Michel Rolland, the world-famous French wine consultant, went to Argentina in 1988 to taste the wines. He was not overly enthusiastic. Nevertheless, he somehow got “caught”. And he helped change Argentinean wines and paved the way for their triumphs on the export markets some ten years later. Along the way, he bought land in Uco Valley in southern Mendoza. Now he turns out one million bottles a year of the successful brand Clos de los Siete. Here’s the story.
We “meet” Michel Rolland on zoom mid-February. He is still in France but is off to Argentina that very evening; his first trip to the country in a year.
Dramatic landscape in Mendoza with vineyards at the foot of the Andes, copyright BKWine Photography
Michel Rolland came to Argentina for the first time in 1988. A lot has changed since then. “When I arrived, the taste of the wines was not my taste”, he admits. “The Argentineans’ taste was not the world’s taste at the end of the 1980s. That was why they were not successful in the export market.”
But he saw the potential. He formed a partnership with a wine producer in Cafayate in the northwest of Argentina. He started consulting at a number of wineries in the country. Gradually the wines in the country changed and improved. Maybe not only thanks to Michel Rolland, but he had considerable influence.
What needed to change? “Almost everything”, he says, “except Malbec. We kept Malbec and planted a lot more of it. We had seen that Malbec was adapted to the climate and the situation close to the Andes.”
Malbec vines in a vineyards in Mendoza, copyright BKWine Photography
By the beginning of the 2000s, the export figures had increased dramatically. “20 years after, we are happy”, says Michel.
By 1996 he had started looking around for someplace to make his own wine in Argentina. He ended up in the Uco Valley, the southern part of Mendoza. At the time, Uco Valley was not as successful as it is today. Michel chose Uco Valley for many reasons.
“I like the soil, and it is an exceptional, beautiful area. Mendoza is at an altitude of 2,000 to 3,000 feet, and Uco Valley is at 3,000 to 4,000 feet, so I think it is better. The temperature is less aggressive at this altitude. We were looking for around 300 acres of vineyards. But we discovered this property of 2100 acres.”
The wild landscape in the Uco Valley, Mendoza, Argentina, copyright BKWine Photography
Realizing it was too big, he looked for investors and invited friends from France. They ended up being seven families involved in the project. “I wanted to develop a brand on this land. We started the project Clos de los Siete.”
The concept is unusual. The seven families would independently make their own wines in their own wineries, and together they would make the wine labelled Clos de los Siete. Everyone would contribute wines to the brand, which Michel would then blend. “And the blend is always better than the individual wines”, he says modestly.
Today, four estates are giving wines to the Clos de los Siete brand: the family Parent in Bodegas y Vinedos Monteviejo, the family Cuvelier at Cuvelier los Andes (also owners of Château Léoville-Poyferré in Bordeaux), the family Bonnie at Bodega Diamandes (also owners of Château Malartic-Lagravière in Bordeaux), and, of course, Bodega Rolland.
Michel Rolland, wine consultant from Bordeaux, on Zoom, copyright BKWine Photography
The first vintage of Clos de los Siete was 2002. Michel explains: “To make 100% malbec, that was not a great idea. Even now, I don’t think it is a good idea. I believe a blend is better. We decided to have 50% Malbec, the king of the region, 20% Cabernet Sauvignon, 20% Merlot and 10% Syrah.”
They began from scratch and planted these proportions. Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot have been added since. Clos de los Siete is always around 50 % Malbec, and the other varieties can change slightly.
Oaky wines may be unfashionable today. But Michel stresses the importance of oak. “Wine needs oak”, he says firmly. But he only uses 20% new oak.
Another essential aspect for Michel is the fact that Clos de los Siete is an estate wine. “We don’t buy grapes. We make one million bottles of an estate wine. It is not so common to produce so much wine with your own grapes”.
Aerial view of the landscape in the Uco Valley, with vineyards and the Andes, copyright BKWine … [+]
The idea of Clos de los Siete is to make an approachable wine to drink young at a reasonable price. It retails for 20 USD. The USA is the biggest export market and takes 30 % of the total production.
It is not a wine you need to keep for years and years. “However, some years turn out that way”, Michel points out. “The newly released 2017 vintage has more concentration and tannins. 2017 was an interesting vintage, a special year with excellent quality and a slightly lower yield than normal.”
Although the climate is mostly warm and dry, there are vintage variations and climatic hazards in Mendoza. One problem is the hail, the reason why you see so many nets on the vines in Mendoza.
“When we were looking where to plant, we thought about the hail. We asked older people living in the area; they said this place up to [the town of] Vista Flores, there is rarely any hail. That was certainly part of our decision to choose this region. In fact, we planted in 1999, we are in 2021, and we have had hail storms two times.”
One was in 2011, and after that, some of the families started using hail nets, but mainly on plots devoted to their ultra-premium and icon wines. Michel didn’t, however. He says he can support one hailstorm every ten years. “2011 was a great vintage, one of the best we ever did. But we only made half of the regular production, 450 000 bottles.”
When you choose a location for a vineyard in Mendoza, the first thing you ask yourself is, does it have access to water? Without water for irrigation, you will not make wine in Mendoza. The water comes from the Andes, and everywhere you see small canals that lead the water to the various vineyards.
Clos de los Siete by Michel Rolland, Argentina 2017, copyright BKWine Photography
With the irrigation water, the wine producers control the vigor and the yield. “The water regime is important”, says Michel. “Malbec needs more water than Cabernet Franc. When it is too vigorous, it is not so interesting. So, we slow down the irrigation, whereas with Malbec if you don’t give it enough water, it will not turn out well. In other parts of the world, it is not so easy.”
Michel Rolland is still the president, he is still tasting and still making decisions, but the new generation, among them Michel’s daughter, is the hands-on people today. “The new generation is managing, they are already 40-50, but still, that is a perfect situation. They still accept me to taste; maybe they will fire me, we’ll see.” He doesn’t seem overly worried, though.
My tasting comments:
Clos des los Siete 2017
Fruity, with lots of dark berries, combined with soft and smooth tannins, a little bit of oak and cedarwood in the background. Easy drinking, yes, but with structure.
Clos des los Siete 2015
Fresh and nicely structured, some tannins, tobacco aromas, discreet oak. Mature aromas emerging.
Clos de los Siete 2011
Quite full-bodied body and plenty of tasty dark berries and ripe fruit. Soft and pleasant tannins.
US retail price for a current vintage is around 20 USD.
We got into wine, gastronomy and travel for passion. We love what we do and want to share it with you. “We” means Per and Britt, husband and wife team, Swedish nationals