Reading the wine news, these days, it seems like the Grim Reaper is in harvest mode. Three significant figures have died in recent days: Didier Dagueneau, rebel vigneron from the Loire, Anthony Perrin, from Château Carbonnieux in Pessac-Léognan, as well as Bailey Carrodus, founder of Yarra Yerring, in Australia.
All three were credited with bringing their estates to the forefront, and being driving forces for improvement in the wines of their respective regions.
Beyond the sad news themselves, these deaths beg the question: do wines survive the death of the vigneron?
The vines do, clearly, as a general rule, but even though terroir may be central to the qualities of a wine, the soul that drives the transformation of that terroir into wine has a crucial part to play in that alchemy.
As Andrew Graham, of the Australian Wine Review blog, wrote on his post on Dr Carrodus’ death:
I was very taken by his wines and can only hope that the ownership of the estate falls into good hands – for those unique wines where truly something special….
When the torch is passed, the continuity of an estate is not automatically guaranteed. In his book Reflections of a Wine Merchant, Neal Rosenthal writes of the Vachet-Rousseau estate in Gevrey-Chambertin, whose wines he imported at the turn of the 1980s. He had developed a great relationship with Georges Vachet, who handed the reins to his son Gérard after the 1982 vintage. Gérard, says Rosenthal, had his father’s looks, but “not his dedication to wine”. Describing how he saw immediate changes in winemaking when the son took over, he states that:
In the end, Gérard, however nice he was as a person, lacked the motivation to make truly special wines; no matter what the origin of the vineyard, the terroir could not save the day without being matched by the dedication of the grower. (…) He ultimately ceased his activities as a vigneron, became a driver of a tour bus, and rented out his vineyards to neighbors, who were thrilled to gain access to these well-situated and valuable sites.
Dagueneau’s sons will probably take over the Domaine. But to what extent will they be able to carry the torch? Will the wines change, and if so, for better or for worse? It all depends on circumstances and possibilities, at such watershed moments in a vineyard’s life.
Some simply don’t see any hope of the work carrying on properly, like this mysterious Prince of Venosa who made apparently amazing wines from Malvasia di Candia and pulled out all his vines when he felt he couldn’t go on and couldn’t find someone to keep that very much unique wine alive.
Thankfully, not everyone is that extreme. If all winemakers took their vineyards to the grave, that would be an immense loss. But I can certainly understand that a vigneron would feel extremely sad at the thought that his life work would come to naught once he is gone.