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Song of Rolland

Published:  23 July, 2008

About the only myth Michel Rolland did not attempt to dispel, but rather reinforced, was that of the flying winemaker.

Addressing a small group of high-profile wine writers at The British Academy in London on 21 April, during a tasting organised by Spear Communications on behalf of leading Bordeaux ngociant Dourthe, the 57-year-old consultant winemaker announced that he was on his way back from Argentina en route for India via South Africa. Rolland consults in 12 countries and for 103 wineries, in some of which he has a part share. His presentation of 13 red wines was candid but confident, entertaining, fascinating, frequently self-deprecating and strangely revealing - though not always in ways that he would have intended.

The big discussion,' he began, is the globalisation of taste - as you can imagine, I hate this term - and the globalisation of wine in general. [Allegedly] there is no more terroir, only the Michel Rolland style and the style of other winemakers.' In an attempt to disprove this widely held view, he protested, We can see, tasting these wines, that they are completely different.' Nobody could have disagreed with that. But given that the wines came from four different continents, seven different countries (Argentina, Chile, France, Italy, Spain, India and South Africa), nine different varieties and four different vintages, it would surely have been much more surprising if the wines had tasted the same. Moreover, while the wines were not all over-alcoholic, over-extracted, over-oaked or over-ripe, as detractors mistakenly say, there was nevertheless a stylistic similarity to many of them.

Rolland accepted that many wines are less recognisable now than they once were, but insisted that this is an improvement: In the past, the wines had heavy Brett and heavy oak, and people recognised them through their defects rather than through their qualities.' Avowing that the origin of the wine is most important', he confessed that I am not a magician' and unfortunately for me, I can't change the terroir' (which raises the question of why he should want to). Introducing Ornellaia, of which he joked that he was now the oldest employee', having started with Ludovico Antinori in 1980, he described the estate as a fantastic terroir'. Again, few would have disagreed, and the 2001 was one of the best wines in the tasting. But for Rolland to say we can really speak of terroir here' was maybe recognition, seemingly unwitting, that we really couldn't with some of the others. The first wine shown, 2002 Grover Vineyards La Rserve, Nandi Hills, will have been a pleasant surprise for many tasters, but who could have said that it came from India? At least for this taster, it could have come from almost anywhere, which runs counter to most people's perception of terroir.

Facing another charge frequently levelled against consultants in general, and Rolland in particular, he said: We often read that there

is a recipe. There is no recipe.' Emphasising that he employs different techniques depending on the terroir, the variety and the vintage, he explained that the maceration times and proportion of new oak vary widely. He was also keen to shake off his reputation as a Merlot supremo. Acknowledging that Pinotage is a love it or hate it' grape variety, he said that he still wanted to use it as an important blending component in his South African wine (Bonne Nouvelle, from Stellenbosch) because it was indigenous' and traditional'. Answering a question from Anthony Rose, he said that if expected improvements in viticulture materialised, he would have no objection to a 30% minimum in the relevant South African blends. He also affirmed his commitment to Carmenre in Chile (Casa Lapostolle's Clos Apalta), Malbec in Argentina (Clos de los Siete) and Tempranillo in Spain (Campo Eliseo).

While there are few techniques that he always uses, he said, there are at least as many that he never or seldom uses. Acidification is not in his repertoire: I never use tartaric acid, even if the pH is very high. Whenever you adjust the acidity, you get harsh tannins, rough tannins on the finish.' Nor is micro-oxygenation a technique he normally recommends (I'm not the best fan of micro-oxygenation), despite the scene in the film Mondovino where he is depicted as recommending little else. Accusing director Jonathan Nossiter of being really dishonest', he explained that he had accompanied him on a tour of Bordeaux chteaux on 12 October 2002, a vintage in which reduction was a particular problem. Because micro-oxygenation should be used - if it is used at all - in the short space of time between the alcoholic and malolactic fermentations, Rolland did recommend it to a few of his clients that day. But he maintains that he only mentioned the word twice during filming, whereas it is heard 10 times during the film. Rolland also distanced himself from American oak, saying that he preferred not to use it for wines which were above a basic level, and insisted that if his wines sometimes taste too woody, it is because they are tasted too soon: After a few years there is not a strong woody character. If we came back in five years, none of these wines would be marked by wood.'

Although he defended his experimental use of plastic sheeting on part of his Fronsac estate, Chteau Fontenil (used to produce the vin de table Le Dfi de Fontenil in some vintages, the 6,000 bottles retailing for 25-30 each), he challenged the image of himself as a specialist in avant-garde, expensive, garage wines. Chteau Clos de la Tour's Rserve du Chteau (Bordeaux Suprieur) and the Argentinian JV Clos de los Siete are both produced in substantial volumes (267,000 and 300,000 bottles respectively), and sell for around 10 a bottle.

Asked by Stephen Skelton MW to anticipate the most important developments over the next 10 years, Rolland replied: I don't think we will see as many improvements over the next 10 years as over the past 10 years. There will be a slow evolution, not a revolution.' He predicted that there would be better, cleaner fruit character, and generally higher quality, with better integration of wood and lower alcohol. While he recognised that rising alcohol levels are presently a problem, he was optimistic that the removal of sugar from musts through reverse osmosis, a technique on which at least one French company is already working, would be a practical solution within the next five years: The same wine, the same quality wine, with less alcohol - that's really my dream.' One word, however, was conspicuous by its absence - the supposed theme of the tasting, terroir.