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A Day at Dominus

Photo by: Greg Gorman

Posted: Jul 11, 2007 1:33pm ET

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.

Andrew J Walter
Sacramento,CA —  July 11, 2007 3:07pm ET
Since when was Yountville not chic? I've had several of the Dominus bottlings, up to the 2002--they have all been excellent to superb in my opinion. Given the choice between the tecnically similar opus 1 vs Dominus...the latter is hands down my favorite. Good luck!
Willim Tisherman
Katonah, NY —  July 11, 2007 3:36pm ET
I noticed that you gave Dominus 2003 81 points when you rated it in Oct. 2006. Based on WS Buying Guide specs, I presume this is what you consider the wine at its peak; and judging from the "drink now" note, that peak must be right now. You say now that "Neither of us liked the 2003" oes that mean you would give it less than 81 points now?

Also, you gave the 1996 Napanook two different ratings? in 1999 it was 92, with a drinking window of 2001-2009, then later 90 and "drink now". Do you think the Napanook does not age as well as Dominus in general? And do you think the 96 Napanook will be under 90 points in a year or so, based on the two-point drop?
Tom Breneman
eau claire, WI —  July 11, 2007 4:11pm ET
So those less than stellar vintages were reduced in cost dramatically??? one would think?
Daniel Ades
PANAMA —  July 11, 2007 4:49pm ET
I had 2 botles of 2003,(open and decanter for 2 hours) and I think is a 90; I dont understand how RP SCORE 95 .Whenever you're in panama, let me knowregardsdanny
John Miller
Windsor, CA —  July 11, 2007 6:03pm ET
James,I am surprised that the owner of so many great right-bank properties would eliminate Merlot from the blend. What gives?
Roy Piper
Napa, CA. —  July 12, 2007 12:18pm ET
I wonder why he waited 3 years after ripping out those two prized blocks to replant them??? If he had replanted them in 2000, he would have had fruit much earlier. Screaming Eagle ripped out and began replanting within 2 months.
James Laube
Napa, CA —  July 12, 2007 12:36pm ET
Roy, the vineyard was old and virused, and Moueix wanted the soil to recuperate. It was fallow for about two years. True, many other vineyards are replanted almost immediately. John, as for Merlot, Moueix said the quality didn't meet his standards and felt that over time it didn't add to the blend. He uses more Cabernet Franc these days.
James Mccusker
Okemos, MI —  July 12, 2007 1:33pm ET
James, the only vintage of Dominus that I have had the pleasure to enjoy is the 1997. When I last tried it about two years ago, I was astonished at the contrast between it and other 97s that I sampled that same evening. It was deep and complex but had a level of restraint that I find to be unique among California wines. I don't know how he does it, but Moueix is able to fashion a Bordeaux-style wine (i.e., lower alcohol, subtler, but without a green edge to be found) in the middle of the Napa Valley. Terrific stuff!
Maryann Worobiec
Napa, CA —  July 12, 2007 3:32pm ET
William, the 90-point score on the 96 Dominus is from a 10-year retrospective tasting we did in 2006. The phrase "1996 California Cabernet retrospective" should appear at the end of the note.

MaryAnn Worobiec, Tasting Coordinator
Willim Tisherman
Katonah, NY —  July 13, 2007 3:11pm ET
MaryAnn, I was aware of the distinction. It is the timing that makes me curious. If a 92-point wine with a 2001-2009 drinking window is now a 90-point "drink now" wine in 2007, it seems the wine is slipping quickly. I am wondering if this means that Napanook does not age as well as Dominus, and if so, why this would be the case.
Roy Piper
Napa, CA. —  July 13, 2007 9:49pm ET
Ahhh, got it. Thanks for the response James.
Steve Tipton
Austin, TX —  April 14, 2009 6:25pm ET
Was reviewing past comments with interest in anticipation of a 20-year Dominus Retrospective offered in The Wine & Food Foundation of Texas' Rare & Fine Wine Auction in Austin and online on April 18, 2009. To be paired with food from Wink Restaurant. Few, in any, Bordeaux-style wines (including the first growths) have garnered an average score higher than Dominus. I look forward to scoring a seat at the event and comparing the observations from WS's 2006 10-year retrospective.

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