One of the original “flying winemakers,” Michel Rolland shares his thoughts on topics as wide-ranging as hot wines from France, the worldwide impact of climate change on grape growing, and what Americans are doing wrong.
By Laura Ness
International wine consultant and legend Michel Rolland will begin his 50th harvest year in September 2022. One of the original “flying winemakers,” he oversees harvests in (among other locales) his native Bordeaux, including at his birthplace of Château Le Bon Pasteur in Pomerol; in Napa, Calif., where he works with cult classics like Harlan, Dalle Valle and Screaming Eagle; and in Argentina, where he oversees Clos de los Siete.
The pace is hectic, but the affable man finds plenty of ways to enjoy life, including sitting down with a group of wine journalists at The Charter Oak in Napa to share a meal, some fine Argentine wine from his newest project (4 vintages of Clos de Los Siete, 2009, 2010, 2015 and 2019) and many observations.
On Climate Change
All told, Rolland works with 150 clients on multiple continents, so harvest is always close at hand somewhere. With this global perspective comes strong opinions on the state of the wine world. Climate change impacts every aspect of every vineyard property he works with around the world, he observes. Sometimes it’s good; sometimes, not.
“In the last 20 years, I’ve had more ‘good’ vintages than ever before in my life,” he says. “Global warming has helped France, with less rain and more ripening. We’ve gone from 12 percent to 13 and even 14.5 percent alcohol. Wine consumers like wine riper and easier to drink.”
It seems that France — Bordeaux, in particular — is chasing Napa in this regard, and it may not just be due to the overwhelming influence Napa cult wines have on the wine world’s ideals, but rather because the climate is warmer and drier. This applies to Argentina as well.
“We have less variability,” Rolland says of his South American venture. “We have high temperatures, drought and strong heat waves. It’s similar to Napa at harvest. We’re forced to irrigate.”
Overall, despite some short-term beneficial aspects, climate change is terrifying. “If I were younger, I would quit the wine business to study climate change and find solutions. We only have maybe 10 to 20 years.”
On Growing in Argentina
Among his biggest challenges, Rolland says, is directing development of wine regions in lesser-studied parts of the world. One of those near and dear to his heart is Argentina, where in 1988, he fell in love with the property in the Valle de Uco that’s now known as Clos de Los Siete. When he first encountered the high altitude property in Mendoza, he worried a lot about hail and frost. With good reason.
At 1,000 meters (3,300 feet) above sea level, the high plain lies very close to the Andes Mountains. “In the past, you would get frost during the growing season six out of seven years.” But as climate change continues its unrelenting march forward, he says, “We have not had any frost since 2002.” And hail? “Only once, in 2011. That’s once in 20 years. Thank you, God!”
Argentina’s wine industry runs deeper— and colder — than many may realize. “There are lots of 100 year old vines in Argentina,” says the winemaker. “There is no disease pressure like there is in Napa. Why? There is no real winter in Napa to kill the bugs. In Mendoza, there will be at least 15 days below zero in winter. In Napa, none.”
That said, the threat of phylloxera still exists in Argentina, as about half the vines are still own-rooted. He’s reminded of when he first came to California. “In 1986, Zelma Long warned Napa about phylloxera. Soon, seventy-five to 80 percent of vineyards were destroyed.” Looking for the positive, he says, “This actually saved California, because we had to replant with better clones.”
And, similar to other shifting wine climates around the world, Argentina is no longer able to rely on regular rainfall to irrigate grapes naturally. In an increasingly warming world, sourcing water has become more critical. “The river water in Valle de Uco [along which most vineyards are planted], has a very high pH,” he explains. “Using well water [which comes directly from Andean snow melt], we do not need to add acid.”
On Cabernet Sauvignon
Even though Argentina started out as an outpost for Malbec, winemakers eventually succumbed to the wave of popularity that pushed Cabernet Sauvignon to the world’s top spot.
“In the 1990s, people in Argentina were pulling out Malbec in favor of Cabernet Sauvignon,” Rolland remembers. “Back then, yields were not controlled, and nobody talked about quality. The last five years have seen a return of Malbec. This time, they are replanting for quality, though, not productivity.” Plantings of Malbec in the country went from 50,000 acres down to 9,000 at its lowest. The variety has rebounded and now sits at 38K,000 acres, making it the largest resource in the world.
Worldwide acceptance of Cab as the King of grapes is pervasive, Rolland concedes. Probably because, as he points out, “Cabernet Sauvignon is the easiest grape to plant when you are not sure what is going to happen — even in China!” Having done a fair amount of consulting in that country as well, Rolland speaks with authority.
On Drinking and Making Wine
Rolland isn’t shy about expressing his opinion about the way Americans consume wine, saying that we have no patience, and that we drink wines far too young. “I’m drinking 2001 to 2010 Bordeaux right now. Buy young wines for less money. Start collecting earlier, and wait to drink them for at least eight years.”
As a consulting winemaker, he’s constantly asked for advice on how to make wine, but he’s not in the business of providing recipes. Says Rolland, “I don’t tell wineries how to make wine. A consultant is like a coach: he is not on the field playing.” That said, Rolland truly enjoys making wine when the opportunity arises.
His Clos de Los Siete blend is available at most large retailers and at a price that won’t break the bank. The primarily Malbec blend changes yearly: he’s been adding more Merlot and Cab Franc as the vintages warm, looking to freshen them up. The 2019 is smooth, with red raspberry, blueberry, fresh mint and tarragon. Buy a case so you can toast him long after he (eventually) retires.
Laura Ness is an avid wine journalist, storyteller and wine columnist (Edible:Monterey, Los Gatos Magazine San Jose Mercury News, The Livermore Independent), and a long time contributor to Wine Industry Network. Known as “HerVineNess,” she judges wine competitions throughout California and has a corkscrew in every purse. However, she wishes that all wineries would adopt screwcaps!