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Mar 26, 2010

Rubicon Estates Winery: The Joys of Vertical Tasting

 Rubicon Estate: A Winery in the Grand Style

Yesterday I took a short hop over the hill from Sonoma to Napa Valley's Rutherford. My destination: Rubicon Estate Winery. The purpose: an extraordinary 2000-2005 vertical tasting of the winery's flagship Rubicon, followed by a lunch paired with the recently-released 2006 vintage.

I find vertical tastings to be valuable because they stretch my wine knowledge and educate my palette. The basic goal is to sample and compare different vintages of the same wine, trying to discern similarities and variations from one year to the next. Once you do that--something that's not always easy, at least for me--then you try to account for the factors that created those differences, including weather, harvest dates, a new winemaker's methods, or the same winemaker trying something new. With a Bordeaux blend like Rubicon, variations in the Ensemble (Cabernet Sauvignon, with additions that may include Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and/or Petit Verdot) also play a big role.

With Rubicon, one element that always remains the same in each vintage is the historic #29 Cabernet Sauvignon from the Garden Vineyard. Laboratory analysis has confirmed that this clone is of the same genetic material as the vines planted on the property by the original vineyard's creator, Gustave Niebaum, back in the 1880s. Unique to Rubicon Estate, #29 is a true heritage clone and lies at the heart of each Rubicon vintage.

Anyway, back to the tasting, in which I discovered distinct differences between vintages. Time constraints allow me to compare only the first and last:

Rubicon 2000
Rubicon 2005
  • Rubicon 2000: 93% Cabernet Sauvignon, 3% Petit Verdot, 2% Merlot, 2% Cabernet Franc. Aged 28 months in 93% New French Oak. Harvested in late October (two weeks later than normal). The 2000 vintage seemed balanced and structured, with lots of blackberry, sour cherry, currant; and lesser hints of sage, herbs, even a bit of tobacco. It possessed the gorgeous red/purple color I associate with Rubicon. It was delicious, but I found it to be a bit closed in.
  • Rubicon 2005: 98.5% Cabernet Sauvignon, 1.5% Petit Verdot. Aged in New French Oak for 22 months. Cooler temperatures and more rain than normal through what turned out to be an extended growing season. Big, vibrant and alive, rich and supple, immense but mellow tannins: all perfectly pulled together with a complex and long-lasting finish. A powerful, elegant wine, it seemed to say "I am California!" I truly loved this wine. 
It's fun to analyze why these wines might differ. Right off the bat you can see that the Ensemble in each is different: 93% Cabernet in the 2000 versus 98.5 in the 2005; a mix of Petit Verdot, Merlot, and Cabernet Franc in the 2000 and only a small addition of Petit Verdot in the 2005. Both wines were aged in the same new French oak, but the older wine aged 28 months; the younger, a mere 22.

Rubicon winemaker Scott McLeod


Another, not inconsiderable factor accounting for vintage differences is the winemaker. Rubicon's Director of Winemaking, Scott McLeod, has been at the winery for 18 years and was the winemaker for each vintage we sampled. When he talks about a specific vintage, it's as if he's discussing an old friend--one he knows quite well and maintains close ties with.

McLeod hosted our small media group yesterday, and discussed the ways in which his own style of winemaking has naturally evolved over the years--just as it has for most Napa Valley winemakers. Remember those oak-heavy Chardonnays everyone was making back in the 80s? Now you'd be hard-pressed to find one on retail shelves. With Cabs, it's no secret that the trend over the past decade has been to bigger, bolder, more expressive wines that are ready to drink soon after release. McLeod aims to produce wines that a consumer can enjoy right away or hold on to for a few years. With Rubicon, he succeeds.

Lunch, at a long table in the Chateau's gorgeous upstairs barrel room, brought Rubicon 2006 to the fore. Quite similar to the 2005, it was a big, exuberant, very-berry wine with amazing structure and a long polished finish.

With the first course we enjoyed the Estate Blancaneaux Rutherford 2008, Rubicon Estates' proprietary white wine blend composed of Marsanne, Roussane, and Viognier (the 2008 Ensemble percentages are 43% Roussanne, 38% Marsanne, 19% Viognier). Elegant, bright, and balanced, with high mineral notes, the Blancaneaux was an excellent complement to the rich avocado mousse and herb crème fraîche that accompanied the first course. This is a wine I would savor on its own, as well.

For the record, here's the menu from yesterday's lunch:

Estate Blancaneaux, Rutherford 2008
Hamachi Crudo
Avocado Mousse, Herb Crème Fraîche
Citrus Vinaigrette, Tiny Greens

Estate Rubicon, Rutherford 2006
Braised Oxtail Ravioli
Purée of Nantes Carrots, Crispy Sunchokes
Early Spring Morel Mushrooms

Artisan Cheese Course
Beemster - Cow, Holland
Midnight Moon - Goat, USA
Pecorino Foglie de Noci - Sheep, Italy
Toasted Walnut Bread, House-made Membrillo
Verjus Macerated Raisins, Chestnut Honey

By the way, I should add that Rubicon Estate is owned by Francis and Eleanor Coppola. They purchased part of the historic Inglenook Estate (established in the 1880s by Captain Gustave Niebaum) in 1975. In the years since they have reunited all pieces of the original property and restored the beautiful old buildings, including the Chateau, carriage house, and  Niebaum's Victorian home. When he's in residence, it's not unusual to spot the renowned film director in the winery.

If you visit Rubicon Estate, your $25/person Guest Fee includes a horizontal tasting of five varietals (it also includes an historical tour, access to the historic Chateau, and more). A more expensive personalized tasting would allow for a vertical comparison of Rubicon, or you might prefer to buy a glass of Rubicon at the on-site Mammarella Wine Bar. As always, I encourage wine country visitors to leave the driving to someone else and tour wineries via shuttle, van, chauffeured limo, or whatever.
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