Bordeaux vigneron Michel Rolland, consultant for more than 100 wineries in a dozen countries, is blamed by some for fostering the fashion for high-alcohol cult wines like those from California’s Harlan Estate and Staglin Family. Yet a recent tasting of Rolland’s seventh vintage of the Argentine wine Clos de los Siete shows he is able to make a 21st century-style red at the top of its class. And with the 2008 vintage, he does it for only $19 a bottle.
Clos de los Siete is a blend of 56 percent malbec, 21 percent merlot, 11 percent syrah, 10 percent cabernet sauvignon and 2 percent petit verdot. It’s made in the Uco Valley south of Mendoza, Argentina’s top wine region, where malbec is the principal fine-wine grape.
Plenty of sun, high humidity and low rainfall coupled with sandy soil and clay provide ideal conditions for such varietals, and they come together in Clos de los Siete’s soft and velvety texture of the merlot, intense fruit of the syrah, mild tannins from the cabernet, and ballast and spice of the late-ripening petit verdot. The blend may change in any vintage and the wines are neither fined nor filtered -- processes used to remove solid residues.
At 14.5 percent alcohol, Clos de los Siete might bolster the characterization of Rolland as an advocate of reds whose deliberately overripe fruit, high alcohol, and long aging in oak produce “fruit bombs” that win medals in competition. Many critics, myself included, decry such wines as often being out of balance, headache-inducing and closer to Port than red wine.
‘Satan or Savior’
A New York Times article on Rolland was entitled “Satan or Savior: Setting the Grape Standard.” In the 2004 documentary film “Mondovino,” Rolland is shown advising clients to use a technique called micro-oxygenation that can help tame tannins and soften wines.
“That movie is all crap!” Rolland bellowed in a phone interview. “In some European wineries micro-oxygenation is helpful, but you don’t need it in New World wines because there is so much sun to build up the sugars.”
Rolland has six formidable partners in Argentina, including Rhone Valley vigneron Catherine Pere-Vigne and Benjamin de Rothschild, owner and chief executive officer of LCF Rothschild Group. With such resources he was able to switch traditional Argentine “parral” trellising and pruning methods to traditional systems used in Bordeaux. Drip irrigation keeps the vines “stressed,” to allow the bare minimum of water. Grapes are all handpicked, and the wines aged for 11 months, 70 percent in new French oak, the rest in vat.
Of the property’s 850 hectares, 430 are currently planted. This year the output is a hefty 50,000 cases exported to 57 countries, with 30,000 going to the U.S. Rolland thinks 100,000 cases is possible, noting “We will follow the market as to future production.”
Rolland and his partners are aware they may have a big winner on their hands with Clos de los Siete, which means that consistency is key.
“In many ways it is more difficult to make 50,000 cases than 10,000 because you have to take care of everything before blending,” he said. “With small production, a winemaker has the luxury of selecting from many parcels of grapes and wines; with big production, you have to get the best on a large scale right away. And with global export, the labels cannot have any variance or mistakes about what’s in the bottle.”
Rolland chose Argentina because of its terroir, labor costs, and the open-mindedness of the New World. And he loves the sunshine, which builds up the sugars that convert into 14-plus percent alcohol.
“When you have that much sun, you don’t need or want to manipulate the wine to have more alcohol,” he said. “It’s the natural way of the fermentation.”
Controversy may yet swirl around Rolland and his methods, but Clos de los Siete proves that he can make a serious red wine to rival cult wines 10 times the price. At least he can with 50,000 cases. When Clos de los Siete gets to 100,000 cases, things should get interesting.
(John Mariani writes on wine for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)