I'll admit, I was a little anxious to get to the historic Dominus Estate property and kick the dirt. Sure, the winery is as suave a bit of architecture as you're likely to find. But the dirt is where it's at for me.
The Napanook property is 124 acres (93 planted to vines) set on an alluvial fan of sandy loam. First planted in 1838 and moving through a few different owners through the years, Napanook is currently owned by Christian Moueix of Pomerol fame, who bought it in 1983.
During his tenure there have been some subtle shifts, not the least of which is the dropping of Merlot from the blend, replacing it with increasing amounts of Cabernet Sauvignon (now 88 percent of the estate), and the rest just Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot. The latter variety is known for color and aromatics, but rarely is used more than 1 or 2 percent in many Bordeaux-styled blends; here it could be 5 or 6 percent.
"Petit Verdot is a taste amplifier. It's the pepper on the steak," said Tod Mostero, who has overseen winemaking here since 2007. "And it does so well here."
Mostero, 45, joined Dominus after a stint in Chile; I first met him when I was covering that region and he was making the wine at Viña Almaviva.
Standing in front of the winery and looking through its clever rectangular opening out and up to the hills beyond, it looks relatively flat, perhaps just a few feet of elevation. But there's actually 75 feet of elevation drop from the western edge to the eastern end of the vineyard, which proves critical to the dry-farmed vineyard.
"We're not just flat valley floor here," said Mostero. "And that tilt feeds the springs underneath the property, drawing the winter reserves from the hills above. The vines are dry-farmed, but that doesn't mean we turn off the water. It means we preserve the water through the growing season through cover crops and plowing."
Fruit for the main wine is selected primarily from the shady side of the double/double Guyot-pruned vines, as these produce a darker fruit profile and more robust tannins (fruit from the morning side, brighter and less structured, goes into the second wine).
The 2001 Dominus Estate Napa Valley (81/10/5/4 Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot and Merlot) shows a gorgeous smoldering charcoal aroma, along with loam, melted black licorice, warmed fig and blackberry coulis notes, which all roll authoritatively through the finish. It still has ample muscle and length and seems to be just hitting its stride—impressive for a 13-year-old Napa Cabernet.
The 2004 Dominus Estate Napa Valley (85/8/7 Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot) is rather mature already, with tobacco leaf and savory notes emerging from the core of crushed plum, cherry paste and red currant fruit. A loamy edge takes over on the finish, though the savory edge lingers persistently as well.
The 2010 Dominus Estate Napa Valley (95/5 Cabernet Sauvignon and Petit Verdot) is muscular and grippy, with a roasted edge to the core of smoldering charcoal, dark olive, bay and warm ganache notes, backed by a solid underlay of bitter plum and macerated black currant fruit. There's an echo of pastis on the finish that melds nicely overall, but this is a very dense, roasted, slightly chewy wine that displays the vintage character prominently (there was a heat spike late in the growing season).
The 2012 Dominus Estate Napa Valley (93/5/2 Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Verdot and Cabernet Franc, set to be bottled in a few weeks) is absolutely stunning. It's packed with fig paste, plum sauce and blackberry pate de fruit flavors, all lined with charcoal, bay and juniper notes. It has long, authoritative structure, similar to a young Trotanoy (Moueix's flagship Pomerol estate). A wine layered with intense fruit and regal tannins, it offers an impressive display of what the right kind of dirt can deliver.