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Tasting notes from California

text and photographs © 2013 Tom Cannavan

These notes accompany our in-depth feature on California.

ROCCA FAMILY VINEYARDS

Danielle Rocca Family Vineyards is owned by Mary Rocca and Eric Grigsby, both professionals from a medical background, though Mary gave that up to devote herself to Rocca Vineyards when they purchased their initial 21 acres in 1999. Today that original vineyard - the Grigsby Vineyard - is joined by the 11-acre Collinetta Vineyard which is sited in California's newest AVA, Coombsville, close to the city of Napa. That's where I met up with winemaker Paul Colantuoni (right, beside the old chimney that has become a real landmark in the middle of the Colinetta Vineyard).

Paul grew up in Belgium, having moved there at age 13. "My dad loved St Emilion," he tells me, "we drank it week in week out," which was clearly a precursor to Paul's career. "I remember driving our Renault Espace to Burgundy too. Dad would fill it up with wine and we'd drive back."

Like many of the winemakers I met on this trip, Paul started out on a different path, studying Chemical Engineering and Molecular Biology with a plan to become a doctor. But after three years he dropped out and moved to Italy. There he would visit wineries through connections in the industry there, and when he returned to California it was to take a degree in Italian. He has no degree in winemaking. "Winemaking in Napa in particular can be a little too clean - not exciting," he says. "I can take criticism from other winemakers - 'I notice a little bit of oxidation here' - and it really doesn't bother me. I want the wines to express themselves, and to be exciting." Paul believes that having learned to make wine through practical experience let's him focus on "the artistic side of winemaking." He says, "I understand the technical details and am comfortable with them, but I don't need to focus on them."

Paul has been with Rocca since 2008, having started with Mondavi in 1996 and then working with several wineries in California and in Europe. "I miss Europe when I'm not there," he says, recounting time spent working at Vieux Telegraphe in the Rhône and then back to Italy to work in the Maremma with Brancaia. It seems his winemaking philosophy is very much in tune with Mary Rocca (who was in Berlin at the time of my visit). "Mary thinks exactly the same way I do - she wanted to be a grape farmer, but realised she has something special in her vineyards, and that's why she makes wine."

colinetta

The Collinetta Vineyard (above) is magically sited around 360-degrees of a dome-shaped hill. Both vineyards are certified organic, and all wines are made with wild yeasts and with wild bacteria malolactic. "I'm always on top of it with daily tasting and analysis," says Paul, "but I want it to run wild - let the wines be themselves."

Rocca Vineyards didn't bottle its top three wines in 2011 ("the Cabernet just wasn't good enough," says Paul), showing Mary Rocca's commitment to the quality of the project. "Mary has a lot of pride in what we are doing," says Paul, "she takes the long view."

the wines

Rocca's wines have no UK importer at time of writing. See all stockists on wine-searcher.

Rocca Vineyards, Napa Valley 'Vespera' 2009, California
Cabernet based, this has a very attractive nose, with cool, soft and approachable black fruit, and it has a creaminess of black fruit depth. Lovely mouth-feel, with a nice bit of smooth, chocolaty tannin and cocoa, a fine stripe of dry tannin and black fruit skin grip. Delicious and structured stuff with a suppleness, but enough roughening grip to remind you it is serious. 90/100. $50 locally, 650 cases made.

Rocca Vineyards, Grigsby Vineyard Yountville Merlot 2009, California
With 2% Cabernet Sauvignon, and spending 17 months in small French oak, 60% of it new. Bright, light, gently leafy stuff with a real lift and brightness, cherry and lighter red plum style. Deliciously juicy, love the sandy sophistication of the tannins, and though there is a little touch of oak showing through, it has great sophistication. 89-90/100. $50, 174 cases.

Rocca Vineyards, Grigsby Vineyard Yountville Syrah 2009, California
This also spent 17 months in barrique, 55% new. Lovely nose, a red cherry and touch of raspberry, a little hint of vanilla and just a sprinkling of white pepper giving a little lift. Great blue/black fruit purity here, but it retains that bright Morello cherry juiciness. Quite grippy, the tannins tight and a give a touch of rasp to this, but the chocolate smoothness is delicious and moreish. 90/100. $50, 262 cases.

Rocca Vineyards, Grigsby Vineyard Yountville Cabernet Sauvignon 2009, California
With 10% Merlot, this spent 20 months in French oak, 75% new. Very refined nose, a touch of graphite and a touch of juicy black plum; fleshy and tart, the squirt of juicy blackcurrant is there too, nice and fruity but with a toasty background. Juicy and creamy, this has a plush fruit personality, but the rasp of the bittersweet blackcurrant is delightful, ruffling the surface of the pure fruit. Long and spicy, but finishing nice and fresh. 91-92/100. $80, 469 cases.

Rocca Vineyards, Collinetta Vineyard Napa Cabernet Sauvignon 2009, California
Will be under the Coombsville AVA in future after this new appellation was created 18 months ago. 100% Cabernet Sauvignon, this spends 20 months in barrel of which 80% are new. Huge, gamy, sage and truffle scented stuff with a thick black fruit beneath, the meatiness of the wine is delicious and this has loads of personality - so different from the Grigsby. The palate has a weight of creamy black fruit. The oak sits so nicely in there, suffusing the wine with smokiness and a touch of char, but the chocolate and liquorice grip of the tannins and acidity give this an edge, that meaty weight of fruit powering the finish. 93/100. $85, 420 cases.

Rocca Vineyards, Napa Valley 'Tesorina' 2009, California
Napa valley Red Wine, "To allow maximum freedom to choose whatever fruit we want." 100% Cabernet Sauvignon, this spends 20 months in all new French barriques. Cedar and graphite, a touch of tobacco. IN this year the fruit is all from Grigsby, but purely old vines in the vineyard. Has some meatiness and a touch of smokiness, but a welterweight of delicious black fruit too. Fantastic plum and blackcurrant weight of fruit, so creamy, but has structure too. Lovely sweet fruited ripeness, and richness, the dry extract is beautifully handled, just roughening enough amongst the plushness. 94/100. $145, 126 cases.

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