A Conversation with Christian Moueix, Part II: Dominus Estate

Christian Moueix, perhaps the most influential wine figure in Pomerol and St. Émilion where he oversees his family’s ten properties, also owns Dominus Estate in the Napa Valley. During a recent trip to California to supervise activities at Dominus, he stopped in Boston and we met and tasted for three illuminating hours in my kitchen.

This article, the second and final part based on that visit, focuses on Dominus Estate. Part I, which appeared last month and is available by clicking on “Wine Articles” then “Columns,” focused on his family’s properties in Bordeaux.

Moueix is thrilled when he sees a bottle of Dominus in France because he does not sell it in his native land. A sighting means that a countryman probably has visited the Napa Valley property and thought enough of the wine to bring it back. Dominus, a personal venture for Christian, is entirely separate from the family’s holdings in Bordeaux. He purchased it without using family money and still has no plans to market it with his family’s other wines in France.

Moueix, an articulate and engaging man, spent two years at University of California, Davis where he received his master’s degree in enology in 1969. Two major things he learned there were the limit of technology in making fine wine and how much he loved the Napa Valley.

Upon returning to France in 1970, he was put in charge of the family’s estates, but craved a personal challenge. He knew he couldn’t compete with Château Pétrus or Trotanoy so he decided to look outside of France. Since he had fallen in love with Napa Valley while at Davis, he enlisted the help of Robert Mondavi to look there for a suitable vineyard.

Moueix didn’t want just any vineyard; he wanted one that was capable of producing truly outstanding wine. Mondavi introduced him to the daughters of the late John Daniel, who had owned Inglenook. The daughters owned the 120-acre original Inglenook estate, called Napanook, the grapes from which were responsible for some of California’s greatest Cabernets. He formed a partnership with them in 1982, creating Dominus Estate to make a Cabernet Sauvignon-based wine. A buyout made Moueix sole proprietor in 1994.

The Napanook vineyard has a unique terroir, with a gentle, 5 percent slope up to the Mayacamas Mountains that Moueix regards as perfect for Cabernet Sauvignon. Neighbors thought he was crazy when he pulled out a substantial number of perfectly healthy Chardonnay vines and planted additional Cabernet. But Moueix firmly believed-and today most winemakers agree-that certain varieties of vines should be planted only in specific locales especially suited to them.

As in the Bordeaux tradition, Dominus is made by blending wines made from a variety of grapes. Initial vintages were composed of about 75 to 80% Cabernet Sauvignon with the balance comprised by Merlot. In 1986, Cabernet Franc made its way into the blend, with Petit Verdot added in 1989. Cabernet Sauvignon still predominates in current vintages, but Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and Petit Verdot continue to contribute.

Moueix adopted a Bordeaux model-unusual for California at the time-by making only two wines, Dominus, the flagship “chateau” or “estate” wine, and Napanook, a “second” wine. The total production, like at his family’s properties in Pomerol and St. Émilion, is relatively small, consisting of just 70,000 to 100,000 bottles (6,000 to 8,000 cases) annually. Half of the production meets his rigorous standards and is bottled as Dominus. The other half is either sold off in bulk or is bottled under the Napanook label.

Since Napanook comes from grapes grown on the lower-flatter and less well-drained-part of the vineyard and from the youngest vines, it is more approachable than Dominus. Made from less intense fruit, it could be overwhelmed by oak flavors and tannins acquired during barrel aging. Moueix uses older oak barrels and keeps Napanook in them for a shorter period of time to maintain the wine’s balance.

Moueix is equally judicious with his use of oak aging for Dominus. Although he ages Dominus in small French oak barrels for 18 months, only one-third of them are new. Christian’s son, Eduardo, who was instrumental in managing Dominus, told me previously that he did not like calling Napanook a “second” wine because he is fearful that the second wine concept won’t be embraced by the US market. After tasting multiple vintages of Napanook, especially the 2001, I think he may be mistaken. Napanook represents an excellent opportunity to buy classy Napa Cabernet at a reduced price, usually less than half that of Dominus.

Christian’s plan in California, based on life-long involvement with making great wine, was to let the terroir speak. He was ahead of his time in California with this focus on the vineyard. The prevalent thinking in California when Moueix started Dominus was that winemaking technology, not the vineyard, was responsible for great wine. Now, most winemakers in California aiming to produce outstanding bottles agree that-as in real estate-making superb wine comes down to location, location, location.

Moueix planned to avoid irrigation and acidification, which he believes reduces quality. (Grapes, like all fruit, lose their acidity as they ripen. In warm climates where grapes can get very ripe, winemakers sometimes add acid to the fermenting juice-acidify it-in an attempt to keep the wine balanced and lively.) He has held to that plan. The vineyard’s proximity to the Mayacamas Mountains provides it with adequate rainfall and explains why he has never needed to irrigate, according to Moueix. And, as with all his wines from Bordeaux (even those from the scorching 2003 vintage), he never has acidified Dominus or Napanook.

Even after 20+ years, Moueix still finds Dominus challenging. Everything-the land, the climate, the predominant grape variety, Cabernet Sauvignon-is different from what he grew up with in Pomerol. (The family’s Pomerol estates contain practically no Cabernet Sauvignon.) Even the terms to describe the soil are different than in Bordeaux. In California, when winemakers speak of a gravel-like soil, Moueix says they point to small pebbles of alluvial origin. In Bordeaux, gravel is composed of large pebbles or rocks at least one inch in size.

As we tasted various vintages of Dominus, I got the sense that Moueix-always a perfectionist-was not quite satisfied with many of the wines. He sometimes wonders whether Napa Valley is too warm to produce what he calls “wines of sensitivity.” A problem in Napa Valley is that heat spikes in September can send the grapes’ sugar levels from not quite ripe to over ripe quickly while the ripeness of tannins and flavor compounds lags behind. The dilemma for winemakers is difficult: should one pick earlier at lower sugar levels, when tannins may be astringent but when one can make wines with lower alcohol and more elegance, or later and riper, when tannins are supple but alcohol can be inelegantly high?

Moueix plans to deal with this dilemma in a way that contradicts conventional wisdom. Although it is now widely believed that lowering yields invariably heightens quality, Moueix plans to increase yields slightly at Dominus. His theory is that a larger crop will take longer to ripen, giving tannins time to ripen before sugar levels become excessive. Judging by Moueix’s extraordinary track record, I suspect that Dominus-which is already superb-will become even better in years to come.


Napanook, Napa Valley (California) 1999 ($50): A dry year in California, 1999 produced some concentrated, tannic wines, including Napanook. Despite the great aromas from the glass, the alcohol and over extraction shows. Moueix finds it curious that many pundits ranked this wine higher than the 2001 Napanook, which he believes is a far superior wine. 85

Napanook, Napa Valley (California) 2001 ($50): This is a classy, easy to savor Napa Valley Cabernet. More restrained but better balanced than the 1999, the 2001 is supple and plush. It expands and becomes even better after it has been opened for an hour or two. 90

Dominus Estate, Napa Valley (California) 1991 (No longer available except at auction): I remember a vertical tasting of Dominus in Boston in 1996 at which time the 1991 stood out. The wines from the 1980s were quite tannic, but the 1991 heralded a new, more balanced style. Moueix attributes the change to the increasing age of the vines, and more importantly, experience with the vineyard. He noted that every parcel of the vineyard is different and that it takes time to learn how to handle the grapes from each plot. The 1991, even better now, has evolved and developed alluring elements of tobacco and smoke along with a dried fruit character. 93

Dominus Estate, Napa Valley (California) 1994 (No longer available except at auction): The 1994 Dominus is a wine with, as Moueix would say, sensitivity. A stunning wine, it has everything: great aromas, plenty of powerful bright fruit, and those seductive, hard to describe, not-quite-fruit flavors that linger in the seemingly endless finish. It has real finesse. 96

Dominus Estate, Napa Valley (California) 1996 (No longer available except at auction): This is a real powerhouse of a wine that may still become more elegant as it evolves with more bottle age. I prefer the nuances of the 1994, but this would be hard to turn down with a big slab of charbroiled beef. 90

Dominus Estate, Napa Valley (California) 2002 ($125): This is a voluptuous wine with lots of everything, including black fruit, alcohol, and supple tannins. Consumers who look for intensity and power in their cabernets will love it. 88

Postscript: Although Christian has loved the Napa Valley from the outset, his continuing lament is that he wishes he knew which specific elements of the weather in California made the difference between a good and a great year. In Bordeaux they know exactly what they need-even though they don’t always get it-to make great wine. But in California he is still trying to figure it out. I suspect that’s part of why he makes such great wine; he is always thinking.

Back to Part I

September 27, 2005