amarchinthevines

Learning about wine, vines and vignerons whilst living in the Languedoc


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The rise and fall of natural wines?

 

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I read an interesting article by Alice Feiring last week. Ms Feiring is perhaps the most high profile, long term advocate of natural wines but in this article she raised a number of issues which have also been troubling me in recent months.

There is little doubt that natural wines have become fashionable around the world. New producers, cavistes and bar / restaurants spring up weekly. Even the North East of England (my home region) now has a wine bar offering natural wines “for the adventurous”! So, a half hearted effort but a start.

During vendanges we had a number of visits from cavistes seeking wines from Jeff. Alas they would leave disappointed as there are few enough wines to meet the demand of existing customers after low yields in 2017. This year’s mildew attacks mean even more rationing next year. We have reached the stage where even supermarkets and major chains such as Majestic in the UK are wanting to stock natural wines. Supply, not just from Jeff, does not meet the demand.

As ever where there is demand we see some jumping in to meet it. Some so called natural wines are not organically produced for example, to me that means they are not natural wines. There are lots of younger, newer producers who want to make genuine wines but there are also some who are undoubtedly riding the bandwagon to make a profit.

Demand also means that some producers are taking shortcuts to get their wines to market quickly. Feiring refers to this and the ensuing faults which may arise, I have seen other references to mousiness being one flaw caused by premature bottling. Some wine drinkers are complicit in this by accepting flaws as part of the character and style of natural wines. This is a complex area, I am more tolerant of brett (farmyard, band aid aromas caused by harmful bacteria) than some but very intolerant of mousiness which 20% of people can’t detect at all!*

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However, I want to drink wines which taste of clean, healthy fruit not faults. I won’t buy from producers whose wines regularly exhibit such flaws, according to Feiring a lot of drinkers don’t see them as problems at all. To my mind there will be a reaction against natural wines, such is the nature of fashion. The wines which will still be in demand will be those of quality, made for easy drinking or for the long term.

 

Jeff Coutelou is certainly one producer of such wines. My advice is to drink Coutelou of course but also to seek out reliable, quality winemakers from around the world. Reliable merchants or cavistes will surely point you in the right direction much better than chains or supermarkets. For my part I shall also try to recommend wines and winemakers whom I trust. And, I hasten to point out, I have had more problem with conventional wines and faults than natural wines in the last year.

*Looking forward to reading the new book by Jamie Goode about wine flaws


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After the 2017s, the Coutelou 2018s

 

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Just before leaving the Languedoc for hibernation in the UK I was invited by Jeff Coutelou to taste through this year’s wines. Most are now finishing both fermentations and starting to settle for the winter in cuve. They will change and develop over the next few months of course, they are living wines and still in their infancy. Consequently, these observations are preliminary but, after five years of similar tastings, I feel more confident about predicting which way the wines will go.

2018 has undoubtedly been a troubled year for Jeff and fellow Languedoc producers, in particular those who follow organic and biodynamic principles. The damage began with the long period of rain in Spring and the mildew outbreak which ensued. Mildew damaged the flowers, buds and young grapes. It damaged the leaves making it more difficult for the vines to produce the energy to feed those grapes. Jeff cannot recall a year of such blight. This was followed by a very hot, very dry summer making the vines suffer still further, compounding their difficulty in producing good sized fruit. Yields are down some 50-60% following on from 2017 when they were down 20%.

With all those problems could good wines be made?

We started with white wines. The white grapes from the 2015 Peilhan plantation have been blended with others from older vines in Peilhan such as Carignan Blanc, Maccabeu and Grenache Gris. The small quantity means this will be used for a barrel aged wine. It had finished fermentation and had good fruit with a liquorice streak and depth of flavour. Another batch of the Grenache Gris and Maccabeu was still in malolactic fermentation and cloudy with apples and a directness. Similarly the whites from La Garrigue were still fermenting but with great depth of flavour. There will only be small quantities of any Coutelou white wine, the last couple of years have not been kind to them.

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Onto the reds.

Grenache was the variety which was most affected by mildew, the vines were not pretty and yields were very small. Many of the bunches did not form, many which did suffered from coulure (where only a few berries form) or produced dried, dessicated fruit. The vendangeurs had to be very selective. So was it worth picking? The Grenache from La Garrigue tasted clean with good fruit and a nice acidity. The Grenache from Sainte Suzanne was worst hit of all. Jeff made the wine with only a couple of days on stems as the fruit was delicate. The wine is light as a result, juicy with red fruits, light but tasty.

Cinsault usually provides another light wine and this vintage was no exception. Despite that it was very fruity on the nose and on the finish, a surprising depth of flavour. For rosé, 5SO or both? Jeff will decide as the wine develops.

The tank which will make Flower Power 2018 has a bewildering mix of grapes, from the Flower Power vineyard itself, Rome, some Syrah from Segrairals and the reds from the 2015 Peilhan plantation, eg Morastel and Riveyrenc Noir. There was a lot of mouth feel in the wine, with tannin and substance and a concentration of dark fruits.

Cabernet Sauvignon from the last picking has produced a real glouglou wine, light and juicy. It will bring a fruity freshness to any wine it is used for.

Carignan was one grape which resisted mildew for a long time. This is the parcel producing Flambadou, one of the flagship Coutelou wines. Once again it has produced a high quality wine. Lighter in alcohol than usual yet managing to produce a full, ripe and fresh wine whose flavours lingered long after swallowing it. I look forward to this one a lot.

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Carignan grapes

Perhaps the biggest surprise was the Mourvèdre. It has made good wines before, try the 2015 or 2016 for example. However it could be a real star this year. There was a great depth and freshness with dark fruit flavours made to feel lighter by light acidity leading to an almost saline finish. It would be almost drinkable now but will keep for many years and develop beautifully, I am sure of that.

Syrah from Sainte Suzanne was made using grappe entire or whole bunch. Around 14% abv it has a clean acidity with red fruits and soft tannins (from the stems?) which will support a good wine. The Syrah from Segrairals was quite different, the place and destemming produced a more upfront fruity wine with a clean, dry finish.

And, of course, there was the Syrah from La Garrigue, home of my favourite wine La Vigne Haute. Amazingly, in such a horrible year, the quality of these grapes was excellent. Only made in very good years and yet, hopefully, there will be a 2018 La Vigne Haute. The wine has great character already, freshness, fruit, long flavours supported with lovely tannins which will help the wine to age well. Exciting.

So, out of the ashes rises the phoenix, very good wines despite the vintage. The resilience and quality of the vineyards and vines as well as the winemaking skills of Jeff Coutelou.

 


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Wine with friends, the 2017 Coutelou wines

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One of the highlights of the last few weeks of the 2018 vendanges was tasting the wines from 2017. A group of our friends gathered to enjoy bottles kindly given by Jeff and we tasted through them, scoring them as went. I am not a great fan of wine scores but it was a simple way of tracking our preferences, we revisited scores regularly to ensure there was some context for the earlier marks.

We started with the OW of 2016, so a different vintage but yet to be released. I have tasted it regularly in recent weeks at vendanges lunches and I really like it. Many orange wines are being made but often they are based on grapes which have fairly neutral skins. OW is made from Muscat D’Alexandrie and the skins have a lot of flavour which the long maceration brings out together with the tannins. This has real character, one of my wines of the night. It must be said that for some of my friends it was too much of a shock, unused to skin contact wines they found it too different. If you like orange wines though, believe me, this is excellent.

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On to the reds. 2017 was a vintage of low yields due to the long, dry summer. However, it must be said one of the consequences is a concentration of flavour and high quality. The six wines we shared were all very good and consistent in their length and full flavour. Perhaps the most consistent of any vintage I have been involved with since I started in 2014.

Vin De Table is a supposedly simple wine. Don’t be fooled, it is very good. Assembled from wines left over from the main cuvées with quite a large portion of Merlot for good measure. It received consistently good scores from everyone, it was simply enjoyable and very drinkable, belying its simple status with good fruit, freshness and length. A bargain at the price of well under 10€ seen in many caves.

Tête À Claques was a wine originally made for London restaurants but now sold from the cellars. It is based on Le Vin Des Amis (what was left) to which was added Mourvèdre and other remaining wine. The Mourvèdre boosts the wine with some crunchy, dark fruit flavours and this was one person’s favourite wine of the night.

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The natural successor was Le Vin Des Amis. For two of the group this was their favourite wine of the evening. The 2017 version is based on Cinsault, not the norm. Blended with Syrah and Grenache the Cinsault gives a real lift of red fruit and the result is a classic VDA, a bottle which will please anyone and disappear quickly.

On to the other headlining wine of the Coutelou range, Classe. Syrah, Grenache and more Mourvèdre (there was also a pure Mourvèdre released in 2017 under the name of On Peut Pas Vraiment Dire Que). Classe usually adds a depth and silkiness compared to VDA, it lives up to its name and label. This was no exception, it really is a very good wine and one I would love to age for a year or two even though it would be hard to resist now. One person chose it as their highlight.

Flambadou has been one of the best wines of the domaine for the last few years. Pure Carignan from a vineyard with complex geology the 2017 version is up to those high standards with dark fruits, freshness and ripe tannins. It needs time to mature before it reaches its peak but this is one of my favourite wines and, from experience of this wine, I can tell this will develop into a top class wine.

My absolute favourite Coutelou wine is La Vigne Haute, the pure Syrah from La Garrigue. North facing, villefranchien rock the wine is only released as La Vigne Haute when Jeff decides it is of the required quality, just seven of the last nineteen years. This is the first time I have been involved with making LVH and I am thrilled with it. The fruit is already evident, it is complex, has dark edges as well as the fruit. The flavours are long and fresh with more ripe tannins. It is a beauty, it could be mistaken for a wine from the Rhone or Ardèche. Previous examples of this wine have shown me that it needs 5 years or more to be at it best, 2009 is excellent at present. This will be a wine to treasure for years to come. Three of us chose it as wine of the night.

Overall, my friends showed great taste in selecting La Vigne Haute as the clear leader in scoring (I hope my influence wasn’t too strong!). Classe and Le Vin Des Amis followed on a few points behind. However, all agreed as we enjoyed a wonderful half bottle of Vieux Grenache that the wines were excellent, consistently so.

Thanks to May and Martin for being such great hosts and providing lovely food to accompany the wines. And to Pat, Afshin, Denise, Matt and Jonathan for joining in and making it so enjoyable.

A special night. Jeff told me from the beginning that he makes his wines to be shared with friends and loved ones. This was a night to prove the wisdom of those words as well as the immense talent and passion of Jeff Coutelou.

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One More Time

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“They think it’s all over, it is now,” were the famous words of commentator Kenneth Wolstenholme when England scored their fourth goal to win the World Cup of 1966. Well to mix metaphors one more time, Jeff decided it was time to get the band back together after we had thought the vendanges were completed.

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Not again! I’m sleeping

There remained a parcel of Cabernet Sauvignon that Jeff thought not to be worth collecting but the last couple of weeks they had ripened a bit more and there was enough to warrant one last pick on Tuesday 2nd October. The pickings were meagre, it took 7 or 8 pickers up to two hours to fill the 16 cases which are brought back to the cellar to be sorted again and then put in tank. Aching muscles and stuttering machinery protested a little at the reprise but the stainless steel tank in the photo was just about half filled by the end of the day. The grapes themselves were very good, Cabernet always gives small berries but they were healthy.

The juice went to Thierry for analysis as usual. A solid 14% potential alcohol, though lacking a little acidity. It tastes juicy and clean and I am sure will be used either for blending or in the spirits made for the Coutelou range.

Analyses old and new taking place

We went on to taste more of the tanks and the results are promising. The Syrah of La Garrigue is undoubtedly the star (even allowing for my bias towards this perennial favourite), the Carignan, Flower Power also very good. Perhaps the biggest surprise was a very long, fruity Grenache – the grape which had suffered most from this year’s dreadful mildew. Grapes are very hardy it would seem, helped by a skilful winemaker of course. That will not make up for the loss in yields this year, 50% would appear to be the figure. Sadly this might well bring price rises. We had another caviste at the cellar wanting to buy wine that day, the latest in a long line through the vendanges. Sadly, there is not enough to satisfy existing customers’ demand let alone new outlets.

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A lot more smaller tanks have been needed this year, a sign of low yields

it was good to have a day together again, the financial cost of picking was undoubtedly higher than usual but there is more wine in tank and hopefully that will offset some of this year’s hardships.

Traditional end of vendanges, the boss does some cleaning of the cases

and the workers are crowned with vines

 


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With A Little Help From My Friends

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Sometimes we all need some support

Like many people I am prone to occasional bouts of depression and last weekend was one of those times. Fortunately it doesn’t hit me as hard as many people but it makes me (even more) difficult to live with. By Tuesday I was starting to feel better and toured the Coutelou vineyards. It proved to be a real tonic.

I started in Rome, where else? Surrounded by trees, birdsong, butterflies and even a hare who was far too speedy for my camera to catch. It is an inspiring place, so relaxing. The vines are hanging on to their leaves despite the long, dry spell, not always the case elsewhere.

Carignan grapes left behind in Rec D’Oulette

As I was to see in other vineyards the soils are starting to dry significantly. In Peilhan, for example, the clay soils were soaked all Spring and they compacted meaning that the recent dry months have caused that upper crust to crack. Some rain is needed. It would also give the vines some relief. They have had a very tough time in the last couple of years. 2017 saw drought which stressed them then this year’s wet Spring and mildew have made them struggle too. One of the reasons for picking some grapes a little early was to give the vines a break so that they can look after themselves. Rain would help that to happen.

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In Flower Power (Font D’Oulette) the vines are much younger and the foliage more meagre. Compare these vines to those in a neighbouring vineyard. The watering and feeding of nitrates etc means that those vines are much greener and fuller with few signs of changing colour. The yields from such vines are much higher too. These are the issues which organic/biodynamic/natural producers face, they often have to accept lower yields and production in order to stick with their principles, and it explains the price premium.

Flower Power vines shining in the sunshine, the vivid green of neighbouring vines 

Mildew meant that Jeff was reluctant to plough his vineyards this year as that would release the spores from the soil. Now that autumn is here, however, they will be turned over to add compost to the earth from all the plant growth. The mildew spores won’t flourish in the cooler conditions. Jeff and Julien were using pickaxe and mattock to clear the ground around the new planting in Segrairals on Tuesday. Weeks of work remain to be done. Meanwhile back in the cellar more cleaning, the sorting table and other harvest equipment taken apart to ensure everything is spotless.

It was Louis’ last full day and he had kindly invited me to share a bottle of Mas Jullien over lunch. Jeff decided to make it a celebratory feast and we shared excellent food from the barbecue and a cake! A magnum of Macon from Valette was excellent and the 2012 La Vigne Haute magnum at least its match. We even went to taste my 2015 wine from barrel, soon to be in bottle!

A day to lift my spirits. Natural beauty, tranquillity and the company of wonderful friends. I am a fortunate man.

With Michel and Julien, man’s best friend


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Vendanges 2018 – Part 6 (Grapes, work and love)

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2018 will be remembered by team Coutelou for mildew, hail, mechanical breakdowns and successive problems. Yet as we reached the end of the vendanges the habitual feelings of pride, camaraderie and friendship were to the fore.

Though the harvest of Mourvèdre the previous week was the last of the major parcels Jeff had left grapes in Peilhan to pick. The reason was a visit by a film crew from Netflix making a programme (or series) about different ways of making wine in the region from cave co-ops to big scale producers and négotiants like Bertrand to the natural producer which is Jeff Coutelou.

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Some of the camera equipment

Carignan Blanc and Muscat D’Alexandrie was picked in the morning, even I did 4.5 hours of picking. Over the final harvest lunch (my favourite Fideua plus jeroboams of the first Amphora wine) the crew joined us and then filmed the afternoon picking of the new plantation of Peilhan with its Piquepoul Gris and Riveyrenc Gris. They shot scenes in the cellar as we sorted and then carried out a long interview with Jeff. I am not really allowed to say much more until the broadcast and shall update when we get the date.

And that was it. The last grapes. There remains much work to do with the processes I described here needing to continue for all the wines in tank, from the first to these last. The Muscat will go to make a maceration orange wine as in 2016, a wine I truly love and which has featured regularly through harvest lunches.

Carignan Blanc, Riveyrenc Gris, sorting the last cases

It is time for Jeff to count the costs of these vendanges in terms of actual production and I shall feedback when things settle down. Suffice to say we had a big drop in quantity, the Coutelou wines will be even harder to find. Having tasted most, if not all, as they ferment steadily I can say that quality remains high, Flower Power, Carignan, La Garrigue Syrah and Mourvedre especially.

Muscat and the new plantation grapes in cuve

Jeff’s motto of “grapes, work and love” is never more true than at this time of year. We have worked hard, we have formed friendships and made the best of what nature gave.

Amphora jeroboam poured by our resident sommelier Louis, Michel shows his team loyalty


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Vendanges 2018 – Part 5

Monday 10th to Friday 14th – in the cellar

Tanks before vendanges and on Friday

Cellar work becomes the focus of vendanges as more and more of the cuves are filled. The grapes pass through a variety of actions to produce the wine. Hopefully this post will help to explain some of these actions.

White grapes are usually pressed quickly after entering the cellar to get the juice without too much contact with skins which would colour the juice. Orange wines, becoming more popular every year, are made by such contact, macerating the juice on the skins, to extract colour and tannins.

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To prove I do some work!! (photo by Flora Rey)

 

 

After sorting, red grapes are sent to the tanks either destemmed or in whole bunches as I have described before in this series. That decision would be influenced by the quality of the grapes and what Jeff feels will be the best for that particular harvest. In either case, as with orange wine, the juice sits with the skins, flesh and pips for a while to extract colour, flavour and tannins.

Busy cellar; Louis putting the destemmer to work

Too much skin contact becomes counter productive though. As fermentation begins the grapes become hot and it easy to extract too much tannin for example which will make the wine tough and harsh. Yeasts which feed the fermentation produce lees as they die off and these can become a cause of rot and off flavours unless removed. Therefore the infant wines pass through actions known as débourbage and délestage.

Débourbage is where the juice is run off from the cuve leaving the marc behind, the sludge of skins and stems. The juice goes into another cuve where fermentation will continue without the risk of going off. The marc can be used for distilling alcohol.

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Débourbage

Délestage is similar but as the juice is run off it passes through a basket to collect seeds which might add bitter tannins. The marc might then be lightly pressed, producing more juice which can be added to the original juice, adding more tannin and alcohol.

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These two processes mean that the wine becomes clearer and, for a natural producer like Jeff, that filtering is not needed at a later stage. The wine will be clear, juicy and fruity.

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Looking into this cuve before remontage you can see the skins lying on top of the juice

Whilst in contact with the juice the skins rise to the top of the tank and form a crust (chapeau) on top of the juice. If left like that this cap would become dried out and add bitterness to the wine. Meanwhile the juice fermenting below would produce lots of carbon dioxide which would be trapped inside. Therefore the juice needs to be passed over the crust to moisten it, release the CO2 and to get the best out of the skins and grape flesh.

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Remontage (photo by Flora Rey)

There are two methods of doing this, remontage and pigeage. Remontage is pumping the juice from the bottom back over the crust, rather like a fireman hosing down a blaze. Pigeage is where the crust is pushed down into the juice, traditionally by treading but, more usually, by pushing it with a fork or tool. This is hard work believe me. When Steeve, a friend of Jeff’s from Besancon, carried out pigeage on the La Garrigue Syrah on Friday the crust was easily 30-40cm thick.

Jeff wants to interfere with the wines as little as possible but these actions are an important part of winemaking. Experience and observation helped him to find the balance between overworking the wine and helping it to make itself.

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Pipes running in all directions, a good memory is required