Long time readers may recall that every January Jeff Coutelou sends out a New Year card and update to his clients and customers. The card includes a summary of the previous vintage in vineyard and cellar and I pass on its contents as well as other bits of news from Puimisson.
The story of the 2020 vintage begins with the weather from the time of the previous harvest. From October through the winter the weather was mild with a lot of showery rain, there was hardly any frost and unfortunately not enough to ensure that the vines went into a period of ‘hibernation’, shutting down to aid their recovery from the hard work of 2019 and to ensure their health for 2020. Unfortunately, this has become the norm in recent years, climate change is leaving its mark. Budding (débourrement) occurred around the end of March, ten days earlier than the average.
The period from budding to véraison (when red grapes develop their colour) was a time of worry for Jeff, not just because of the consequences of COVID-19 but in the vines. The weather remained wet, indeed there was stormy, heavy rain from mid April to mid May – damp and warmth together bring mildew in their wake. Moreover, the very wet ground meant that he could not take his tractor or other machinery into the vines because they were so muddy. Instead he had to carry a sprayer on his back and walk through the vines in order to try and protect them from the mildew. I recall messages from Jeff, which I mentioned on here, showing his concern that 2020 would be a repeat of the widespread outbreak of 2018.
Fortunately the weather solved the problem it had caused in the first place. June was cool, too cool for mildew to flourish and then, suddenly, heat and wind dried out the vines and mildew. Flowering began on May 25th, still very early. A hot, dry summer meant that the vines, despite the long period of rain from October to May, began to suffer a little from drought. Véraison began on July 20th, once again, early. Harvest usually begins a hundred days from flowering and these early dates meant that vendanges would be nudging the bank holiday of August 15th.
In fact harvest began on August 19th, the earliest of any vintage since Jeff took charge of the domaine in 2002. They would last for just over two weeks. The hot, dry summer meant the grapes were in excellent health, conversely they were small. Those parcels which had been touched by mildew required severe sorting at the cellar door. In the last few days of the vendanges another problem flew in, a moth called Pyrale du Daphné (Cryptoblabes gnidiella) or honeydew moth as I described here. Overall, with small grapes and the damage from mildew and moth the volume of wine from the 2020 harvest was 20% below average yield.
By November with two months in tank the reds had completed their fermentations and were ready to be blended (assemblage). The whites proved a little more troublesome. Just like 2019 they moved through fermentation but then seemed to falter and were completed like an exhausted runner falling over the finishing line. Fortunately this was a hiccup rather than a cough and the wines look to be very good. As well as the usual range of container to hold the wines Jeff bought in some barrels from Cognac which had recently been emptied, they will be used for the oxidative wines.
So, what are the wines likely to produce? In reds there will be Le Vin Des Amis for the first time in a few years, a welcome return, made up of Cinsault, Syrah and Grenache. Classe will be there from Syrah, Grenache, Carignan and Mourvedre, and there will be a separate single variety Mourvedre. A simple Vin Rouge of Syrah and Carignan sounds interesting and others will no doubt appear, Jeff is contemplating over a new version of Oublié, a wine made from the old, traditional varieties such as Morastel, Castets and Terret Noir and Blanc. The 2019 amphora wine is also now ready, a Syrah.
The name of the domaine is now Vins et Spiritueux Coutelou and so I should mention a new spirit, based on gentian from the Aubrac in the Haut Languedoc, some of it aged in barrel blended with the rest which was distilled. Finally, there will be Fine from 2014 in two versions, a 40% and a 64% aged in barrel.
Meanwhile in the vineyards. Jeff has planted more traditional grape varieties replacing grapes such as Merlot and Cabernet which have been grubbed up. Aramon Blanc and Noir, Servant and a grape called ‘Grappy’ which is taken from one vine in an old vineyard an unknown red grape. Jeff has purchased some abandoned parcels next to his Peilhan vineyard creating a 6 hectare parcel in the one place, which should make work much easier. He is planting hedges and olive trees around these new areas to secure their health and separation from conventional vineyards around. A 6 hectare oasis. Vines will gradually be planted over the course of a number of years to ensure the soils are organically sound and certifiable.
Meanwhile my friend Steeve spent some time in Puimisson in January to help out with pruning (taille). He felt honoured to be trusted with Rome vineyard, my favourite and sent me photos of his work which he has kindly allowed me to share. The aim is always to cut back the canes of the previous vintage and encourage others to develop this year, ensuring they are growing in a way to suit the overall vineyard, eg direction. In Rome, as the vines are gobelet, there is no real training of the vines as there are no wires. I hope with all my heart that I will soon be able to go and inspect Steeve’s work!