Last week, Liv-ex published the first part of an interview with Bordeaux winemaker and consultant Michel Rolland. In it, he discusses his career and winemaking philosophy. In the second part, below, Rolland shares his views on Bordeaux and wine criticism. To view the interview in French, please click here.
There was lack of consensus on the quality of Bordeaux 2015, as shown by the Liv-ex En Primeur survey results. Do the tasters know what they are talking about?
You know, for the past 40 years I have enjoyed around 3000 new wines each year and I’m still not sure.
However I find that your non-consensus is good on two levels. First, it shows that a broad range of wines may appeal to a broad panel of tasters. This is rather positive. A consensus would mean that there is an objective ‘good’ and everything else is bad.
How about the critics, specifically?
We all know that there is one person that determines the market, even though he only reviews California now: Robert Parker. He’s the only one who has managed to build a commercial consensus behind him. He had followers and created social networks before anyone else in wine.
Today, there are people that I like such as Robert Joseph, Michel Bettane in France, Antonio Galloni in the US and Neal Martin in the UK. These people taste with professionalism and honesty that I do not doubt, but they are struggling to have as many followers as Parker did at the time.
Why do you think they don’t have Parker’s influence?
First, the market is much more complicated than it was in the days of Bob Parker. 30 years ago, when he came to a tasting that I organised, we tasted 220-230 samples in total, and then it was over. Today, I think it would have been incomplete if he tasted 800. This complicates things.
The opportunity Parker had was to taste significantly less wine. At the time he enjoyed France, Italy, Spain, the US, South America and Australia. Today, nobody can do that: just for France, there is a specialist in Bordeaux, a specialist in Burgundy and a specialist in the Languedoc.
Does this make them more expert?
No, because the best way to be an expert is to be broad – to taste everything. The more you reduce your field of view, the less expert you are.
So to become an expert critic, we must enjoy everything – a lot and often?
Exactly. It takes time to become a good taster. However, you also need talent. I always compare it to sport: everyone can run, but some run faster than others.
Do you think there will be a new Parker?
No, for the reasons I mentioned before. Nobody will have same opportunity now. No-one can have the same influence.
Do you think the influence he had was a good thing?
That’s a good question! No. Intellectual hegemony is a form of dictatorship. However, unlike other dictatorships where one can force people, nobody had to listen to Parker… but everyone did!
How do you see the role of social media currently and in the future?
I have had two thoughts. First, I was absolutely convinced that social networks were an opportunity to spread knowledge about wine. The problem that we have now is that they are not used for tasting notes but for fighting. I find them too aggressive.
Aggressive to whom?
Ultimately, to everyone. At times, about wines or to winemakers, journalists – or amongst themselves. If a person claims to have tasted an extraordinary bottle of white Lagravière Malartic 2005, a wave of people will go against him. There is a kind of aggressiveness in the words; there is no consensual exchange that could move the debate forward.
I thought – and still think – that the situation can improve and be positive. Today it offers the only opportunity to cover the entire wine production globally. If you were tasting 2,000 wines 30 years ago, you’d need to be tasting 20,000-25,000 today. Who can do that? No one. If people enjoyed a bottle of Pontet Canet in Tokyo, New York, San Francisco, London or Paris and shared their experience online, it could become helpful for the consumer.
And maybe bring some consensus among a group of people?
I think so. This could be positive, even if it is complicated today when everyone wants to strengthen their reputation. People are more concerned about their egos than the intrinsic quality of the wines.
Do you think that tasting from barrel at En Primeur is a system that works well?
No, because as we said, it is very complicated. Tasting young wines is extremely technical.
So when should the wines be tasted?
When they are bottled.
Immediately, or a little later?
Perhaps 15 months later.
There would be no En Primeur system…
You want a system without En Primeur tasting?
If you look at scores for all wines from the past 20 years, you’ll see that some received poor marks but went on to become very good. Take Larcis Ducasse for example you’ll see monumental differences between scores. When you compare the assessments with sales prices and volumes – information that the properties can give ten years later – you’ll find that that the initial score has little impact on En Primeur sales. Instead, the wine falls into its usual price range and will sell as usual if the vintage is good, but will not sell if the vintage is bad – even if it received positive reviews.
So the individual score of a wine does not change the release price, even if the wine received 98 or 100 from Parker?
No, but this can offer a small boost.
What do you think of blind tastings?
I’m not a supporter of blind tastings. I do it a lot because it’s fun, but as an approach to tasting professionally I don’t like it much. You lose the spirit of tasting a little – and it is already necessary to be focused enough while tasting, even without needing to identify the wine.
Do you think the critics have sometimes under-scored your wines?
I don’t think about this too much, or judge them. Parker never really rated my own wines highly.
I assume you are aware of “Bordeaux bashing”?
Yes, there has been Bordeaux bashing and there still is.
I don’t know. In Bordeaux, we must have a sort of arrogance that does not please everyone.
But five years ago, everyone loved Bordeaux…
That’s true. I believe the arrogance of Bordeaux is shown in the prices of 2009 and 2010. Interestingly, however, it was only the prices of the very top wines that increased significantly – the others rose less.
The world of commerce and consumption poorly digested this price increase on 2009 and 2010. Then we came across more complicated vintages in 2011, 2012 and 2013.
So this is mostly due to release prices in 2009 and 2010?
Effectively. On top of that, Bordeaux fell in love with the Chinese market and became distracted from its traditional markets. Again, wine is not poetry! You have to make sales.
Are those who are “Bordeaux bashing” wrong?
I don’t think there is a reason for Bordeaux bashing specifically, but there is some truth in it. Bordeaux had a moment of madness on pricing in 2009 and 2010 and with its market orientation: China, rather than the traditional markets like the UK or USA. Some prices soared as China started to buy. It is true that this isn’t the best way towards a balanced market; it’s the best way to be criticised – and that is what happened.
What do you think of buying wines – especially the great wines of Bordeaux – for speculative purposes?
I think as long as wine is a speculative product, it is reassuring for the sector. Some point out that we can’t drink the firsts, seconds or other famous wines. I always say to people that there are a lot of good wines from the lower crus. We don’t need to drink Margaux, Latour or Mouton Rothschild every time that we drink wine. There are other very good wines – some that are much cheaper can be very pleasant.
The speculative side pleases me. As long as there are auctions that will make everyone dream, fine wine will remain a luxury item. If Louis Vuitton and Cartier are successful it is because they offer things you cannot buy every day and not everybody can afford, but can dream about.
Do you think fine wine is good investment?
I think that buying fine wines is a very good investment, even today.
Bordeaux or Burgundy – French. The United States has a good reputation, but specifically within the United States. They are beginning to find success in Hong Kong but less so in England. Old bottles of fine French vintages remain a sure bet.
If you could, what would you change in Bordeaux?
Nothing really! You know, it’s like all great systems. It can be criticised, but is there anything better than the selling power of Bordeaux? No – even if the market in London partly grew thanks to the merchants. Bordeaux has an international network of distributors with a lot of power – and this is great. Of course, you could blame Bordeaux for the margins or distribution, but on the other hand it is the only market in the world that can do everything. Personally, I would not change anything.
Which region or country do you think the greatest potential for the future?
I have high expectations for countries such as Bulgaria, Romania, Ukraine or Georgia because of the climate and soil in the area surrounding the Black Sea. I think this region has a great potential.
How would your family describe you?
According to my wife: high standards for myself and others; a perfectionist – obsessive. I do not support mediocrity: we must always be more ambitious.
In the wine world, who do you admire most?
A lot of people! In Bordeaux, I had a great teacher, Émile Peynaud – he is hard to beat. I admired Pascal Ribéreau-Gayon very much. In trading, John Paul Jauffret was one of my mentors. I have also liked many great winemakers at various points in my life.
When you are 70, it is others who are watching you. So it’s a little different, but there are many wine producers that I admire such as my colleague Stéphane Derenoncourt who has had an absolutely remarkable journey, and even families like the Perses, and Alain Vauthier. In the Médoc, I would name people like Alfred Tesseron or the Cuveliers of Poyferré. In the US, there is Bill Harlan: someone who saw the big picture before anyone else in wine. He is a marketing genius. I have liked many people in my life. There are unusual characters like Marcel Guigal. It’s hard to make a list! Many people have experienced successes and shown intelligence.
What is your greatest professional achievement?
To experience my 44th harvest – I think few people have made more than 40 harvests. In fact, this must be my 75th harvest if we take into account the northern and southern hemispheres. I am sure that few people have had this opportunity and this chance, and it’s a very satisfying thing on a personal level. When I was young, I wanted to travel. I think I have been quite successful!