A chat with Winemaker Dawn Jones-Cooper

The first time I tried Dawn Jones-Cooper’s wine from her Monfaucon estate in Bordeaux was in January this year, a month that was very much not dry for me. I had learnt from an online seminar that Dawn was quite the character, and from further research, and now a chat, I can confirm that she is still firmly my idol. 

Most articles about Dawn tell us she is living the dream of a hairdresser turned winemaker but that’s not really accurate at all. For one, Dawn is very much still a hairdresser and secondly, it was a completely unintentional move to France that led to the winemaking which has since turned into a passion. ‘We come over to the UK every six weeks for ten days in a car. We drive from a rural farm, isolate, then it’s a mission of logistical orchestration to get to 200 clients over 10 days,’ says Dawn. ‘From 6am tomorrow morning I will be out cutting hair!’ We spoke on Sunday 11th, the weekend following the heartbreaking frosts that swept across vineyards in France, reaching as far as Italy too. ‘We arrived on Tuesday night, then on Wednesday morning I got loads of calls from neighbours and friends saying frosts have obliterated the whole region,’ says Dawn. ‘Chardonnay, because it grows earlier, means the flowers were starting to be open. Well, not open, but form, so we will probably only get vegetive growth. On the other vines, where it was just the leaves, because the flowers weren’t there, there is a small chance that the second buds will be fine.’ Dawn explained that the new life will start to come through, but they won’t know for sure how bad the damage is for 21 days, ‘All that work, pruning, tying, getting the cover crop in, forming your compost and it can just be wiped out in one hit.’ 

As devastating as it is, this is someone who tells me their glass isn’t half full, but over flowing, ‘We learnt at college in a perfect classroom versus the real world. In everyone’s business you have to be a problem solver and just get up and get on with it,’ says Dawn. It’s a mindset that has got Dawn through all manner of challenges, and now she makes some of the most unique and delicious wine in the region of Bordeaux. This is a life that Dawn never saw herself living, it was a total career and life change at the age of 40, ‘People always say ‘you’re living the dream’ but it has become my dream. It is challenging but it is rewarding as well,’ she says. 

It all stemmed from a boat. While working as a hairdresser in Mayfair, Dawn and her husband bought a big old boat that was on its way to be turned into scrap, ‘We spent ten years rebuilding it, and lived on it for 16 years. It a was Dunkirk little ship from the second world war and we took it back over for some of the ceremonial events,’ says Dawn. After spending many years in London, the adventurous duo started exploring the idea of moving to the countryside, ‘We were just looking for a mooring. We wanted ½ an acre plot next to a river to have a few chickens, and live on the boat,’ says Dawn. ‘We flipped a coin and I did a welding course for two years. My other hobby was stained glass, alongside the steelwork. We bought this place, and it had this old vineyard on it. They wouldn’t break it up and just give us river access, we had to buy the whole thing. We thought, what are we going to do with all that?’

‘We got this romantic idea, hair cutting and cutting vines, how different can it be. I was cutting hair for some of the Berry Bro’s & Rudd group and it was Rebecca Lamont who told me to go to Plumpton college. I rang them up and they were just about to have an open day, so along I went. By the end of the open day, I’d signed up for a part time course for four years in Viticulture and Oenology. I did that at 40, I’d have never guessed that’s what I’d do with my life.’ 

Plumpton College has earned an incredible reputation for viticulture over the years with Jancis Robinson commenting way back in 2007, ‘Chris Foss has clearly inspired great loyalty as well as knowledge in the hundreds of Plumpton graduates who are now helping run the wine business around the world.’ It was the same Foss who has inspired Dawn into what she is creating today.

‘A lot of the winemaking process has come on by fluke,’ says Dawn. ‘At college, the main head professor there Chris Foss, and then Peter Morgon and Tony Milanowski, from Rathfinny Esate, taught me a lot. You get loads of projects to go and do including soil analysis and viticulture. By chance, lots of the projects I was handed to do had an organic or biodynamic nature to them. I had done a lot of research to do the essays and get the marks. But then, the more I learnt about it, the more I decided that was the method I wanted to follow. Whatever you do in life you need a method to follow. Also, if you walk through a chemical ground, it’s a dust field. If you walk through my vineyard, you’re more likely to get a toad hop on your foot, it’s just teaming with life.’ 

Dawn is producing organic wines at Monfaucon, but they are largely biodynamic too. ‘I did trials with fruit and veg before I even planted the vines,’ says Dawn. 

‘We started with biodynamic exploration with the calendar of root days, flower days and fruit days. For example, a carrot should be planted on a root day. If it’s planted on a root day, it’s perfectly straight and lasts longer. If you plant it on the wrong day, it may fork in two, it won’t be perfect. We did another trial with butternut squash, some of them we planted on the right day, some of them we planted on any day. They’re still good, but they were a bit stringy, and after about three months, they started to go, they needed to be eaten and they were rotting. However, the ones we did biodynamically, were still going strong nine months later. We just noticed a difference. It’s fascinating. Some of it, like when they start talking about the stars, I don’t get into all that. But the other thing I’ve noticed is down in the winery, if I’m doing something to a wine, whether I’m fining it or stirring the lees. If I do it on the right day, the results are so different when they come back from the laboratory.’

In the Monfaucon range there is a sparking wine, the Pétillant alongside a still white wine range called Nobody’s Perfect. ‘I was so lucky with our first major sparkling, being selected for the Bordeaux top 50,’ says Dawn. ‘I’ve been looking at the 2018 which will be coming in line after that. I was worried because the 2016 was so nice, but I think this is slightly better.’ 

Nobody’s Perfect includes their organic Muscadelle, Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon and Chardonnay single varietal wines. ‘Basically when you think it’s hard enough in the wine world to find your place but when you’re an English woman in a man’s world of red wine with 12000 producers, the bar is pretty high,’ says Dawn. ‘They’re all making red, so I thought I would make white. We only do white, it makes us stand out because they are only making sweet whites. The whites of Bordeaux are always classical blends. But I do 100% single varietals because it’s different.’ 

At the moment, the vineyard produces around 6,000 premium bottles a year but there is the capacity for this to grow to 30,000 when the time comes. ‘What challenges do you face? Everyone asks,’ says Dawn. ‘When Covid-19 hit I lost every commercial contract I had in the UK.’ Shortly after this, came the migraine of Brexit. ‘I used to use DPD, they had a specific section which could deliver straight from our door to your door,’ says Dawn. ‘Now with Brexit, they can’t do it anymore. They can still do it in Europe, but not in the UK. Now I ship a pallet into London City Bond, but it’s much more expensive.’ 

What I think astonishes me the most about Dawn is her ability to give everything time. Perhaps that is the key to her award-winning wines? She ferments at cooler temperatures out of a sympathy for the fruit. ‘You drink fruit teas from a cooler temperature,’ she says. ‘Normally for these white grapes you would ferment at around 16°C, I do it at 10°C.’ It takes two months instead of a fortnight, but for Dawn, it’s about getting the best out of everything. No hurdle is too high for this incredible woman, she will find not only a way around it but do it with a unique style. The patience is getting ever more rewarding as Dawn’s wine develop in the bottle, ‘My 2014 Muscadelle, went in and was all fresh with jasmine and citrus aromas,’ says Dawn. ‘It won in the 2016 Decanter awards as the top Bordeaux white. We’ve just had a bottle of that last night and it has weight now, honey notes, it’s changed so much!’ 

Winemaking hasn’t been in Dawn’s life for long, but it has become her passion. As for living the dream? ‘Everyone has those chances to do something it’s just getting on with it,’ she says. ‘All I need is for people to like my wine’. 

If you would like to try Dawn’s wine, you can now buy direct from her website: www.chateaudemonfaucon.com

*This is in no way an AD or paid for, I simply wanted to interview someone I have a lot of respect for in the wine industry. 

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