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Doing Things the Daou Way in Paso Robles

Soul of a Lion, the flagship wine, named in memory of the Daou brothers' father

It was hard to get a word in edgeways but, when I did, I asked Daniel Daou how/when/where/with whom he learned to make wine. He’d been telling me over the air waves on zoom his remarkable life story (more in a moment) and about how good his wines were (I was about to taste and find out), but there didn't seem to have been a learning period. It was as if he'd somehow been born a fully fledged winemaker. As if.

But that does seem to be more or less what happened. To the vineyard born. Having retired as a multimillionaire at the age of 32, after selling Daou Systems, the US healthcare IT company he started with his brother a decade earlier, he says he "realised his true vocation to be a winemaker".

He started making wine in his garage. "People tasted it and asked, 'Where can I buy it, it's really good?'. I realised I had a gift." He doesn't go in for false modesty, but why should he? He's got nothing to be modest about.

Let's reel back. Daniel Daou was born in Lebanon in 1965. When he was eight and his brother Georges was 12, the family home was hit by the first rocket of the civil war. Both were badly injured, as was their late sister. The family moved to France and the siblings grew up in Paris and Cannes. At 18 Daniel, together with Georges, went to study in the US. Four years later, they persuaded their father to put his last $50,000 into their IT start-up. Ten years down the line, they made a fortune. Rags, more or less, to riches, certainly.

Realising his vocation meant finding a vineyard. Not any old vineyard but a terroir that would produce world-class wines in the image of Bordeaux, the kind of wines his family admired. His father's favourite was Château Cheval Blanc.

The search took him eight years and all over the world before he found the long abandoned Hoffman Mountain Ranch in California’s Paso Robles, a region known for its warm-climate wines made from Zinfandel and Rhône varieties (now it’s nearly 60% Cabernet Sauvignon, which is some mark of Daou Estate’s impact).

The point is that Hoffman was in the cooler, ocean-cooled Adelaida District to the west and high up at 670m (2,200 feet), giving a temperature profile midway between Pauillac and St Helena, Napa. Crucially, it also had the calcareous clay soil that Daniel was after. No wonder the great André Tchelistcheff had described the site in the 1970s as “a jewel of ecological elements”.

Finding the location and renaming it Daou Mountain was only the start. Daniel then had to plant it. He did the first 10.5 ha himself, while living in a trailer. He tried out 14 different Cabernet Sauvignon clones before making a selection of Bordeaux clones and he gathered more than 100 native yeasts on the mountain before choosing one that thrives at higher temperatures and gives superior colour stabilisation.

The vineyard and winery protocols he has created include high-density planting, hand picking in the cool of the night, a three to seven day cold soak, fermentation with the estate’s proprietary native yeast, free-run juice only and malolactic in barrels. As for the barrels, they’re custom-made in France from a rare tight-grain pink oak (rose bois) from the Jupille forest and the flagship wine, Soul of a Lion (named in memory of his father), is aged in them (all new) for 22 months before being bottled unfined and unfiltered.

In his words, he’s “a minimalist” as far as winemaking is concerned and sets great store by phenolics. “Superior wines have higher phenolics […] We measured 700 Bordeaux style wines from around the world and […] our wines are on the 0.1% percentile for phenolics […] We have silky tannins from the skins and the tannin level is high so they keep for decades. As the first vintage was 2010, the latter claim has yet to be tested, but the silkiness of the tannins can be assessed.

At the end of June 2021, I tasted mini samples of the 2013, 2016 and 2018 vintages of Soul of a Lion, together with a Cabernet Sauvignon-led Bordeaux blend and the following six Estate wines, all 2018 vintage except for the two single-clone Cabernets, which were 2017: Malbec, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon Clone 169, Cabernet Sauvignon Clone 4, Cabernet Sauvignon (which sits just below Soul of a Lion in the hierarchy) and Micho, a Merlot/Cabernet Sauvignon blend named after his sister.

It was the first time I’d tasted any of the wines and my notes are full of descriptions such as ‘creamy texture’, ‘silky tannins’, ‘rich fruit, refined tannins’, ‘sleek’, ‘focused’, ‘density’, ‘intensity’, ’elegance’, ‘definition’, ‘minerality’. I’m not giving the individual tasting notes because it was nearly 21 months ago and they were mini samples, but below is my note on a half-bottle of the 2019 Soul of a Lion that I tasted recently.

Just before we go there, there’s a postscript. When I was talking to Daniel in 2021, he mentioned that he was looking around Tuscany. The Daou brothers have now bought land in Val d’Orcia (which lies more or less between Brunello di Montalcino and Vino Nobile di Montepulciano) and are about to plant Cabernet Sauvignon and other Bordeaux varieties. Another chapter begins.

Daou Estate Soul of a Lion 2019

78% Cabernet Sauvignon, 12% Cabernet Franc, 10% Petit Verdot; 22 months in 100% new French oak; 14.8% abv.

Very deep, saturated black-purple. Powerful, intense nose with cassis and violets and sweet, leafy freshness. Concentrated, sumptuous, dense palate with blueberry as well as cassis, hints of raspberry and strawberry, a dusting of cocoa and ripples of currant-leaf/herbal freshness and sweet cinnamon. Very creamy, subtly smoky oak; ripe, suave tannins. Perfectly balanced and so effortless to drink, yet compelling in its layers and complexity. Drink until 2035 and probably well beyond if stored in perfect conditions. 96

UK stockists: £165, The Oxford Wine Company; £169.95, Secret Bottle Shop; £189.80, Hedonism Wines; and Harrods soon.

UK restaurants: The Frog, Ugly Butterfly, Middleton Lodge, Il Borro (London), Cellar Door, Star Inn, Grantley Hall, Headlam Hall, Raby Hunt, Pairings Wine Bar, Rafters Restaurant.

Distributors: Carson & Carnevale in England and Wales; WoodWinters in Scotland.

Photograph by Joanna Simon


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