amarchinthevines

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


Leave a comment

Natural terroir

P1010223

En français

The choice of my recent wine of the week, Olivier Leflaive’s Burgundy Oncle Vincent 2012, made me think about how wines change. When I used to regularly visit Leflaive and Burgundy in the 1990s the style of wine was very oak influenced, a response to the New World oaked wines and to the influence of Parker / Rolland in Bordeaux. The wines smelled of vanilla and tasted of wood. Subtlety was often lost, especially on the lower ranked wines. Happily those days are in the past (though I still come across some very heavily oaked wines even in the Languedoc) and this bottle was zesty and fresh with a little oak adding creaminess.

onc-1

Similarly if I choose to drink a Riesling from Alsace I can find two wines from grapes grown side by side in the same vineyard which will taste very different. One producer might prefer a lean, dry style of wine whilst his/her neighbour makes wine in a rounder style with more residual sugar. The same can be said of wines from any region of course. So where does that leave the notion of terroir?

Terroir is that elusive term which describes soil, micro-climate, slope etc. Effectively it means the location, the ‘in situ’ of the wine. However, some will also add the influence of the local culture upon the winemaking in the concept of terroir, Alsace with its traditional residual sweetness for example. However, different winemakers choose different methods and styles according to not just local tradition but outside influences, wines tasted, travels etc.

yellow tail

Amongst those influences has been the growth of the natural wine movement. I have read and heard numerous accounts by natural winemakers of how they came to choose this philosophy for their métier. Most include their discovery of a natural wine which made them tear up the rulebook and decide that this was the style of wine which they wanted to make because of their freshness, drinkability and flavours. A typical account can be found here.

Yet those who still find fault with natural wines are wont to declare that natural wines mask the flavour of grape and place because they often taste of natural wine and nothing else. Take this remark by Rosemary George*, English wine journalist and Languedoc resident, “if there is one thing that I reproach natural wines, it is that they all, irrespective of provenance, have a tendency to a similarity of style.  The best have that delicious mouth-watering freshness, but that somehow seems to mask their origins.”

geology

You will not be surprised to read that I disagree. I do accept that some, less well made natural wines do have aromas and flavours which resemble each other regardless of origin. However, I think in the vast majority of cases that natural winemaking has progressed and reflect their terroir and grape(s) much better than most conventional wines. How can it be otherwise? If a winemaker adds enzymes, artificial yeasts and SO2 how can than not be adding an extraneous element to the flavour of the wine which is nothing to do with the place? If you add oak chips or staves does that make the wine more Burgundy, Bordeaux or Barossa? Or does it simple meet the established concept of what a wine from those areas ought to taste like?

Winemakers will often aim for a flavour, they want their wine to be the same year after year. That is how the big companies retail Yellow Tail, Blossom Hill etc, the customer expects a certain flavour if wine and that is what they will be given. Like Coca Cola. This does not reflect terroir or vintage at all and, to be fair, the big companies would not claim otherwise. However, I do get the impression that many smaller winemakers follow a similar recipe.

A recent visit to a wine fair in Vouvray was a very disheartening experience. I tasted wine after wine which lacked character but did taste very much like the next sec or demi-sec from the next producer. The conformity was alarming. There was a Vouvray style common to most producers but it was bland and dull. There were one or two exceptions where a winemaker had taken deliberate steps to change their winemaking and vineyards, D’Orfeuilles for example.

P1010117

Healthy wines come from healthy soils including microbial life as here at Mas Coutelou’s Rome vineyard

So give me a wine of character. Give me a wine with nothing added where the vineyards’ health is reflected in the grape juice which makes the wine. Give me that grape juice with nothing extraneous added,  natural yeasts for example. Let that wine be carefully nurtured and not messed around with, no added flavourings. If it is aged in barrel then I would expect it to reflect that influence but not be dominated by it. I want to drink wines which reflect the vitality of healthy grapes in healthy vineyards. The wines will alter from year to year because nature alters from year to year. That is terroir and why natural wine reflects terroir in as pure a state as possible.

*(To be fair to Rosemary she does like some natural wines and it was her writing that first introduced me to Jeff Coutelou so I have much to thank her for.)


7 Comments

Natural desert

UK-wine

hospitalitybusiness.co.nz

I have been in the UK for the last two weeks and thought I would look around to see whether I could find natural, biodynamic or organic wines. If I lived in London then the experience would have been very different as there are a number of wine merchants who sell natural wines, even specialise in them. This website has a map showing such oases. Around the country there are merchants who also specialise in these wines, the excellent Vins Naturels website links to some.

However, I live in the North East and it is a desert for the sort of wines which I love. I walked around a number of supermarkets and it was a depressing experience. Rows of shelves loaded with branded wines from the usual suspects, Yellow Tail, Gallo etc. Hardly any artisanal wines and, in my regular supermarket, I could not find one organic wine let alone natural wine. On the websites of the big supermarkets, Tesco lists 5 organic wines from almost 600 wines, Morrisons just two from over 500. Other big chains don’t even show organic wines.

20160712_115723

A supermarket near me

The moral is, if you want to drink organic, biodynamic or natural wines, then search online for specialist merchants. The message is not getting out there to a wider wine drinking public. Just this week I read a thread on a well known wine forum which included comments about not buying natural wine in France as it doesn’t travel back to the UK. Complete nonsense of course. Many natural producers sell their wines in the USA, Australia and Japan in large quantities. I transport such wines regularly back to the north of England with no problem whatsoever. That people still go along with such nonsense shows that prejudice and clichés carry more weight than reality. But then after recent weeks why does that still surprise me?

The Real Wine Fair, RAW and other events show that there is a market in the UK but it is very London centric. We need change.

supermarket-logos-2015

from Britpoll.co.uk


2 Comments

Jean-Claude Coutelou

IMG_2430

I was truly saddened to hear from Jeff this morning that his father, Jean – Claude, passed away through the night.

Jean-Claude was a Physical Education teacher, running the family wine domaine at the same time. It was he who gained organic status for the domaine back in 1987, one of the first two hundred French wine domaines to be certified organic those 30 years ago.It was he who began the process which Jeff has taken on to make Mas Coutelou an oasis of biodiversity in a sea of conventional vineyards. I know from talking to him that Jean-Claude was very proud and very happy about the way the wines and the vineyards had developed under his son.

I enjoyed his company, his love of sport and poetry and his gentle teasing of we English. Indeed our last chat, just a couple of weeks ago, included some laughter at the current state of my home country. He was kind and generous with Pat and myself and we shall miss him.

So, thank you Jean-Claude for all you achieved, not least in your lovely family to whom I send my heartfelt sympathies. It was an honour to have got to know you. Every time I am in Rome vineyard, your vineyard, I shall think of you.


1 Comment

Last of the summer wine

 

Flower Power

Flower Power 2015

En français

As work on the cellar ratchets up a notch in the next few weeks it was time to bottle the last of the 2015 wines which will be made for the moment.

The framework for the new mezzanine floor is in place and actually looks quite beautiful. It will be reinforced with concrete however, and the metal cross bars will disappear (which might stop us knocking our heads). Plumbing has also been tidied up and improved. Cuves will be placed below and on top of the structure. More work on stairs, flooring and around the cellar will happen soon. As I am heading back to the UK for a couple of weeks or so, it will be exciting to see the changes upon my return.

P1010407

Peilhan June 30

The vines continue their growth in the sunshine and heat. Mildew problems are largely contained though some humidity leads to sporadic outbreaks (apologies for the pun). Sadly, there is a new threat of oïdium (powdery mildew) which likes that humidity and the warm days with cool nights we have been having. Powdery mildew shows as grey, white spots on the leaves and the grappe. Certain cépages are more vulnerable, including some of the traditional Languedoc varieties such as Carignan. The treatment is to spray sulphur powder and Jeff Coutelou made the first treatment this week in an effort to contain the problem, a job completed on Saturday morning. 2016 certainly has been a struggle.

P1010422

Meanwhile 2015 wines such as Flower Power and L’Oublié went into bottle on Wednesday June 29th. You might recall that the L’Oublié assemblage was made a few weeks ago and after spending time in tank, marrying together, it is now in bottle. Both of these wines are extremely good, well worth waiting for when they are finally released which won’t be for a while.

Jeff also put together a new cuvée exclusively for the French market, it will come in litre sized, Bordeaux style bottles as a «vin de table». An assemblage of various cépages it will be cheap, very drinkable and very desirable. The size of the bottles meant that they had to be filled by hand rather than the machine so Thursday was fully occupied with this cuvée. Jeff refers to it as a vin de gauche, after wine writer Vincent Pousson referred to Jeff as one of the last vignerons de gauche (left wing winemakers) because of his low prices making his wines accessible to all. It will be a wine to share and it will disappear down that litre bottle very quickly.

vin de table 2

The new litre bottle of the vin de gauche

2015 seems increasingly like a golden year, its wines are certainly glittering. 2016, well despite all it has thrown at us, there is hope. Meanwhile the summer wine is bottled and the heat is getting to some of us, even after his haircut.

 


3 Comments

Let’s be Candide

“Il faut cultiver notre jardin.”

19380

En français

Voltaire’s character Candide uttered this phrase as his philosophy to express the delights in, and benefits of, taking care of the small things in life. To occupy oneself with gardening is to take your mind off troublesome thoughts leaving one happier as a consequence.

Never has this phrase been more apt than the last week when my home country has lurched from its traditional sense of fair play, tolerance and progression towards isolationism, ignorance and prejudice. We are told, by  a former Education Minister, that British people ‘have had enough of listening to experts’ (Gove). Just remind yourself there, that’s a former Education Secretary advocating ignorance over education. We are told Britain will continue to welcome Europeans whilst some Leave supporters abuse migrants from all around the world.

baa13fqf2zrg85chz2dp

When I studied ‘Candide’ at university I was free to travel, live and work in Europe, now that freedom will be much more restrictive for our young people. And, life will be harder for those of us who have had the joy of living in Europe. Meanwhile US Presidential candidate Donald Trump tweeted:

“Just arrived in Scotland. Place is going wild over the vote. They took their country back, just like we will take America back.”

In fact Scotland voted overwhelmingly to Remain in the EU. Be very afraid.

That sounds more like Martin’s gloomy philosophy in the book that evil will win over good. Hence the need to look after our garden, to balance my spirit. What better way than by looking at the vines?

Hot temperatures and strong winds have helped to diminish the threat of mildew. Jeff completed his final spray against the disease last Tuesday, his battle has been a hard one but hopefully he has won the war. The vines themselves are making up for lost time, the young grapes swelling in size rapidly. There is a real vigour and energy there at present.

In the cellar work has begun to create a mezzanine floor at one side. This will allow the grapes to be put into the tanks from above rather than having to be pumped. Access to the tanks for pigeage. cleaning etc will be much easier too.

Martin was wrong, there are many good things in the world, the wonders of nature, not least in the vines. Pangloss, his counterbalance in the book, was wrong too, all is not for the best in this best of all possible worlds. Looking after the vines, and the wines, has never looked to be such a wise choice. Candide was right after all.

aaliberation-xlarge_trans_hs-gdo9an2vml8a2d7wio_o1cchhxari50txb6eoa0


1 Comment

Mildew

Su mildew

As I have posted regularly in 2016, this has been a most unusual year weather wise. After no real autumn in 2015, no real winter, no true spring we have had a stop start summer in June. Yes there have been a few hot sunny days but lots of rain and cloud too with many days in the mid 20s.

Sadly, humid days in the mid 20s and cool nights are exactly the conditions favoured by downy mildew, and it has prospered in 2016. Jeff Coutelou has 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 has 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.

P1000885

On June 3rd Jeff spent much of the night spraying only for it be ruined by a storm on the 4th which had the effect of washing away the spray from the vines. The rainwater created other problems however. The humidity in the soils created ever more favourable conditions for mildew, the disease spread. And, there was a third effect; downy mildew lives as spores in the soils and the 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.

Once the spores are on the vine they attack the new growth and can create a downy white covering. Leaves show a mottled surface with oily spots, first of light green or yellow and then turning to brown as the mildew dries out. Underneath the leaf appears a downy white or grey growth.

The big question was whether to spray with copper. This is effective against mildew but has an effect on the soils, killing the micro organisms which live in them. It is allowed for organic production as long as no more than 25kg per hectare is used in a five year period, it is a natural product. Jeff has used hardly any in the last few years and was very reluctant to start this year. His belief was that it was better to have some losses this year from mildew than lose the life in the soils for a longer period. However, as the mildew spread so quickly he was forced to relent and use a little copper.

His long nights of unpleasant work have helped Jeff to contain the problem but there have been damages. In some parcels as much as 50% of the crop is lost. Mildew thrives on the leaves but spreads to the actual grapes and destroys them. We may go into the vines and cut away damaged bunches.When harvest arrives we will have to be even more vigilant than ever to ensure that affected bunches do not make their way into the  vats and, ultimately, the wines.

Car dead bunch

Dried out leaves and grappe

Meanwhile the sprays do not kill wildlife, such as that photographed below after the treatment.

The north wind which so often helps to dry out the vines has finally started to blow, though even it was humid for much of the past fortnight. The forecast is for hot, sunny weather which will stop mildew, so the threat should now diminish but it has left the vines looking mottled and a bit sickly. After a restless winter where the sap has been constantly on the move they have been less able to resist mildew’s effects.

The wire trellises which are used in many parcels have helped to ensure that air can circulate amongst the bunches to stop them becoming too humid and prone to mildew. Everything has been done but it has been a hard fight and losses suffered.

However, all is not doom and gloom. Most of the vines are now lush with growth. Flowering (fleuraison) was very late but last week the vines made up for lost time and the small grapes swelled greatly. Let’s hope for smoother progress in the next three months.

 


3 Comments

The Forgotten art of assemblage

 

IMG_0022

One of the more interesting wines at Mas Coutelou is L’Oublié. It is also one of my favourite wines. On Thursday, June 9th Jeff called in his oenologue, Thierry Toulouse, to help to decide on the blending (assemblage) of the new version of L’Oublié.

P1010228

So what is L’Oublié? It is a blend of grapes just like the vast majority of Languedoc wines and, indeed, Mas Coutelou wines. However, it is also a blend of wines from different years. For example the Carignan is a blend of wine from 2001, 2007 and 2010 which has been stored and aged in a barrel called a demi muid. Add in a similar blend of Grenache and Syrah from different years and then other wines to add even more complexity and depth. The name means ‘the forgotten one’ referring to the original barrel of wine which had been, well, forgotten.

P1010234

This is how I described L’Oublié in my article about the Coutelou cuvées:

“It has aromas of dark fruits and leathery, spicy notes too. It is dark flavoured too, blackberries, liquorice and even coffee are just some of the many complex flavours. It benefits from decanting to allow that complexity to resolve itself a little, and it will stay fresh for days after opening. There are not many wines like this around and I honestly don’t know why. It is unusual and one of my favourite wines because of its complexity, its balance of older and more youthful flavours. Terrific.”

It is the mix of darker flavours with the hallmark Coutelou freshness which really appeals to me about this wine. So, how is it made?

Jeff had taken samples from the demi muid barrels of old Carignan, Grenache and Syrah and also samples of other wines which he had, for example Copains 2013. This is a pure Cinsault, from Rome vineyard, released in 2014 but Jeff had aged some of it in barrel too. Younger wines were on the table too, available to be used. We tasted these separately first to get a feel of the flavours which would be in the mix. Frankly, the barrel aged Copains was so good I’d have made a wine just of that!

Using the base wines of the old blends the oenologue measured out the proportions based on the quantities of each wine available for the final cuvée.

The wine was left to mix for a few minutes and then we tasted. The first was very good but, perhaps, edging a little too much towards the dark side of flavours. So, some 2015 wine was added to freshen it up and … voilà. The characteristics of previous versions of L’Oublié but made with newer wines on top of the base wines.

 

The decision on the blend made, Jeff then set about blending the components together in tank where it will sit for a while to marry together. This will be bottled at a future date, yet to be determined as it depends upon when the wine is ready. It will tell Jeff the right moment. Yet another wine to look forward to.

P1010240

The secret code of L’Oublié

If you don’t want to take my word for how good L’Oublié is then here are other reviews and tasting notes:

http://www.lsfinewines.co.uk/acatalog/Mas_Coutelou.html

http://www.leblogdolif.com/archive/2011/12/05/grain-grain-le-petit-raisin-gnan-gnan.html

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 624 other followers