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Master of Malbec: Michel Rolland and the Future of Argentine Wine

Up close and personal with the world's most famous wine expert.

By | [email protected] | June 3, 2019 8:00am

Michel RollandMichel Rolland in Valle de Uco

Michel Rolland has the most infectious laugh. It’s not something you’d expect from the 71-year-old French oenologist, who from a distance gives off an air of buttoned-up formality. A globally-renowned leading expert and winemaker, Rolland was born in the Pomerol region of France and has been making wine in Argentina for more than 30 years. Along with his team of eight oenologists, he is actively involved with more than 250 projects across five continents. Rolland spends four weeks in Argentina every year and can often be spotted around the winery during vendimia, checking on every step of the vinification process.

Though he first visited Argentina back in 1982, Rolland eventually returned six years later to Cafayate (Salta) to embark upon a journey in search of the perfect spot to plant Malbec, the French grape that adapted and evolved on Argentine soil. He eventually made his way down to Valle de Uco (Mendoza), fell in love with a stretch of land nestled right along the cordillera of the Andes, rolled up his sleeves, and got to work.

Today that 850-hectare piece of land is known as Clos de los Siete, a group of four wineries – Monteviejo, Bodega Rolland, DiamAndes, and Cuvelier Los Andes – that comprise one of Argentina’s most iconic red blends. Each has its own signature style and aesthetic, ranging from traditionally Argentine (Monteviejo) to next-generation chic (DiamAndes), fostering a harmonious diversity that makes the final product as compelling and popular as it is.

The running joke is that getting into Clos is harder than getting into NASA; the tight-lipped security guards won’t let anyone past the gate unless they have a confirmed reservation on the books. Once that first obstacle is tackled, though, the rest of the experience is a sensorial adventure. Rolling hills of vines after vines (after vines – it’s truly expansive) unfold against a dramatic backdrop of the picture-perfect, snow-capped mountains. It really doesn’t get much better than this.

I was lucky to sit down with Michel Rolland over lunch at Bodega DiamAndes. On one side of the restaurant, oversized picture windows showcased the post-harvest vines as their fall colors started to emerge, on the other it was like we’d zoomed right in on the Andes – in HD. Needless to say, the setting – and the company – were all a bit surreal.

Our conversation ranged from what excites him about Argentine wine (“the women!” he jokes) to his favorite restaurant in Buenos Aires (Oviedo), to how he feels about people who cut their wine with seltzer water (“if that’s your thing, good for you”), but one thing was abundantly clear: Michel Rolland is a man who loves what he does, and that passion translates into every bottle of Clos de los Siete. He also doesn’t beat around the bush, which is where that characteristic laugh comes into play.

The following is a transcript of our interview. It has been translated, edited, and condensed for clarity.

How do you feel about being called “the father of modern Argentine wine”?

I don’t know. Of course, I arrived at a time when Argentina needed to change, it was a coincidence, being in the right place at the right time. That’s what happened. But it happened elsewhere, think about how things changed in the 90s: Catena, Trapiche, Salentein… everything changed in just ten years. Why? Because people aren’t stupid. They’ve seen that the domestic market, as good as it may be, just isn’t enough.

You’ve got to make wine that interests the rest of the world. That’s what I always say, and it’s where Arnaldo Etchart was a visionary in that respect, because in ‘86 and ‘87, he was traveling the world, but his wines weren’t successful because they didn’t match international tastes. I met him toward the end of his round-the-world trip, in New York. He kept saying ‘[Argentine] wine is no good in the US, it’s impossible.’ Later he called me and asked, ‘what do I need to do in order to export my wines?’ Then he called another guy, a very good friend of mine, who told him, ‘well, there’s only one Michel Rolland.’ At the time I wasn’t doing a lot of work outside of France. And the rest is history.  

How did you discover the land we’re standing on right now?

It’s pretty simple. I was here with a friend – Jean Michel Arcaute, who has since passed away – and we looked at something like 20 properties. He lived here, I didn’t, and every time we’d head out and walk, and walk, and walk, looking at [potential] places. One day he said, ‘I’m going to take you to one that seems really interesting.’ We arrived and stood down at the bottom, along the road before the current entrance to Clos. It was November and we started [to check it out]. We kept walking, and I asked him, ‘where is the land, exactly?’ and he replied ‘A bit further up’ – we walked and walked and walked.

Finally he said ‘OK, here it is.’ And I asked ‘Where are we, exactly? There’s nothing here!’ My friend replied ‘Yes, there is – 850 hectares!’ (laughs) So that was it, and I was mad because we’d been walking for ages, so we headed back down – definitely easier than the way up – I was 25 years younger then. In the end I said to him, ‘OK, this looks like a good place to me,’ and we paid a fortune for it – too much! (laughs)

Bodega DiamAndes – Photo via Mendoza Travel

Some say that to achieve success in the business, you should start with the branding and commercial aspects, then think about buying a winery, then think about buying a vineyard. Your journey kind of went the other way around.  

Not entirely, no. All of the projects that I have seen fail are where the investors show up with lots of money, invest everything they’ve got, but they never think about how to actually sell the wine once it’s made. So they continue to build up stock, but the wine doesn’t sell, and the project ends up failing. I think you can use both approaches at the same time. In our case, we’ve planted vines, then thought about the project.

The first year, we produced 180,000 bottles; today, we make much more than that. It’s a business like any other, nothing is entirely perfect, but we have great distributors [that help]. To start the other way around – have a distributor, buy the grapes, make the wine, think about the brand, then create the winery – be it short- or long-term, I think it’s the best path to take.

Have you ever made a wine that flopped?

Too many to count! (laughs) There’s a saying: the best isn’t the one that does everything right, it’s the one that makes fewer mistakes than the rest. And that’s why I’m here. But tomorrow? We’ll see about that.

Do we have to find reasons to explain a wine?

Wine doesn’t need to be explained, it just needs to be drunk. If you like it, great, and if not, that’s fine too. Listo. Tastes are personal, and you can’t argue about what you love. Good taste is your taste, there’s nothing to debate. I don’t think that mine is the ‘official’ taste. In my profession, the problem is simple. Or the wine sells, or it doesn’t. If it doesn’t sell, the owner has to say, ‘farewell, see you next time.’ We need to simplify things a bit, get back to basics. For example, [wine ratings] aren’t universal, they’re a personal reflection of the critic that wrote the review.

What have you learned about the average Argentine consumer in the last 30 years?

It’s changed – and a lot, at that. I’m not sure if for better or for worse. I always say, when I first came to Argentina, the wines weren’t good, they weren’t up to snuff. Back then, 30 years ago, consumers drank a different kind of wine – to me, the ‘anti-wine’ (laughs). For us Europeans it was horrific! But every time I’d be in a taxi in Buenos Aires, I’d ask the drivers if they drank wine, and they’d always respond ‘yes, yes of course!’ with the most incredible enthusiasm.

Consumption in Argentina has dropped, but the quality of the wine we drink has increased notably. How do you explain that?

It was born out of necessity. I used to be a consultant for Trapiche. At that time, they had six TetraPak machines, and their standout wine was Termidor, which was actually undrinkable! (laughs) I’m extremely close with the owners of winery, and they thought the same thing. But they produced millions and millions of liters of the stuff. That was the market back then.

I used to tell the guys from Pulenta, ‘Listen, things are going to change. In France, the same thing happened 30 years ago. People stopped drinking table wine and started drinking finer products.’ They were very confident in the business model: ‘No, no way. It’s not going to change.’ Obviously, it did change, because these shifts happen all over the world, in France, in Spain, and in Argentina the same thing happened eventually. Lower-quality wines start to disappear; in France in 1973 consumption was at 128 liters per capita and today that number stands at just 43.

The restaurant at Bodega Monteviejo

The profile of those that invest in the wine industry has changed. There’s new blood coming in, celebrities and such. In economic terms, why do you think that is?

Wine isn’t any more profitable than it was before. There’s a joke we tell in Bordeaux: ‘Do you want to know how to make a small fortune in the wine industry? Start with a big one’ (laughs). There’s two types of investors: large groups, like Concha y Toro or Trapiche, or private investors. Worldwide, wine and the wine industry are very attractive. But you need to have a lot of money, it’s very expensive to undertake a project like this.

But there are people that don’t really feel like having a vineyard, because it brings more problems than anything else. They do it purely out of pleasure or personal interest – and I can definitely understand that! Where I’ve re-invested the little money that I’ve earned has been right back here. And trust me, I’m very familiar with the topic, and have been for many years. That’s just how it is.

Do you ever think about leaving Argentina, given how complicated it can be to live and do business here?

I’m not going to say every morning, but almost! Maybe every three or four days (laughs). It’s a trap, but an attractive one. We remain optimistic that things will improve. Argentines like to say, ‘tomorrow will be better,’ and we think that, too.

Looking to the future, what trends do you see on the horizon?

There’s no need to worry about that today. Argentina shifted from a domestic market to an international one. Today, you can’t make wine for the internal market alone. There’s not enough local consumption in Argentina to do that. Therefore, every winemaker needs to think about producing something that will sell both at home and abroad; that’s what everyone has in mind these days. Thirty years ago it wasn’t necessary because the market was entirely domestic, they didn’t realize that they could export to other countries.

Everything changed starting in the 90s due to the changing relationship between the peso and the dollar. It was a different economic context; winemakers had to export or risk losing Argentina’s viticulture altogether. I don’t know what the wine of tomorrow looks like, but they’ll be wines that have consumers outside of Argentina. If it’s not to my taste, that doesn’t really matter. I have enough wine of my own that I like right here! (laughs)

If you had to drink just one varietal for the rest of your life, which would you pick? 

What a bad question! (Note: Luckily I’d had a few glasses of wine at this point, otherwise I would have crawled into a hole and died) I can think of plenty of bad answers, but I won’t do that to you. Because of my origins, I’m a huge fan of Merlot. My family is from Pomerol, and that is where I was born; there’s Merlot there, of course. It’s where I started to learn about and understand wine.

The taste of Merlot brings me pleasure; time and again when I’m traveling, I return home, and a wine I like to drink is a Pomerol. It’s a matter of personal taste that moves beyond my profession and everything else. Luckily though, I won’t ever have to choose just one varietal! But if I did, it would be Merlot. In Argentina it’s a tough grape, but there are some good ones, this year in particular they’re doing quite well.

You’re on a desert island and can only drink one wine from the Clos group. Which do you choose?

Without a doubt, Clos de los Siete 2009. One, because that was a great year, and [I’d choose the Clos label] because in my life, I’ve tried pretty much everything. Maybe not everything, but I come pretty close. So what can I take with me? A bottle that in some ways, changed my entire life.

Clos de los Siete partners