When Véronique Dausse was 20 years old, she left France for the verdant vineyards of Napa Valley, joining Bernard Portet at Clos du Val for what was to be a summer internship. There, she fell in love with wine, and ended up staying several years. “I was fascinated by these innovative winemakers coming from all over the world,” says the Lot-et-Garonne-born Dausse. “Their passion for wine mesmerized me. From then on, I knew wine would always be at the center of my life.”
And it has. After varying positions with French brands such as Fortant de France and Champagnes Nicolas Feuillatte, Dausse found a home at the famed Château Phélan Ségur, based in the northern part of the Medoc in Saint-Estèphe, where she has served as managing director for the past ten years. There, she has invested heavily in winemaking technology, and she has flung open the doors of the Château to wine lovers who marvel not only at the quality of the wines, but also at the beauty of the Château itself and its magnificent views over the Gironde river.
We caught up for a chat to mark her decade-long tenure.
How and when did your initial interest in wine develop?
When I was in business school, I had to do an internship. I was fascinated by America, California in particular, from what I’d heard and read back then. I wanted to have an experience there and was hired by Clos du Val: it was love at first sight! I’ve never left the wine industry since then, although I had to eventually get back to France to finish my studies at my Dad’s insistence. I worked in Champagne, in the South of France, and now in Bordeaux!
You started at Phélan Ségur in 2010, during one of Bordeaux’s most historic vintages. What were your initial goals for improvement?
Indeed, it was an amazing vintage but if the exact same conditions happened today, we would do even better! For example, conditions in 2019 were similar to 2010 yet we were able to make a better wine thanks to all the progress made. I first had to get to know the vineyard and the terroir and learn from the people who had been working there for decades, tending the vines and the vats: they became my mentors. It was definitely a 360° learning experience. The idea is to constantly seek improvements and that happens through precise knowledge of what we have to work with: we launched a geological survey of all our plots to better understand our soils and our terroir. We initiated an innovative program with a Swiss based company called Green Seeker, which allowed us to get of-the-moment information about the vigor of each vine. We invested in an optical sorting machine in 2011: we saved that vintage and the next two, so this was definitely a good investment! It allows us to vinify the best berries; our wines are showing more purity. We respect the fruit. We work with more precision from the vine to the vats. Ultimately, I have come to realize that we are only the guardians of our amazing vineyard and that our job is to express the characteristics of our terroir the best way possible via our wines. It is a humbling task.
Your 2019 vintage, presented en Primeur in June, has been hailed by wine critics as ‘the best ever.’ What’s next, after kudos like this?
Always a good challenge, right? Like after 2010, we know that there is always progress to be made. I am still looking to invest in smaller tanks so we can vinify with even more precision, plot by plot. I’d also like to understand more about how to help our vineyard face new threats such as global warming and human impact over the decades. We are trying to thread a lot lighter, allow the land to express itself, diversify the ecosystem to not overload our soils. One major challenge is to anticipate what the future may bring: replacing our older vines is fine but it is for the long run: how will things evolve? My main goal is to gain complexity and precision in our wines.
You have employed a more American style to Phélan Ségur wine tasting experiences.
I might be influenced by the American idea of service and customer experience but our hospitality style is unique. Ultimately, we open our private home. Château Phélan Ségur is unique in that the winery and cellars are right inside our proprietor’s house, which was an idea Frank Phelan, the son of the original founder, carried on. When people come to visit, they are personally welcomed by a member of my team. We do not have tour guides. We also offer a wide variety of activities to cater to the needs of different people, with varied levels of wine knowledge. Whether it’s a meal or a tasting, we share it with our visitors with conviviality and a warm welcome. Whether it is with our cellar master, our vineyard manager, our marketing manager or myself, no one forgets a visit at Château Phélan Ségur!