amarchinthevines

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


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Curiouser and curiouser

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A detail from an illustration by Sir John Tenniel depicting Alice with the March Hare, Hatter and Dormouse at the Mad Tea Party. From Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll.

It has been a most curious year and as it goes on it becomes curiouser and curiouser, just as Alice said. *

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To quote another famous character, a certain Jeff Coutelou, during these last few months there was no proper autumn, no real winter, no true springtime. The last few months of 2015 and early 2016 were abnormally warm, not one single day of frost in Puimisson. Plant life started very early, there was blossom on trees in February, mimosa everywhere. People recorded their vines starting to ‘cry’ as the sap rose. And then, it all stopped. As March and April unfolded the weather was chilly with cold northerly winds. The plant life closed down its growth to a minimum. Budding (ébourgeonnage) was late even after the mild winter.

May is usually warm in the Languedoc and we have had some hot, sunny days but interspersed with cooler days and plenty with a lot of cloud cover. The vines pushed quickly some days, 25 – 30 cm the week before last and then… cooler weather slowed the growth again. Flowering (fleuraison) began last year around May 5th but this year Jeff and I spotted the first flowering on May 26th. Appropriately that was in the Flower Power vineyard, Font D’Oulette. Yet in the white grape vines, such as the Muscat in Peilhan, there is no flowering.

It is likely that most of the vines will flower at the beginning of next week, most varieties at the same time which is, again, most unusual. Curiouser and curiouser. As the vendanges are calculated at 100 days after flowering, the likely date for harvest to get under way is now well into September, ie 10 – 14 days behind 2015. After a very precocious start to the year!

So why does this matter? Well, the vines have been unable to rest since last harvest. The lack of frost or cold weather in winter meant that the vines did not shut down fully. The sap has been on the move for months. Those early reports of vines crying in February, then delayed growth. Vines have sent out a lot of growth but the lack of sunshine has not produced much photosynthesis, the vines are often green in lower parts but lighter green higher up. The grafted vines in Font D’Oulette have been slow to send out growth, the sap flows and then cooler weather arrives.

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Peilhan, note the lighter green near the tops

Humidity and grey clouds means a threat of mildew and some spots are evident on leaves in certain parcels. Jeff spent the night of May 20 spraying from 9pm to 1am, starting over again at 6am the next day. Why then? During the night and early morning the vines are more receptive to the influence of the spray as the pores are open in cooler temperatures. Not the usual spray of course. Mas Coutelou has been organic since 1987 and Jeff has gone much further. This spray was of nettles, horsetail, seaweed mixed with a tiny amount of sulphur and copper (allowed in organic farming). And also in that mix were essential oils of sweet orange and rosemary, pampered vines indeed. This prompt action has mastered the problem supported by timely sunshine and northerly winds.

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Spots of mildew on the leaves and on the grappe

Whilst in Rome vineyard the other day we looked at the soils and Jeff pointed out the growth of good mushrooms and fungal life in there. The photos show this life, the white spots. Scientific research shows that it is through fungal life such as this that the vines communicate with each other and support each other. This has taken a lot of soil nurturing and management.

And to further demonstrate the health of the vineyards, remember the vandalism of the Carignan vineyard and the flowers that were planted there? Well they are growing back stronger than ever. Nature wins in the end. We can only choose to support it or fight it, but in the end nature will win.

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Cinsault in Rome

At present despite this most curious of years the vines are in good health. The next three months will decide whether the grapes will be of good quality or not. Jeff reckons that the period from April 15 to July 15 the vigneron must be always present, always monitoring the vines to ensure that any problems can be sorted as soon as possible. That will make or break the vintage.

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Flowers in the Coutelou vineyards

Meanwhile we have been treated to some beautiful flowers in the wild and around the vineyards. As well as birdsong in Rome vineyard. Nature at its best despite the curious year.

That is if the problems can be solved. Just this week Sancerre and Burgundy were hit by massive hail storms causing damage which means that the year is a write off in some vineyards. The third such storm this year in some of these areas. And on Saturday, May 28th Beaujolais was badly hit too. Again nature decides.

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Hail damaged vines in Beaujolais (photo with permission from @duc_lionel)

A curious year, yes. But a disastrous one for some.

*  (No rude comments about mad March please).

 

 

 

 


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Open Up Your Door

En français

The weekend of Pentecost was spent in the Loire. Christian Venier hosted a Portes Ouvertes at his domaine in Madon, Touraine along with his partner Marie-Julienne.

It was an opportunity for winemakers and friends to get together and there was a lot of fun, food and frolics. Jeff Coutelou and most of his team were present including Michel, Vincent and many of the people who spent time in Puimisson during the vendanges such as Céline, Carole and Karim.

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Michel struts his stuff

I know that Jeff and some others did not get to bed much before 4am on those three mornings. It was also quite amusing to see a lot of French people dancing to ‘Waterloo’ of all songs! Good to know that history is safely in the past. It was easy to make new friends too, as always there is a real energy and friendliness in the natural wine crowd.

The Veniers were great hosts, many thanks to them for their generosity.

To mark the event Christian and Jeff Coutelou made a special cuvée, ‘Devigne Qui Vient Dîner’ (a play on Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner). Gamay and Pinot Noir from Christian assembled with Grenache, Syrah and Cinsault from Jeff and made only in magnums. Very nice too.

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Christian’s wines are a great combination of fruit and complexity with plenty of texture. His La Roche 2011 in magnum was a true highlight of the year’s  wines for me, a great Gamay which I wrote about as Wine Of The Week. I will be coming back to this later in the article.

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A number of winemakers joined the event and having just written an article about how there was a promising new wave of young producers it was good to see my statement supported by yet more up and coming talent.

One of those was a friend from the Languedoc, Sébastien Benoit-Poujad of Domaine de la Banjoulière. Sébastien bottles his wines at Jeff’s cellar and his wines are starting to show real quality, his light, fresh Aramon 15 and, especially, his lovely Carignan 13 were on great form. Sébastien’s partner Tina is also a familiar figure on these pages as she worked at Jeff’s during the 2014 vendanges, that’s where the pair met.

Of the Loire new wave there was:

Noella Morantin whose old vine 2014 Sauvignon Blanc ‘LBL’ was especially good

Benoit Courault, very good reds especially the Grolleau 2014 ‘La Couléé’.

Laurent Saillard, whose wines spoke of their grape and terroir. ‘Scarlett’ (Gamay and Pinot d’Aunis) and the Sauvignon Blanc ‘Lucky You’ 15 were especially good.

Finally there was Cédric Bernard who has worked with Christian and is now venturing out on his own. In an act of incredible support and  generosity Christian has given his La Roche vineyard to Cédric to help him. This is the parcel of Gamay whose 2011 I so enjoyed. What a spirit of sharing and humanity. And the first Gamay from that parcel was lovely, named ‘La Cabane À Marcel’. After the 2011 it was my favourite wine of the weekend and as a bonus it comes in a litre bottle! I look forward to drinking the bottles I bought. I very much liked the Chenin Blanc ‘Brin De Chèvre’ too. If this was Cédric’s debut year as a winemaker he is definitely a talent to watch.

It was interesting to compare notes with Vincent and find out that La Roche and the Gamay of Cédric were his two favourite wines. Every one of these winemakers is someone whose wines I would gladly buy and recommend.

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My friend Vincent

A sad postscript was the news that the April frosts hit La Roche vineyard hard and unfortunately there will be no wine from there this year. The vicissitudes of life as a vigneron, a tough break for a man starting out.

Christian took Jeff and myself out to look at his vineyards on the Sunday morning. His passion for his land and vines was evident. It was interesting to see the vines surrounded by parcels of wheat and other crops such as asparagus which grows well in the more sandy areas of the land. Christian showed us some of the frost damage on his parcels though happily he has not been too badly affected.

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Frost damaged

Ironically a parcel more prone to frost was left untouched this time. He showed a few rows that were touched because they were next to the wheat which created humidity which in turn encouraged the frost. However, the positives shone through and it was a great experience to spend time with Christian.

Finally, it was also good to be left in charge of the Coutelou stand and share wines with the people who wanted to try them out. I even completed some sales. My education continues.

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A lovely weekend, shared with great people in a relaxed and spirited environment. Christian, I hope I’ll be coming to dinner next year too.

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Real? RAW? Just very good

 

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At La Remise

In the last article I wrote about the young up and coming winemakers whose wines I enjoyed at Bédarieux, La Remise and The Real Wine Fair. Whilst this new wave are producing good things there are still many good tunes from the some of the ‘older’ fiddles. As ever there were many vignerons present who have been making natural wines for longer. Many of these began as winemakers on a family domaine and learned about winemaking in conventional form before deciding to go natural. Others have moved into the world of wine with the intention of making natural wine.

Natural wines developed a reputation for faults amongst traditional wine drinkers (especially some journalists). Some of these appraisals were genuine, others a matter of perception. There is no doubt that some wines are faulty, I have tasted them myself. Problems such as mousiness and brett are genuine faults. Other issues can be a matter of taste, eg skin contact.

In contrast, however, I visited a wine fair in Vouvray on Sunday May 15th. It was full of conventional producers, bar one converting to biodynamics. There were many dull wines, often with high sulphur. There were many faulty wines. So, j’accuse les vins conventionels.

Natural wines are, in fact, the way that wines were made for generations, over hundreds of years. The conventional wines of 2016 are the product of more recent methods, of modern science and technology. Going back to the traditional methods involves a leap of faith and requires very healthy grapes if you are to  abjure sulphur dioxide. As the natural wine movement has gained momentum in the last 20 years many of its producers have become more experienced in making wines without the safety net of modern science and technology. Standards are getting higher, the wines ever better. So, here are some that I enjoyed recently.

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With Fred Rivaton

At Bédarieux I was very happy to meet up again with Fred Rivaton from Latour De France (66) who makes many of my favourite wines. Blanc Du Bec and Gribouille, both 2014s, were delicious. In the last few weeks I have selected both as Wine Of The Week, and would do so most weeks when I was fortunate enough to open a bottle. One of the best.

Another of my WOTW selections was the Pinot Blanc 2010 of Gérard Schueller. He was present at Bédarieux too and his 2014 Pinot Blanc and Riesling were both excellent. Next time I visit Alsace he’ll be top of my list of domaines to visit. I bought both of those wines.

Philippe Valette‘s Macon wines were another source of quality, I especially liked his Chaintré 2012, a beautifully clear, zesty and round expression of Chardonnay. As a third generation winemaker, Valette is a fine example of my comments above.

Didier Barral (Domaine Leon Barral) is one of natural wine’s great stars. His wines at Bédarieux were proof of how justified his reputation is. They require time to be at their peak but are pleasurable, profound and priced accordingly but worth it. Barral is a model of biodiversity and philosophical winemaking, a must try. My favourites were the Blanc 14 made mostly from Terret with lovely melon, grapefruit flavours and great length, together with the Faugères 13 of stunning depth.

Nicolas Carmarans is living proof that talent and good winemaking can make very drinkable, quality wines in regions not usually associated with wine. He works in the Aveyron. There is a direct, mineral side to his wines married to fruit and length. Wines such as Selves 14 and Maximus 14 reflect local grape varieties such as Fer Servadou at their best.

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Clos Fantine is a domaine which features regularly in this blog and the 2015 wines which Corinne was showing at La Remise were the best of recent vintages in my opinion. La Lanterne Rouge and Faugères Tradition have pure fruit with structure, complexity and a beautiful expression of the schistous soils of the area.

Philppe Pibarot makes wines in the Gard. As well as encouraging his young assistant John Almansa, Philippe makes first rate wines. I loved both his white wines, Blanc and Clos Domitia 14 with Clairette, Roussanne and Piquepoul and the delicious red fruit freshness of Cante Renard 15 made from Cabernet Sauvignon with Languedoc varieties such as Carignan and Syrah mixed in.

Guy and Thomas Jullien are still young but I have enjoyed their Ferme Saint Martin Rhone wines many times and met them in Arles and London. I especially enjoyed the Ventoux wine Estaillades 14 (Grenache and Counoise) with round, spicy flavours and the Beaumes De Venise Costancia 14 a 50/50 blend of Grenache and Syrah, more structured but balanced with lots of delicious fruit.

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Italian producer Colombaia presented some lovely wines at La Remise, classic Tuscan wines with Sangiovese, Malvese and Colorino grapes. Lovely freshness and fruit were trademarks of the wines and I particularly appreciated their Rosso Toscano 12 from young vines.

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From Galicia in Spain I enjoyed the wines of La Perdida. Perfumed, spicy aromas in their wines, nicely balanced too – signs of good winemaking. The Godello 14 with 20 days maceration on skins was one of the best examples of longer skin contact white wines that I have tasted and the Garnacha (with 30% Mencia) was even better, full of deep spice and dark fruits and very aromatic.

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I could add other names like Yannick Pelletier, Julien Peyras and Alexandre Bain. Good producers all.

And, yes I am biased, there are the excellent wines of Jeff Coutelou. It is interesting to taste Mas Coutelou wines in the context of producers from around France and Europe. They more than hold their own, the 2015 freshness and restraint certainly lifting them to bear comparison with the best of the Rhone, Loire or anywhere.

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Jeff is a 5th generation producer, he learned winemaking skills from his family before branching out into ‘real wine’ production. He has a natural talent of course but he has learned from experience and his wines are improving in quality as a result of that talent and learning about his vines, his soils and his cellar work. And passing it on to the new wave of producers who come to spend time with him.

Terms such as ‘real’, ‘natural’, ‘living’ are often applied to these wines, but don’t get hung up about them. The cuvées and producers I have listed here are just very very good wines and winemakers.

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Young, gifted and natural

In March and April I was able to visit a number of wine tastings with the emphasis on natural wines, in Bédarieux, Arles and London. The latter, Real Wine Fair, I wrote about recently and also featured organic and biodynamic wines. One of the features of all three events, upon reflection, was the rise of a number of talented younger vignerons. Now, that should be no surprise, there have always been a number of young vignerons attached to the natural wine scene. Indeed there is a youthful core to the crowds who attend though, again noticeable, the age profile of attendees this year seemed to me to be much higher.

The buzz around natural wines has certainly created interest in the whole world of wine and been an entry point to many younger people who like the ideas and principles of many vignerons who seek to make wine with as little intervention as possible in the vineyard and cellar. It has struck a chord with many. As natural wines have become more widespread, vignerons more experienced in making wines without a safety net then their appeal has broadened. Many wine enthusiasts were put off by the (in my view false) reputation that natural wines were often faulty and wrong. I do believe that winemaking has improved and that consumers have more confidence in the wines, hence the arrival of a broader cross section of clients. As an older wine enthusiast myself I welcome the fact that I am, usually, not the oldest person in the room.

 

In the three salons there were many familiar faces, vignerons whose wines I have tasted, drunk and bought many times. Others whose wines are not for me. I shall return to these people in the next article. Many moons ago I likened the natural wine movement to punk rock in that it was creating an alternative scene and would introduce change on the whole industry. Just as punk was followed by a new wave of music, artists such as Joy Division, Talking Heads, Blondie and Elvis Costello who were influenced by punk but channelled its energy in a different way, I believe that there is a new wave of younger winemakers in the natural movement who are building on the work of the pioneers, the punk winemakers. Some for better, some for worse.

Here are some of those winemakers from the salons whom I would heartily recommend as vignerons to follow, whose wines I would gladly drink.

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Thomas Rouanet from the St Chinian area I met at Bédarieux and enjoyed his wines especially the pure Carignan of ‘Le Voltigeur’ 14 with lovely fruit and freshness. I look forward to trying more from him.

Bastien Baillet has a 2ha domaine called La Bancale in the Fenouillèdes area of Roussillon. I gather he has been working with Jean Louis Tribouley, a very good producer himself of course. I very much enjoyed his ‘En Carême’ a Carignan based wine with plenty of red fruits and a nice balanced finish.

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La Cave Des Nomades is also in Roussillon but this time in one of my favourite French towns, Banyuls sur Mer. Run by a young Portuguese and Polish couple their wines were without any question one of the big hits of La Remise. I tasted them on the Sunday and by the evening word was out just how good they were. On Monday I saw a number of prominent cavistes at the stand. With only 3ha their wines will run out quickly I am sure. José and Paulina’s domaine is part of the excellent 9 Caves project in Banyuls. A lovely range including an excellent vin doux naturel, my favourites were a very deep, balanced and fresh Grenache Noir 15 and a beautiful Grenache Gris 15 called ‘Les Rhizomes des Sorcières’, real depth of fruit with a delicious, clean finish. Fascinating labels too, one of my favourite range of wines this year.

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John Almansa runs Zou Mai in the Gard. He has worked with the excellent Philippe Pibarot and so, like Bastien Baillet above, he has learned about winemaking from a good teacher. Surely this must be a huge help. His first wine is a Cinsault and it was a very drinkable, fruity wine with a clean finish.

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Julie Brosselin used to work with another domaine in Montpeyroux but has now struck out on her own. A number of people told me to go taste her wines, including excellent judges such as sommelier Sandra Martinez, and I am glad that they did so. Her white wine ‘Mata Hari’ was good and also the unusual combination of Cinsault and Mourvèdre in ‘Queue de Comète, full of juicy fruit. As a new domaine these were both 2015s and will improve still further.

Thierry Alexandre has been working with Les Miquettes in the Ardèche and has now produced wines of his own from just 1ha of vines. His Pet Sec (Marsanne/Roussanne) 15 was one of the best PetNats on offer at La Remise, fresh pears, clean and round. He showed the 14 and 15 St Joseph and they were both good, the 14 more rounded of course but both with good fruit and a round but clear finish, classic Syrah.

Most links I can find to Samuel Boulay say he is a Loire producer but the address given at La Remise was for Ardèche. A good Viognier/Marsanne was deliciously fresh and a Grenache / Merlot blend was very good, lots of round fruits and a fresh aftertaste.

Most of these winemakers were in a group of young producers invited by La Remise, an idea which I find encouraging and supportive. More salons should follow. From last year’s group a number returned as part of the main salon in 2016.

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Firstly, Christelle Duffours of Mas Troqué, whose wines from Aspiran in the Languedoc are really starting to express themselves very well, improving all the time. Equally so Joe Jefferies of Bories Jefferies in Caux whose wines sell out quickly. I know Joe and so declare a partisanship, but I can honestly say that his white Pierre De Sisyphe (mostly Terret) is one of the best natural white wines I know. The reds are very good too.

One other domaine from that group in 2015 was L’Ostal from near Cahors. I wrote about them then and again after Labande De Latour in November. It was great to hear from Louis and Charlotte Pérot that they are doing well and that a 3* Michelin restaurant has taken their wine. I am not surprised. They are extremely talented winemakers as well as lovely people. Their wines are very drinkable, even young, and yet retain the spine of Malbec and Cahors which is traditionally a tough wine. Wines such as ‘Anselme’ and ‘Zamble’ are of high quality but there is always a refreshing lick of acidity which makes them so good to drink.

On my return from Arles I was talking to Jeff Coutelou about the wines I had tasted and he told me that he was very impressed by L’Ostal and that it is rare to find such talented winemakers as Louis and Charlotte. That was good to hear, as it meant I wasn’t mistaken in my praise for them but in particular it was good for the Pérots.

These are all skilled winemakers, I would happily drink their wines anytime. I do hope that I don’t patronise them by calling them young winemakers as though that makes them lesser producers. With more experience they will surely be looking to improve their wines still further and in their hands the future of natural wine looks healthy and successful.

 


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A la cave

En français

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I even set my mother and sister to work picking off snails last week

Snails and vandals aside there have been plenty of positives at Mas Coutelou in recent weeks, not least in the cellar. The beams in the photograph below have been strengthened with iron as some of the wood beams were no longer in contact with the wall!

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Before the changes

 

We saw recently the removal of the large, old press which used to dominate the top end of the cellar next to the cement tanks. Jeff has also removed a huge fibre glass tank which took up a lot of space. 145 hectolitres in size, it was now redundant as Jeff prefers to use smaller tanks for fermentation and maturation. Incidentally 145hl is almost 20,000 bottles of wine!

The photograph shows the number of doors in the cement tanks which have been divided to allow smaller amounts of wine. These two empty spaces now leave much more room in the cellar for all the machinery needed, during the vendanges for example. Jeff told me that the cellar had taken shape in 1956 so these are the first major changes in 60 years.

 

The floor has also been renovated with drains updated too. The surface you see in the photos from last week will be covered with resin, more practical in a wine cellar.

One of the more popular cuvées has also been the focus of work. Bibonade is a sparkling wine, white and rosé. This PetNat style is very refreshing but requires work just as any sparkling wine.

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The fermentation in the bottle creates some residue which needs to be removed. The residue can be seen in the neck of the bottle as they are placed in these wooden frames known as pupitres (desks). Once the lees have gathered next to the capsule the bottle is opened so that they explode out with the force of the carbon dioxide made from fermentation. The bottle is then topped up and resealed.

Definitely a cuvée to enjoy, my wife’s favourite Coutelou wine for example.

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Let a hundred flowers blossom

Around 4pm this afternoon I received a text from Jeff to say that Rec D’Oulette, the vineyard of the Carignan of Flambadou had been vandalised. I had been in the nearby Flower Power parcel this morning but passed that parcel noticing nothing amiss.

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I was horrified to hear and then see the photos which Jeff published on Facebook. Someone has passed through the middle of the vineyard with a machine to cut the flowers and plants which Jeff had planted amongst the olive trees. These are designed to attract insects, bees and other biodiversity to the area. Surely a benefit for all vignerons and people?

It is unbelievable that some pathetic individual or individuals see some twisted reason to destroy what is beneficial for the area and for vineyards. Jealousy? Who knows but they are wrong headed. And just wrong. Because Jeff will plant more. When someone cut down ten trees he had planted, he replanted ten. With another thousand for good measure. Flowers, plants will bloom again in Rec D’Oulette.

These photos were taken a few weeks ago in the vineyard, wild and planted flowers will return. And though one, or even a few, may not like his work for some reason, the support shown to Jeff comes from thousands of people. Let one hundred flowers blossom.

 


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Snails, sprays and screen star

En français

April 27th saw a number of visitors to Font D’Oulette (Chemin De Pailhès), home of Flower Power where we grafted vines recently.

France 3 television were here to record some footage for a report on biodiversity, so who better than Jeff to describe and demonstrate how he has worked to bring life to the vineyards around Puimisson.

Rather less welcome was the invasion of snails, I spent all morning removing thousands of them from the vines. They clearly enjoy the organic greenery and, in particular, the young buds. It was noticeable that where the vine had grown more fully the snails were few in number, instead they were grouped on the slower growing vines where the buds were small and fresh. Bullies.

As the days warm up the risk of diseases such as oïdium and mildew increases. Therefore, it was time to spray the vines to help them resist these damaging diseases. However, being organic, there is no question of synthetic chemicals. This was a spray of nettles, comfrey, ferns and seaweed mixed with rain water; organic, natural products. Julien sprayed on foot and then Jeff and he rode on the tractor to spray two rows at once in Rec D’Oulette, home of Flambadou.

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Oy watch where you’re spraying!

Across the vineyards the vines are maturing rapidly. The buds are separating showing the future grapes and bunches. Tendrils are pushing skywards, remember that vines are climbing plants. The leaves are now of good size, soaking up the sunlight to help photosynthesis and provide energy to encourage the growth of the vine.

The soils remain dry and the leaves are a little brittle in places, this has been a very dry winter. More rain would be welcome. However, that night and the next there were reminders that the situation elsewhere can be much worse. The Loire valley and parts of Burgundy were hit by sudden, severe frosts which have devastated vines and mean that some vignerons face a bleak year with little or no wine to be made. The photograph below Credit: Sabrina Cyprien Caslot-Bourdin via Jim Budd / Facebook

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The sunshine and drying winds may not be perfect but the vineyards of Mas Coutelou remain small havens of flora and fauna.