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by Wendy Narby
It remains a mystery to me why the corner of right bank Bordeaux that is Fronsac is not better known. It enjoys the same 'terroir' as its famous neighbour Saint Emilion: an amphitheatre of limestone hillsides with spectacular views over the Dordogne river. The slopes are topped with clay; ideal conditions for the Merlot and Cabernet Franc blends that thrive here. Many industry insiders feel that this region deserves more recognition. Stephen Spurrier decried its low profile amongst wine lovers in a recent Decanter Magazine article.
So it's great that the Great Wine Capitals have elected a vineyard from the region as a Gold Best Of Wine Tourism winner. It certainly has the history for it. Sitting on and around 'The Tertre de Fronsac', a key position on the right bank of the major trading route that was the Dordogne, not far from the port town of Libourne, it has not always been in the shadow of its famous neighbour Saint Emilion. Charlemagne built a fortress here in the 6th century and the Duc of Richelieu also built a chateau here on the ruins, introducing the wines to the court of King Louis 14th. Famous in the 18th century the combined effects of Phylloxera and a lack of a classification led to its demise.
Chateau La Dauphine is a property at the heart of the Fronsac appellation. It dates back to the 16th century, its name is inspired by the visit of wife of the Dauphin of France 'La Dauphine' and the Chateau, built in the 18th century, still reflects all the elegance that you would expect for such a prestigious visitor.
Visiting a Chateau in Bordeaux is always an intimate experience. Much more than a wine tasting, the wine makers want you to understand what makes their property and their wines unique. Understanding wine making - from grapes to bottle - is not always easy. Whatever time of year you visit you will only see the part of the process. If it is barrel ageing there's not a lot of action so it's difficult to envisage the different stages of grape selection, fermentation, pumping over, maceration, running off, etc. Thanks to a series of photos taken throughout the year visiting Chateau La Dauphine makes this so much easier the various steps involved are shown on an interactive i-pad, - so simple and yet so effective.
At once historic and ultra modern it's a classic example of how Bordeaux manages to combine the two with a circular cellar built for efficiency and a barrel cellar built into the limestone.
Barrel ageing at Ch. de la Dauphine
Making wine is not only about the technical process, it's about the quality of the raw material influenced by a deeper understanding of the soil, or terroir, and adapting varietals, rootstocks, and agricultural processes to the soil. I first visited the property a few years ago when the process of soil analysis was starting with a series of troughs being dug from the top of the hillside down to the lower slopes for a much deeper and more intimate understanding of the 'terroir' of the property. There are over 40 vats in the cellar, each one corresponding to a plot of land identified as different from its neighbour throughout the estate.
At Chateau La Dauphine they have taken this connection to the terroir one step further, converting the whole estate to organic production with the 2015 vintage. 2015 was a lovely vintage in Bordeaux and a great one to finally obtain organic certification, but the certification period was challenging. It takes 3 years of organic farming to obtain the certification and they lost 50% of the normal crop in 2012 and up to 90% in 2013 thanks to mildew, which the proximity to the Dordogne does nothing to assuage. It was worth the wait, as in 2015 both the volume and quality were the reward for their patience.
Understanding wines is one thing - tasting them is another. Food is at the heart of the wine experience at La Dauphine and this is the real key to why the chateau was awarded the Best Of Wine Tourism award.
The dining room
You can choose to savour the wines during a picnic in the vines high above the Chateau and the Dordogne valley or with a relaxed lunch on the Chateau terrace by the infinity pool overlooking the gardens and the alley of parasol pine trees that run down towards the river. Or perhaps a more formal affair in the dining room of the 18th century Chateau that, despite the owners living there, they open up to groups of visitors.
They welcome guests from all over the world, which is important as 80% of their production goes to export. Big groups too, the picturesque setting is a favourite for wedding parties - they are fully booked for weddings throughout the season.
As they are not as yet so well known as their neighbours these wines still remain exceptional value for money. With properties like Chateau La Dauphine and their dynamism in both making excellent wines but also in offering such a warm welcome to guests, we might just be about to see them finally gaining that recognition they deserve. Starting with the award of the Best Of Wine tourism is just the beginning.