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Smitten by Napa (Part 2)

by Joe Marchant (Director, BI USA)

A step closer to home, perhaps in these unfamiliar climes, we stopped in to see the magnificent Dominus Estate, owned and run by Bordeaux legend, Christian Moueix.

Dominus is pretty familiar to us in the UK, owned as it is by Christian Moueix, director of the legendary JP Moueix house of Libourne. Less well known, however, is what a personal labour of love it has been for him. Falling head over heels for Napa and its wines in the late 60’s while studying at UC Davis, it was a further 20+ years before Christian took full ownership of the famous Napanook vineyard that gives fruit to the estate’s wines.

I’ve always admired Dominus, either through snatched glimpses at tastings or the rare treat of older bottles thrown up in mixed lot cellars we’ve come across. They have a sense of grace and restraint that is familiar to lovers of old world wines whilst remaining quintessentially Californian. Aside from a commitment to dry farming, practice in the vineyard is about as different to that in Bordeaux as you can imagine. Tearing up the rulebook, Christian replanted perpendicularly to the traditional exposition, using the canopy to shade grapes from the sun and exposing each side of the vine to quite dramatically different sunlight hours. Surprisingly it is the side exposed to just those few short hours of hot afternoon sun that makes up the majority of the selection for Dominus, with younger vines and those closer to the 29 highway supporting Napanook.

We tasted the 2009 and it is fabulous – elegant but muscular with red fruits, tobacco leaf and fine grained tannins that give fantastic length and vibrancy. My advice: tuck it away for 10yrs or so and prepare to be wowed. It is worth noting, in common with many of the top estates in Napa, yields are absolutely miniscule here. Total production is much closer to that of the JPM stable in Pomerol than any of their neighbours on the left bank. We hope that a little more of it will be spread in our direction in years to come…

My third key visit was to one of the biggest names on the world wine map: the legendary Harlan Estate.

They do things differently at Harlan Estate. It's not on any maps, and directions to the winery come with references to trees and gateposts rather than google maps and GPS co-ordinates. Occupying an eagle's-nest overlook in the hills of western Oakville, a subtle stone terrace affords an Alexander-like vista of the valley and some of the innumerable steep hillside plots that make up the estate. To do justice to the history of how Bill Harlan settled on this corner of Napa - let alone the subsequent quarter of a century of rigorous selection and development that crystallised into one of the world’s most iconic wines - would take greater powers of storytelling than I possess. In distillation, it is one of maverick prescience and a long and relentless dedication to perfectionism that has few modern parallels. Even the winery itself, built out of stone taken from an abandoned railway roundhouse in Nevada and left stored behind chainlink for 20 years, is an example of the estate’s fanatical attention to detail. Inside, the atmosphere is hushed, with giant, open topped wooden fermenters lending an atmosphere mildy reminiscent of an empty church. You can imagine the winemaking conducted with the measured stillness of a 3 star Michelin kitchen; the concentration on the pursuit of quality removing all extraneous emotions.

The wine itself (we tasted 2009) is just as magnificent as you'd expect: spherical on the palate, with dark blueberry and cassis fruit and powerful earthy tannins that have a melting cocoa-like quality. It’s brooding, but with that hard-to-describe ‘inner energy’ that only a handful of the greatest wines capture - a contained explosion of magic.

It was somehow not surprising to discover that the folk at Harlan are great friends with M. Engerer at Chateau Latour, perhaps the only other wine estate I've visited where every person, place and outcome is so closely attuned to a particular vision. That they're already thinking in terms of a 100 year plan is humbling; that they're similarly developing other sites and wines in the valley is profoundly exciting. My thanks to Estate Director Don Weaver for his insight into the estate’s history and philosophy. Gents, see you again soon I hope.

One huge thank you must go to Matt Harris, who not only ferried me around but was amusing and generous company – let’s do it again soon Matt!

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