amarchinthevines

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


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Living wine history

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Version française

As a History graduate and teacher I have always believed that to understand the present we must understand our history. Whether it be politics, culture, sport or, indeed, wine the route to the present gives us the fuller picture. In wine terms I relish the stories of the winemakers and how they came to their place in producing the wines we appreciate, that route often explains their philosophy and their hopes for the wines. I often hear from them, as in Clos Fantine or Domaine Montesquiou, how the family history and its relationship with the land influences how they nurture their soils, vines and wines.

Naturally, spending so much time at Mas Coutelou I have come to appreciate the story of the domaine and its roots and traditions through to its present. Nowhere is that history more alive than in one of its most unusual features, the solera system.

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I was talking to Rosemary George at the Mas Gabriel 10th anniversary dinner and I told her how a blog post she wrote first led me to Jeff’s door and, consequently, changed my story and journey to the Languedoc. Rosemary’s greatest memory of Mas Coutelou she said was of the solera system. It is certainly virtually unique in the region. After my initial tour of the vineyards and tasting with Jeff I was amazed by the discovery of a solera. Clearly it left an impact upon Rosemary too.

So, what is it? What is its own history?

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Soleras are usually associated with sherry. The word means ‘on the ground’ in Spanish. Barrels are filled with wine and the oldest wine is used to fill bottles though some of the wine is left. It is refilled from the next oldest barrel and that in turn by the third oldest. As each is only partly emptied the barrel’s contents become a mix of vintages. Traditionally, the oldest barrel is in on the ground and filled from above, hence the name solera. That ground barrel in Mas Coutelou’s solera is over 200 years old! The barrels also lose some of their contents through evaporation. The larger barrels (around 225 litres) lose around 6% of their wine per year, smaller barrels can lose up to 15%! Hence the need to replenish the barrels for natural reasons not just because they have been emptied.

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Michel removing must from muscat ready for the solera

The Coutelou system was started by Jeff’s great grandfather and has become a family tradition. Muscat and Grenache grapes are used to feed the solera each year. They can follow a route of being used for sweet or dry wines, they might be blended together or kept separately. Altogether there are 16 possible paths for the wines to take and Jeff must choose the most appropriate one based on his tasting experience.

The wines vary from the very dry to the very sweet and luscious. Some of the old Grenaches can be very like old amontillado sherries, lightly structured but packing power with long nutty, prune and raisin flavours which linger and fill your mouth. Others, especially the sweeter Muscats, are caramel, toffee and raisin in aroma and flavour and the wine clings to the glass with its viscosity. They are an utter delight and a special treat to savour slowly. Going from barrel to barrel in the two rooms where they lie there is an enormous range of wines, somehow Jeff keeps a record of them all in his head. As you taste them you are enjoying the results of decades of grapes from the lovingly tended vineyards, the work of generations of the family. This is tasting history.

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I love these wines, their complexity, aromas and flavours are captivating, making you smile, savour, sniff, speculate and sigh with pleasure. It is impossible to taste and to drink them without reflecting on the story of the wine and the people who made them. A sense of the past reinforced by the surroundings. The solera cellar contains all sorts of artefacts, equipment used in the vines and the cellars over the years as you can see above. It is a museum to great wines and to great people representing the history of the village and region too. The wines are that history in the glass, rich and rewarding.

 


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Latour De France

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                    Portes ouvertes, well most

Latour not Le Tour. It is a village in the Pyrénées-Orientales with an unusual profile in terms of winemaking as nearly all the vignerons make natural wine. La Bande de Latour is their open day and it was such a fun event last year that we decided to return again, the date was in the diary for a long time.

Unbelievably the event took place on the only bad day’s weather in the last 3 weeks, low cloud, mist and dampness prevailed though the event was far from spoiled and more than compensated for the weather. The vignerons of Latour invite others from around the Languedoc Roussillon and further afield, but there is a common bond of natural wine. In recent weeks there has been much discussion in the world of wine about whether natural wines should be certificated and what direction the wines should take. I intend to address these issues in the next articles but it was a good opportunity to see what lessons could be learned at such a gathering of producers.

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The first thing to say is that there were wines which did not appeal and which seemed a little lacking. I believe that natural wines are moving on and that with more experience of not using sulphites, for example, winemakers are learning how to tackle the process of making clean, fresh and healthy wines with a minimum of faults despite not having the safety net of additives, interventionist winemaking etc. However, there were some winemakers present who, in my view, are either new to the approach, haven’t learned or have not moved on. I won’t name names here but would share my thoughts if anyone wants to get in touch.

However, I felt that the majority of wines were of at least good quality, with fruit, freshness, balance and complexity – all that you would want from any wine but certainly the features which make natural wines appeal to me. There were wines which really were top class and I put my money where my mouth is by buying some.

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Top of the podium was undoubtedly Cyril Fhal of Clos Rouge Gorge. His vineyards are high in the hills, gobelet and exposed to the elements. Cyril is a master of Carignan and his wines are relatively expensive though not by comparison with the likes of Burgundy or Bordeaux, and his wines do bear comparison with top class wines. The Carignan was very good indeed, long, fresh, deep and balanced. However, it was the Blanc, made from Maccabeu which really captured my imagination, one of the best wines I have tasted in 2015. It starts zesty and fresh and then the oak adds a little roundness, coating the mouth with spicy notes but always clean and refreshing. Beautiful wine, brilliant winemaking. I happily bought both wines.

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                                     Outstanding

Other top performers from the village included Domaines Rivaton, Mathouans and Trbouley.

Frédéric Rivaton presented a very good white wine, Blanc Bec 2014 which was full flavoured, fresh and balanced the Carignan Blanc, Grenache Gris and Maccabeu beautifully. The rosé was mainly Grenache and the best of his wines today, lovely aromatics of red fruits matched by full, almost textured, flavours. Very good. I liked the red Gribouille too, showing a lot of depth and complexity. I liked Rivaton wines when I have tasted them before but they seemed to be much more complex and interesting today, more purchases.

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I don’t remember tasting Domaine Mathouans wines before, I certainly have no notes, and that is my loss. These wines were very well made with lots of fruit but also much more complexity behind the fruit. Light tasting but structured, easy to drink but with real depth and interest. The orange wine Mine De Rien 2014 made from Muscat Petits Grains had lovely muscat aromatics (plus a little reduction which disappeared in glass), but was dry, clean and not overly concentrated as some orange wines can be. Fresh and clean, very well made. Assureté is a blend of red grapes which are complanted in the vineyard and vinified together. Full, fruity and very good – my question is why on earth did I not buy some? My mistake. And again with Le Bon, Le Brut et Le Carignan which was aromatic, red fruits with deeper black fruits behinid, very complex but always fresh and balanced. Aline Hock is clearly a very talented winemaker, I intend to find out more about the domaine.

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Renaud of Domaine Mathouans, a convincing advocate for the wines

Jean-Louis Tribouley‘s wines have always appealed to me. Today we only tasted the red wines, which was a shame as I love his Grenache Gris. They were all good wines, however, I have to single out Mani 2012 made from young vine Grenache, Syrah and Carignan which was sweet, ripe and very good. Another I wish I had bought.

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My other favourite wines came from outside the area.

I was taken by the wines of Domaine Hausherr when I met them in Montpellier in January. Despite their long journey to Latour the wines were equally good today. Hausherr like to express their vineyards rather than single varieties as most Alsace producers do. Therefore, wines such as Altengarten are a blend, in this case Riesling and Gewurztraminer. They are wines with full, ripe aromatics hinting at sweetness but in fact they are very dry and expressive, really delicious. La Colline Celeste 2012 was my favourite of the dry wines and I also really liked Roc Et Porcelaine 2011 which was made from the same vineyard but with more residual sugar kept to add a touch of sweetness. Sungass 2003 was also very interesting, the hot summer of 12 years ago but the wine was fresh and dry, pure Riesling with petrolly notes.

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                    Talking to Heidi Hausherr

L’Ostal is in Cahors, a small and youthful domaine run by Louis Pérot. The Malbec grape can be tough and often needs aging but Louis has made different styles of wine using, for example, carbonic maceration. There is still a classic Cahors, Plein Chant (2013 bigger than 2014) but I really enjoyed Anselme 2014 which was full, rich but velvety and very good. Similarly Le Tour (not Latour) was bigger than many of the wines but retained a freshness and fruit character. I was happy to buy both of these and enjoyed the other wines too. Particular thanks to Louis who replaced a bottle I broke on the way out, my fault and he didn’t need to, it was much appreciated.

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I’d also like to add Axel Prufer of Temps Des Cerises to my recommendations. The Chardonnay Peur De Rouge 2013 was very good, this is a wine which is coming into its own and Axel confirmed it needs a year or two to do so. His red Fou du Roi 13 was also very good but the Chardonnay was a real treat.

So a great day, lots of music, choices of food (including vegetarian!) and a good atmosphere despite the gloomy weather.  There were my favourite wines, there were others too from Domaine Sabbat and the very promising new domaine of La Bancale.

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Enjoyed talking to Bastien Baillet of La Bancale, a domaine to watch

I do think natural wines are moving on and improving still further and La Bande de Latour provided me with plenty of evidence to support me. As I said I shall be coming back to the whole natural wine debate soon.

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The Falling Leaves

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Vine leaves which will become compost in the vineyard

Version française

Autumn is often a melancholy time as the days shorten, temperatures drop and the first signs of winter approach. And yet 2015 in the Languedoc has seen a most untypical autumn. Last week the warmest November day ever was recorded and we have enjoyed blue skies, warm sunshine and hot afternoons, 26°C has been regularly seen on our garden thermometer. The resulting sunshine has produced the most breathtaking scenery, with colours across a wide spectrum of autumn. As I wrote on the Out And About page, every time you turn a corner there is another heart stopping view.

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The vines are now closing down, preparing for winter. Their fruit has gone except for a few overlooked grapes which the birds, wasps and insects have been enjoying. Their leaves are shedding and the skeleton of the vine stands out again for the first time since early May, their form revealed, cordon or guyot for example.

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       First taille of autumn 2015, guyot vines

Indeed, some vignerons have actually started to prune again ready for 2016. I suspect they are working to a pre-prepared timetable as the vines have been slow to lose their leaves and still show some life. At Mas Coutelou the taille will not take place until next year and most top vignerons will leave it until then, just before the growing season. The extra wood helps to protect against frosts for example. Some vignerons are starting to cavailloner, in other words to move earth from between the rows of vines towards the plants themselves, the extra soils will again act as a blanket against the frosts.

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       Puimisson basks in autumn sunshine

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Dew on some Grenache Blanc grapes left behind in Rome

Other jobs remain to be done. After the months of busy vineyard work and harvest it is a time for sending wine to be sold. Pallets have left Puimisson to cavistes and restaurants around the world. Last Friday, November 6th, they set off to Germany, Finland and various regions of France. More have already gone to New York, London, Melbourne amongst many cities.

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The season of salons has started in earnest too. This weekend I was in the Roussillon for La Bande De Latour, highlighting many of the best natural wines of the Roussillon and elsewhere.

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The following day I was in Autignac for a tasting of some of the best Faugères wines and also their fines or brandies. I shall post about these soon. I was talking to the excellent Hausherrs, vignerons who had driven to the Pyrenees from Alsace for La Bande, a long, long way. Hard work.

In the next few weeks Jeff will be starting to assemble the wines for the main cuvées of 2015, the likes of Classe and Vin Des Amis. Decisions to be made about what proportions of which cuves to blend for the wines. Sadly, I shall miss this process as we head back to the UK for a wedding. Into every life a little rain must fall.

It has been a beautiful autumn, the weather and the vendanges have made it a magical time. Thanks as ever to Jeff for allowing me to share the experiences and insights of the season.

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Domaine Vassal – wine world’s heritage site

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Messrs Coutelou, Aubry, Poujol, Bellahsen and Prufer

On October 8th a group of vignerons paid a visit to Domaine Vassal in Marseillan Plage, I was happy to be invited to join them. The visit boosted my growing interest in ampelography as well as being great fun, of which more later.

Domaine Vassal was founded in 1949 and is the largest collection of resources about grapes and vines in the world. Its own roots (apologies for the pun) lie in a collection gathered in Montpellier University after the outbreak of phylloxera. This was the disease which almost wiped out the wine industry in France when it arrived in 1863. It is the work of an aphid which lives in the roots of vitis vinifera the original vines of France and Europe including the cépages with which we are familiar such as Chardonnay, Syrah and Cabernet). Sadly, this aphid arrived from the USA, via England (those Anglo-Saxons!), and ate its way through France’s vineyards. Montpellier started to conserve vitis vinifera and to study it and found the cause of phylloxera by doing so. It was also discovered that American rootstock was resistant to the aphid so, by grafting vitis vinifera onto American rootstock, vignerons could grow the traditional cépages rather than hybrid vines of lesser quality.

The other feature noticed about the aphid was that it could not live in sand and so the decision was taken to transfer the collection from Montpellier to Marseillan, Domaine Vassal’s grounds are sand. This means that the vines which are grown there can be grown directly from the sand, no grafting onto American rootstock is needed. Since 1949 some 14,000 species of vine have been collected together.

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                                    The sands of Vassal

Genetics now means that they can be identified more accurately and 7,700 species remain, many of the species having been shown to be doubles. Cépages are frequently called by different names in different parts of France let alone different countries so it is easy to think of cépages as being different when in fact they are the same. (For example, Cinsault has over 40 different names around the world according to Pierre Galet’s authoritative Dictionnaire des Cépages.)

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The aim of Vassal is to:

  • Acquire
  • Conserve
  • Classify
  • Valorise (ie develop and show the worth of the vines)

The Domaine receives donations of vines every year, five examples are required for each arrival. Last year there was a higher than average number of arrivals (up to 900 plants), indicating that new varieties are still waiting to be added to our knowledge. Researchers also go out to old vineyards to see if other vines can be found. These acquisitions are then planted. At first they may be placed in insect proof greenhouses to protect them and to be nursed.

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The plants are then placed on one of the fifteen parcels of land at the Domaine which covers around 27 hectares. Most of these are vitis vinifera but there are also hybrids, wild vines and rootstocks.

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                             Hybrid

The vines are studied carefully by genetics and by identification through the leaves, grapes and other features so that they can be classified as new or doubles of already recognised vines. Samples of all aspects are taken and preserved in files to make a unique collection which is being digitised. Further studies look to reveal how the cépage might be best grown, what yields it might offer, would they be commercial?

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             Hybrid vines with waxy leaves

With so many vines there are losses, but very few, and replacement plants are grown in the nurseries, almost 6,000 were planted last year. This is a vast undertaking and a hugely valuable resource. Vignerons are encouraged to visit and see whether they would like to trial some of the cépages in Vassal, trials which will run with a few plants and over 3 years.

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              Joe Jefferies takes an interest

Jeff Coutelou is keen to do just that and is looking at what cépages might mix well into the array of different vines which he already grows. Indeed, when talking with staff at Vassal, he discovered that he might have one or two cépages which are not in their collection! This could be mutually beneficial.

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Remi Poujol and Francois Aubry amongst the vines

It was a fascinating place to visit and I applaud the work of Domaine Vassal. Unfortunately there is a cloud on the horizon, the collection is going to have to move. A site has been identified at Pech Rouge near Gruissan but every vine will need to be transferred and, as the new site will not be sandy, will also have to be grafted. This is a massive undertaking which will take a few years to accomplish and the staff are determined that no species will be lost. The professionalism and skill I see at Vassal will be tested, I am sure they will pass that test.

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               Messrs White, Poujol and Maurel

After the visit the vignerons decamped to the nearby beach, a fire was lit and a barbecue enjoyed. Accompanied, of course, by examples of many excellent wines appropriately from many cépages. There was no cloud on the horizon here. As well as Mas Coutelou there was Mas D’Agalis (Lionel Maurel), Fontedicto (Bernard Bellahsen), Julien Peyras, Grégory White, Yannick Pelletier, Fontude (Francois Aubry), Le Temps Des Cerises (Axel Prufer), Remi Poujol, Bories Jefferies (Joe Jefferies), Clos Fantine (Olivier Andrieu). In other words the great and the good of Languedoc natural winemakers. It is interesting to see that this group is to the fore in promoting and conserving old and rare cépages, a natural fit.

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For a fuller account of Domaine Vassal’s work read this article by Ken Payton.


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Work life balance – soutirage, surchargé

Soutirage? It’s where you take wine from one container and move it to another. Traditionally this was done from barrel to barrel by gravity but these days it applies to moving the wine by other methods too. Why? Well the wine has been fermenting on lees, the dead yeast cells and other parts of the grapes. The wine needs to be removed from these as they cause cloudiness and you don’t want to drink wine full of lees. The lees can also cause off flavours in the wine so once they have served their purpose in helping to ferment and flavour the wine in a positive way they need to be separated.

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                         All pumps to the full

By moving the wine you also add oxygen to it and remove the risk of carbon dioxide building too much in the cuve which might cause issues such as reduction, a wine fault leading to odours of rotten eggs, rubber, struck matches or worse. That oxygen acts as a kind of inoculation too, a little bit helps to reduce the risk of wine oxidising later.

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Julien checking the level of wine in the recipient cuve

Therefore, on Friday 30th October, Jeff decided to carry out soutirage. Also, as the weather has been very warm they will continue to ferment a little longer in their new home before the colder weather does arrive. This means that there will still be some CO2 in the wine. Too much is bad but a little is good and this is the core of winemaking – finding the balance between all these different pros and cons. CO2 in small quantities helps to stabilise a wine and makes not using SO2 easier (important at Mas Coutelou) and also adds a little freshness and sense of texture, possibly a sense of acidity too. Oxygen, carbon dioxide, lees – you want to get just the right amount but no more.

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               Cuve being emptied to another

What this did mean was more planning and more of the puzzles of what wine goes where. My last post showed how complex this is. And here we bring in the surchargé part of the title. Jeff has had a busy week with lots of paperwork, orders to sort, bottles to label, package and get ready for sending out to cavistes around the world. Add in administration work for customs, taxes and many other agencies. The side of being a winemaker that people don’t really see.

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Same wine before (left) and after (right) soutirage, there was a noticeable difference in taste

I went to the vineyards on Thursday to take some photos of the beautiful colours in the vine leaves, unexpectedly I found Jeff in Peilhan digging out cannes de provence near a stream with a pick. He said this was his break from the paperwork, he needed some fresh air.

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Looked like more hard work to me, and people ask me if I would not want to become a vigneron!

Please note that I have updated the Out And About and Tastings pages recently, click the links at the top of the page to see what’s been happening.

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     The last leaf on a Grenache vine in Rome

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                        There’s always one

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Peilhan, wild rocket growing between the vines

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                              Cinsault in Rome