Sempre Vive: A Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon Vertical 2002 – 2006

The line

The line

I need to start with an apology: Somehow the camera took almost completely worthless photos, and we forgot to take pictures of the wines in glass…so, the photo component of this blog sucks. Sorry about that.

Over a week ago, we had the last of our wine tastings with friends before the summer break. It was a special thing, because two of our friends are leaving the city for good, so this was also the last tasting in that combination. It has really been a great experience tasting with these people whose opinions on wine I have come to appreciate a lot, and who have made these meetings so much fun. There was just always a good vibe around the table.

In order to celebrate this occasion, I had decided we should do a vertical tasting of Napa Cabernet Sauvignons. When I came across this opportunity on Wines Till Sold Out, I could not resist it for various reasons: I like verticals (see my last wine related post), they offer a glimpse into the handwriting of a winemaker, maybe even terroir, but also into how a particular wine from a particular area ages. Take into account that weather differences can play their role, too, and you have your hands full. I picked this vertical, a 2002 to 2006 of Cabernet Sauvignon not because I am very fond of that grape (I am not) or the area (I have mixed feelings), but because I know that at least three of our tasting group really like bolder red wines. And one of them is among those leaving us. The final push was the offer: WTSO offered five consecutive years, from the same winemaker and the same plot of land. And that for 99 bucks. I figured it was worth a try. An initial quick Internet search did not show many results for people that had tried these, so we were left to our own devices.

The wines came with an info package about winemaker and plot and vintages, which I thought was a neat idea. Let me fill you in, briefly. The wines are named Sempre Vive and are made by Romeo Cellars. The grapes stem from a vineyard in Calistoga, south of a reservoir between two forests. This is said to create hot days and cool nights (with temperature drops of up to 40 degrees between day and night). The oldest vines in that block were planted in 1971, the majority are 37 years old. Apparently, the clone of Cabernet Sauvignon that was planted back then was unknown, so after DNA testing it received the owners’ son’s name…

The winemaker of these wines is Alison Doran, whose father owned Simi Winery. She spent the majority of her working life at Firestone Vineyard from 1976 until 2000. Today, she works for several clients in Napa and Sonoma, including Romeo.

When considering how to conduct the vertical, I weighed the options (young to old or vice versa or even adjusting for taste and not look at the vintage) and had tremendous feedback and help from many you, see here. I decided to go with Anatoli and Jeff’s advice and try the wines first and then arrange the order. It made the most sense to me. I was also pretty shocked when Anatoli remarked that these wines were way too young still…hey, we are talking 2002!! That’s 11 years!! WOW.

So, I opened the bottles and tasted them after 90 minutes. I then determined the sequence, although, quite frankly, I felt a bit overwhelmed with making that decision. I went with 2004 – 2003 – 2006 – 2005 – 2002. The wines remained open for re- and cross-tasting after we were done with the sequence and then most of us ranked the wines and I will give you our ranking in the end.

First up, as explained, was the 2004 Romeo Cellars Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon Old Vine “Sempre Vive”. The info sheet stated that 2004 was a short, tough year with late rains in spring, frost and a cool summer with heat spells in September. The grapes were harvested on September 23, 2004, spent 18 months in 50% new French oak. The wine was released on June 1, 2008. It has 15.1% ABV.

In the glass this wine was medium dark red. The nose showed marzipan (sweet almond paste), some alcoholic notes, caramel, then some cherries and berries. Someone noticed ripe strawberries. On the palate, this wine was medium-bodied, very very spicy and had a jammy warmth to it. There was definitely some heat from the alcohol and its tannins weren’t exactly shy. I still felt it was quite balanced. I later got some mint aromas too. The finish, though, was surprisingly short.

This wine split the table. Two of us really, really disliked this wine (curiously, one of them being a bold, heavy red wine lover!) because, to quote them “their mouth went numb from the alcohol”.  I’d say it was a mixed start, the heat was an issue, but the wine still had some interesting aromas to it.

Our second wine was the 2003 vintage. According to the notes, 2003 was a great season with welcome April rains and a warm finish of the season. The grapes were harvested on October 17th, 2003 (a month later than 2004!), aged for 18 months in 50% new French oak. Release date was June 1, 2007. The wine has 14.9% ABV.

In the glass, the 2003 vintage was a rather dark red. All of us smelled manure (not in a good way!), and that was a bad reminder of this stinker that we tried at an earlier tasting. Once you got over the manure, it showed a fruity nose with blackberry and what I would call raspberry-balsamic aromas. Weird. On the palate, this wine was light to medium bodied, a lot spicier than expected. There was a sizable amount of acidity, but one could also tell that the grapes were riper than in 2004, because the wine tasted somewhat sweeter than the 2004 (a bit too sweet for me). It was more herbal than the previous wine, some got black olive aromas, I thought it was smoky with a dark bitter chocolate aroma in the finish.

Next up the 2006 vintage, which was reportedly a cool season with roller coaster hot spells in the fall and uneven ripening that led to reduced quantities. Harvested on October 18, 2006, aged for 18 months in 63% new French oak and released on June 1, 2010, 13.68% ABV.

The color of this vintage was striking: It was a full bright black currant color. The nose was fresh and bright, full of raspberry, blackberry, some vanilla and again marzipan. On the palate, it was medium bodied and nicely velvety to begin with. There was some acidity, tannins, well balanced. I did enjoy the first sips of this wine a lot, except for the shortish finish. Otherwise it seemed nicely balanced. And then it collapsed. Every following sip seemed flatter than the one before. Someone remarked the finish was awkwardly dusty. I don’t really know what happened to that wine, but it just fell apart…that was very sad.

We moved on to the 2005 vintage, which saw a long, cool season with rains in the end. Not exactly ideal. The grapes were harvested October 17, 2005 and aged for 19 months in 50% new French oak. The wine was released on June 1, 2009 and has 15.15% ABV.

It presented itself in a dark ruby red. The nose was full of unripe aromas: greens, herbs, some mint, some red currant. I thought the nose was so, so. Not exciting exactly. In the glass, I did like this one quite a bit. It was light to medium bodied, spicy and had some good branch aromas (I sometimes like that, as in this case). There was definitely too much heat, a general problem for me when wines go over 14.5% ABV. The finish was actually rather long, albeit just of medium length. I thought this one paired well with the goat gouda we had with it…

The final wine in this line up was the 2002 vintage, the oldest of the day. The grapes saw a long relaxed season with some early hot spells. The grapes were harvested on October 7, 2002 and spent 20 months in 50% new French oak. The listed alcohol level was 14.3% ABV. Release date: June 1, 2006.

In the glass, we found a slightly brickish red color. The nose was full of earthy aromas, some age, the fruit aromas had definitely receded from this wine. On the palate, this wine tasted like an older wine, with earthy aromas, some tobacco and leather. Don’t get me wrong, the wine still tasted quite fresh. Its medium body was carried by noticeable residual sugar that led to a long finish. I’d say a bit more old world flavors, which I definitely appreciated. I liked this wine quite a bit. It had some bitter aromas in the finish, but I did not mind those.

Again, there they are...

Again, there they are…

So, staring at my notes, I am wondering: What have I learned from this tasting? I am not quite sure. First of all, I am not sure the order really worked. It was a rather cumbersome guess work what the wines would taste like later when fully explored, and I don’t think I was fully comfortable making that decision. Second, the wines were….so, so. I didn’t expect too much because I tend to have problems with Cabernet Sauvignon single varietals, but others around the table also didn’t seem really satisfied with the experience. Third, I didn’t really get an overarching theme in the wines that I would have identified as the winemaker’s hand or the terroir…I guess I am just not as experienced to get that stuff…The coolest thing about the tasting were the corks, though: The 2002 and 2003 cork did not have a website on it, but an email address that ended in @aol.com. How awesome is that???

We still had fun, and we naturally opened a bottle of Riesling to cleanse our palate and finish off the evening. More about that in another post…

Oh, and our ranking? Well, mine went like this (best to worst): 2002, 2004, 2005, 2003, 2006.

But I was outvoted (only four voted – best wine got 5 points, lowest 1 point):

Groupwise we ended up with 2002 (19 points), 2005 (13 points), 2003 (11 points), 2006 (9 points), 2004 (8 points).

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17 thoughts on “Sempre Vive: A Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon Vertical 2002 – 2006

  1. Robert Bowers says:

    ..I just ran across this article that you wrote..
    however I don’t see anywhere as to what date you did this vertical tasting..??

  2. […] It is about time I write about a Riesling again, especially before I go on my summer break…and the time for a wonderful wine came after our Napa Cabernet Sauvignon vertical. […]

  3. What an interesting experience! It would be so fun to try it with a vertical of wines that you already know you love! I have had a 3 vintage vertical of a Pinot Noir at one of the Oregon wineries, and that was really neat. I might have to see what I can pull together!

    • That’s true. I would definitely have felt more comfortable picking the order etc. That Oregon vertical sounds amazing. I feel much more at home with Pinot noir anyway…

  4. Stefano says:

    Thank you for the great, detailed post, Oliver: I was looking forward to it! Even if the wines may have not turned out to be as awesome as you would hope, it still sounds like you and your friends spent a fun, pleasant night tasting wine, which I think is what matters most. :-)

  5. foxress says:

    I love that you use Riesling as a palate cleanser after those so-so cabs. That’s hilarious, and not a bad idea!

  6. alisitaliankitchen says:

    Sounded very interesting though! I hadn’t heard of vertical so I learned something! I’d like to try a glass of the wine though! Or maybe two!

  7. talkavino says:

    Sounds like an interesting experience even with the wines being so so – Cabs with ABV in excess of 15% very rarely show as balanced wines… Also, I would be curious to know the exact composition of every wine – I would guess based on your description that 2005 had some good amount of Cab Franc…

    • The material that was enclosed seemed rather clear to me that there were only Cabernet Sauvignon grapes used in the wines. The description of the vineyard made it sound like that. However, they never stated that it is 100% CabSav in the individual wine descriptions…so it is interesting that you remark on Cab Franc. I didn’t even think of that!!

      I agree in general that I usually have problems with red wines over 15%, I do prefer them more in the 14% range.

      And yes, it definitely was an interesting experience and I do not regret doing it in any way.

  8. I applaud your efforts even though you may have felt that the Sword of Damocles was suspended over head with any decision that you would have made for the sequence of tastings for the vertical run. I have not had the pleasure of doing any tastings of this type, but I thoroughly enjoyed your notes, especially on a wine that I have not encountered before. Though I would have gone straight forward from youngest to oldest, you were able to enjoy a sneak preview before the tasting actually began. It sounds like it was a fun evening and a great learning experience.
    – John

  9. I did a vertical tasting with some friends several months ago as well. From year-to-year, the wines were just so different; but then I had been the one storing them since 2007 so maybe the conditions weren’t great for aging wine. Who knows? But I was a little disappointed as well.

    • Thanks for commenting! Yeah, it was a so so experience. It would probably be better if there was someone who had a bit more experience with the area and wines…but still great fun!

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