Perched on a rolling hill above the winding Dordogne River, Château de La Dauphine is one of the most visually stunning properties in Bordeaux.
I first eyed this peaceful right bank beauty last year, as we drove westbound into Bordeaux along D670, the highway framing the south Fronsac appellation. It was my first trip to Bordeaux and the elevated green of the vineyards, towering stands of trees and the regal, white château in the distance, said everything that needed to be said about Bordeaux. It was late in the day and we were en route our B&B in the Medoc. We couldn’t stop, but – note to self – this was an estate I would return to.
In September, a year after that first oh-so-memorable visit to Bordeaux and a week before the merlot harvest was about to begin, I was back, making my way up Fronsac’s limestone plateau to the home of La Dauphine.
We were there for a Green Wine Tour of the estate, a wonderfully prescient bit of “oenotourisme” offered by maybe a handful of Bordeaux properties. While some 600 vineyards in the 67 appellations of Bordeaux are farming their vines organically, biodynamically or sustainably (HVE3), only a sentient few are offering “oeno-tours”, sharing their environmental stewardship with sustainably-minded wine enthusiasts.
In my last two posts, I introduced you to the Green Tours at (1) Château Guiraud in Sauternes and (2) Château de Chantegrive in Graves. Both Bordeaux estates have demonstrated exemplary environmental leadership adopting viticultural best practices and making biodiversity a priority. Both estates also understand only too well that healthy soils rich in microbial life are a prerequisite for terroir-expressive wine. (Which is why we buy Bordeaux, mais non?)
For green tour #3 we’re making our way from the Graves sub-region – situated southeast of the city Bordeaux on the left bank of the Garonne River – to the Fronsac appellation on the right bank of the Gironde River (and north of the Dordogne). To get there you’ll head north through the sprawling vineyards of Entre-deux-Mers up to the town of Libourne and then head west (a mile or two).
Chateau de la Dauphine awaits with your third green excursion!
But First – Some Very Cool Wine History
Part of the allure of La Dauphine is its historical arc.
Grapes were grown at this Fronsac estate as far back as 1670. The château itself was built in 1750 and named in honour of Princess Maria-Josepha of Saxony who would visit the estate. The princess was better known as “La Dauphine de France” because she married ‘the Dauphin’, the eldest son and heir of Louis XV. La Dauphine was the mother of the last three kings of France: Louis XVI – executed for treason during the French Revolution and husband to Marie Antoinette, Louis XVIII and Charles X.
These connections to the French monarchy and to evil genius Cardinal Richelieu – the Duke of Fronsac and the king’s first minister (Three Musketeers anyone?), helped elevate the profile of the region in the 18th century. At the time the wines in Fronsac were some of the most expensive in France, trumping those of neighbouring appellations – Saint-Emilion and Pomerol.
Generations of Change
Many years later – a royal succession of sorts – the Moueix family, owners of Châteaux Pétrus, Trotanoy and Magdeleine, purchased the estate (1985). Fifteen years after that (2000), La Dauphine was sold to Carrefour grocery chain giant, Jean Halley (co-founder of the Promodès group). Jean and his son Guillaume invested heavily in La Dauphine, updating the vineyards and cellars, making it one of the most tech-forward winemaking facilities on the Right Bank.
Inheritance taxes forced the Halley family to sell after Jean Halley’s death and in 2015 the Labrune family – owners of FCB SA – a digital health services leader – purchased the property modernizing it further.
Today, you’ll find Château de La Dauphine in the middle of 53-hectares of vineyards, on hills that feature a 60-metre drop from the top of the plateau to the bottom. Soils are a mix of limestone and clay at the top descending to sandy, alluvial (silty) clay closer to the banks of the Dordogne. Most of the vineyards are planted with 85% Merlot and 15% Cabernet Franc.
About 210,000 bottles are produced at the estate each year: 150,000 bottles of grand vin Château de la Dauphine and 60,000 bottles of the second wine – Delphis de la Dauphine. A beautiful rosé is also fashioned out of the 85/15 Bordeaux blend.
Fronsac is not one of the classified wine regions of Bordeaux (like the grand cru classés of the left bank’s Medoc, Sauternes and Graves regions and the right bank’s hierarchical Saint Emilion). But many would argue the wine quality here is superb, often competing with many of its right bank classified neighbours. La Dauphine’s unsung hero status – and in fact, all of Fronsac’s wines – make the region an affordable alternative and one of the best-kept secrets in Bordeaux.
Green Touring La Dauphine
Our green tour of the estate was pure vinous pleasure.
The sun was shining, the skies gloriously blue. All around were low hanging organic grapes, heavy with the promise of an excellent vintage. We walked the property with our host Ben, who comes from a winemaking family in the Entre-deux-Mers region. The budding winemaker knows first-hand the importance of sustainable agriculture. “My generation and peers expect change,” he told us. “They’re very smart here at La Dauphine. They appreciate young people want Bordeaux châteaux to have an environmental strategy.”
True to the green moniker, Ben led us through beautiful woodlands, under ancient trees tagged as historical monuments and around the glistening white limestone château where a terrace with a killer view down to the Dordogne was being set up for a group lunch (next visit). Along the way we saw beehives, hydroponic gardens and compost preparation stations to feed and protect the vines. We also learned about the impressive list of green certifications secured by Chateau de la Dauphine including AB organic certification, HVE3 sustainable certification, SME and ISO 14001 (you can read about all these certs here). The vineyard is also farmed using biodynamic practices.
According to Deputy CEO Stéphanie Barousse who’s been with La Dauphine since 2005 and oversees the property’s commercial and winegrowing activities, the Fronsac estate will look for biodynamic and specifically Biodyvin certification when they feel the vineyards are ready. “We are certified organic but not biodynamic … yet,” she says. “We are still learning today as it is very complex and a tailor-made philosophy for our 53 hectares, so it is a lot of work.”
I suggest to Stephanie that many Bordeaux growers practice biodynamics but don’t seek certification.
“We think environmental certifications are very important to Bordeaux fine-wine consumers,” she suggests. “More and more people are aware of these certifications and they have started to ask questions and to be interested in them. We notice by welcoming many Bordeaux visitors all year long, and going to wine fairs in the area to meet the consumers, people want to know about our sustainable practices. Also for us it is important to have a coherent and logical philosophy by going further than organic farming.”
Biodynamics, a practice developed by Austrian scientist and philosopher Rudolf Steiner, sees the farm or vineyard as an integrated, whole, living organism. Like organic farming, biodynamics harnesses the power of the sun and lunar cycles (photosynthesis is free vs. chemical inputs) and sees soil biology as a key element to success. Practices include keeping the soil covered for much of the year through a combination of grasses and cover crops, using plant and animal-derived preparations to stimulate plant and soil health and promoting biodiversity and natural plants and animal ecosystems to regenerate soils, and make them immune to pests and diseases. The fundamental idea of biodynamic viticulture is to create a self-sustaining environment, where the farm nurtures itself without the need for chemical supports.
Stephanie says the first round of organic tests at La Dauphine started in 2009.”Today we have 10 years of organic experience. So now we can see how our vineyard has changed with the biodiversity becoming stronger of course, and healthier vines having potential to be more resistant to diseases.” She says the yields-per-hectare was tricky in the beginning but today La Dauphine is achieving their yield goals. “And I’m happy to report the quality of the wines is improving each year,” she says proudly.
Being careful with employee’s health was also a paramount concern and a key reason for eliminating chemicals and opting instead, for natural biodynamic preparations. “We want our employees to work in a safe place. But we also need them – especially the team in the vineyard – to be involved throughout the year. So by explaining to them the organic/biodynamic philosophy, they understand how important their job is and become more meticulous and attentive to their work in the vineyard. And they appreciate they’re a meaningful link in the chain.”
After touring the beautiful property and circular, state-of-the art wine cellar, we were treated to a fairy-tale-like tasting in the vineyard. On the Green Tour, the wines of La Dauphine are presented in a glorious willow-branch enclave that very strategically reinforces the eco-friendly values of the estate. They were – by the way – absolutely delicious.
So yes, it’s fair to say the green philosophy and spectacular green setting makes this one of the most unique wine tourism experiences I’ve enjoyed. I’m so glad I made it back. Best of all, La Dauphine’s green tour is the real McCoy; their principles are backed by action. No green-washing here.
I hope you #winelovers have enjoyed your three part Green Wine Tour excursions (okay – reads). For me, it’s about integrity in a glass. These are chateaux that care deeply about their environmental footprint and about producing wines that reflect the unique terroir of their region.
Call it a win-win.