amarchinthevines

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


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Grafting vines

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On March 17th we were in Font D’Oulette vineyard which, at just over 0,6 ha, is a small parcel replanted around 6 years ago with a variety of old Languedoc cépages such as Aramon Noir, Aramon Gris, Oeillade and the very rare Clairette Musquée. The grapes are picked together to make a single cuvée representing the parcel , Flower Power. This first appeared in 2014 and has made an impact already, selected by La Revue Du Vin De France as one of the Languedoc’s top 50 wines. As the vines age we can only anticipate eagerly what they will produce in future.

 

However, not all young vines thrive and some needed to be replaced. Two alternatives were in place this day as the rain fell steadily.

The first is to plant vines which are pre-grafted in the conservatory / nursery. These are covered in wax to protect the graft, the wax will fall away in a few weeks. I described this process last March with the new plantation in Peilhan vineyard.

The second method was to graft onto the root stocks already in situ, something I had not seen before. The American root stock has to be used to protect against phylloxera which destroyed much of France’s vineyards in the 19th century. There are different methods of grafting such as ‘chip and bud’ but Jeff brought in a specialist, Tanguy, who uses a method known as ‘greffe en fente’.

The old vine is cut away to reveal the root stock. A very sharp knife, repeatedly sharpened through the day, cleans the surface and then inserts a cut through the wood revealing its core.

The cut is supported by tying string around it. The vine wood is also cut, as if sharpening it to make a thin wedge which is inserted into the cut root stock. The idea is to get the core of the two pieces as close as possible. This is then fastened tightly with the string. The graft is complete.

It looks simple but isn’t that the mark of a skilful worker, making something complicated look easy? Have a look at the video below to see the process in one go.

The vine is staked for support, always to the side which will help the vine against the prevailing north westerly winds. Jeff had brought some basalt soil from the Auvergne and this was then placed around the grafted vine poured into the body of a plastic bottle placed around the vine .

Basalt is one of the oldest forms of rock, roche mère (mother earth or bedrock) and is packed with nutrients. This will help the vine to grow well and by filling the bottle around the vine it is surrounded with top quality soil. Organic compost is added to the hole and then the earth is hoed back over it all, removing the bottle of course.

There is a risk. Up to 20% of vine grafts do not take in theory and with greffe en fente the whole vine would have to be grubbed up next year and replanted. Other methods can simply replace the graft. However, this method is the best for the vine itself and the most likely to take.

So what were the vines? Cinsault, Aramon Noir and Inconnue No.3. Inconnue means unknown, so why is it called this? The original vine was found in an old vineyard where it had never been catalogued. It was taken by the organic nursery where Jeff buys his vines and it was studied but was discovered to have never been indexed. it is unique, unknown, hence its name. One of its benefits is that it is resistant to oidium and it will also add diversity to this complanted vineyard with about 100 of the Inconnue No.3 vines being added. A hint of mystery to the blend.

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The vine canes, only about 7-8 cm will be used

A fascinating day despite the rain which soaked us all to the skin. It was hard graft but a rich, rewarding day celebrated at lunchtime with a magnum of… well it had to be Flower Power.

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A damp guardian of the new vines

 


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New life at Easter

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Easter is about new life. No bunnies or chicks in the vines this Good Friday, though there were some partridges at Peilhan, but plenty of signs of the vines coming back to life. Some vines are further advanced than others so I want to show how the buds and leaves emerge.

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Bud emerging (débourrement)

The buds are covered in a cotton like substance to protect them at first.

 

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Buds on a Terret Blanc vine planted March 6th 2015

 The leaves begin to unfold.

 

All of these photos were taken on Friday, showing how the vines develop at different speeds. Indeed most vines are still dormant as can be seen in Sainte Suzanne vineyard below.

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And it’s not just vines, the final photo shows a quince tree planted over the winter at Peilhan vineyard with the first wild irises just a few metres away.

Happy Easter!

 

 


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First days of Spring

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En francais

Winter has been relatively mild here in the Languedoc, as elsewhere. However, the last 2 weeks have seen definite signs of the first days of Spring. The blossom, insects and flowers have appeared, and, as I write the temperature is a very pleasant 23C on the terrace. All the flowers below were photographed in the vineyards of Mas Coutelou.

As the weather warms the vineyard beckons. Pruning is complete at Mas Coutelou, bravo Julien. But other tasks await. The dry winter lasted until a couple of weeks ago when 55mm fell at Puimisson in one day. Until then Jeff was reluctant to plough, the dry soils would be easily scattered by wind and the ground cover helps to retain what little moisture there was. With the rain it was time to lightly plough. Not deep, 15cm or so as the soil was still dry and compact beneath and Jeff doesn’t want to disturb the vine roots or the wildlife which lives in the soils.

As I wrote in the last article it was time to plant new vegetation. Trees and bushes to protect the vineyards from careless neighbours and to provide biodiversity in an area of monoculture. Biodiversity which in itself will repay the vines by attracting birds, bats and insects which will feed on potential vine pests. So, olive, apple, hazelnut and cherry trees, rose bushes and many other varieties were planted on a lovely Spring day.

In Rome vineyard (where else?) I found the first buds of 2016 at Mas Coutelou on some muscat vines. Lichen on some vines also showed the good quality of air in that special place.

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Muscat bud covered with a fine layer of ‘coton’

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And then came Thursday March 17th. Where had Spring gone? We worked in Font D’Oulette through a day of firstly drizzle, then steadily increasing amounts of rain. Replanting vines which had not grown and also grafting new vines onto root stock already in place. Traditional Languedoc varieties such as Aramon Noir and Cinsault but also something rare, indeed unique. For more on that you will have to wait until next time however.

By the end of the day, as the pioche (hoe) was so heavy with mud as to be unusable and the soil turned to mud, we were cold, soaked to the skin and muddy from head to foot. And yet, inspired by a lunchtime magnum of Flower Power, the wine made from this very vineyard, we worked happily in the knowledge that our labours will bear fruit. And what lovely fruit!

Spring is here, the vineyards are coming to life again, a joyful time of year.

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Songs of our soil

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Another hero

All good vignerons strive to produce the most healthy grapes from healthy vines living in healthy soils. The best wines are made from healthy grapes, in the cellar the winemaker can make good wine out of ordinary grapes but can only make great wine from great grapes. The soil matters. It feeds the vine, it provides water, minerals and nutrients. A good vigneron will take the best possible care of those soils because they are the basis of their wines.

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Rec D’Oulette (foreground) and its Carignan vines

On March 10th I went out to visit the vineyards, a morning when Spring was showing itself. Jeff was working with Vincent and Julien to plant trees at Rec D’Oulette and Rome vineyards. These add biodiversity to an area which is largely given to monoculture but they also help to break down the soils whilst adding air, bacteria and wildlife which will make the soils healthier.

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The trees play another role too. Many of the neighbours to Mas Coutelou vineyards are not organic, indeed some are prolific users of chemicals on their soils and vines. Trees, bushes, plants and ditches act as a barrier to those contaminated soils, protecting soils which have been certified organic since 1987 under the management of Jean-Claude, Jeff’s father. The 30 years and more of organic practice have undoubtedly improved the soils and there was a clear demonstration today.

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The brown areas are planted with trees, bushes etc as a barrier around the vines in green

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The blue/grey tinge on the grass at the edge of the parcel is from the neighbour’s weedkiller

Jeff was justifiably annoyed by one of his neighbours who had been spraying weedkiller and had encroached onto Jeff’s land to turn his tractor and sprayer.  Some of the chemical had spilled onto Coutelou land, admittedly only on to the edge of the buffer zone between the vines but unacceptable nonetheless.

He then showed me two of the holes dug to plant the trees. One was at the side of the Carignan vines well away from the neighbours. The soil inside was fine, friable and a rich brown. The other hole, 50m further from the vines, next to a slope running from the neighbours, had greyer soils with big clods of earth.

The lesson was obvious. The neighbouring vineyard is eroded with every rainfall, the clays are carried down and they clump together. Erosion is the result of the weedkiller, the soils are bare and unprotected. The work done by the Coutelous in the vine planted area has enriched the soils, there is more organic matter in them, flowers, grasses, herbs as well as animal life. As you walk on the vineyard soils there is a sponginess, a spring in them, they are open because of the air within.

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Chemical land versus organic land

That is why Jeff has grubbed up vines close to his neighbours and planted olives, apples, cherries and dozens of other varieties of tree. The improvement in soil quality has helped to improve the wines. Don’t take my word for it, ask La Revue Du Vin De France, Jancis Robinson, Jamie Goode et al who have praised them. The wine is the product of healthy grapes from healthy vines in healthy soils.

Does it all make a difference? Well, yes. Aesthetically, morally, even spiritually. And in the wine? Well, open a bottle of Flambadou 13 or 14, the wine made from these Carignan vines. Taste that wine. Does it make a difference? The answer is in your glass.

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Little fish are sweet

En francais

How do you follow the Perfect Day? Apparently you just wait and, like the proverbial London bus, two come along together.

March 8th dawned chilly, just 2°C when I left Margon at 8am, bright and clear, a perfect day for the last Spring bottling. The biodynamic calendar was favourable too, last day of the descending moon and a flower day.

In fact we started with a morning of habillage (labelling and packaging). The start of a longer process of habillage to prepare wines to send to cavistes around the world, it’s time to earn some money! This morning palettes of ‘5SO Simple’ and ‘7, Rue De La Pompe’ were put together, a smooth enough process as Jeff, Michel, Vincent and I have all done this many times now (I’m getting to be an old hand!). One interesting feature is how different regions require different labels, customs stamps and even palettes, the USA different to Europe for example. So making sure you have the right matériel demands some time and attention.

So far, so good. The banter was enjoyable as ever, Icare provided some amusement when, hiding under the rollers, he gave himself a shock when a case of bottles passed over his head. The day improved with the arrival of Thomas, a sommelier who spent time with us at vendanges, excellent company.  However, the day then took an unexpected turn for the better with a phone call from Sylvain, one of Jeff’s myriad friends. He is a scientist, intellectual and fisherman and phoned to say he was on his way. With him was a cool-box full of sea urchins, sea bass and black mullet – all freshly caught.

So, just after noon, we repaired to 7, Rue De La Pompe, the house rather than the bottle. There Sylvain prepared a feast. The oursins, fresh with their delicate tongues of iodine, concentrated flavours of the ocean; a sea urchin butter spread on fresh bread; sashimi of bass and mullet; sea bass marinated in olive oil and Jeff’s white wine vinegar; sea bass chips (little fried nuggets of flesh and skin); chunks of bass and mullet fried lightly in a tempura beer batter; fish egg omelette; barbecued sea bass; black mullet grilled with broccoli, then coated in a Japanese sauce. Totally delicious, everything was a delight, every morsel.

The freshness of the fish and Sylvain’s imagination and skill provided us with a 3 hour banquet, conversation around the role of fish and wine in religions, lighter topics too. Sometimes I have to pinch myself.

 

And, of course, wines.

Snow Balls 14, that curious cuvée of Sauvignon Blanc, Grenache Gris, Muscat and others, it shouldn’t work but it always does – so fresh, clean, dry and fruity, a perfect match with the sashimi for example.

5SO Simple 15, ( the best 5SO ever?), perfumed cherry Cinsault, dangerously fruity and moreish but with a little more texture this year. A good match for the cooked fish with its cleansing acidity.

La Vigne Haute 2010. Oh my word. This is my favourite Coutelou cuvée and the 2010 is stunning. Pure, pure Syrah, bottled joy. Deep brambly red fruit scents, as you sniff the wine you are drawn in to the luscious aromas. Rich, smooth texture with the softest of tannins supporting it, cassis and red fruit flavours and soooo long with flavours of chocolate and coffee emerging. OK I’m sounding poncey but seriously, this is fantastic wine. It will improve for a few years yet and I have some in my ‘cellar’, happy man.

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2010 La Vigne Haute and its maker

An indulgence, the whole meal. The kind of life affirming meal which everyone should enjoy from time to time.

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And yet, back to bottling on this clear, fresh day. A special cuvee, one of the little cuvées. A barrel of Maccabeu and Grenache Gris from 2012 which will be named after the top Spanish ham, 5J. The aim was to produce a wine like a light Fino, slightly oxidised but concentrated and fresh to match those hams. The barrel was formerly used for making cognac (adding more flavour) and the wine succeeds in its ambition.

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Vincent, Sylvain (standing centre), Thomas (kneeling) and Jeff

It resembles a light fino, it is dry and the slight oxidation adds complexity but it is the clear fruit which lingers, lifted by that barrel influence. I was reminded of the Jura white wines I love, a Ganévat for example, but the fino / light amontillado sherry reference rings true. It is utterly delicious. A special cuvée demands a special bottle, so 50cl flute bottles were used with a glass stopper rather than a cork. Just a few hundred bottles of something very special.

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The Maccabeu / Grenache Gris pressed in 2012 (photo by Jeff)

The barrel was then refilled with some of the top quality Maccabeu of 2015, ready for another delight in a few years. The treats continued though. Little fish are sweet. These were the words used by one of my heroes, WA (Arthur) Stephenson. He was a hugely successful horse racing trainer from my home area in County Durham and when his horse won the Cheltenham Gold Cup (jump racing’s top race) in 1987 he explained why he was at his local track instead of at the big meeting, “little fish are sweet”. As I had referenced Bowie last time I thought it was an apt and indulgent reference to the great man, who shared his time and thoughts generously whenever I spoke with him.

 

There was time to taste the Grenache wine which I made for my 100th blog post with the help of my friends. I intend to write a little more about this, suffice to say that the wine is developing very well in two different sized barrels and one super-sized glass bottle.

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Tasting the grenache

A tasting too of the 2015 Grenache Sélection De Grains Nobles, quietly maturing. Dark plummy colour, rich and round but it was black grapes that I could taste believe it or not with a sweet, raisin edge. A wine to wait for, and it will repay the patience I am sure.

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SGN Grenache

Finally, a 40 year old Muscat. Figgy aromas, black olive and molasses. No sign at all of tiredness just intense, thick, sweet nectar yet still an acidity to keep it in balance. Liquid sunshine, a long past summer captured in a bottle, revived in the glass for us. A perfect end to (another) perfect day.

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40 year old Muscat (and bottle)


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Perfect Day

En francais

Any excuse to include some Bowie who is producer and piano player on the song which is also one of Jeff’s favourites.

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Michel on top form

March 3rd was the last full day of the Spring bottling period and it was pretty much a perfect day in Jeff’s own words. The day was clear with high(ish) air pressure which is better for bottling and in the biodynamic calendar it was a fruit day with a descending moon, perfect too.

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Checking the weather

The only snag was the late arrival of the magnum bottles despite being ordered some time ago. So, things started over an hour late, bottling magnums and jereboams of Vin Des Amis and a new Syrah cuvée.

I had always assumed that a magnum being simply 150cl as opposed to the single bottle 75cl would be cheaper to produce, a bulk saving. However, the bottles are naturally more expensive, being produced in smaller quantities and they are filled by a slower machine rather than the usual bottling line. This takes more manpower too. So a magnum and other large formats do cost more, jereboams also need a larger cork. I like these large bottles, not just because there is more wine (good for groups of friends) but also the wine ages more slowly.

We had a relaxed lunch in the cellar, cheese, canned fish and charcuterie, the latter for Jeff, Michel and Julien. Naturally a few bottles were opened for quality control!

In the afternoon it was back to the main bottling line, helped by Catherine, for the Syrah cuvée and the new white wine from Peilhan vineyard, made from Carignan Blanc and Grenache Gris. The Syrah is lovely, I remember during the vendanges that the tank caused some of us some concern but Jeff always believed in it and …. he was right. Lovely dark fruits, fresh, mineral and long – almost as good as La Vigne Haute which is praise indeed.

The Blanc was, perhaps, even better for me, bright apple and pear flavours, very mineral, clean and pure. I do believe 2015 will produce some great reds from Mas Coutelou but that the white wines, often in the shadow, will emerge to take their place as stars in their own right. Jeff is confident that the Maccabeu is even better, there’s a long maceration blanc too. I have tasted them both and they are lovely wines in the making.

We didn’t finish until after 8pm, it was a long day but we had great fun, lots of laughs, great teamwork as well as the hard work. The bottling has been a success, the 2015s are proving to be even better than we thought – a perfect day.

Then just as I thought days could hardly get much better, along came Tuesday, March 8th. But you’ll have to wait for that report in a couple of days.


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Vinisud – the Languedoc

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And so, to the Languedoc and I visited a number of domaines, some I knew already some were names I wanted to follow up. I am glad to report that the region more than held its own against the others represented. The Languedoc, and Roussillon, are sources of great wines.

Chateau Maris is in the Minervois area, I enjoyed their wines at Millésime Bio last year and was pleased to taste the new vintages. Some were brut de cuve (straight from the tank so immature) and still a little young for me to really appreciate but there were some good bottles especially Las Combes 2014, 100% Grenache with ripe, round fruit balanced with soft tannins. Lovely now, better in a couple of years.

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Domaine Gros-Tollot produce Minervois wines as well as other wines which are made outside the appellation rules. I confess to some bias against the domaine at first, two top Burgundy producers with a side project in the Languedoc? Surely this can’t be honest Languedoc wines. I was proved completely wrong. The wines are excellent, soft fruits with structure and complexity behind them, often from an outstanding use of oak which really does melt into the wine, adding to its aromas and flavours. I liked all the wines such as 2014 La 50/50, Fontanilles 14, and Combettes 14 which is produced from Marselan grapes, very much a Languedoc wine. Best of the bunch for me was La Ciaude 14 made from one vineyard of Syrah, Carignan and a little Grenache.

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Mas Gabriel is a firm favourite of mine, almost a  neighbour in the village of Caux. We enjoyed a chat with Deborah Core as well as tasting the new vintages of some of my favourite Languedoc wines such as the Carignan Blanc Clos Des Papillons. Special mention though for Les Fleurs Sauvages 2015, the rosé is medium coloured, clear though delicate red fruits and scents of those wild flowers. Very clean and dry it is a top quality rosé, which deservedly sells out very quickly.

Le Conte Des Floris comes next, also based in Caux, though the new cellar is in Pézenas. I love the wines of this domaine, I can’t remember a dull one. Driving forces behind the Wine Mosaic project Daniel and Catherine Conte Des Floris make a great Carignan Blanc Lune Blanche, the 13 was excellent. I really liked Carbonifère 12 and Homo Habilis 12 but my favourite was the Carignan Noir wine Basaltique 2014. Classic Carignan red fruits with an earthy, dark side adding complexity and, undoubtedly, longevity. Amazingly long, very fresh, full of flavour – one of my favourite wines of the whole event. This is one of the very best Languedoc domaines.

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Alain Chabanon is a renowned Languedoc producer, I am told he takes no prisoners but it was his wife who presented the wines. I have tasted them before, eg at last year’s Montpeyroux Portes Ouvertes, but they were on better form here. Campredon 14 and Saut De Côté 12 were both very good but my star was Les Boissières 2012. A classic Languedoc blend of Grenache/ Syrah/ Mourvèdre there was a depth of red fruits on the nose and in the mouth with complexity from 24 months of maturing before bottling. I preferred these three wines with classic Languedoc cépages to the more famous Merlot based wines which he makes. Incidentally his website is terrific with a short video of him presenting each of the cuvées and good technical detail.

Domaine De La Marfée is another which I would consider to be one of the very best Languedoc producers, and another I know thanks to Leon. I highlighted every single one of the wines in my notebook, from the lovely Blanc 13 to the most structured of their wines Champs Murmures 12. Complex, full, fruity, Della Francesca 12 and Les Vignes Qu’On Abat 12 were equally good but I actually chose the simplest of their red wines as my star on this occasion. Les Gamines 2013 is Mourvèdre/ Syrah and a little Grenache with a lighter structure than the other reds but no less complexity and fruit. I liked it so much that when we went out to eat at Trinque Fougasse in Montpellier that night I chose this wine to accompany the excellent food. Rare to find a whole range which is outstanding but Domaine De La Marfée achieves it.

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Domaine Canet Valette is yet another Languedoc star name, this time from the St. Chinian area. The reds are the stand out wines, Marc Valette described Antonyme as a vin de soif, his beaujolais, and it is a good everyday wine. I have often bought bottles of Une Et Mille Nuits in the past and the 2013  has delicious soft red fruits. The most famous name here though is Maghani and with reason. Marc served three vintages, 08, 10 and 14 and though the older vintages showed just how well it ages it was the Maghani 14 which I liked most. Concentrated and tannic still (this was a bottle made just for the event) there is an enormous depth of red fruits and real power, yet beautifully balanced.

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With Marc Valette

Mas Des Capitelles is a Faugères producer whose Carignan, Loris, was a wine which I really liked at a Millésime Bio offline where tasting reds was difficult. I wondered how in better conditions their wines would hold up and I am delighted to say they were even better. Catiède is classic Faugères from a vineyard under biodynamic conversion, 13 and 14 were good. The Vieilles Vignes 13 and 14 were even better, nice gentle use of oak to add complexity and extra depth from the greater use of Mourvèdre. Loris was good again, a new favourite of mine. Then we came to a series of three wines which the Laugé family make only in special years when they have an exceptional crop of one grape. Collection no. 1 2007 was made from Mourvèdre (with a small amount of Carignan and Syrah), and was chosen by the magazine Terre De Vins as one of their top 12 Languedoc wines. And for once I agree with a magazine! Complexity in a bottle, still fresh and youthful after all these years, great wine in short. Collection No. 2 is from 2011 and this time it was the Syrah which was exceptional and so dominates this wine. And no spitting this wine, I drank my glass. The Syrah leaps from the glass with its dark and red fruit aromas, the flavours match up and are deep and long. Great Syrah, great Faugères. I was also treated to a sample of the Collection No. 3 which will again be Mourvèdre led and it didn’t disappoint. Hard to choose just one wine but Collection No. 2  and that memorable Syrah just edges it for me.

Faugères is, in my opinion, the Languedoc’s star region and I enjoyed meeting up with other favourite producers in their area of Vinisud (incidentally it was very useful to have the producers from one region all in on area). My friend and top class producer Brigitte Chevalier of Domaine De Cébène was there; Jérôme Py of Causse Noire whose wines are getting better and better including a lovely Mathias 2011; and Jérôme Rateau of Haut Lignières as well as his eponymous range including an excellent Sur Le Fil 14 which is not yet bottled.

Finally it was a pleasant surprise to run into one stand just as I was preparing to leave Vinisud. Les Beaux Nezs Rouges was a group of natural wine producers sharing the stand. Amongst them were three very good producers from Aspiran, David Caer (Clos Mathélisse), Grégory White and Régis Pichon (Domaine Ribiera). I like the wines of all three and it was good to finish the salon on a high with a just a hint of the new style of winemaking. (More on David Caer on my wine of the week page.)

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Régis and Grégory beneath their red nose images

A very enjoyable salon, lots of good wines and a range of food stalls, wine accessories and various wine related activities. This is a salon for the trade and lots of business was being done all around. At the heart though is the wine and, happily, it remained the star of the show.

Part 1 of my Vinisud experience is here.