On the Road with Rolland

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  • Thursday 4 December 2003

Last year, John Stimpfig spent a week shadowing the renowned Michel Rolland around harvest time in Chile and Bordeaux. He describes a typical 24 hours a day in the life of the world’s busiest consultant oenologist.

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Last year, John Stimpfig spent a week shadowing the renowned Michel Rolland around harvest time in Chile and Bordeaux. He describes a typical 24 hours a day in the life of the world’s busiest consultant oenologist.

Thursday 27th February 2003

My first meeting with Michel Rolland is just after sunset on the verandah of Jose Rabat’s Colchagua country Hacienda in Apalta. He is there with his oenologist wife Dany, our host Alexandra Marnier Lapostolle and about four or five others from Casa Lapostolle.

Sporting his trademark beard, the 56 year-old Rolland is immaculately turned out and tanned. He is also completely at his ease with a big laugh and a broad smile. Over dinner he explains that he had been consulting at Casa Lapostolle since the start in 94. ‘I’ve been very closely involved in everything which is one reason why it is one of my favourite projects. In fact it’s my only client in Chile.’

The next day, we depart from my hotel at 9.00am and head for Casa Lapostolle’s Requinoa vineyards in the Rapel Valley. Rolland is sat in the front passenger’s seat dressed more casually in cowboy boots, jeans and a Casa Lapostolle T shirt. Also in the car are winemaker Michel Friou and the ever present Alexandra Marnier Lapostolle. They tell me that Rolland’s four annual visits are not much in terms of time. ‘But he takes all the technical decisions, including what goes into the blends. He’s invaluable to us,’ says Friou.

Whilst we talk in the back, Rolland is busily studying pages of analysis prepared by Casa Lapostolle’s lab. On this particular trip he’s primarily here to decide on picking times as harvest time approaches. But to do that, Rolland won’t just rely on the numbers. For him the taste test is just as important, if not more so.

It’s about an hour’s drive north to Requinoa, where we are greeted by the vineyard manager and two colleagues. In the car, the lingua francas were French and English. But now Rolland has moved seamlessly into Spanish for the benefit of the Chileans. And after listening intently to a quick update on what has been happening, Rolland is headed for the first block of Sauvignon Blanc.

Immediately, he’s looking at the foliage and tasting grapes. It’s like a general inspecting his troops. At one point he bends down and kicks the soil. Behind him the entourage follow as he moves in and out of different rows.

‘At this stage I’m just looking for a good sugar acid balance in the whites,’ he tells me. My most immediate decision is when to pick the Sauvignon Blanc. Some blocks will be ready on Monday. Some will take two or three days longer.’

Having done the Sauvignon and Chardonnay, he heads for the reds - Merlot, Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon. Two paces behind him Michel Friou is taking notes and nodding. Then he stops and proclaims that ‘it’s looking good. Of course it always depends on the weather. But if we have the same conditions for a few more weeks, we should have a good vintage.’ Alexandra Marnier Lapostolle beams with delight.

However, it’s not completely straightforward. ‘The Merlots are running a bit later than last year. So too are the Syrah and Cabernet, which means we’ll have to wait a little bit longer and continue to taste the grapes regularly. And because there’s still two to three weeks to go, we’ll need to keep watering,’ Rolland points out. ‘What I’m really waiting for is the phenolic ripeness on the reds. There’s no problem getting the sugars. But we need the tannin to get ripe too and that takes more time. But I think every thing should be ready by the beginning of April,’ he adds.

What immediately impresses me is not just Rolland’s knowledge and expertise but also his manner and ability to communicate. Although he is constantly referred to as ‘The Guru’ by a very respectful Casa Lapostolle team, he doesn’t play the high and mighty consultant, barking out orders. In fact, he interacts with the owner, managers and workers in the same inclusive, confident way. What’s more, his relaxed, humourous style and enthusiasm for the job is both palpable and infectious.

Altogether, the inspection and debrief at Requinoa takes a couple of hours to complete. So we arrive back at the Hacienda for an al fresco lunch underneath a 200 year old cork tree. Rolland always drinks wine at mealtimes. ‘It’s important for wine professionals to drink with food because that’s what consumers do,’ he says. Today, it’s also unavoidable as Alexandra Marnier Lapostolle has prepared a small blind tasting of three pricey Californian Chardonnays and the Casa Lapostolle Cuvee Alexandre. Rolland spots it immediately.

We’re due to visit the Apalta vineyard at 3pm, but not before Rolland has to make a few phone calls to Argentina where he’s heading on Monday. ‘It’s a great country, but a little bit crazy. Sometimes it’s impossible to reach people,’ he says. Once he’s finished, we all climb into the back of an open truck and bounce around on the short dusty, dirt-track drive to Apalta.

‘C’est un bel endroit,’ says Rolland when we arrive. ‘This was my first comment when I first saw this vineyard. And now I know it even more.’ The sandy soil is dry and crop thinned bunches lie on the ground. ‘We’ve got Carmenere, Merlot, Cabernet, Petit Verdot planted here. But some are very old vines up on the slopes. Some of the vines are dry farmed but others are irrigated. The best blocks going into Clos Apalta and the rest going into Cuvee Alexandre,’ he tells me. ‘Let’s have a look at the grapes,’ and off he strides in his gambolling gait.

Again he weaves from block to block periodically stopping and stooping to pick and taste. As ever, the mobile audience of five or six eagerly hang on his every word. ‘What are you looking for here?’ I ask. ‘Again, it’s tannin ripeness at this stage - we can’t make big powerful wines without it’, Rolland replies. Finally, the last block we look at is some Malbec on the valley floor. The berries are unusually small and some of the canopies are also showing signs of yellowing.

‘Yes, they are a little bit stressed,’ Rolland points out. ‘But because we are dry farming these vines, we can’t irrigate. Nevertheless, I’m happy because we want a certain amount of stress for concentration - but not too much. So it’s always difficult and risky to get exactly the right amount.’

Although it’s now about 5.30pm, Rolland isn’t finished yet. Pied Piper like, he leads us to a high part of the vineyard and a block of Merlot, which was particularly stressed last year. Rolland’s idea was to adapt the irrigation to provide a double drip for each vine. He goes straight to it and is evidently pleased with the result. ‘There’s more foliage and the leaves are greener. That’s good. So we’ll extend it next year. It’s what I call “Haute Couture” viticulture,’ he laughs.

As we move on Rolland tells me that, ‘I’m always looking for progress in the vineyard. That means identifying what type of problems we might have and what we have to do differently next time. I’m very clear in my mind about this, even though it means holding a lot of information at the same time. But what people don’t realise is that it is almost always the same set of problems. And I’m very used to them after thirty years as a viticulturalist. So what might look complicated to others is often quite simple to me. Really, it’s just like a doctor diagnosing the flu. He’s seen the problem hundreds of times before. And so have I.’

Finally, around 6.30pm we ascend the centre of the horse-shoe shaped vineyard to take a view from where Casa Lapostolle’s new Clos Apalta winery will be completed next year. It’s a fantastic panoramic view and, of course, Rolland’s input is key to the project. ‘It is going to be on five levels and completely gravity fed. It’s going to be really amazing,’ he enthuses.

By now it has turned 7.00pm and dinner is at 8.30pm. Alexandra has also arranged a tasting of sixteen super premium Chilean reds, though this time it’s not blind. Comments from around the table are welcomed, but naturally Rolland’s carry the most weight. ‘The 97 Sena has a touch of Brett on the nose and the Don Melchior is very minty, which I don’t really like,’ he says. Nevertheless, several wines perform well including the 97, 99 and 2000 Clos Apaltas.

Over dinner, we discuss the next two days of Rolland’s trip. Although the following day is a Saturday, weekends off tend not to be a feature of Rolland’s hectic global schedule. (One year, he took 167 international flights.) So it will involve a tasting at the winery followed by yet more visits to vineyards in the afternoon. After that, he wants to see how progress is going on breaking ground at a new vineyard for Syrah and Carmenere.

Similarly, Sunday will require a two-hour, cross country trip up to Casablanca to check on the cooler coastal vineyards planted with Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir. Rolland laughs when I tell him it all sounds exhausting. ‘Actually, just doing one client in four days is really quite relaxing. If you think this is bad, wait till you come to Bordeaux!’

Tuesday, September 16 2003

I’m greeted at at Merignac airport by Michel Rolland’s chauffeur on another boiling hot day in Bordeaux. He tells me that Rolland is waiting for me at nearby Pape Clement in the Graves. When I arrive the harvest is already in full swing and Rolland is finishing his weekly meeting with Pape Clement’s magnate proprietor, Bernard Magrez. So I quickly take a look at the practical side of Rolland’s consulting and visit the sorting table in his absence. I’ve never seen anything like it. There are six tables in all with 100 people (women only) de-stemming every Merlot berry by hand.

Later, in his brand new Mercedes S, Rolland tells me he has been consulting here since 95 and the de-stemming is just one of a number of innovations. ‘It’s vin de garage on the grand scale and I am completely responsible for it.’

Not surprisingly, the abnormally early harvest in Bordeaux has upset Rolland’s clockwork-like schedule and he’s had to cut his US trip short. ‘There was no choice. I can’t miss Bordeaux - I’ve got over sixty clients here.’ He arrived back on September 4th and now, he’s right in the thick of it for the next two months. ‘Today, I’ve seen seven clients,’ he tells me as we drive to his home at Chateau Fontenil in Fronsac. But he’s not finished yet. There’s a tasting at 7pm at L’Evangile in Pomerol with Charles Chevalier of Lafite.

Unfortunately though, the wines in question are just vatted Merlot samples and the tasting is to set the tone for my next three days. Essentially, Rolland is keeping an eye on how the wines are shaping up at this preliminary stage, advising on fermentation as well as when to pick the remaining varieties. ‘It’s tough tasting these young wines, so I’m not looking for too much,’ he says. ‘The acidity is taken care of, so you’re really looking for the balance between body and tannin coming from the maceration. This will tell me when to rack so that we avoid too much extract or green tannins.’

Rolland drives me to L’Evangile, where we meet Chevalier, his oenologist and vineyard manager. Also waiting for us are nine wines, most of which are bright purple and really quite unpleasant to taste. Unlike the others Rolland makes no notes. But you can tell that everyone is happy with the quality, even at this early stage. ‘There’s more volume, structure and density than last year. So it’s not a year for overlong macerations,’ he says. Everyone nods in agreement and various technical discussions ensue about pigeage and temperatures as well as how the vintage is progressing up and down Bordeaux. Finally, Rolland confirms an appointment for next week and it’s time to go.

We leave at about 7.45pm and park at Rolland’s Laboratory nearby in Pomerol. ‘I almost always stop by every day,’ says Rolland. Inside, it’s an impressive set-up. A number of staff are still working on the day’s analysis of what could be up to 1,000 different wines. Rolland catches up with what has been happening before disappearing into a meeting. It’s with Pascale Chatonnet, another Bordeaux consultant with whom Rolland works on a number of joint projects. Finally, we leave at 9.30pm.

The next day starts early. My alarm goes off at 5.45am and I meet a smartly dressed Rolland for coffee and a quick breakfast at 6.15am. He studies the printout of his appointments schedule then we’re off in the Merc with Thierry at 6.30 sharp for our first of ten Left Bank appointments.

By 8.00am when we arrive at Chateau Loudenne, Rolland has already taken at least five phone calls. Outside, Loudenne’s owners Mr and Mme Lafragette are ready to meet us as well as more assembled oenologists and vineyard managers.

First Rolland get’s some feedback on how everything is going from the oenologist. She informs him how the vintage is progressing and presents him with the latest analysis from the whites, now in tank. ‘OK, any questions,’ asks Rolland. There are several which all get comprehensively answered. Again, I can’t help but notice that everyone hangs on Rolland’s every word. As ever, heads nod, notes are taken.

At which point, we climb into a Range Rover and head for the vineyards to taste some grapes. Rolland leads the group into the rows, tasting grapes at regular intervals. We taste some remaining Merlot and then the Cabernet and Petit Verdot. ‘Bon gout,’ Rolland pronounces decisively. They are ready, so we’ll pick the Cabernet next week and finish the week after.’

From there we head inside to taste seven samples of milky white wine. Rolland glances at the analysis sheet and quickly runs through all seven. One apparently, is a little bit reduced but his main concern with such ripe grapes is to prevent the malolactic which would reduce acidity and freshness. His doctorly advice is a dose of sulphur and batonnage.

It’s 9.25am when Thierry brings the car round for our next appointment in Pauillac at Pontet Canet. Fifteen minutes later we’re shaking hands with its owner Alfred Tesseron and his winemaker Jean-Michel. As Michel leads us into into the sorting area, Tesseron cant keep the smile off his face. ‘If we don’t make good wine this year, I’ll give up and go fishing,’ he jokes to Rolland.

As the Merlots have only just begun to come in, there aren’t any samples. So we jump in the four-man golf-buggy and make our way into the vineyard. First up is the Cabernet Franc whose the berries are incredibly small and very sweet. The same is true of the Cabernet Sauvignon. Rolland has heard the latest Meteo weather forecast that morning and says that the hot weather will continue for the next four days. ‘So we’ll attack the Cabernet on Monday.’ Tesseron grins in agreement and claps him on the back. ‘Bon!’

It’s now gone 10.15am and back in the car, Rolland has several more calls to respond to from clients before we reach La Tour Carnet, another Magrez property. Again, it is all smiles and laughter as we taste nine plastic bags of grapes, freshly picked to save Rolland some precious time. As Rolland tastes and spits, he again points out the order of picking. Naturally, everything is minuted.

After that, there are five whites to check on. Rolland issues some more instructions after which there’s yet another chat about the all-important weather and who’s picking what and where. After which we do a quick check on the sorting tables to make sure everything is going like clockwork. It is. And we’re soon back on the road by 11.30am.

But not for long because our next appointment is at nearby Camensac, where they also want to know exactly when to pick the Cabernet. So it’s back to the vineyards. ‘You can pick in five days - even if it rains,’ says Rolland. ‘There’s no rot and any rain now wouldn’t make any difference anyway. It’s only when you get rain two weeks before picking that you get real problems. At this late stage, it wouldn’t be a problem.’

We leave half an hour later, after several questions from the Maitre de Chai and short but full answers from Rolland. Outside, the sun is beating down ferociously and fortunately Rolland’s Mercedes air-con is working as hard as its owner. Unfortunately though, there’s little respite as our next appointment is just two minutes drive to Belgrave. But that’s just enough time though for Rolland to cram in a quick phone call.

At Belgrave, Rolland is confronted by several more samples as well as the usual barrage of questions this time from a youthful Frederic Bonnaffous who is responsible for the property. Two of them concern maceration times and fermentation temperatures. ‘This year, I think the macerations will be quite short because the wines have plenty of matiere and are showing good colour and tannins,’ Rolland replies. As for fermentation, once it starts I recommend you take the temperature up to 20C so that the yeasts don’t have to struggle too much. Then it should go up to about 27 or 28C quite easily. But you’ll need to do pumping over and pigeage to get a good extraction and ripe tannins.’

Finally, it’s lunchtime which we take at Belgrave with the Frederic and his team of forty or so vendangeurs. It’s simple and hearty and Rolland tucks in with gusto. Nor is he stand-offish with the young pickers. Instead, he’s only too happy to chat and joke with them. ‘I often have lunch like this during harvest,’ he says. ‘My favourite place though is Malescot St Exupery. The owner’s wife cooks a very traditional lunch. It’s really fantastic.’

At 1.30pm, we head off for Leoville-Poyferre in St Julien and Rolland indulges in a quick cat-nap before squeezing in a recuperative coffee break and a cigarillo before our 2pm appointment. When we arrive Didier Cuvelier isn’t there so Michel takes the opportunity to look over the sorting operation and cellar whilst talking to winemaker Isabelle Davin and three others. After fifteen minutes Cuvelier joins us and greets Rolland warmly. The tour stops for some Merlot samples, but Rolland’s advice rolls on regardless. We leave at 2.45pm.

Our next stop is Citran where we meet Antoine Merlaut and his oenologist and vineyard manager. By now, Rolland is sounding like a stuck record regarding remontage, tannin management, total acidity, botrytis, weather patterns and when to pick the Cabernet. Remarkably though, he shows no signs of flagging or boredom in having to answer the same questions time and time again. If I hadn’t seen it several times already, I’d imagine he was doing it for the first time. Again there’s more analysis to look at and samples to taste. By 3.35pm we’re done and on our way.

From Citran we make an unscheduled stop at Grand Poujeau Branas, but it only takes twenty minutes and we’re back in the car heading for Malescot St Exupery in Margaux. By 4.10pm Rolland is deep in conversation with General Manager, Jean Luc Zuger. Rolland cracks another joke, which unfortunately I lose in the translation, but Zuger hoots with laughter.

We leave at 4.45pm and make a quick detour to taste some Cabernet Franc in the vineyard which they’ve just been discussing. ‘Jean-Luc thinks they’re ready this week. But I don’t agree,’ says Michel. ‘I think next week would be best.’ ‘You’ll tell him,’ I ask. ‘Of course,’ replies Rolland. ‘That’s what they pay me for.’

Our last call its at Chateau Siran and we roll up at 5.05pm where we meet the owners Mr and Mrs Mialhe and Jerome Blavy, Siran’s Estate Manager. By now, I feel as though I know the script so well, I could do almost do Rolland’s job for him. However, the obvious difference is that Rolland has over 30 years experience whereas I have just one day.

And it has been a long day as we leave our last appointment at 5.45pm twelve hours after my alarm went off. Moreover, there’s an hour’s drive back to Fontenil and several phone calls for Rolland to fit in. We arrive home at 6.45pm. But while I’m ready for a long lie down, Rolland is off to check on how the first day’s picking at Fontenil has gone.

At dinner, Rolland still looks remarkably fresh, which is just as well because he’s got to keep this up for at least another six weeks. Moreover, this is the easy phase. ‘It gets more complicated when we get into the blending’ he tells me. Over a bottle of Bon Pasteur 2000, I ask Rolland when he fits in the time to look after his own chateaux. ‘Normally, I do them on Sundays because I’m often working on Saturdays. This Saturday, I’ve got to drive to Rioja for instance which will take all day. Yes, I know. It’s a crazy schedule and of course it’s very tiring. But it’s very exciting too. If I didn’t love it, I wouldn’t do it.’

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