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


7,000 Green Bottles

Bottling amphora red wine

It is bottling season. As this year’s grapes slowly develop in the Languedoc sunshine the wines from previous vintages reach a stage where they can be prepared for sending out into the wider world. This also frees up tanks and containers which will be required for this year’s wines after harvesting. With a good sized crop (hopefully) in 2022 Jeff Coutelou will need all the space he can acquire.

A busy time ahead

Wines that require more time in tank or barrel will get that time of course, it would be madness to bottle immature wines which are undergoing changes and may produce a final product which could have been so much better with patience. However, most of the wines that were assembled a few months ago have had time to integrate and are ready to put into bottle. There they will rest again for a few months before being labelled and made ready for market. Why the need for rest? There is a widespread belief in bottle shock, that the process of going into bottle shakes up the liquid and its various chemical processes (phenolics, tannins etc) and that these need time to settle again. The scientific evidence of this is, as I understand, a little shaky but most winemakers will tell you that drinking wine that has just been bottled (or indeed shaken up when transported) will lead to an unsatisfactory experience, the wine’s tastes and smells are subdued. Indeed I attended a wine tasting last night where I was told exactly that by a winemaker whom I respect enormously.

Matteo, Flora and Gilles hard at work

On Thursday 16th June the Languedoc was experiencing a heatwave and so bottling was limited to the morning even in the cool cellars. Jeff has his own bottling line which means that he does not have to bring in machinery which is usually on a lorry and the wines have to be taken out into the open, the 38c temperatures notwithstanding. A variety of smaller scale wines went into bottle such as the red amphora wine you can see in the video above, Amphore Métissée and Macabeu. The bottles are vacuumed by the machine to remove any dust, debris and stale air. They are then filled, moved to a regulator which adds or removes wine so that all are filled to the exact same level and then the cork is put into the bottle. The corking is a relatively violent process, forcing pressure into the wine so the bottles follow a long, circuitous route to allow the gasses to dissolve and the wine to settle before the bottles are laid into a pallox (in the video this is done by Jeff’s niece, Flora) after being checked to make sure there are no leaks or problems.

On Monday June 20th over 7,000 bottles of Matubu were prepared on a cooler day. More wines will follow later in the week. Jeff then transports the pallox or pallet to the storage cellar for their next period of rest and maturing.

Jeff has a code of all the work done in the cellar

Bottling is not the most arduous in the full range of jobs which winemakers have to master but it one of the most important. Mistakes here would be disastrous, the bottles and corks are expensive and the wine is now beyond any control as it sits ready to be consumed. Many would add sulphites at this stage to protect the wine even if it has not been added before this point. Jeff adds nothing to his wine at all and, therefore, preparations, hygiene and the machines have be meticulous.

So, when you open a bottle of Matubu 2021 in a few months time think back to how it was bottled and, I trust, the wine will bring you great pleasure.

Bottles from the beginning and end of the process are removed as they might not be top quality, also any bottles with a leaking cork or damage.

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Now and then, a tasting of Coutelou 2021s

On the day of my first tour of the vineyards in 2022 I was able to join a group of visitors for a tasting of some of last year’s wines. The three were all from Australia, Jason has been in London for over ten years but is now dividing his time with Biarritz and has the wine bug. His parents have a farm near Melbourne and are considering planting some vines and, after the covid hiatus are happily touring French vineyards with their son, Jeff’s being one of the first calls, naturally.

Whilst they toured the vines I helped Flora label some of the bottles of En Commun, the name given to the wine made from the Carignan and Syrah grapes secured from Vivien Hemelsdael of Le Clos Des Jarres after the harvest here was cut in half by the April frost. I love the name and the way the label plays on the En Commun / Commune theme, a reflection of one vigneron helping another. I opened a bottle of En Commun a few days later and was excited even more by the wine. Light, red fruits to the fore, easy to drink on its own or with food, this is Carignan at its most friendly. A lovely wine, bravo Vivien and Jeff.

Back from their tour Jeff offered a tasting of wines from bottle and tank, some of the bottles had been open a couple of days from a previous tasting (coincidentally with Jeff’s Australian importer Andrew Guard) but all of them were in good condition, not a fault to be seen. Remember that some of these wines will be in short supply after that crippling frost.

Clairette, as the advert used to say does what it says on the tin, or in this case bottle. This Languedoc native white has increased in planting with Jeff recently and here was evidence of why. Clean, fresh and with a good length of white fruit flavours. Clairette is low in acidity but carries a slight bitterness which makes it feel like there is more acidity but also adds a grown up feel to the wine. Good start. This was followed by Macabeu, the other white grape which Jeff has favoured in recent times. However, what made this wine different was the use of a concrete egg to mature the wine after it fermented in steel tank. The wine was bottled directly from the egg by gravity and this means that there is a tiny amount of sediment in some of the bottles, obviously more towards the end of bottling. We tasted one from the beginning and one from the end of that process and, in truth, there is little real sediment. Stand the bottle up before serving and you won’t notice. Was it autosuggestion from the egg but there was a real minerality to this wine, ie a feeling of texture and a stoniness to the fruits. It was lovely, Jeff has ordered another egg so is clearly happy about the benefits for the wines.

On to reds. Ploutalou is a new cuvée, every year brings them! Aramon, another traditional and maligned Languedoc variety to the fore this time, supported by Cinsault, Grenache and a dash of Clairette. Aramon makes light wines, Cinsault too and the white Clairette exaggerates it. Not surprisingly light in colour, Ploutalou has fresh, red fruit – a wine for sheer pleasure. The playful label, a nod to the rabbits who helped themselves to the fruit in the vineyard.

Matubu was a new cuvée in 2020 and its success has gained it a place in the Coutelou pantheon. This is still in tank and an assembly of Cinsault from Segrairals vineyard with Syrah from the same vineyard topped up with Grenache. The Cinsault is eveident on the nose, the strawberry fruit gives it away for me. Another fresh, light red, another bottle to open at any time.

Talking of the celebrated Coutelous, well Classe is back of course, its pink label with a diamond easily Jeff’s most recognisable wine. Syrah, Grenache and Carignan blended to make a much fuller wine than those tasted so far, more body and tannin but depth of flavour and richness too. Classic Classe, always a joy.

By comparison there is another new cuvée, yet to be named, still in tank. Carignan, Castets, Terret Noir and Morastel – now there’s a blend you won’t see anywhere else. A dark, brooding colour with generous fruit and acidity, I’d say this needs a little time still but it carries a lot of promise, I really liked it. However…

Back in 2015 when I was here full time Jeff produced a bottle called Flower Power which garnered plaudits from everyone including influential French wine magazines. For the first time since then it is back and, I have kept it till the end because on first taste this is one of the star wines that Jeff has ever made. I was not surprised that he then told us it was made from the Syrah of La Garrigue (the grapes which go into my favourite, La Vigne Haute). These were blended with the grapes from the Flower Power vineyard itself, Font D’Oulette, the parcel with over twenty different varieties planted at random. The red and black fruit aromas filled the glass and the mouth, it was pleasure from start to finish with a good backbone of tannin and acidity too. This was lingering in my mouth for a long time after we finished, it will age well. Unfortunately, there had to be a downside, there isn’t much of it, probably just a few hundred bottles. I’m first in the queue and Jason won’t be far behind.

La Garrigue Syrah free run juice when picked in 2021

2021 was such a year of torment for winemakers across Europe, 50% of harvest was good compared to many. It is a relief that the wines which have emerged are of such a high standard, we’ll have to be patient for them but they are definitely worth the wait.

Meanwhile 2022 has begun very well, Jeff’s vines have grown healthily, the grapes are formed and in plentiful supply promising a big crop at this stage. Disease is at a minimum, a touch of oidium on one or two parcels but manageable. There is a lack of rain, it is not just vignerons who would love some sustained rainfall. Ironically last week we had two to three hours of such rain at the house just eight kilometres away from Puimisson. I was astonished when Jeff said they had had virtually none. My next door neighbour told me some of his parcels had hardly any rain, just a kilometre away. Now we have 35c in early June, the climate is certainly confusing. Enjoy the bottles while we can.

Below – some of the 2021 grapes mentioned here, l-r Jeff with Segrairals’ Cinsault, Castets and Macabeu

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Vineyard views

Old Cinsault vine in Rome vineyard

The start of June and the start of another period visiting Jeff Coutelou in Puimisson and updating myself with changes to the vineyards and how the vines are faring in this vintage. I also tasted through a number of the 2021 wines which are in a good place including one of the best I have ever had from Jeff but I’ll leave those notes until next time. A tasting teaser if you will.

The main work done over the winter has been in developing the large new parcel of land which extends the Peilhan vineyard. Peilhan used to have around 2.5 hectares of vines when I first began to work with Jeff in 2014 a red parcel of Carignan, Grenache and Castets alongside the white parcel of Muscat, Carignan Blanc, Maccabeu and Grenache Gris. In 2016 we planted the plot on higher ground (shaded blue on the satellite image (bottom left corner) with Terret Blanc, Piquepoul Gris, Riveyrenc Gris, Riveyrenc Noir, Terret Noir and Morastel. That parcel is producing good grapes already as we saw last autumn.

I reported then how Jeff had bought the adjacent parcel which adds another 2-2.5ha of land, of which only a tiny part has been planted so far though excitingly with the Catalan white grape Xarel-lo featuring there. This is an example of how Jeff is responding to climate change, planting to grapes which welcome heat whilst also producing very good wines. The main area is enjoying a period of fallow whilst in the top corner a reservoir was dug for wildlife to use and a roost and nesting box for birds of prey or owls. It will be fascinating to see how this develops. The vineyard was alive with birds singing when I visited on Thursday June 2nd.

Planting around the reservoir has begun and the replanting of the long stretch of Peilhan which was burned by a vandal as I reported last year. It is an exciting project and when the vines are planted this will help to consolidate the domaine in one area making work more efficient.

Elsewhere the vines are at the end of flowering with the development of little pea-like grapes, some with the brown caps still attached from when they emerged from flower. This is a fascinating period in the vines’ annual cycle, a time of year with all the year’s potential ahead.

The period of frosts is gone and though there has been a little evidence of oidium for the most part everything has gone well and Jeff was optimistic enough to predict a big harvest, much needed after the 50% cut last year due to frosts. Other regions have been less fortunate, mostly in the Loire, Savoie, Auvergne and Northern Italy, where hail storms damaged vineyards and buildings at the end of last week. A reminder of how delicate the balance is between a promising vintage and a disastrous one. And sure enough Thursday brought a marin, a wind from the sea with humidity, which can instigate an outbreak of mildew or oidium so vignerons across the area were to be found spraying to prevent damage where possible.

The scifi looking spraying machinery

It was good to catch up with Jeff of course, as well as Matteo and Gilles who continue to work with him as they did last year too. Let’s hope that good fortune here continues.

Gap for animals to get to the water and out again


Pleasures of Spring

A trip to New York at the beginning of this month meant that I decided to combine April and May notes on favourite wines. The list should include the Foillard Morgon 2018 which I wrote about last time but there have been plenty of other really good wines opened so here are my choices.

Another Beaujolais wine kicks us off, Chateau Cambon 2020. This typified good Beaujolais for me, plenty of juicy red fruits in aroma and taste with enough structure to make it more serious and full. Cambon is the work of the Chanudet family from 13ha of land in the Morgon / Brouilly areas. It isn’t in the Foillard 18 class but still very good.

To the North East of Beaujolais is the Jura region which I first visited thirty years ago when its wine industry was struggling and fairly unknown. These days things have changed and the region is extremely trendy with the wines sought all over the world and not enough available especially with recent vintages suffering from mildew and frosts. Savagnin is one of the Jura’s white grapes, late ripening and used to make the well known vin jaunes of the region. Admiration for this grape is such that it is being planted around the world, for example in Australia where my good friend James Madden of Scintilla wines makes excellent wines. Traditionally, wines were left in barrel and not topped up when wine evaporated so that they develop a flor, a covering of yeast in the style of sherry. Ouillé means the wine is topped up leading to a fresher, more traditional white wine. The 2017 Savagnin Ouillé from Marie-Pierre Chevassu was delicious, lots of white fruits but with a salty, citric freshness, golden in colour from old wood large barrels called foudres. Let’s hope the Jura has a kinder year to produce more excellent wines.

Whilst in New York we enjoyed a lovely meal at Ernesto’s in the Lower East side and enjoyed a lovely Vouvray wine, Les Enfers Tranquilles 2017 from up and coming producer Michel Autran. Having studied under Loire stars such as Saumon, Careme and Delecheneau, Autran has just 3.5ha of vines and his wines are in great demand which, like the case of the Jura, is impossible to meet. I have been with Jeff Coutelou when people around the world ring and ask for wines which can’t be supplied because there just aren’t enough and it frustrates everyone. Good producers create demand, Autran is one and, having been unable to find any of his wines to buy myself, it was a good opportunity to find out whether the wine matched the hype. It did. Classic Vouvray with a clean freshness and yellow fruit profile but the slightest suggestion of sweetness too. My first wine visits were in Vouvray and I have been a loyal fan and purchaser ever since and this was one of the best examples. Well done too to Ernesto’s for ageing the wine and allowing it to develop. Now, where can I find some?

I am not usually a huge fan of Chianti wines, I have been disappointed many times over the years therefore I am happy to praise this 2018 Querciabella Chianti Classico. A biodynamic producer, the wine was fermented in steel, raised in barrels (just 10% new) and had lovely notes of red fruits and black cherry with a clean acidity lifting the fruits whilst the tannins were soft and balanced. This is the work of a very good winemaker, a South African called Manfred Ing in this case. Very good, certainly one of the best Chiantis I have had for a long time. A more familiar Italian wine is the orange Catarratto 2020 from Baglio Antico from high hills on Sicily. Organic and no sulphur added, this is a cracking introduction to skin contact wines, the three days of maceration on skins bringing colour and texture whilst allowing the white fruits of Catarratto to shine, my house orange wine and in good form.

Whilst on the subject of orange wines I must add one of the best examples I have had, indeed this week. The Hermit Ram Sauvignon Blanc 2020 Skin Contact was exceptional. Golden colour, very aromatic (my wife even thought it might be grapey Muscat) and with singing white and yellow fruits as well as a lovely mouthfeel from the skin contact. This is New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc like no other and a joyful bottle. Theo Coles is the producer from vineyards in North Canterbury on the south island. Seek it out!

To Spain for three lovely wines. Veronica Ortega, rather like Autran in Vouvray, is gaining a reputation as one of the best producers of her region, in this case Galicia, North West Spain. Quite 2019 is made from Mencia, the local red variety. Most Mencia reds can be quite light and sometimes a little too acidic (I am sure that is not why people used to think it was related to my bete noir, Cabernet Franc!). This was light in colour and structure but there was plenty of red fruit flavour which filled the mouth and lingered nicely.

Comando G is the joint project of Dani Landi and Fernando Garcia in the Sierra de Gredos mountains near Madrid. They work biodynamically without being certified though added 67mg of sulphites, more than most wines I try, nevertheless it would be classed as natural by RAW. They are fans of Garnacha (the G in their name) from old vines. La Bruja de Rozas 2019 has 60 year old vines and the wine showed real depth and character from, I guess, lowish yields. Spice, red fruit and a good structure made this a wine for food but perfectly drinkable on its own. Very good.

Sherry is so shamefully overlooked. I love sherry. A few years ago I attended a wine tasting in Edinburgh where Gonzalez Byass presented a new range of fino wines under the Palmas label, finer examples of Tio Pepe in effect. A palm branch is traditionally chalked onto barrels of sherry deemed to be of high quality, one for younger sherry, two for older etc. I had a Una Palma a couple of months ago and enjoyed it, made from 6 year old fino. This Dos Palmas is made from two casks of eight year old fino and had much more character then the one palm. The initial aroma was slightly medicinal but it opened to traditional salty, pear like flavours, refreshing but fuller than most finos. As the wine is in cask over such a long time the flor begins to thin out on top of the wine and so there is more exchange with air and evaporation from cask so the wine becomes more concentrated and this was noticeable. I really liked this and need to find the Tres Palmas too. (I understand they have added a 45 year old amontillado as Cuatro Palmas, my Christmas list begins!).

I could easily have added another Spanish wine from the Jerez region as Bodegas Cota 45 Ube Paganilla 2019 was another delight from this excellent producer. I first tasted Ramiro Ibanez’s wines at The Real Wine Fair a few years ago and was bowled over. It was good to see that RWF took place recently after a gap for the pandemic, shame it was too clashing for me with the New York visit soon to be followed by a return to my beloved Languedoc. So, next time a Coutelou update!


Take two bottles

When I first started to get into wine I eagerly devoured almost as many books and magazines on the subject as glasses of the actual drink. Hugh Johnson, Michael Broadbent, Jancis Robinson, Clive Coates and Oz Clarke books were bought and studied, often at great cost. They steered me towards certain wines, countries and regions and to a fairly classical way of thinking about wine. At the time Bordeaux was the epicentre of wine with Burgundy a fairly distant second. A visit there reinforced the idea that Bordeaux was aloof, remote and tourist unfriendly for those of us without large incomes or inheritances. Nonetheless I bought en primeur, got lucky with 1990 for example. I learned about the importance of vintage.

Much has changed in intervening years. Bordeaux is now more tourist friendly, Burgundy less so from the days when a free cellar visit offered Grand Cru tastings. Climate unfortunately has been one of the major changes. In some ways this has been good, grapes ripen more easily and the days of green, sour wines of Bordeaux, Loire reds etc are mostly behind us. Winemaking skills too have developed, science and learning have given winemakers the skills to make the best of their grapes whatever vagaries have affected the vintage. Indeed vintage mattered less seemingly. Vintage charts were useful but no longer a key part of planning my wine purchases.

The Wine Society’s current fine wine vintage chart

My love of natural wines only seemed to confirm that vintage was less important. Each bottle is taken on its own merits rather than compared. And yet. I still keep bottles of the same cuvée from different years to compare, I have Jeff Coutelou’s Le Vin Des Amis, Flambadou and Classe stretching back every year to 2013, other producers too. I’m not sure why, maybe I will have a tasting one day of the different vintages to see how they compare. That I haven’t done so would support the notion that I haven’t seen vintage as a key part of my wine drinking.

Why am I rattling, or prattling, on about this? Well in the last month or so I opened two bottles of Jean Foillard’s Morgon wine. I hadn’t even realised that I had done so, a visit to New York in between might have blurred the memory. My notes though reveal two very different wines and it made me wonder about vintage all over again. Foillard, of course, was one of the natural wine pioneers, part of the group which transformed that region’s winemaking and influenced producers and wine drinkers around the world, including Jeff. I have bought his wines regularly though, in honesty I often prefer other producers such as Breton, Lapierre and Thévenet.

Morgon is perhaps the most serious of all Beaujolais crus, its granite and schist soils and climat producing denser, more concentrated wines than most of the region. Therefore, I like to give even village wines such as these a few years in bottle before opening them to give them time to mature and peak. Even then most Foillard wines have been enjoyable without really exciting me. The 2017 version was a typical experience. There was some nice dark fruit flavours and good texture but not a whole lot of joy. The 2018 was different. Bright red fruits on the nose and in flavour. There was more freshness to lift the fruit above the structure and tannins, there was pleasure in the bottle not just respect for it.

So, was this the result of the vintage or a difference in winemaking between the years? Unfortunately not much detail emerges from the domaine, the wines sell themselves without him needing to court publicity (or even a website as far as I can find). I actually tasted the 2017 with him at a tasting in Montpellier and he was reticent then too. I can’t find any explanation in terms of how the winemaking differed in the two years. So, is it an example of vintage difference? Well 2017 was a good year in the area until hail storms hammered it in July and Morgon suffered more than most, losses of up to 80% for some producers. 2018 by contrast was one of the great vintages, a sunny vintage, ripe grapes but with good freshness too according to many vintage summaries I have studied for this article, such as this. That reflects exactly what I found in this bottle. It seems that vintage has indeed been reflected in these two bottles.

Of course this is not a surprise, I know from working so many vintages with Jeff that the grapes are different every year and that wines reflect the grapes. It seems I have been guilty of underestimating vintage in my wine buying, I need to rethink my rethinking.

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Making a difference

A couple of months ago a friend of a friend approached me about leading a wine tasting in order to raise some funds for charity, and after the invasion of Ukraine and the ensuing refugee crisis it was an obvious cause to support. The new committee at Snod’s Edge near Shotley Bridge Community Hall, near where I live in County Durham, is trying to organise events to raise the profile of the community and the Hall.

After meeting Hazel and Vicky we decided to look at encouraging people to try different wines and from different countries to the usual bottles purchased on the High Street. They also requested that I should include an orange wine and an English wine. At the same time the wines needed to be easily available to the public and not too expensive so that the costs of the evening were kept low in order to boost the sum raised for the charity. I approached Majestic Wines at Hexham and the manager, David and we talked through a selection of ten wines to fulfil the brief. The success of the evening owes a lot to David and his guidance.

I waned two wines for five categories; dry white wine but not Sauvignon Blanc, a fuller white but not Chardonnay, a lighter red, a fuller red and a sparkling wine alternative to Champagne. The wines selected were as follows:

Villemarin Picpoul De Pinet 2020, Cave Ormarine, France

Assyrtiko 2020, Lyrarkis, Crete

Macerao 2021, Luis Felipe Edwards, Chile

Vinehugger 2020, Reyneke, South Africa

Bicicleta Pinot Noir 2019, Cono Sur, Chile

Nero D’Avola 2018, Corolla, Sicily

Winemaker Series, The Red 2019, Mark Kent, South Africa

LB7 Reserva, 2018, Lisbon, Portugal

Cava, Codorniu, Spain

Brut, Chapel Down, England

My tasting sheet contained suggested marking even though my own experience of and attitude to marks is not terribly positive but it does provide a way for people to think about the wines and decide which ones they like and for what reasons. My own choice regarding what was marked how, eg, I lay less emphasis on the appearance of the wine than others do and I like to add marks for sheer enjoyment of the wine, which to me is the most important aspect of drinking a wine.

Brief comments from me on the grapes, producers, background as well as picking out topics such as the use of oak (LB7), co-operative producers (Picpoul), how orange wine is made, organics (Reyneke and Corolla), volcanic wines and soils (Assyrtiko and Corolla) and the rise of English wine in recent years.

The Picpoul (£8.99) was fine, perhaps less fresh than some examples from this excellent producer. The Assyrtiko (£11.99) had more texture and flavour whilst still fresh and I preferred this in the pairing. Most of the audience preferred the Picpoul.

The Macerao (£9.99) is made from Muscat D’Alexandrie like the OW which Jeff Coutelou makes so it was interesting to try it. A light example, I imagine maceration was fairly short, it was a good introduction to this style of wine, not surprisingly the wine split the audience some really liking the style, others not so sure. The Reyneke Chenin (£12.99) was lovely, good white fruit flavours with freshness and a long finish, easily my preferred white wine of the night. The vote was split between these two overall.

The Cono Sur Pinot (£8.99) is a standard new world Pinot, plenty of sweetish fruit though there’s a little reductive note on the finish, good value for money. However, it was outclassed by the Sicilian Nero D’Avola (£8.99). This was the surprise of the night. There were good red and black fruit notes with spice and freshness. At the price it is a bargain and confirms the quality being made in Sicily. The audience agreed.

The South African red (£12.99) made from Syrah, Grenache, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cinsault I used to exemplify how blending works. It was a good full, spicy red made by the winemaker of Chocolate Block in Franschoek. The LB7 (£11.99) wore its oak well though it was noticeable on the finish but this smooth wine had plenty of black fruits. Most preferred this to the Cape wine, I preferred the other!

To sparkling wines and an explanation of how Cava is made differently to Champagne and the English wine here. The Cava (£11.99) was quite sweet and easy, nothing complex. The Chapel Down (£29.99) was very popular with most, some bias perhaps. I liked it but I do think there are better English producers and that this is overpriced even with the 10% discount for buying any six bottles. It was better than the Cava but I wouldn’t buy it myself.

Most of the increasingly vocal crowd gave their vote for wine of the night to the Chapel Down so who am I to say they are wrong. The second most popular was, pleasingly, the Sicilian red. Was it coincidence that my two favourite bottles were the organic wines? Auto suggestion or not I did think that they stood out.

Thanks to Hazel, Vicky and the Committee for inviting me to host this enjoyable event (my presentation boosted by Liverpool winning the FA Cup shortly before we started) and happily we raised almost £500 for the Ukraine appeal. Feedback was very positive and I have been invited back! Thank you to David for his help in organising the wines and glasses and to everyone who made the effort to turn up and, I hope, enjoy the evening. Hopefully many will feel encouraged to try some different wines from different sources.

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I was lost…

Regular readers will be aware that I love to learn about different types of grape, an amateur ampelographer. One of the most precious books I own was given to me by Jeff Coutelou, Pierre Galet’s ‘Dictionnaire des cépages’ full of detail about every wine grape known. One of the things I have loved about spending time with Jeff is that shared interest in grapes and his willingness to plant grapes old and new to the Languedoc. Visiting Domaine Vassal, a repository of all French grapes, planting Piquepoul Noir and Gris, Riveryrenc and others in March 2015 was one of the highlights of the three years I was there full time. Last autumn we planted Mauzac and Fer Servadou in his new vineyard at St. Chinian, he has also planted one of my favourite white grapes Xarel-lo amongst dozens of others.

Therefore, I have been delighted to see some of the UK supermarkets seek out wines from grapes not usually found on their shelves. Marks & Spencer has been one of those supermarkets with their range of wines called ‘Found’. Commercial wines are mostly not organic or natural in any way but I bought a few to try.

Some countries have lots of grapes not familiar to most, Portugal and Greece for example. I have written about Portugal a fair amount with the publication of Foot Trodden so I concentrated on Greece. Two bottles came from the latter. Moschofilero and Roditis made up the first wine, both white grapes, though the latter has a pink skin. Moschofilero is very aromatic and the first sensation on trying this wine was of the aroma of spice and flowers, rather like an Alsace Gewurztraminer. The wine was dry and fairly flavourful without exciting. The other wine from Greece was from Xinomavro and Mandilaria grapes. The former is fairly well known, the latter is often used to add depth of colour. This was, indeed, a very dark red/purple colour and quite tannic with full flavours of plums and other black fruits, certainly a food wine.

Two Italian wines next. The first came from Sicily and the Nerello Cappuccio grape which I have had in blends before but not as a single variety wine. I liked this, a medium colour with attractive red fruit aromas and flavours, balanced with some sweet fruit in the mouth. I would try this again. The Ribolla Gialla comes from the Venice region of northern Italy, a grape I have enjoyed before often made in a skin contact method in the North East of Italy and Slovenia. This was a more traditional white wine with nice yellow fruit aromas and a tang to the taste.

To South America. Pais is a thin skinned variety, probably descended from Spanish black grapes and it was the most common variety in Chile until the rise of Cabernet Sauvignon there. By coincidence I drank this the night before I attended a wine tasting in Newcastle where more Pais was to be found. To be honest those examples were superior to the one in the Found range which was darker than expected and had a cherry like flavour without much excitement. From Argentina came the example of Cabernet Franc, one of the more classic grapes in this range found in Bordeaux and the Loire for example. I must be frank (sorry) and confess to really struggling with Cabernet Franc, years of under ripe, green wines from the Loire put me off. Nor did I enjoy this wine, it was ripe certainly but it had no real distinguishing profile, just a red wine.

The best of the range which I tasted was the Weissburgunder (Pinot Blanc) from Germany. This had a freshness on the nose and in the mouth. Yellow fruits, a touch of aromatics with a cleansing, fruity aftertaste which lingered. I would definitely buy this one again. Pinot Blanc used to be a neutral grape, I remember lots of very average examples from stays in Alsace thirty years ago. Nowadays, climate change and winemaking improvements have led to much fuller and enjoyable wines and this German example certainly falls into that category.

My brother in law, Iain, tried the Mazuelo (known as Carmenere elsewhere) from the Rioja region of Spain and he tells me that it was very good so I will seek that out and can pass on his recommendation with confidence in his judgement. There are also a South African Grenache Blanc, Gros Manseng from SW France, a Blanquette de Limoux and a rosé from Portugal. Most of these would be more familiar to me and on these pages.

Overall, I really like the range in promoting appreciation of a greater variety of grapes and wines. I hope that it succeeds in encouraging vignerons to continue to grow and to plant traditional and unusual varieties and consumers to experiment and deepen their appreciation of wines. I am running a wine tasting soon about this topic and will report back, again based on commercial wines from some different grapes.


March on March

The Caves De Pyrene tasting I described in my post last time was certainly the highlight of my wine drinking month, not because it had better wines than the ones I usually open but because of the variety and new wines which I was able to taste there. However, the rest of the month had its moments too and I share them with you here.

I read Oz Clarke’s book ‘English Wine’ with interest, there were some fascinating facts about the rapid expansion of the UK wine growing scene, production rising from just over a million bottles per annum to 15 million in a decade for example. I was also taken aback by the dominance of the Champagne grapes in England, I had expected more of the German varieties and grapes such as Bacchus (which I believe is the English USP) but sparkling wine dominates and so Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier are the three most planted grapes. I enjoyed the book though felt it was a little biased. That said there are some exciting wines now in the UK, producers such as Ancre Hill, Westwell, Davenport would be my personal favourites.

It was definitely a month in which white wines starred for me, maybe the unusually warm and sunny weather led me that way. Jurancon’s Domaine Montesquiou is a firm favourite of mine but their Vin Libre 2020 was a new wine for me, their first venture into natural wine. Made with the traditional Petit and Gros Manseng grapes and (I think) a little Courbu the wine was delicious with clean, zingy freshness and a persistent flavour of pear and apple. If I had to select one French region for good value white wine it would be Jurancon and Montesquiou would be my preferred producer. This new addition to their range is very welcome to me. By contrast I have always struggled to really appreciate Chablis, though I recognise that is heresy to many who laud it widely, including many whose opinions I rate highly. I find a lot of Chablis lacking in character, probably because I do not drink the higher priced wines from top sites. However, I really did like The Wine Society’s Exhibition Chablis 1er Cru Montmains 2019. There was more depth in flavour, texture and I picked up that stony, dry ‘minerality’ which is the Chablis hallmark. I need to investigate the top end of Chablis, it is many years since I did.

Niepoort in Portugal is a producer I respect enormously for fortified and still wines and I regularly buy the simple Drink Me white and red wines in 1 litre bottles, designed for simple enjoyment. The red was the one I enjoyed most this month, made from organic Baga grapes in the Bairrada region producing light, red fruit flavours like a good simple Beaujolais in style. A drink me and enjoy bottle, well named.

Favourite wine of the month though was one of Jeff Coutelou’s, yes I am biased but on a lovely, warm sunny afternoon in my sister’s garden OW 2019 was a treat. Bright orange in colour this is made from skin contact Muscat D’ Alexandrie grapes. I tend to think that orange wines (OW of course) made from more aromatic varieties can be the most interesting, the aromatics still offer interest but are more controlled by the skin contact. There were clean, dry spicy, tea notes with a citrus-like finish and characteristic texture. It was in cracking form.

Finally, I bought a range of wines from Marks And Spencer, their ‘Found’ range in which they offer wines from around the world made from grapes which are unusual to most supermarket wine buyers. As this is one of my main interests in the world of wine I thought I should explore this range a little as it is one I applaud even if the wines are conventional in nature. I shall report back on my findings next time. This is a them which other supermarkets are also exploring and will also be the theme for a charity wine tasting I have been invited to lead in May here in NW Durham. No doubt I shall report on that too. The year is starting to open up and I look forward to getting back to Puimisson in coming months too.

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Back in the saddle

My first wine tasting in two years. How I have missed them. Appropriately it was natural wine UK pioneers Les Caves De Pyrène who organised it, in Newcastle at The French Quarter restaurant near the Castle itself, a place I visited with countless school groups as a teacher. It felt a little odd being in a fairly small room with a lot of people but once in the swing of the event I relaxed and enjoyed it (honestly that wasn’t the result of the 70 or so wines I tasted!!).

The room was set out with informal stands for France, Spain, Italy, the Americas, the rest of Europe and one for Australia, New Zealand and South Africa combined. The hosts at each stand were excellent, knowledgeable and helpful. There were a lot of good wines ( as you would expect from Les Caves, a regular supplier for me through lockdowns) and only one that was faulty (mousiness after starting as a lovely white). I have selected a few favourites to describe.

Let’s start with familiar France and, indeed, it was a familiar wine which stole the show, possibly even of the whole event. Clos de Tue-Boeuf, the home of Thierry and Zoe Puzelat in the Touraine is one of the most famous of natural wine domaines, much loved by the likes of Alice Feiring. I have always liked the wines but the Cheverny Blanc Frileuse 2020 was in seriously good form. The blend of Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc was clean and fresh with lovely white fruits which were sharp yet left a roundness behind. Seriously good. The Cheverny Rouge Rouillon was also good.

I enjoyed the Pinot Blanc 2018 from Achillée with good ripeness though still fresh. Chénas is the Beaujolais village which I visited most over the years but it seems to have been left behind by the other cru villages in recent years, especially its neighbour Morgon. It was very pleasing, therefore, to come across Chénas Les Carrières 2020 from Domaine Thillardon. Nice fruit with a clean start, complexity grew in the mouth. Very good.

On to Spain. A consistently good range was on offer and I struggled to keep my recommendations to a reasonable number. In the end my four favourite wines came from two of the producers. Firstly Partida Creus, whose wines I already knew. GB Garnaxta Blanca 2020, light in colour for a maceration wine but there was clear texture from the skin contact and a lovely herby, fruity flavour. Equally good was UL Ulldellebre Tinto 2018. Uldellebre is a Catalan name for Tempranillo, perhaps the most famous Spanish grape. This example was fresh, very well balanced with fruit and complexity with lots of spice and length.

The other producer, new to me, was Pedro Olivares from the Murcia region. Muscat Blanc D’Argila 2020, its name suggesting the skin contact in amphorae (?). Very aromatic and fruity with good texture from the maceration of 24 days, well judged winemaking balanced the wine nicely. Similar comments apply to the lovely fruits of Monastrell 2019, lovely fruit and complexity. Definitely worth seeking out this producer.

The Italian range was more mixed for my taste but there some lovely wines in there. AA Tuccio Raffaele is based in Puglia and I liked the Antica Enotria Vriccio 2019, made from Primitivo grapes. I often think of Primitivo wines as being light but this was a big, complex wine, dark and powerful with a classic Italian red finish of sour cherries. Very good. From Sicily came Etnella‘s Attia Rosso 2020 from Nerello Mascalese grapes. I have a real fondness for Sicilian wines and this was a classic example with fresh red fruits, full and balanced. Finally a Barolo, not a wine I usually find easy to enjoy. Barolo Casina Bric 2015 was, as expected, very full and rich with dark fruits and tannins but those fruits were clear and spicy. A convert.

I tasted the wines from the Americas first and they were the ones which perhaps left the longest impression from the event. I confess to not being as familiar with Chilean geography as I ought to be and I have found South America to be lacking in wines from the natural sphere so it was good to discover a range unearthed by Les Caves. Coincidentally I had opened a Pais wine from Itata in the south of Chile the previous evening so I was drawn to a comparison, believe me the wines here were better and I shall be writing about the other wine soon.

There was a lovely entry level wine, Vinos Inacayal‘s La Cueva 2021 made from Pais and Carignan in the Colchagua region. Organic grapes made with minimal intervention in cement tanks. The Carignan added finesse to the blend, good and fruity. Mauricio Gonzalez in Yumbel has made a lovely wine in Pipeno Tinto 2021. Pipeno is a style of wine made to be drunk early and this was a good example of a young, fruity and savoury wine, a Beaujolais style with simple enjoyment to the fore. A Los Vinateros Bravos is based in Itata and I enjoyed the Cinsault wine Las Curvas 2019, direct with clean light red fruits and a little texture.

My favourite wine from Chile though was from Vina Ventisouero, a new producer in the Atacama, just south of the desert itself. Their Tara Chardonnay 2018 had lovely intensity with fresh fruits and a roundness on the finish. Made from whole bunches part fermented in barrel and partly in tank this Chardonnay is quite expensive but worth it. There was also a very good wine from Oregon in the USA, Bow and Arrow‘s Time Machine NV. Pinot Gris, macerated in concrete egg is blended with barrel aged Chardonnay and the result is clean fruits with a ripe, round finish.

The European stand showed bottles from England, Wales, Greece, Austria, Slovenia and Georgia. It was my first tasting of Tillingham wines, both very good. Wales’ Ancre Hill was just as good though. I have praised their orange wine on here before, and bought a bottle just last week. The two sparkling wines on show here were very pleasing, the Pet Nat Red and Blanc De Noirs. I have had mixed experiences with Georgian producer Pheasant’s Tears in the past but enjoyed the two wines here, the white Rkatsiteli had the most dusty skin contact mouthfeel of any wine I can recall for many years and I enjoyed it a lot. My favourite wine here though was Arndorfer‘s Gruner Veltliner Naturtrüb 2021. I find a lot of Gruners to be fairly neutral though pleasant this one was much better with apple and pear fruit flavours, clean and fresh but nice complexity too.

Finally, back to the southern hemisphere. I really enjoyed a Barossa Shiraz, not my usual thing at all. Stone Spring‘s Shiraz 2021 was full but there was a good balance of direct acidity and the wine was very well balanced. Good winemaking. South Africa is fast becoming one of my favourite sources of wine. Intellego produce good value wines and their Chenin Blanc / Chardonnay blend Story of Harry 2020 was savoury, fruity and had good length and fruit. Radford Dale‘s Renaissance Chenin Blanc 2017 was even better with balanced, concentrated flavours of apple and pear and excellent complexity.

Excellent wines from a cool Welsh climate to the edges of a desert in Chile. Grapes familiar and new. A Barolo that I really enjoyed and a confirmation of Spain as a real driving force in exciting winemaking. I thoroughly enjoyed being back to discovering wines, a big thank you to Les Caves De Pyrène and The French Quarter for their hospitality.


February favourites

It wasn’t exactly a resolution but I had thought at the start of the year that I would make more effort to update the blog more regularly than the last couple of years. However, the events in Ukraine made it seem trivial and irrelevant. Did we really think that 2022 would be worse than the last two tainted years? However, time to press on.

I have read a couple of good wine books in the last month and pass on recommendations. A thread on Twitter about wine books brought up the suggestion of Terry Theise and his book ‘Reading Between The Wines’. Theise imports German, Austrian and Champagne wines into the USA but his book describes his relationship with wines and its making. I found it hard to get into at first but its style and philosophy gradually won me over and I found myself nodding along rather than nodding off. I will re-read it soon as there were some sections which raised thoughts I would like to consider more. The other was a new book by Rachel Signer, You Had Me At PetNat. Signer is also American and the book tells of her journey from New York to living and making wine in the Adelaide Hills, a journey aided by her love of natural wine. It is a very confessional and personal book, as an older white male it was different to my background but like my love of natural wine it pays to be open minded and the book repaid my time with insight and warmth.

To wines. I decided to select my three favourite wines of the month. Orange wine has quickly established itself as a style I love and there were two excellent examples last month. Firstly a familiar wine, Ariana Occhipinti’s SP68 Bianco 2020. Made in Sicily from Muscat D’Alexandrie (familiar to we Coutelou devotees) and Albanello grapes. The latter has been in decline, just 125 hectares remaining. It is a grape which ripens late and usually used to make sweet wine. Here Occhipinti makes a dry wine with 15 days of maceration on skins producing a light orange wine but with enough texture to satisfy. The Muscat comes through in flavour but the wine avoids a surfeit of aromatics and is simply delicious.

The second orange wine to make my favourites list was Hopera by Slobodne, the Slovakian producer whose Vronski I chose as my wine of the year for 2021. Hopera is a 50/50 blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Gruner Veltliner fermented with hops. The seven days of skin contact produce more distinct colour than the SP68 surprisingly but the results are fresh, fruity and flipping lovely. As it happens I had a bottle of Slobodne’s rosé, La Rose et La Vampire 2020, when we went for my birthday meal. It was pleasing, fresh, light and red fruit flavours galore, a very good match with the excellent Mexican food of Barrio Comida in Durham. So, three Slobodne wines tasted, all three were winners.

My third wine of the month was a very pleasant surprise despite being a Coutleou wine (no surprise there of course). When I bought some bottles of Jeff’s 2001 Sud and Ouest from an auction house in the UK there were also some bottles of 7, Rue De La Pompe 2010. This blend of (mostly) Syrah and Grenache is a regular cuvée from Jeff but usually consumed within a couple of years. I was concerned that a simple bottle such as this would have tired and be past its best. I am delighted to report that it was bright, vibrant and delicious. The fruitiness was intact, the acidity was balanced and the flavours lingered. It was genuinely excellent, I know I am biased but this was top class. I doubt this wine has ever tasted better, another example of how natural wine ages well when it is made by a skilled producer.

There were more very good wines, I have put up a gallery of photos and if you would like more thoughts on them then please contact me and I shall pass them on directly.

This is the week of La Dive in the Loire and its satellite tastings, one of the benchmark tastings of the natural wine calendar with a history of significant discoveries. I wish all there a successful and happy time. My friend Aaron Ayscough, author of the website Not Drinking Poison and a forthcoming book, has published a list of tastings to look forward to.

This was my 400th blog post, I had thought to create something special but, as I said in the opening paragraph, it just doesn’t seem the right moment. Thank you for reading the blog as always and for keeping up such high numbers. I shall get back to posting more regularly.