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Obituary: Denis Dubourdieu, ‘the Pope of wine’

Jane Anson reflects on the life of professor Denis Dubourdieu, nicknamed the 'Pope of wine' in Bordeaux for his far-reaching research.

Right up until a few weeks ago, it seemed possible that professor Denis Dubourdieu would beat his illness. Even cancer didn’t seem likely to best this indomitable man, who has been such a profound force for good in the world of wine.

But on 26 July professor Dubourdieu  – who in 2016 was awarded both Decanter’s Man of the Year and the Légion d’Honneur – died in a hospice in Bordeaux, the city where he had spent so much of his professional life.

Winemaker, professor, researcher and teacher, he spent many years in laboratories researching into countless aspects of winemaking, from yeast strains to oxidation triggers. He did this first at the university’s Institute of Oenology and later at the Institute of Science of Wines and Vines (ISVV) that he was instrumental in the creation of, and which is today a world-leading multi-disciplinary wine centre.

He never felt comfortable in cities, though.

He told me many times that he was happiest out in the countryside, whether in his vines, or on a boat sailing in the Arcachon bay, or horse riding through the Landes forest that banks the Barsac appellation where he was born.

‘The ISVV was his baby, and something of which he was justly proud of having achieved,’ said Jean-Baptiste Lécaillon, Roederer‘s chief winemaker and executive vice president.

Lécaillon paid tribute to Dubourdieu’s ‘finesse and precision in the vinification of white and rosé wines. He had a remarkable sensitivity to and understanding of bitterness. And this mastery gave him a particular signature in the making of red wines, where he always favoured understated elegance.

‘He was the perfect synthesis of theory and practice. Of oenology and viticulture. Of the laboratory and the pleasure of tasting. A friend.’

‘It is too soon and such a loss,’ said Véronique Sanders, who has worked with Dubourdieu at Château Haut-Bailly since 1998 and was also a former student of his.

‘He has been part of my professional and personal life for more than 20 years. We will miss him so much, as will the whole of Bordeaux. He was loved by the owners, the vineyard and cellar workers, his students and his colleagues at the University of Oenology.’

Personally, I will always be grateful to have spent a year as his student at the ISVV during the DUAD wine tasting diploma. He would walk into those classes like a rockstar, holding his students enthralled at the ease with which he shared his knowledge.

Dubourdieu was never afraid of voicing his opinion, and could be scathing of winemaking choices that he didn’t agree with – over-ripe grapes and over-extraction during maceration to name a few.

But he always reached his opinions through extremely rigorous research, and was always ready to share his reasoning not just with his students but those interested around the world through the publication of hundreds of research papers, and a consultancy business that took him to Japan, Italy, Spain, New Zealand and more.

His Clos Floridène has always been the insider’s choice for Bordeaux white wine and his Extravagence de Doisy Daëne the most over-subscribed of all Bordeaux sweet wines.

‘He was a true pope of wine,’ said Philippe Castéja, president of the Conseil de Crus Classés 1855, who worked with Dubourdieu as consultant at his own estates. ‘He had an openness to the world and to other ideas that was exceptional.

‘For Denis it was always about the wine and the vineyard, not his signature on it. The first time he came to visit Batailley when I asked him to work with me, he would only agree to take on the role once he had walked the entire vineyard’.

He was the true successor to the legends of 20th century Bordeaux oenology Emile Peynaud and Jean-Ribéreau Gayon.

His interests outside of wine also took him far and wide, from training in dressage riding with an ex-Olympics champion to interviews on Radio Classique in Quebec, where he shared his love of classical music.

The funeral will be on Friday 29 July in Barsac, where his family has been making wine since 1794, and where Dubourdieu was born at Château Doisy-Daëne in 1949. He leaves behind his wife of 40 years, Florence, and his two sons, Fabrice and Jean-Jacques.

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