Dominus: Napa Valley Wine
with a French Personality
Report on a Special Vertical Tasting of the 1987-2007 Vintages
Dominus is one of Napa Valley’s premier wineries. Established in 1983 by the famed Bordealaise winemaker, Christian Moueix, it has gained a well-deserved reputation for producing one of California’s finest reds. A Napa Valley wine with a French spirit, as Christian Moueix likes to refer to it, Dominus is a Bordeaux blend of mainly Cabernet Sauvignon with varying amounts of Cabernet Franc, and Petit Verdot. There have been 25 vintages produced since 1983, and without question the wine enjoys unique appeal among knowledgeable collectors of the finest California Cabernets.
The idea of organizing a vertical tasting of Dominus was inspired by a lunch discussion and magnificent tasting held with Christian Moueix earlier in the year in Washington, DC. From that discussion the International Wine Review set out to answer some important wine questions concerning Dominus: What factors contribute to the distinctive French personality of Dominus? How have the wines evolved over the years? What are some of the noteworthy practices in the vineyard and winery that have contributed to the high quality of this wine?
This vertical tasting was organized with the help of Roland Hermann of Maisons Marques & Domaines, the winery’s national representative. The wines for the tasting were obtained from the winery’s library and from the cellars of several of the tasters. The tasting was held on May 26, 2010, at EVO Bistro Restaurant in McLean, VA and consisted of nine experienced tasters: Vincent Feraud, Sommelier, Ritz-Carlton; Michael Sternberg, Co-President, Enovo Restaurant Ventures; John Kraushauer, Republic National; Jacques Rebibo, Dennis and Driss Zahidi, proprietors EVO Bistro; Roland Hermann, MMD; and Don Winkler and Mike Potashnik, International Wine Review.
In the following sections we provide our readers with a look at Dominus in the vineyard and the winery, followed by a discussion of wine styles and detailed tasting notes on the wines in the vertical tasting.
Dominus Estate Vineyard
Christian Moueix fell in love with Napa Valley and its wines while studying at U.C. Davis in the late 1960s. In 1982, after years of searching for a vineyard, he formed a partnership with Robin Lail and Marcia Smith, the daughters of John Daniel, owners of Napanook Vineyard. Originally purchased in 1946 by John Daniel, owner of Inglenook Winery, the Napanook Vineyard was the source of some of the greatest wines made in California in the mid-20th century. Napanook thus became the Dominus estate, and In 1995 Christian Moueix purchased his partners’ shares and became its sole owner.
The Dominus estate is located in Yountville at the foothills of the Mayacamas Mountains.
It consists of 124 acres, 108 of which are planted to vines. Since the early 1980s the vineyard has been completely replanted with Cabernet Sauvignon and other Bordeaux varietals such as Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Petit Verdot. The surface area planted to these varietals has evolved over the years. Cabernet Sauvignon has increased from about 70% to 85%. Cabernet Franc was introduced (at 5%) shortly after Christian Moueix’s first vintage in 1983. Petit Verdot was introduced in the late 1980’s and entered into the blend for the first time in 1989. Merlot, originally planted at about 25% of the total surface area, has been significantly decreased and is now at about 5%. The Dominus vineyard site has proven to be too warm for growing Merlot.so that since 2002 no Merlot has been included in the blend.
The Dominus estate is meticulously managed as Christian Moueix is profoundly attached to the vineyard. Crop-thinning and canopy management are used to maintain vine balance and achieve full and even ripeness of fruit. On average 20-25% of fruit is removed after crop thinning. Clusters are separated from one another to allow for adequate sun and air to pass between them. The trellising system on the dry-farmed estate has been adapted to the Napa climate and perfected over time, toward a “Y” shaped lyre that provides shading for the grapes when the sun is directly overhead and also at the end of the afternoon, when temperatures are highest. The winery also improved other methods to protect against sunburn, by cutting lateral shoots back to 2-3 leaves, creating “parasols” for the clusters.
Biodiversity in the vineyard has also increased, providing havens for natural predators of insect pests, such as native anagrus wasps, by planting various species of native flowering plants in vineyard rows and fruit crops on the edge of the property. This is an extension of the replanting work done in 1998 and 1999 on Hopper Creek, which winds through the vineyard. This project is today regarded as a model of creek habitat restoration in the Napa Valley.
The Harvest and Winemaking
Dominus follows a rigorous protocol at harvest time. Right before the harvest, the vineyard crews use an air-blower to remove leaves to prevent dry leaves from falling into the picking baskets. If it doesn’t rain between bloom and harvest, which is often the case, the grapes are rinsed with water for dust control and to facilitate maturation. The sun-exposed side of the vines are harvested about 4 to 7 days before the shady side of the vines, and the two sides are kept in separate fermentation tanks.
In 2007, Dominus introduced small harvest baskets that allow the whole clusters to arrive to the winery in perfect condition. In that same year they also began using an “air-knife” sorting system called a “Mistral”, which helps separate any dried berries or bits of stem, leaf and other debris after de-stemming. In 2009, they started employing an optical sorting system, which employs a camera to analyze individual berries according to shape, size, color and surface texture. This machine, called the Delta Vistalys made by Bucher Vaslin, allows the winery to retain only those berries considered perfect for making the wine.
The Dominus vineyard is divided into 27 main blocks and sub-parcels . The blocks and sub- parcels(including the grapes harvested on each side of the vines) are fermented separately. Alcoholic fermentation takes place over 10 to 14 days and the wine is drained off the skins after a total; of 18 days. Fermentation occurs under limited aeration with pumpovers and strict temperature control. Barrel aging is carried out in 40% new barrels and 60% first and second use barrels for up to 18 months. The wines are fined with egg-white and bottled with no filtration. Blending is usually complete by Christian Moueix and winemaker Tod Mostero about 9-10 months after harvest. This allows for better evaluation of the quality of the individual lots as they age. Upwards of 40 lots are evaluated in the blending process.
Wine Style and Aging in the Bottle
From 1983 to the present, Dominus has maintained a distinctly French personality that differentiates it from the majority of California Cabernet Sauvignons. In contrast to most California Cabs, it has a restrained fruit forward character and offers more in the way of earth, minerals, layers of flavor, and above all, elegance. It is also a wine made for the long haul rather than for early drinking. Balance and structure are noteworthy, and most vintages require years of cellaring before they are ready to drink. Most wines appear to reach their peak around 20 years after the vintage, although some are quite drinkable before then, revealing tannins that are generally ripe and approachable.
How has Dominus aged over the years? The 1987 Dominus (included in our tasting) was probably the best of the wines produced by Christian Moueix and his team in the 1980s. In contrast the 1989 vintage (also included in the tasting) was not highly successful due mainly to the heavy rains during the harvest. Our tasting also confirmed the general conclusion that Dominus wines in the early years exhibited more tannin and tightness than in later years.
In the 1990s, Dominus hit its stride and began to produce wines of outstanding quality and ageability. Likewise, starting in the 1990s, the tannins became noticeably softer and the wines more accessible. The 1991 Dominus confirmed this change, and that style appears to have remained throughout the 1990s and early part of the 21st century. Today, Dominus is predominantly Cabernet Sauvignon, which has proved to be the best suited for the Napanook vineyard terroir.
Wine Labels Matter
From 1983-1990 recognizing the wine was in its infancy and did not yet have its own identity, a series of artists’ portraits of Christian Moueix were commissioned for the labels. By 1991, the wine had become well established and a classic Bordeaux style label replaced the artist series.
Tasting Notes and Ratings: Dominus Proprietary Red Wine
2007 Dominus (youthful)
This is the current vintage of Dominus, a blend of "94% Cabernet Sauvignon, 3% Cabernet Franc, and 3% Petit Verdot. It is a wine of great depth and complexity, exhibiting a dark ruby color and sweet fragrant ripe black and red fruit with notes of violets. The palate. is rich and full-bodied with savory blueberry, raspberry and black currant fruit flavors with notes of cedar. It is beautifully structured wine with amazing concentration and firm ripe tannins. While still a baby, this wine is likely to turn out to be one the finest Dominus produced and will have a long life, only reaching its peak in a couple of decades.
2006 Dominus (youthful)
The 2006 Dominus reveals an opaque ruby purple color with aromas of earth, licorice, and cassis. It is velvety smooth on the palate, highly concentrated. While still very tight, it exhibits rich black fruit flavors of considerable depth and complexity, soft round tannins, and amazing ripeness. This Dominus could turn out to be every bit as good as the 2001 vintage.
2001 Dominus (youthful)
This Dominus is perhaps the finest most complete wine tasted. Ruby garnet in color it reveals fragrant aromas of blueberry/cassis, and black currants with violet notes. On the palate it offers concentrated fruit flavors, rich and mouth filling with an attractive finish. Despite its relatively high pH (3.95), the wine shows good structure with adequate acidity and balance.
1996 Dominus (mature)
One of the top Dominus wines of the 1990s. Although not as strong as the 1991 and 1994 vintages, it is a super wine. exhibiting an earthy nose with sweet crushed blackberries and notes of smoke and herbs. It reveals excellent ripeness and acidity on the palate with beautiful balance and a long finish.
1994 Dominus (mature)
The 1994 Dominus is flavorful and drinking beautifully. It is a gorgeous wine revealing considerable complexity of forest floor, herbs, (dill) and barnyard notes. It is velvety smooth on the palate with excellent fruit concentration, with notes of caramel and balsamic, and has a long finish. A terrific wine with considerable character and charm. Only 72% Cabernet Sauvignon in the blend with 12% Merlot, 11% Cabernet Franc and 5% Petite Verdot. While different in flavor, it rivals the quality of the 1991 vintage.
1991 Dominus (mature)
The 1991 Dominus is aging gracefully. Saturated garnet in color, it reveals aromas of cassis, earth, mushrooms, leather and cedar. Still youthful, it is velvety smooth on the palate and offers ripe black fruit, chocolate, and licorice with excellent acidity and balance. It is a wine of beauty, even now, and according to the winery’s own assessment is was “the most harmonious and elegant wine to be released in the first decade of existence.”
1989 Dominus (fading)
The 1989 Dominus exhibits a garnet orange hue and is fading at this stage. It reveals light dried black fruit and leafy forest floor aromas, hard dry tannins, and an earthy finish. Slightly lighter in body than the 1989 Dominus. The wine was doomed from the start by the considerable amount of rain which fell during the growing season and the harvest.
1987 Dominus (mature)
This Dominus has a saturated garnet color and offers aromas of earth, cedar and mushrooms with hints of dried fruit. On the palate it reveals a surprising amount of black raspberry fruit flavors, roasted nuts, and meat, a velvety smooth mouth feel and considerable tannic grip on the finish. This was probably among the best Cabernets produced in the strong 1987 vintage in Napa Valley and perhaps the first really good vintage of Dominus.
1 We wish to acknowledge with deep appreciation the technical information and enthusiastic support provided by Tod Mostero, winemaker at Dominus. We also wish to thank Roland Hermann, Maisons Marques & Domaines, for his help in obtaining the samples and organizing the tasting.