Is blending art or science? The world’s most famous wine consultant, Michel Rolland, shows ADAM LECHMERE how a maestro works his magic
Coleridge said poetry was all about getting the best words in the best order.
Blending wine seems similarly straightforward: you have a series of barrels from different parts of your vineyard, you take the best ones and mix them together, and… well,
that’s about it. Simple, no?
After a couple of blending sessions with Michel Rolland, the world’s most recognised consultant, another adage comes to mind: the better you are at something, the easier you make it look.
The plan is to be a fly on the wall for a blending of the 2008 vintage with two of Rolland’s clients in the Graves in Bordeaux. The first session is at Château Malartic-Lagravière, where we deal with the reds only. The second is at Château Smith-Haut-Lafitte: the whites.
It’s a damp, grey February morning and the vines are still hunkered down over the stony soil. In the tasting room at Malartic there is no ceremony – just 30-odd bottles lined up, a numbered code written in Biro on the top of each cork, and a couple of calibrated mixing tubes.
There’s also a print-out showing what stage the malolactic fermentation is at, and – importantly – the total amount of each wine available to him, in hectolitres.
Philippe Garcia, the chef de cave, quietly sets out glasses.
Each bottle – drawn from barrel last night – represents one parcel of vines from the Malartic vineyards. First there are the Cabernets, then the Merlots, a Petit Verdot and a Cabernet Sauvignon- Cabernet Franc blend: yields were so low this year they didn’t have enough of the latter to fill a barrel.
There are no preliminaries.
Rolland tastes and makes brief notes in a meticulous hand. ‘Beaucoup de finesse, élégant, une jolie matière’; ‘excellent, du fruit, une jolie finale’; ‘un peu plus simple’. The words ‘plus’ and ‘moins’ crop up now and again. More and less than what?
‘My standard. I try to imagine the overall blend, the quality. We are in Léognan, we are at Malartic. We have an ideal of what the wine should be like.’
Rolland tastes fast, about 90 seconds per wine, including the note. He is tasting blind. He doesn’t know which parcel each wine comes from. Occasionally he asks Garcia what he has in the glass.
‘Sometimes I will change my opinion when I know where the wine comes from. I don’t want to know as I taste, but before the final blend we know exactly which parcel is which – otherwise you could make a huge mistake. You always have to respect the terroir.’
This is the first formal tasting of the wines, which he last tasted back in November. So what is he looking for?
‘Today, we’re going to make the core blend – that’s 85-90% of the final wine.’
The core blend
He demonstrates with a sketch: a five-pointed star, a circle around it, the points exposed. That is the blend he will make today, and on a further day, in March (there will be two sessions in all), he will smooth off the points, adding and subtracting lots ‘to polish the blend’.
So here is lot C18, for example, a Cabernet, of which Malartic has 74.25hl.
‘That’s a very fine wine, lots of fruit, gentle texture, not big but elegant. This won’t go into the core blend, but if I need fruit, I’ll use it later.’
Or VB10, another Cabernet. ‘This is the best wine of the whole flight.’ But there are only 9hl. ‘A pity. I wish we had 10 times as much.’
How much say do the winemaker and the owners have?
Garcia, a silent presence, is tasting alongside Rolland, a deferential couple of glasses behind.
Rolland is a powerful presence. Wearing a natty, dark blue, three-piece corduroy suit, in the clinical surroundings of the tasting room he cuts an incongruous figure, like a successful doctor paying a house visit to a wealthy family.
He’s very affable, ready to explain the process. Jean-Jacques Bonnie, whose family bought Malartic in 1996, tells me later that Rolland is ‘very open, very easy. He’s not like other consultants who can be stiff and cold and will only speak to the owner.’
Garcia has his own opinions but there is no disagreement. There will be the occasional discussion. Garcia may say, ‘I think this needs time to settle down,’ and Rolland will close
the debate amicably: ‘Je l’aime bien.’
Rolland has put a neat cross beside half of the wines. He directs Garcia to make a blend of 55% Merlot, 35% Cabernet, 8% Cabernet Franc and 2% Petit Verdot, using just those marked.
A taste, and the Petit Verdot is rejected as too spicy. The blend is changed to 60% Merlot, 30% Cabernet, 8% Cabernet Franc – the extra 2% will be decided at the final session.
It’s round, with juicy tannins and pungent fruit. Rolland says they are nearly there. ‘This is about 90% of what we will have in April [for the en primeur tastings – the first showing of the wine to international critics and trade].’
The relationship of consultant to owner and chef de cave is an interesting one. While Rolland insists he is merely the coach, directing from the sidelines, it is unlikely that Garcia – or oenologist Fabien Teitgen at Smith-Haut-Lafitte will disagree with him.
Not that they would want to – they seem to have an easy, if respectful, relationship. ‘He is the man,’ Rolland says of Garcia. ‘I tell him what I think, but he runs the cellar.’
The art of prediction
So what does Rolland bring to the blending table that the owners cannot? ‘It is incredibly complicated,’ Bonnie says.
‘Michel has the capacity to taste a wine that is far from finished and to predict the relationship between lots, to see how they will evolve together. He understands the
wine faster, and sharper, than anyone.’
Does he look for a ‘Rolland style’?
‘When we first bought the château we didn’t really know that much about the wine business. We were told he was the best there is, and that was that.’
I follow Rolland to Smith-Haut-Lafitte, a few minutes drive away, where the process of arriving at a blend seems more tortuous than at Malartic. Smith’s chief oenologist, Fabien Teitgen, has added new variables: lots from the same parcel come from a new pneumatic press.
One seems bigger, rounder, more upfront. Rolland unfazed. ‘It’s difficult to take a strong position.’ ‘This time, we agree,’ Teitgen says. ‘We don’t always.’
Rolland wants to make two Sauvignon Blanc blends, one with samples ‘where the mouthfeel
is not big’ and the second slightly bigger. As at Malartic, he directs, and Teitgen wields a big plastic syringe, taking percentages and making the blend directly in the glass.
The two blends are tasted – and then blended together. One lot is taken out, around 10% Semillon added – and again we are nearly there – 95% of the en primeur wine. Rolland likes to stress the ineffable nature of his job.
‘This stage of the process is 98% art and 2% science. It is very difficult to explain.’ But a large part of it is treading the fine line between quality and quantity. ‘I am employed to
make the limit of what is good. There are two philosophies. The first is, “We have to make 200,000 bottles.”
The second, “We will make the best wine with the wine we have.”’
But there must be tremendous pressure to add volume, surely, and especially in a year like 2008, when the yield is half that of 2007? Apparently not.
‘Sometimes I tell Daniel [Cathiard, the owner of Smith-Haut-Lafitte], “There is a blend I
like and a blend I will accept.” Daniel always takes the first.
Written by Adam Lechmere