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Sip and Savor: Daniel Daou weighs in on 2017 Vintage 

Lizzy and Daniel Daou
Photos by Mira Honeycutt

-For most Paso Robles winemakers, 2017 was a challenging vintage due to the surprising heat spike in August. While difficult, it turned out to be a winemaker’s vintage for Daniel Daou, winemaker and co-proprietor of Daou Vineyards & Winery in Paso’s Adelaida district.

“We got hit by severe heat wave and when that happened there was panic in town,” Daou recalled recently when I met him at his scenic mountain top winery, surrounded by estate vineyards planted to Bordeaux varietes. We were joined by his 23-year old daughter Lizzy Daou, who is following in her father’s footstep as director of winemaking operations.

During the 2017 heat spike Daou was advised by a few fellow vintners that they were ready to pick and he should too. But he was hesitant. “The heat wave had no end in sight and you’re sitting and seeing your grapes turn into raisins,” he recalled. A scary situation, no doubt, for a vintner who at that point had a dim view of the 2017 vintage. “I was stressed out.”

But Daou, who loves challenges, took a chance.

“I rode out the heat wave,” he said of his decision to pick late around mid-October. “It wasn’t easy.”

Luckily, for Daou and the few other vintners who stuck it out for a late harvest, cool weather followed the heat spike, allowing longer hang time and ripeness for fruit. “2017 was the year to be selective and courageous and if you were, you had the chance to make the best wines ever,” Daou declared.

Indeed, the risk-taker is pleased with his decision. “This is the best stuff we ever made, he said excitedly. “The phenolics and colors are high and the best part is the tannins are amazing, so synchronized and harmonious at this stage it can only get better,” he added, which can only be good news for the age-ability of this particular vintage.

Great vintages such as 2013, 2014 and 2016 are easy, he insisted. “Winemakers don’t have to do much, just make sure they don’t screw up badly to make good wine.” he remarked. “But 2017 was one of those vintages where one wrong decision could result in terrible wines.”

Daou’s limited production Patrimony cabernet sauvignon

There was another positive side to the difficult vintage. It led to harmonious teamwork between father and daughter, which proved to be a valuable training ground for Lizzy.

“That was a blessing in disguise,” the young winemaker said. “I was able to see how he handles situations that he never had handled before and made the decisions.”

Besides proving to be a great vintage, 2017 had its share of downside. “We had to drop thirty percent of our fruit. Half the cluster would be raisiny and the other half unripe,” she said of the estate vineyards perched atop Daou Mountain. In addition harvest was labor intensive and therefore very costly due to the need for selective picking.

Before starting the 2017 barrel sample tasting of the estate vineyards’ Bordeaux style wines, there were some surprises. The six-glasse wine lineup includes two pinot noirs. What is a cabernet man doing in the pinot territory? I asked.

Turns out, Daou, a huge fan of Burgundy wines, is branching out while still maintaining his focus on Bordeaux styles. “Yes, I’m a cab guy and I like big muscular wines but that doesn’t mean I don’t like the finesse of a pinot.”

Daou sources pinot noir from two cool climate Central Coast appellations. And, yes, these are statement wines — pinots for cab-lovers. “We want to make bold wines, not a thin rosé-like pinot,” Daou noted.

The Santa Lucia Highlands is sourced from selective rows of Gary’s Vineyard. The fruit-driven pinot flexes its muscle with deep intense color and bold cherry notes. The limited production of 200 cases will age in 80 percent new French oak for 15 months. Conversely, the 2017 Solomon Hills from Santa Maria Valley region is aroma-driven and feminine and will go through a 12-month aging process. Both will be released in fall 2018.

Vineyards perched atop Daou mountain in Adelaida district

We move on to 2017 vintage of Daou estate wines — the flasghip Soul of a Lion, a blend of cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc and petit verdot, that has been aging for four months and still going through malolactic fermentation, showed elegance and a firm tannin structure. The wine will age in French oak barrels for another 22 months.

The proprietory barrels made in Bordeaux, informed Daou are crafted from fine grain pink oak and aged for upto five years, to leach out sawdust and other unsavory characteristics, thus imparting subtle flavors. Such attention to detail showcases the fruit character and terroir of Daou vineyards resulting in wines that are not heavily oak influenced.

The high-end Daou Patrimony is about highlighting single varietal and usually focused on cabernet sauvignon, aged for a total of 30 months. The 2017 Patrimony cabernet sauvignon showed seamless tannins and superb concentration at this stage, with just four months in the barrels.

For the 2017 vintage, Daou also added single varietal cabernet franc to its Patrimony label. Much darker than a regular cabernet franc, the wine showed impressive complexity and firm tannins. “It’s two times darker than any cabernet franc because we gave it more hang time,” Daou offered.

While Lizzy has her imprint on the Daou reserve cabernet sauvignon, she is now venturing out with her own label and introduced us to Elizabeth Daniel, a 100-percent cabernet sauvignon produced from Daou estate and El Pomar district fruit. The luscious wine showed a lively complexity while it was going through malolactic fermentation at the time of our tasting. The wine will be aged in 100 percent new French oak for a total of 20 months. The limited production of 250 cases will be available through the wine’s website.

“I’m making it all on my own,” said the young winemaker who graduated from Cal Poly with a degree in viticulture focusing on enology. She further honed her winemaking skills with trips to France and mentoring from her father.

“I’m so proud of her,” said her elated father. “It’s such a satisfaction and a dream come true to make wine with my daughter. I’m on cloud nine.”

As we came to the end of our tasting, Daou is so pleased with this vintage that he confessed he’s blown away by the quality of these wines. “Unequivocally, these are some of the best wines we’ve made across the board,” he said.

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About the author: Columnist Mira Honeycutt

Honeycutt has more than 20 years of experience as a wine consultant and wine journalist. Currently, she is the California contributor to Sommelier India Wine Magazine. Her wine and food coverage has been published in the Harper’s Bazar India, the Asian Wall Street Journal, Hong Kong Tatler, The Hollywood Reporter, USA Today, Los Angeles Magazine, Los Angeles Times and www.zesterdaily.com. She was a contributing wine blogger on the highly popular Los Angeles radio station KCRW’s Good Food blog. Honeycutt is also the author of “California’s Central Coast, The Ultimate Winery Guide: From Santa Barbara to Paso Robles,” as well as the curator of the soon to be published book, The Winemakers of Paso Robles.