INTERVIEW Christian Moueix, Jean-Pierre Moueix, Libourne, France
The Sommelier Journal
January 31 2011 Catherine Fallis, MS
A top Bordeaux producer has a passion for Napa.
As I pulled into the parking lot of Dominus in Yountville, Calif., I couldn’t help but notice the difference between this discreet, nearly invisible structure and the many architectural showcases along Highway 29. I had already learned that French winemakers weren’t driven by ego. Still, when Christian Moueix came walking down the long driveway to greet me, I felt like one of the chosen few.
This scorching June afternoon fell right in the middle of the frenzied 2009 Bordeaux futures campaign, and it was the day after France had been eliminated from the World Cup. The hours whizzed by as Moueix answered my questions, poured wine for tasting, and showed me around the vineyards. It quickly became clear that this brilliant, passionate man was also extremely humble, hospitable, and precise. Never one to miss a detail, he even offered to return to the winery to get me a cold bottle of water after walking me back to my car.
Moueix is best known as the manager of Château Pétrus and proprietor of other legendary Bordeaux estates, but he became enthralled with Northern California during his studies at the University of California-Davis in the late 1960s. After a long search for a site to call his own, he got the opportunity to buy into the historic Napanook property west of Yountville in 1982, signing an agreement with Robin Lail and Marcia Smith, the daughters of original owner John Daniel. The first harvest for Dominus was 1983; a second label, Napanook, was launched in 1996. Moueix became the sole proprietor in 1995. Meanwhile, he continues to manage the family firm in France, as he has done since his father Jean-Pierre retired in 1990.
CATHERINE FALLIS, MS, ACWP
Considering your father’s history in Pomerol, were you always destined to enter the family business or did you have other interests growing up?
Well, very honestly, I had little choice. My father was a very authoritative man on one hand. On the other hand, I’ve always loved agriculture. I am an outdoorsman. When I am here, I call it holiday, because I spend four or five hours in the vineyard each day. I was this way as a young man and chose agronomical studies in Bordeaux first and then in Paris. I loved what I was studying; I loved what I was doing. So there was no real choice for me and no regrets whatsoever. I could have been a good lawyer, but I am a better farmer.
How are responsibilities divided among the family today?
I spend too much time in the office when I am in France, because we run a company—we are not only producers, but wine merchants for all the wines of Bordeaux that are coming on the market as futures just as we speak. There was a third part of the business that people didn’t know about, in which we dealt with bulk wines, purchasing wines from various growers in the Bordeaux region and blending them—for example, for a Merlot that I was producing for Kobrand—which was an important part of our business for many years. I love being an assembleur or blender. This is, I would dare to say, an artistic part of the business, because the equilibrium of the wine is fragile. To be able to blend 10 different wines together and to find the right proportions is something I love. That part of the business today is not as pleasant, as we have so many regulations in Bordeaux and in France in general. In France, my weekdays are in the office, so I spend my weekends in the vineyards. Now that my son Edouard is in charge, I can spend more time here, which is not something I could’ve done a few years ago, especially in the middle of a futures campaign. He manages the daily business, I must say, better than I do myself. That gives me more time to concentrate on the vineyards.
How would you describe the role of Château Pétrus in raising public and critical estimation of the Right Bank?
I may not be in the best position to answer. I was in charge of Pétrus for my family between 1970 and 2008. Since 2008, my brother, Jean-François, and a young man, Olivier Berrouet, have been in charge, and I act as a consultant. I would say Pétrus has been key for the Merlot varietal more than for the Right Bank. Merlot became extremely popular in the ’80s and the ’90s, and it was really helped, I would say, by Pomerol, by the fame of Château Pétrus itself. The fame of Merlot was partly destroyed by that stupid movie Sideways , but it was a good lesson for me. Any reputation can be destroyed by something unexpected. Château Pétrus was not directly affected by that movie, but my basic Merlot that I used to sell in the States—about 1 million cases all told—was almost destroyed by that movie. It had been $8.99 on the shelf for many years, and with the film, the sales plummeted. That was one more lesson of modesty. So Pétrus was a star for the Right Bank, together with Cheval Blanc or Figeac or Ausone or other famous châteaux, but in general, the role of Pétrus was to raise awareness of Merlot.
What are the strengths and differences of your other Right Bank properties?
It’s similar to the problem of having a stable of racehorses: when you have one star, the other very good horses in your stable go unrecognized. Presently, we have 11 other châteaux in the family. It is difficult to classify, but in Pomerol, we have four châteaux of a certain renown, which would have been more famous if it had not been for Pétrus. My goal for my remaining years is to promote those châteaux that have been slightly neglected in terms of fame, not in terms of quality. Château Trotanoy really is one of the very few wines in Pomerol that can compete with Pétrus. It is a tiny estate. We have Château La Fleur-Pétrus, which many people think is a second wine of Pétrus—it has nothing to do with Pétrus; it is just on the other side of the road. Pétrus has a clay soil and makes a big, deep, powerful wine, and La Fleur-Pétrus has a gravelly soil. It is an extremely charming wine that is more approachable in its youth. More recently, we have added Châteaux Hosanna and Providence, which is the very last addition to our team in Pomerol. When I bought it in 2005, it was called La Providence, and I simplified it to Providence, which is a very striking name. It is not as refined as Hosanna, but a very good wine nevertheless. So those Pomerol châteaux make wine of good, maybe even great, quality from time to time.
In St. Émilion, we have Château Magdelaine, which has been a first growth for 50 years, and recently we acquired Château Bélair, a first growth as well. Bélair is a little too generic a name, so I renamed it Bélair-Monange in 2008, which was the name of my grandmother and means “my angel.” It is just next to Ausone and was classified as the first château in St. Émilion in the 19th century. For some reason, the quality went down. One of my goals, and my son’s goal as well, is to restore the fame of that château, which, honestly, is one of the best terroirs in St. Émilion. So we have plenty to do with those six châteaux. They may not get to the status of Pétrus, but they deserve more fame than they have received so far.
What’s the story of Château Hosanna?
In 1999, I bought a property called Certan-Giraud, which was coincidentally a good château—I would say among the top 20 of Pomerol. Certan-Giraud had a few blocks in Pomerol. I sold those other blocks and kept only the central vineyard between Lafleur, Vieux Château Certan, and Pétrus. Since the Giraud family wanted to keep their name, I had to find another name. The vines are very old, with 30% beautiful Cabernet Franc. There was a possibility of making a wine of great refinement, clearly not as powerful as Pétrus. That was not the goal; my goal was to produce a wine that would be the feminine version of Pétrus, if such a thing is possible. And I think I’ve been lucky to produce some delicious wines with Hosanna. Production is tiny—only 1,500 cases a year—but the wines are beginning to have quite a following. In 2009, it was a special success. It has a very unique silkiness.
Is Merlot always the key to your cuvées?
Yes. Merlot is a perfect fit for the soils of Pomerol, and this is why all of our châteaux are planted heavily with Merlot—70% at Hosanna, 90% at Providence, 90% at Trotanoy, 85% at La Fleur-Pétrus, 95% at Pétrus, 80% at Magdelaine, and 60% at Bélair-Monange. There is a little room for Cabernet Franc. Cabernet Franc is a great varietal that is very neglected today because it is very fragile. You can produce Cabernet Franc of top quality only if you have the right clone and if the vines are old. These two conditions are difficult to obtain. One reason is that there were many clones in the past 20 years that really did not work. They produced very green wines, and that is why many winemakers disqualified Cabernet Franc. I have a few blocks of Cabernet Franc that hardly ever get perfectly ripe. In St. Émilion, you pick the Merlot on Sept. 20, and then you have to wait one or two more weeks for the Cabernet Franc to get ripe. But if you are patient, and if you have a good late season, if you pick it at full ripeness, Cabernet Franc is a delicious varietal. You need to be on good soils, have really good clones, and you need to wait at least 10 years, maybe 20, but once you get those conditions, the Cabernet Franc adds a finesse to the wine that is unique. Cabernet Sauvignon brings depth, the strength, the muscles. Merlot brings the roundness, suppleness, but sometimes can be a little bit heavy and obvious, and in between, there’s Cabernet Franc. It’s so delicate that it can give elegance to the wine even with just 10-20%. Notably, we have made progress with Cabernet Franc in Bordeaux.
How do you feel about Cheval Blanc?
Well, I have a long story with Cheval Blanc. I love Cheval Blanc. In the early ’90s, we drank a lot of Cheval Blanc—it was not at a crazy price at that time. Cheval Blanc is a very feminine wine; it is so refined, so elegant. The vineyard is planted 60% Cabernet Franc and 40% Merlot, which is unique. It is pure gravelly soil that Cabernet Franc loves. The problem is that in the final blend, the balance of the wine is critical, and with this old-vine Cabernet Franc at such a low yield, it could be too much if it were the dominant varietal. For example, the blend of the 2009 Cheval Blanc is 60% Merlot and 40% Cabernet Franc, while in the vineyard, it is the reverse.
How are recent vintages looking for Bordeaux?
2005 was a very good vintage, very regular in terms of quality across the line. 2006 was a good vintage, if a little too expensive. 2007 was a difficult vintage with a lack of ripeness; many wines are a little green. It would have been OK if it had not been so expensive. The surprise is 2008, which is a classic wine, no excess, but very well defined, very Bordeaux-like, and at a reasonable price. So the good investment today to put in your cellar is the 2008. 2009 is an extraordinary vintage—the weather was perfect. Some wineries have produced their best wines ever. On the other hand, the vineyard next door, for some reason that we don’t know, might not have been as successful. In terms of quality, it is not as consistent as 2005, so that makes it more difficult for the consumer, for the amateur, to find his way. For our own châteaux, we did very well in 2009, and we have some exceptional wines. 2009 ranks among the top vintages of our lifetime.
Has the en primeur system in Bordeaux lost its grip on the market?
When I joined the business in 1970, there were two things that I predicted: one was that the brokers would disappear, and the second was that the futures market would be dead within a few years. The brokers are very important in Bordeaux—they are between the producers and the wine merchants, and they take a commission of 2%. I do remember thinking, being friends with many growers, that maybe I could work around them. And I realized that as soon as there is a difficult vintage and I have to discuss the price directly with the châteaux, this negotiating becomes a problem. So the broker is very useful and plays a very important role. In the winter, they are the interface and they give a temperature of the market; they help to settle the price between the two parties. As for the futures business, for which I forecast failure, it works more than ever. Maybe 2009 will be the last vintage because there is so much abuse going on. I am sure you have heard about the prices of the 2009s, which have gotten completely out of control. It is crazy. I am glad that I am away this week, because the prices are scary when you see top châteaux coming out at 600 euros, which means almost $1,000 first take. Who will drink that? But it seems to work, so I don’t want to be a Cassandra.
What are your basic principles of winemaking, and how do they differ at various properties?
Many people say this, but I give most of my attention to the management of the vineyards. That is absolutely essential. Believe me, when I said that 30 or 40 years ago, people laughed. Today, they know how important the grapes are—which means that with good grapes, I will dare to say almost anybody can make good wine. It is such a natural process; the winemaker is no more than a midwife. You crush the grapes, you put them in a tank, and you have a good chance that three weeks later, you have some idea of how good the wine will be. The role of the winemaker is just to be sure that nothing goes wrong—that the temperature doesn’t get too high, that fermentation doesn’t get stuck, things like that. I am very serious saying that, probably because winemakers consider themselves very important people. Too many of them are trying to be proactive when there is nothing to do. Too many of them will exaggerate one aspect of fermentation—the worse being, of course, that word I hate: extraction. Today, you see around the world so many extracted wines. What’s the purpose? Do they want to say the bigger, the better? Do they want to show their muscles? Clearly, they want to be impressive as young wines in those blind tastings that we have to face, sadly, in our job today. But we know that by extracting too much, we lose the balance and the finesse. So my philosophy—and maybe it is easier for me because I was lucky enough to deal with good terroirs—has always been to be very active in the vineyard. I think we have 38 working in the vineyard today at Dominus. They get around in golf carts, not cars, which produce dust. We are really minimalists in our approach: work with good terroirs and don’t do too much of this or that. We never use things such as reverse osmosis. I mean, it is so much against nature.
There are two principles that I apply—no irrigation and no acidification—and today, as my third principle, I say as little extraction as possible. These principles are absolutely clear to me. Then you make a wine that is an image of the vineyard, its terroir, and the vintage, and I am happy with that. We have average vintages in California from time to time—maybe 1998, 2000, 2003—why should we try to extract more, which ruins the balance of the wine, to try to be something we are not? This is the worst thing. Nature gives us the weather conditions for a given vintage, and we do our best with it. Again, my principles in winemaking are minimalistic. You know, we never use the word “winemaker” in France. It is kind of aggressive. We use the word “enologist,” which is slightly pejorative in the U.S., but an enologist is someone who understands the science of wine.
How did Dominus come about?
I was an agronomical engineer in France. I came to UC-Davis in 1968 for my master’s, and then I returned to work in France. It’s true that when you are a young man in California in the mid-’60s, life in Libourne was a little basic, I must say. So I kept dreaming of California. I came for many visits in the ’70s, and I saw that so many wines had become technical. I looked for a vineyard in Napa Valley with the goal to produce wines similar to the Inglenooks and the BVs of the 1950s and ’60s that I had loved so much. Bob Mondavi was my mentor and was very helpful. I looked at many vineyards around California, and the day I visited Dominus, which was in 1981, I fell in love with that piece of land. It was wintertime. Before meeting the two owners, I said to myself, “That’s the place.” It was such a good feeling for me. I am very much a man of the earth. It’s physical—I can tell you in one minute if I love a vineyard or not. I have worked with so many vineyards in my life that, for me, it is an instant decision.
I met Robin and Marcia. They were extremely nice to me—they said that my philosophy reminded them of their father, John Daniel, whom sadly I never met, but who was a man of great quality from what I heard. So we made a modest joint venture for only a part of the vineyard in 1982 and worked together very pleasantly for many years. In January 1995, I bought them out. I am still on very good terms with Marcia and Robin. It’s their land as much as it’s mine. For me, in my philosophy, I am always the caretaker. I can pass away tomorrow and then someone else, perhaps my son, will take care of the vineyard, and it will go on another 100 years. But in the meantime, when you are in charge, you should really make all possible efforts to improve what you are looking after.
What changes have you made over the years?
Just as we speak, I have completely replanted the whole Napanook vineyard. It is 2010, and I arrived in 1982, so it took 28 years, but it is complete. The orientation is more or less north to south, and all that I replant now is clearly east to west, which makes more sense for the drainage. So for orientation, I probably am as close as I could be. For this ranch, I would say the ideal spacing would be 8 feet by 4 feet or 9 feet by 5 feet, something like that. As for the varietal, I made a big mistake at first. Even in those days, they called me the Merlot Man, a name I loved in the ’90s. Merlot is not the varietal for this ranch. I think in Napa Valley, it is really too hot to get Merlots that could approach French Merlots. I only have one block left with Merlot, which I will replant within two or three years. Cabernet Sauvignon is the varietal here, no question. It is crystal clear for me: it makes a perfect fit to the soils of Napa. A little bit of Cabernet Franc, which I described earlier, brings a lot of finesse and is delicious. We introduced Petit Verdot; I think we were the first ones to bring it in from France. Petit Verdot is a very interesting varietal, not alone, but in a blend—between 3% and 6% works perfectly. I was finishing a blend this morning, and when you go over 6%, it gets a little coarse. Otherwise, it is like adding some pepper to your steak; it makes it a little more spicy. The combination of the Cabernet Sauvignon, the little bit of spice from Petit Verdot, and a fair amount of Cabernet Franc for the finesse is the best equilibrium for this ranch.
How do your viticulture and winemaking in Napa differ from Bordeaux?
The main difference is the canopy management and trellising, because it is clearly warmer here than in Bordeaux. In my very early days, the manager was Dan Baron, a good man and a very close friend. He is now the manager of Silver Oak. Today, with Tod Mostero, our technical director, we try to trim shorter so that we have less leaves and less alcohol. But if you trim too short, you sunburn, so you need an equilibrium in the canopy. That is what is really important for me, not whether we macerate for 17 or 18 days. This might surprise you, but in 2003 in Bordeaux, that famous vintage where we got that heat wave, there are so many wines that taste like rubber. The Merlot suffered from the excessive heat. I was one of the few people who saved his Merlot. I realized it was going to be so hot, and I trimmed the vines 1 inch less than normal to keep the grapes from getting sunburned. Many of my friends had Merlot that was completely burned.
The most interesting aspect of this Californian venture, aside from pleasure, has been to exchange with friends and colleagues what we know. We send our technical team to France, and the French team comes here. It is very positive for both sides. We learn from our mistakes, of course. Between France and Napa, so many things are different. In France, we try to pick as late as possible before we get those big storms in the fall. Here, we try to pick as late as possible before we get a heat wave and a jump from 24º to 26º Brix in one day, where you would completely lose your finesse.
What about your oak regime?
It is very reasonable. Dominus will vary between 40% and 50% new oak, and Napanook, from the younger vines, will be between 20% and 30%. I think that is plenty. There is this obsession with new oak. For me, oak is an off-taste to the wine. And if people describe our wines as oaky, which honestly never happens, for me, it is kind of insulting. A wine should taste like fruit, grapes, but oak? What is the interest of tasting like oak?
In other aspects of winemaking, there aren’t as many differences as you might think in our approach. One technical point that is interesting is that we were the first producer on the Right Bank last year to use optical sorting. You put the berries on a rolling carpet that goes at 55 mph, and then it arrives at the camera and is sorted electronically. Any berry that does not meet our criteria is eliminated. It’s fantastic progress; it is much better than hand-sorting. It is very expensive, about $140,000. We bought one this year for Dominus.
How is Carpe Diem produced?
This is a 120-acre ranch. Roughly 40% of the production is for Dominus, and 20% will produce Napanook, which is a wine more approachable in its youth, less powerful, less deep than Dominus. So that leaves one-third of total production that does not qualify for Dominus or Napanook. One day, we were discussing this with the team from Maisons Marques & Domaines; they told me they were producing a Carpe Diem Pinot Noir from Paso Robles, and they said, “Why don’t you produce a Carpe Diem Cabernet Sauvignon?” We have plenty of good wine that we sell on the bulk market, so we offered them the 2005. MMD owns the label, the brand. I am always happy to produce good wines that are good values.
Does your time in California affect your blending decisions in Bordeaux?
I come here six times a year. When I spend more than 10 days here, which is very rare, my palate changes and I go for bigger wines. I think it’s natural. When I return to France, my winemakers say, “Don’t taste wine your first day back,” because any wine I taste the first few days seems lighter in style. I have been commuting like this for 30 years, and it is always the case.
What differences do you find in marketing between France and the U.S.?
I give many more tastings in the U.S. than in France. France is a small market for us; we sell 80% of our wines export. I love tastings in the States because people are genuine.
What about differences in the appellation systems of the two countries?
Here, we are at an early stage of the appellation system, a happy stage. The more you advance in the appellation system, the more complicated it becomes. Honestly, the appellation system has become a nightmare in France. Consider that in Bordeaux, there are 55 appellations. As an old pro, I probably know 30-35 of them. Secondly, within a given appellation, you have classifications. The new rules driven by the European Union mean permanent inspections on-site. Here, we have freedom, and it means a quality-oriented producer can make a good-quality wine. In France, all of these new regulations in our system are counterproductive in terms of quality.
How important is it that your wines are able to pair with food? Is this a consideration in the winemaking process?
It is a permanent consideration. Believe it or not, I never drink a wine without food. I hosted a banquet recently and was furious because we served the wines and then the food arrived 20 minutes later. Wine without food makes no sense. I used to be very concerned with food pairing. In the beginning, with Dominus, I would always ask for lamb. More and more, I have become convinced that the good wines, maybe even the great wines, can go with almost everything. The list of what doesn’t go with red wine—artichokes, asparagus, etc.—is very short. Again, I know only red wine; I am not qualified to discuss white. Recently, I was in a top sushi bar, and some of the pairings were much better than expected! In my opinion, good wines can adapt to the food, just as individuals try to adapt to each other. There are some rejections, of course.
What are your interests and hobbies outside the wine industry?
I have the good luck of being passionate about learning new things. I love poetry. In a very different way, I love horse racing and try to follow the top races around the world. I love reading. I love so many things.
What does the future hold for you?
The dream of producing a wine as elegant as a butterfly from our new ranch in Oakville. We hope to make an announcement soon about this property.