amarchinthevines

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


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The Mouse That Roared

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Critics of natural wines are wont to describe issues with faults. I have said many times on this blog that I believe that they exaggerate and that I find as many conventional wines faulty as natural wines. However, I must be truthful and say that one fault does seem to emerge from time to time. On Wednesday I opened a bottle of 2009 Rhone wine from one of my favourite producers. There was a slightly funky nose but the wine was lovely, liquorice and dark fruit flavours, it went well with food too. A couple of hours later the last glass was full of mouse.

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Not quite

 

Mousiness is a fault to which I am sensitive, about 30% of wine drinkers apparently are not at all. They are fortunate, because when encountered it leaves a nasty taste in the mouth. Usually described as like a mouse cage and cracker biscuits, it also fills the senses with unpleasant aromas resembling that cage which has not been cleaned for a long time. Once tasted the effects linger making it hard to taste other wines afterwards.

The cause of the problem lies in bacterial infection probably from grapes which were rotten. Other origins might be dirty equipment or exposure to oxygen. The wine becomes affected when it is made, but it is hard to diagnose the problem as it shows little, if any, aroma. The high acidity of wine masks the mousiness and it is only when it comes into connection with saliva that the problem is obvious to most people. Saliva lowers the acidity of the wine in the mouth so the mousiness is no longer masked.

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I have only knowingly come across mousiness in red wines but, apparently, it can occur in white and sparkling wines. It is a real problem, I have had bottles from a number of natural producers which were mousy including by some favourite vignerons (not Jeff Coutelou I hasten to add). Why are they more vulnerable than conventional producers? The answer lies with SO2. Sulphur Dioxide masks the Lactobacillus bacteria when it releases chemicals (such as 2-acetyltetrahydropyridine) which cause mousiness. It disguises the flavour and aroma problem without removing it. Even 10mg per litre would achieve that, though as SO2 dissolves in wine over time the problem might re-emerge.

However, many natural producers are determined to avoid adding any sulphites and therefore must take a risk. The closest attention must be made to hygiene, exposure to air and, above all, to the quality of grapes which enter the cellar and the wine; rejecting bad grapes, sorting table work and cleaning, cleaning, cleaning.

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It is pointless hiding the issue of mousiness. It is a potential problem for natural producers and it is capable of ruining wines. As so many people do not notice it (including some producers) the wines need to be checked before entering bottle and the marketplace. Even then it can emerge later, as with the 2009 Rhone wine I tasted last night, very good for the first two glasses, undrinkable for the last. There is no wand to wave to magically remove the problem. It is an unpleasant trap for all involved.

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New year, new start

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If only winemaking was like this! Bottles, however, do not produce themselves. The year round process of winemaking I have previously described on this blog. Readers will be aware of the work, effort and stress involved.

As 2017 began Julien returned from his travels in Iberia to Puimisson to start the long, finger numbing job of pruning (la taille). He will be joined by Carole who also returned to the village and who has pruned for many years at Mas Coutelou.

Jeff tells me that there is plenty of other work going on. I referred in a previous post to January being named after the Roman god, Janus. He was two faced, one looking to the old year, the other looking forward. So too in winemaking.

The pruning, for example, is finishing off the work of the vines of 2016, cutting away the last vestiges if that vintage whilst preparing the vines for the year ahead. Normally the wines of the previous vintage would be approaching readiness for bottle, the first wave. However, Jeff tells me that they have developed more slowly from 2016 and he is likely to wait until they tell him that they are ready. That may happen when I return to the area at the end of this month or maybe later. In which case he will have to prepare wines for the major salons ahead straight from the tank.

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Floor renewal

Other work is taking place in the cellars. Half of the floor was replaced in early 2016 and the rest will now be done. Other changes will add more facilities such as an office.

Meanwhile the weather is not playing its part so far. It has been warm again allowing no rest to the vines. However, a forecast I saw today suggests that freezing conditions will arrive this weekend. Perhaps, after two years, the vines will finally shut down and rest. This would certainly help 2017 be a more promising vintage. New year, new hopes.


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The case for 2016

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Hard to defend 2016, it has been a dreadful year in so many ways, Brexit, Trump, Aleppo, Bowie and so many other deaths.

However, there were highlights, friendships, the Languedoc, the vendanges, grafting vines and some excellent wines tasted including great salons in London, Montpellier, Arles and the Loire.

So what were my top wines of 2016? I could write about wines I tasted at salons and would include great ranges from Kreydenweiss (père et fils), Pittnauer, Tscheppe, Forja del Salnes, Stentz and Thörle amongst others. Austria provided many of my highlights, so many good wines red and white. Alsace and the Loire were my other top sources of favourite wines.

So here is my case for 2016.

Whites

Clos du Rouge Gorge, Sisyphe 14 – This was in my 2015 selection and it returns this year. Fresh, zesty, long Grenache Gris from one of Roussillon’s great producers. I do love this.

Domaine Ribiera, Y’A Un Terret 13 – Even more zestiness, but balanced and lots of character from a small parcel of Terret, a traditional Languedoc grape. Lovely wine from a lovely couple in Régis and Christine Pichon.

Gérard Schueller, Pinot Blanc 2010 – Schueller’s wines need a few minutes to let them settle after opening. Riesling, Gewürz, and this Pinot Blanc were all characterful, fresh and balanced. This was the pick, from a grape which I have never previously associated with much flavour and showing the benefit of a few years in bottle. Delicious.

Domaine des Miroirs, Mizuiro ‘Les Saugettes’, 13 – A bolt from the blue like the label. I tasted this and got hold of a bottle at the Real Wine Fair in London. It is pure Chardonnay from the Jura from Japanese producer Kenjiro Kagami. It is pure in every sense. Clean and fresh. Nutty, lemon and long. Just superb expression of the variety. The Jura is a source of many great wines, this is well up there with any bottle.

Domaine Montesquiou, Terre De France, 14 – Any collection of white wines is incomplete without the wonderful wines of Montesquiou in Jurancon. Manseng grapes, this particular bottle had too much residual sugar for the appellation so the brothers made it into a Vin de France and it is a beauty. Still thrilling in its freshness but with the slightest hint of honey to boot.

Davenport, PetNat, 15 – Another unexpected delight. I had heard great reports of this English wine but was delighted by it when I managed to get hold of some. Indeed it was much more characterful than the champagnes I tasted recently. Auxerrois grapes, very sparkling but lots of character and acidity to leave you wanting more. An eye opener for me regarding English wine.

Mas Coutelou, RobertA, 2003 – A wine which would not stop fermenting in its barrel (named RobertA) and yet turned into a great wine in Jeff’s first year sans sulfites. A blend of Grenaches Noir, Gris and Blanc, it has nutty notes from barrel but pear and apple too. And still youthful. This was my star of so many great Coutelou wines this year. Despite the bottle this is RobertA.

Reds

Occhipinti, SP 68 Rosso, 15 – I am a real fan of Sicilian wines. COS is one of my favourite producers and the niece of its winemaker is Arianna Occhipinti. Her Frappato is even better than COS’ version and yet it was this bottle with Nero d’Avola added to Frappato which captured me. Black cherry, plum with a lot of floral aromas it is very Sicily,  and just very good.

Christian Venier, La Roche, 11 – The highlight of a fabulous weekend at Christian’s Portes Ouvertes was this wine in magnum. Gamay from a special parcel, with great depth, fruit and one of those wines which got better with every sip. Terrific. (Photo shows a different vintage).

Cédric Bernard, La Cabane A Marcel, 15 –  no writer’s trick this. Cédric’s wine is actually the same parcel as Christian’s wine. Remarkably Christian gave it to his protegé and this litre bottle was very very different. Lighter, more overt fruit but joyful Gamay like the very best Beaujolais but with added pepper and spice.

L’Ostal, Anselme, 14 – Great Cahors wine. Malbec of course and deep purple with dense chewy fruits charcateristic of the area. However, Charlotte and Louis Pérot add amazing drinkability to their wines with the fruit overy enough to make them a pleasure and acidity to cut through the tannins. They will certainly age well but it’s hard to resist L’Ostal wines.

Sweet

David Caer, L’Autre Vendange, 13 – David Caer makes wine in Aspiran the same village as the Pichons (see above). He makes a nice red (Exorde) but this dessert wine is special. 100% Roussanne dried on the vine, aged in barrel. Lovely cinder toffee aromas and flavours with a real twist of acidity. Lovely.

So there we are, I could have chosen many others believe me.

So, all that remains is to wish you a very happy 2017, may it bring you health and happiness.

 


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A year in the vines, Mas Coutelou in photos (Part 2)

July

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Young vines freshly grafted in March (see above) surrounded by straw? What is going on? The weather was so hot and dry over  a prolonged period that the vines were stressed. As these young vines would not be producing any grapes they could be watered to protect them, the straw keeps the moisture in the soil.

The grapes continued to grow though and July saw véraison, the colouring of the red grapes. They were smaller than most years but healthy in the main. Other than those vines affected by the widespread mildew of the spring and early summer, those grapes were dried and shrivelled by the disease.

August

More grape ripening, Carignan to the left, Grenache to the right. There were some beautiful bunches despite the weather problems of the year. Time to start thinking about harvest and that work began in the cellar itself where Jeff had taken out some very large fibre tanks and replaced them with smaller stainless steel tanks with a new steel staircase to take us above the tanks to place in the grapes and to carry out pigeage or remontage during the vendanges. And on the 24th Jeff was testing the grapes to check for ripeness and acidity to see if they were ready for harvest to begin (they weren’t quite!).

September

As dawn rose over Rome vineyard probably the most important month of the year began.

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Vendanges means hard work, fun, pressure, grapes and cleaning amongst other things. Selecting the best fruit from the vines’ year of growth, making the best of that fruit in the cellar to make a natural process work by using care, patience and analysis.

For each of the three harvests in which I have now taken part at Mas Coutelou my main memory is of the people, the teams who work to support Jeff. Friends all, and so many happy memories.

October

Cellar work continues as this year’s wines ferment and start their journey to bottle. Meanwhile time to prepare bottles of more of the 2015s, this time magnums. And in both photos Julien to the left and Michel to the right. The two figures who have been most present in Puimisson working at Mas Coutelou through the year. Two of the best, kindest people you would ever meet. Is it a coincidence that good people congregate together and that the best wines come from the best people?

Meanwhile autumn arrives in the vines, Puimisson in the background.

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November

Cases of wine leave Puimisson to head around the world. Mas Coutelou is sold in Australia, Japan, the USA, all over Europe and at the cellar door. As the end of year and Christmas holidays approach merchants want their wines and exporting the cases involves planning, spreadsheets and collation of the various cases.

Meanwhile, in one corner of North East England one happy vineyard worker sorts his own collection of Coutelou treasures.

December

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A photo from Camille Rivière who imports Jeff’s wines into the USA, those cases above have arrived safely and Camille shares her happiness with the bottles she has opened and enjoyed.

Jeff tells me that there has been a lot of rain in recent weeks, 400mm last month. That is certainly welcome but the weather has also been very mild. Reports of mimosa blossoming (it should happen in February) and Jeff told me he had seen a neighbour’s vines preparing to bud!! Frost is needed for the vines to enter a dormant stage and rest, recover after  a difficult year. More mild weather would mean two years of non-stop activity, which would weaken the vines.

A fantastic year, a memorable year, a complex year in the vines.  But also a year marked with sadness at the passing of Jean-Claude Coutelou. I raise my glass once more in his memory.

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Grapes, work and love

 


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A year in the vines, Mas Coutelou in photos (Part 1)

January

The year begins with a series of wine salons and assembling wines for those tastings from the previous year. Jeff took me through the various cuves to see how the 15s were developing. Meanwhile the serious work of pruning (la taille) dominates the early months of the year and Julien was hard at work, patiently shaping the vines to enable them to produce their best. This was especially important in such a mild winter where the vines were unable to lie dormant.

February

Bottling of the 2015s began, this time Vin Des Amis, perennial favourite. Jeff has his own bottling line and the full crates of wine now head to storage for a few months to get over the ‘shock’ of bottling (mise en bouteille).

March

A March in the vines for sure. One of the highlights of 2016 was also the wettest and filthiest I could possibly be. Grafting vines (la greffe) in Flower Power (Font D’Oulette) on a day when it became impossible to lift the pioche because of all the mud stuck on it. I learned a lot and I loved the whole day.

April

Spring brings the vines truly to life (though the mild winter meant they were restless all winter). Look at the tendril extending from the pink bud on the left, this vine is already growing fast. Small shoots in Rome vineyard and also the ladybirds, sign of  a healthy vineyard. (ébourgeonnage)

May

The grappes begin to form in clusters and spring flowers are everywhere around the various vineyards of Mas Coutelou. May is perhaps the most beautiful month of all in the vine, warm days, clear light and the colourful natural world – blossom, flowers, butterflies, birds. There is literally no place on earth I would rather be.

June

In the vines the flowering season (fleuraison) lasts just a few days. They are very delicate and easily damaged by strong winds or heavy rain. Here the Carignan vines of Rec D’Oulette (which make Flambadou) are in full flower.

Meanwhile in the cellar the bottling season restarts and the tanks are emptied and then cleaned with a vivid colouring for the floor. And welcome visitors arrive sometimes bringing delicious gifts of food with which we can accompany the wines. It’s a hard life, believe me.


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Sailing on a sea of prosecco

Not a pleasant image. I did taste a very nice Prosecco at Vinisud this year so I am sure there are some very pleasing wines. However, since returning to the UK last month everywhere I turn I see Prosecco taking over. It is apparently the chosen tipple of women, young women in particular. In supermarkets trolleys seem to be incomplete without a bottle, in bars people ask for it. Not any particular Prosecco, no thought towards vineyard and production methods let alone quality. Just Prosecco.

I hear people asking for a Chardonnay or Merlot in bars too and it made me realise just how rarified is the world of wine in which I am now happily rooted. For the general wine drinker terroir means nothing, SO2 even less. This blog and the many other forms of writing about wine are a minority interest as we sail the good ship ‘Quality’ against the tide of commercial prosecco.

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Nevertheless quality does matter and little things mean a lot to those of us who are fascinated by wine. I am currently re-reading American wine importer and writer Kermit Lynch’s 1990 book ‘Adventures On The Wine Route’ and was highly amused by a decription of his early work. He was bowled over by the Burgundy wines of Hubert de Montille in the 1970s but, sadly,  when they arrived in the USA he was devastated because the wines were dumb. He contacted de Montille to complain they weren’t the same wines, which of course was not true. The wines had simply cooked on board the ship as they travelled through Panama. De Montille explained that his were ‘natural wines’.

He meant, of course, that his wines were living and are altered by conditions around them and by time etc. Nobody would question de Montille’s statement. Wine is a living thing. Yet just yesterday at a wine conference in Verona an audience member at a session about natural wine made the statement that ‘natural wine does not travel’. Presumably s/he believes that SO2 is travel insurance for wine!

 

As de Montille said back in the 70s all wine will suffer if not transported correctly. The answer lay in Lynch usung refrigerated containers to take wine to California. Jeff Coutelou’s wine travels to the USA, Japan, Australia and all over Europe without problem. Kermit Lynch himself imports plenty of natural wine (the modern version) such as Barral and Ganévat. In the same conference Alice Feiring reported that in 2015 there were no natural wine fairs in the USA, this year there were six and demand is growing. Natural wine doesn’t travel?? Nonsense.

Does this matter? In the wider world these are academic concerns, of little matter to most wine drinkers. Yet amongst those of us to whom wine really matters the argument rages on, full of hot air cooking rational debate as surely as those wines in the 70s. Carried along on the waves of Prosecco rather than the Panama Canal.


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Nature can be harsh: Part 3 -pests

In Parts 1 & 2 I have tried to explain some of the difficulties encountered at Mas Coutelou during 2016 due to natural influences such as climate and disease. In this final part of the series I look at pests which have added to those woes.

Vers de la grappe

These are literally grape worms, more specifically caterpillars, which form and grow on bunches of grapes. The caterpillars are the larvae of Eudémis moths which prefer to lay their eggs on shiny surfaces, so grapes are the target more than the rest of the vine. The larvae obviously damage the grapes themselves but that damage is worsened because of juice running on the bunches attracting infection and disease.

The warm weather and humidity of 2016 definitely encouraged vers de la grappe though it is an ongoing problem. It can be treated chemically of course though that is not an option for organic producers. Substances such as clay can be sprayed in spring to add a chalkier, duller surface to new grapes so that moths are not attracted to them. However, the solution favoured by Jeff Coutelou is to plant hedges and trees. These not only act as barriers to less environmentally aware neighbours, add polyculture to a region which can appear solely planted by vines but also they can shelter bats.

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Bat shelter in Sainte Suzanne

Bats feed on Eudémis larvae and moths and can eat thousands every day. Bat shelters are to be found around Mas Coutelou, eg in Sainte Suzanne and Rome vineyards.

The photographs above show a vers de la grappe cocoon and, on the right distinctive holes showing where the moth laid its eggs. When the vendanges begin the pickers and sorters must look out for signs such as these but also damaged, shrivelled grapes in bunches where the larvae have been.

Snails

If I could have named 2016 in the Chinese form  I would have called it the year of the snail. They were everywhere. The two photos below show an olive tree in Segrairals. This was  one of many which were completely covered by snails, blanched by the sun and feeding on the greenery and moisture in the tree.

However, vines were equally attractive to them. I spent whole mornings picking snails from vines during the Spring only to find them covered again a day or two later. Flower Power (Font D’Oulette) was particularly badly affected with the snails heading straight for the new growth and buds in April and May.

The virtual drought in the first six months of 2016 meant that the snails were desperate for moisture and food and so the healthy, young vines were too good to miss. The consequence was obvious, production of this much lauded new wine was reduced drastically, partly by the weather but equally the work of the snails. Birds and other predators would help solve the problem but the monoculture of the area (outside of Mas Coutelou) means there are, sadly, no great numbers of them.

Vendangeurs and sorters must try to pick off snails as they hide in the bunches. Dozens get through to the cellar especially in the early morning when there is moisture around. The photo on the right shows a lot of rejected material, leaves, poor grapes but lots of snails as you will see if you enlarge it. Just imagine how many get through into the wine with machine picking and limited triage.

Neighbours

Yes they can be included under the title of pests. Well, one of them can be. As regular readers will know 2016 has been punctuated by two occasions of vandalism by one particular neighbour, both upon the Carignan Noir vineyard of Rec D’Oulette. First he mowed a patch of wildflowers which Jeff had sown to encourage insects and birds (for reasons identified above). Then he took a machine to some of the young trees Jeff planted around the vines, destroying four year old trees such as hazelnut.

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Vandalised trees with tyre tracks revealing the culprit

Jeff was justifiably upset by these attacks. He was simply trying to enrich the area, bring diversity to it but that was clearly too much for a traditionalist, more used to destroying wildlife for his own short term gain and dreadful wine. However, he was encouraged and revitalised by the massive support of friends and colleagues around the world. The flowers grew back and more densely, the trees replanted in greater numbers and Jeff Coutelou stands tall as the man trying hard to improve the reputation of Puimisson and its wines.

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