amarchinthevines

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


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Diversity and debate

 

 

 

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(Version française)

 

My last post about the organic control stirred up a few reactions from a number of people. I don’t set out to upset people but I recognise the debate about organic status. This website from Domaine du Garinet in the Lot summarises the debate quite well, have a look at what it says about viticulture.  Organic viticulture allows the use of some chemicals which many feel are damaging to soils and their ecosystem, eg the use of copper is allowed yet remains in the soil for many years and is damaging to potentially beneficial animals such as earthworms. Other winemakers feel that there are now alternative treatments which they can use which do less damage to the biodiversity of their vineyard but are not allowed by official organic certification.

Instead these winemakers use a system called lutte raisonnée or agriculture raisonnée. Jonathan Hesford runs Domaine Treloar in Trouillas, Roussillon with his wife Rachel using this approach. They make excellent wines across a wide range, white, red, rosé and different wines such as a Rivesaltes Muscat and a Rancio. I have visited the domaine several times and bought more in the UK and will continue to do so. Jonathan is one of a number of winemakers who have moved into the Languedoc Roussillon from outside the region and have brought new ideas and a fresh approach. Jonathan and Rachel lived within a few hundred metres of the World Trade Centre in September 2001 and witnessed 9/11. That shocking event influenced them to live differently. Wine study and time working in wineries in New Zealand (Rachel’s native country) gave them the confidence to establish their own domaine in Trouillas.

   

Jonathan and Rachel put as much dedication, thought and passion  into their wines as any winemaker. Jonathan was quick to point out  to me after my last post that many, if not most, artisanal  winemakers nowadays care about their terroir and minimise  chemical use, whether organic or not. Jonathan says, “My decisions are based on on what, scientifically, are best for the vines, the soils, the environment and me, the guy spraying. In many cases the organic product is more dangerous or more environmentally damaging that the synthetic product I have chosen.” He does not seek organic certification as he does not welcome the bureaucracy and feels it is often a marketing tool. I have spoken to other French winemakers recently who have said exactly the same thing. For further information on Jonathan’s approach look at his own website page.

The wines are testament to his skills and beliefs. They shine with the freshness which I love in wine and reflect the healthy fruit which he produces. Particular favourites from my visit in early November were the white La Terre Promise (Grenache Gris dominant) and the red Three Peaks (Grenache, Syrah, Mourvedre) but I can honestly recommend all the wines.

Mas Gabriel is run by Deborah and Peter Core an English couple. The domaine is based in Caux, not far from us and is run along organic and biodynamic practices. Their reasons for doing so are explained far better by themselves on their website than I could do so please have a look. There are many parallels with Jonathan and Rachel in that the Cores left successful jobs in a big city to follow a dream to be winemakers. Both Peter and Deborah studied winemaking in New Zealand and worked in wineries there and then in Bordeaux before settling in Caux.

It is interesting that despite similarities they took a different view about winemaking to Domaine Treloar by pursuing organic and biodynamic practices. Deborah and Peter spend many hours in their vines debudding them when necessary to allow more aeration and therefore less risk of humidity leading to mildew. They, like Jeff Coutelou, are allowed to use copper and sulphur but in fact use less than one third of the permitted level of copper, treating only when necessary. A recent survey by a botanist found over 40 plant varieties in their vineyards, a sign of health and diversity.

With Peter in the vines

With Peter in the vines

Again the proof of their hard work and passion is in the bottle. Mas Gabriel produce 4 wines, a white (Carignan Blanc dominated), rosé, and two reds. The white, Clos Des Papillons, is one of my favourite white wines from Languedoc Roussillon, dry with fruit and body it is a wine which makes you contemplate and smile as you drink it. The reds from 2012 and 2013 which I tasted during a visit at the end of October were also fresh and fruity yet contain complexity and depth. No doubt in my mind that the range of wines is all getting better and better, a testament to their growing skills and experience both in the cellar and in the vineyard.

So there we are, two excellent domaines. They all work incredibly hard and give everything they  have to produce the best, most healthy fruit from their soils. Yet in different ways. Both produce superb wines which I would strongly recommend without hesitation. Both have different views about the way to look after their terroir and I have compared them here for the sake of my debate about organic winemaking not in terms of quality. That would be unfair and impossible as they are two of my favourite domaines in France as my own wine collection would attest. Incidentally I say that not because of their English & New Zealand origins but because of the quality of their wines. I will be posting soon about some of the diversity of winemakers in the Languedoc Roussillon.

I attended a conference last Thursday where the famous vineyard analysts the Bourgignons (advisers to Romanée Conti amongst others) set out the chemical, geological and agricultural make up of healthy soil. Amongst the interesting points to emerge was that the vine takes over 90% of its needs from the air and about 6% from the soil but that 6% is what can make the difference in quality of a wine. It is certainly produced by passionate, artisanal producers. But is it best achieved through agriculture which is organic, biodynamic, natural or raisonnée? I have a lot still to learn.

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Delights and disappointments

Three months in Margon has given me the opportunity to taste and drink a lot of wines. I have frequently said that I don’t write good tasting notes but here are some producers whose wines I have enjoyed and a few that have been disappointing (to be kind to them).

Languedoc

  • Mas Coutelou – of course.
  • Mas Gabriel
  • Turner Pageot
  • Barral

Pic St Loup

  • Saint Daumary
  • Morties (red)
  • Moucheres (red)
  • Lancyre (white)

Corbieres

  • Pech Latt
  • Deux Anes

Fitou

  • Les Enfants Sauvages

Roussillon

  • Treloar
  • Clos Du Rouge Gorge
  • Les Arabesques

Gard

  • Clos Des Grillons

Burgundy

  • De La Choppe

Beaujolais

  • Guy Breton
  • JP Thévenet

Loire

  • Lemasson
  • Salmon

Disappointments

  • Peyre Rose
  • Montcalmes
  • Negly
  • Mas Belles Eaux


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An inspector calls

(Version française)

Mas Coutelou has been organic since 1987, recognised as number 670 in the whole of France, i.e. the 670th of any type of organic production not just wines. Therefore, Jeff’s father, Jean-Claude, was one of the pioneers of the need to practise more sustainable agriculture and winemaking. Carrying the label ‘agriculture biologique’ is important to many customers who now choose to buy organic products, it is also important to a domaine which has such a rich history of organic viticulture and has now gone further by producing natural wines.

On Thursday Jeff was visited by the inspector for organic winemakers in the Hérault. Despite the long history of organic Mas Coutelou the domaine is checked each year by ecocert to ensure that it is sticking to organic practice. The inspection lasted 3 hours with 2 hours in the office going through paperwork to ensure that all activities are compatible with organics. It was gruelling and Jeff had to have proof and paperwork to support his claims. New parcels of vines, treatments in established vineyards, what grapes went into which cuves and which bottles – all were checked. Calendars of treatments (using organic materials such as nettle manure) for each of the last 3 vintages, analyses of the wines to ensure there are no outlawed chemicals, quantity of production – all were checked. Jeff produced spreadsheets to show how a wine was pressed, put in tank, vinified and then bottled. Satellite maps and images were used to identify vineyards and verify the production matched the origin.

A visit to the cellars to check that bottles matched the production and that tanks were in order and that labels gave accurate information was followed to one of the vineyards which was checked against the satellite photo to ensure that it matched production figures and was in good health. This really was a thorough test.

Happily Jeff emerged with flying colours and because he does not filter his wines and since he has not added sulphur to the wines he is actually entitled to higher than the normal award of organic status. So the story of Mas Coutelou from father to son continues.

The amount of paperwork and IT work in producing spreadsheets etc was stunning. This adds many, many hours to what we wine drinkers imagine is the workload of the vine grower and wine maker. So when you see this label on a bottle (or indeed any food or drink) please spare a moment to think of all the hard work which has gone into your glass (or plate) to ensure that it is of the highest quality.

Cheers


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Attention les Rugbymen!!

(Version française)

The Grenache you harvested and pressed has been added to large 26 litre bottles and is beginning its journey towards maturity and drinking.

Moving from bonbonnes to bottles

Moving from bonbonnes to bottles

Yesterday was a superb day to be at Mas Coutelou.

It started fairly routinely by continuing habillage, preparing bottles for sending to merchants around the world. But then Jeff took me out into the vineyards to meet up with Michel who was already out there. He was in a vineyard of young vines, including some of the almost forgotten variety Aramon Noir as well as other cépages. There is a mix of ages too with vines from this year and the last two or three years. Michel, and then Jeff, were checking each vine to check on their health and progress since they were grafted. If the graft had not taken then they will be replaced later. If everything was looking good then stakes were added to support the young vines in their growth. As it was a lovely, warm and sunny day it was good to be out in the open air.

Michel has checked that this vine is healthy and will add a wooden stake

Michel has checked that this vine is healthy and will add a wooden stake

Jeff and Icare get to work

Jeff and Icare get to work

The weather has been remarkably mild and the vineyards were full of unusual sights for mid November such as flowering roses, wild leeks and wild rocket.

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It was interesting to note the differences between two neighbouring vineyards. Jeff’s has vines living in soil which supports wildlife and olive trees for diversity. A neighbour’s vineyards show clean soils with neat rows of vines. How are they so clean? Fertilisers and chemicals. Here are obvious differences in ideas about wine and agriculture in general. Personally I am becoming ever more convinced that organic, minimal intervention is the way to healthy and tasty wines but others will disagree.

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Biodiversity

 

A regiment of vines

A regiment of vines

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

After lunch Jeff decided it was time to put into bottles the Grenache harvested in late September by the Rugbymen and ourselves. The wine had been placed in a series of bonbonnes after pressing and we tasted each one to look for the best assemblages, eg bonbonnes B and E had a sweeter edge so were mixed together in a large 26 litre bottle. The bottles were enormous and 8 were filled with the Grenache.

Michel tasting the Grenache as we agree on best assemblages

Michel tasting the Grenache as we agree on best assemblages

 

Bottles, sample bottles and emptied bonbonnes

Bottles, sample bottles and emptied bonbonnes

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As the work finished for the afternoon we were joined by Jeff’s niece Flora, a talented photographer. Jeff opened some Vieux Grenache as he checked on the progress of some new small barrels used in a new solera system to supplement the older more established one. Some bottles from 20, 30 and even 40 years ago were sampled and were truly delicious, rich with layers and layers of different flavours and varying from dry to sweet. Finally he took a sample of a very special bottle, Sélection Des Grains Nobles 2012 made with Grenache Noir. Apparently some of the Grenache was affected by noble rot that year and Jeff and Michel spent a whole day doing triage to ensure only the right grapes were selected. The result even after two years is astonishing. My mind was truly blown. How to describe something so stunning, ethereal and rewarding? One of the very best wines I have tasted and a fitting climax to a truly memorable day which was full of sunshine, teamwork and friendship.

Icare in control again

Icare in control again


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Latour-De-France – Portes Ouvertes

When Jeff suggested that I should attend Latour De France I was rather surprised as I was unaware of his love of cycling. A quick correction of gender and I was patiently told that it was a village in the Pyrenées Orientales where 12 of 13 winemakers are organic producers and several make natural wines. An opportunity not to be missed. Combined with visits to one of my favourite French villages, Banyuls, and also to Collioure this made for a great weekend.

Saturday by the coast proved to be a lovely, sunny day – unbelievably warm for November.

Vineyards in Banyuls stretching down to the Mediterranean Sea

Vineyards in Banyuls stretching down to the Mediterranean Sea

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Collioure

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sunday was cooler and grey but a great day for wine tasting. We arrived before the start of the event and the car park was already pretty full. Despite this the crowds were never too large and there was every opportunity to get round the various caves without much hassle. Each of the village organic producers had their cellar open and each also contained invitees from Roussillon but also from Fitou and Burgundy. This spread out the crowds as we walked through the streets between caves. In addition to the wines there were street entertainers and various food outlets including, to my delight, a vegetarian outlet. So, all in all, a very well organised event catering for everyone (sorry about the pun).

I am not a professional wine journalist and I am not great at writing tasting notes so I won’t! Instead I offer overall impressions and suggest some of my favourites from the 120 or so wines which I tasted (it was hard but someone has to do it on your behalf dear reader).

What struck me most was how much I enjoyed the white wines, I had expected the reds to be the outstanding wines, and some were, but the whites were much more consistent and interesting overall. One Carignan Blanc stood out (Clos Du Rouge Gorge, Cyril Fahl of whom more later) but what emerged was the splendour of Grenache Gris. Often combined with  Maccabeu it was Grenache Gris which provided a series of fresh, deep, long lasting and flavourful wines with hints of minerality, sweetness and fruits of all kinds depending on the producer. Excellent examples from Padié (very expensive though), Calimas, Tribouley, Rivaton and  Deux Chateau. There was also a very nice Maccabeu based white from Troullier. I would happily seek out and drink any of these and would advise anyone to do so.

There were also a few strange white wines ranging from cloudy and sulphury to the downright sharp and tooth decaying.

Talking with Nikolaus Bantlin of Les Enfants Sauvages

Talking with Nikolaus Bantlin of Les Enfants Sauvages

There were some excellent red wines on offer.

Cyril Fahl (Clos Du Rouge Gorge) produces a high class range of (quite expensive) wines based mainly on Carignan and Grenache. Tasting Cyril’s wines proved that his reputation and garnered praise were well merited, his Carignan based wines were delicious, nothing more to add to that. Top winemaker.

As with Grenache Gris in the white wines there was an outstanding red grape which stood out in many of the top wines and it was, as with Cyril, the Carignan. Time and again the wines with fruit, flavour and long finish were based around Carignan or had a large proportion of it in the assemblage. Not long ago Carignan was being grubbed up around the region and dismissed as a variety of little potential. La Bande de Latour showed how nonsensical that was. Carignan is a great and noble variety, again seek it out from good producers.

Other favourite reds which I tasted came from Domaine du Possible (C’est Pas La Mer A Boire), Opi D’Aqui (from Clermont L’Hérault) and Maramuta.

The problem with a number of red wines, in my view, was the use of oak. This may be a personal thing as I really do not like obvious oaky flavours. It can add complexity and structure to wines when used carefully but a lot of winemakers seem to rush to use barrels so that they can be seen as ‘serious’ winemakers. And add many euros to the price of their ‘special’ cuvées. Sadly I felt a number of wines were spoiled by injudicious use of oak. The wines appeared thin and dry with their fruit stripped out.

I would like to mention 3 other winemakers whose bottles I enjoyed.

Les Enfants Sauvages is the wine domaine of Nikolaus and Carolin Bantlin, a German couple based in Fitou. I enjoyed talking to Nikolaus and warmed to his passion for his wines and I could understand that passion when I tasted them. I liked all of the wines, white and red, but especially Roi Des Lézards, which is, you guessed it, 100% Carignan. I would definitely like to visit the Domaine in future.

The range of Les Enfants Sauvages

The range of Les Enfants Sauvages

Domaine De La Chappe is a Burgundy domaine run by Vincent Thomas a young winemaker who has built on the work of his father and used natural methods as well as biodynamic practices. He is based in Tonnerre and offered Bourgogne Pinot Noir and Petit Chablis amongst other wines. The prices were very reasonable for Burgundy, around the 10-12€ mark. The wines were far more rewarding than many Burgundies I have tasted at much higher prices. I would love to try these wines again when I have more time to devote to them. You can read more about Vincent from an article on the very good louisdressner website.

Listening to Vincent Thomas of Domaine De La Chappe

Listening to Vincent Thomas of Domaine De La Chappe

Saskia van der Horst runs Les Arabesques in Montner not far from Latour. She was a sommelier in London at Gordon Ramsay’s restaurant at Claridge’s and also ran a wine bar there. She returned to France to make wine rather than just sell it and drink it. These were amongst my favourite wines of the day, all 3 were rich, full and refreshing. What amazed me was that these were Saskia’s first wines, the 2013 vintage was her first. Saskia can certainly be proud as her wines were as high in quality as most of those I tasted at Latour.

It was a great day. I liked the way the event was run, I loved the focus of organic and natural wines and the enthusiasm of the winemakers for their work and their wines. I tasted some excellent wines and discovered plenty of new winemakers whose work I look forward to sampling in future.

 

 

 

 

 


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Remembrance

Margon commemorated the fallen like every village in France and the UK. A minute’s silence was followed by a procession to the memorial in the cemetery where the Mayor spoke and the children of the village primary school read out the names of those from Margon who died in World War 1. Ten men from a tiny village including two brothers and the Count of Margon.

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Hard work continues

It has been a busy time in the cellars over the last few weeks despite my lack of updates. The reason is that the work has been mainly putting together orders of wine to be sent around the world. This is partly due to orders building up over the vendange period but also, no doubt, to merchants wanting stocks ahead of the Christmas and New Year period.

Adding labels and capsules

Adding labels and capsules

Orders have gone to Germany, Sweden, UK, various regions of France and these pictures show bottles being prepared for export to New York importer Camille Riviere who has an excellent range of French producers on his list. No doubt I have omitted other markets too.

Magnums of Classe ready for the Big Apple

Magnums of Classe ready for the Big Apple

Jeff and Michel packing cases with the help of some...er.... high technology

Jeff and Michel packing cases with the help of some…er…. high technology

Palettes coming together for New York

Palettes coming together for New York

This is not glamorous but it is essential work. Meanwhile Jeff’s phone keeps ringing with requests for wine which are becoming more difficult to meet as stocks are running dry, some cuvées are already sold out. Other visitors arrive at the cave to taste and to buy a case or two and to be entertained by Icare’s antics.

Playing with a ball of wool

Playing with a ball of wool

Meanwhile Jeff still goes into the vineyards every day to check what is happening there and to ensure that all is well. The real work there will begin in January with pruning of the wood (taillage) which will last until March and I shall report then. But if you think Jeff is having an easy time, please think again. Long, long days of vineyard, cellar and admin work as well as sorting orders, dealing with everyday problems. So spare a thought for your winemaker, s/he works hard with their vocation.

Meanwhile I have been visiting a number of other winemakers and a wine fair and I shall report back soon. Thanks for reading.