In March Rebecca asked our L3 group if anyone would like to go and work with winemaker Dawn Jones-Cooper at her Bordeaux vineyard and winery Château de Monfaucon for a week to prepare wines for bottling. Having taken part in a fascinating virtual masterclass with Dawn earlier in the year, I enthusiastically dropped everything to go and have this first-hand privileged insight into her life.
First impression is that Dawn seems a perfectionist - she calls me up a few days before my arrival and asks me to bring English flour because “the French flour didn’t work for toad in the hole” and she would be hosting French friends (another local winemaking family) for an English dinner party.
I arrive on a Sunday afternoon and there is little time to waste - I am let loose on the vineyard. Although I don’t actually get to drive the tractor (next time Dawn tells me - the photo op is for my three year old) I do set to work tying down the vines which have just been pruned. Her organic estate (she also follows biodynamic principles) includes * Sauvignon Blanc, *Muscadelle, Semillon, Merlot (for the blanc de noir only) and unusually for * Bordeaux, Chardonnay. Unusual is Dawn’s modus operandi I am to learn, and she makes single varietal still whites and traditional method sparklings in an area producing mostly traditional Bordeaux white blends. These things make her stand out but they also mean going against the grain in an area where traditional appellation requirements dictate grape variety precisely - meaning she cannot get the appellation for her award-winning wines. We discuss whether she will ever make a Bordeaux blend just to get the appellation. She has considered this but I get the sense she does not really want to pander to rules as her entire career in winemaking has been rooted in doing things differently.
Appellation aside, there is a clearly appreciation of the fact that Dawn is different. While I am there she is featured in an article in the local Bordeaux paper about winemakers who are doing things differently. For the English dinner party, a lovely multi-generational Bordeaux winemaking family come round for “crapaud dans le trou - une spécialité anglaise” (the mother explains to her five year old) and the patriarch grandfather is clearly impressed by the delicious award-winning 2018 Sauvignon Blanc. A white wine capable of ageing is unusual in the area as Bordeaux whites are usually drunk young barring a few notable examples.
I learn the reasons why Dawn’s wines can age are down to her organic growing practices, winemaking choices and her care and quality control. It is a massive labour of love. Over the course of the week I am involved in various processes required pre-bottling. We take wine samples to the oenological labs and soon know which ones are stable and which need further stabilisation with the small amount of S02 allowed in organic winemaking. We begin the filtration which will eventually get to 0.45 microns (a lot of other winemakers do not filter to this micro level - it is not a requirement). I am entrusted with everything from measuring out S02 to blanketing vats of filtered wines with C02 to prevent oxidisation. She is very generous with her time and insight - and endlessly patient with me! Nonetheless, I do feel that perhaps she’s had enough of me when I have a go at making the bentonite clay (a natural clarification process in organic winemaking) but can’t work it fast enough or to the smooth consistency it should be.
In the midst of all this Dawn and her husband are renovating the Château as in the not-too-distant future they will welcome visitors to a tasting room on the banks of the Dordogne and make her delicious wines much more accessible to the public. In the meantime, she ships to Europe, has suppliers in the UK and keeps bottles in bond there for shipping as Brexit has made it very difficult and expensive to ship directly she tells me. The pandemic has not helped either, but they are bouncing back.
My final task is to see how we might wrap a sample parcel of vines with gardening fleece to help prevent frost damage. She has not done this before - it’s an experiment and a leap of faith which I have learned by now are part of her nature. I learn later that the fleece experiment did not work out - a lot of things don’t work she reiterates - but you move on and find another way forward. An attitude which is a key takeaway in this experience with Dawn, and from what I can see, has to underpin this exhausting yet super rewarding work.
*Dawn Jones- Cooper's wines are available for sale in UK market on https://vinagogo.co.uk/ also run by TheRLWS graduate Kevin Kelleher.