91pt Rising Star in Luján de Cuyo
Almost thirty years ago, as the powers that be assembled in Bordeaux to taste what Robert Parker would call the "vintage of the century," a young enologist burst upon the world's winemaking stage. His name was Michel Rolland, and he was almost single-handedly about to change the makeup of fine wine on three continents -- from Pomerol, to Napa Valley, then down to the center cut of Luján de Cuyo.
We still recall tasting those '82s, a product of a rare, warm summer, before global warming became a common theme in winegrowing discussion. But even as Pichon-Lalande, Latour and Mouton Rothschild were lush, silken and polished, there were notable disappointments. It would be Rolland who would most admonish the under-performers, ultimately embarrassing the Bordelais into pushing the envelope on ultra-ripeness in the vineyards, squeaky clean hygiene in the cellar, and new barrel fermentation.
Over the next 25 years, Rolland would apply his rigorous winegrowing protocol to what would become the greatest estates and wineries in the world. In Napa, Bill Harlan was one of the first to jump on Rolland's bandwagon, both with Harlan Estate and Bond. Following Harlan was Araujo, Bryant Family, Dalla Valle, Sloan and Staglin. On Bordeaux's Right Bank, Michel's client list included 95-100pt Pavie and L'Évangile, Angélus, Certan de May, Clinet, Le Gay, Lascombes, Péby-Faugères, Magrez Fombrauge, Pape Clément, Rouget, and 100pt Troplong-Mondot. While each wine spoke eloquently of the place where it was grown, Rolland's lush, silken signature tied each property together with the finest of thread.
In the late 1990s, the world's most legendary Flying Winemaker visited Argentina and was immediately enchanted by the viticultural potential of the high ground of Mendoza. A decade later, now with his services wildly over solicited, he was lured to Luján de Cuyo to visit one of the oldest plantings in the region. Rolland had no intention of taking on another project. But the owners of Casarena weren't about to let Michel leave before he did just that.
How to account for the astounding purity, sleekness and terrific concentration of the 2011 Casarena Malbec Reserve? One need only revisit the approach Michel Rolland brought to the 100pt estates of Napa, Pomerol and Saint-Émilion to understand.
Most of Mendoza's Malbec is farmed industrially. With interest rates flirting with 30% and the internal economy in shambles, the vast majority of the vineyards are farmed for quantity -- not quality. While yields approach 8 tons per acre elsewhere, the old vines of Casarena barely eke out two. Two months before harvest, by hand, per Rolland's recipe, crews clip and discard under-ripe clusters as they reshape canopies so as to maximize exposure. Finally, while most in the region are now obliged to pick mechanically so as to minimize labor cost, the Casarena reserve vineyards are hand-picked -- sorted once in the vines before a second pass is made at the sorting machine prior to fermentation.
The 2011 Casarena Malbec Reserve is textbook Michel Rolland. Barrel-fermented in 50% French cooperage, the color is purple black. Explosive on the nose, infused with a lush blend of blueberry preserves and licorice, sweetly framed by new-wood cedar. Big, rich and structured on the attack, cloaked in black fruit velour, still structured for the medium-to-long haul.