Meeting Michel Rolland
Interview by Oleg Cherne
Michel Rolland is a special personality in the wine world, a true master who one cannot even meet without first undergoing proper and thorough preparations. I arrived to my interview with Rolland directly from Argentina, where I was tasting Andeluno wine, a brand that bears his name. The wine left a very good impression on me, and in all the stores I went to look for it, I said: «I really need to find this wine, I can’t go meet Michel Rolland without first trying the wine he makes…»
It has been 30 years since I began my career studying ancient civilizations, and as an archaeologist, I «dig out» great people. Mr. Rolland is on that level of discovery any scientist would be proud to make. We specifically arranged our meeting to coincide with the full moon and St. Martin’s Day, so the day would be just as special as the person.
— Mr. Rolland, according to one opinion, there is the world of wine and the culture of wine, but these two spheres never actually intersect. Do you agree with this claim?
— There is some truth to those words. There is indeed culture and tradition, but the world of business, of selling wine, isn’t a mythological process anymore, it’s been commercialized. Unfortunately, people often idealize wine, they see only its greatness as a drink… But wine is a culture, and a very ancient one at that. And culture cannot just leave the old world so easily. For example, in Bordeaux one cannot make wine that has nothing to do with culture.
My profession is making wine. When I, for example, participate in the assemblage of wine produced in Spain in the amount of 7 to 8 million bottles per year, do you really believe we can speak of high culture in that case? But it still has its image. A commercial image.
— So the volume of wine produced is an indicator of culture?
— It’s an indicator of effort, care and responsibility, which are part of culture.
— I heard that you were the one who discovered Robert Parker…
— That’s an exaggeration. The story with Parker is very simple. We were born in the same year, and when we met 27 years ago, we were very young. The brand of Robert Parker didn’t exist yet, and the name of Rolland was largely unknown. Our careers ended up taking parallel paths. I make wine, while Parker is now a wine critic. But we happened to become friends, and I believe that Robert respects me as a winemaker, while I have deep respect to him as a critic. That is why we’re still friends.
— Some people say that there is either Cabernet Sauvignon, or all other wine in the world. What do you think about this idea?
— I can’t agree with this one. There are other great wine varieties in the world, not just Cabernet Sauvignon. But it is definite that Cabernet Sauvignon is the sort of grape with the best ability to adapt to the conditions of any part of the world. When the New World wanted to start making their own wine, which variety did they plant? They all planted Cabernet Sauvignon. Merlot isn’t that adaptable, and neither is Cabernet Franc or Pinot Noir… But Cabernet Sauvignon can grow just about anywhere.
— Can you name some of your favorite autochthonous varieties?
— There are several that I like most, for example, Grenache from Priorat, Spain. Italian Sangiovese can also be very good sometimes. Malbec, despite its French origin, adapts very well in Argentina, and I also like Pinot Noir very much. That might be perhaps a bit strange for someone from Medoc, but I love Pinot Noir. One can make sublime, exceptional wines from Pinot Noir.
— Judging by your answers in another interview, you tend to like milder, more rounded wines. It that so?
— When I decided to turn back to the origins and I was just starting out, wines were feeble, and tannins were quite rough, even peasant-like… I’m talking about Bordeaux, because at that time there were no other wines, no other real competitors… And in this one mass of wine, several vintages stood out that later became the world’s gold standard. And if you look at these vintages, it is easy to see that they are very mild; they are the same kinds of wine, but without the sharpness, and with very smooth tannins. They were big and dense, but never harsh. That’s why I said to myself: «Well, this must be what a good wine is called. Let’s try and make some.»
— Today, when the world is focused on wines made to be consumed almost immediately, can we hope that someone will continue making wines with a long history?
— This is a real problem for great wine today. People drink wine too early. I think this is more caused by social behavior than the wine itself. But people who I refer to as «true» consumers, do not make this same mistake. After all, great wine is made for a certain class of people…
— In England, what is known as wine investments are popular, when people invest in long-running wines, so to speak. Do you think this is a good investment?
— It’s not only in England; Russian do that, too. But England started doing it several years before anyone else because of an interest first observed at large auction houses like Christie’s and Sotheby’s. If you are looking for an interesting wine, then the best place to go now is the USA. Russia and Asia are also very interested in wine right now, and this market keeps growing. But this is no more than just simple commercialization. Is that a good or bad thing? If someone starts making profit on a particular product, it’s a good sign for those, who make this product.
— Can you recommend any wine variety that would be a good investment? Do you have any advice for people who want to invest their money in wine?
— They should buy wines that earn 100 points from Parker.
— Do you agree with all of Parker’s evaluations?
— The thing here is that evaluations are always subjective. That is why the same tasting wine can get different evaluations. Tasting is a very complex art, after all. So a good taster is not just someone who never makes mistakes, but someone who makes less mistakes than others. This is the case with Parker.
— Which of your wines would you recommend as an investment?
— Compromili and Mapet.
— What’s your opinion on Pape Clement 2005, which earned 100 points from Parker? I believe this wine will be a repeat of the Chateau Petrus story.
— I sure hope so! You know, I love this wine. How can I not, if I made it! (Laughs)
— The 2004 wine was quite impressive too, and have you tried Chateau Pontet Canet Grand Cru 2005, which is already among the top 10 best wines to invest in?
— I have! I made that one, too.
— I’m not a specialist in wine, but rather a specialist in water, and I have to say this is the best water I’ve ever tried. And I think very few people now can understand how special this wine is.
— I’m not a wizard, it just worked out that way. When I come to this château and look at the vineyards, I realize it was one of the most beautiful estates in Medoc. Its terroir is even better than the Rothschilds’.
— From all the initial crus I’ve visited so far, none have actually impressed me with their wine. Yes, it’s a good wine, and yes, it’s a good history, but I felt like they were selling history rather than the wine.
— Exactly. They sell history. And that’s a very good point.
— What other interesting wines would you like to mention here?
— There are so many of them! I would like to specifically mention all wines from the Cheval Blanc area. I’ve also recently been enjoying Château Pavie and Château Troplong Mondot. These wines are regularly on the top level.
— If someone wants to buy a wine only to taste it in 15 years, which would you recommend?
— The ones I just mentioned, actually. After all, there are some wines that can only be opened after 15 years. But not all wine should wait that long to be tasted. However, when it comes to Château Pontet Canet 2005, 15, 20, 30 years of aging is just right.
— That’s true, it’s hard to drink it right now, it’s still so powerful!
— Exactly. It wouldn’t be right to drink it right now.
— But you can still drink Brounet de Cru, for example, 2005.
— Yes, that is a decent wine, but it doesn’t have the right density… It won’t keep for as long as Pontet Canet.
— Do you like any varieties of wine produced in America and Australia?
— I do a lot of consulting work in America, so I’m pretty well-known there, as well as in Argentina. There are many good wines there, particularly Colgin (produced by Allan Scott Wines & Estates Ltd). This is not my wine. If you want a recommendation from my own wines, try Screaming Eagle. I contributed to crafting five out of the seven famous wines from Napa Valley. I also like Australian wine based on Syrah. If you look at Grunge wine, at their old wine in particular, it’s easy to see they have several very good kinds. But still, I think Australian wine is quite average, and they don’t have many great wines there.
— I agree about Syrah, this variety of wine excels particularly well in Australia. Are there any particular wines that stand out there in your opinion?
— No, they aren’t. But what is it that confuses me about Australia… Take Parker and his Wine Spectator. They consistently get 90 to 100 points from him. How much was sent? 200 cases, 150 cases, 225 cases with 12 bottles in each? That is not a lot at all. You can make such a small amount of good wine virtually anywhere. Compare that to the 10 thousand cases of Pape Clement produced in a series.
— So Australians can only succeed if they produce small volumes of wine?
— Yes, and that’s a whole new profession. They can create great wine, but only in small quantities. This means they cannot really be part of the market, since only a small group of specialists will ever know about them. The problem is that it’s impossible to find on the market even one Australian wine garnering high critical acclaim.
— Are wines from the USA any different?
— Yes, they can make 2, 3, 5 thousand cases of great quality product.
— Do you have any thoughts on South Africa and the Pinotage grape?
— I make wine in South Africa, and I particularly enjoy Bonne Nouvelle, which is based on Cabernet Sauvignon. But there is also good wine from Merlot and Pinotage.
— What are you working on now? As far as I know, you don’t often stay at Bordeaux.
— No, I don’t. At the moment, I do consultations at about one hundred estates, sixty of which are located in Bordeaux. Half the time I spend in Bordeaux, and the other — abroad.
— Do you think American wine will get any better once Obama is president?
— (Laughs) I don’t know, but I’m sure that it’ll be hard to make it worse than it was under Bush. Besides, I don’t even know what Obama likes to drink.
— Can wine change the world?
— This sounds like some grandiose idea hidden in wine.
— Are there any oenologists you would recommend? Who do you respect among them as a professional?
— First of all, I respect all of them. I think there are very good professionals and maestros out there. But the world is made in such a way that the people garnering the most respect are already gone. Or they are old and not part of the profession anymore. I, for instance, already have fans, which means I’m old now… In my own time, I was fascinated by Emile Peynaud, who is considered the founder of oenology. He was also my professor, and we loved him to death. He was actually the man who formed modern oenology.
— What do you think about winemaking’s global prospects?
— As you’ve probably noticed, the quality of wine has increased dramatically in the past 15 years. People have never drunk such good, high quality wine as they do now.
— But at the same time, the volume of bad wine has increased as well…
— This, I think, is inevitable.
— A critic once said that good wine makes up no more than 30% of the market. What do you think about this claim?
— I think this critic is too generous. My own statistics are as follows: 5% is very good wine, 15% is good wine, and the rest is of no interest. You do the math… 280 million hL of wine is produced internationally, so 20% is 56 million hL of good wine. That’s 800 million bottles, or 5%. Think about it, and believe me that 5% is a lot. I think that if there are actually 800 million bottles, I’ll have enough work for the rest of my life.
— You sure will, but I believe that truly good wine can serve as the foundation for a high quality life.
— Of course, I agree with that. I am a living example of it.
— But unfortunately, you are not like normal people, you’ll always be more of a reference, an ideal.
— This is the whole point of my game. Surely, I wasn’t like that from the very beginning, but what should be the purpose of life? I must be one of the rare oenologists, or even the only one, who has made this much wine. I mean, wine of varying quality and level. As my professional career has proceeded, I have gradually cut out all the unnecessary details. Naturally, I’m not going to throw away something good if there’s still something bad in there!
— One oenologist has stated that there is real, good wine, and there are wine beverages… The focal point of my interest isn’t just wine, but any beverage, as liquids are very important for all of us. I think it’s better not to drink any wine at all, rather than drink bad wine. The same goes for water.
— I’m not sure the quality of wine influences our personal characteristics or organisms. For me, the possibility to not drink bad wine is a purely intellectual matter. I’m just lucky to have this chance to taste good wine. Because what’s the point in drinking bad wine?
— But the point here is that when a person drinks quality water, it lingers on in their body. And when it stays there, the energy of that drink stays as well, and this energy goes straight to the kidneys. It nurtures bone marrow, and consequently, the brain. Food is incapable of nurturing our brain, only fluids do. Our brain must stay nurtured, and liquid is its food… Or rather, both intellectual activity and liquids are the ideal brain food, but its actual operation relies most on high quality liquid fuel.
—Well then, if we consider all the top quality wine I’ve had in my life, my brain must be supercharged by this point! (Laughs) Or at least, it’s been quite well imbued…