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 Whos 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 Parkers. 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
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,
What is the enologists 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 familys
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 LEvangile, 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
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
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
wines 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.
Website Design ©Maron Marketing Consultants, Inc.