Michel Rolland -the Decanter Interview

Michel Rolland Bordeaux Chile People & Places Articles
  • Tuesday 16 December 2003

With a staggering 100 or so clients in 12 different countries, Michel Rolland is the world’s best-known winemaker. JOHN STIMPFIG travelled with Rolland in Bordeaux and Chile, to find out what drives him

With a staggering 100 or so clients in 12 different countries, Michel Rolland is the world’s best-known winemaker. John Stimpfig travelled with Rolland in Bordeaux and Chile, to find out what drives him

Many consumers may not have heard of him, but Michel Rolland is the world’s most famous consultant oenologist, with more than 100 clients across 12 different countries. He is regarded as one of the most controversial and influential figures in wine. Reviled by some and revered by others, his clients in Europe alone include such famous names as L’Evangile, Pavie, Troplong-Mondot and Léoville Poyferré in Bordeaux; Marqués de Cáceres in Spain; and Ornellaia in Italy. He also owns five properties in Bordeaux.

In California he consults for 11 top-name wineries: Harlan Estate, the Bryant Family, Newton, St Supéry, Mondavi, Staglin, Araujo, Simi, Mount Veeder, Franciscan and Quintessa. And in Chile he consults for Casa Lapostolle.

John Stimpfig spent several days in 2003 interviewing Michel Rolland on the road, at harvest time – in Chile in February, and then in Bordeaux this September. Rolland’s answers to the questions put to him give a valuable insight into the mind of a man who has helped to shape modern winemaking.

How do you define your job as a consultant oenologist?

My job is to make my client’s wine better. Even if the wine or the winery is awful, we have to do our best in the conditions we have, or we have to improve the conditions.

You once said that your job is 70% psychology and 30% oenology. Is this true?

It’s very true. Even if you know your job technically, you still have to convince people to follow your advice. After 30 years, I’m usually right (not always) but I have made many mistakes. I think making mistakes is normal. It’s part of learning and part of life. Even successful people make mistakes. The only difference is that they make fewer errors than everyone else. So I’m still making mistakes, but hopefully fewer of them.

Are you a scientist, an artist or a psychologist?

I am not an artist – I don’t like to be an artist or think of myself that way. I have to be realistic. But what I do is a blend of science, experience and pyschology. We have to understand people and understand terroir. So I think it is a mix. I think my understanding of vineyards is one part of my success. But also it is crucial to know the people who own vineyards. They’re all different. But they all share the same enthusiasm for wine.

Is there a Rolland style?

Yes, I have a style. But I try to do the best for the client in whatever country or region I’m working in. So if I’m in Chile or California, I’m not making Bordeaux. What I try to do is to find the best way at the place that we are at. If you want to make wine in California the way you do in Pomerol, then it is a big mistake. My first consultancy job in California was at Simi in the mid 1980s. From the beginning, I made it clear that I was not there to make Pomerol.

How did you get the job with Simi?

It was my first overseas job and I owe it to Robert Parker. He was tasting at Simi in 1985 and thought that although the Chardonnays were fine, there were problems with the reds. He suggested they use a consultant and recommended me.

Would you describe your wines as ‘round and generous’?

Yes, I hope so. In the beginning, I wanted to make wines that I liked to drink. I was born in Pomerol and this influenced my thinking because Pomerol uses mostly Merlot grapes to make round, supple wines. These are easy-to-drink wines, but they can also age. So this is my taste. Also I don’t like aggressive acidity or tannins. Maybe I’ve been lucky because everyone in the world is now looking for roundness, suppleness, generosity and opulence. Perhaps if I had been born on the Left Bank, I would have liked more tannic wines with more acidity.

Is there anything you don’t know about Merlot?

Oh sure, a lot. But maybe I know much more than all the other guys! We still have a lot to discover. If you look back at the last 10 years, we have changed almost everything in vinification and viticulture. And we are still working on ways to improve because it isn’t that easy to make great Merlot even in places like California. But I enjoy the challenge.

What are your views on oak?

They are very simple. If you put the same fine wine in tank and oak and then taste both after 18 months’ ageing, you will prefer the oak-aged wine.

Why?

Because oak gives the wine more intensity and density. Just the small oxygenation coming through the wood helps a lot in the ageing process. Part of the problem is that the critics taste wine too young. Journalists come to Bordeaux in March to taste the new vintage and say the wine has too much oak. This is like saying that a baby in its cot is small. It’s no great surprise that a four-month-old wine that has spent 18 months in barrel is going to taste of oak.

How important is terroir?

It is the most important factor in great wine. For me, the hierarchy of terroir will exist forever. If it wasn’t important, everyone could make Pétrus, Margaux or Cheval Blanc, anywhere. Of course, people don’t always make great wine in a great terroir. But if it works well, a great terroir can make a fantastic wine.

What are your views on the use of technology?

Obviously, it has a place. You have to remember that producers have two goals. The first is to make the best wine possible and the second is to sell it. That is the reality of today’s wine market. It’s not like my grandfather saying, ‘well, this year isn’t very good, but there’s always next year.’ Châteaux are just like companies, with staff overheads and taxes, and they have to make money to survive. Could you imagine Renault not selling cars for one year? It is impossible.

Who came first, you or Parker?

Me. I began in 1973 and met him in for the first time in 1982 and gradually we became friends. At this time nobody knew him. We tasted many wines together and we realised we liked approximately the same style of wine. He likes roundness, finesse and suppleness, but I think a lot of people like that style now. However, despite what people say, I’m certainly not making wine for Parker or anybody like that. When we blend, we do our best. And if people like it, then we’re very happy.

What do you admire about Parker?

He’s not from a technical background, but he has a great memory and genuine ability. For him, tasting is pure pleasure. Every year now, we taste together at least twice. And when he comes to my lab in Libourne, it is always a huge tasting – about 150 samples. When I ask him how he is, he always says ‘fantastic’, with real enthusiasm. And he has been tasting 130–150 wines for days and taking notes. It’s incredible. People think he is very tough and powerful. And in a sense, he is very strong. But he’s also extremely sensitive and emotional. Obviously, he generates a lot of comments – good and bad. Sometimes, I have seen him very sad because of them, which is a shame because he is a very nice guy.

How do you respond to criticism?

I am only human so I don’t like criticism. Especially when it is unfair or inaccurate. But of course, I’m not right 100% of the time, so I want to hear what people are saying and understand why they are saying it. I like critics’ comments if they are

accurate, constructive and well researched. For example, take oak ageing, which is less fashionable today than 10 years ago. I think the move away from it is a strong consumer trend, which critics have highlighted, and we need to take note. But we shouldn’t change completely, because you need oak to make great wine.

So it’s important to have critics. But some criticisms are stupid. For instance the idea that I make the same wine wherever I go. You only have to taste my wines from Spain and South Africa to realise they are completely different. They are different terroirs and different grape varieties. Anyone who thinks my wines all taste the same can’t taste wine.

How does the freedom of the New World make you feel about France’s rule book?

It makes me frustrated. France has a lot of regulations. We have to change our approach from helping people make bad wine to helping those people make good wines. For me, the future is in France’s best wines. I believe badly made, old-fashioned wines hiding behind their appellations are finished.

There is huge global competition now and we cannot go back to the old days when France and England only drank French wine. This has been a massive change in the last 10 years. We are preserving old-fashioned winemaking with a lot of obsolete rules in France. I think we will make a comeback because we have the winemakers, the terroir and the reputation. Our problem is that we aren’t moving fast enough. Look at Chile, compared with seven years ago. No one in Chile was producing very good wine. Now there are lots of good winemakers. It’s the same in Argentina, and the US.

Look at the UK where France waited until we lost 25% of the market. Where did it go? It’s crazy. We should have acted before. And now, of course, everyone is wondering how we got to where we are today when we had 49% market share.

Tell me about your personal winemaking project in Argentina.

It started in 1998 – now we have more than 300ha (hectares) planted. Argentina has great potential, but nobody was getting the viticulture right. So a friend and I decided to do our own experiment with 100ha. Then he found a fantastic place, which I visited. But it was huge, 850ha! So we found seven other French partners for the project (El Grupo de los Siete), including the Cuvelier family from Léoville Poyferré, Laurent d’Assault from St-Emilion and Benjamin Rothschild from Château Clarke. The idea was to make one general wine and then each family can produce their own wines under their own labels. So far, we have one wine from our first harvest in 2002. The vineyard is mainly planted with Malbec. But everyone can plant anything they want, which means there’s some Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and a little bit of Syrah, Petit Verdot. However, there’s one partner who’s planting Pinot Noir. That’s me.

Where is your South African project?

It’s called Bonne Nouvelle and the vineyard is in Stellenbosch near Morgenhof and Kanonkop. We’re producing around 4–5,000 cases. The first vintage was 2002 and is a blend of Merlot, Pinotage and Cabernet Sauvignon. We’re also launching a Spanish wine with Jacques Lurton from Toro called Campo Eliseo. The first vintage is the 2001.

You’re even working in India?...

Yes, with Jayshree Grover. People told me the wine in India was awful but the country was fascinating. I like a challenge. We’ve done a lot of work on the vineyards and are finally making good wine. However, the tropical climate is tough on the vines – there’s no rest.

What are your views on Bordeaux 2003?

It’s an unusual year because the weather was so warm. As a result, it’s one of the earliest harvests on record. All the best vintages of the last 100 years have come after hot dry summers, but at this stage (mid September), it is impossible to say exactly how good the vintage will be. My feeling is that it will definitely be good. But we’ll have to wait until the wine is in the glass to know if it is going to be really great.

Many of the signs are good though. There’s very little rot. The colour and phenolic ripeness is there, the berries are small, and I think all the materials are there to make fantastic wines from what is going to be a very small crop.

In terms of temperatures, we had the same weather conditions as the 1945, 1947, 1949 and 1961 vintages. During the 1980s the hottest year was 1989. But this doesn’t mean that the wines will necessarily turn out as good!

Traditionally, we have either Right Bank or Left Bank years. This year, I think will be good for both, like 1982, 1989, 1990 and 2000. Merlot may be a bit tougher because we didn’t have rain at quite the right moment, we needed it a little bit earlier. However, the Merlots are very nice and I think the Right Bank will show some very good wines – if not everywhere. Certainly, Cabernet will be very successful because the weather has been fantastic for it. We are expecting great results.

Which other winemakers do you admire in Bordeaux?

Stéphane Derenoncourt is making good wine. I also admire Patrick Léon and Jacques Boissenot. And I think Hubert de Bouärd at L’Angélus has done fantastic work. In fact, there are a lot of people doing a great job in Bordeaux today.

How big is your cellar?

We drink a lot of wine and I have a good cellar with about 8,000 bottles. But it’s not all Bordeaux. I’ve quite a bit of Champagne and some Burgundies and of course New World wines. I also love port, which I’ve been drinking since the 1970s.

Do you think people sometimes over-intellectualise wine?

Yes. And for me it is a big problem today because with all the tastings and note takings, I sometimes think people miss the point of wine. That is, to enjoy it with lunch and dinner, and with friends. Sometimes, I think there are professional tasters who only taste wine and never drink it.

How many wines do you taste at a time?

I have no problem with up to 120. After that, I can do it, but it’s hard. It also depends on what you are doing. In the first phase of harvest time in Bordeaux, I do 200–220 wines a day. But to be honest I’m not looking for much in a red wine – mainly tannins. So it’s easier. The harder part is when I’m blending because it requires a lot of concentration. It’s really all about training and practice.

When you’re tasting, you often don’t use notes. Why is that?

If you read notes, you are convinced your notes were right and you can’t find something new in the wine. If you read that this wine is green with sharp tannins that is what you will find in the wine and you will miss something else. So I don’t read my notes in order not to be over influenced by them. It works well for me.

Which is more challenging – expensive or cheap wine?

Lower quality wine. It is harder to make decent wine in industrial conditions than to make small quantities in the best condiditions. At Marques de caceres I am Blending 40,000hl. To achieve consistent good quality at this volume is challenging, but we do it.

John Stimpfig is a consultant editor for Decanter

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