amarchinthevines

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


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Natural terroir

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En français

The choice of my recent wine of the week, Olivier Leflaive’s Burgundy Oncle Vincent 2012, made me think about how wines change. When I used to regularly visit Leflaive and Burgundy in the 1990s the style of wine was very oak influenced, a response to the New World oaked wines and to the influence of Parker / Rolland in Bordeaux. The wines smelled of vanilla and tasted of wood. Subtlety was often lost, especially on the lower ranked wines. Happily those days are in the past (though I still come across some very heavily oaked wines even in the Languedoc) and this bottle was zesty and fresh with a little oak adding creaminess.

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Similarly if I choose to drink a Riesling from Alsace I can find two wines from grapes grown side by side in the same vineyard which will taste very different. One producer might prefer a lean, dry style of wine whilst his/her neighbour makes wine in a rounder style with more residual sugar. The same can be said of wines from any region of course. So where does that leave the notion of terroir?

Terroir is that elusive term which describes soil, micro-climate, slope etc. Effectively it means the location, the ‘in situ’ of the wine. However, some will also add the influence of the local culture upon the winemaking in the concept of terroir, Alsace with its traditional residual sweetness for example. However, different winemakers choose different methods and styles according to not just local tradition but outside influences, wines tasted, travels etc.

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Amongst those influences has been the growth of the natural wine movement. I have read and heard numerous accounts by natural winemakers of how they came to choose this philosophy for their métier. Most include their discovery of a natural wine which made them tear up the rulebook and decide that this was the style of wine which they wanted to make because of their freshness, drinkability and flavours. A typical account can be found here.

Yet those who still find fault with natural wines are wont to declare that natural wines mask the flavour of grape and place because they often taste of natural wine and nothing else. Take this remark by Rosemary George*, English wine journalist and Languedoc resident, “if there is one thing that I reproach natural wines, it is that they all, irrespective of provenance, have a tendency to a similarity of style.  The best have that delicious mouth-watering freshness, but that somehow seems to mask their origins.”

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You will not be surprised to read that I disagree. I do accept that some, less well made natural wines do have aromas and flavours which resemble each other regardless of origin. However, I think in the vast majority of cases that natural winemaking has progressed and reflect their terroir and grape(s) much better than most conventional wines. How can it be otherwise? If a winemaker adds enzymes, artificial yeasts and SO2 how can than not be adding an extraneous element to the flavour of the wine which is nothing to do with the place? If you add oak chips or staves does that make the wine more Burgundy, Bordeaux or Barossa? Or does it simple meet the established concept of what a wine from those areas ought to taste like?

Winemakers will often aim for a flavour, they want their wine to be the same year after year. That is how the big companies retail Yellow Tail, Blossom Hill etc, the customer expects a certain flavour if wine and that is what they will be given. Like Coca Cola. This does not reflect terroir or vintage at all and, to be fair, the big companies would not claim otherwise. However, I do get the impression that many smaller winemakers follow a similar recipe.

A recent visit to a wine fair in Vouvray was a very disheartening experience. I tasted wine after wine which lacked character but did taste very much like the next sec or demi-sec from the next producer. The conformity was alarming. There was a Vouvray style common to most producers but it was bland and dull. There were one or two exceptions where a winemaker had taken deliberate steps to change their winemaking and vineyards, D’Orfeuilles for example.

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Healthy wines come from healthy soils including microbial life as here at Mas Coutelou’s Rome vineyard

So give me a wine of character. Give me a wine with nothing added where the vineyards’ health is reflected in the grape juice which makes the wine. Give me that grape juice with nothing extraneous added,  natural yeasts for example. Let that wine be carefully nurtured and not messed around with, no added flavourings. If it is aged in barrel then I would expect it to reflect that influence but not be dominated by it. I want to drink wines which reflect the vitality of healthy grapes in healthy vineyards. The wines will alter from year to year because nature alters from year to year. That is terroir and why natural wine reflects terroir in as pure a state as possible.

*(To be fair to Rosemary she does like some natural wines and it was her writing that first introduced me to Jeff Coutelou so I have much to thank her for.)


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Natural desert

UK-wine

hospitalitybusiness.co.nz

I have been in the UK for the last two weeks and thought I would look around to see whether I could find natural, biodynamic or organic wines. If I lived in London then the experience would have been very different as there are a number of wine merchants who sell natural wines, even specialise in them. This website has a map showing such oases. Around the country there are merchants who also specialise in these wines, the excellent Vins Naturels website links to some.

However, I live in the North East and it is a desert for the sort of wines which I love. I walked around a number of supermarkets and it was a depressing experience. Rows of shelves loaded with branded wines from the usual suspects, Yellow Tail, Gallo etc. Hardly any artisanal wines and, in my regular supermarket, I could not find one organic wine let alone natural wine. On the websites of the big supermarkets, Tesco lists 5 organic wines from almost 600 wines, Morrisons just two from over 500. Other big chains don’t even show organic wines.

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A supermarket near me

The moral is, if you want to drink organic, biodynamic or natural wines, then search online for specialist merchants. The message is not getting out there to a wider wine drinking public. Just this week I read a thread on a well known wine forum which included comments about not buying natural wine in France as it doesn’t travel back to the UK. Complete nonsense of course. Many natural producers sell their wines in the USA, Australia and Japan in large quantities. I transport such wines regularly back to the north of England with no problem whatsoever. That people still go along with such nonsense shows that prejudice and clichés carry more weight than reality. But then after recent weeks why does that still surprise me?

The Real Wine Fair, RAW and other events show that there is a market in the UK but it is very London centric. We need change.

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from Britpoll.co.uk


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Jean-Claude Coutelou

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I was truly saddened to hear from Jeff this morning that his father, Jean – Claude, passed away through the night.

Jean-Claude was a Physical Education teacher, running the family wine domaine at the same time. It was he who gained organic status for the domaine back in 1987, one of the first two hundred French wine domaines to be certified organic those 30 years ago.It was he who began the process which Jeff has taken on to make Mas Coutelou an oasis of biodiversity in a sea of conventional vineyards. I know from talking to him that Jean-Claude was very proud and very happy about the way the wines and the vineyards had developed under his son.

I enjoyed his company, his love of sport and poetry and his gentle teasing of we English. Indeed our last chat, just a couple of weeks ago, included some laughter at the current state of my home country. He was kind and generous with Pat and myself and we shall miss him.

So, thank you Jean-Claude for all you achieved, not least in your lovely family to whom I send my heartfelt sympathies. It was an honour to have got to know you. Every time I am in Rome vineyard, your vineyard, I shall think of you.


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Last of the summer wine

 

Flower Power

Flower Power 2015

En français

As work on the cellar ratchets up a notch in the next few weeks it was time to bottle the last of the 2015 wines which will be made for the moment.

The framework for the new mezzanine floor is in place and actually looks quite beautiful. It will be reinforced with concrete however, and the metal cross bars will disappear (which might stop us knocking our heads). Plumbing has also been tidied up and improved. Cuves will be placed below and on top of the structure. More work on stairs, flooring and around the cellar will happen soon. As I am heading back to the UK for a couple of weeks or so, it will be exciting to see the changes upon my return.

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Peilhan June 30

The vines continue their growth in the sunshine and heat. Mildew problems are largely contained though some humidity leads to sporadic outbreaks (apologies for the pun). Sadly, there is a new threat of oïdium (powdery mildew) which likes that humidity and the warm days with cool nights we have been having. Powdery mildew shows as grey, white spots on the leaves and the grappe. Certain cépages are more vulnerable, including some of the traditional Languedoc varieties such as Carignan. The treatment is to spray sulphur powder and Jeff Coutelou made the first treatment this week in an effort to contain the problem, a job completed on Saturday morning. 2016 certainly has been a struggle.

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Meanwhile 2015 wines such as Flower Power and L’Oublié went into bottle on Wednesday June 29th. You might recall that the L’Oublié assemblage was made a few weeks ago and after spending time in tank, marrying together, it is now in bottle. Both of these wines are extremely good, well worth waiting for when they are finally released which won’t be for a while.

Jeff also put together a new cuvée exclusively for the French market, it will come in litre sized, Bordeaux style bottles as a «vin de table». An assemblage of various cépages it will be cheap, very drinkable and very desirable. The size of the bottles meant that they had to be filled by hand rather than the machine so Thursday was fully occupied with this cuvée. Jeff refers to it as a vin de gauche, after wine writer Vincent Pousson referred to Jeff as one of the last vignerons de gauche (left wing winemakers) because of his low prices making his wines accessible to all. It will be a wine to share and it will disappear down that litre bottle very quickly.

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The new litre bottle of the vin de gauche

2015 seems increasingly like a golden year, its wines are certainly glittering. 2016, well despite all it has thrown at us, there is hope. Meanwhile the summer wine is bottled and the heat is getting to some of us, even after his haircut.