amarchinthevines

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


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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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Nature can be harsh: Part 2 – Disease

The mild weather over winter was followed in the Languedoc by a slow start to summer heat. The resulting warm, humid weather brought disease as it did in many regions of France. Mildew, oidium and couloure are all vine diseases which occur regularly and 2016 was no different but with a bigger hit than usual.

Mildew (downy mildew)

 

Sadly, humid days in the mid 20s and cool nights are exactly the conditions favoured by downy mildew, and it prospered. The humidity in the soils created ever more favourable conditions for mildew. Downy mildew lives as spores in the soils and any rain splashes them onto the vines. Mildiou is not a fungus as commonly believed, it is a one celled spore which germinates in warm, humid conditions especially between 16 and 24 Centigrade – exactly the conditions we saw in April and May of this year.

Jeff Coutelou spent many nights out on his tractor spraying the vines to try to protect them. As an organic producer (and much more) he cannot (and does not want to) use manufactured, chemical sprays. Instead he used sprays based on rainwater with seaweed, nettles, horsetail and essential oils of sweet orange and rosemary. These are better absorbed by the vines in the cool of the night.

Mildew appears as small yellow / green spots on the upper surface of the leaf which gradually turn brown and spread to leave an unsightly vine. Underneath downy white /grey spots appear, the mildew is well established by this point. It affects the grape bunches and leaves them dried out and shrivelled.

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Mildew on a Carignan bunch, organic spray residue on the leaves

By the time harvest arrives the bunches contain a mix of healthy and diseased grapes. Severe triage is required. Bunches such as the one in the photo above will be discarded immediately. Where there are health sections though the bunches will arrive at the triage table and be sorted rigorously. Jeff reckoned that in some vineyards, especially the white vines of Peilhan, losses were up to 60% from mildew. Seriously damaging.

Here is a clear demonstration of the advantage of hand harvest (vendange manuelle), machines would simply swallow the lot and in less thorough domaines or caves the bunches will all go into the wine.

Oidium (powdery mildew)

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Oidium on buds and leaf

Oidium is a related problem to mildew but slightly different. It too thrives in warm days and cold nights (so springtime is its peak period) , it too loves humidity. So, spring 2016 was ideal though oidium was less rampant than mildew. Unlike mildew it is a fungal based spore.

Conventional treatments would be chemical and even organic producers will use sulphur, a naturally occurring element. Organic producers are limited to the amounts they can use as sulphur does damage the fauna of the soils. Jeff Coutelou uses less than a quarter of the permitted amounts because he sees it as  a last resort. Instead he prefers treatments based on horsetail weed, nettles and other beneficial plants made into a tisane which can be sprayed. It may not be as all-destroying as synthetic chemicals but Jeff prefers the soils to be healthy in the long term by using these natural plant based treatments.

These photos show grape bunches hit by oidium in 2016, the powdery residue is clear though the bunches are less damaged than mildew affected ones. Nevertheless oidium is destructive and spoils wine so, again, careful work in the vineyard and cellar is needed to keep oidium out of the grape juice.

Coulure

Like most fruit plants vines grow flowers which then develop into the fruit. Vine flowers are very beautiful but also very delicate and don’t live long on the plants, a matter of a few days.

If heavy rain and wind hits the vines at this stage of their development then the flowers can be easily damaged or broken off the plant.

The result is that fruit cannot develop where there is no flower, coulure. Where flowers are damaged then berries might grow very small and seedless, this is called millerandage. Similarly berries might ripen unevenly within a bunch, green berries alongside healthy, ripe grapes.

There is nothing that the vigneron can do of course, the damage is done by the weather and no producer can successfully combat weather. Nature wins in the end. So, once again, the vendangeur and those sorting in the cellar are crucial in ensuring that only healthy fruit goes into the wine.

I cannot emphasise enough the importance of all stages of wine growing and production. From their budding through to vendanges the vines must be tended, and in the cellar observation, determination and care are needed too. To make good wine requires hard work, healthy grapes and love as Jeff has said many times.

And have a look at one of those last photos again.

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In the top right corner you will see another of 2016’s natural problems, one subject of the final part of this series.


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Nature can be harsh – Part 1: Weather

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It’s not all sunshine in the Languedoc

The stunning BBC Planet Earth II television programme  of snakes attacking baby marine iguanas was a recent reminder of how cruel nature can be. 2016 has seen vineyards across France attacked by a multitude of problems and in this series of three articles I want to show how the vines and the grapes are affected by these problems. Firstly, the weather.

The year began with no frost in the Languedoc throughout the winter. This meant that the vines found it hard to recuperate from 2015’s exertions as they could not sleep. When pruning got under way in earnest during January many vignerons reported sap flowing from the vines. This was bad news, the sap and the vines should have been resting, storing their energy for the year ahead. Consequently, when other problems arrived during the course of the year the vines were always vulnerable, struggling to resist them.

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Frost damaged vine in the Loire

Ironically, after such a warm winter, frost and hail damaged vines across France. The Loire, Rhone, Cahors and Pic Saint Loup were all hit at various stages, Burgundy and Champagne too. When I visited the Loire in early May it was sad to see many vineyards hit by frost, especially those adjacent to other crops whose humidity helped frost to form. Some vignerons faced huge losses of vines and potential grapes.

On August 17th hail hit the Languedoc, especially the Pic St Loup region where vines laden with grapes were smashed leaving some producers with no harvest at all in 2016. Mas Coutelou in Puimisson was also damaged though not so seriously. The storm ran through a corridor across Sainte Suzanne to La Garrigue and on to Segrairals. Even here vine branches were snapped, grapes shredded and bunches ruined. It was possible to see how one side of the vines was damaged where they faced the storm, yet the leeward side was virtually unscathed. Jeff was forced to pick these damaged vines much earlier than normal before the damaged grapes brought disease and rot to them.

The other major weather problem was drought. There was virtually no rain for months in the Languedoc, especially from winter to early summer. Cracks appeared in the soil, plants turned brown. The lack of rainfall meant that when the grapes began to mature the vines could not provide much water, small berries with little juice were the norm. Vignerons everywhere in the region reported much reduced yields, at Mas Coutelou reds down by 20-30%, some whites down by as much as 60%. Rain just before vendanges saved the day but massaged rather than cured the problem.

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When rain did come it was often in the form of storms. Sharp, heavy rainfall does not absorb into the soil so easily. Moreover where vignerons spray herbicides on their land the soils often wash away as there is nothing to hold the soil in place. For more environmentally aware producers this can be frustrating as chemically treated soils could wash onto their land.

This is one reason why Jeff plants trees, bushes and flowers and digs ditches, to protect his vines from the risk of contamination.

The combination of sun (and even sunburned grapes), drought, rain, frost and hail made this a difficult year. However, that is not the end of the story. Climate conditions bring disease and it is that aspect of nature which I shall examine next.


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Is it natural?

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Autumn is the time of  the Foire Aux Vins in France, supermarkets and other large stores discounting their wines. One advert stood out and that was Carrefour’s, offering 10 wines which they called «Nature». Interesting to see that they feel there is a demand for such wines (something UK supermarkets clearly don’t see) and that natural wines have a market. However, on closer examination it turned out that the ten wines on offer were «Nature» only in the sense that they were «sans sulfites ajoutés» (no added SO2). Only three of the ten were produced organically, so are they truly natural wines?

There are, of course, some pedantics (including one well known British wine writer on Twitter on Nov 7th) who would argue that no wine is natural, that it does not make itself. The word natural has indeed become something of a millstone around the bottle neck. So, what do we understand by the term?

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One definition which carries some weight is that of Doug Wregg, a director of the UK’s biggest natural wine importer Les Caves De Pyrene:
1. Vineyards farmed organically or biodynamically (with or without certification)
2. Hand-harvested fruit
3. Fermentation with indigenous yeasts
4. No enzymes
5. No additives (like acid, tannin, colouring) other than SO2, used in moderation if at all
6. Light or no filtration
7. Preferably no fining
8. Preferably no new oak

The RAW Wine Fair of Isabelle Legeron adds two other qualifications, a limit of 70mg/l of added sulphites and “no heavy manipulation” such as micro oxygenation or flash pasteurisation.                                                                                                                  (see more here)

I think those definitions hit the main points though perhaps are a little too broad themselves, points 6-8 are especially vague and Legeron’s 70mg/l seems very high. They would, however, exclude the Carrefour wines which have seen flash pasteurisation.

At Mas Coutelou Jeff adds nothing to the wines, does not filter or fine and the only oak used is from old barrels. There are NO added sulphites. Is he an extremist? Are his wines unclean or unstable? The answer to both is no.  They are sent in bottle around the world, to Japan, Australia and all parts of Europe. And then there is the USA.

The Americans have much tighter rules and restrictions for their certification. Wines which are classed as organic have to be recognised as such by regulating bodies such as Ecocert. In addition, in the USA, organic wines must be sulphite free. Wines which have sulphites added can be described as grown with organic grapes but not organic. (see more here)

Jeff’s wines can be classified as organic in the USA, the back labels from two cuvées are shown here. In effect they are being identified as natural wines by the USA. This is not a costly process, Jeff’s importer, Camille Riviėre, pays a fee of around $250 to be able to use the title “organic wine”.

Other people have started to campaign for certification of natural wines to help consumers make informed choices of just how “natural” are the wines they drink. Writers such as Antonin Iommi-Amunategui have set out the arguments for such certification however many are still reluctant to head down that route. Some, for example, fear that rules and regulations fly in the face of the outsider role and rebellious reputation of natural producers.

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Antonin with his manifesto for natural wine including regulation

In my opinion perhaps the time has come for certification. Consumers should be able to buy with confidence. Look at this article from the newspaper “Liberation” describing some of the many processes and additives which can legitimately be put into wines.

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Should the consumer not be more protected? I do understand the desire of winemakers to be left free to make wine in the manner they choose but standards need to be established.

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The US Department of Agriculture shows the way, natural wine must be organic and then interfered with as little as possible. The SO2 regulation there deters some producers from organics as they feel it is not worth their while to be organic at all if they intend to add sulphites thus preventing their wines from being classed as organic. Some, like Jeff, might insist upon that restriction, others would be more liberal. In addition, Wregg’s list forms the basis for rules, if tightened up a little.

Natural wine is often completely dismissed by some on the experience of one or two bottles not being correct, a level of criticism not applied to more conventional wines. Not all natural wines are good, I personally like some more than others. In my view, it does need to be clear about what it is and that certain standards are being met, otherwise it risks being an easy target for many, however unfairly. And wines which are not natural (as most would understand the term) will continue to be sold as the same as those of Jeff, Barral, Texier, Foillard and many others.

Further reading

Le Figaro

Vincent Pousson

 

 


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Au revoir not goodbye

After 26 glorious months of living in the Languedoc it is time to return to the UK. Temporarily.

It has been, without question the happiest time of my life. I love the region and all it has to offer. We have been made most welcome by local people, friends and neighbours. Martin and May Colfer have become the closest of friends despite me persuading them to pick grapes one day.

Afshin and Denise Hosseiny have also become great friends this year and, together with Jill McGregor (another grape picker!) have been very generous in allowing us to store things in their homes. And that is the guarantee that we will be back. The house hunt continues and it is our aim to have a home here as soon as possible.

Most of all though this has been the most wonderful opportunity to learn about wine, vines and the people involved. The local winemakers could not have been more helpful but, of course it is the team of Mas Coutelou who have become my great friends. The wonderful Michel, the most generous, kind and lovely man. Julien, shy, good fun and caring. Vincent, knowledgeable, witty and kind. Carole, who took me under her wing when I first arrived during the vendanges of 2014 and taught me so much. Charles and Thomas both youthful, energetic but welcoming to this old man. Cameron and James, two Australians who became friends and who earned everyone’s respect with their hard work and humour. Priscilla, Tina, Céline, Brice, Jérom, Karim, the Rugbymen and so many others – thank you. Friendship makes life worthwhile.

We were also fortunate to get to meet Jean – Claude and to pass some lovely times with him, he will stay in our memories.

During that first few weeks I remember Jeff telling me the story of the Chaud Doudou, a fable about the need to work together and support each other. It is a story which embodies him and the people who work for him. Jeff is the most generous of men who loves nothing more than sharing his passion for nature and wine. When Vincent Pousson described him as the last of the left wing vignerons he was referring to Jeff’s sharing and low prices. And it was a most apt description. Pat and I cannot begin to recount the number of kindnesses he has shown us and the care he has taken of us. He is the truest of friends and we love him. He goes to the last drop of his energy to make his wines the best they can be, they reflect his energy, vitality and generosity.

And, of course, there is the most beautiful dog in the world. Icare.

From planting to pruning to picking and pigeage I have been fortunate to see and have a go at it all. And, best of all, to taste and revel in those peerless Coutelou wines.

This is not the end of the story, we shall be back in January for a few weeks and then for a few months in spring. Jeff’s motto of «Grapes, Work and Love» will continue to motivate this blog which will continue. It began as a way for me to record my experiences, it has more than achieved its goals. Thank you for reading it, there are now readers in 131 countries at a rate of up to 12,000 per day, way beyond anything I ever imagined.

At present I have a heavy heart at leaving this beautiful place, but Mas Coutelou and the Languedoc will draw me back.

With special thanks to Pat for allowing all this to happen and for falling in love with the region as well.

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All dressed up

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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.

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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.