Winemaker Michel Rolland comes to Hong Kong

PUBLISHED : Friday, 06 June, 2014, 12:11am
UPDATED : Friday, 06 June, 2014, 10:53am

It is the opening day of Vinexpo Asia-Pacific and at the Rolland Collection booth, Michel Rolland is being mobbed by mainland visitors, who have recognised the winemaker and want to have their pictures taken with him.

"I know too many people here," he chuckles.

The amiable Frenchman in his mid-60s doesn't come to Hong Kong often, but when he does, many gravitate towards him.

Originally from Pomerol, Rolland has had an extremely successful career as "the flying winemaker" because, as a wine consultant, he helps hundreds of clients in 20 countries make award-winning wines.

Perhaps it has to do with his more than 40 years of experience in winemaking, starting on his parents' estate, Chateau Le Bon Pasteur, going to oenology school, and then analysing wine when he and his wife and fellow oenologist Dany bought an oenology lab in 1973.

"I did many years in the lab where I tasted all the wines coming in and learning how to taste and what tasting means," says Rolland. "If you want to learn, you have to meet people, but sometimes they teach you bad things, so you have to be careful. In fact, they are shaping your own experience because you can make choices, and you can say that's good, that's wrong, that's the experience. And you need time."

I think China will definitely be the number one market for wine

With this combination of technical knowledge and a sophisticated wine palate, he began his consultancy in the late 1970s. Business took off in the '80s with clients in the US and South America, and now in Canada, China and Italy, among other countries. Rolland also makes his own wines from vineyards in France, Argentina and Spain, and also buys grapes from South Africa and the US to vinify.

Despite his success, some wine critics have accused Rolland of manipulating the winemaking process to create fruit-heavy and oak-influenced wines, the preference of the influential critic Robert Parker, but Rolland brusquely dismisses the allegations that continue to trail him after 10 years.

"I have 14 or 15 wines here. If you taste the 15 wines, all are different and that's my wines. And you can imagine when I work in China, in Chile, in Argentina, in the US, how can somebody imagine I can make the same wine? Only stupid people. I don't give an answer to stupid people. I am just doing my job. I'm very happy and doing very well," he says with a big smile.

Rolland adds: "In fact, the style of the wine is mostly determined by the origin of the grapes. I am certainly one of the oenologists making wine in more countries than anybody. I make wine in 20 different countries and my origin is from Pomerol. Of course, I did a lot of Pomerol-style wines. I would like to make Pomerol in Argentina or South Africa or maybe in Canada. But we cannot because the relationship between climate and soil is completely different and we just have to take the grapes nature gave us and make the best vinification we can."

There was lots of excitement when the 2009 vintage was released in Bordeaux, but to have another fantastic vintage the following year was not only unparalleled, it also saw prices soaring more than 20 per cent. Many traditional buyers in Europe and the US were priced out of the market, and mainland buyers didn't bite either, which left a glut in the market.

"For 2010 the price was too high. And people mostly think the price is always going up. It's not true," says Rolland reflecting on the frenzy. "But five years from now the price will go up again. That's the market. But the wines are very good - even better than 2009."

He considers China a mysterious market because of its opaqueness about who the main buyers are, but it is a challenge all wine producers are facing. "Bordeaux may have the best image in the world, but tomorrow they will like Argentina, Chile and wines from other countries," Rolland says. "And if consumption is still growing in four to five years, I think China will definitely be the number one market for wine."

Rolland's Mariflor comes from a vineyard in Mendoza, in the northwest of Argentina at the foot of the Andes, that produces some of the highest-altitude grapes in the world at 1,000 metres above sea level. Pictures of the area show a virtual desert region save for a 247-hectare plot of green vines that are carefully irrigated.

The results are complex wines with plenty of flavours. The Mariflor Pinot Noir 2010 is smoky with hints of cherry and cranberry, velvety and well balanced, while the Mariflor Merlot 2010 is also fruity and rounded.

Even though Rolland has made wines in near desert conditions, doing so in China is another challenge. The soil is good for growing grapes but the weather is either too hot or too cold, too wet or too dry. As a result, wines made there will not be great although the quality is improving by the year.

His other main project is looking after the three Bordeaux estates his family used to own up until last year when he and his brother sold them to Hong Kong-based Goldin Group, whose chairman and CEO is billionaire Pan Sutong.

Rolland's brother wanted his half share of the land value and, since Rolland could not buy his brother out, the property was sold. "But I'm still in charge; my life doesn't change. I'm still making wine at Le Bon Pasteur," he says.

Pan has used Rolland's services before, as the latter consults for Sloan Estate, another Goldin acquisition, in Napa Valley. "He [Pan] is a very strong man, a very powerful man, but a very nice man … so we did this deal very easily."

Rolland doesn't seem to have any regrets over selling and is looking forward to the future. Previously, he had to make more wine than he wanted as his brother wanted the revenue.

"I had dinner with Pan last night. He said, 'Don't worry about the number of bottles. I want the best' … Now if I want to make a strict selection I can. Before I was not able to. That's life."