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Michel Rolland and the New Bordeaux Style

[Wine enologist Michel Rolland consults with over 100 wineries throughout the world. His clients in St.-Emilion and Pomerol read like a “Who’s Who” of elite properties. He also works with wineries in Argentina, Chile (Casa Lapostolle), and California (Robert Mondavi). Numerous properties have increased the quality of their wines by following his suggestions. His influence is as pervasive as Robert Parker’s. His mantra includes harvesting riper grapes and using more new oak in the aging process. Critics argue that his techniques obscure the effects of terroir on the resulting wines. This interview was published in Bordeaux News.]

Michel Rolland is an indefatigable ambassador of good winemaking practices and has now extended his activities to include overseas consulting. Nevertheless, in spite of their many other activities, Michel and his wife, Dany, an enologist in her own right, continue to manage a large enology laboratory situated in the heart of the vineyards around Libourne.

They also manage their considerable vineyard holdings in the area. Michel Rolland owes his reputation as the primus inter pares (first amongst equals) in the ranks of Bordeaux enologists at least in part to his wide-ranging activities. This distinction, however, has left him open to victimization by journalists more inclined towards caricature than checking their facts.

At Bordeaux News we have observed the beneficial results of the “Rolland Method” at a number of Bordeaux estates. We felt it would be worthwhile to let Michel Rolland tell us the true story. He replied to our questions in his usual gracious, good-tempered fashion.

To start, it will be no surprise to you if I ask you to tell us about the “Rolland Method.”
There is a perpetual tendency to categorize other people's actions and achievements by their so-called recipes. I have to disappoint you. I would say that my first recipe is the fact that I do not have a recipe. For me, everything started on my own properties. As a result of continuous observation, I decided to experiment with ideas which turned out to be improvements.

Many people then became interested, and I believe I am entitled to say that this has contributed to the global success of [Pomerol and St.-Emilion]. Wine cannot be made by stereotyped methods. This is perhaps where I have been in some ways a forerunner. I have often heard the following argument put forward as a guarantee of quality by wine growers : “I make wine like my father and my grandfather before him.” More often than not I also noticed that vineyards handled in this manner went downhill. The best way to negate quality is to ignore technological developments and research findings.

My basic reasoning is built upon observing the vineyards. The series of mediocre vintages in the sixties, apart from a few exceptions, revealed a fact that was not obvious at the time: it is impossible to make good wine from grapes which have not reached full maturity. However, it should be noted that the optimum weather conditions required to achieve full ripeness are relatively rare in Bordeaux. [Cabernet Sauvignon frequently struggles to ripen fully in Bordeaux, which is slightly cooler and receives much less sunshine than, say, California.]

Due to the vagaries of nature, it is therefore essential to find ways of conditioning vines to produce fully mature grapes on a relatively regular basis. The considerable progress made in vineyard protection over the last ten years has been of the utmost importance. Oidium and mildew, which devastated the vineyards in the Thirties, have been brought under control. Catastrophic situations such as those in 1963, 1965 and 1968 are unlikely to occur again. New factors since 1985 are the use of “effeuillage” - thinning out the vine leaves and “éclaircissage” - reducing the number of bunches per vine, which has completely altered the ripening period. The first operation enhances ripening by exposing the grapes to the sun and air; the second removes some of the strain of an over-abundant crop from the vine roots.

Over-cropping inevitably slows down the ripening process. The 1992 vintage is an excellent illustration of this new discovery. Due to the weather, this vintage should theoretically have been mediocre, but, thanks to these new techniques, the wines were of very good quality. The astonishing technical revolution of the last ten years has to be seen from this global standpoint, and not as a recipe based on ridiculously low yields, over-ripeness, and over-extraction.

What is the enologist’s role in this revolution?
When the raw material is good, his role is less important. There is no real secret: pumping over a few times, close observation during fermentation to avoid accidents, and the wine will be naturally deep colored and full bodied, with soft round tannin. Now we make quality wines consistently, year after year. The weather no longer has the same influence as it did in the past. Nevertheless, conditions must still be exceptional to produce a very great vintage.

Could you talk a little about your own estates?
My wife, Dany, and I manage our family’s vineyard holding of 36 hectares. All these estates are relatively modest in size: Château Le Bon Pasteur in Pomerol, Château Bertineau Saint-Vincent in Lalande-de-Pomerol, Château Rolland-Maillet in. Saint-Emilion, Château Fontenil in Fronsac, as well as Château La Grande Clotte in Lussac-Saint-Emilion, which we manage “en fermage” - under the vineyard lease system. I would like to talk mainly about Château Le Bon Pasteur and Château Fontenil. The first, because it was created by my grandparents after the First World War, and the second because we recently bought it.

The 7 hectares of Le Bon Pasteur are ideally situated between L’Evangile, Gazin, and Cheval-Blanc, and have all the ingredients needed to make a top-quality vineyard: south-south-west facing, good slope which assures excellent drainage, a diversity of soils well distributed over three terraces, each with its own individual character, early ripening, etc. Fontenil is without doubt a more modest vineyard, but with remarkable potential. The 9 hectares are also situated on a South-facing slope with a good gradient. The sandstone soil with a high clay content provides a perfect environment for old Merlot vines which make up almost the entire vineyard.

How do you approach the vineyard?
At both properties, I do everything technically possible to obtain the best quality crop and accelerate the ripening process: short pruning, “éclaircissage,” “effeuillage,” and picking by hand. Fontenil has the added problem of vigorous vegetative growth and rather prolific grapes, so controlling crop size is particularly important. This obviously costly approach is not really justifiable at Fontenil, but the vineyard is so attractive. We could describe it as our winemaking hobby where profitability is not the major consideration.
 
And how does Michel Rolland make wine?
At both Le Bon Pasteur and Fontenil, we implement a very precise method of individual plot management to suit the needs of each vineyard. The vintage is organized “à la carte,” picking when the grapes are perfectly ripe, and I stress perfectly ripe, never overripe.

Our fermentation vats are adapted to this individual plot management and the nuances of each plot can be separated out in homogeneous batches in small vats. Contrary to overblown statements by the media, I do not systematically indulge in intense extraction. The winemaking procedures are determined by the quality of the raw material. According to the vintage, vatting may last 12 days, or theoretically even up to 40 days, under different circumstances.

Where barrel aging is concerned, I rely on my experience as a taster which taught me that wines are always better when they have had contact with new oak, provided, of course, that they started off with sufficient body and structure. This is why we put the wine the in new barrels for the malolactic fermentation.

Aging continues in new barrels, with part still on the lees. Insistence on perfectly ripe grapes, malolactic fermentation in barrel, and aging on the lees enhance the wine’s roundness, richness, and depth. From my point of view these factors contribute to the primary quality of a great wine: to be equally enjoyable throughout its life.


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