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


It’s only natural

Version française 

A month ago or so I wrote a piece about how some people seem to get very hot under the collar about natural wines. I thought that I would leave it there but the argument has come up again in French social media and I can’t help stirring the pot a little.


It actually started with a well known British writer who attended RAW the wine fair in London devoted to natural wines. His comments bugged me a little, saying that he was going but not sure why as the wines would be wild and murky. So why bother going if you’ve already made up your mind to dislike them?

There followed an article in Le Monde which upset many people because a) Le Monde hardly ever covers wine and b) having chosen to do so the article was an attack on conventional and organic winemaking and the use of sulphites and pesticides. Its preference for biodynamic and natural wines angered some with comments in response that included one claiming that organic wines tasted blind are ‘nefarious plonk’ (infâmes piquettes).

On Facebook one winemaker stated that he could tell those who like organic and natural wines at a dégustation because they are the sandal wearing ones who never smile. Clearly he hasn’t seen me!


Then today an interview with Stéphane Derenoncourt, well known winemaker and consultant in Bordeaux. He made some valid points about Bordeaux losing touch with reality because of its collector status and high prices and how lower down the scale Bordeaux winemakers are suffering and out of fashion. So far so much in agreement. But then a final statement in which he attacked natural wines as undrinkable and badly made. Out of the blue. Now he may have been asked this as a final question to make headlines for the new magazine in which the interview is a feature but it did seem somewhat gratuitous.

Why are these people so angry and hostile towards natural wine and even organic and biodynamic wines?

I suspect because they are trendy and therefore some might see them as a fad which will disappear.

Partly because some in the natural wine movement do proselytise rather and other wine makers must get fed up of being told they are damaging the earth etc. Understandable. Many conventional winemakers do minimise their use of pesticides and see the use of sulphur and copper as part of organic winemaking as rather hypocritical.

Perhaps it’s the lack of clarity about what constitutes natural wine, but then those who make it often don’t like regulations. But they do not follow the winemaking which many were brought up with and educated in so it makes them uncomfortable.

However, to dismiss all natural wines as murky bacterial soups is nonsense and lazy generalising. Yes there are some bad natural wines, bad organic wines and bad biodynamic wines. But equally there are many more examples of bad conventional wines. There are many great wines in all categories.


3 terrasses

Ironically I was at a very good tasting this morning of older vintages of conventional wines from around France including excellent Grand Cru Chablis 1989, Vieux Télégraphe Chateauneuf Du Pape 1996 and Le Pape Sauternes 2005. There is room for all kinds of wine and personal choice is paramount. I like some wines, I don’t like others. I like conventional, organic, biodynamic and natural wines. I do not criticise a type of wine and, by extension, those who like them. I do not generalise about types of wine and those who drink them.

It’s only natural. So calm down, enjoy a glass of wine and try before you criticise. It’s Languedoc Wine Day tomorrow (May 29th) so make it a Languedoc wine, in whatever style you prefer.




Version francaise

During the last week the vines have started to change, again. Flowering (Floraison) has begun in Puimisson. The buds (boutons) which formed in the last few weeks and divided on the grappes are starting to flower as you can see in the photo. The boutons have little hoods (capuchons) which protect the forming flower and as they fall away the flower emerges. Technically it is officially called floraison when 50% of the buds have flowered but the process is usually given the name.


Capuchons on some of the buds

The flowers are in the form of stamens or pistils. Vines self fertilise and the pollen produced in the anther part of the stamen will be carried into the ovule of the pistil. The vines have no need for bees or other insects to pollinate and fertilise them despite popular belief. The flowers will then give way to the fruit, as with other fruit and vegetables.


Pistils and stamens are evident in this vine in Rome vineyard

Floraison is also a marking point in the vineyard calendar as traditionally there are 100 days between the flowering of the bud and the harvesting of the grape. In reality it is the white grape producing vines and precocious ones at that which are flowering, though the rest will follow in the next couple of weeks. So plans can be made for the harvest, the countdown starts … but let’s enjoy summer first.



Tendrils clinging to the wires

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May – the force be with you


La Garrigue, vines flourish in the ploughed soils

 Version francaise

An old French saying runs as follows

“Nul ne sait ce que vaudra le vin

Avant du mois de mai la fin.”

( How the wine will turn out no-one can say, before the end of the month of May)

Hopefully the rest of this post will be better than my rhyming translation. The point is however, that May is the turning point. The preparation of pruning, ploughing and pampering paves the way for the lush growth of May. In the wild vines grow in forests and are climbing plants using trees to help them reach sunlight so that photosynthesis can take place to feed the grapes and their seeds. Cultivated vines still climb relentlessly and the growth is stunning to see. Tendrils reach for the sky pulling the vine higher and the leaves fill out.


Tendrils reach up

The buds have grown showing the development of the bunches and these in turn are now dividing ready for the start of flowering which will bring pollination and then the fruit.


Early buds


The grappes divide


The division accelerates

As for the vignerons it has become a very busy time. In the vineyards a second ploughing to prepare the soils with organic matter as they need help to sustain their rapid growth. In addition the first treatments of pesticides to protect the new growth. Insects are also growing fast and tender buds, leaves and shoots are welcome nourishment. Conventional vignerons use chemical sprays, those who prefer a lutte raisonnée use synthetic chemicals which do less damage to the soils.


Conventional spraying


A spraying machine with octopus like arms to reach different rows of vines, this one is used on a conventional vineyard

For organic producers the choice is a little diluted sulphur (some use more than others) but also treatments based on plants such as nettles, horsetail weeds and ferns. I shall be picking up this topic in a later post as it is a controversial issue.


Tractor with tank of organic treatment for spraying

The other risk has been the development of mildew. Powdery mildew (oidium) is a threat as colder nights and hot days encourage humidity which oidium requires. The first signs appeared this week (May 10-17) and this is why sulphur and horsetail are used in the spray.


Oidium, powdery mildew, photographed this week. Happily the only vine affected in Peilhan

The nettles and ferns act as insecticides. I am told that mildiou or downy mildew is also appearing in some vineyards in the area though not so far at Mas Coutelou, fingers crossed it stays away.

The other major job in the vineyard has been ébourgeonnage, the removal of some of the lush growth of the vines, sometimes also known as épamprage. They are so fertile at present that the vines need to be cut back so that their energy is not dissipated on surplus leaves and growth.


Carole ties a young vine to support it

Carole is back in Puimisson and she demonstrated to me how ébourgeonnage works in the video below. She was working on newly grafted vines which won’t necessarily be producing much fruit this year but the process is the same. No prisoners are taken.

In the cellar work continues apace. As more of the 2014 wines are ready further bottling has been taking place. Not helped by the breakdown of one machine but older equipment was brought out to continue. In the picture you will see Jeff and Renaud corking a jereboam of Vin Des Amis. Magnums and even Balthazars were also bottled as well as the regular 75cl bottles. More deliveries were sent to various countries around Europe and the USA.



Jeff at the controls of the bottling machine


Magnums standing after bottling. They stand to allow the large corks to expand and seal the bottle. They will then be laid horizontally

A third part of the work is commercialisation and there have been a number of salons where amateurs and professionals have tasted the wines and placed orders or bought wine. Jeff has been to salons in Paris and in the Languedoc and will shortly be heading to the Loire. All time consuming but a necessary part of the job, sales are after all what keep the vines growing.

Finally the office work. France loves its bureaucracy and there are many hours of paperwork to complete. Daily record keeping of work done, treatments used, employment data etc etc etc.

So whilst May has been a beautiful month to be here in the Languedoc with temperatures now consistently high and sunshine aplenty the vignerons are working hard. Ironically France has numerous bank holidays in May, yet I know at least one vigneron who doesn’t get time off.

My favourite vineyard Rome is a lovely place to be at present, the work with the pioche (pick axe or hoe) and grass cutting has prepared the vines. Flowers, butterflies and birds enjoy the peace and shelter of this parcel, two partridges were there on Friday but sadly flew off before I could get my camera ready. The video shows Rome and its beautiful centurion gobelet vines and you can hear the birdsong in all its glory including a hoopoe.


Flowers and (right) butterflies in Rome vineyard


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The year so far


The vineyards of Mas Coutelou

We are a third of the way through 2015 already and the work of making wine has been hard throughout those 4 months. I have put the links together to show a summary of everything that Jeff, Carole, Michel and Renaud have been up to so far. And occasionally me too.

January Part 1  – work in the vineyard

January Part 2  – Pruning (La taille)

February Part 1 – vineyards

February Part 2  – vineyards and grass

February Part 3  – ploughing (labours)

March Part 1  – new planting

March Part 2  – bottling (embouteillage)

March Part 3  – vineyards

April – vineyards


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April – the vines they are a changin’

Version francaise

“Come gather ’round people
Wherever you roam
And admit that the waters
Around you have grown”

(Bob Dylan)


Magnificent old vine in Rome vineyard, a centurion

After a couple of months of dry and windy weather in the main April brought some relief for vignerons with some good rainfall. Indeed not so much April showers as steady rain on a couple of weekends. The results were immediate in terms of the vine growth as they have shot away in the last week or so as temperatures rise too.

Beginning of April, La Garrigue

Beginning of April, La Garrigue


Mid April, ploughing evident

End of April

End of April


The work of previous months continued; hard work, unglamorous work but vital work for the vineyards and domaines to prosper. I spoke to a very good producer (Plan de l’Homme) and he told me that the commercial side of winemaking is hard work. He was at a salon in Montpellier to celebrate 30 years of Coteaux du Languedoc, one of many salons throughout the month. He and others attend regularly to find buyers, especially cavistes. Deborah Core of Mas Gabriel assured me that such salons do pay for themselves and are worth the effort but they are hard work, long days of repeating the same information to tasters who all matter of course, though some are more receptive than others. Reminds me of being a teacher! I shall come back to the commercial side another time as it is the third important part of the job after vineyard and cellar work.


With Corine Andrieu of Clos Fantine at a Faugeres tasting










Bottling also continued as well as habillage, getting the bottles ready to send to cavistes across the world. Previous posts have shown this work so please have a look for them if you have not seen them before. More of the 2014 wines are now in bottle including my old favourite Vin Des Amis which in my view is the best of this cuvée since 2010.


Cases sent to Belgium, early April


However, the real change has been in the vineyards and it is there that the work has been centred as they are literally blossoming. Vines are a climbing plant and will grow very quickly in the next few months. It has been a joy for me to watch their early development, seeing in real life what I had only read about before.

The buds emerged towards the end of March and the beginning of April and as I described their emergence varied in time according to the cépage and the position of the vine. Leaf break, flowering and the formation of the grape bunches, grappes, all quickly followed. In the last week or so the small grappes began to divide showing how they will form.


Buds form, the leaves just visible



Leaves and flowers















Grappe formation




Bunches form










To encourage and support this growth the vineyards were ploughed twice to provide organic matter from last year’s growth of grass, flowers and other plants. Long hours on a tractor going up and down the rows makes for tough days. Then further weeding using a pioche or intercep, forms of hoe, to get inbetween the vines. In some vineyards the base of the vines were covered a bit more in autumn to protect against frost, cavaillonage. These are now removed and the vines stand ready for the heat to come.

Syrah vine, La Garrigue beginning of April

Syrah vine, La Garrigue beginning of April


Syrah vine, La Garrigue, mid April










Same vine, La Garrigue, end of April

I went to Barcelona for a few days last week and the difference in the vines was staggering in that short space of time. Nature and the dedication of the vigneron are at work.


New vine, Peilhan, early April


End of April


Mi avril









Wildflowers bordering Peilhan