A Walk through the Vines: Catching Michel Rolland’s Vision in Argentina

April 22, 2011, by: Stephen George

Thierry shows us the majestic Mariflor vineyard with Bodega Rolland in the distance

There’s something about beginning your morning by hopping into the bed of a pick-up truck and hurtling toward a day of walking the vines and tasting grapes in Argentina.  The crisp dessert wind whips around your hair, the sun’s first rays dance on your cheeks.  Gravel from the unpaved roads peels underneath the truck’s tires filling the air behind you with clouds of dust, the jagged peaks of the Andes stand guard on the horizon.  Your body doesn’t mind the jerking of the truck, absorbing without a thought the jolts of the uneven road.  You feel connected to nature.  You feel lithe and strong, you feel the promise of adventure coursing through your veins.  You are acutely aware of being alive.

You know it’s going to be a good day.

And you’re not wrong.  Not when you’re in the hands of the talented Thierry Haberer and his team at Michel Rolland’s bodega in the breathtaking Uco Valley.  Not when you’re about to experience firsthand the origins of the Mariflor Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir and Malbec, which have been so explosively popular with our clients over the past year or so.  And especially not when the agenda for the day goes like this:

1. Walk the Mariflor vineyard and taste grapes off the vines

2. Taste the 2011 Mariflor Pinot Noir fermenting in tank and earlier vintages of Mariflor aging in barrel

3. Enjoy an asado (Argentine BBQ) under the shade of a willow tree next to a reservoir in the Val de Flores vineyard

4. Ride horses in the vineyard

5. Take a siesta (this is just what they do in Argentina in the middle of the day – who are we to argue?)

6. Assist with fermentation at the winery – stir the lees of the 2011 Sauvignon Blanc and pump over the 2011 Merlot

7. Late-night dinner followed by sipping Fernet-and-Coke (the local after-dinner drink) and talking into the wee hours of the morning

With a schedule like this, we figured the day would be idyllic. But somehow it exceeded our expectations.  This wasn’t due to the day’s bells-and-whistles – although our elegant midday meal followed by riding horses through the vines was delightful and memorable.  Instead it had to do with the privilege of experiencing firsthand the life of the vineyard – through tasting its fruit, through listening to Thierry’s passion, and through being directly involved in the beautiful, mysterious process by which grapes on a vine become wine in a glass.

Upon arriving at Bodega Rolland that morning, Thierry took us straight away to several of his favorite Malbec parcels in the Mariflor vineyard.  They grapes were nearly ripe, he said.  We needed to decide when to pick them – and for that, we needed to taste.

Thierry explained what we needed to know, what to look for in the skins and pips, what kind of tannic presence suggests fruit that’s ready to go versus fruit that needs a bit more time.  And he showed us how two parcels just ten feet away from each other can taste dramatically different, and need to be harvested at a different time, simply due to the different rootstock on which the vines grow.

We discussed the importance of canopy management and tasted the marked difference between a cluster that was shaded with leaves and another cluster only three feet away that was exposed directly to the sun — the shaded grapes were crisper and brighter, while the sunny grapes were richer and sweeter.

As you can see, this process expanded our technical knowledge of ripening, terroir, rootstock and harvest decision-making.  But the thing that sticks with me is seeing with my own eyes and tasting with my own tongue how the vineyard is truly a living thing that needs to be studied, listened to, understood and nurtured.  And because a vineyard’s composition is the product of complex interactions between constantly changing variables, each parcel, each row, even each vine has its own unique character.

When you realize this, you cannot help but ask this question:  What does it take to care effectively for such a vineyard?  What kind of effort is necessary to take account of the complexities of each parcel, each row, so as to coax the best out of your fruit – so as to adapt your decisions to the demands of your vines rather than treating them like a commercial product?

As we ambled from the Malbec parcels into the Petit Verdot blocks and then the Cab Franc, and as we listened to Thierry express his love for vine-tending, the answer became increasingly apparent.  It takes wholesale dedication to the quality of the vine.  It takes the sensitivity of an artist.  It takes the kind of passion, skill and effort that too few producers in the wine industry are willing or able to devote to tending their vines.

This answer is deceptively simple, yet it’s what makes great wine so precious, so romantic, so delicious – and so rare.

This was Michel Rolland’s vision over a decade ago when he saw the Uco Valley’s rocky soil, dessert scrub, and imposing Andes peaks, but dreamed of a vineyard capable of producing some of the greatest wines in the hemisphere.  He wanted to create a winery where he could harness the dramatic landscape and climate with attention and care in order to produce world-class and thoroughly singular wines.  That’s why he hired Thierry as his right-hand-man, whose passion for the earth is so evident.  Thierry works with soils and vines from regions as diverse as France, Spain and South Africa, and he focuses the totality of those experience on making the Mariflor vineyard the best it can be.

Michel Rolland saw the potential for world-class vines in this rocky, scrubby desert soil -- what vision!

Walking through these meticulously tended vines in this breathtaking country, tasting these coddled grapes so fresh and crisp and juicy, imagining the sublime wine that would result, I couldn’t help but wonder whether any of this would have been possible without Michel’s vision or Thierry’s devotion.

And that’s really what we love about wine, isn’t it?  The power and beauty of nature, mediated by the creativity and passion of humans, all to create a unique experience that delights the senses and warms the heart.

By now it was noon, and we had only covered the first item on our day’s schedule.  Later we would lounge under a willow tree eating meat course after meat course, and we would taste wines from barrel, and we would roll up our sleeves in the winery.  But in a way, all of that was gravy (fun, fascinating gravy).  The morning had offered more than enough education and inspiration for one day – we could have gone home happy, knowing we had experienced the life of this vineyard and the very soul of wine.


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