Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Is Dominus the North Star for Pomerol and St. Emilion?

Last night, as I worked my way through a 13-vintage tasting of Dominus wines, I could not help but remark on how Bordeaux-like these wines were.  And then it hit me.  Christian Mouiex was making a Bordeauxesque wine in the heart of Napa.  Could there be any lessons here for the Bordelais as they face the prospect of region-wide impacts associated with global warming?

Allan Hall, of the Daily Telegraph, is one of many writers to have sounded the alarm regarding the impact of global warming on the Bordeaux region.  In an article dated 3/1/11, Hall stated that the region may be unsuitable for grape growing by 2050, given the warming trends.  Harbingers of this future include the fact that harvest in Bordeaux today begins two weeks earlier than it did 10 years ago and alcohol levels continue a steady rise upwards.  In an earlier post, I reported that Jean-Philippe Delmas (Chateau La Mission Haut-Brion Estate Manager) has been increasing the proportion of Cabernet Sauvignon in the Estate blend since 2006 in order to combat the effects of the warming temperature on the wine.

Bordeaux wines have generally been characterized by their aroma, scent, flavor, and affinity for food and rising alcohol levels puts these characteristics at risk.  Cabernet Sauvignon tolerates heat a little better than Merlot which has a tendency to over-ripen in hot conditions.

Christian Mouiex, owner of Dominus, cut his teeth in Pomerol, home of Merlot, but chose Cabernet Sauvignon as the backbone varietal of his Napa wine because it is more suited to the environment.  In the decade of the 1980s, the Dominus blend averaged 82% Cabernet Sauvignon, 14% Merlot, 3.7% Cabernet Franc, and less than 1% Petit Verdot.  In the 1990s, the ratio was 76.11% Cabernet Sauvignon, 7.6% Merlot, 12.88% Cabernet Franc, and 3.33% Petit Verdot.  In the 2000s, the blend averaged 85.75% Cabernet Sauvignon, 2% Merlot, 8% Cabernet Franc, and 4.5% Petit Verdot.

A number of trends are obvious as this Bordeaux winemaker experimented with how to make a Bordeaux-style wine in the hot Napa environment.  First, the high Cabernet Sauvignon levels were reduced in the 90s but was even higher in the 2000s than they were in the '80s.  The lesson here? Cabernet Sauvignon is desirable in elevated-temperature conditions.  Second, Merlot went from 14% of the blend in the '80s to 2% in the 2000s.  Indication: Merlot may be problematic for Bordeaux-style wines in elevated-temperature environments.  The Merlot falloff has been taken up by Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot, all later-ripening fruit.

As the estates of Bordeaux -- especially the Pomerol and St. Emilion estates -- consider strategies for dealing with the warming trend, they may do well to look at the accomplishments of a native son and use Dominus as their North Star.


  1. Probably if you graphed these trends there would be a fairly steady increase in the percentage of cab, even through the 90s. The average numbers in the 90s may be thrown off by a couple of odd years, such as 92, when there was only 52% cab in the blend. One wonders what went wrong that year, as it was the weakest of the 13 wines we tried last night.

  2. Point taken. I revisited the vintage notes and it states that climatic conditions in 1992 resulted in exceptional quality Merlot and Cab Franc. My guess is taht they wanted to get as much of that "exceptional" fruit as possible into the wine and the CS contribution suffered as a result. As you noted, the particular bottle we had last night was the weakest of the bunch.