasonal workers. It is beneficial in terms of maintaining the quality of sorting. I’m more in favor of small, early and frequent tries to be sure of achieving purity without over-maturation. We do frequent tries to maximize the chances of obtaining the botrytized berries at the optimal time.

NM: Can you give details about the winery. What is your approach to alcoholic fermentation in terms of temperature and maceration and has it changed over the years?

J-JD: The temperature is controlled around 20-21°C with direct pressing. Oenologically, the fermentation is a really tricky step in terms of finishing whilst avoiding too much volatile acidity. That is the ancestral knowhow of the family. We ferment in barrel with around one-third new oak for 12 months and then eight months in tank. There are few changes year-to-year. The biggest issues are in the vineyard. 

NM: Can you tell me about Doisy Dubroca?

J-JD: We bought the estate in 2014. It was re-planted in 2015, and the first vintage was in 2019. It’s a small production that we decided to continue parallel to Doisy-Daëne. This Cru has it’s own personality. It is very Barsac, but very private.

NM: You commented that the 1995 Doisy-Daëne is the only vintage you recall as a child growing up in Barsac since the preceding vintages back to 1991 had been wiped out. Were there any standout vintages in our vertical tasting, in your opinion? I'd be interested to know what were your father and grandfather's favourite vintages?

J-JD: I love the 2014 for family reasons. This is the last vintage I did with Denis. He was always impressed by the 1989 and 2001, whilst my grandfather liked 1943, 1945 and 1990.

In memory of Pierre and Denis Dubourdieu.

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