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


Skull crusher


Jeff (Jean Francois if you want to be formal) Coutelou is passionate about nature, about plants and trees as well as vines. He sees his job very much as making the best from nature whilst doing as much as possible to protect and enhance it. Mas Coutelou has been organic since 1987, long before it became fashionable. Jeff has now gone further and has been making natural wines for a number of years, the first small tests in 2003. Natural wines are wines which have minimal chemical or mechanical intervention. To prevent or combat diseases only natural products are allowed to be used. Equally, in the cellar minimal intervention is required for example in using, for example, only natural yeasts. The wine which results is the natural result and product of the grapes. There are bad natural wines for sure but winemakers such as Jeff pour huge efforts into their vineyards to make sure that the grapes are as healthy as nature allows and, in cellar, hygiene and close supervision ensure that quality prevails and top quality wine is produced. Moreover, in recent years he has gone further and has used no added sulphur. This is usually used by vignerons to fight the risk of oxidation and help preserve the wine. Many people don’t like sulphur in wines, some are sensitive to its effects. It is a risk not to add it but Jeff has been able to avoid it for the last few years.

My first visit to Mas Coutelou many years ago included a tour of the vineyards in Jeff’s van with my wife sat on a concrete block in the back and Héro, Jeff’s previous dog, keeping her company. As we travelled around and stopped to look at vines and grapes what shone out was Jeff’s passion for the land, the vines and the olive and fig trees which he has planted to ensure polyculture and a varied landscape.  At one point he stopped the van and pointed to two sets of vines. To the left was a neighbour’s vines, They looked beautiful; vivid brown soil with bright green vines in straight rows, all cut to the same shape and size, all neat and tidy. So beautiful that a film company was actually filming with them as a background. But Jeff asked us to look closer. There was no life in the vines or the soil, it was devoid of insects, butterflies, herbs, nothing. Next to these vines were Jeff’s. They looked, to my untrained eyes, much more messy – the vines weren’t regular, there was grass and herbs and flowers between the rows. But they were absolutely teeming with life, insects, butterflies and, as if on cue, partridges running through them. And it’s that life which emerges in the wines. As soon as I tasted them I was blown away by their vivacity. powerful fruit and flavour. These are not just in your face wines though. They have complexity and age very well. I have tasted some from 2001 which are still drinking well and show no sign of being tired. Jeff opened a Flambadou (100% Carignan) from 2007 at lunch last week which was still bright, lively but deep and with layers of flavour. I find it hard to not drink these wines young because they are so delicious young. Vin Des Amis I have usually drunk in the first few months after purchase. Yet a 2010 magnum tasted on Saturday was still full of that freshness but also with more complex flavours. A lesson for me that I must put some bottles away.

As part of his determination to look after his land and plants (of all kinds) Jeff is interested in preserving wine varieties. He is one of only two vignerons in the world to have a variety called Castets (Break your head, or skull crusher as I have liberally translated. In fact it is named after the man who developed and spread the variety). (The other is Chateau Simone in Palette neat Aix-en-Provence).

Jeff with some Casse Tete grapes

Jeff with some Casse Tete grapes

There are only a few rows of the grapes and not enough to vinify separately so they are being blended with Carignan. Can’t wait to taste the results.

Casse Tete being prepared for pressing by Michael, a fellow Liverpool fan and genuine Scouser

Castets being prepared for pressing by Michael, a fellow Liverpool fan and genuine top class Scouser

Casse tetes in tank, the skins, pips etc on top of the wine

Castets in tank, the skins, pips etc on top of the wine


The chapeau is really tough and so Tina has to really force it down into the juice (pigeage)

The chapeau is really tough and so Tina has to really force it down into the juice (pigeage)









My wife, Pat, clearly liked the Casse Tetes

My wife, Pat, clearly liked the Castets!!


Hold the presses!



Both of these objects are wine presses, one more modern than the other. Whilst the large press has taken the bulk of the work in recent weeks the small press has its role too. It is also an olive press incidentally. It is used mainly for small production wines and I was lucky enough to be trusted to supervise its use for the pressing of muscat and grenache grapes which will make into the fortified wines which Jeff Coutelou produces in addition to his table wines. The ‘vieux grenache’ wines are made in different methods as I shall describe in future posts including a fantastic solera type system with wines dating back many, many years to previous generations of the Coutelou family. They are, of course, delicious.

Michel unloads the grapes, he is in Jeff's words his 'main gauche' (left hand)

Michel unloads the grapes, he is in Jeff’s words his ‘main gauche’ (left hand)


Grenache and muscat grapes ready for pressing

Grenache and muscat grapes ready for pressing





The grapes are sorted and then loaded into the cage and wheeled into place. The press is lowered and the juice begins to flow.



The major lesson is to be careful about how much pressure is used as if you press too hard the mass of grapes, stalks and pips becomes too hard and the juice will not flow freely. I confess to pressing a little too hard at first but fortunately rectified it before any damage was done. The juice is taken to container for fermentation and the pressed grapes, the gateau, is disassembled and returned to press for a second and third time. The gateau becomes almost a work of art.

Gateau in the sunshine

Gateau in the sunshine

The wine begins its fermentation in the tank and after this has finished the wine is put into barrel for the first time. Depending on its development Jeff will blend this wine with previous vintages or allow it to develop in barrel for a number of years.


Tina transfers the fermented wine into barrel

The other pressing I supervised was the Carignan Blanc. Jeff was pleased with this crop and decided that he would make a new white wine using only these grapes. The procedure was identical though I thought I’d highlight one extra feature. Many people commented after a previous post that they were disappointed I did not get my socks and shoes off and start to tread the grapes. Well I was rather shocked to see that treading does still happen! Instead of bare feet though new, perfectly clean wellington boots do the job, a light pressing (so that ruled me out!) to start the process moving even before the press gets to work.



Yours truly at the press

Yours truly at the press

The gateau was just as spectacular and you can see in the photo below the layers created by the 3 pressings.


A serious point. Jeff was keen to point out that the Carignan Blanc grapes took 10 people 2 hours to pick. We took a whole day to press the grapes, myself and supervision from the patron with others helping to take the gateau apart and then reassemble it for the various pressings. The grapes will be fermented, pumped over, stored in barrel. So when we think twice about the price of wine think about the amount of work which has gone into it, especially for crafted, artisanal wines such as these. And after all that only 420 litres were produced, around 500 bottles or so.

On a less serious note, we now know who is the patron, let me introduce Icare, the real driving force behind Mas Coutelou.


Icare takes the wheel

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Superb photographs



Gaylord Burguiere posts some wonderful photographs on Facebook. He works in the St Chinian area of the Languedoc and his photographs have long been a highlight of the internet for me. This one is called, “Le soleil est de retour pour plus de sérénité pendant les vendanges.” (The sunshine has returned to bring more calm during the harvest) a reflection of the recent storms I described in my last post.

To find more of his photographs go to Gaylord’s timeline on Facebook.



Grapes, work and love

It has been a stormy week in the Languedoc and the weather has certainly disrupted the plans of vignerons in the region. Tragically five people were killed in a flood in Lamalou Les Bains and that event puts winemaking into perspective. However, the fortunes of wine growers and makers have also been hit by such extreme weather. Driving past Pézenas up the A75 on Thursday swathes of vineyards were under water on the low lying plains. The humidity also means that where grapes are left to pick there is a real risk of disease and even rot. I was talking to the excellent winemaker Emmanuel Pageot this morning as we visited Gabian for the jour patrimoine and he was explaining how complicated such problems have made the harvest. I was invited to join Emmanuel for a tasting soon and I will definitely report here on his latest wines. They are amongst my favourite wines of the region but I shall try to be objective.

In Margon Wednesday saw thunder and lightning and sheets of rain non stop through the day. Yet, in Puimisson, where Jeff lives and has his vineyards there was only a small rainfall, a reflection of the dry year there which has caused the smaller harvest. Normally Jeff would harvest 200-250 hectolitres from his 4 hectares of Syrah grapes, this year that production is down to 145 hectolitres. This means less wine, of course, and also a lot more thinking on his feet as smaller quantities mean that he has to decide which of his wines he uses the grapes for. Therefore it seems unlikely that there will a cuvée of 7, Rue De la Pompe this year as the grapes are needed for other cuvées. The quality of grapes is high though, for example the Syrah which is going into the Paf cuvée is concentrated and finer, partly due to a miserly production of only 25 hl per hectare.

(l-r) Vin Des Amis, & Rue De La Pompe, Paf

(l-r) Vin Des Amis, 7 Rue De La Pompe, Paf

Other grapes have been small in size and so because there is a lot of skin and pips compared to juice the wine needs to be blended with other fuller grapes. Jeff is also thinking of introducing new cuvées to use what he has. Cinsault, for example, has done well this year so offers new possibilities and there is also the possibility of producing a cuvée which Jeff’s father used to make. I will write more about that as the year develops and decisions are finalised.

As picking was on hold at some points due to the weather Tuesday lunch was more leisurely and Jeff had more time to relax and talk. He recounted a French fairy story The Chaud Doudou. Basically it is about sharing and how everyone feels better for having done so.


Jeff went on to share an Occitan proverb which translated means “What you give flourishes, what you keep to yourself perishes” and I think this sums up Jeff Coutelou’s wines, he shares his skills and his passion for the land and for nature. The title of this post are the words he uses to describe his winemaking philosophy; grapes, work and love. To produce such high quality wines he needs the best grapes, he works tirelessly and he instills endless love into the wines he produces. If you think that sounds far fetched then try some, he is telling the truth.


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London Cru via Puimisson


The grapes are loaded into a lorry fitted with equipment to keep them chilled at 8C for the journey to London

Mas Coutelou sells its wines in the UK through Roberson Wines in London, web address at the bottom of this post. Robersons have introduced a new initiative in the last couple of years called London Cru involving them buying grapes from producers, including Jeff, and transporting them back to London to be made into wine. Gavin Monery is making the wines, the first of which have been released this week. Gavin said this on Jamie Goode’s Wine Anorak blog, “We work the Cab Sauv because the vigneron is Jeff Coutelou, one of the most talented growers I’ve met.”

Gavin Monery loading grapes chez Coutelou

Preparing the grapes chez Coutelou ready for transport

Jeff provides some Cabernet Sauvignon grapes. The review by Jamie Goode quoted below explains their provenance. The first London Cru vintage coincides with one of the Languedoc Roussillon’s very best so the quality of grapes which went to London was very high. This year’s are of equally good quality though in smaller quantity due to the long drought in the area in 2014.

The 2014 Cabernet Sauvignon grapes, freshly picked

The 2014 Cabernet Sauvignon grapes, freshly picked

Jamie’s review of the London Crus are available here but this is the review of the Cabernet Sauvignon.  Jamie’s is one of the internet’s most respected wine blogs and winner of the best overall wine blog at The Wine Blog Awards.

SW6 Cabernet Sauvignon 2013
Jeff Coutelou supplies this, and he was previously giving these excellent grapes to the coop because he just wanted to make wine from local varieties. Lovely pure, sweet blackcurrant fruit nose with some blackcurrant leaf. So classic and expressive. The palate is beautifully balanced with nice structure and classic Cabernet characters. A lovely wine with real potential. 91/100


Mas Coutelou at Roberson Wines 


“Wine is the most healthful and most hygienic of beverages.” (Pasteur)

Louis Pasteur is one of my historical heroes. As well as showing the links between germs and disease (by investigating alcohol) he discovered how vaccines work (partly by working to prevent the vine disease phylloxera). The quote above is also very topical after working in Jeff’s cellar. Let me explain.


The Mas Coutelou team (left to right) – Annie, Michael, Carole, Jeff and Tina (sadly Michel was not in this photo)

The year has been a trying one for Jeff. The very dry weather through spring and summer has caused a major drop in production, Jeff reckons most parcels are 30-50% down on quantity even if the quality is very good. That is a big burden to bear and must be a financial blow.

The team which Jeff assembled for the harvest were cheerful, helpful and hard working. Carole has been working periodically with Jeff for 8 years and her experience allied to his leadership meant that work was done according to his wishes but with plenty of smiles and respect. Michel who works for Jeff was also a steady and reassuring presence. Harvest took place this week in hot, sunny weather. The team in the vineyard picked mainly under the stewardship of Carole and the grapes were ferried back to the cellar within half an hour or so of being picked.

Cabernet Sauvignon grapes, freshly picked

Cabernet Sauvignon grapes, freshly picked

The ‘caisses’ of grapes are then placed on the sorting line. I worked on triage on Wednesday. The grapes are taken out of the caisse and inspected for any signs of disease, under ripeness or foreign bodies such as leaves or snails. Ripe grapes are placed in the égrappeur which destems the grapes.


The destemmer at work

The grapes are then pumped into tank ready to await pressing and to allow the first stages of fermentation. The bunches which were taken out are then checked, and healthy grapes added to the tank. This is slow and careful work, after all Jeff wants only the best quality grapes to go into his wines. The grapes are given as light a pressing as possible.


Healthy, ripe Grenache grapes being pumped to tank

Jeff uses a range of containers for the wines, cement, stainless steel and wood. He is seeking neutral influence in the main as he wants the grapes to tell their own story rather than, for example, new wood. After the grapes have settled and begun to ferment they are pumped into another tank and some of the skins, pips etc are removed as they pass through very broad sieve like stainless steel. Jeff checks the wines at every stage to measure the stage which they are at, alcohol levels, sugar levels etc

Jeff testing the first stages

Jeff testing the first stages

After that initial pumping the wine is allowed to settle and the solids which are left in the wine begin to rise to the top of the tank as they are lighter than the grape juice. This produces a thick layer or ‘cap’ (chapeau in French). The skins in the cap though contain flavouring and colour for the wine and so it needs to be mixed with the juice. The cap has to be physically pushed down into the juice.

The wines are also ‘pumped over’ (remontage) every day. This means the red wine in the bottom of the tank is pumped over the top of the cap to moisten it and to extract the required amount of colour, flavour etc. This requires the working of an expensive but vital pump to caress the wine rather than force it. This pump works non stop all day (there are back ups!).


The (very) expensive pump

As the harvest progresses more tanks are filled so more and more pumping over takes place. The cellar begins to resemble a plate of spaghetti as hoses run from one tank to another. Yet another machine also chills the wine slightly or heats it up if fermentation needs to be encouraged. This machine is in the top right of the photo underneath.


How does Jeff keep all these sorted in his head?

All the while Jeff tastes the juice which is gently turning into wine and testing its progress using equipment such as a refractometer and other scientific equipment. A real mix of personal judgement and science mixing to best advantage.


This continues until Jeff is happy that the wine is right. Several weeks of pumping, testing, tasting – an enormous task. There are so many pieces of information for him to keep in his head about the development of each cuve, an amazing effort which leaves him with a definite air of fatigue during the very enjoyable lunches and the post work drink.

So what of the Pasteur quotation? Well as I was working (oh yes I was) two things really struck me apart from the sheer physicality of lugging cases of grapes, hoses, pumps and various items of equipment.

Firstly, patience. Jeff waits patiently for the grapes to be just right before picking, he wants the best and is prepared to give nature the time it requires to deliver its best. In the cellar he nurtures each cuve and each drop of wine, each stage of the process takes place when the wine dictates to him. The temptation to rush or to do things because it suits the winemaker is resisted with determination and confidence. He knows because he produces great wines that if he waits he will produce more great wine.

Secondly, cleanliness.

Jeff makes natural wines and for the last couple of years without the use of sulphur to stabilise the wine and help it to fight dangers such as oxidation. To do so everything has to be clean. At every step equipment is washed down and cleaned. Again and again and again. This is drilled into all of us. The risk of harmful bacteria is reduced by hyper vigilance and cleanliness. Jeff told me that for each litre of wine produced he estimates that he uses a litre of water for washing and cleaning. I can believe it and in fact it must be much more. Now before I upset other winemakers who clean rigorously and take every care with hygiene I am not claiming that Jeff is unique in this. I was just amazed at how much washing and cleaning takes place. Hence my Pasteur quotation.




More cleaning


And, yes, more cleaning













My other job this week was pressing some grapes for some very special wines. More of that in the next post.

Happy in my work

Happy in my work

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Be warned the next post means harvest is back!!   IMG_0150   IMG_0129

Vendange is in full swing across the region. If, like me, you thought winemaking is a glamorous and romantic calling then believe me it is also very, very hard work. I have spent two and a half days working in the cellars with my friend Jeff Coutelou (Mas Coutelou). They were great days, fascinating and enjoyable and, however hard the work, it was good to look at my surroundings and the blue skies and think that this is why I wanted to come to France and how different to being in a classroom or a meeting.

I intend to go through the winemaking process that I witnessed and I shall keep it simple as I am a novice, don’t understand the full science and most people looking at this would not want all the technical details I suspect. Please let me know if I am wrong.