Campo Vista Flores, Tunuyan district, Mendoza Argentina
Oxblood-red, velvet red -- Chinese red -- plum red;
scent of earth, bramble;
acidic, tannic -- not too fruity; tight?
malbec, 48% -- merlot 28% -- cabernet sauvignon 12% -- syrah 12%
a little cedar with time, a little cigar? -- caramel, spice. Firm.
This is a firm, strong young wine. It inspires images of a young man in a suit and a fedora, a young man of firm gaze and firm handshake, of effortless and unconscious good posture, of firm, no-nonsense wants and a firm friendly gaze.
Perhaps the wine makes me think of a strong, able, fedora-ed young man because Clos de los Siete has such a firm, strong pedigree. Three years ago, Alder Yarrow at Vinography wrote with rapture of the massive vineyards of Tunuyan crouched beneath the still more massive tilt of the Andes, and of the work and the fortune that had obviously gone into carving the wineries that make Clos de los Siete out of the rocks and high plains of Mendoza. The vines themselves were only three years old then and were already producing excellent wine. Who did it all?
The people who did are nothing less than "household names in France," as David Kingsbury wrote in Wine Business Monthly when the first vintage of Clos de los Siete approached the market in 2002. Of the six partners who ventured in to the project with winemaker Michel Rolland (thus making siete), some come from the families who happen to manufacture Mirage jets, or who used to manufacture Cristal d'Arque crystal; all have deep roots in Bordeaux. One is simply surnamed Rothschild.
For his investment, each partner got a separate parcel of the total 2000 acre Vista Flores purchase for his own vineyard and bodega. Each makes his own wine. All contribute juice to the property's flagship blend, Clos de los Siete. To begin it all, the land needed downright pioneering work to make it arable -- huge rocks removed, storm-ravaged gullies filled in, drip irrigation systems installed -- because it was the location that had mattered. High altitude, the relative protection of the Andes from bad weather, a sun-loving northern facing, wide plains open to good air circulation, and those poor soils that vinifera grapes love, were all what attracted Michel Rolland to this region to begin with.
As for Michel Rolland: he is "the most famous wine consultant in the world -- perhaps the only famous wine consultant in the world" (Eric Asimov, The Pour, October 11, 2006). He is savior. (Of what?) He is Satan. (What?) He is ... let me explain this way. When you, in your little corner of the world, tell a wine industry professional with twenty years in the business that you are sampling Clos de los Siete, and you chirp, "The winemaker's name is Michel Rolland -- it's a French name, so it's not 'Michelle,' he's" -- when you do all that, the professional gives you a sort of gaping, arch-browed basilisk stare and states, "I know who Michel Rolland is." I suppose it would be like telling someone with a twenty year career in computers that you've been reading such an interesting book about this man named Bill Gates ....
Anyway, Savior of what, and Satan to whom? Michel Rolland, born and reared on his family's estate, Chateau Le Bon Pasteur, in the Pomerol district of Bordeaux, and an oenologist and consultant to a hundred wineries around the world, seems to be the one man responsible for creating the luscious, soft, jammy, high alcohol red wines that modern drinkers from the 1980s onward have loved. (Savior.) Some people with long memories are aghast at this new "uniformity" of taste among red wines, cabernets and merlots, that used to be more subtle, thinner, tauter, more loaded with acids and tannins and therefore more in need of the bottle aging that modern wine buyers won't wait for. They are called "Napa-ized," these lush contemporary wines, or, significantly, "Pomerolled." Michael Broadbent, with his unfathomably rich experience tasting very old vintages, calls them all the "global red." Satan.
In an interview given to Bordeaux News and reproduced at one of the pages of Beekman Wines & Liquors (a New Jersey wine store with a good website), Michel Rolland explains his wine making practices simply. It used to be, he says, that "the vagaries of the weather" controlled what a wine finally tasted like. Lack of sunshine, or a cool growing season or both, left the grower with no choice but to harvest and make wine from unripe grapes. The results often were thin, "herbaceous" -- think green pepper -- wines that everyone was simply accustomed to. A very good and flavorful wine then was a comparatively rare treat. By the same token beware, he advises, the winemaker today who is proud of making wines the way his father and grandfather did. "Those are the wineries that go downhill," and those the wines that consumers don't want and don't buy. He could be accused of rather disingenuous circular reasoning here -- haven't he and his good friend Robert Parker trained consumers not to like what he doesn't like? -- but his ideas are borne out, subtly, in good old-fashioned product every wine shop has on its shelves. No one can say that Champagne and Cognac have gone downhill, but we owe those delicious drinks, just for a start, to our ancestors' struggles to make something agreeable out of an unpleasing abundance of boring or sour liquids. Champagne from underripe chardonnay and pinot noir grapes, and Cognac distilled from dull and acidic trebbiano wines, are just two of these.
Rolland decided fairly early in his career that "you cannot make good wine from less than completely ripe grapes" and so he determined that he was not going to put up with the vagaries of nature's mastery over the plants. He wanted vines producing ripe grapes on a "relatively regular basis." He also wanted mildews and rots controlled, so that they would cause no such thing as a "catastrophic year" in a vineyard. (Recall the site chosen for Clos de los Siete: a sunny, north-aspect open plain with good air circulation, to help combat humidity and rot.) His answer for the vines themselves was to cut away excess foliage to allow more sun to get through, and to cut away excess grape bunches as well, to reduce strain on the root system and allow the grapes remaining to come to full maturity. Using these techniques, vintages that might have been "mediocre" instead gave him very good wines; add his insistence that red wines need time in new oak barrels -- think caramel, vanilla, barbecue -- and you have the recipe for the "fruit bomb" red, able to be produced all over the world, which his detractors seem to think tastes too good.
I suspect that Michel Rolland can't have been the first person to prune grape vines, nor to notice that the weather is a problem, but his techniques are credited with transforming matters in the last twenty years. They've even got their own names, which don't appear yet in wine books. Are effeuillage (the thinning of the leaves) and eclaircissage (pruning the bunches) as new as all that? And in spite of everything, can he really say of his wines, "I try to capture the typicity of local terroir ... terroir is more important than the winemaker"?
Perhaps. In any case, the person who is just learning about wine has a problem when it comes to understanding this alleged, fruit bomb "global red." If they are so ubiquitous, how do you know when you haven't got one sitting before you? I happened to taste a different Argentinian wine, 100% malbec, the night before trying Clos de los Siete, and this seemed to be cherry pie exploding in the glass. Delicious -- but then it made Michel Rolland's blend, with its doses of grown up cabernet, merlot, and syrah, seem to me very good but lean, taut, and buttoned down. Unfruity. Firm. If I must revise my opinion, which I am forever chirping to people, that red blends are "softer" than straight varietals, well then. I shall have to revise my opinion.
We must simply go on learning. Luckily oenophilic homework is pleasant. Clos de los Siete retails for about $18 or $19; for more on M. Rolland, you might go to:
Michel Rolland and the New Bordeaux style (Beekman Wine & Liquors, no date)
Clos de los Siete: Michel Rolland Develops Argentine Winery (Wine Business Monthly, 9/10/2002
Who is Michel Rolland? (The Wine Cellar blog, 2/9/2005)
Satan or Savior: Setting the Grape Standard (Eric Asimov, The New York Times, 10/11/2006)
The Wines of Clos de los Siete, Tunuyan, Argentina (Alder Yarrow, Vinography, 1/31/2007)
And you might like to rent Mondovino, a 2004 film by Jonathan Nossiter, in which M. Rolland appears as a sort of robber baron Bacchus, stamping out the diversity in wine our grandfathers knew, while making pots of money and laughing "like Mephistopheles." Oenophilic homework is -- no, let's simplify. Wine is fun.
An update, April 2, 2010: for more information on the jammy, Napa style red wines of even Bordeaux's 2009 vintage, see the post "High alcohol: why it is a problem," in Jamie Good's Wine Blog, March 31, 2010.