Dominus : Mastering Napa Cabernet

Posted on Dec 27, 2015

black and white labelDominus, the Greek word for master, is also the name of one of the greatest red wines produced in California and fits right in with top class wines from across the world. It gets highest respect and some very high scores from numerous wine writers, from Britain’s Jancis Robinson to America’s Robert Parker, including some 100 point scores.

Dominus is the creation of Christian Moueix, son of the famed Jean-Pierre Mouiex of St. Emillion and Pomerol in Bordeaux. Jean-Pierre was the founder and proprietor of arguably THE stable of wineries in Bordeaux’s Right Bank: Trotanoy,  Magdelaine, La Fleur Petrus, Hosanna as well as the exclusive distributor for a number of Bordeaux wines, most notably the ultra-recherché Chateau Lafleur and Chateau Petrus (where they owned 50%, it is now 100% owned by his older brother Jean-Francois). Christian and his children now own the business his father started (Jean-Pierre passed away in 2003) and Christian oversees all aspects of production. From 1970 – 2008 he directed operations at Petrus, one of the world’s most revered and certainly most expensive wines and remained a consultant there until 2011. In the wine world, the pedigree of the Moueix family unsurpassed. Christian was recognized by Decanter Magazine as their Man of the Year in 2008 and in that same year he was named a Legend of Wine by the James Beard Foundation. In 2011 he was awarded Wine Spectator’s Distinguished Service Award.

DominusNapanookVineyardgateThe story of Christian Moueix’ association with wine royalty does not stop in France. During the late 1960s the young Moueix attended the University of California at Davis in graduate studies in viticulture and enology. There he fell in love with Napa wines. He had the good fortune to meet Robin Lail and Marcia Smith, daughters of John Daniel, the highly respected owner of the Inglenook Winery that had made some extraordinary and long-lived Napa Cabernet Sauvignon in the 1950s and 1960s. (Lisa Perotti-Brown, editor of the Wine Advocate wine review, recently tasted the 1963 Inglenook Cabernet Sauvignon, 49 years after that vintage, and rated it with a lofty 95 points.) The Daniel daughters had inherited the famed Napanook Vineyard. One of the first known vineyards in Napa, Napanook was originally planted in 1838 by George Yount who gave his name to the nearby town of Yountville.  The vineyard had been in the hands of the Daniel family since 1943. In 1982 Daniel’s two daughters invited Moueix to be a partner in their vineyard and the following year the first vintage of Dominus was harvested.

The vineyards 103 acres are planted predominately to Cabernet Sauvignon, with Cabernet Franc, Petite Verdot and Merlot for blending.  Moueix no longer puts Merlot into the final blend of Dominus as he does not get the same effect from the varietal when grown in California that he does in Bordeaux. The blend changes from year to year, but is always Cabernet Sauvignon dominant; recent vintages are usually over 90%. The soils at Napanook are volcanic and the gravelly clay loam provides good drainage. Located near the mid-point of the Napa Valley it receives the cooling influence of the San Pablo Bay which helps to temper some of the California summer heat.

DominusGabionwallIn 1995 Moueix bought his partners out and began plans to build a winery on the estate. In 1997 the winery was completed and sits today as a stunning piece of architecture in a valley know for stunning winery architecture. Made of mortarless wire mesh that is filled with local basalt rocks, its architects received the coveted Pritzker Architecture prize in 2001.

DominusNapanookVineyardMoueix has taken what he has learned about viticulture and winemaking in Bordeaux and adapted it to California. The Napanook vineyard is ideal for the application of his wine-growing philosophies. Its temperate climate allows for dry farming, a form of agriculture that does not use irrigation. “Dry farming encourages deep roots and is key for expressing terroir” Moueix has said. He has been a passionate advocate of dry farming, though many in Napa say it is too hot and too dry for the practice and that its use could kill the vines. Moueix generally disagrees though he concedes a lack of experience with some of the higher elevations and steeper hillsides. One of his beliefs that he told Jancis Robinson is that “Unirrigated vines will naturally find their equilibrium and won’t need to be picked as late as irrigated vines. People accuse us of avoiding risks by picking early but it’s a question of natural equilibrium. Irrigation is one of the reasons you get these crazy alcohol levels in Napa. I’m obsessed by dry farming even 30 years after arriving in Napa Valley.” Moueix is a traditionalist and it shows in his wines: Dominus is more a wine of restraint and often is guessed as a Bordeaux in blind tastings. As a result he is often contrasted with fellow Frenchman Michel Rolland, the famous enologist and consultant to many of the world’s great wineries. Rolland is known to embrace ripeness and full body, and create high impact wines. Dominus is not “light” by any means, but finds itself at the more subtle end of the spectrum, expressing more nuance and elegance rather than many Napa wines that are known for raw power.  Moueix told Robinson his view about that contrast: “We never look for a fruit bomb. I hate the idea of a fruit bomb. Remember; before vines arrived in the Napa Valley there were prunes. The dominant flavour in Napa wines today is prune – it’s natural. It’s not an unpleasant taste but it’s extreme. Black fruits is the end. It is never my goal to make wines that taste like prunes.”

Each year at Christmas we have a special dinner at home and open a special bottle of wine. This year we decided we would treat ourselves to our only bottle of 1996 Dominus. The 1996 vintage in California was a part of a string of excellent vintages that covered most of the decade. It was a warm vintage and the 1996 Dominus was picked between September 6 and October 8. Produced before the winery was built, this vintage was made at the facilities of the nearby Rombauer Winery. The wine spent 15 months in 33% new French oak barrels. 8,000 cases were produced. The 1996 vintage was composed of 82% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Cabernet Franc, 4% Merlot and 4% Petit Verdot.

Napa Valley Napanook Vineyard1996 Dominus

Deep red colour, this looks remarkably fresh for a 19 year old wine. The nose on this wine is gorgeous as it fills the air above the glass with blackberry, blueberry, earth and hints of spice. The palate is medium/full in body and there the black fruit flavours are joined by cassis and plum. The mouthfeel is so plush and smooth that one could be forgiven for thinking Pomerol as it seduces you with its velvety, thick, rounded texture. On the long finish there is no heat, but just enough acidity to keep things lively and woodsy notes to add complexity. Drinking at peak now, but given its bright, youthful fruit, this could clearly go much longer.

Extraordinary   (2011 vintage available at Marquis for $160 incl. tax)

1 Comment


    What a wonderful story and the wine sounds amazing.

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