The Tradition Goes On : First Release by John Daniel Society Joins History of Fine Clarets

CLARET HAS BEEN a gentleman's preoccupation, it seems, for time without measure. The clear red wines were prized by the Romans and developed when today's Bordeaux was known as Aquitania. As the wines evolved, the delicate grape varieties such as Merlot, Petit Verdot, Cabernet franc, Carmenere and Malbec were favored for making them. But after a plague destroyed most of the vineyards, the hardy Cabernet Sauvignon grape emerged as the dominant variety.

When Europeans tried to transplant their Vitis vinifera wine grape in America, the vine failed to thrive. However, Father Junipero Serra, with the mission of San Diego in 1769, introduced a blue-black vinifera from Spain that dominated California vineyards as the "Mission grape" until more discriminating pioneers began bringing the species of their homelands to California soil.

The sophistication of today's viticulture still has some unsolved riddles about those clonal relatives of the great European vineyards, but it is safe to say that the true claret varieties are in place, and thriving, in California. The Cabernet Sauvignon of Lafite, Latour, Margaux, Haut-Brion and Mouton-Rothschild is the same that is growing in Napa, Sonoma, Mendocino and all the other premium wine regions of California.

A joint venture of the late Baron Philippe de Rothschild and Robert Mondavi, producing successive vintages of a wine known as Opus One, was an initial cross-cultural project linking French and American vineyards.

Then, in 1982, Christian Moueix of Chateau Petrus joined the inheritors of the Inglenook founder, Capt. Gustave Niebaum. Vineyards for this much-heralded new partnership would be Napanook, on the Rutherford benchlands. The first release by the joint venture, known as the John Daniel Society, was vintage 1983, but its claret, dubbed Dominus, made its debut last February with its second edition, 1984. Subsequent vintages remain in oak casks, for later release. (The sturdy 1983 remains unreleased.)

When I tasted the 1984 Dominus at its American debut in February, I found it somnolent. I swirled, sniffed and tasted my wine at intervals, and after perhaps 20 minutes, it awakened. There began to emerge a glorious violet bouquet that took on deeper and deeper complexity as time passed. Here was obviously a wine of great majesty, of great potential longevity.

Dominus 1984 is sold out at the winery. Leading wine merchants, and restaurants fortunate enough to secure early allocations still have it in stock. Re-tasted, this time with a pre-pouring decanting to expedite its airing, I found it to be a glorious wine well worth its initial price of $40.

"Ours is a quest for harmony," Christian Moueix told me as we savored samples, drawn from the wood, of vintages of Dominus '83 through '86.

They are all born of 80% Cabernet Sauvignon, with varying amounts of Merlot and Cabernet franc. As the seasons differ, so do the wines, but each has an intrinsic claret elegance, rounding out, appropriately, the jeweled depths of the wine's heritage.

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