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


All dressed up


Happily the wines have plenty of places to go, from France to Australia, the United States, Japan and all around the world. As Christmas approaches the demand for wines reaches a peak and bottles from 2015 are prepared for sending off to those places. The process of putting on labels, capsules etc is known as habillage (dressing).

On Wednesday October 19th we dressed magnums of Classe and Sauvé De La Citerne as well as bottles of 5SO Simple, all from 2015. 5SO was first released in the Spring but  a second wave is now ready. All of these wines are sold out already, demand outstrips supply.

The bottles which were filled back in Spring are checked first to ensure there is no leakage from the corks, a handful do where a cork was not up to scratch. These bottles are known as couleuses. Every effort is made to ensure that the bottle should reach the consumer in premium condition.


Michel puts on the capsule which is tightened by the machine which then sticks on the labels

The labelling is done by means of a machine which seals the capsule and pastes the label and back label onto the bottle. For the magnums the seal was actually made with wax which requires more work and time. The wax also needs time to dry off before being packed in boxes.

After the single bottles have their capsules and labels added they are placed in their box with protective cardboard to keep them in good condition during transport. This is a fiddly job, it has taken me two years of trying to do it quickly but I have finally got there.

This is the sort of day which I never really considered when I arrived at Mas Coutelou. The vines yes, bottling yes but, as a typical wine drinker, I never really considered the 101 jobs which go into preparing the bottles for market. Meanwhile, Jeff is sorting through his orders and, unfortunately, having to turn down some orders as there simply is not enough wine to meet the requests which he receives. The wines are justifiably in demand, and if you are fortunate to be drinking one, have a thought for the work which goes into preparing the bottle and raise your glass to Jeff, Michel, Julien and everyone else who has helped to make it so good.


Becoming naturalised


En français

I have spent most of the last 25 months living in the Languedoc and as that period draws to an end I have begun to feel naturalised: my French has started to adopt a local accent such as ‘veng’ for ‘vin’; I tut at anybody and everybody; I rush for a jumper if the temperature dips below 20°C; I even went to a rugby match!

We are searching for a house to move more definitively to the area, it is where I feel happy, healthy and home. Sadly, when I look back across the Channel I see little to make me feel at home there. Brexit has seen a fall in the £ of more than 20% in less than four months. There has been a startling increase in racist and homophobic attacks. The government (with an unelected Prime Minister) is hell bent on going it alone, prepared to do without the EU single market even if it means damaging the economy. Companies such as Nissan have warned they will leave the UK if that is the case yet the government ploughs on determinedly. The 48% who voted to Remain in the EU are ignored, reviled and, today, told that they should be silenced.


Mrs. May told her Party, “If you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere. You don’t understand what the very word ‘citizenship’ means.”

Worrying times. Is it any wonder that I, proud to be a citizen of the world, feel more naturalised here in the Hérault? Though Robert Ménard, the far right mayor of Béziers, is doing his best to out do May’s government by opposing the housing of immigrants relocated from Calais to the town. He sanctioned this poster for example:


As for wine?

After a few tranquil months natural wine has again become the focus of attacks and disparaging remarks by those who seem threatened by it.

In France, Michel Bettane, elder statesman of wine critics, accused natural wine drinkers of being ‘peu democratique’ in their words and ways. No great surprise from a man whose connections make him part of the wine establishment.

In the UK one of the most respected and established of wine merchants, The Wine Society, published this statement from one of their senior buyers.


“Prone to spoilage, high proportion not particularly pleasant to drink, rarely demonstrate varietal character or sense of place.” A damning list. And I am a member of this co-operative group!

Again I feel alienated from mainstream opinion. Sykes is talking complete rubbish and dismisses great wines and talented winemakers with generalisations and prejudice.

I don’t always agree with Alice Feiring, one of natural wine’s more celebrated advocates. However, in a recent article she stated that she cannot support faulty winemaking and those who seem to favour it as an expression of their anti-establishment credentials. I agree. Wine must be drinkable, must be pleasurable, must, above all, be interesting. I could name dozens of natural wine producers who make great wine, it just happens to be natural wine. Are Barral, Foillard, Métras, Coutelou, Occhipinti, Radikon, Ganévat etc making wines as Bettane or Sykes describe?


Tasting Casa Pardet in 2015, a moment when wine stops you in your tracks and makes you say, wow

I have tasted many natural wines which sing of their cépage and origins, wines from France, Italy, Spain, South Africa, Australia. They tell a tale of their producer and their terroir. They are interesting, some stop you in your tracks and make you reflect on their beauty. Rather those than the very many dull, monotonous wines which taste the same as everybody else’s from Otago to Oregon.

I do enjoy conventional wines, I really like some of them. However, I often find more excitement and interest in the many, well-made natural wines.

Long live freedom of movement, long live the Languedoc and long live great wine.

I am becoming naturalised.



Mas Coutelou Roberta 2003, fresh as a daisy in 2016. Take note Mr. Sykes

Leave a comment

When the tank is empty


En français

The vendanges may be over but the hard work continues for Jeff Coutelou and the team. Everyone is tired, back aches and minor ailments prevail, yet though the workforce is running near empty there is work to be done. Ironically, emptying the tanks.


Grape must after décuvage

The grape must has played its role in the tanks, adding tannin, colour, texture, aroma etc to the juice. It has reached the point though for some of the wines that the must would begin to have a negative effect, too much tannin or colour and, potentially, an increased risk of contamination.

Therefore décuvage has been the theme of the week, emptying those cuves, pressing the must and returning the juice to a cuve where it will remain for several months finishing fermentation and completing its transformation into wine.

It is a critical time. Moving the wine brings risks especially that of too much contact with air leading to oxidation. So, it was time to muster those last reserves of energy and press ahead.

The juice is pumped to the press along with the skins and grape flesh which are in suspension in the wine. The parts which have sunk to the bottom of the tank are left behind and removed by fork or by hand. The pressing sends the juice to another, clean cuve via another pump. The marc (solid materials left in tank and from the pressing) can be sent to the distillery to make eau de vie, as you will see in the video at the bottom of the page.

The new wine will reflect the grapes and terroir but also the length of time in cuve. Shorter time on skins brings lighter, fresher, juicier wine. That is why décuvage takes place at different times for different wines.

Here Jjeff and Michel ensure that all the wine is in the cuve.

The aches and pains are plentiful, the wines remain full of energy and life.

1 Comment

Vendanges 2016 #9 – Days Like This

“When all the parts of the puzzle start to look like they fit
Then I must remember there’ll be days like this”               (Van Morrison, Days Like This)

As we approached the end of vendanges a number of the team were moving on. It was an inspired move to have a farewell day, picking, tasting and celebrating together, though we were already missing some like Charles, Carole and Maylis.

The morning dawned over Peilhan and the vineyard which we planted in March 2015. Rows of Terret Blanc and Noir, Riveyrenc Gris and Noir, Piquepoul Noir and Morastel produced grapes this year. They cannot be used in major cuvées sold to the public as they are too youthful. However, Jeff decided to pick them to make something for himself out of interest. So, on a bright, warm autumnal morning we gathered, picked, chatted and laughed.

Interesting to see how some varieties produce more than others already, more precocious perhaps, the Terret Noir being especially shy. Altogether we picked around six cases only but there was a real mix of colour and some nice looking fruit which went into a small cuve in whole bunches.


Later that day we gathered again, this time in the main cellar along with Thierry Toulouse, Jeff’s oenologue. We tasted through the whole range of 2016 wines in cuve before heading to a local restaurant for a meal. The results of the tasting were fascinating. Clearly, they are in a stage of transition, fermentations still progressing. Nonetheless the wines were already showing their character. I won’t go into too much detail here, though I did take notes to help me record how the wines change in coming months.

In summary though I was amazed. I have said many times on here how difficult this year has been. A very warm winter, drought, mildew, delayed summer being just some of the problems. Yet here we tasted some lovely fresh fruit, lively acidity and other promising signs. I would mention the Carignan Blanc, lovely Syrah and Grenache from La Garrigue, juicy Mourvèdre and in particular the wonderful Carignan Noir of Flambadou. All those puzzles which Jeff had to hold in his head about harvesting dates, moving wines, possible assemblages etc, well those puzzles were solved in the glass. I had expected some disappointments but somehow Jeff has conjured some potentially top quality wines.


2003 Roberta

At the end of the current wines Jeff also shared a 2003 bottle of white wine based on Grenache Blanc, Noir and Gris, called Roberta (it’s a long story!). This was one of three cuvées which were the first that Jeff made sans sulfites. Yet it was complex; fresh, fruity, nutty. A wine which made my heart sing, proof that SO2 is not required for ageing wines as we are often told. Perhaps in 13 years time we shall be tasting the 2016 wines and marveling at them too.

A fitting way to close the vendanges period, a team rightly proud of what it had achieved.

“When all the parts of the puzzle start to look like they fit
Then I must remember there’ll be days like this”



Leave a comment

Vendanges 2016 #8 – from grapes to wine

En français

The grapes are picked, how do we make this become wine? That has become the main objective now at Mas Coutelou.

The grape skins, pips, flesh and solids are with the juice in the tank (cuve) for as long as Jeff feels that they will benefit the juice. They give the juice chemicals such as anthocyanins which give colour to the juice (for rosé and red wines), tannins and flavour compounds. The solid parts of the mix tend to rise to the top of the tank and float on the juice. This cap must be kept moist, a dry must would give unpleasant flavours and is more prone to harmful bacteria. That is why remontage and pigeage have to be carried out, as explained before.

Jeff will taste from each cuve every day and samples are sent to oenologue Thierry Toulouse for analysis.

When he is happy that the right balance of sugars, acidity, colour and flavours is achieved it is time to press the wine. Some of the must is left behind in cuve and will be collected to use again, for example in distilling.


Michel removing must from the cuve

The pressed juice goes into a new cuve and will continue its fermentation into wine. The yeasts on the grape skins and in the atmosphere of the cellar change the grape sugars into alcohol. The fermentation will have begun when the must was in contact but will continue when just the juice remains.

I wish I could convey the smell of the fermenting juice via the page you are reading. It is like walking into a boulangerie in the early morning,  bready aromas fill the air as the yeasts go about their work. One of the real highlights of the whole process.


Fragrant, yeasty fermenting wine

Whilst that is all going on the equipment which has been used so much in the last month is checked over, taken apart and given a thorough cleaning. Not a pip, not a grape skin must be left in the sorting table, presses, égrappoir (destemmer) or anything else. No chance of bacteria gathering.

It is not straightforward. The process of grape juice to wine is a natural one and things can go wrong. Any vigneron who had a year where the process went without any hiccoughs would be either the luckiest alive or a liar. Yeasts can suddenly stop working, fermentations become too hot, bacteria (both helpful and harmful) are unpredictable. Jeff must be aware of every cuve and of their analyses, he must use his experience to tackle any issue which springs up at any time of day or night. He rejects the use of sulphur dioxide (SO2) to act as an antiseptic or stabiliser for the wine, therefore that experience is tested time and again. No wonder he wears an air of fatigue.


Leave a comment

Vendanges 2016 #7 – Last Pickings


Cabernet Sauvignon sheltering the Moroccan pickers

En français

Wednesday (September 21st) was officially the last day of summer and, appropriately, the last day of picking at Mas Coutelou. It was, as in 2015, the Cabernet Sauvignon of Segrairals which was the last major parcel gathered in. Lovely, clean bunches of small, healthy berries, classic Cabernet and virtually nothing to sort in the vineyard or in the cellar. 


Cabernet Sauvignon

The day before had seen the start of the Cabernet in the afternoon following a morning of picking Mourvèdre, also from Segrairals. As I hadn’t ventured into the vineyard much in 2016 I took the opportunity to do so that morning. Our friend Jill had expressed a wish to do some grape picking and Jeff kindly agreed so I accompanied her (so at least there was one less experienced picker than me!). I really enjoyed being out in the fresh air but it was also good to get a grip on how the vineyard topography can have such an impact upon the grapes.

The Mourvèdre grows on an easterly slope with the rows running down the slope. The vines at the bottom of the slope gave lower quality bunches than those at the top, indeed we stopped picking the last few vines at the bottom of each row. The reason was that when it does rain the water runs down the slope taking nutrients etc. The grapes there tend to ripen much sooner with more humidity in the ground, it was a clear example of terroir. Rest assured that only good grapes went into cuve, much was left behind in the vineyard and at the side of the sorting table.


The slope in the Mourvedre vines, rejected fruit on the ground

On Monday the lovely Carignan Noir of Rec D’Oulette (Chemin De Pailhès) was added to the tanks. The quality was high and signs are promising for yet another good vintage of Flambadou, arguably the domaine’s best wine in recent years.

Since the last article the other major harvest was some bountiful, good quality Grenache from La Garrigue on Saturday 17th.


Gorgeous Grenache

There remain a few rows here and there with some grapes left and they may or may not be picked in coming days and weeks. However, the Cabernet marked the last of the major picking. Time to say farewell to the Moroccan pickers, part of the Coutelou crew for the last month.


Stage 1 is therefore over. Stage 2 the cellar work of remontages and pigeage continues apace as most cuves are now full and need looking after. Stage 3, pressing, is also in full swing as grapes from previous weeks have now gone through fermentation on skins and need to be pressed to take the juice away. I shall be writing about this more in the next article.

So, we head into autumn, the vines are fatigued after a very stressful year. The leaves are already changing colour and the Languedoc will be an even more beautiful place in coming weeks. The picking may be over but the vendanges are not. 


Mourvedre in autumnal glory