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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!

Wednesday’s Meritage – Wine Quiz Answer, 25 Top Selling Restaurant Wines?, Winery of the Future, #MWWC9 Theme, #winechat and more

April 9, 2014 1 comment

Meritage time!

Let’s start with the answer to the wine quiz #97, Grape Trivia – Blends, Part 1.

While this quiz is still a part of the Grape Trivia, it is slightly a new twist on the grapes – the questions are centered on the concept of blends, to stir things up a bit. Despite the fact that we are almost at a hundred of posts in the quiz series, it was still a learning experience for me – not from the point of view of the content, which is always a part of the learning exercise – but from point of view of being able to state the questions correctly to make sure there can be only one correct answer to that question. Read on, and you will see what I mean.

Here are the questions, now with the answers:

Q1: Which grape is missing?

– Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, ?, Petit Verdot

A1: This was a very easy one – yes, this is a classic Bordeaux blend, so the missing grape is Malbec.

Q2: Wines of this region, made out of Sauvignon Blanc and Sémillon, considered some of the best white wines in the world. Can you name that region?

A2: This is the questions which was supposed to be phrased better. I believe my expected correct answer will work here, but mostly as a technicality and not because it is squarely one and only answer. So the correct answer here is Pessac-Léognan, a region in Bordeaux, which produces both white and red wines, but their dry white wines, made out of Sauvignon Blanc and Sémillon, are long living and spectacular ( and equally expensive).  Number of people put Sauternes as an answer for this question. Technically, the wines in Sauternes are made out of Sémillon, Sauvignon Blanc, and Muscadelle grapes – thus technically, Sauternes is not the right answer. However, most famous Sauternes, Chateau d’Yquem, is made only from Sémillon and Sauvignon Blanc, thus it is hard to say that Sauternes is a wrong answer. Have I asked about  “some of the best DRY white wines”, Sauternes would have to be excluded.

Q3: This wine might be the biggest officially sanctioned blend of the grapes in the world. Do you know what wine is that?

A3: Again, precision was a bit off on this question. Yes, the correct answer is Châteauneuf-du-Pape, a region in the Southern Rhone in France, which allows up to 18 different grapes, both red and white, to be blended together, and there is a number of producers who do exactly that. Again, the word “dry” would help, as one of the answers was Port, where technically 82 varietals are allowed to be used in the appellation – however, the best Port is typically made only out of 6 grapes as the most, so Port is not the right answer here. Another suggested answer was Valle d’Aosta, a region in Italy which allows 19 different grapes to be used in production of the wines – however, the question was about grapes blended together, not just allowed to be used in the appellation.

Q4: This simple wine is classified as a field blend. This is probably best known European white field blend wine. Now:

a. Can you explain what field blend is?

A4a: Come to any (almost any) vineyard, and you will be able to see the rows of vines, all clearly identified – Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Petit Verdot, etc. All the grapes harvested separately, pressed and fermented separately, and then blended together into the final wine as winemaker deems necessary. And then there are exceptions to this separate processing of the grapes. Such an exception is a field blend. Different grapes are growing together, sometimes without clear separation between different vines and grapes. All those different grapes are harvested together, pressed and vinified together, so don’t ask for specific percentages on the label, or even for the names of the individual grapes. Such field blends can be found in Portugal (many of the simpler Port wines made as field blends), Austria, Alsace and probably other places.

b. Can you name this wine?

A4b: My intended answer was Gemischter Satz – a white wine, a field blend produced from the vineyards in the Wiener Gemischter Satz DAC, which is located within the city limits of Vienna, Austria with the total vineyard area exceeding 1,700 acres. This is a dry, simple white wine, which should be made from at least 3 different white grape varieties, harvested and pressed together. It seems that Gemischter Satz wines are getting more popular as of recent, so here is the link where you can read more about them. Some of you said that the answer is White Port, which can be also made as a field blend, so again, I should’ve being more careful with the wording of the question – but right now, White Port also is an acceptable answer.

Q5: This wine, one of the most famous in the world, is often made from 70% Cabernet Franc and 30% Merlot. Do you know what wine is that?

A5: Chateau Cheval Blanc, one of the most famous Bordeaux wines in the world, uses Cabernet Franc and Merlot to make their wines. The ratio is not always 70/30, but conceptually it is enough to help you to come up with the right answer.

When it comes to the results, I’m glad to report that there was a very good participation – the subject of blends definitely was less intimidating than those rare single grapes we got into. We have two winners today – the drunken cyclist and Connoisaurus both answered all 5 questions correctly, so they get the prize of unlimited bragging rights. Well done!

Now, to the interesting stuff around the vine and the web!

Wine & Spirits magazine compiled the list of 25 top selling wines in US restaurants. According to that list, the #1 top selling restaurant wine in US is Cakebread Cellars with an average price of $86.48, followed by Jordan  ($101.57) and then Duckhorn ($90.29) – here is the link for you to find more information. I would be really curious to know how many of you would consider ordering any of these wines in the restaurant especially at these prices (I wouldn’t). It will be also interesting to understand how the list was compiled, as the claim is that the information comes form the wine directors of the restaurants, and how many restaurants employ wine directors? Anyway, it is always interesting to take a look at the numbers.

We all know that winemaking is an art. But there is nothing wrong in bringing the technology to help the artists to make better art. Wines and Vines published a very interesting article, talking about the tools which are either already available or might be available to the grape growers and winemakers to help them make better wines.

Are you afraid of any wines? Do you get butterflies in your stomach as you open the door of your wine cabinet? Do you think any of the wines in your cellar hold some scary secrets? Is your hand trembling when you pull the cork out of the bottle, as you don’t know what might be hiding behind that cork? Well, it might be the time to face your fears – Jeff, a.k.a. The Drunken Cyclist, announced the theme of the Monthly Wine Writing Challenge #9, and as you probably guessed it, the theme is … Fear. Please take a look at this post for all the important dates and rules.

It is so interesting how far the wineries and wine consortia would go to protect their names. In majority of the cases, it is the big guy going after the small guy, like Duckhorn Vineyards from California suing Duck Walk winery on Long Island, or the French INAO going after Fairview winery in South Africa to protect Côte-Rôtie  against Goat Rotie. Latest case – now all local in France – is Mouton versus Mouton. Château Mouton Rothschild, first growth from Bordeaux, is suing winemaker Laurent Mouton from Burgundy, who had being making wines under Domaine Mouton label for 4 generations, to stop Domaine Mouton from using their own name on the label. Why now? I have no idea, but  – for more details, here is the link for you.

Last but not least for today – there is an interesting #winechat talking place tonight, in the Twittersphere next to you, at 9 PM Eastern time/6 PM Pacific, and your participation is greatly encouraged. If you are not familiar with the concept of #winechat, here is the blog post which will explain it. Today’s #winechat is the first out of three talking about the wines of Yamhill-Carlton AVA in Oregon, and the wine which will be discussed today is Lenné Estate Pinot Noir. Yes, I know, short notice – but, if you have time, join the #winechat and learn more!

And we are done here. The glass is empty – but the refill is on its way! Cheers!

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