There’s a lot of talk about the 2013 vintage in Napa Valley. Many winemakers are saying that they have created their best wines to date from this near-perfect vintage. One winery in particular, which has already received 100-point scores from critics for their 2013 vintage, is Dominus. In fact, Dominus is now one of a small number of estates that forms the First Growths of Napa Valley. However, the success of Dominus and its rise to eminence goes far deeper than just a single great vintage.
This brings me to the historic Napanook vineyard and the esteemed owner of Dominus estate, Christian Moueix. Christian was born into a vinous lineage of Bordeaux wine merchants (you may have heard of Chateau Petrus), yet he didn’t rest upon past laurels in pursuit of his vision. A viticulturist at heart, Christian began his journey studying agricultural engineering in Paris, yet it was his time at the University of California at Davis in the 1960s which truly sparked his belief in Napa Valley terroir. He returned to France and the family business of Ets Jean-Piere Moueix in 1970, cutting his teeth in the vineyards and wineries of Bordeaux; yet in 1982, he returned to Napa Valley to create Dominus.
The first step was the vineyard, where much has changed over the last three decades. The historic Napanook vineyard was one of the first plots chosen for Napa Valley vine-growing in the 19th century and was used to produce the legendary Inglenook wines. It was also the ideal location to practice the dry farming techniques that Christian Moueix depends on for creating fruit of tremendous depth. Here at the foot of the Mayacamas range, rainwater collects on the mountainside and works its way into the soil until it comes in contact with a nearly impenetrable layer of clay. It’s this clay that works as an underground slide, delivering deep-water reserves below Napanook’s soil. Forcing the vine roots to dig deep in search of these reserves is a huge benefit for creating great wines in nearly every vintage.
Another huge step forward at Dominus was the addition of Tod Mostero as director of Viticulture. Tod was a veteran of the industry, with experience at Haut-Brion, Domaine de la Romanee-Conti, and Rothschild’s Almaviva project in Chile. Christian brought Tod onto the team, explaining that his goal was to create a perfect wine. With the ideal location already secured, Tod’s real mission was to understand what perfection in wine really meant.
The answer he arrived at was balance, purity and complexity. However, it was realized that the real work that needed to be done was all in the vineyard, which is something you hear about more often in Europe than in Napa. A change in planting of the vines to run east to west, versus north to south, had already been underway, as well as a focus on Cabernet Sauvignon.
Therefore, the answer lay more in organic practices, such as the use of cover crops and wildflowers, judging not just each block, but each vine individually, as well as the most important factor: ideal ripeness. At Napanook vineyard, vines on the south side of a row receive different treatment than vines on the north. Fruit from the end of a row will be thought of very differently than those from vines throughout the vineyard.
The most interesting thing that I believe I’ve learned about Dominus is how their “second’ wine, Napanook, is really not a second wine after all. The reality is that Napanook is a wine that was created to be a different expression of the vineyard, not a bottling that would receive the fruit that didn’t make the cut for Dominus. In fact, in some vintages, the younger vines are used to create balance in Dominus, while the older vines find their way into Napanook. In the end, the work that Christian Moueix and Tod Mostero have put in to create their “perfect” wine is a monument to Napa Valley winemaking.
Elegance, complexity, balance and longevity are words often associated with a bottle of Dominus. It’s a classic wine and a testament to how old world experience, using the best materials Napa Valley has to offer, can result in greatness.
We now see those 100-point scores awarded to the 2013 vintage of Dominus, and having tasted it myself, I must say that it is a wine of tremendous depth and beauty.
The following notes are from a vertical tasting hosted by Tod Mostero. It was an eye-opening experience, showing a 14-year evolution that has taken place.
On to the tasting notes:
2001 Dominus Estate – The 2001 Dominus is simply stunning. The bouquet was an intense mix of gorgeous dark red fruit, soaring floral tones, plums, tobacco, minerals and hints of parchment. On the palate, I found soft, silky textures, ripe red berries, blueberry skins and hints of spice, all in perfect balance. The finish was long with palate-coating dark fruit, licorice, minerals and inner floral tones. This is in a beautiful place today, yet there’s no rush. (95 points)
2005 Dominus Estate – The nose was very pretty, showing crush red berries, floral tones, and undergrowth, gaining richness over time. On the palate, I found soft and inviting textures with ripe red fruits, sweet herbs and minerals. The finish was long with a mix of wild berry and inner floral tones. This was such a pretty wine and completely ready to enjoy today. (94 points)
2009 Dominus Estate – The 2009 Dominus is like a ball of pent up energy, waiting to explode. The nose was dark and polished, yet with remarkable freshness to its mix of raspberry and blackberry fruit. Hints of tobacco added depth. On the palate, it was dense with intense dark fruits followed by lifting inner floral notes. The finish was long, dark and saturating to the senses. There’s so much more here that’s buried beneath this wine’s youthful state. It’s a sleeper wine. (96 points)
2011 Dominus Estate – The 2011 Dominus continues to be a mysterious wine that is constantly evolving in the glass. The nose showed crush blackberry, raspberry, and spice with chalky minerality and hints of pepper. On the palate, I found silky textures ushering in dark red fruit, plum, and savory spice. The finish was long with tart berries, black licorice, and haunting violet floral tones. (93 points) @Morrell
2013 Dominus Estate – It’s hard to bend my brain around the 2013 Dominus at this time, as there’s so much going on, and it’s so primary and densely packed, that the best anyone can be expected to do is imagine how amazing this will be as all the pieces fall into place. The nose was a multi-layered display of blackberry, black cherry, plum, sweet herbs, hints of tobacco and crushed stone. On the palate, it was dark yet perfectly polished, with dense, silky textures saturating the senses in dark fruits with hints of licorice and herbs. It’s saturating black fruits coated the palate throughout the finish with a tinge of minerality and dark floral tones. There is so much potential here, but it will take years before we can really understand it. In other words, it may be deserving of a higher score down the road. (97 points)
2013 Dominus Napanook Red – The nose showed ripe red and black berries, hints of savory herbs, minerals and fresh floral tones. With time in the glass, it seemed to turn sweeter and rich, yet all the while remaining bright and energetic. Silky, palate-coating textures soothed the senses as notes of dark red fruit and sweet herbs washed across the senses. It finished on lingering dark fruits, hints of bitters and inner floral tones. This is already accessible today, but it should continue to improve for a decade. It’s amazing to think that the 2013 Napanook is a second wine. Wow! (94 points)