A meeting and tasting with Michel Rolland

The International Quest for Terroir

Michel Rolland came through London recently. Appropriately for an international consultant, he was en route to India, via South Africa, having flown in from Buenos Aires the previous day. And he took the time to host a small presentation of thirteen of his wines, seven from Bordeaux and six examples of his work in other parts of the world, with as diverse a provenance as India, South Africa, South America, Spain and Italy.

Although terroir featured in the title of the tasting, not much was actually said about terroir, though Rolland was adamant that the personality of a wine comes from its region, not from the wine maker. He observed that wines are much cleaner these days; once upon a time, you could often recognise a wine by its defects rather than its quality”.

xHe talked candidly about the film Mondovino. “It showed a much reduced part of my job. My job is much more exciting that what we can see in the movie”. In the film he is portrayed advising all his clients to use micro-oxygenation, “but in fact I am not the best fan of micro oxygenation”. He explained that Nossiter filmed him on 12th October, mid-harvest in Bordeaux, and the time when that process would be most likely to be used, between the alcoholic and malo-lactic fermentations. He also observed that the same sequence was used several times in the film. On the subject of his chauffeur driven Mercedes, he commented that with the low alcohol limit in France, if he is tasting all day, it was only sensible to have a chauffeur. “I am 57. Jail is not for me!”For my taste buds, the star of the tasting was the 2001 Ornellaia, a beautifully crafted wine, with a rich chocolaty nose, but with a certain Italian note, with ripe fruit, silky tannins and an elegant finish.

Rolland has been involved at Ornellaia since 1990, which he quipped, makes him the longest employee of the company, following the recent changes in ownership. “It has a fantastic terroir, and is one of the best places for Merlot after Pomerol”.

Clos Apalta, from Casa Lapostolle in the Colchagua Valley is the flagship wine of that Chilean estate. The 2001 Clos Apalta, a particularly good year in Chile, was deep in colour with a dense cassis nose, and a slight herbal lift, coming from the Carmenère, which is blended with Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. The oak was supple, with ripe fruit, and soft tannins. There was talk of the wine’s ageing potential. Originally most wines from Chile were not intended for long ageing, so that they were only given a short maceration and therefore tended to lack concentration. However, at the beginning of the 1990s everything changed. Better conditions of temperature control allowed for longer macerations and therefore better ageing potential.

Clos de los Siete from Mendoza in Argentina is so-called as there are seven parcels of vines in 800 hectares, owned by seven investors. The first vintage was 2002; we tasted the 2003 Clos de los Siete with a deep colour, dense ripe nose, and a certain sweetness and richness on the palate. It was ripe and supple, fulfilling an aim for soft tannins and drinkability.

Rolland is adamant that he wants to use local grapes; hence Carmenère in Chile and of course Pinotage in South Africa, as it is part of the history of the Cape. Thus the 2002 Bonne Nouvelle is a blend of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinotage. The main problem with Pinotage is that the vineyards are full of virus and in the past yields have been too high. However, as the vineyards improve, so will the wines. The Pinotage is given a fifteen day maceration; any longer and you get bitter notes, whereas the Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon can take 35 to 40 days. The aim is for balance. Rolland was adamant that there was no recipe to make wine.

India is one place where Rolland has not been able to work his charm on Merlot. It doesn’t like a warm climate, and “is cooked before it is ripe”. Quite simply it produced the worst Merlot he had ever encountered, so that the blend for the Grover Vineyards La Reserve is Cabernet Sauvignon with 20% of Syrah. Rolland explained how there is no period of dormancy, so that two harvests are possible, but they only work with one, the one from the dry season. The wine from the Monsoon period is just too awful. However they need to prune twice, in May, and again in October. The climate between October and May is dry, and those are the grapes that they use, harvesting just before the rains come. As for the wine, there was some berry fruit on the nose, and a slight vegetal note, with a soft finish.

xCampo Eliseo from Toro is the result of a joint venture with the Lurton brothers, Jacques and François. Rolland likes Toro; the region produces powerful, dense wine “so we have to look for finesse”. Yields tend to be high so a green harvest is necessary. Toro comes from pure Tempranillo or Tinta de Toro and the 2002 Campo Eliseo was rich in flavour, with some oaky vanilla notes, with a firm backbone of tannin, with some sweet ripe fruit. Rolland is not a fan of American oak, so unusually for Toro, it had been aged in French oak.

The second half of the tasting consisted of seven clarets, beginning with the 2003 Château Clos de la Tour, Réserve du Château, Bordeaux Supérieur, with some smokey elegant fruit. 2002 Château la Garde, Pessac-Léognan had some ripe berry fruit on the nose with quite a sturdy, structured palate. While tasting Chateau Belgrave, a 5th growth from the Medoc, Rolland observed that back in the 1970s it was more difficult to go from Pomerol to the Médoc than to the United States. “And at the beginning my job was not to make good wine, but to avoid making bad wine, and to avoid problems such as volatile acidity”.

The 2002 Belgrave was quite sturdy and structured with some firm tannins. Next came Essence de Dourthe. The idea with this wine is to make the best possible with a blend of the four Dourthe properties, Belgrave, le Boscq in St. Estèphe, la Garde and Clos de la Tour. The nose was intense and ripe, with solid ripe fruit on the palate. To my taste buds it seemed more right bank than left bank.

2002 Château Fontenil, Fronsac, was redolent of rich smokey oak with some supple tannins, while 2001 le Defi de Fontenil, is in theory a humble vin de table, but in practice a serious wine with stature. It was denied its appellation status as the 1.66 hectare plot was covered with plastic sheeting to avoid the effects of rain. The first year Rolland did this in 1999, there was no reaction from the INAO, but in 2000 he was told to remove the plastic sheet, as it modified the terroir. Rolland’s reply was “I can’t, I’m in the United States” and so he lost the appellation. The wine is definitely more concentrated than the plain Fontenil, with dense rich fruit, and also rather more expensive.

xThe tasting finished with 2001 Château le Bon Pasteur, Pomerol, which is the property of the Rolland family, a blend of 80% Merlot and 20% Cabernet Franc. The wine has a deep colour with a smoky, chocolaty nose, ripe powerful flavours, and well integrated oak. The subject of alcohol was raised, and Rolland explained the process of reverse osmosis, which can remove sugar from must, lowering the potential alcohol of particularly ripe grapes. For the moment the process is expensive and not very practical, but is being refined. Rolland is confident that improvements in quality over the next 10 years will come from the vineyard, not the cellar as has has been the case for the past decade.There was no doubt that the wines were good, in some instances extremely good, but I was left wondering if I would be able to identify their origins if I were to taste them blind in MW exam. I very much doubted it.

Maybe the differences would be more apparent in older wines, for most of these still had quite dominant oaky characteristics, whereas Rolland was adamant that wood is not wine; it is something he uses to make the best wine possible, but the wood character should disappear with age. The future is the fruit.

Stockists given, where available

2002 Grover Vineyards
£8.99, See current stockists on wine-searcher.com.

2003 Clos de los Siete
£9.99 – £10.99, Majestic, Oddbins. See other stockists on wine-searcher.com.

2001 Campo Eliseo Toro
£20, See current stockists on wine-searcher.com.

2001 Clos Apalta, Casa Lapostolle
£37.50, See current stockists on wine-searcher.com.

2001 Ornellaia
£60.35, See current stockists on wine-searcher.com.

2003 Clos de la Tour
£8.99 – £9.99, Berry Bros & Rudd, Oddbins,Entoria, the Wine Society

2002 Château la Garde
£14.85, Berry Bros & Rudd. See other stockists on wine-searcher.com.

2002 Château Belgrave
£19.99, Oddbins, Enotria. See other stockists on wine-searcher.com.

2001 Essence de Dourthe
£35.00 Berry Bros & Rudd. See other stockists on wine-searcher.com.

2002 Château Fontenil
£12 – £15, Farr Vintners. See other stockists on wine-searcher.com.

2001 Le Defi de Fontenil
£25 – £30, Fine & Rare Wines. See other stockists on wine-searcher.com.

2001 Château le Bon Pasteur
£38.20, Berry Bros & Rudd. See other stockists on wine-searcher.com.