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One On One With Winemaker: Michel Rolland

May 6, 2016 20 comments

To anyone inside of the wine circles, the name “Michel Rolland” needs no introduction. If you enjoy an occasional glass of wine but don’t dig deep, very deep into what is behind the label, it will probably tell you nothing. Unlike Araujo, Bryant Family, Harlan, Staglin – right? All of these are the cult wines from California, revered, adored and drooled upon by many wine connoisseurs. Let’s not forget Tenuta dell’Ornellaia from Italy, Angélus and Ausone from St-Emilion and  l’Evangile from Pomerol. In case you didn’t know, Michel Rolland, classically trained French winemaker, is behind these and hundreds (I’m not exaggerating – search for his name on Wikipedia) of other wines. He is a consulting winemaker, sometimes also referred to as “flying winemaker”, who made wine on all continents and all possible and impossible corners of the world.

When I got an invitation for lunch with Michel Rolland, who was visiting New York to introduce some of his newest wines, I was excited at first, and then bummed. The lunch was overlapping with the Jura wine tasting, which I was planning to attend for a very long time. So as a last resort, I asked if I can meet with Michel Rolland after the lunch so I can ask him a few questions. To my absolute delight, kind folks at Deutsch Family, a wine importer company hosting the event, managed to arrange the time for me right after the lunch to sit down and talk to Michel Rolland.

As you understand by now, unlike most of my virtual interviews in this “one on one” series, this was a real face to face conversation, with a real handshake and visible emotions. At first, I was thinking about recording our conversation. That probably would be okay, but I never did this before, and fighting with technology in front of the busy man who was doing me a favor didn’t feel right. So I did what I always do – I prepared my questions in advance. After a subway ride and a brisk walk, I arrived – on time – and shake hands with the legend. We sat at the table, three different glasses of red wine appeared on the table. And conversation started – here is what we were talking about, with the precision of my fingers hitting the screen of the trusted iPad:

Q1: You made wine all over the world. Is there one place or one wine which was your absolute favorite?

“No. I like the challenge, so every time I’m going to the new place, it is very exciting.”

Q2: What was your most difficult project and why?

“To make wine, we need soil, grapes, and weather. When the weather is not playing, it is very difficult. There were 2 places which were the most difficult. First one was India – everything is great except the climate. India has only 2 seasons – dry and wet. Another one was China – extreme climate, very difficult to make wines. In the project in China, years 1,2 and 3 had no frost, then in the year 4 we decided not to cover the vines, and half of the vineyard became dead.”

Q3: You are known to create big and bold style wines. At the same time, it seems that wines with restrained are more popular today. Did you make any changes to your winemaking style to yield to the popular demand?

“After 43 years in this job, it is good that I have style. So the style is what the market is asking – the wines are made to be sold, so we have to follow tendencies in the market. Even that not everything is changed at the same time, it is more of the evolution and adhering to the fashion. The wine to drink tonight is not the one to be stored for 10–15 years. So the wine have to be made more enjoyable younger, and this is what we do.”

Q4: Where there any projects which you rejected and if yes, why?

“Yes, of course, but it doesn’t happen very often. The biggest concern is the relationship with the team. Day to day in the cellar and field it is the team – if the relationship with the team is not good, I prefer to leave. For sure if nobody is happy, then it is better to leave. I never refused project because it is too challenging. In Chile, 25 years ago the variety called Sauvignonne had to be used, which was hard – and I didn’t refuse the project because it was challenging. So the relationship is the major part.”

Q5: Again, appealing to your worldwide expertise, what do you think is the hottest new wine region today, if there is one?

“We have to look back – we have new world and old world. France, Italy, Spain – being there before. Then came US, then South America. Chile, and Argentina is growing the fastest now. Then there is New Zealand and Australia. But I think the area around the Black Sea, which was historically there, is very promising. Now Turkey, Georgia, Armenia, Russia all started making really good wines and we will see great wines coming from there. I [actually] currently work in Turkey, Russia, Bulgaria.”

Q6: What are the most undervalued wine regions in the world today, if there are any left?

“One of the most difficult countries to make and produce wines is South Africa – great wines which sell well only in UK, but very difficult everywhere else.”

Q7: What do you think of natural wines, which are very often are very opposite in style to “big and bold”

“We can’t fight against natural wines, but all the wines are natural [laughing], minimal intervention. We have to slow down with all the chemicals, but the wines should be made to be good wines – a lot of “Bio” is done only for marketing, so if it is done smart, it is good. I have small estate Val de Flores in Argentina which is for 8 years is completely “bio”, so yes, I support that.”

Q8: What are the latest projects you are working on?

“The one in Tuscany (Maremma) running by the German family, they have a wonderful vineyard and wonderful winery, and now making very good wines.”

Q9: You are a role model and a teacher for many in the wine world. Who were your role models and teachers?

“When I began my job my mentor was Émile Peynaud. It was another era. When I began the oenology, we were not speaking about quality. The goal was to avoid problems. I discussed this a lot with Peynaud. Peynaud was convincing people to do better in the cellar, to have clean wines, to use better material. It was very difficult, but Peynaud was great dealing with the people, so I learned a lot from him, including the patience for dealing with people. I often said that my job is 80% psychology, and 20% oenology, this is what I learned from Peynaud.”

Q10: What are the new trends in the wine world? What wine consumers should expect to see and experience over the next few years?

“I think people like more and more approachable, and gentle wines – full bodied, but gentle. The big problem I see is that during the 90s, I did a lot of work where we dramatically improved quality. In the 2000s, we drunk best wines we could. What I don’t like now that everybody is going after cheaper and cheaper wines – we can still do good wines, but not better than in the previous years. In the end, the wine is a business, so I don’t want to see people reduce quality just to survive.”

Chateau La LouviereAs you can imagine, Michel Rolland didn’t come to the New York to talk to me. He was promoting his latest project, the wines of André Lurton which he helped to create. André Lurton is the winemaker in Bordeaux whose family winemaking heritage goes back more than 200 years, and who is not only known as a  winemaker but also was very instrumental in advancing Bordeaux wine industry, including creating of the new appellations.

Here is the story of how Michel Rolland started working with André Lurton (don’t you love wines with the story?):

“Lurton is one of the last projects. I had an interview on the radio, and the journalist asked me if I have any regrets. I said at 65 years old, I don’t have a lot of regrets. When making wines, you get to meet wonderful people from all over the world. So the regret is “why I never met this guy” – one of such people is André Tchelistcheff – I met his wife, but never met him. And then the journalist asked me “who else”. So I said in Bordeaux, there is André Lurton, who I never met and worked together.

3 hours after the interview I received a call from Andre Lurton who said: “come and meet me”. Now we are working together.

So what we are doing is looking after the future, what can we produce for the people. We have to make approachable wines – still with the ability to age, but more approachable. “

This was the end of my conversation with Michel Rolland. We spoke for about 45 minutes, and it was clear that Michel had to continue on with his day. But there were still three wines standing in front of me, so I had to go through the speed tasting and only capture general impressions, there was no time for detailed notes. Here are my brief notes:

2012 Château Bonnet Réserve Rouge Bordeaux ($14.99, Merlot/Cabernet Sauvignon blend) – beautiful tobacco nose, fresh fruit, soft, round –  clearly Bordeaux on the palate, green notes, restrained. Green notes do get in the way, though.

2012 Château de Rochemorin Rouge Pessac-Léognan ($33.99, Cabernet Sauvignon/Merlot blend)  – beautiful, classic Bordeaux, great finish, some presence of the green notes

2012 Château La Louviére Rouge Pessac-Léognan ($74.99, Cabernet Sauvignon/Merlot/Petite Verdot), new oak, open fruit on the nose, lots of complexity, very beautiful, layers, delicious finish. Overall delicious wine, my favorite of the tasting. This wine was polished and concentrated, and I would love to drink it every day.

What is interesting for me here (besides the clear proof that I’m a wine snob who prefers expensive wines) is that there is a clear progression of taste and pleasure in this three wines – the price was increasing accordingly, and this is how things are quite often in the wine world.

After an encounter like this one, and the pleasure of talking with the legend, if blogging would be my job, I would gladly proclaim “I love my job”. But even without it, I still would proudly say that I love blogging as it makes possible conversations like this one, which is priceless for any oenophile. Cheers!

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