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.
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?
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.
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.
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.