If you meet Michel Rolland with a glass of wine in front of him, he can at first seem a bit introverted as he focuses on a wine’s aroma and how balanced and expressive that wine’s components are.
Yet, he’s quite a congenial guy when you engage him in a conversation about wine and with over 40 vintages under his belt, French raised and educated Rolland is perhaps the world’s most famous and influential “flying winemaker.” Rolland’s fame and influence comes from being a key contributor in the making some of the world’s most acclaimed wines from some of the most acclaimed wine regions.
Based in his native Pomerol, one of the most prestigious appellations in Bordeaux, France,where his family’s winery was a training ground, Rolland left France for over 170 days last year flying to either wineries where he’s an owner or to consult with dozens of wineries including twenty in Napa, California as well as wineries in Chile, Argentina, South Africa, Spain and more recently Israel.
In order to be efficient yet still substantially contribute to the wineries’ efforts he consults for, Rolland has a team of seven associates. These associates aren’t unseasoned interns rather they’re established winemakers in their own right who work as an advance team so when Rolland visits say Israel for two consecutive days a year, his associates have been to Israel four times already that year, working with the winery’s team in the vineyards and at the winery so when Rolland lands his time is spent reviewing and assessing the work already done to make improvements for the future and giving his input at what he’s best known for: being a master blender.
In Israel, Michel Rolland consults for one winery, the Amphorae Winery (Makura in North America) and Israel and Amphorae should feel blessed to have him as part of its wine culture for he surely adds some stature, gravitas, expertise and attention that Israel’s relatively small and emerging wine industry had generally lacked.
Last year, I first met Rolland at the Jerusalem WIne Festival and I was introduced to three exceptional 2008 Amphorae Makura wines he put his name on along with Amphorae’s reputable winemaker and co-owner Dr. Arkadi Papikian (who I’ve met many times before as it’s a small country and an even smaller industry). Those 2008 wines were special in their own right although meeting up again with Rolland over dinner in Tel Aviv, Amphorae would introduce its new flagship wine: Velours.
The 2009 Amphorae Velours (95 points),NIS 495 (15.3% Alcohol) is cited as the first wine that Papikian and Rolland and his team worked on together from the vineyards to the final blend (2008 Rolland worked on the blends but not in the vineyards). Featuring 90% Cabernet Sauvignon (from the northern Judean Hills at 900 meters above sea level) and 10% Syrah (from Manara in the Galille near Lebanon at 650 meters), the 2009 Velours is deep and dark but brilliant with intense yet balanced notes of black cassis, black raspberry, sour cherry, anise and as it was aged for 43 months in larger 300 and 500 liter French oak barrels (in contrast to typical 225 liter barriques), it also displays cigar box, sweet tobacco, subtle vanilla and a grace and velvet mouth-feel deceptively smooth for a wine with over 15% alcohol with enough acidity to deliver a long and fruity finish.
The Velours could have been branded as a single varietal Cabernet Sauvignon since it exceeded the required 85% threshold to have one grape appear on the front of the label yet the Amphorae team chose to forego what’s seen as a possible marketing advantage since they don’t want to commit to what the grapes will be in Velours any given year though they do plan for Velours to be the best of the best grapes from each harvest and with only 1178 bottles made in 2009 they aren’t making so much that it takes away from what’s left for their other series of wines.
With about 100 different blends of different wines from different grapes and different barrels sampled in different combinations by Papikian and Rolland before deciding on the makeup of Velours, the wine making team also deliberates on what they have in barrels for the reds and typically in stainless steel for the blush and white wines and try to solve which wines work best together and how they fit into Amphorae’s line-up. Occasionally a new wine emerges from the blending and sampling process like the 2010 Amphorae Cabernet Franc which is 85% Cabernet Franc bolstered by 15% Cabernet Sauvignon. Time will tell if Cabernet Franc becomes a constant addition to Amphorae’s line-up but it’s encouraging as Rolland and Papikian have both expressed their appreciation for how special their Cabernet Franc harvests have been lately and they are optimistic about future vintages and harvests. Frequents readers of mine are aware of how much I am in favor of more Israeli wineries producing red varietals like Cabernet Franc, Petite Sirah, Petit Verdot and Carignan which aren’t as common overseas as single varietal red wines and potentially could/should open doors for Israeli wines to buyers overwhelmed with too many choices of international Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Piont Noir or Shiraz/Syrah.
Dr. Arkadi Papikian talks about his collaboration with Rolland (photo; Shai Gilboa)
Some might question the veracity and acumen of Israeli winemakers if they have to rely on outside consultants to help in the vineyards and at the winery, yet those in the know are aware that seeking outside counsel is one sign of how mature and serious a winery is and examples can be found all over the world where the wine maker and owners are striving to continue to get better each harvest in the vineyard and each vintage at the winery and they seek out to get the benefit of perspective and learned counsel from the best of the best. It’s not unusual for wineries in Bordeaux or Napa to always be honing their craft and not pretend they know all there is to know about wine making so why should it be any different in Israel?
The Tzora Winery, in the Judean Hills, has made great strides with the assistance of Jean-Claude Berrouet, the winemaker of Bordeaux’s iconic Petrus for 44 vintages and the Golan Heights Winery has prospered with famed California consultant Zelma Long lending her talents. Both wineries already employ two of Israel’s most well regarded winemakers in the guise of Eran Pick and Victor Schoenfled respectively.
With their recent vintages as evidence, Amphorae has lots of reasons to be optimistic under the auspices of highly proficient and prolific journeyman wine maker Dr. Papikian and astute winery manager Mitia Gurevich as Rolland and his team have already delivered wine that demonstrates how they can contribute to raising the bar to what heights Israeli wineries and their wines can aspire.
David Rhodes can be reached at Israeliwineguy@gmail.com