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

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A Tour Down Under, Adelaide wine


Adelaide Hills vines

We were fortunate to be staying for a few days with James and Sam in the Adelaide Hills for a few days (5* on Trip Advisor definitely) and they ensured that we were able to travel around the wine areas and meet some of the new wave producers who are making this possibly the most interesting wine region in Australia. What follows is necessarily an impressionistic approach but I hope that my enthusiasm for the area will persuade many to try wines from South Australia and especially from the winemakers I mention.

Let me start with the Barossa Valley, the iconic region for Australian wine for those of my generation who were essentially brought up on Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon from producers such as Wyndhams, Seppelt, Wolf Blass and Penfolds. Some of those are based elsewhere but source grapes from the Barossa. It was interesting, therefore, to drive into the region and see it for myself. What a surprise in many ways. I expected it to be dry but with a large central area of vines as might be seen in the Rhone for example. Not at all. It was dry certainly, indeed arid in parts. The vineyards shone out like oases of greenery set amongst the brown, parched landscape. Irrigation is important, indeed vital, to these producers.

We visited Seppeltsfield, home to Seppelt of course. There was a tremendous cellar door experience with tasting rooms, restaurant and lots of craft shops. Visitors are made to feel very welcome, this is how wine tourism should be. The wines are not necessarily my thing but I have to admire the people who established wineries in such uncompromising conditions and went on to make such a success of it.


The Seppelt restaurant

I was aware that there are producers such as Tom Shobbrook, based in Seppeltsfield, who farm biodynamically and embrace natural styles. I have met Tom before and was happy to do so again when we came across him at The Summertown Astrologist. This is a restaurant/wine bar run by some local natural producers in the Hills notably Anton von Klopper of Lucy Margaux wines. Tom’s wines are always interesting, often very good. Given the terroir, my admiration is increased enormously.

I knew there were a number of producers making natural style wines in the Adelaide Hills. We met Tim Webber, who makes Manon wines with partner Monique Milton. Over coffee he explained that they farm other crops, vegetables and animals as well as making wine. All on sound organic principles. Favourite wine of Manon that I tasted was the Pinot Noir Love Lies Bleeding 2017. Interesting to hear that as well as the usual Australian grapes there was Garganega and that Tim and Monique are interested in different varieties. He is unusual in having his own vines, many such as James, buy fruit from growers with input about how they want the vines looked after. It can be difficult to source quality grapes, especially organic. James has to travel up to an hour from his winery to get to some vines.

James Erskine with James and checking progress of some Grenache

James Erskine, of Jauma wines, is somewhat of a mentor to James and he was brilliant to visit. He is an enthusiast, embraces life and was keen to share wines from tank and bottle even in the midst of a harvest afternoon. I have been fortunate to taste Jauma wines before and thoroughly enjoyed the chance to taste in situ, they are very good indeed.

Gareth Belton and some of his barrels

Gareth Belton is the producer behind Gentle Folk wines. I was familiar with his wines before but they really stood out here. Again generous with his time mid harvest Gareth let us taste wines from barrel and bottle. There were many excellent wines, Pinot and Chardonnay stood out but I could list a dozen. The fruit stands out, it is clean, expressive and long lasting on the palate but there is good use of barrel, especially on the whites, adding lovely complexity. One wine I really loved was the Scary White. Named after the vineyard Scary Gulley rather than anything scary about the wine itself, it is a field blend of Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling and other white grapes. I do love field blend wines, they do offer a sense of place and this was one of my favourite wines of the trip so far. A gently spoken man, Gareth’s passion for his wines is evident and I heartily recommend them.

Alex Schulkin makes wines under the name The Other Right. I liked his Pet Nat rosé and his Chardonnay in particular, a very good Shiraz called Love Potion was also enjoyed. Alex has the shed where James now makes his wine, they help each other out a lot, indeed Alex’s father was picking for James on the day we left. Alex is also a scientist who works in wine research and I enjoyed chatting to him about closures, yeasts and other topics. I love the strap line for The Other Right, ‘Untamed Wines’.

Interestingly the Chardonnay which Alex, Gareth and James all make comes from the same vineyard and is made in pretty much the same method. Tasting the wines from all three did show a great similarity in profile, a true sense of terroir as well as common shared values in winemaking.

There is a real sense of community in the Hills between this group of winemakers, they help each other, advise each other and work for each other. When visiting Gareth’s lovely place in the beautiful hills three other winemakers arrived to chat, share stories and experiences. I found that truly inspirational, I was very much reminded of the groups of natural producers in the Languedoc.

Australian wines fell off my radar many years ago when the big, blockbuster style began to tire me out. French subtlety and elegance became my preference. It seems that many Australians share that view and some are now producing wines of the style which would please any Francophile whilst still retaining distinctive Australian character. This was a memorable time with some excellent wine producers. Adelaide Hills and the Barossa, I salute you.


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A Tour Down Under, Adelaide

Time to see the world from a different angle. Two months on a trip to Australia and New Zealand, a lifetime ambition becoming reality. A holiday but also the opportunity to survey the wine scene Down Under. As ever with such visits I am aware that I am scratching the surface, giving an impression rather than a fully informed picture. However, I hope to share my thoughts on what I find, taste and see and that they will offer some insight.


First stop on the tour was Adelaide, South Australia. A city of 1.2 million people but with a compact centre and excellent free tram and bus service to help get around. Wine is important to the region, the Adelaide Hills and Barossa Valley are close. We were going to stay in the Hills with our friend James who worked harvest with Jeff Coutelou in 2016, his partner Sam and year old daughter Flo. First though was a few days in the city itself.

Things started a little disappointingly with the National Wine Centre. There were some interesting exhibits, one on grape varieties was extensive and another contained a 150 year old Shiraz vine which had been taken up, showing the extent of the root system  and wood above ground. Otherwise though, there was little about the story of Australian wine or examples of the wines. The tasting on offer was via enomatic machines which can work out expensive.

However, better was shortly to come. Having left behind 70cm of snow and freezing conditions in the UK the 35°C of Adelaide meant that a drink was soon needed. By chance, we were close to a bar I had seen on a list of recommended places, La Buvette. Only one table was left so we took our beer to sit down and I surveyed the line of wine bottles arranged on the shelf. What a coincidence to find one of Jeff’s Sauvé De La Citerne!

I went to talk to the barman and owner, Dominique Lentz, who turned out to be from Strasbourg and knows some of my favourite producers such as Patrick Meyer and Julien Albertus. When I asked about local wines he offered by the glass none other than Little Things Shiraz, made by… James! The wine world can be a small one. Good wines, beers and food were available and I would recommend a visit to La Buvette if you are in the city.

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James’ Little Things Syrah 2017

We also visited another wine bar, The Apothecary 1878. More traditional in its choice of wines with celebrated producers from France and Australia there were still one or two natural wines. It was very pleasant and worth a visit too. One final recommendation is Luigi’s Delicatessen where we ate excellent crab pasta and there was plenty of good food to take out or eat in.

I was very taken by the cosmopolitan nature of Adelaide, very much a multicultural city which seemed to be working well. The transport system allowed us to get around easily and see the Oval with its very good statue of Sir Don Bradman, the Cathedral, Botanic Gardens and many other attractions. I was taken by the mix of old and new, especially the intricate ironwork on the older houses. It was a great way to start the tour and I was looking forward to meeting up with James and getting out into the vineyard areas.


Wine tasting, tell the story

Having written about my concerns with wine tasting notes, medals and competitions it is time to offer my more positive thoughts. Wine tasting is fun, the chance to try wines from known or new producers, to learn more about wine, to find the familiar and the unexpected. Professional tasters are doing things differently I accept but the fun element is sadly missing far too often. Most wine drinkers are not interested in technical details and in-depth descriptions, indeed they deter most people from thinking of wine as anything but elitist, poncey as we might say in Britain.

Jeff Coutelou always tells me that wine is for sharing (see above) and he is right as usual. Wine tasting is by nature a solitary exercise in that wine tastes differently to different people because of physiology, mood and preference. However, my favourite tastings have been where I can then share my thoughts with others to garner those different views. That fun element again, and I make no apology for referring to the f word again. If those of us fascinated by the subject really want to educate others to appreciate wine then my first lesson would be, let them speak. Encourage people to say what they think about the wine, not just in terms of fruit and flower comparisons but just whatever comes to mind. If they like it because it tastes good then that is an effective wine note to my mind. If they can explain further then all the better but let’s not get hung up on it all. I was interested in the comment on the previous post from my friend Graham Tigg that he runs a tasting class for elderly people and sees it as a social gathering rather than a teaching process. Is there a better reason to hold a wine tasting?

One of my favourite tastings, La Remise gives the chance to talk with producers

My favourite wines have often emerged from tastings. Almost every time they have been tastings with the producers themselves. Why? The story. What marks a wine as special to me is that I know something about it, its origin and the people behind it who have worked so hard to bring me that wine. Yes I can taste wines and appreciate them without knowing the story but the special ones are the wines which have an attachment. Years of travelling in France meant that when I went to Alsace I would visit Martin Schaetzel in Ammerschwihr because of a first visit there where he patiently shared the story of his wines. In Beaujolais we came to get to know and love Louis Champagnon, who was always so kind and generous with his time.


With the wonderful Louis Champagnon

In the Languedoc I have been lucky to get to know so many wonderful people and therefore, their wines mean more to me. Most importantly, of course, was getting to know and become firm friends with Jeff whose wines would always be first choice for me.

Not every wine drinker wants to travel in France or other wine countries, many would be deterred from visiting producers because of language barriers. The task is to share the story, make the wine personal to the consumer. It will mean more. Achieving that is no easy matter, back labels are often a missed opportunity for example. Blogs, media columns, youtube videos all demand more interest, piquing that interest is the challenge. I am convinced that is the crucial point. Stories sell wine.



Wine tasting, expert opinion

En francais

In the last blog I said that wine should be about enjoyment, whether you like the wine is surely the most important aspect of wine tasting. Yet, when I read tasting notes that issue is hardly ever mentioned. There are long descriptions of colour, aroma and flavours. There may be mention of the persistence of taste in the mouth, possibly of wine faults and, perhaps, of the typicity of the wine in terms of grape, origin and year. But not very often do you read whether the taster actually liked the wine.

I was, and still am, asked to judge in professional tastings whilst in France. I attended two, one for a well known wine guidebook and another for regional medal awarding. I have to say I came away rather disillusioned. There were some true benefits, having to analyse the wine according to sight, smell and taste with guidelines for marking those. Having to do so in a short space of time concentrated the mind and my French language skills.

One of my judging experiences

However, in one tasting the group I was working in was told in advance how many medals would be awarded, that is before the wines were tasted! Some bottles received medals which truly didn’t deserve them. In the other tasting there was discussion about our individual marks and thoughts but then as lunch approached the chair said he would just hand in his results so that lunch was not missed. In neither case was actually liking the wine ever discussed or taken into account. Importantly there was huge disagreement amongst the tasters, all of whom were professionals. Marks varied, they are always subjective no matter how much the guidelines are given to establish an objective framework for scoring.

Just this week two well known professionals had a little spat on Twitter about the reliability of scores. Many professionals defend their accuracy, but then they would wouldn’t they?

I have often tasted wines which were correct, well made, ripe grapes. Technically they deserved high scores but they were dull, lacking personality or excitement. Would I buy them? Certainly not. Yet they are the ones which often wear their medals on the bottle and that is a real boost to sales in supermarkets etc. This is one example of how a little education would benefit the wine drinker who simply wants a nice glass of wine and is not interested too much in the story behind it. Medals and high scores, in my opinion, can be misleading and a red herring.


This must be a terrific wine! But, note the different opinions

Similarly I have drunk wines which had a hint of faults, a touch of volatility or a bit farmyardy and yet, they were exciting wines with personality. Not that the fault made them good, just that the wine could accommodate it.

I shall return to the question of the story behind wines in the next article.

As for newspapers and wine magazines. Too often they are basically publicity puff pieces, advertorials for wines. I gave up on wine magazines a long time ago. Until they are more honest and describe poor wines as well as good then I shall stick to tasters whose opinions I respect on the web or in person. And trust my own judgement too.



Wine tasting should be simple

I have been thinking and reading quite a lot recently about wine tasting and why many people find wine, and its advocates, so off-putting. Most people who buy wine in the UK do so in supermarkets, choose from a wide variety from the shelves based on price, promotions and puff pieces. By the latter I mean the labels on the shelves quoting wine ‘experts’ on why this particular wine is terrific value for money. And sometimes those customers get a bargain and a good bottle of wine.


Tasting with the excellent Fred Rivaton

Ask many of those people to buy from a merchant and they would be deterred by price and the language surrounding wine. Many people I talk to about wine like a particular style, feel comfortable about that and picking it from an anonymous supermarket shelf. They do not want to have to talk about yields, pruning style or fermentation temperatures because it is too technical and not what interests them. We the wine geeks are absorbed by such issues, most people are not. It bores people, it creates the image of the wine snob.

Readers in the UK will recall how one wine broadcaster made a name for herself by describing wine aromas and flavours by ever more outlandish descriptions. Whilst amusing did this in fact simply confirm the image of wine tasting as an elitist activity, worthy merely of satire?

Wine is a topic of endless fascination to me but I know I am in a minority. And a snob, I often find myself staring in horror at the bottles in those supermarket trollies. However, I do think that wine tasting is often made over complicated and found myself nodding in agreement repeatedly with this article by Jenn Rice on the Food And Wine  website.

The basic question is do I like the wine? Does its mixture of fruit, flavours, acidity, sweetness etc appeal to me and deliver what I want? No matter the price, no matter the reputation of the producer or vineyard area. I like the advice int he article to simply close the eyes and let the wine deliver its smell, taste and allow it to trigger the memory. I shall be returning to memory and story in the next article.

So, instead of worrying about producing lists of fruits, flowers or fungi, of texture, tint or taint just let the wine do its work in your mouth and then decide if you like it. Wine can be simple.


Vincent, taken by a wine



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Coutelou, news on 2016, 2017 and 2018

En francais

Cartes des voeux 2015 and 2016


Carte des Voeux 2017, election year

Every January Jeff Coutelou sends out to customers a Carte Des Voeux, a New Year’s card, in which he sends out information about the previous year’s events in Puimisson, thoughts about the vintage and general news. The card is always fronted by a striking, witty image and this year’s was no exception.




The main headlines from this year’s card concerning the wines were:

  • The difficulties of the 2017 vintage, the extremely hot weather and drought and how only a timely wind from the sea (brise marine) saved the harvest
  • The small harvest, though one of very good quality
  • Details of the likely cuvées which Jeff blended in November, these include regulars such as 7, Rue De La Pompe, Vin Des Amis, PM Rosé, Classe, Flambadou, Flower Power and the Blanc but also the Amphora wine from 2016 and …… La Vigne Haute! (Happy writer here)
  • New products, spirits and ‘tonics’. Gin, Fine and Grappa together with a Kina (a wine flavoured with plants) which is delicious.

Other news headlines:

  • The 2016 vintage as proof of how nature decides. The wines were slow to develop and, so, Jeff decided to sit on up to 75% of them rather than commercialise unready wines. (That said, the 2016 bottles which I have opened recently have been very good indeed, well worth waiting for. Good news for the customer with patience, less so for Jeff’s turnover).
  • Problems in the vineyards due to heavy rain in late 2016 meant that new plantings had to be postponed.The problems caused by vandalism in autumn 2017 have damaged the work and progress of biodiversity in the vineyards, eg hedges and trees burned.

Perhaps most startling of all the Domaine will, in future, no longer be named Mas Coutelou. The authorities informed Jeff that a domaine releasing wines as Vin De France rather than AOC or IGP is not permitted to use the term Mas. In Jeff’s case this seems daft as that is the family name of his mother and founders of the Domaine. No matter the logic and common sense, the wines will now simply be called Coutelou.

As for 2018.

The plantations foreseen for 2017 will, hopefully, take place this Spring, eg next to Ste Suzanne where traditional and older grape varieties will take their place amongst the dozens already planted across the domaine.


The sodden vineyard which could not be planted in 2017

Jeff intends to bring back to life the parcels in the Saint Chinian area which belonged to his father. They will be tidied, replanted as necessary and improved with biodiversity as a core principle. In ten years we can look forward to a whole new range of Coutelou wines from this renowned region.

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Grapes and climate change

Jeff forwarded me an interesting article from Le Figaro this week. The subject was research published in the journal Nature, Climate, Change focusing on the effects of climate change on viticulture and the likely need for change.


Some, such as Trump, deny such change of course but those of us in the real world can consider evidence. Vendanges in France now take place on average 2-3 weeks before they used to around 1970. The long history of wine writing means that we know that in Burgundy, for example, harvests are at their earliest in 700 years. Extreme weather in all seasons is more common, made worse by some agricultural practices such as soil impaction from machinery as well as the effects of herbicides which discourage rain from soaking into the soils.

As average temperatures rise seemingly year on year and water shortages occur more frequently in the Languedoc and other regions then viticulteurs face the problem that traditional grape varieties ripen earlier and earlier and struggle in drought conditions such as those shown in the map below indicating ’emergency’ zones in summer 2017.


The researchers, such as Elizabeth Wolkovich from the Harvard University Centre for the Environment, suggest that testing different grape varieties will be necessary. At present many of the world’s leading wine producing countries are dominated by 12 ‘international varieties’ such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Syrah, Riesling and Pinot Noir.* The list at the bottom of the page shows how much these vineyards are dominated by the international varieties.

France is more varied with 43.5% planted with these grapes (though 85% under the top 20 grapes). Altogether more than 300 grape varieties are planted around France. Organisations promoting rare and forgotten grapes, eg Wine Mosaic, are gaining traction and the researchers believe that by finding grapes with longer growing seasons and later ripening then regions badly affected by climate change might find ways to preserve their vineyards and traditions.


I have reported many times how Jeff Coutelou has been planting many different cépages. He believes that not only do they provide variety in the vineyard and bottle but that the mix of different grapes in vineyards helps to prevent disease spreading. Castets, Piquepoul Noir, Terret Blanc, Morastel, and even an Inconnue (unknown) are grapes planted int he last few years and he is looking at others such as Picardan which is related to Clairette and Mauzac. Great wines such as Flower Power have resulted from these plantings, more will follow.

This is the way forward, experimenting to find grapes which make good quality wine and which can stand the climatic changes which we face.


* % area of vineyards under the 12 varieties

China – 93 (almost 75% Cabernet Sauvignon)

New Zealand 91.6

Australia 84.5

Chile 77.6

USA 70