My favourite Coutelou wine, as you well know by now, is La Vigne Haute made only in the best vintages from Syrah grapes grown in La Garrigue vineyard. The vines face north on a slope meaning they are not overexposed to the most extreme heat of the Languedoc sun. In vintages which Jeff Coutelou considers less than ideal the grapes go into other wines or are bottles under a different label such as On Ne Peut Pas Vraiment Dire Que. La Vigne Haute appeals to me because it offers rich red fruit flavours, typical of the best Languedoc wines with a nice streak of acidity and minerality to balance the fruit. It is, in my opinion, every bit as good as much more expensive Syrahs from the Northern Rhone or Australia.
Showing the position next to the existing Syrah vines
Three years ago Jeff was able to buy the adjoining parcel of land, took out the vines of the previous owner and left the soils to refresh themselves as well as allowing them to become certifiably organic. On Wednesday April 5th it was time to plant new vines, an extension of the Syrah vineyard. Jeff had intended to plant a month earlier but the ground has been unusually dry for the time of year, rainfall has been lamentably low. There has been a little more rain and the plants were ready so it was time to go. I had intended to be there for this special day but family commitments left me in England though my wife Pat was able to be there and take the photos you see here other than the two by Jeff’s niece Flora..
Cords to help keep straight lines, the vines with wax to protect the young plants
I wrote about planting a vineyard previously when we set up the terrace at Peilhan. The process was the same here of course. The new vines won’t produce grapes for a couple of years and not of the quality necessary to be included in La Vigne Haute for several more years after that so patience is required. Jeff’s commitment to planting for the future is admirable, even more that he also planted more trees and shrubs around the vineyard, plants which will not even be fully mature in his lifetime.
Rows of vines planted, watering afterwards
Even on a day of hard work there is always time to enjoy yourself when working with Jeff and what other bottle would he open this day to go with the cheese and charcuterie?
Whilst harvesting at Jeff Coutelou’s last September I couldn’t help but notice white cardboard hanging from the trees and bushes around the vineyards. They were certainly not there in 2021 so what was going on?
It turns out that this is one solution to the increasing problem of Cryptoblabes gnidiella or honeydew moth. I wrote about the emergence of this new type of moth in 2020 here. This moth has spread rapidly from Italy to Provence and now into the Hérault and Aude areas of the Languedoc and is moving inland too. Scientists believe that one of the reasons for the increase in numbers and range is climate change. The moth takes 93 days from egg to adult when the temperature is around 18c but at 26c that reduces to 32 days and at 29c just 23 days. There is less time for the farmers and viticulteurs to react. Moreover the moth seems to be less present in the vineyards until July/August, just in time for grape harvest. (Scientists are still trying to establish where the moths go in the Spring and early summer though they do live on up to 80 different types of plant).
The larvae live inside the bunches of grapes, the female lays around 100 – 230 eggs and the grapes are emptied of juice and pulp as the larvae feed. The damage spreads to other bunches as juice drips on to them inviting rot.
What can be done? Well, chemical sprays as I mentioned in the previous article but organic producers cannot resort to those. Theoretically they could destroy bunches of grapes left after harvest either on the vine or on the ground as that is where the moths and eggs spend winter. However, that would be prohibitively expensive for all but the wealthiest producers. Sexual confusion traps (mentioned in that 2020 article) might also not work well as scientists don’t know whether the eggs are already fertilised in summer, remember how they aren’t sure where the moths spend Spring.
Jeff is also trying to encourage green lacewings to live in the vineyards, these also predate on moths and their eggs and would form an extra defence. They also spend winter in the vineyards and are available to combat the moths all year round as needed. Until he finds out whether that will be successful Jeff must hope that the cards are successful. Unfortunately 2022 saw a significant increase in the number and spread of vines affected by honeydew moths.
French company Bioline have produced one answer and that is the white card in the trees. The cards contain microscopic wasps 0.8mm in length, called trichotop buxus as they are usually used to combat box wood moths. The wasps eat the eggs of the moth so by placing and opening the cards Jeff and others bring a parasite to the vineyard to solve the moth problem. Two potential problems remain, the cards need to be renewed every 3 – 4 weeks and adding a new insect to the biodiversity may have its own consequences (though no evidence of that has emerged yet).
I started this blog in the summer of 2014 when Pat and I moved to the Languedoc and I began to spend time with Jeff Coutelou learning about wine, vines and winemaking. It was intended as a simple way for me to let my mother, Edna March, know what we were up to and how I was spending my time, a modern form of letter writing.
Mam died on February 5th aged 88. She had no interest in wine, as a Methodist she never drank alcohol other than a pretend sip of champagne on Christmas morning before passing the glass to one of us. She was amused and bemused by the success of the blog in following years and why thousands would want to read it. However, it achieved its purpose, she did read it in the early days and after visiting us in France she told me how pleased she was that I was learning about nature and plants and, in particular, how lucky I was to have a great friend in Jeff. How I wish I had taken a photo of the two of them together.
Mam was a teacher, headteacher, Guide and Brownie leader and loved people, especially children. Her faith guided her life and she worked tirelessly to help others and act as a true disciple. My sister, Linda, and I were fortunate to have two wonderful parents and a great childhood. Mam was my guiding light and this blog was just one tiny example. If you have enjoyed reading it at any time, then it’s thanks to her.
Buy it. If you’re interested in natural wine or wine in general then this is a must read book. Beautifully produced, easy to read, full of insight and exceptional research and use of images, old and new, Aaron Ayscough’s book has delighted me since it arrived in October. Like the best natural wine itself ‘The World of Natural Wine’ is a work of love, enthusiasm, hard work and respect, pleasing the heart and the head.
I must declare a friendship with Aaron, I have met him just once at Jeff Coutelou’s in 2021 but we have long corresponded and are most certainly on the same side. I admire his eagerness to learn which has taken him around the natural wine scene for many years and led to him working alongside producers such as my friends, the Andrieus, at Clos Fantine in Faugeres. He even embarked on a winemaking course in Burgundy, his scepticism about much of it being a regular feature in his subscription website Not Drinking Poison. Uncompromising in his views Aaron is not afraid to argue his case and express his love for natural wine and the people who make it.
The book is lavishly produced, quality paper, full of illustrations and set out in readable sections which aim to answer the issues of the subtitle, ‘What it is, who makes it and why it matters’. As other reviewers have pointed out it is very France centred because that is the wine scene which Aaron knows best and where the natural wine scene really began in the 1980s. Other countries are covered and I am sure Aaron will have it in mind to spread his wings at a future time. Let me run through the chapters to show how he tackles those issues mentioned above.
Part I, A Way of Thinking About Wine, begins with the history of natural wine in chapter 1 and let me quote the opening sentence, “Natural wine is wine with nothing to hide”. Excellent. Aaron’s thesis is that natural wine is a reaction to some of the farming practices of the 20th century, especially the increased use of chemicals, the wine frauds of past centuries such as the Bordeaux scandal of 1973-4 and dissatisfaction with the industrialisation of land and winemaking in general. He charts the resurrection of old wine methodology from Beaujolais to wine bars Paris and then to the rest of France with a carefully researched narrative using excellent archive photographs. I know from Jeff that it was in such Parisian wine bars that he became enthused by what natural wine might be.
Aaron goes on to examine in chapter 2 how the grapes are grown, comparing natural methods with conventional farming and winemaking with side by side examples and descriptions. He considers organics, the calendar, and practices such as pruning, ploughing, irrigation and use of copper and sulfur. I like the fact that Aaron does not shrink from issues such as sulfur, he is a natural wine purist but is prepared to consider all points of view and admit where scientific research does not support some of the claims which have been made for natural wine. He is open about his allegiances but is not blindly biased. We also see the first example of a regular theme through the book, looking at how some of the vineyard and cellar practices influence what we drink in the glass, eg, pruning.
Chapter 3 takes us from vineyard to cellar and how natural wine is made. More comparisons between natural and conventional, issues such as yeasts and, of course, sulfites, before taking us through the whole process of winemaking from harvest to bottle via maceration, pressing, racking, fermentation and choice of ageing vessel. All of these are again superbly illustrated helping to explain the whole process and using Aaron’s contacts and experience of cellars across France. Different types of wine including PetNat and sweet wine are covered with recommendations of bottles to buy. We see more examples of how practices such as carbonic maceration influence the final wine we taste and the lexicon of wine is made clear.
Part I is my favourite part of the book and would have made a fulfilling tome on its own but there is more to come. Part II, dare I say more conventionally, takes us on a journey around wine domaines in different regions of France and then other parts of Europe. The choice of domaines is exemplary, their story and philosophies set out with a ‘wine to try’ given, the choice of OW for Jeff Coutelou being an interesting and typically offbeat one by Aaron but showing his understanding of the domaine too. Part II is Francocentric for sure but that is Aaron’s expertise at present.
Part III bears the excellent title of Enjoying Natural Wine, how often books overlook enjoyment. There are three sections: tasting, looking at how natural wines can differ from conventional ones with more honesty about problems and flaws; serving wines including storage and age; finding the wines with recommendations for cavistes around the world. Finally, there is a useful page on further reading which is guiding my own choices at present.
I made my feelings about the book very clear in my opening paragraph, it is one of the best wine books I have read. It can be read as a whole or in chunks, the format makes it easy to dip in and out as you might see from the images above. I learned a lot, enjoyed it and I commend it without reservation and look forward to more of Aaron’s work.
Regular readers may recall that every January Jeff Coutelou sends out a Carte Des Voeux or greetings card to customers such as wine merchants and importers. This comes with a topical image, eg about elections, pensions. This year’s features recent the diversity of bottle shapes. Inside is a summary of the previous year and a glimpse of wines to come.
Here is my translation of Jeff’s card for 2023.
2022, a vintage which foresees the future?
Autumn 21, mild and dry, didn’t reassure that water levels in the soil would be restored but in March 22 abundant rain allowed the season to get going in favourable circumstances.
The most notable feature of the vintage was the warmth in temperature. The winter wasn’t cold, Spring was particularly hot and the summer saw a heatwave. Budding began at the end of March, and from May the various stages of vine phenology proceeded rapidly…. flowering was early and especially generous on those vines which were damaged by frost in 2021.
The first peak in temperature began mid June and and was followed by a long, hot and dry period until mid August. At the beginning of August this all led to us fearing a difficult vintage. The changing of colour in red grapes was not a smooth process, ripening became blocked. The vines had to dig deep to adapt to this extreme weather. We were expecting a small, concentrated vintage but a revitalising storm on August 14th brought life back to the vines. The grapes swelled up, berries changed colour, ripening advanced, harvest could begin…
They began on August 22nd (a week after our first estimate) and ended on September 9th. Cooler temperatures, especially at night, helped produce lovely ripening. The grapes were beautiful, abundant and seemed well balanced. The alcohol levels weren’t too high though acidity rather feeble.
By contrast there was a raised level of lactic bacteria in some of the cuvées which led to slow, rather languid end to fermentation. We had to intervene to keep on top of this and, in the end, the results were rather satisfying.
We carried out assemblages at the start of December and can announce the wines which should emerge this year.
Clairette: our 100% Clairette Blanc
Gris: Piquepoul, Riveyrenc and Grenache Gris all from direct pressing
Grosé: Grenache Gris, Terret and Carignan Blanc – made from macerated grapes, skin contact
Ploutelou: Cinsault, Aramon and Syrah
Le vin des amis: Cinsault, Syrah and grenache
Grenache mise de printemps: 100% Grenache
Classe: Syrah, grenache, Mourvedre
Tradition: a blend of old varieties in all three colours
La Vigne Haute: the Syrah of La Garrigue, first new version since 2018
Flambadou: Carignan Noir from Rec D’Oulette, first new version since 2017
Mourvedre: a beautiful Mourvedre bringing together fluidity, finesse and a lightness
Macabeu: aged in concrete egg
Other wines should also emerge through the course of the year, notably from the amphorae, the Muscat D’Alexandrie and a few surprises…
We, like all our colleagues, are finding it hard to get supplies of bottles and are subject to high price rises.
In the vines
A parcel of Xarello has been planted on the terraces of Peilhan, it’s a beautiful site and we would hope for a first, small harvest in 2024. This year we hope to plant a parcel of Syrah in La Garrigue, next to the existing one and hopefully this will bring La Vigne Haute in most years.
The work on the pond is finished, it is well filled with shelters for reptiles, insects birds and bats. This totem of biodiversity along the length of the hill watches over the Peilhan parcel. The first inhabitants have taken up residency. Fruit trees and Mediterranean plants surround it. The shrubs damaged by last year’s fire have been replaced. We have created a true haven of pece for flora and fauna.
It is tradition at the start of the year to send best wishes. The last few years have not spared us but we hope that this year will be more gentle.
A year of mixed blessings, moving back to normality from the pandemic, successful and happy trips abroad but a sting in the tail with a family accident and illness. I have blogged less yet reader numbers remain good and I am grateful to you all for taking the time to look in. The most read article was my last about regenerative viticulture, pleasing as it was my favourite one to write. Here is a review of my wine year.
I am fortunate to try lots of different wines at tastings and in France when I am working with Jeff Coutelou. Memorable tastings this year began with a rare event in North East England thanks to Les Caves De Pyrene. It was odd to resume such events after the hiatus of recent years but that made me appreciate it even more. I also thoroughly enjoyed the June Faugeres tasting in somewhat warmer and sunnier climes. I also led a tasting in my local area for 60 people in order to raise funds for Ukraine, worthwhile and a good experience which I hope to repeat.
I want to give a mention to Marks And Spencers’ Found range which I wrote about here. The company deserve much credit for highlighting grape varieties, outside the norm for supermarket customers, I have continued to seek out more of the range after I wrote the article and have been rewarded with some affordable, well made and interesting wines. I still like the Weissburgunder best but there are many more worthy of purchase.
Looking back through the notes and photos of wines tasted in 2022 I kept noticing the regular appearance of wines made with Chenin Blanc grapes. This is something of a return to my wine roots as the Loire, Vouvray especially, was where I made my initial vineyard visits and tastings. Vouvray once more provided my favourite of the Chenins I tasted this year, Michel Autran’sLes Enfers Tranquilles 2017, a lovely balance of freshness and depth, fruit and minerality. Another excellent Loire Chenin was Jean Christophe Garnier’sRouchefert 2020, I shall be seeking out more bottles and keep a few for longer term drinking. Craig Hawkins’ Testalonga wines have received recommendations galore from me in these pages and South Africa is a source of excellent Chenin Blanc wines, including Stay Brave 2021with its salty, spicy profile heightened by short skin contact. I also had examples of Chenin from the USA and Central Europe but my other favourite was Brash Higgins’CHN 2020from McLaren Vale in South Australia with a profile quite similar to Testalonga but a little wilder. So, Chenin Blanc, my grape of the year.
I am a wine nut, I love learning and reading about winemaking. I wrote about Jamie Goode’sexcellent book Regenerative Viticulturerecently and reiterate my recommendation for any like minded wine enthusiast to read it. You will be rewarded with approachable, convincing arguments about vineyard practice, remarkably entertaining for a subject which could be dry (apologies for an inadvertent pun). However, my book of the year and also wine website of the year are the work of one person, Aaron Ayscough. I declare my friendship and liking for Aaron, who has worked vendanges in Faugeres with Clos Fantine and visits Jeff regularly. He does not hide his thoughts, likes and dislikes and is not afraid to upset others who may disagree. The website Not Drinking Poison has interviews, articles and wine notes based on Aaron’s restless voyaging around the natural wine world. It is well worth the subscription though there are some free articles. I will be reviewing Aaron’s book, The World Of Natural Wine, in a forthcoming article but suffice to say it is essential reading. Some fascinating insight into the context of natural wine in relation to past winemaking, a balanced approach to some of the claims for the wines and good insight into how natural wine is made along with top recommendations. All in a beautifully produced format, this is a book to read and reread.
To my wines of the year. Not necessarily the greatest wines but the ones I enjoyed most. Let’s start with white wines and, despite my previously professed love of Chenin Blanc, my favourite white grape, Riesling. Julien Meyer’s Riesling Grittermatte 2014was a joyful, complex wine full of citrus flavours, a slick of honey and great length. When I visited Patrick Meyer a few years ago he had bottles which he’d opened a few days before but were utterly delicious. This was still youthful, yet full and balanced, a great bottle. Hermit Ram Sauvignon Blanc 2020 made by Theo Coles in Canterbury, New Zealand. Skin contact, no SO2, cloudy – almost a stereotype of natural white wine- but this is full, fresh, salty and simply delicious. A New Zealand Sauvignon but certainly not a typical New Zealand Sauvignon. A different style of Sauvignon Blanc altogether was Alexandre Bain’s La Levée 2019. Bain makes Puilly Fumés that don’t always meet with approval from the local authorities as he seeks extra ripe, fuller flavours. La Levée was rich, full of citrus and apple but also round and waxy. Two Sauvignons, two great wines, two completely different wines.
At the Faugeres tasting I attended in June the stand out white wine was from Catherine Roque’s Mas D’Alezon, Cabretta 2021. A blend from Roussanne, Clairette, Grenache Blanc and Grenache Gris this offered white fruits, minerality, freshness and complexity and the flavours lingered long. When you taste a large number of wines in one event a standout wine grabs your attention, it becomes memorable, the one you want to return to. This was that wine. Needless to say I bought some and this was close to being my wine of the year.
Beaujolais provided me with a lot of red wine pleasure this year. An older Foillard Morgon, Dutraive’s Fleurie and Chateau Cambon bottles, all excellent. My most memorable though was Séléné Cote De Brouilly 2020. I had heard a lot of good things about the producer but found it hard to get hold of any wine. Whilst in France I was able to purchase this bottle and it lived up to those glowing reports. The light red fruit profile of Beaujolais but backed up by good tannins and depth, a very classy wine. If Riesling is my favourite white grape then Pinot Noir is, probably, its red equivalent. Alsace provided my favourite example this year, as with the Riesling. Rietsch Pinot Noir Vieilles Vignes 2020 is simple winemaking leaving ripe, balanced grapes to express their fruit whilst offering further spicy flavours as well as texture. I had more expensive Pinots this year but for sheer pleasure this was my favourite.
The Languedoc obviously provides me with much of my wine and two wines stood out. From Jeff Coutelou I most enjoyed On Peut Pas Vraiment Dire Que 2015. This is Syrah from the vineyard which makes La Vigne Haute in the best vintages but in lesser years Jeff prefers to release it under different labels to maintain the high quality of La Vigne Haute. The 2015 bottle, released as OPPVDQ showed, like the Meyer Riesling, that natural wines do age well when they are made by talented producers and the full fruits were matched by a complexity produced by age, spice and leather for example. It really is worth aging bottles sometimes. That can’t be the case for Thomas Angles who made his first wines in 2021 in the St. Chinian area. I have never met Thomas even though he did harvest with Jeff in 2020 as that was accursed pandemic year. I was recommended Thomas’ Carignan and was seriously impressed, the bright red fruits were supported by light tannins and a spicy aftertaste which lingered. For a first vintage, excellent.
Unusually my wine of the year though is a Champagne. I don’t drink huge amounts of sparkling wines, let alone top Champagnes but I appreciate a good one whenever I can. Jeff opened Val Frison’s Lalore on the last day of vendanges to celebrate our work and a very good vintage. This Blanc De Blancs, 100% Chardonnay, is aged for nine months in old oak then spends sixteen months in bottle before release with no additions, filtration or dosage. The result is a pure expression of the vineyards, clean, fresh, citrussy fruit combined the classic yeasty notes of Champagne. Lalore is, relatively, cheap for Champagne yet I believe that it stands up against much more celebrated and expensive examples. The wine, the occasion and the memory of a bottle shared with friends, Lalore is my wine of the year.
Wishing you all a very Happy New Year, may 2023 bring good wines, health and happiness.
Jamie Goode’s books are always a source of information, learning and entertainment, I have reviewed and recommended a number in the past. This year he produced ‘Regenerative Viticulture’ a preliminary publication designed to be updated in a new edition with more science and depth in coming months. This interim book, published by Amazon, is around 170 pages long. I read it in France this summer, expecting it to be challenging and there is a good basis of science of course, Dr. Goode is a trained scientist and expert on plants. I had not expected to be so entertained, I zipped through the book in a couple of days and enjoyed it greatly.
Regenerative viticulture is very much a topic of our times. As Jamie says the thinking has changed about winemaking, emphasis has moved from the cellar to the vine and now to the soil. Our increasing concerns about the environment, climate and the damage modern agriculture has done to both mean that we have to look for change. The book shows that by turning back to the past as well as unearthing new science, viticulture can begin to make our soils healthy and productive. The clearly set-out chapters deal with issues such as the mycorrhizal layer, cover crops, soil management, pest control, and composting. They include scientific thinking as well as interviews with winemakers from all parts of the winemaking world who are working to incorporate such thinking into their practice. I found this very readable and learned a lot, it is a book to be read by anyone interested in agriculture generally, not simply viticulture.
Page 13 gives us a neat summary of the topic. The memorable quotation of James Milton, New Zealand winemaker, is there, there is no better précis, “We’re not standing on dirt, but the rooftop of another kingdom”. This refers of course to the role of fungae and other life in the soils in helping plants such as vines to grow. Research into this underworld is in its infancy but delivering fascinating information about the relationships between plants and fungae, future learning may well transform our practices. Jamie writes, “What regenerative viticulture gives you is a toolkit that can be adapted to place, recognizing that there is no one-size-fits-all way to farm.”. These two statements on page 13 inevitably made me think about how regenerative viticulture works in practice and, as I was working alongside Jeff Coutelou at the time of reading, how it relates to Puimisson.
The subject is certainly not new to Jeff, he has been a pioneer of regenerative agriculture in a locality where quantity and chemical boosting has been rife for decades. Indeed, Jeff has suffered vandalism, the burning of some of his regenerative hedgerows being one example. So, I talked with him and also used an interview he did for Radiovino with Julien Gangard to relate Jamie’s book to what Jeff actually does.
The Coutelou vineyards have been certified (Ecocert) organic from 1987, the work of Jeff’s father, Jean Claude. Since taking the reins of the domaine at the turn of the century Jeff has sought to bring life to the wines not just by making natural wines in the cellar but by improving the soils and environment of the vineyards. I well recall a tour of the vines where we settled in Rome vineyard and Jeff lifted the topsoil with his hand. A web of white threads spread out across the opened up earth, we were looking at the mycorrhizal layer. This network of fungae connects the vines to its neighbours and other plants sending information about minerals, food, predators and disease to support the fungae and plants together.
The photograph on the left shows some of the web of fungae, hard to see I know but it is visible.
Rome vineyard is a good case study in fact. It was Jean Claude’s favourite vineyard and is mine too. Jeff began to experiment with the soil here by not ploughing or tilling for seven years from 2008, a favourite methodology in regenerative viticuture. However, the results were not what Jeff expected. In 2015 I was there when he had to replace a hundred vines which had perished in the last few years. Holes were dug into the earth for the replacements and Jeff was taken aback by what we found. The theory is that by not ploughing the soil is undisturbed and life such as fungae, worms and insects are left untouched to aerate and improve the soil. However, in the heat of the Languedoc what actually happened was the formation of a hard crust on the surface and Jeff found no earthworms in any of the hundred holes. The earth below was also quite sodden because the crust was not allowing natural evaporation. Water in Languedoc soils is precious but, in this instance, the moisture was unhealthy and almost harmful. The crust, he believes, was preventing aeration too, hence the lack of worms.
This is why I quoted Jamie’s comment about needing to adapt the regenerative toolkit to the actual vineyards. During the Gangard interview Jeff says that it is for every viticulteur to make their own decision about what suits the soils which they know best. The practice which seemed best in theory did not work in practice for a healthy soil in that particular vineyard. Therefore, Jeff moved back to a very light, surface raking of the soils at most two or three times a year in order to break up the surface but not disturb life below the top 2cm or so. Since that time Rome has recovered its earthworms and insects and inspections, as above, reveal a healthy living soil.
Cover crops have long been a feature of the Coutelou vineyards, I recall my first visit in 2011 and naively considering them a bit messy because of all the other plants growing amongst the vines! The spring flowers, grasses and herbs are cut in summer to provide nourishment to the soils and prevent too much competition for water. After harvest the must of grape skins and stalks are piled into compost heaps recycling life back into the soils from which they grew. However, as Jamie points out, that must is very rich in potassium, too rich for a balanced soil so the compost must be mixed with other sources too.
Vineyard planning and the training of vines is another chapter in the book and the best example from Puimisson is the La Garrigue vineyard. The vineyard is on a ridge with one side facing south, the other facing north. Jeff thought about what grape variety would suit each slope best. He wanted Syrah and Grenache to be grown, grapes which form the majority of his wines such as Classe. Grenache, originating in the Mediterranean, especially Spain, loves the heat. Syrah, from the Rhone Valley, prefers some cooler temperatures. Therefore, Syrah was planted on the north facing slope (photo below), Grenache facing south.
Two of the vineyards, Rome and Font D’Oulette, are now planted with gobelet trained vines to reduce metal and wires. So too is Jeff’s retirement vineyard in St. Chinian which we worked on in late 2021. Hybrid varieties are being much investigated at present to help combat the climate chaos we see in the world and the vineyards. As temperatures rise some varieties simply don’t cope. Jeff thinks that acidity levels will drop in many European wines because of higher temperatures, picking too early to maintain acidity leads to wines made from unripe grapes. Therefore, he is looking at grapes which add bitterness to wine rather than acidity. Acidity is a Western feature of food and drink, citrus and vinegar for example. Asian cuisine often uses bitterness instead and grapes such as Clairette bring a slightly bitter flavour, Jeff has planted more and more of it around his vineyards.
Jeff with Matteo and Icare in the new gobelet trained St Chinian vineyard, Clairette being labelled
The book also considers the role of animals in the vineyards, both harmful and beneficial. Pest management is a serious issue and one to which I will be returning in the next article. From, ironically, fungal attacks to moths and snails, winegrowers face numerous challenges. Controlling them without recourse to chemicals and soil damaging products is a real challenge. One answer is the use of animals in the vineyards, for example ducks are used in parts of South Africa to eat snails. Didier Barral in Faugeres and other winegrowers graze cattle and other animals in the vines especially in winter. The animals eat and manure the soil at the same time, a perfect symbiotic relationship. I have come across deer, hares, rabbits and all sorts of birds in Jeff’s vines over the years and he is determined to encourage wildlife in an area which is unhealthily monocultural. The most recent example is the reservoir he has constructed in Peilhan vineyard with plants to clean the water, bird roosts and measures to help animals find water all year round. This reservoir is supplied with local water and fills very quickly. Steps have been built in to allow the animals to get to the water. You can read more about this in the latest edition of Aaron Ayscough’s Not Drinking Poison, the interview contains some excellent photos too. Pleasingly, the pond has already attracted insects, birds and small game.
Elsewhere, beehives, bat boxes (bats eat the main vine damaging ver de la grappe) and huge numbers of trees and shrubs have been added. Jeff’s belief is that not only do they help to regenerate the vineyards with flora and fauna but add to the welfare of the humans who work in the vineyards. If you’re pruning in the cold winds of January then simply having trees around is more stimulating, and in the heat of a Languedoc summer they provide shelter and respite for human, animal and vine. The vineyard is a workplace so make it as pleasant as possible, from Puimisson the Montagne Noir and the Pyrenees are visible, bringing back trees, shrubs and plants makes parts of the vineyards almost idyllic.
This is an enormous subject but a vital one. Many winegrowers, certainly around Puimisson, simply ignore the issues of climate change. With every heavy rainstorm comes banks of mud washed off the vineyards as the soil is loose and dusty from herbicide use. Soils with better management absorb those rains better and stay in place.
I urge everyone to read Jamie Goode’s book, anticipating the extended edition too and to ask questions about the vineyards which provide the wines we drink. As Jeff says when he plants a tree he knows that he will not see it in its maturity, he does it for the future of our planet and vineyards. That seems to be to be the only healthy approach to agriculture and viticulture. No aspect of wine is more important.
As I write the rain is tipping down and it is 13c at midday here in North East England. A good time, therefore, to reflect on a warm summer and its good wines, it brings a little reflected glow to a bleak day. Both here and in France I have opened dozens of bottles over the last few months and have also shared in some lovely bottles opened by others, notably Jeff Coutelou during vendanges. I have selected a few bottles which really excited me in addition to one or two which raised questions to me about my selection of wines and when I drink them.
I don’t often drink Champagne or much sparkling wine generally. I do love them but, the price of Champagne means I see it as a treat and my Protestant upbringing makes me feel that a treat has to be a very special occasion, so they are rarely opened. Maybe the ‘treat’ aspect and the circumstances of drinking Val Frison’s Lalore make me recall it with rose tinted spectacles but I think I can honestly say it was my favourite wine of the summer. Those circumstances were Jeff opening it on the last day of vendanges and the team sharing it together sat round the table in the garden. So, there is certainly a happy memory but the wine itself was stunning. A consistent effervescence, fresh opening taste followed by lingering white fruits and a deliciously smooth aftertaste – it really was a fantastic Champagne. Val works using natural methods including very low SO2 but this is classic Champagne and would appeal to natural wine sceptics. A genuinely exciting wine.
Allow me to include one of Jeff Coutelou‘s wines, indeed one I opened very recently. On Peut Pas Vraiment Dire Que 2015 is Syrah from La Garrigue vineyard, a wine made from the grapes which would make La Vigne Haute in the best vintages. The seven years of age had really brought out the best of the wine; tannins present but smooth as silk, dark fruit flavours made more complex by the tertiary flavours of ageing, a leathery note. The wine stayed consistent from first to last glass and I am confident that I opened it at its peak. I am always pondering on the right time to open bottles to experience them at their best. In recent years I have moved towards early drinking to maximise the fruit and freshness but I have opened a few bottles this summer which have developed so much by the last glass that I became all too aware that I should have shown more patience. Perhaps it is the natural world’s promotion of glouglou, everyday drinking wines which has influenced me. This OPPVDQ has convinced me to wait longer with some wines.
Two more of my selections confirm that decision for me. Firstly, Christian Venier’s La Pierre Aux Chiens 2018. This is Christian’s pure Pinot Noir and the four years of age had done it good but it developed so much as we drank it through one evening that I know that more time would have benefited it. Nonetheless this was excellent with round red fruits and good freshness and length. The sort of Pinot Noir which makes me realise how great a variety it is and how many great Pinots are now being produced outside of Burgundy. Certainly, this will be on the shortlist for my best wines of the year. Another Pinot Noir also pleased me greatly, this time from Alsace. Jean Pierre Rietsch’s Pinot Noir Vieilles Vignes 2020 had a peppery note to the bright red fruits, a genuine pleasure. And, yes, I should have kept it for a couple of years but it was lovely now.
The other two wines I have chosen reflect another of my recent wine contemplations. I am a Francophile and proud to be so. I also have favourite producers to whom I return most for purchases. I really need to broaden my wine tasting further, both outside of France and also with newer, younger producers. Therefore, when I was in the Languedoc I consulted my friend Frédéric Lambeau who runs the excellent restaurant/winebar Picamandil in Puissalicon. He recommended a number of very good wines and I have selected two.
The only vendanges I have missed in the since 2014 was the pandemic year of 2020 and a young winemaker worked with Jeff. Unfortunately, I didn’t meet Thomas Angles but I can heartily recommend his first wines made in the St. Chinian area. Fred advised me to start with the Carignan and it was lovely, good fruit with balancing tannins and freshness. This is a wine to drink fairly young but it is one of the best debut wines that I can recall. I hope to seek him out next time I am in the area.
The other wine was from Le Picatier, Picatier Un Jour, Picatier Toujours 2017. Le Picatier is run by the Pialoux family west of Roanne in the high Loire, Auvergne region. They have been making wine since 2007 and, unfortunately, in 2017 disaster struck with frosts damaging a large part of their vines. Sometimes good can come from disaster, however, and the Pialouxs blended their remaining grapes, mainly Gamay but with some Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. The latter two varieties really lift the Gamay and the result is a refreshing, fruity deep wine of real class. I would have guessed this was a young wine, it wears the years well.
So impressed was I by these two wines that I bought more of the range of both producers, I look forward to them but will give them some time!
I have included some photos of other very good wines but hope that you have enjoyed the selection and my reasoning for it.
As we were due to head back to the UK on September 28th and Jeff was heading briefly to Monaco he invited us to taste through the wines from this year’s vintage. He was going to a launch party for our friend Aaron Ayscough’s new book, The World of Natural Wine, of which more in a future post. We were joined by two New York honeymooners, Jenny and Jerry who have become fans of Jeff’s wines. Jeff had given them a tour of some vineyards and we met up at the cellar in late afternoon Jenny and Jerry were en route to a hotel a few miles away but that would have to wait as tastings with Jeff are never brief. Not that I ever complain.
We began upstairs with the white wines. This range has expanded a great deal over the last decade and I believe that some of them are amongst the best wines which Jeff produces. One of the interesting features of this tasting was trying wines from the same parcel but made in different methods, for example in his choice of press or fermenting vessel.
We began with Clairette, a mix of grapes from Segrairals and Sainte Suzanne, I have mentioned before that Jeff likes this grape for the bitterness it brings. He believes that climate chaos means acidity is harder to achieve in the hot Languedoc so bitterness adds freshness to white wines instead. This wine had already completed fermentation and it reminded me so much of the Clairette 21 which I had opened the previous evening and have really enjoyed whenever I have drunk it. More of the Sainte Suzanne Clairette had been blended with the Macabeu from the same parcel, pressed together and producing a good texture and freshness though a little sugar still remained with fermentation continuing.
By contrast Jeff had taken the free run juice of that Macabeu and put it into a concrete egg to ferment and age. The aromas were incredible, rich with coffee and pear and the flavours continued the pleasure, pears again but a nice freshness too. This was a real star at this very early stage. Another fascinating contrast as more Macabeu had been placed into an amphora, the resulting wine was much more closed and tight than the egg-made Macabeu. Tougher to taste at this stage but clean and concentrated. Onto yet another Macabeu based wine, this time with some Grenache Gris grapes I think, blended in to add colour and make an Amphore Métissé. This was lovely, one of my highlights, with good texture showing the influence of the amphora as well as lovely fruit.
Blended whites from small parcels featured prominently amongst the whites too. One was an interesting mix of the Gris grapes, Grenache, Piquepoul and Ribeyrenc with the Grenache Gris making up half of that blend. The grapes were pressed direct from picking and the result was a flavoursome apple fruit profile and another example of the slight bitterness which Jeff likes. Another blend was made from some of the last grapes to be picked, more Grenache Gris this time with Carignan Blanc and Terret Blanc which had been macerated for a few days before pressing. More white fruit profile and one to look forward to. Finally, among the upstairs wines was the orange wine made from Muscat D’Alexandrie, OW. The aromas had a rich, grapey Muscat profile, the wine is dry and clean with the slight texture of skin contact wine. I loved this, it could well develop into the best example of OW I can recall.
The photograph shows the Syrah of La Garrigue in the foreground and the parcel of Clairette/Macabeu (circled red) as well as the Grenache and Syrah of Sainte Suzanne(circled blue)
Time for the red wines downstairs in the main part of the cellar. Cinsault from Segrairals was light, fruity and fresh, a possible cuvée of 5SO with its enjoyable juiciness. More Cinsault next, this time blended with Aramon which is definitely making a comeback in the region. This had good acidity and clean fruit, very enjoyable, ready for a quaffing wine.
Sainte Suzanne is the vineyard planted half and half with Grenache and Syrah, the juice usually going to make Le Vin Des Amis. The Grenache was classic in style, full of red fruits with pleasing roundness. Two more batches of Grenache from the parcel had been vinified separately. One part was made with grappe entière (whole bunch) producing a lighter red with good freshness, the other batch was made in cuve having been destemmed and the result was good acidity and clear red fruit.
The Syrah from Ste. Suzanne was much fuller and weightier in the mouth with 14% alcohol but balanced because of the clear black fruit, a tank destined, in all probability, for the cuvée Classe.
La Garrigue vineyard also grows Grenache and Syrah. The Grenache, again intended for Classe, still had some sugars fermenting but was weighty and full of ripe fruits and already tasted very well. Regular readers know that the Syrah of La Garrigue is my favourite parcel of all Jeff’s wines, making La Vigne Haute in very good vintages. He is unsure whether it will be LVH just yet but the wine is a deep, rich garnet colour and tasted of red fruits with nice soft tannins and a definite minerality. The 12.5% alcohol means that the flavours shone through but will it be enough to support the finished wine?
Couleurs Réunies has become a successful cuvée for Jeff and its distinctive colourful label reflects the vast array of grapes which make up the wine. The reds of the terrace of Peilhan (Morastel, Ribeyrenc, Terret Noir, Piquepoul Noir) are joined by the Cinsault and Grenache of Rome vineyard, the Flower Power vineyard with its twenty varieties and, yes there’s more, Macabeu to add freshness with some more of the Garrigue Grenache and, finally, some whole bunch Carignan from Peilhan (the last grapes we picked). Phew. A lovely nose already, full of fruit matched in flavour too and a lovely clear finish. This is going to be one to watch.
The Mourvedre from Segrairals had a good, deep ruby colour and a lovely depth of dark fruit flavours showing through. The Carignan of Rec D’Oulette was certainly amongst the best of the wines we tasted that day, Jeff said that it reminded him very much of the 2017 version of Flambadouwhich is the wine made from the grapes. Full in colour, fruit flavours and length, this was really very good. Flambadou doesn’t get the love which it deserves in my opinion, it always ages well and is a wine of real quality. I have no doubt that the 22 will confirm my belief in Flambadou.
A tasting which confirmed the quality of the 2022 vintage which is fortunately matched by good quantity too. Jerry, Jenny, Pat and I all enjoyed it immensely and it was good to see Jeff looking relaxed and happy after the stresses of harvest time. The tasting moved to the solera cellar, vermouth and gin but that’s another story. Much will change with the wines in coming months as they complete fermentation and begin élevage and ageing let along bottling. However, this is a highly promising vintage.
If you’d like to find out more about the goings on at Puimisson with Jeff Coutelou, there are other sources as well as this blog. I thought I’d mention a few here with links.
Photography and video
I have mentioned Jeff’s niece Flora Rey before and shared some of her excellent photographs. Flora works all year round with Jeff so, just as I did a few years back, gets to see all that is happening. Her photography is shared on her Facebook page but she has also created a very good video of Jeff, Matteo and Gilles preparing an amphora using time lapse pictures.
During vendanges 2021 we were paid a visit by the magazine 180˚C. A full year later the article has appeared, giving background to the Coutelou domaine, vineyards and wines as well as describing Jeff’s thoughts and beliefs about them. It is good to see a mainstream food and wine publication featuring less conventional winemaking. It was a surprise to find a photo of myself in a magazine!
To hear from Jeff himself as he tours the vineyards then it is well worth listening in to this podcast from Radio Vino, the first part can be found here online or here on Soundcloud. Conducted during the summer of 2022 it brings us right up to date and is the next best thing to being with Jeff in the vines.
Finally, let us not forget the Netflix series ‘Rotten’ Season 2 Episode 2 which looks at winemaking in the Languedoc generally and includes an interview with Jeff and some excellent footage of him in the vines and cellar with Icare and some of the team too.
So, no excuses for not becoming informed about Coutelou culture though I hope you will continue to follow this blog for updates even as I head back to the UK, I have saved some stories to share soon.
Today, September 29th, Jeff was in Monaco attending a launch party for a new book by our friend Aaron Ayscough who writes an excellent newsletter, Not Drinking Poison, about the natural wine world. Aaron’s book, The World Of Natural Wine, is already on order for me and I heartily recommend it to you all. Jeff sent me a photo of the page with him on it so that I could add it to this post. An interesting selection by Aaron of all Jeff’s wines, OW, the skin contact, maceration wine of Muscat D’Alexandrie. I tasted the 2022 version yesterday and it is just fabulous so, an unusual choice from Aaron but a good one. And a hint of a future post about the 2022 wines.