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


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2021, vintage views

Vintage Chart by The Wine Society

When I first became interested in wine vintages were one of the mysteries which intrigued and infuriated in equal measure. Back in the 80s and 90s Bordeaux and Burgundy ruled the world of wine (plus ca change) and anyone wanting to buy such wines looked at vintage reports, vintage charts and vintage prices to research which wines to seek out. A 1989 or 1990 Bordeaux (my first venture into en primeur purchases) was superior to a 1987 or 1994 simply because of the weather in those years. Things have changed.

Climate change is an obvious cause, it is a rare year now where grapes don’t ripen in cool conditions. Indeed we are in a situation where Bordeaux now allows different grapes, such as this blog’s favourite Castets, to temper the (over)ripe Cabernet and Merlot. Burgundy producers worry about the future of Pinot Noir in their region, a grape which now thrives in cooler Alsace and Germany for example.

Better winemaking and vineyard care are the other major reasons why wines tend to be more consistent year on year. Science, technology and the education of new generations of winemakers mean that vines are given cover crops, different canopy systems, grapes are fermented cooler or longer or on skins more than they used to be. Winemakers through skill (and maybe some artifice) are able to smooth out those vintage chart curves, very few years would now be as scorned as those 87s.

For Jeff Coutelou in the hot Languedoc you’d assume that vintages weren’t that important either. There is hot sunshine every year, grapes ripen ready for harvesting by early September. But there subtle differences, sometimes less subtle. 2017 had a big outbreak of mildew, 2019 saw temperatures reach 45c (I remember it well). Those 2019 grapes were actually harvested in prime condition, the best of any of the seven vintages I have helped with, as good as any Jeff can recall. There was little sorting to do. Yet, those grapes proved difficult in the cellar, fermentations slowed and got stuck, not all but many. The fermentations were not completed until the temperatures picked up again in the Spring of 2020. Was that a product of the overheating of the previous summer?

Outstanding Grenache in La Garrigue this year

Every year is different. Similar problems arise due to climate and disease, drought, mildew, oidium, ver de la grappe. The scale of those issues varies though and in different vineyards. The Grenache of La Garrigue was badly hit in 2020 and produced tiny yields. This year when most vineyards suffered that Grenache was beautiful and abundant. Such vagaries are what keeps a vigneron on her/his toes. What quantities of wine will there be from each vineyard? Will there be some outstanding grapes that should be used for a special cuvée? What might be blended to provide the wine for popular cuvées such as Classe or Le Vin Des Amis? With twenty tanks full of fermenting grapes Jeff must juggle figures, analyses, tastings in order to decide what to do with those wines.

Decisions, decisions

2021 was undoubtedly a vintage which reflects most the circumstances of the year, in my opinion more than any of those seven I have witnessed. It was shaped by the frost of April 12th. That single night wreaked havoc upon the vineyards, throughout France yes, certainly for Jeff. Havoc all the worse in that it was unexpected, there was no warning that it would hit the area. 50-70% of potential fruit was wiped out in those few hours, hitting the vines as they flowered and began to bud. From there on 2021 was a year of catch up. Yes the vines, some of them anyway, produced secondary bunches but nothing like the quality and quantity of what was lost. The vines though were weakened by that night, a situation compounded by ongoing drought. Jeff told me that there was only one significant rainfall in Puimisson from the previous October through to the end of summer. This is a perennial issue in the Languedoc now, climate change in action. The consequence of frost and drought was vines pushing energy towards survival rather than fruit and that when summer’s heat and humidity combined to produce oidium (powdery mildew) the vines had little resistance.

Doom and gloom. And yet there was that Grenache. And most of the fruit was decent quality and fermented well (though with delayed malolactic fermentation in some cases). And the resulting wines taste very well after those fermentations. Jeff will make good wines. He will have to juggle those figures again and no doubt produce different final wines to the norm, there isn’t the quantity to make all the usual bottles. Indeed I can report that Jeff bought in some grapes to bulk out his own this year. Carignan and Syrah were brought back from the Minervois thanks to Vivien Hemelsdael of Le Clos Des Jarres, an excellent producer of natural wines himself. That area was relatively untouched by the frost and Vivien kindly agreed to provide grapes to his friend. Matteo, Steeve, Louis and Jeff went to pick those grapes and were enthusiastic about them, especially the Carignan. Incidentally I can honestly recommend seeking out the Clos Des Jarres wines.

2021 will certainly be a year that Jeff recalls with little fondness. Personally I was delighted to be back there after missing out in 2020. Moreover it was an excellent team to work with, I thoroughly enjoyed being a part of it. The white wines which I tasted from tank just before I left Puimisson are in fine fettle, Jeff assures me that the reds are too. Perhaps vintage is less important to wines these days, but do remember unfortunately there won’t be much of them from Jeff Coutelou. There were new aspects of winemaking in 2021 though and I shall be reporting on how Jeff is looking to the future as well as getting the best out of this year. 2021’s wines were certainly a reflection of the difficult year, maybe vintage does matter after all.

The team, by Manu


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Making Wine

En francais

Most of the focus of the posts on Vendanges 21 is on the picking and sorting of grapes, exploring the different varieties and how they are gathered and sent to tank. However, these are the early stages of vendanges and there is much work to follow, not so glamorous but just as important. I have heard a number of vignerons say that their job is to ensure that quality grapes which arrive at the cellar are allowed to express that quality and not to mess up their potential. So, what happens?

The making of wine begins with decisions about how to transform the fruit. The most obvious influence on how to proceed is the colour of the grape. There are some white wines made from red grapes but those are rare. Quality and quantity of the grapes will also determine decisions but let us start with that primary difference.

White grapes will go into white or orange wines. For white wines the grapes will be pressed (usually) soon after picking and the juice is sent to tank for fermentation. For dry whites the winemaker might seek to have only the alcoholic fermentation, not the malolactic in order to keep the freshness of the malic acid. Again, that is a decision for the vigneron. There will still be pulp and pips in that fermentation tank and after fermentation the lees or dried yeast cells will fall to the bottom of the tank after completing their work.

The young wine will be run off that rather dramatic looking sludge to avoid the danger of it spoiling the wine. The vigneron will then decide how to age the white wine, the type of container to use, stainless steel, barrel, amphora, egg, glass. The choice will again be based on the quality of the wine and what the vigneron wants to achieve, a commercial large scale wine or a smaller, more specialised or select wine.

I described the process of orange wine in a recent post. The white grapes will stay on skins to extract tannin, flavour and colour. The length of time will depend upon the preference of the winemaker. Again, the juice will be run off the skins either naturally or by press.

Orange wine

For rosé wines red grapes (perhaps combined with white grapes) will be used. They might be allowed to spend time on skins to extract more colour or they will be pressed directly for a lighter colour. (I recall Emmanuel Pageot in Gabian making a wine called 48h where its name reflected the time on skins to extract a dark pink/light red colour.) Rosé wines are mostly designed for freshness and early drinking so they will usually be fermented and then go to a neutral container to settle and then be bottled.

Red grapes give vignerons more decisions to make. Will they be destemmed totally, partially or not at all? The latter will be whole bunch fermentation and the stems will add a green, sappy touch to the wine. Whole bunch wines might be fermented using carbonic maceration, as in Beaujolais where the grapes ferment in the skins with carbon dioxide added to the tank. Jeff prefers a semi carbonic maceration, some of the grapes will be broken and will ferment as usual whilst others ferment inside their skins. Wines using carbonic maceration tend to have a more upfront fruit profile. That style might be what the vigneron wants to create or it might be that lesser quality fruit would not respond well to traditional fermentation.

Most red grapes at Coutelou are destemmed. Indeed, the new (2020) égraineur takes stems not just from the bunch but from every grape to reduce the amount of stalk in tank during fermentation (some will get through no matter what). The grapes will spend days in a fermentation tank. The red grapes with skins, pulp, pips and yeasts form a bigger quantity of material so Jeff uses the large cement tanks for this. The juice will be carefully monitored to ensure fermentation is happening. For red wines, winemakers want both fermentations to happen, malic acid would make them too tart. Malic fermentation usually happens alongside the alcoholic one or quickly afterwards. This year’s malic fermentation at Coutelou was the first time that it was slightly delayed, happily only a short delay but a surprise nontheless.

Fermentation tanks used for red wines

The bulky pulp has to be then sent to press. Ideally it would travel naturally by gravity but in most cellars a pump is needed, and a heavy duty one at that. The pompe à marc is powerful and noisy but does its work. The press then sends the juice to a tank or other container but usually a tank at this early stage. More tasting and analysis will determine what the winemaker thinks should happen next. Quality, quantity, commercial needs will all play a part in shaping that decision.

Let us not underestimate the commercial aspect of winemaking. The livelihood of the winemaker, their dependants and staff depend on selling the wine. Some cuvées will be made for easy drinking in large quantities, the wine will still be good quality of its type. Le Vin Des Amis and Classe are perennial wines from Jeff Coutelou and are always very good (try the 2020 VdA for proof) but they also provide a financial security. As well as covering costs of equipment, personnel, utilities etc the money helps to subsidise the smaller production wines which often also cost more to produce, eg barrels and longer ageing.

So, though my articles have focussed on the first stages of the vendanges, please don’t think that is the end of the story.


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Domaine De Cébène

When I first became interested in Languedoc wines it is fair to say that Leon Stolarski was the catalyst. I became aware of his online wine sales and bought bottles from his list from a number of producers such as Turner Pageot, Treloar and Domaine De Cébène. When we first came down here on holiday in 2010 and 2011 it was to those producers that I made visits.

Brigitte Chevalier runs Cébène having bought her first vineyards in Faugères around 2007 and making her first vintage in 2008. Visiting her in 2011 she took us round the vineyards and was clearly excited by the potential of the schist soils and old vines. At the time Brigitte worked from an older cellar though it was still able to work through gravity for the grapes to fall into tank when returned to the cellar. Brigitte’s talents were soon recognised around the world and critics such as Jancis Robinson have been very supportive.

I have been fortunate to meet Brigitte many times over the years and her wines are always of such high quality. It was a real treat for me though when Leon contacted me on Saturday from his holiday home down here to invite me to go along with him to taste recent wines at Cébène. It was actually a wet and grey day and mist hung around the new cellars and tasting room at the domaine. However, Brigitte’s welcome was warm despite suffering from an injured foot having slipped in the cellar a couple of weeks ago.

As we talked Brigitte repeatedly talked about her belief in biodynamics and how she feels that the preparations and practices of the philosophy have improved the soils and health of the vines. For example, having checked with the previous owner, Brigitte thinks that some of the Mourvèdre vines are around 100 years old but their yields remain generous and their health excellent. She is relentless in seeking to improve her wines and has invested in amphorae and concrete eggs for fermentations. These vessels from history have become a tool for modern winemakers. Many believe that the shape of amphorae and eggs helps the purity of the wine as there are no angles in the vessel meaning that the wine continuously moves, like a vortex. Brigitte mentioned that she wanted to remove secondary, clashing flavours in the wine, eg oak flavours from barrels, even old barrels. The aim is to produce a more precise, pure wine, the taste of the grapes alone. This desire to improve quality is what shapes her talent.

Brigitte kindly opened examples of all five of the Cébène range. I have to confess that my sheet of notes was lost in the rain so I will keep my assessments brief.

First came Ex Arena 2020, 85% Grenache made from vines outside of the Faugères appellation (actually not far from Jeff Coutelou) on villefranchien limestone soil. Generous, open and plummy fruits this wine is ready to drink now or keep for a few years.

Next, a new bottle to the range is À La Venvole, first produced in 2019 though we tasted the 2020. The name of the wine is from old French meaning by chance, a whim but Brigitte liked the fact that ‘vent’ is is the name, a reference to the winds which are a feature high in the hills. A blend of Syrah, Grenache, Carignan and Mourvèdre, the wine is meant to be drunk young and as a simpler style. I really enjoyed this, yes it is easy to drink young but it has real quality and depth, a lovely blend of grapes and style.

To Bancels, a wine which I have always enjoyed most of all Brigitte’s wines. It was interesting to hear her tell us that this reflects the domaine perhaps most of all the wines. Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre grapes from vines around the heart of the vineyard Brigitte keeps the bottles herself in storage until she feels that the wine is ready. It is tempting to open bottles as soon as you buy them and Brigitte wants her customers to enjoy Bancels at its best, not too young. A costly but thoughtful and principled stand by her. The 2017 was still energetic and will age well but is drinking well now with blackberry, spice and floral notes. The 2019 was still a baby and tighter as you’d expect but nice liquorice notes, perhaps a little weightier than the 17, will it stay that way as it develops?

Belle Lurette is the showcase for the Carignan grape, and my word, this was a treat. The 2018 is as good a wine as I have tasted in a long time. To keep the Faugères appellation Brigitte has to add some other grapes but Carignan dominates to the maximum 85% demanded by the appellation. This is the perfect example of how the vines and wines have improved in her care, Belle Lurette has blossomed into a real star. The 2018 was poised, elegant, direct yet rich and powerful with persistent fruit and freshness. Stunning. The 2020 is obviously a baby but drinking well now, though I’d keep it tucked away for a few years. I picked up more dark fruits than the 18 but that poise was evident again. And both bottles showed how good Carignan can be, the altitude (300m), sun and wind combining so well. As Brigitte said it is a terroir made for Carignan and also climate change proof (hopefully).

Finally Felgaria, the flagship wine and a demonstration of the quality of Mourvèdre which makes up at least half of the wine along with Syrah and Grenache. Brigitte credits three factors for producing top quality Mourvèdre, the altitude, the schist soils and the old south facing vines soaking up sunshine. Most of her vines face north, including the Syrah and Grenache topping up Felgaria but Mourvèdre, and especially these very old vines, seems to enjoy a dry, warm situation. It also produces a vibrant red coloured juice and Felgaria is rich in colour with equally enticing aromas and flavours ranging from blackcurrant to citrus, spicy with hints of meatiness, leather and herbs. The 2017 we tasted was plummy, rich and still an infant. Felgaria demands patience and time for it to reach its peak.

A wet and misty view over the vines

It was a terrific couple of hours spent with a winemaker of singular talents, passion and warmth. Wines of elegance, drinking pleasure but also wines which reflect the land upon which the grapes are grown. Brigitte’s wines would be very high on my list of recommendations for people asking for the best Languedoc and Faugères wines. That Belle Lurette 18 will stay in my memory for a long time to come, reflecting its name. Merci Brigitte.

A warmer day at the Faugères festival in 2015


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Vendanges Coutelou 21, Curtain Call

En francais

Steeve with the last case of 2021 grapes

Wednesday September 15th was a day of further meticulous sorting grapes for an amphora. Piquepoul Gris and Terret Blanc from Peilhan vineyard arrived first and the early cases went directly to press ready for use in blending some of the white wines of 2021. Peilhan is becoming a real hub of the domaine, the original lower level of red and white grapes added to by a terrace in 2016 with a range of grapes. In a future post I shall explain how Peilhan is to be developed further.

After an hour or so the pickers moved from the terrace of Peilhan to the white grape plot and the Muscat d’Alexandrie, some of Jeff’s personal favourites. Amphorae wines are, perhaps, most associated with the country of Georgia where whole bunches of grapes go into the vessels often buried in the ground. Jeff takes a more cautious approach to his amphorae and, as last week, the Muscat would go through a series of sorting to ensure all stalks and stems are removed. Stalks can add astringency and, in a complicated year such as this, he was taking no chances.

The grapes were sorted at the vine, then at the égrappoir and then a bunch (sorry!) of us went through the destemmed grapes to pick out every little bit of remaining stalk. Cathérine, Jeff’s sister, joined us in the task as we sat on cagettes and chatted. Also, part of the group was Jofre a young man studying hotel and catering. Jeff used to teach this course himself many years ago and always takes a student to do a placement. Jofre wants to become a sommelier, has a good deal of experience in restaurants and has worked hard during his three weeks with us.

Saturday 18th was to be the final day of picking for vendanges 21. Like the Wednesday it began with white grapes going directly to press. This time there were a range of varieties, Olivette, Servant, Terret Blanc and Clairette Rose amongst others. There are now a good number of small stainless steel tanks with small amounts of wine, a palette from which Jeff will produce the final picture of 2021 white wines.

We then moved on to the terrace at Peilhan again and picked the Riveyrenc Noir, Riveyrenc Gris and Morastell Noir (not to be confused with Monastrell, the Spanish name for Mourvèdre). The Riveyrencs were large grapes in big bunches whereas the Morastell was mainly small grapes in small, tight bunches. The latter was much easier to sort, the smaller grapes tend to be less prone to disease. As the day progressed the final section to be picked was the Castets. I wrote about this variety a few years ago when it was still unknown and rare, Jeff having some of the very few vines. Fast forward to 2021 and Castets is now an officially permitted grape in Bordeaux and its fame is growing. More small grapes in healthy bunches, a good way to complete the vendanges.

It has been a somewhat stop start harvest due to the weather, the inconsistent ripening caused by frost and drought. Through it all this has proved to be one of the best teams to work with, hard working, fun and supportive of each other. I thank them for welcoming me in as part of the team. It was a joy to be back.

My final bunch of the year


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Vendanges Coutelou 21, Variety Show

En francais

Picking Cinsault in Segrairals

Having talked about new varieties of grape planted at Jeff Coutelou’s domaine in Puimisson the last few days have been about a variety of different activities, vintages and grapes too. After the rain break on the 9th, we restarted on Friday 10th by spending the morning in the vineyards of Segrairals and Peilhan picking Cinsault and Carignan respectively.

The Cinsault often comes in large berries and bunches and, as a consequence, the open bunches can be prone to disease and ver de la grappe. As we picked, therefore, we took great care to conduct a triage on the spot leaving a lot of the grapes behind as you can see. To paraphrase the old John West advert, ‘It’s the grapes we reject that make Coutelou the best.’ Even in a year with much reduced quantity the emphasis has to be on quality, clean grapes if the wines are to be good.

Carignan loaded straight into press by Matteo as Louis, Boris and Jeff look on

Peilhan was quite badly hit by the April frost and the Carignan was particularly damaged. Some vines had no fruit, others still produced well. Again we sorted the grapes carefully in the vineyard. Both harvests went into the press directly. When grapes are not of the highest quality it is not worth destemming and fermenting separately as any taint will spoil the wine. Without the comfort blanket of SO2 Jeff wanted to get the juice from the grapes quickly, likely to produce rosé rather than red after spending so little time on skins extracting colour.

In the afternoon, the Moroccan pickers moved on to the Mourvèdre back in Segrairals. Meanwhile I and some of the team were given a different direction altogether. Jeff had selected some of the best white Macabeu grapes of 2019 for ageing in barrel, they had recently been moved to stainless steel tank in the white wine section of the cellar. The juice was run off the top of the tank and then the marc (skins, pulp, pips etc) were brought to the basket presses.

Operating these presses was one of the first jobs Jeff gave me in 2014 and so I set about extracting more juice from the marc. The pressing must be light as the marc contains more tannins which might make the overall wine more bitter. It is surprising how much extra comes out of the marc, and even more surprising to see whole grapes still amongst it after 2 years. The final wine tasted great and I can’t wait to open a bottle and see how it develops further.

The following day, Saturday, brought more variety and a new job for me. Macabeu and Grenache Gris from Peilhan was brought to cellar and the first couple of rows of vines were sent to press. Jeff, however, decided that the rest was higher quality and wanted to use these grapes for fermenting and maturing in amphora. There have been 4 of these for a while now and Jeff is convinced they do improve the quality of some wines. However, he did not want anything but the grapes themselves in the amphora. Therefore, we used the égrappoir to destem the bunches but then had to pick through every grape to remove any remaining pieces of stalk or stem. Painstaking, meticulous work.

In the afternoon it was time to bring in the Grenache of La Garrigue. I identified this as the best parcel of the vintage in my first blog of this year’s vendanges, the grapes were of very high quality. You might recall that apparently this was hard hit last year and it was as if nature was offering compensation. The quality brought a smile to Jeff’s face and raised the morale of the whole team. The grapes went through the égraineur (which separates each berry not just the whole bunch like the égrappoir), and the juice already tasted especially good, confirmed by the technical analyses.

Grenache from La Garrigue, best of the bunch

Monday 13th brought the longest and hardest day of the vendanges for me personally. It started in typical fashion with the remaining Grenache being sent to a separate tank for using with other wine. However, we then moved to the Carignan of Rec D’Oulette, the parcel which produces Flambadou in good years. Unfortunately, this is not a good year, unless you’re a fan of Grenache and white wines. Jeff decided that the Carignan should be made in whole bunch, carbonic maceration style. Instead of destemming the bunches, everything goes into tank and is protected by CO2 which also kicks off fermentation in the berries themselves.

That meant we set up sorting above the tank which would hold the grapes. On a hot, sultry day that meant working inside and above the rising heat from the grapes. Matteo and I spent the best part of six hours processing the Carignan, it was back breaking, sweaty work and tested this 62-year-old man but I made it through. Just.

From direct press to basket press, destemming single grapes to whole bunches, whites to reds and orange wine too, even grapes from an older vintage. This was a period of the vendanges which was all about variety.

Sorting Carignan whole bunch, Flora stepped in for me for a few minutes


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Vendanges Coutelou 21, the Plot Thickens

En francais

Jeff with a big bunch of Aramon Gris

Vendanges continued for the next couple of days, September 7th and 8th, but there was a literal dark cloud on the horizon in the form of a stormy forecast on the 9th. The predicted rainfall would do even more damage to this benighted vintage. Two varieties are especially vulnerable to rain, Aramon Noir and Cinsault. These varieties have big juicy berries and thin skins so with rain they swell and become dilute and prone to disease. Therefore, the team picked it by that evening.

The new plantation of Sainte Suzanne was revisited too, some of the bunches having been used for the PetNat a few days earlier. Clairette and Macabeu grapes were finished off, as the vines are young we left one bunch on each vine to help the vines mature.

Some lovely Grenache followed those white grapes to the cellar tanks, just next door in Sainte Suzanne itself. There is one more big parcel of Grenache to come from La Garrigue, it looks the best parcel of the year to my eyes. Then came the move to Segrairals to collect the Cinsault and Aramon. In recent years that vineyard has been transformed. Out went the Cabernet Sauvignon to be replaced by a myriad of varieties including the Aramon. Amongst the Noir was also Aramon Gris and some Aramon Rose, just to provide a little diversity and interest.

Segrairals

I have mentioned new plantations in Ste. Suzanne and Segrairals, there are others which will come on stream soon too. The Coutelou vineyards are being transformed year on year. This reflects Jeff’s philosophy and his passion for nature, different grapes and moving towards an era where varieties will have to respond to climate change which some of the imported grapes like Cabernet and Merlot might not do so well in the Languedoc. Aramon, of course, was widely planted in the region at the start of the 20thC, it was used to provide the light wine given to soldiers in World War 1. The Aramon picked here weighed in at a light 10% alcohol, the large berries providing much needed juice.

Another of the grapes from Segrairals was Mauzac, known more around Limoux and Gaillac, bright green in colour and very healthy. It looks an interesting addition to the Coutelou collection along with Grand Noir De La Calmette with its intense red juice from quite small berries. These small quantities will be blended together, Jeff will have a bigger colour palette with which to create his art. Blending is a skill, there have never been many single variety wines but it looks like there will be even fewer.

The forecast storm and rainfall proved to be lighter than expected though there was enough water to delay picking for a day. Cellar work is pressing ahead with the team carrying out the remontages etc. Fermentations have kicked off well, the small slates on each tank revealing the lowering of density in the juice as it turns to alcohol.

More bad weather is unfortunately predicted for next week, yet another problem to add to this year of non-stop problems. The pressure is on to use the next few days to harvest provided the grapes are right. The plot thickens.


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Vendanges Coutelou 21 – First Act

En francais

Jeff with a hefty bunch of Cinsault

The rather gloomy nature of my last post might have made you think that we’re all doomed and no good wine will emerge from the Coutelou vats this year. Of course, that is not the case, there are still 50% of the grapes and Jeff can conjure up magical wines from just about any grape juice. So, let’s be positive and report on what is happening here with the 2021 vendanges.

Jeff has assembled a big team of assistants, as he told me it’s rather ironic that should be the case in this vintage. Firstly there’s Matteo, from Rome, who has been in Puimisson with Jeff since January. He helped to prune the vines this year, together with Englishman Matt who I sadly did not get to meet. Matteo, therefore, knows the vines and vineyards well and leads the team equallly well. Steeve is a friend who has visited Jeff many times and done harvest before with us. From the Jura region, Steeve has decided to change career and is spending the next few months with Jeff to learn more about his new vocation. Gilles, an ebullient and cheerful local man, has been working with Jeff for some time, happy amongst the vines after having his own vineyards for many years. Louis is from Narbonne, did harvest here last year and has returned. He is hard working, cheerful and speaks excellent English.  Boris is another local who comes every year to help with vendanges, a lovely guy who works with nature conservation in his full time job.

We are also fortunate to have Jeff’s sister Catherine helping with picking and looking after us as well as her daughter Flora Rey. You will have seen photos from this talented artist on my blog before as shse has been recording the story of the vines and domaine through her photography and film. I urge you to have a look at this film which Flora put together showing the harvesting of Sainte Suzanne Syrah with music composed by Catherine. Consider subscribing to the Youtube site Vins et Spiritueux Coutelou for more great videos about events in Puimisson.

As I mentioned previously the first stage of the vendanges was to focus on Syrah, most affected by frost. Sainte Suzanne, the young vines of Segrairals and my beloved Syrah from La Garrigue were picked on August 30th and 31st. One third of the normal yield and quite concentrated, Jeff will have to consider how to use it in blending.

The glass on the far side contains Syrah from Ste. Suzanne, very good it was too.

I joined the team on September 1st appropriately in Rome vineyard, my favourite. We collected the Cinsault, Grenaches of three colours and some Muscat before heading to the last few bunches of the La Garrigue Syrah and then on to the complanation of 20+ grape varieties, known now as Flower Power, more correctly as Font D’Oulette. That the few of us picked those three vineyards in one morning is not good news. In the afternoon the Moroccan team went to Segrairals and collected some of the Cinsault grapes of the younger vines. These were full and generous and will add much needed bulk to the grapes from the morning. The Cinsault filled the tank though much of that is pulp and the quantity will fall as the juice emerges.

On September 2nd Jeff wanted some fresh white grapes to make into the PetNat (sparkling), Bobonade. Muscat, Macabeu and Grenache Gris from Peilhan were in good condition and then we moved to the new plantation at the bottom of Sainte Suzanne. These were newly planted when I saw them last but they have grown quickly. The young vines managed to twist themselves round the wires of the trellising so it wasn’t the easiest to pick but the Clairette and Macabeu were fresh and acidic, just what is needed for sparkling wine. They were sent direct to press.

And that brought the first act to a close. Pressing followed the next couple of days but picking resumed on Tuesday September 7th. So, until shortly after then, there will be an intermission.

Icare, the real boss


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Vendanges Coutelou 21 – setting the scene

En francais

Picture from The Express Tribune, Lahore

Most readers will already know that this has been a difficult year for winemakers across France and Germany amongst others. Here in France a series of frosts in April damaged vines in regions from the Jura to Provence. When I spoke to Jeff Coutelou on April 11th he was reassured that Puimisson had avoided such calamity, but then disaster struck. On April 12th the frost, unforeseen by forecasters, struck many parcels with temperatures sinking to -7˚C. The Languedoc is no stranger to frosts even if not as vulnerable as other regions but this was sharp and the timing was disastrous. Vines had begun budding and flowering in the previous couple of weeks and the young growth was dried to a crisp by the cold. Jeff predicted that yields might be down as much as 70%.

Photo of a frost hit vine in 2015 from my blog

The vines fought back a little through Spring and Summer, secondary bunches forming but they cannot replace the original growth properly, being smaller and of lesser quality. However, the frost was also part of an ongoing problem with lack of water. Jeff told me that there had been little rain since the end of vendanges 2020, with just one sustained period of rainfall this year. Vines, weakened by drought and frost, become susceptible to other problems too. Every summer downy mildew and oidium (powdery mildew) are present and they found easy targets in 2021.

Ironically, after my first tour of the vineyards this year, it was the Grenache of La Garrigue which stood out as being the best with healthy foliage and beautiful, good sized bunches of grapes. Ironically because last year that was the parcel worst hit by mildew, nature was giving back a little this year in compensation. La Garrigue is also the home of the Syrah which makes my favourite wine, La Vigne Haute. Unfortunately those vines had been damaged this year and were looking sorry for themselves. Syrah does seem to have been particularly badly affected. The first days of this year’s harvest concentrated on Syrah from Sainte Suzanne, Segrairals and, then, La Garrigue. Yields were one third of last year.

In the last 5-6 years Jeff has replanted many vineyards, some of which had been fallow for some years. The fruit of these young vines can be used this year to help produce wines such as the PetNat, Bibonade, that will boost production a little. The estimate is now that there will be just under 50% of a normal year. So, the scene is set. I wish I had a prettier picture to paint, it is the least promising of the seven vintages I have witnessed here. Let us hope for a twist in the tale.


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It means the world to be back

En francais

Getting out of bed on Thursday morning, back aching in various places, the tips of my fingers stained black and blue and a matching bruise on the palm of my right hand. How did I feel? Just great thank you. These were the signs that I was back after two years, back in the Languedoc, back in Puimisson, back in the vines and back with my dear friend Jeff Coutelou.

For six vintages I had reported on how the year on a wine domaine wound its way through peaks and troughs. Six vendanges, hesitant the first time in 2014 then with growing understanding of what was happening, why it was happening and what I could do, in a small way, to help produce the excellent Coutelou wines.

2014

During that time I had progressed from basically standing guard over a basket press (when in reality nothing much could go wrong) and doing rudimentary sorting as the grapes arrived to becoming a much more confident ‘cellar rat’ knowing how to carry out remontage, pigeage, operate the pumps and to stand at the sorting table knowing exactly what I was looking for as the bunches arrived, from disease to ver de la grappe, the feel and the smell of the grapes able to tell me that those grapes did not belong in the tanks of quality wines we were making.

2019

I came to love the various vineyards and to get to know their quirks, strengths and weaknesses. But especially Rome, sheltered from the world by surrounding trees, teeming with wildlife, complex in its geology and filled with its gnarly, gobelet old vines, standing free. My oasis. I came to love the philosophy behind Jeff’s winemaking; biodiversity, supporting nature not exploiting it, grapes, work and love. I already loved the wines but being part of their story made them even more special. And, above all, I came to love the people I met through the years, the revolving cast of characters who spent time with us.

Rome

Whether based in France pretty much full time for three years or spending half a year there I felt at home, but I took my happiness and good fortune for granted. If the COVID-19 pandemic did one positive thing for me, in preventing me from being in France and the 2020 vintage, it was to make me realise how much I missed being part of the wine, how much I did love the place, vines and people.

It is a pure joy to be back, the aches, bruises and stains are very welcome.


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Mini Grand Cru Riesling comparison

Back in 2017 I stayed in the beautiful village of Riquewihr in Alsace. I have been fortunate to stay many times in the region, one of the most beautiful and interesting parts of France. And, of course, home to some fantastic wines and stunning vineyards. I wrote about the stay back then and, also, the natural wine scene. We stayed in a gite run by Domaine Agapé run by Vincent Sipp (a famous wine name in the region) and his wife. Vincent runs his vineyards on a sustainable philosophy, exploring organics but not certified. He invited me to taste his wines and I bought three 2014 Grand Cru Rieslings from different sites in his vineyards. Whilst 2014 wasn’t a great vintage generally in the region Rieslings did well, especially dry versions.

Earlier this summer, on a hot, sunny day in North East England (yes, they do happen) I decided it would be a good time to open all three for comparison. Three Riesling bottles from the same producer, made in the same way, in the same year, they should offer an insight into terroir as that was the only significant difference. We were in my brother in law’s garden and drank them there after they were slightly chilled.

First was Osterberg, a Grand Cru near the village of Ribeauvillé, a little to the North East of Riquewihr. Marl and limestone soils dominate and the vineyard is traditionally a source of good acidity in the wines. I suspect there had been the slightest oxidation of this bottle as the flavours were a tiny bit subdued but there was still good exotic fruit profile with good weight.

Next up was Rosacker and a complete contrast. This vineyard is near Hunawihr, half way between Riquewihr and Ribeauvillé. The soil is different, deep limestone and the vineyard sees less sunshine and is, generally, a little cooler. The result was obvious in the glass, the wine was cleaner, more direct with fresh acidity. White fruit flavours lingered but this was a wine I would have with food, its freshness would enhance any meal. Where Osterberg was exotic and yellow fruit, Rosacker’s apple and pear fruit provided a clear contrast.

Finally, Riquewihr’s own Grand Cru, Schoenenbourg on the north side of the village. We walked around this vineyard (see above) which has very steep slopes down to Riquewihr, they must be hard work to tend and harvest. Marl, limestone and a touch of gypsum mark the site and Schoenenbourg’s wines are often described as having a smoky hint from the gypsum. There was none of that in this bottle, indeed the wine was a perfect middle point for the two previous bottles. Good acidity but with more obviously expressive fruits than Rosacker, fresher than the Osterberg.

Of the three bottles, my wife and Iain both chose the Schoenenbourg as their favourite wine, whereas I went for the Rosacker – maybe the fresh acidity is more in line with my natural wine palate. It was a very enjoyable mini tasting, providing exactly what I had hoped for, an insight into how terroir can produce different wines from the same grape, in this case the wonderful Riesling.

I recommend the Vins Alsace website for bountiful information on the region and its wines.