Michel Rolland, the globetrotting consulting enologist, is perhaps best known for playing the role of
Mephistopheles himself in the documentary Mondovino. He was shown cackling in the back seat of his limousine smoking cigarillos and urging various winery owners in Bordeaux to “mico-oxygenate.” The film portrayed him as on par with Robert Parker, the Emperor of Standardization and Globalization (read my review of Mondovino here).
So I was surprised to see a different Michel Rolland lead members of the NYC press and trade in a tasting yesterday of seven wines that he had made. Although he wore suit that made him look more like he hangs out at investment banks rather than fermentation tanks, he was charming. He joked and told stories. This was the human face of globalization? He didn’t strike me as particularly fearsome.
Rolland is known as the “flying winemaker” par excellence. He consults to over 100 wineries mostly in Bordeaux where he got his start on the right bank. He wryly observed, “I started making wine in the US before I went to the [left bank] Medoc!” Along with 14 wineries in California, he consults in countries as diverse as India, Tunisia, and Uruguay, which makes him a juicy target for his detractors. His wines are often big and powerful since he likes to pick his grapes late and use French oak barrels. His fees are as high as his Parker point scores.
He said there are three keys to making great wine: great terroir, great grapes, and picking at the right time. Hmm, great wine is made in the vineyard? Sounds as if he might be talking himself out of a job as winemaker.
To illustrate the point that winemaking now requires more attention in the vineyard re recalled his first harvest in California in 1986. As the grapes were coming into the crushpad, a priest was there to bless them. He asked Zelma Long where the grapes had come from. She didn’t know.
Now, it’s all about the vineyard. And he sure has a big one in Argentina with five investors from Bordeaux in Clos de los Siete. (The d’Aulan family, the seventh in the name of the project, withdrew to focus their efforts on their Alta Vista winery) They just started planting in 1999 and quickly covered 450 hectares in vines. Then they stopped. The scary part is they still have 200+ more hectares that they can plant. With a vine density of 5,550 per hectare, that’s 2.5 million vines growing. That’s mucho malbec.
He said that contrary to his portrayal in Mondovino, he does not advise everyone to microxygenate, a process of running small bubbles through the wine during fermentation to soften the tannins. This is particularly the case in Argentina where they have such phenolic maturity that adding oxygen would turn the wines an unpleasant brown.
“The whole argument about globalization and standardization is silly,” he told me after the tasting. He said he doesn’t make wine one according to a formula. “You could taste that here today!”
But could I? Stay tuned tomorrow for part deux, including tasting notes, his thoughts on American oak and more.