PARIS (Reuters Life!) - Bordeaux wine consultant Michel Rolland made a personal bet that he could make quality wines in an area that was mainly known for volume wines and then started a vineyard in Argentina with the help of friends.
He may have upset some of his clients, among the top houses in the Bordeaux, and certainly those Bordeaux winemakers that compete with the New World wines from Argentina and elsewhere.
But that did not deter him and he obtained financial support from some wealthy French families, including Bordeaux wine dynasties such as Baron Benjamin de Rothschild and the Cuvelier family of Chateau Leoville-Poyferre.
“I had the first idea in my head some 15 years ago but I was told I had to be careful with Argentineans. But after I went there several times I decided to go ahead nevertheless,” he said at a presentation in Paris
Rolland set out to turn around modern image of the French winemakers battling an inevitable decline against new rivals.
Incapable of adapting to the production and selling techniques of the New World, French vintners are often seen as a conservative force clinging to their pretty chateaux in Bordeaux, in the fast-changing and innovative world of wine.
But the story of Michel Rolland and his Clos de los Siete - or “Vineyard of the Seven” - defies these stereotypes.
First, it doesn’t take place in the well-kept and unsurprising world of his native Bordeaux, but in the wild valleys of the Argentinean Andes.
Some 120 km (75 miles) to the south of Mendoza, the wine capital of Argentina on the border with Chile, is the small village of Vistaflores where Rolland set up a state-of-the art, 850-hectares (2,100 acres) estate with six others.
Apart form de Rothschild and Cuvelier, another partner is Laurent Dassault, the son of the French media and arms mogul Serge Dassault.
The concept behind Clos de los Siete is probably unique in that it is a collaboration of seven different wineries.
Each of them makes its own wine but dedicate half of the production to a joint wine, called Clos de los Siete itself.
The dominant grape variety is Malbec, the jewel of Argentina’s new crown as a quality wine exporter, mixed in a unique blend of Merlot, Cabernet-Sauvignon and Shiraz.
Malbec has a long history in the Old World as well and it is undergoing a revival as Black Wine in Cahors and other wines from the south of France and Italy.
The Clos de los Siete grape selection makes powerful, highly alcoholized scarlet-red wines, in which you can taste the roughness and dryness of the Andean terroir, but tamed and enriched by the savoir-faire of Rolland and his team.
There have been seven harvests so far of Clos de los Sietes since 2002.
“I arrived in Mendoza in 1998, after a first trip to Argentina in 1988. I was looking for just 100 acres of land, but was quickly convinced of its potential and decided to buy more” said Rolland, presenting his production at a wine-tasting event in the grandiose salons of the Hotel Dassault on the Champs-Elysees in Paris.
“The marketing and pricing is also very important in our venture,” Rolland said.
“We have decided to go for the affordable range of the premium market. And we won’t increase our prices as soon as we become famous. We will just produce more,” he said.
A bottle of Close de los Sietes is sold between $17 and $19, 10 to 12 pounds and 10 to 14 euros in Europe.
Some 700,000 bottles were produced in 2008, of which 50 percent were sold in America, 15 percent in Canada and 30 percent in Europe, with France representing a mere 7 percent.
By producing in Argentina and exporting from there, these French winemakers found a way to compensate for the rise of the euro compared with the dollar and sterling, the fastest-growing markets for wine in the world.
In France the reaction was tepid as only 60,000 to 70,000 bottles were sold in 2008. But that is not surprising, as foreign wines represent only about 2.5 percent of the French domestic market.
Rolland and his musketeers have no idea yet whether their venture will succeed but they remain together on the adventure.
“We are all on the same boat, and we don’t know where we will be in a few years, but it’s all for Seven and seven for all.”
Editing by Paul Casciato