Yesterday I caught up with Christian Moueix of Dominus, in the now-chic Napa Valley hamlet of Yountville.
It's always fascinating spending time with Moueix. He brings a unique perspective to Napa Valley wine—his roots are in Bordeaux’s Right Bank communes. He heads his family’s Libourne, France-based firm, Etablissements Jean-Pierre Moueix, which represents some of the greatest names in Pomerol and St.-Emilion, including Pétrus, Trotanoy, Lafleur, Lafleur-Pétrus and Latour à Pomerol.
As the saying goes, Moueix has forgotten more about wine than most of us will ever know.
He looks pretty much the same as he did when he was on the cover of Wine Spectator in 1986. He's fit and trim, and when we met up, he was wearing a blue shirt, white pants, tennis shoes and shades, with pruning shears attached to his belt.
On a clear, breezy day we sauntered through Napanook, once the cornerstone of the great Inglenook classics. (I consider Inglenook Cask one of the greatest California Cabernets ever made.) One subject both of us had on our minds was the recent Dominus bottlings, which I’d liked less than some of the winery's earlier bottlings. I was curious about his thoughts and he was interested in my perspective as well.
After a run of excellent vintages in the 1990s, including 1991 (both of our favorites), 1994, 1997 and 1999, the quality of Dominus' vintages tapered off—2001 and 2002, in particular; while both were complex wines, they didn’t achieve the depth and dimension of the best 1990s bottlings.
But before we got into that discussion, Moueix pulled out a map of the property and explained some of the changes in the vineyard and wines.
The biggest difference, he said, was that two of the biggest blocks in the heart of Napanook—nearly 25 acres of Cabernet—had been pulled after the 1999 vintage. They are now back in production, replanted in 2002, but missed 2000 through 2004. Without those vines, he said, “You can’t make as great a wine [as you can with them].”
The other major change in recent vintages is a trend toward a greater percentage of Cabernet (now nearly 90 percent) and the elimination of Merlot. Dominus will always be a Bordeaux-blend with a style that emphasizes Bordeaux¹s strengths balance, richness, elegance and finesse.
Moueix said that the 2007 crop is in great shape, noting that in his experience the best years in Napa Valley are those with the driest winters. “It’s harder to judge harvests here,” he said. “What makes a great vintage in Bordeaux is easy—heat. In France, if they say it will rain next week [during harvest], you pick. In Bordeaux, the warmer [the weather], the better. Here, the drier the winter the better.”
At one point, I asked him if he’d lost some of his zest for Dominus, after spending 26 years in Napa.
"Absolutely not," he said. “My dream is still to make the perfect wine [from Napanook].”
Next we tasted the tight, complex 2004, followed by the just-bottled 2005 and a barrel sample of the 2006. The latter two vintages were excellent, a product of lower alcohols and Moueix's and his team's efforts to work on the vines to get riper flavors at lower sugar levels.
Then we tasted 2001, 2002 and 2003. Moueix said he thought that perhaps I had been too tough on the 2001, with an 88-point rating. But, he allowed, “I’m very respectful of opinions but my opinion changes too.”
I liked the 2001 better than when I had reviewed it in 2004. It’s complex, supple and harmonious, with good length. Its only shortcoming is its depth. Still, it reminds me of the 1994 Dominus, so we’ll see.
I liked 2002 less, and so did Moueix. Yesterday it showed a strong herb-cedary edge that made me think it was going through an awkward stage. Neither of us liked the 2003. It was a challenging vintage, Moueix said, with harvest extending into November. When you have to wait that long for grapes to ripen, it’s a sign of difficulty and the dry tannins remind you of damp fall aromas.