Allegrini 2018

“The Wine Guru”, Michel Rolland talks about oenology, future challenges and change

WineNews interviewed the Bordeaux oenologist, symbol of contemporary wine, who has influenced winemaking the world over

The whole world, including wine, of course, is living through and still experiencing a period of transition, which will inevitably bring changes to every aspect of life. There will be changes in the wine sector as well, which has always been particularly sensitive to change, evolution and confrontation, well before the pandemic hit Asia, Europe and North America. The lockdown forced wine lovers to consume wine exclusively at home, and wine professionals to work from home, through videoconferences. In the meantime, the work of winemakers and wine growers at the wineries has never stopped, and instead has continued to produce excellence. Winemaking has always been the trademark of Michel Rolland, one of the most influential contemporary winemakers and master of the Bordeaux style, who grew up in the vineyards of the Chateaux of Bordeaux. He has then been able to influence the wine making style everywhere, from California to Italy (he came here in the late 1980s to his friend Lodovico Antinori, the inventor of Masseto and Ornellaia, and today owner of the splendid Tenuta di Biserno, a stone’s throw from Bolgheri, in Bibbona). He has been working for years with Marco Caprai, head of the Sagrantino di Montefalco brand (where Rolland presented the Italian edition of his latest book, “The Wine Guru”), based on a variety that is very different from the international ones, and very difficult, which Rolland has learned to work with and tame, because “everything is difficult, but nothing is difficult”, as he told WineNews.
Let’s start from the beginning, or rather from the end; that is from the Covid-19 pandemic that has affected and distraught the world, and consumer habits.
“The way we consume wine has changed because, unfortunately, restaurants have been closed for three or four months, and suddenly we found that we could drink wine only within the boundaries of our homes, through a market that worked primarily with wine bars and private individuals, and consumers experienced tastings without consulting wine lists”, explained Rolland. “To evaluate the changes in the wine world, I shall take Bordeaux as an example, where the En Primeur has just ended, and like all the other years, the traders are optimistic since it went very well, actually, much better than one could have imagined. This means that the buyers are still there and the wine market is still alive, waiting for everything to go back to the way it was before, as soon as this virus disappears”, continued the wine maker.
Work and how to manage events has changed radically, too, as online has become the main channel, introducing new possibilities that we will probably carry with us also in the future. “I believe it is really a new means of communication, as there has been a surge of online tastings, through videoconferences, which has involved a lot of consumers and merchants. I personally think it will remain, I do not know at what level, but it will remain. I have received many samples to be tasted in videoconferences; I believe it is a system that has room to grow”, said Rolland. However, one must remember that “contact is indispensable, one certainly cannot think of doing only videoconferences, but in some cases it is a way to avoid a trip and airplanes, which is not entirely negative, as it is also good to lower CO2 emissions. So, I think in the future there will be a little more digital in wine communication”.
It seems that wine in its infinite folds is not capable of getting out of an endless bilateral discussion, in which the contrast and the distinction sometimes seem to take over the substance, in a never-ending struggle between large and small, biological and conventional, a dynamic in which Michel Rolland has often been involved, as he says in his latest book, “The Wine Guru”. “It is in human nature to oppose big to small, weak to strong, every day. In my book”, explained Rolland, “what I have tried to do then, is not favor the big over the small. I have made wines for small wineries, I have helped young people who had no means, and I have also given free advice because I knew very well that that advice could not have been paid for. In other words, what I would like to say is that I am driven by passion, and enology is a passion in my life because passion is the key to everything, passion creates quality, passion has positive effects on wine, passion is essential in this field”.
In this field, the challenge of new things is the driving force that moves towards different territories and vines, fearlessly, even when one leaves the known of the Bordeaux varieties for an Italian native like Sagrantino di Montefalco, because “everything is difficult and nothing is difficult”, Michel Rolland explained. “My job is simple, one has to understand what is happening, at what level it is happening, and where it is happening. I was definitely born in Bordeaux, I made Bordeaux wines and I continue to make Bordeaux, but I have also made wine in 21 different countries around the world, where I have worked with completely different soils and climatic conditions. So, let’s take Caprai for example. Sagrantino is not the easiest vine, but Pinot is not easy either; however you tame it, learn how to make it and you learn to know it. I believe this is my real job; that is, understanding where I am and what I can do there. When I am in Montefalco, I don’t make Pomerol, and when I am in Pomerol I don’t make Sagrantino, that’s it. Most of all, we must understand”, the wine maker emphasized, “ that one should not want to repeat what one has done in other countries. What I have done in Argentina, Chile or China has nothing to do with the work that must be done here. The secret is to understand where you are, what has already been done, what you want to do and what you can do. This is my job”.
Rolland’s job, then could sooner or later lead him to confront the two most typical vines in the rich Italian vine variety universe: namely, Sangiovese in Montalcino and Nebbiolo in Barolo. These are “wines that I am interested in, and it is true that I have never made Barolo or Brunello, even though I have worked with the Folonari family. I would say that what I really like is what has not yet been done, rather, discovering things I have never done. Curiosity”, Rolland continued, “is essential in my profession, so I am interested in what has not yet been discovered. Unfortunately, age advances, one travel less and less, and is not as fast, so it becomes a bit complicated”.
The future, therefore, is challenging to plan. In the past, though, of the many countries where Michel Rolland has worked, there is China, which many have begun to consider not only an export market, but also a country capable of producing quality wines, in competition with Italy, France and more. Is it a threat? no, at least, not for the moment. “I think there is no need to be afraid. There is no doubt that China is a great producer. They have planted an enormous number of vineyards, and wine production will be massive as a result. However, it will still take a lot of time and work to make high-end wines, it will not happen tomorrow . I think France, Italy, Spain and the other producing countries do not have to worry about the competition of Chinese wine, which for the moment is essentially destined for the domestic market. And, if the Chinese were to discover wine, Chinese wine production will not be sufficient, so they will be forced to import wine from abroad. We can rest assured”, the wine maker said, because “in Bordeaux, the first 5 years are considered the most complicated in the wine industry. We have a long time to wait before the Chinese arrive...”.
In the meantime, wine seems to have reached an unprecedented quality stature, and now the challenge will be played on two channels: marketing and distribution. “I think wine has never been so good worldwide. All the producing countries”, Rolland continued, “produce good wines in large quantities. The next challenge will be marketing and distribution. This is where we will have to work hard because competition is great, and this will be the big challenge. If I could have a second life, I would launch myself into distribution and marketing, because they represent the future of wine. One can find good wine almost everywhere now. We are competing and this is the competition to win in the future”.
Finally, looking at the past with an eye to the present of his old and new friends of Italian wine, which Michel Rolland has known and visited for years. At least thirty years have passed since “I met Lodovico Antinori, who is an old friend of mine, and we are on excellent terms. My job is based on friendship and contact with people. Of course, there is technique, taste, assembly work and many other things, but above all there is contact with people. Lodovico and I are in harmony; as they say in France, “we have hearts that beat in step”, together, we talk about the same things, we understand the same things”. He has found this same harmony also in his relationship with Marco Caprai. “When I came here, attracted by Sagrantino, a grape that I have always liked, which has always interested me, with the idea of ​​improving it (because my job is to improve) , I met Caprai, a very charming person in whom I found passion and enthusiasm, the skills needed to succeed in the wine world. I liked him straight away, and here I am”.

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