amarchinthevines

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


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Every Picture Tells A Story

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This photo was taken on October 6th in Font D’Oulette, the 0.6ha Flower Power vineyard. It tells a number of stories.

Look at the vineyard itself. Small, youthful vines, only six or seven years old with a rich variety of cépages including some rare ones such as different varieties of Oeillade, Clairette Musquée and one known simply as Inconnue as its origin is unknown. This complantation of cépages was typical of the old ways of growing vines. The use of gobelet training rather than the use of wired trellises (palissage) is another example of traditional viticulture.  This vineyard tells a story of how old ways are often better, its wine has already garnered much praise.

Look also at the vineyard behind Font D’Oulette. You will see vines looking very different. The vines are a rich green in colour and their foliage is still lush. This forms a contrast with the autumnal yellow of Flower Power. This is the result of neighbours’ vineyards being treated with large quantities of chemical fertilisers, especially nitrates. These artificially boost the growth and colour of the vine. Flower Power’s vines, on the other hand, are allowed to develop at their natural pace.

The vineyard is surrounded by olive and fruit trees as well as ditches. This is deliberate on Jeff’s part because he wants to create a barrier to the neighbouring vineyards. When it rains in  the Languedoc, it often rains hard causing the soils to wash away. Sometimes, the soils are compacted by machinery and the treatments on the vines are washed away with the rain. Since Font D’Oulette is in a bowl this would mean that neighbours soils and chemicals would run onto Jeff’s parcel so he uses the ditches and vegetation to prevent his vines from being affected.

One photo but a complicated picture.


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Autumn repays the earth

Autumn repays the earth the leaves which summer lent it.”                                    (Georg Christoph Lichtenberg)

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The 18thC German physicist’s words struck home to me after visiting the vineyards for one last look around before I head back to the UK. They are a beautiful sight at this time of year, a rainbow of colours as I hope my photos will show. And all under a golden, morning sun, of which more later.

That the vineyards are so stunning at this time of year came as no surprise but they had one or two lessons to teach me, my fourth autumn here but still learning.

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There is truth in Lichtenberg’s words. The vines are giving back to the earth some of what they took from it during the year, the leaves mulch into the soil, a repayment yet also an investment for next year. Together with the discarded bunches and berries left from vendanges, they will add life to the earth, indeed there were insects and butterflies, birds and worms aplenty. Healthy soils.

BUT. They are very, very dry. Cracks in the earth in October. Two mornings of light rain, otherwise next to nothing for four to five months. Parts of the Hérault are already being declared as an emergency situation because of the drought. The temperatures remain in the mid to high 20s, lovely for visitors but the local population and the earth need steady rain to arrive soon. The forecast shows no rain.

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My other major lesson was the variation in varieties, not a tautology I promise.

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Compare the two halves of Ste Suzanne taken from La Garrigue, to the left is the Syrah, to the right Grenache. In La Garrigue these two cépages show a difference, the Syrah losing its leaves, the Grenache still mainly green.

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La Garrigue – Syrah left and Grenache right

Meanwhile the Carignan leaves turn a vivid red colour, much more so than any other variety.

And in my favourite vineyard, Rome. The birds are back in numbers after the summer. Birdsong rings around the bowl of the parcel, the fig tree has given its two crops and the olives are turning colour just like those in Font D’Oulette, the Flower Power vineyard.

A beautiful time, a worrying time. Let it rain.

 

 


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Amphorae

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One of the winemaking trends of recent years has been a return to the learning of our forefathers. The revival of old grape varieties, use of horses for ploughing, many of the practices of natural winemaking are references to the past. As a historian these practices are very welcome to me.

Another welcome revival has been the use of amphorae for fermenting or ageing wines. Of course this was the methodology of the Greeks and Romans thousands of years ago but they had all but disappeared in western Europe. Certainly the practice survived in the East, especially Georgia, partly due to the poverty of Soviet times. The fall of communism and this search for the past has brought about a revival of interest in the amphora.

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The advantage is that clay is porous and allows an exchange of the wine with air/oxygen. This is why wooden barrels have been used but the advantage of amphorae is that they do not give the familiar taste of oak. Many producers who have used amphorae claim that they keep wines fresher than barrels.

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Earlier this year I reported how Jeff had been given a present by a diving friend who discovered a Roman (time of Julius Caesar) amphora in the Mediterranean. I had hoped that it could be used for winemaking but it needs a lot of reconstruction as well as disinfection. However, it seemed to inspire Jeff who went to Spain in order to buy two 400l amphorae. On September 29th it was time to fill them.

They had been filled with water for several weeks to remove dust but also to moisten the clay so that it would not soak up the wine. A cuve of Carignan and the very rare Castets was the wine to enter the amphorae which are about 1m50 high. Filled almost to the brim each was sealed with a stainless steel chapeau bought for the job. And so we await the results, regular tasting will allow Jeff to decide how long the wine will be aged.

A new departure, a return to the ways of the ancients.

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Vendanges 17 – the finishing line

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I started my coverage of the 2017 vendanges with racing terminology and, so, I finish in the same way.

It’s definitely over. Vendanges 2017 with all its quality, with so little quantity.

On September 27th the final press of the grapes was completed. It was the turn of the Cabernet Sauvignon, two weeks after picking. The skins, pips and other solids had done their work in giving up flavour, colour, tannins and so much more. The yeasts had started their work of fermentation. Now it was time to press before that grape must started to be problematic rather than beneficial.

The must was pumped from the cuve by the powerful pompe à marc directly into the press. Julien ensured that the press was filled in all corners and then the press began. It inflates a membrane inside which gently presses the must to extract the juice without releasing the more bitter, astringent tannins left in the skins and pips.

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Sediment after the must has gone to press

The grape variety (cépage) will determine the amount of pressure applied, Cabernet has small berries and thicker skins so needs a little more pressure than juicier, thinner skinned Cinsault for example.

 

The juice flows and is sent to another cuve to continue its fermentation, then its malolactic fermentation (which removes the more acid flavours). Indeed the analyses of the 2017 wines show that fermentations have gone through quickly, without fuss or problem. There is no sign of volatility or any other problem, the wines look on course to be as high quality as the grapes themselves. Which, of course, is the goal. Jeff believes in letting the grapes express themselves with as little intervention as possible. This year interventions are minimal, the grapes have done the work.

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Sadly, the quantities do not reflect the quality and that will bring a financial blow to the domaine and to virtually all domaines in the region. When you are asked to pay a few euros for a bottle of 2017 Mas Coutelou, I hope that you will recall all the work which I have described, the stresses and strains, the love and care which has gone into that bottle and you will consider it money well spent.


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Solera, oh oh

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Many visitors to Mas Coutelou would cite their time in the cave des soleras as the most memorable of all. This, for new readers, is the cellar where barrels are stored containing Muscat and Grenache from many vintages. There it ages gently to make Vieux Grenache or Muscat, or a blend of course.

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The system works with new wine being put into barrique as normal but the older wines are blended with wines from previous years. Evaporation and bottling means that some of the wine in the barrels disappears each year so they need to be topped up with younger wines. Gradually, as the years pass, the wines become older and more concentrated and are passed on to older barrels. Some of the wine in the oldest barrels is 100 years old blended in with slightly younger wines.

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Archimedes principle to move wine from cuve to barrel by gravity

On September 20th it was time to clear space in the cellar; barrels topped up, new wine added to the system. Some of the barrels were given a soutirage, emptied of their wine leaving behind the sediment in the bottom. The barrel is then cleaned, the wine returned and topped up.

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Matthieu fills the barrel with water to clean it ready for refilling with wine

Two days later we were back and amongst the barrels being refreshed was one containing the Grenaches (all three varieties) wine I made in 2015. Time to taste. This was the new barrel which permits more oxygen into the wine than the more seasoned barrel. There was definitely a sherry influence to the wine, the effect of the oak and air but still there was good fruit and length. It will soon be topped up with wine from the older barrel which should add more fruit to the profile. The wine in the 27l bottle will be even more fruity and fresh, the blending should be an interesting time.

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Refilling the Grenaches newer barrel

The cellar is a true treasure trove of great wines, and I don’t mean mine. Time spent there is always time well spent. And the guard dog of all guard dogs ensures it is well protected.

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Vendanges 17 – Presentation

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On Tuesday I was delighted to be asked to give a presentation on the 2017 vendanges at Mas Coutelou and the problems of the vintage which had been widely reported. Around 60 people were in attendance at The Tuesday Club in Pézenas and I gave a talk about the events of the vendanges, the decisions which must be made by Jeff as well as a report on the problems nationwide and Puimisson. This was followed by a tasting of Bibonade, Flambadou 2015 as well as two samples straight from tank, Cinsault and Cabernet Sauvignon to demonstrate the change in structure and taste after fermentation.

I have uploaded the presentation as a video to Youtube which you can see here.

Or simply click below.

 

 


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Vendanges 17 – briefing

Yes that is Jeff Coutelou in his briefs. Why?

It’s a simple explanation honestly. The tank of Mourvèdre was ready for remontage. That is where juice from the bottom of the tank is pumped over the cap of grape skins, pips etc (the must) which rise during fermentation. That cap becomes hard and there is a risk of bacterial infection plus the whole idea of having the skins in there is to extract tannins, colour and flavour so it’s pointless having them separated from the juice.

A normal pigeage

You may recall that this was the tank where Jeff had to improvise last Monday when the érafloir broke down. Some of the bunches were destemmed, others went in whole bunch. There is therefore a higher than usual amount of solid material in the tank. This had formed a solid cap and Jeff needed it to be pushed back into the juice. A fork was used at first as is normal (the process called pigeage), but the crust was too firm. So, Jeff took off his boots and socks and climbed in.

This is dangerous for two reasons. He could fall through the cap and into the juice and, secondly, there is a lot of carbon dioxide coming from the fermentation which, as I found out, can make you ill. So hanging on to the sides and with myself and Matthieu ready to catch hold Jeff pushed down with his feet onto the cap.

He described the cap as cold but underneath the fermentation meant that the juice was hot. As Jeff pushed down the cap it was fascinating to see the gentle bubbling of the fermentation process, sadly it was too dark for the camera to pick up. As he pushed the cap down, Jeff needed to push lower so, off came the trousers. Moving around the tank the cap began to sink bit by bit.

Out he came and a normal remontage took place though in his briefs!

And the wine? Well it tastes very good, perhaps with more legs in the glass than usual.

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