Wine of the Week & Michel Rolland in Toronto

Wine of the Week & Michel Rolland in Toronto

Chateau Fontenil 2004 Fronsac **** Bordeaux, France ($49, Vintages 35907) This property near Libourne in Bordeaux’s right bank is the domicile of winemaker Michel Rolland, the subject of this week’s feature. The Fronsac appellation is famous (or infamous) for having a strong mineral flavour and austere tannin; it’s interesting, but hardly mouth-watering merlot. Fontenil shows that minerality too, but embroidered by the perfectly ripened berry fruit and fine tannin—a lovely wine with poise, purity and nuance. I’ve not tasted a Fronsac like this before, but I did recognize its place. It’s part of a special Vintages offering (see below).

Michel Rolland says he got a bad rap. In Mondovino—a 2005 documentary about the wine business—the world’s most successful roving winemaking consultant was portrayed as a maniacal megalomaniac, jetting around the world and barking orders to his clients over the phone from the back seat of a limo, occasionally laughing heartily as if he thought they were all fools. It was also implied that he was in cahoots with American wine critic Robert Parker to create a homogenous global style geared to Parker’s taste, one that would erase the boundaries of “terroir” (or place) in wines, thereby unravelling centuries of wine culture and reducing all wines to the banality of soda pop.

When I had lunch with Michel Rolland in Toronto recently (his first trip here since 1991), I heard—and tasted—otherwise. Indeed, his view is that wine’s greatest era of quality and diversity is yet to come, from hundreds of yet undiscovered vineyard sites. What country has the most potential? I asked, expecting to hear Argentina, South Africa or perhaps even some enclave of eastern Europe. But he said Spain—the country already boasting the largest vineyard acreage in the world. He knows Spain well, and has entered into a joint venture called Campo Elisco, with Bordeaux peers Francois and Jacques Lurton in the tiny appellation of Toro.

The Bordeaux-based winemaker was in Toronto to launch the Rolland Collection of wines from properties that he owns—as opposed to the more than 100 wineries he consults with around the world (including Mission Hill in B.C.’s Okanagan Valley). Some of those wines, being imported by Mark Anthony wines (Mission Hill’s import division), are available via a special Vintages offering (call Vintages sale centre at 416-365-5767 or 1-800-266-4764 or go to from Feb. 5 onward). Stopping in Toronto for two days between oenological consulting gigs in California and Virginia, Rolland led media tastings in the daytime and dinners for Toronto wine collectors in the evenings.

Over lunch at Le Select Bistro, one of Toronto’s best French-styled bistros, he told me about his portrayal in Mondovino. He had been upset with director Jonathan Nossiter when the movie aired. “It was not a very serious movie,” he told me. “He just wanted to scare people.” But he also said his phone rang off the wall with queries from prospective new clients. It was a rather slow-moving movie at times, and I told Rolland I had actually dozed off in the middle of it, to which he replied, “Until my laughing woke you up.” His laugh is boisterous, and he is very quick to deliver and take a joke. “They used one recording of my laugh, and replayed it throughout the movie,” he explained.

He also explained the back-seat-of-the-limo imagery. He does use a driver because his schedule often includes up to 10 winery visits per day, a tasting at each. He always rides in the front beside his driver because he doesn’t like the back seat. On filming day, the cameraman asked him to sit in the back, because he needed to shoot from the front seat to get a full-on view. Which meant Rolland also had to ask his driver to pass the car phone back from its cradle on the dash. It seemed all very innocent at the time.

What you see on film may not be reality, but in the glass wine speaks for itself. I sat down for a tasting of Rolland wines after lunch, most of them merlot-based bordeaux from properties he owns. They were indeed similar in their sense of their fruit, gentle use of oak, polished texture and fine tannin. But each was different in weight, structure and flavour nuance, depending on where it was grown (see Chateau Fontenil). Others on the docket showed similar fruit expression and finesse, especially Chateau Le Bon Pasteur 2004 Pomerol (****1/2, $99, Vintages 41541), a famous property in Bordeaux’s most famous merlot appellation—what elegance, roundness and purity of fruit!

Other memorable wines were from far-flung regions where Rolland has acquired property or otherwise invested his own capital. From the remote Cafayate region of Argentina comes Yachochya 2004 Malbec **** ($69, 35964), a massive wine of 16 per cent alcohol, yet perfect balance and savoury fruit. From South Africa, Bonne Nouvelle 2004 ****1/2 ($65, 35931), a cabernet-based blend emboldened by a dash of wild, sour currant fruit by addition of some Cape pinotage. And from Spain, the Campo Elisco 2003 Toro **** ($85, 35980)—an arid, hot appellation renowned for black, tannic, high alcohol wines—at least shows some finesse before Toro’s power wrestles onto the finish.

By eradicating the idiosyncrasies of winemaking, he is actually providing a more well-lit stage for regional character to show through. Each wine is distinctly different, and from the place it says on the label. If this is Rolland’s contribution to wine, we are in good hands. My only criticism is the fairly high pricing, but quality does dull the pinch.