A meeting with Jean-Philippe Fort, oenologist at the Rolland cabinet – 1/2
On the Estate of Château de Birazel, his speech is golden. Prominent “field oenologist” Jean-Philippe Fort has brought his technical expertise, scientific rigor and knowledge of the terroir to the Boeckx family’s project from the very beginning. He tells us how he has seen his profession evolve, and how he hopes the Bordeaux wines will evolve.
A wine is linked to its terroir, the soil quality and features, etc., but it is men and women who are the key to success.
You are among the heirs of the internationally distinguished oenologist Michel Rolland, whose eponymous Cabinet counsels more than 200 vintages and vineyards in the world. How would you present your practice?
At first, like its competitors, the Cabinet Rolland was a simple laboratory, which provided only ex post technical support and solutions to the winegrowers. Inspired by his master Émile Peynaud, Michel Rolland went out of the lab and to the field. He started to explain to winemakers how they should work to produce better quality wines. Thus, as early as the 1970s, he initiated modern oenology and fundamentally transformed viticulture and vinification.
Michel Rolland said a good oenologist is firstly spottable by the protruding calves of one who paces the vineyards.
A wine is linked to its terroir, the soil quality and features, etc., but it is men and women who are the key to success. Consulting is about connections, stories, and projects designed and developed in collaboration with the clients. It requires tugging at their heartstrings, diplomacy, kindness, delivering messages while reassuring… We purvey dreams, not nuts and bolts, our trade is people, not accounting, and our clients are grateful for that.
With global warming, the alcohol content of wines is increasing, grapes ripen earlier every year, weather episodes are more severe, floods more recurrent, storms more violent, etc.
What is your role in the development of the wines?
Oenology is a profession that has diversified over the past 30 years. Our job consists in understanding the soil in order to obtain the finest grapes, tasting them, then detecting all the defects of the wine and rectify them to make it more “expressive”, endow it with the fresh, complex and subtle aromatic profile of its terroir. To achieve this, we form partnerships with our clients on the technical development of the product.
Do you also consider as your responsibility to encourage winemakers to adopt more environmentally friendly production methods?
I am a biologist by training; fundamental ecology was already taught in the 1980’s, but professionals weren’t ready. The sector was under the thumb of all-powerful agro-chemical lobbies. Today, we no longer have a choice. We cannot turn back. With global warming, the alcohol content of wines is increasing, grapes ripen earlier every year, weather episodes are more severe, floods more recurrent, storms more violent, etc.
The Boeckx family seems very aware of these concerns and of what is at stake.
You cannot throw yourself into the fray without a carefully thought-out, constructed strategy that goes with the course of history. Today, the Birazel estate is 50 to 60% ecologically responsible. When substitutes are found for chemical inputs — notably through the so-called “new chemistry” that is exploring the possible use of “natural clones” to allow for a pest-resistant wine-making — a new step forward will be possible. We will go organic when everything is in place.
The first people concerned are the winegrowers and winemakers themselves, who do not want to poison themselves with toxic phytosanitary products. We must establish a constructive and responsible ecology, neither political nor partisan, which takes the economic constraints into account, because there are businesses to run. That’s what standards are for. To push the estates forward, collective pressure is necessary, as is an increasingly interesting collective reflection on the grape varieties. The wine-markers have their fate in hand.