amarchinthevines

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


4 Comments

To certify or not to certify

During the current lockdown I have bought a few cases of wine, including a fascinating dozen from Westwell Wines in Kent. However, a bottle from a different case brought to mind an issue which has been much discussed in the wine media recently (the current situation meaning that people have more time to discuss such issues).

The Niepoort Redoma Branco 2018 was very enjoyable with fresh, citric flavours from old vines in the Douro. The grapes were from typically unusual Portuguese grapes such as Rabigato and Codega and aged in barrel for a short time. The oak was subtle and added complexity. Overall, a good wine in my opinion, one I would be happy to purchase again.

The wine was described as natural by the merchant and the informative, detailed technical data from Niepoort allows me to examine that description. In doing so I see a total of 87mg of total SO2 which is very high for a ‘natural’ wine, for example the RAW charter allows up to 70mg. In addition though I have scoured the Niepoort website I can’t see any evidence that this was made with organically grown grapes, to be fair the bottle did not claim it to be and Niepport are gradually moving towards organics. For me those two things mean this cannot be described as natural. But there lies the problem. What is natural wine?

The natural wine movement began in the Beaujolais and Loire as a rebellion against the modernisation of winemaking with its techniques to filter, pasteurise and homogenise. Over the last 30 years the natural wine world has expanded exponentially with like minded producers across the world. And yet there is no agreed definition of what constitutes a natural wine. This frustrates many wine drinkers, I know some myself. They would like to know what is in the bottle, how it was produced.

Are the grapes organic for example? How do we know? Some producers say they are working organically but have no certification to prove it. Jeff Coutelou for example goes through rigorous testing every year by Ecocert to guarantee his organic methods, as I described here. Jeff goes much, much further in his vineyards as readers will know, working to ensure biodiversity and better soils without synthetic products, use of sulfur and copper (allowed under organic production) is way below the levels permitted and only in extremis. However, how do I know that a bottle without certification is produced organically? How do I know that a producer claiming to make natural wines does not add more SO2 than expected unless there is analysis?

Frustration with these blurred lines has persuaded some producers to attempt to draw up a certification for natural wine on a number of occasions. The breakthrough recently however is French government support for the work of the Syndicat de défense des Vins Nature’l. With names like producers Carroget, David and Binner and the wine writer Antonin Iommi-Amunategui the Syndicat has heft and credibility for its work. So what are their rules?

  • Grapes from certified organic vines (from 2nd year of conversion)
  • Hand harvesting
  • Natural, native yeasts only
  • No additives
  • No manipulation of the natural grapes
  • No techniques such as reverse osmosis, flash pasteurisation (described as brutal and traumatic in the charter)
  • No SO2 added before fermentation, though up to 30mg may be added before bottling
  • A separate logo for wines with no added SO2 is available
The logos for certified wines

One hundred natural producers have so far signed up to the Syndicat, ot will be fascinating to see how this develops. Many have welcomed the move, for example Simon J Woolf a writer whose opinions I greatly respect wrote an article in favour in his Morning Claret website. Others such as Jamie Goode, another writer I respect greatly, have generally argued against it. I shall set out these arguments and opinions in the next article.


Leave a comment

Go Ouest

A few weeks ago I had a reply to one of the blog posts asking me if I had noticed that there were some Coutelou wines for sale in an online auction. I have never taken part in one before so it was news to me and I put in bids for the 3 lots which were for seven bottles of Ouest 2001 and three bottles of 7, Rue De La Pompe 2010. To my surprise, despite some competition I won all three lots and was happy to receive my bottles from Taversham’s though UPS managed to break one bottle of Rue De La Pompe en route.

I have had Ouest a few times in the past few years always at Jeff’s as I have never had any of my own before. One of the privileges of spending so much time alongside Jeff is that he shares so many bottles, from other producers as well as his own. I have learned a lot as a result. There are a few cuvées of Coutelou wines which are almost mythical, Roberta, the solera and Ouest is another.

The wine is 50% Merlot, 35% Cabernet Sauvignon and 15% Syrah. The Merlot and Cabernet were from vines planted by Jeff’s father Jean Claude in the 1990s (99 and 98 respectively) because those were the grapes in demand at that time. The Cabernet was part of the biggest vineyard Segrairals but has since been scrubbed up by Jeff to be replaced by more local and unusual grape varieties as is the case in so many of the vineyards now. The Syrah in here also came from Segrairals.

The Merlot remains for the time being in its own parcel, Le Colombié, quite a way from the other vineyards. It is a parcel Jeff has had under review, we shall see what he decides.

Back in 2011 Jancis Robinson described Ouest 2001 as having “amazing intensity and subtlety, and only 12.5% alcohol” and recommended it heartily as did some of her readers on her forum. So, almost ten years later would the wine still provide such pleasure? I opened the first bottle with a little trepidation especially as the cork began to crumble. Fortunately the lower half remained intact and the wine was decanted comfortably. It was still red but with a brick or brown edge. Aromas showed a surprising red fruit profile, amazingly youthful and fresh, followed by an earthy, damp leaves smell. The flavour was still intense and subtle, black olive and black fruits along with liquorice and spices.

This was a triumph, not just because it had survived so well but because it was still a very enjoyable, complex wine pleasing both the palate and the intellect. Go Ouest indeed!


Leave a comment

Wine in a time of corona

It was in the first few months of writing this blog that I used the quotation of Louis Pasteur, “Wine is the most healthful and most hygienic of beverages”. It’s a saying which has sprung frequently to mind in recent days as we enter a period unprecedented in my lifetime. The COVID19 pandemic has closed down the world in a way few of us could possibly have foreseen when we celebrated New Year just 12 weeks ago, hoping that this year would be better than the last!

Icare enjoying the Spring

Jeff Coutelou has been in touch to report that he is trying to do all he can in his vineyards, the problem being that in a time of lockdown he is on his own and with 11ha of vines to tend facing a heavy workload. First priorities have been a light ploughing and time spent amongst the newly planted vines to ensure they start life in Puimisson healthily. He reported that being in the vines was a pleasure because of the sheer peace and quiet with traffic virtually non existent. As he prunes the vines later than many budding is in its very earliest stage.

Budding on March 25th 2016

Others in the region have reported an early budding and, frost forecasts bring nervous times. I saw photos of Burgundy lighting their braziers amongst the vines to try and ward off frost damage. Fortunately Jeff’s vine management means that is not a concern at present though the ‘Saints de Glace’* are still almost two months away.

Meanwhile here in the UK there has been a huge demand for alcohol, part of the panic buying we have unfortunately seen as lockdown approached. Bigger merchants such as The Wine Society have shut down, Majestic’s website could not cope and supermarket shelves have been cleared regularly. To be fair the supermarkets have restocked quickly. Smaller merchants face a precarious time, needing turnover to stay in business. I ordered a case from Buonvino based in Settle who I have used before and wanted to support again. I debated whether I was being fair on delivery drivers expected to put themselves at risk but I decided to go ahead. As I unpacked the bottles and washed them down I had to admit to not having noticed the names of some bottles from South African producer Testalonga. Stay Brave, Keep On Punching and I Wish I Was A Ninja were three bottles, maybe I was sending an unconscious message!

Jancis Robinson has published a list of merchants around the world prepared to deliver. The Three Wine Men have done the same thing for the UK here. I buy regularly, almost exclusively in fact, from independent merchants and I hope that many of you will give them a browse at least.

Whatever you are doing in the next few weeks, wherever you are please stay healthy, stay at home and stay safe.

* Saints De Glace refers to a period in mid May which is traditionally the final days where frost is a risk for plants. It was named after the three saints of the days, which in 2020 are May 11-13, Mamert, Pancrace and Servais.


Leave a comment

London

Last weekend was supposed to be RAW wine fair in London but it fell victim to the coronavirus pandemic, understandable but disappointing. Nevertheless, having booked trains and a hotel room I decided to go to London anyway and make the most of a bad situation. There’s always plenty to see and do and lots of wine bars and restaurants to enjoy. That makes me sound very provincial!

Highlights included visits to Noble Rot and The Remedy. Noble Rot has been a success story for the last ten years or so in the UK, its wine bar, restaurant and magazine becoming central to the wine scene. One of its founders Mark Andrews was the man who first imported Jeff Coutelou’s wines into this country and when Mark started Noble Rot Jeff was happy to supply wines. The food is excellent, the magazine witty and informative. I enjoyed a 2018 Tissot DD, the equal parts blend of Poulsard, Trousseau and Pinot Noir – the main three red grapes of the Jura. Lovely it was too, a good companion for food.

Continuing the Jura theme I enjoyed two further wines at Noble Rot. Macvin is a style of wine where marc (distilled lees) is added to grapes to stop their fermentation at around 18% alcohol. The resulting drink is similar to Pineau des Charentes, this had a nutty finish after dried fruit flavours and a little alcohol heat. Unusual but very enjoyable.

The other treat was a Chateau Chalon, a vin jaune made in the village of the same name. It must be made from Savagnin which is aged for a minimum of six years and three months in oak barrels which are not filled completely allowing a layer of yeast or flor to grow on the surface of the wine. The result is slight oxidation but the wine is protected by the flor, very much like sherry production but vin jaune is not fortified. One of my favourite wines of last year was a vin jaune and this Chateau Chalon was another delicious treat, and at 34 years old still in its youth. Nutty, fresh and special.

The food, service and wines made Noble Rot memorable, I will certainly return.

The Remedy was another success, good food, a great choice of wines at fair prices by the glass and bottle. It was good to meet Languedoc friend Sue Tigg there and we enjoyed a fresh, juicy Beaujolais Villages 2018 from Karim Vionnet. Afterwards a glass of Adelaide Hills Gewurztraminer from Ochota Barrels, dry and spicy. Best of all was a white from Tenerife. The Canary Island wines are beginning to make an impact on the wine scene and this proved why. Made from the Listan Blanco grape by Envinate it was dry, fresh and had lovely citrus flavours and texture. I’ll be hunting for more of these wines. Small, and friendly, buzzy and welcoming, The Remedy is another easy recommendation to make.

One chance discovery was Compagnie des Vins Surnaturels in Neal’s Yard. I called in to get a light lunch and found an interesting wine list including, to my surprise, more Coutelou wines. There was also a fun listing by the glass where you taste blind and if you guess it right then you get a bottle for free. Nice idea, I failed miserably to identify my least favourite grape Cabernet Franc. A group of sommeliers arrived on their day off and if they choose it, then that should be a recommendation too.

Add in interesting visits to The Photographers’ Gallery, Cartoon Museum and Heddon Street where Bowie posed for the Ziggy Stardust album cover and I enjoyed my trip, despite the obvious disappointment of RAW’s postponement. London was quiet, the immediate future uncertain but wine to the rescue.

From The Cartoon Museum


Leave a comment

Some recent Coutelou wines

In my last post I shared news from Jeff Coutelou about the vines and wines of the 2019 vintage. Following on from that I thought I would share some recent drinking updates of Jeff’s wines which, as you might expect, form a major part of my proverbial cellar. This might guide some of you with decisions about when to drink any Coutelou wines you may have.

Let’s start with an older wine, Le Vin Des Amis 2014. I know many people regard natural wines in general as wines to be drunk young when their fruit profile is high, wines for drinking for pleasure. However, my experience of years spent with Jeff is that many of his wines (and those of other natural producers) age very well, with more complex flavours replacing the overt fruitiness. Vin Des Amis is one of the headline wines of the domaine and is certainly very enjoyable young. This 2014 (40% Syrah, 40% Grenache, 20% Cinsault) was in prime condition, the freshness calmed down and darker fruit flavours to the fore rather than the bright red fruits of its youth. A lovely bottle.

2016 was a problematic vintage with drought and hail and much reduced yields especially for Grenache and Syrah, the main grapes of the domaine. It is by far the vintage least represented in my collection but I opened a couple recently. 5SO, a play on the single grape name Cinsault which makes the cuvee, was still fresh and fruity though had a little mousiness on the finish, just a hint nothing to spoil it overall. Some of the Grenache and Syrah which was produced in 2016 went into 7, Rue De La Pompe together with some Merlot to fill it out. This was still fresh with a spicy red fruit profile giving a nice lingering finish.

A good mix of wines here. Let’s start with 5SO again, this time the 2018. Notice the name change, it was 5SO Simple in 2016, but the 18 is so good that it became Formidable 5SO! The name change is justified, 2018 being an exceptional vintage. This wine took a little longer to come round than usual so bottling was later and the wine seems to have benefitted, cherry red fruits and almost flowery aromas. Lovely. The other 2018 was the new cuvee Couleurs Réunies. This is a blend from two parcels with the many different grapes from the Flower Power vineyard blended with Carignan and Castets from Peilhan. As I recall we only managed to harvest less than 10 cases from Flower Power in 2018 so the extra grapes were much needed. And it is well up to Coutelou standard with big, fresh fruit to the fore (still very young of course). I shall keep a bottle or two back to watch it age but it is a lovely addition to the range.

The two older bottles form that group were Classe 15 and La Vigne Haute 2017. Classe was highlighted by a UK wine expert as one of the best organic wines to drink, Olly Smith went on to say that he buys Jeff’s wines whenever possible. This Classe was 75% Syrah with Grenache and 5% Mourvedre making up the difference. Classic in its style, silky smooth flavours of red fruit, ridiculously drinkable for a wine which will age further. Very long lasting in the mouth it is hard to resist. Possibly in its peak time but it will develop complexity. Regular readers will know that La Vigne Haute is my favourite of all Jeff’s wines. This is still youthful, pure Syrah with more floral notes in its aroma, very silky tannins (which will allow it to age) and a combination of red and black fruits detectable in its huge fruit. There is also a slight smokiness in the finish to add even more complexity. A worthy example of my desert island wine.

Every year Jeff takes some of the best white grapes and ages them for special cuvées, sometimes in oak. Macabeu 2017 is a gorgeous example of the benefits of this vinification. The oak adds weight to the wine and just a very subtle hint of vanilla but the oak is very much in the background. More noticeable is a slickness in the wine, almost viscous in nature and this helps to coat the mouth with delicious apple and pear flavours helping to make them last even longer. Petits Grains 2017 is made from Muscat A Petits Grains and the Muscat flavours are there but this wine is not sweet, other than from the ripe fruit. From the old barrel the wine has taken a light oxygenation which adds dryness and complexity to the Muscat grape flavours. Two bottles showing off the quality of the grapes but also the deftness and talent of their winemaker.


Leave a comment

Coutelou 2019

A Coutelou update.

Every year Jeff sends out a New Year friendship card to regular clients and friends. The 2020 version highlights the ongoing protests in France about pensions, I particularly appreciated the mobility scooter with bottles in its basket. Inside is a résumé of 2019 and what happened in the vineyards and vendanges. Here’s a quick summary.

The winter of 18-19 saw a healthy rainfall of 400mm in October and November which went a long way to replenish the water levels. Budding began at the start of April, a normal date. Spring was colder and drier than usual and that slowed down growth and the date of véraison, when the grapes change colour. However, there was little or no disease other than a little coulure, where bunches have gaps. The major problem of 2019 came in June with an exceptional period of heat and the start of a very dry summer. This meant that as harvest began the grapes were struggling to reach phenolic ripeness when tannins are ripe and supple. Harvest lasted just over two weeks after starting a little later than normal at the start of September. The grapes were exceptionally healthy and clean, and very concentrated. “The winemaker is more than satisfied with the results achieved.”

The lack of rain (100mm from January to August) and the exceptional heatwave of June serve as a warning to what faces us with climate change.

After harvest things seemed to be going very well thank you. Plenty of nitrogen, good yeasts and healthy grapes, meant fermentation started well. But, there’s always a but, the wines have struggled to finish those fermentations. This has been the story across the region from other winemakers. Theories abound, the most likely is that the heat and dryness encouraged an excess of potash in the grape must, raising pH levels and so stopping fermentation. Soutirages, moving wine from the bottom of the tank to the top, helps to keep the tank clean and healthy and winter will help tartar to develop which will boost the fermentation when temperatures start to rise again.

The above means that it has been difficult to plan blending as even Jeff cannot be certain of how each tank will taste. However, there will be a wine of white and gris (Grenache for example) in amphora, an orange wine of Muscat d’Alexandrie, a Spring red and a Carignan, Castets and Morastel red wine. Plus the classic Coutelou cuvées with Syrah and Grenache to the fore.

These days the domaine is known as Vins et Spiritueux Coutelou so a word on the spirits. Gin, eau de vie, Kina will be joined by new bottles of an aromatic spirit and a mint based drink.

New planting of Clairette (right) and Macabeu

And in the vines? 200 metres of new hedgerows to replace those destroyed by malicious fires a couple of years ago, new olive trees planted too. A new parcel of Cinsault and a white parcel near Sainte Suzanne of Macabeu and Clairette were planted. So no retiring just yet!


1 Comment

Seeds

Seeds impregnated into the label

The subject of global warming should never be far from our minds. Extreme weather episodes and the massive fires in Australia over the last few months mean that it is a topic always in the news. Though we recycle, look to cut consumption of oil and plastics the world finds itself at a tipping point as people in lesser developed areas demand the same as we in the West have enjoyed for years. It is difficult not to be gloomy as politicians tinker rather than fix, whilst others deny the scientific evidence.

In the wine world there are a number of issues which need to be addressed regarding its contribution to the problems. Shipping wine across the world in heavy glass bottles, the use of pesticides and power are two factors to be faced. I also came across this chart which stopped me in my tracks.

In viticulture the concentration on a few grape varieties internationally is part of the same process. One reason why I have been so interested in the work of many to rediscover and plant older varieties, to diversify vineyards and offer more choice to the consumer. I have written many times about the work of Jeff Coutelou and how he has dozens of grape varieties, some very rare, how he plants fruit trees, shrubs and flowers to offer a more diverse plant life in the surrounding region of monoculture.

I also was given a port at Christmas, Graham’s Natura, which offered another opportunity. This new organic port, which was very good, had a collar with seeds integrated within, which the consumer can plant. An interesting, admittedly minor, idea. That Graham’s are producing an organic port is another step in the right direction, my visit to the Douro last year revealed a dearth of such production in one of the wine world’s great regions. Fonseca’s Terra Prima is the only other I know of.

As I said these are small steps at the start of a marathon race to combat the global crisis and bigger obstacles remain such as those I outlined above. We must find an alternative to heavy bottles, ways of reducing power and water usage and many other problematic issues. I don’t have the solutions but we need to be raising the debate.

On the subject of the Australian fires I heard from my friend James Madden in the Basket Range area of the Adelaide Hills that a couple of the vineyards he sources grapes from were damaged by fires but fortunately no more and has found other grapes. These will be harvested from Thursday to make the new vintage of his winery which has been renamed Scintilla Wines. Time for a UK importer to get busy!