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).
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.