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


Take two bottles

When I first started to get into wine I eagerly devoured almost as many books and magazines on the subject as glasses of the actual drink. Hugh Johnson, Michael Broadbent, Jancis Robinson, Clive Coates and Oz Clarke books were bought and studied, often at great cost. They steered me towards certain wines, countries and regions and to a fairly classical way of thinking about wine. At the time Bordeaux was the epicentre of wine with Burgundy a fairly distant second. A visit there reinforced the idea that Bordeaux was aloof, remote and tourist unfriendly for those of us without large incomes or inheritances. Nonetheless I bought en primeur, got lucky with 1990 for example. I learned about the importance of vintage.

Much has changed in intervening years. Bordeaux is now more tourist friendly, Burgundy less so from the days when a free cellar visit offered Grand Cru tastings. Climate unfortunately has been one of the major changes. In some ways this has been good, grapes ripen more easily and the days of green, sour wines of Bordeaux, Loire reds etc are mostly behind us. Winemaking skills too have developed, science and learning have given winemakers the skills to make the best of their grapes whatever vagaries have affected the vintage. Indeed vintage mattered less seemingly. Vintage charts were useful but no longer a key part of planning my wine purchases.

The Wine Society’s current fine wine vintage chart

My love of natural wines only seemed to confirm that vintage was less important. Each bottle is taken on its own merits rather than compared. And yet. I still keep bottles of the same cuvée from different years to compare, I have Jeff Coutelou’s Le Vin Des Amis, Flambadou and Classe stretching back every year to 2013, other producers too. I’m not sure why, maybe I will have a tasting one day of the different vintages to see how they compare. That I haven’t done so would support the notion that I haven’t seen vintage as a key part of my wine drinking.

Why am I rattling, or prattling, on about this? Well in the last month or so I opened two bottles of Jean Foillard’s Morgon wine. I hadn’t even realised that I had done so, a visit to New York in between might have blurred the memory. My notes though reveal two very different wines and it made me wonder about vintage all over again. Foillard, of course, was one of the natural wine pioneers, part of the group which transformed that region’s winemaking and influenced producers and wine drinkers around the world, including Jeff. I have bought his wines regularly though, in honesty I often prefer other producers such as Breton, Lapierre and Thévenet.

Morgon is perhaps the most serious of all Beaujolais crus, its granite and schist soils and climat producing denser, more concentrated wines than most of the region. Therefore, I like to give even village wines such as these a few years in bottle before opening them to give them time to mature and peak. Even then most Foillard wines have been enjoyable without really exciting me. The 2017 version was a typical experience. There was some nice dark fruit flavours and good texture but not a whole lot of joy. The 2018 was different. Bright red fruits on the nose and in flavour. There was more freshness to lift the fruit above the structure and tannins, there was pleasure in the bottle not just respect for it.

So, was this the result of the vintage or a difference in winemaking between the years? Unfortunately not much detail emerges from the domaine, the wines sell themselves without him needing to court publicity (or even a website as far as I can find). I actually tasted the 2017 with him at a tasting in Montpellier and he was reticent then too. I can’t find any explanation in terms of how the winemaking differed in the two years. So, is it an example of vintage difference? Well 2017 was a good year in the area until hail storms hammered it in July and Morgon suffered more than most, losses of up to 80% for some producers. 2018 by contrast was one of the great vintages, a sunny vintage, ripe grapes but with good freshness too according to many vintage summaries I have studied for this article, such as this. That reflects exactly what I found in this bottle. It seems that vintage has indeed been reflected in these two bottles.

Of course this is not a surprise, I know from working so many vintages with Jeff that the grapes are different every year and that wines reflect the grapes. It seems I have been guilty of underestimating vintage in my wine buying, I need to rethink my rethinking.

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Making a difference

A couple of months ago a friend of a friend approached me about leading a wine tasting in order to raise some funds for charity, and after the invasion of Ukraine and the ensuing refugee crisis it was an obvious cause to support. The new committee at Snod’s Edge near Shotley Bridge Community Hall, near where I live in County Durham, is trying to organise events to raise the profile of the community and the Hall.

After meeting Hazel and Vicky we decided to look at encouraging people to try different wines and from different countries to the usual bottles purchased on the High Street. They also requested that I should include an orange wine and an English wine. At the same time the wines needed to be easily available to the public and not too expensive so that the costs of the evening were kept low in order to boost the sum raised for the charity. I approached Majestic Wines at Hexham and the manager, David and we talked through a selection of ten wines to fulfil the brief. The success of the evening owes a lot to David and his guidance.

I waned two wines for five categories; dry white wine but not Sauvignon Blanc, a fuller white but not Chardonnay, a lighter red, a fuller red and a sparkling wine alternative to Champagne. The wines selected were as follows:

Villemarin Picpoul De Pinet 2020, Cave Ormarine, France

Assyrtiko 2020, Lyrarkis, Crete

Macerao 2021, Luis Felipe Edwards, Chile

Vinehugger 2020, Reyneke, South Africa

Bicicleta Pinot Noir 2019, Cono Sur, Chile

Nero D’Avola 2018, Corolla, Sicily

Winemaker Series, The Red 2019, Mark Kent, South Africa

LB7 Reserva, 2018, Lisbon, Portugal

Cava, Codorniu, Spain

Brut, Chapel Down, England

My tasting sheet contained suggested marking even though my own experience of and attitude to marks is not terribly positive but it does provide a way for people to think about the wines and decide which ones they like and for what reasons. My own choice regarding what was marked how, eg, I lay less emphasis on the appearance of the wine than others do and I like to add marks for sheer enjoyment of the wine, which to me is the most important aspect of drinking a wine.

Brief comments from me on the grapes, producers, background as well as picking out topics such as the use of oak (LB7), co-operative producers (Picpoul), how orange wine is made, organics (Reyneke and Corolla), volcanic wines and soils (Assyrtiko and Corolla) and the rise of English wine in recent years.

The Picpoul (£8.99) was fine, perhaps less fresh than some examples from this excellent producer. The Assyrtiko (£11.99) had more texture and flavour whilst still fresh and I preferred this in the pairing. Most of the audience preferred the Picpoul.

The Macerao (£9.99) is made from Muscat D’Alexandrie like the OW which Jeff Coutelou makes so it was interesting to try it. A light example, I imagine maceration was fairly short, it was a good introduction to this style of wine, not surprisingly the wine split the audience some really liking the style, others not so sure. The Reyneke Chenin (£12.99) was lovely, good white fruit flavours with freshness and a long finish, easily my preferred white wine of the night. The vote was split between these two overall.

The Cono Sur Pinot (£8.99) is a standard new world Pinot, plenty of sweetish fruit though there’s a little reductive note on the finish, good value for money. However, it was outclassed by the Sicilian Nero D’Avola (£8.99). This was the surprise of the night. There were good red and black fruit notes with spice and freshness. At the price it is a bargain and confirms the quality being made in Sicily. The audience agreed.

The South African red (£12.99) made from Syrah, Grenache, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cinsault I used to exemplify how blending works. It was a good full, spicy red made by the winemaker of Chocolate Block in Franschoek. The LB7 (£11.99) wore its oak well though it was noticeable on the finish but this smooth wine had plenty of black fruits. Most preferred this to the Cape wine, I preferred the other!

To sparkling wines and an explanation of how Cava is made differently to Champagne and the English wine here. The Cava (£11.99) was quite sweet and easy, nothing complex. The Chapel Down (£29.99) was very popular with most, some bias perhaps. I liked it but I do think there are better English producers and that this is overpriced even with the 10% discount for buying any six bottles. It was better than the Cava but I wouldn’t buy it myself.

Most of the increasingly vocal crowd gave their vote for wine of the night to the Chapel Down so who am I to say they are wrong. The second most popular was, pleasingly, the Sicilian red. Was it coincidence that my two favourite bottles were the organic wines? Auto suggestion or not I did think that they stood out.

Thanks to Hazel, Vicky and the Committee for inviting me to host this enjoyable event (my presentation boosted by Liverpool winning the FA Cup shortly before we started) and happily we raised almost £500 for the Ukraine appeal. Feedback was very positive and I have been invited back! Thank you to David for his help in organising the wines and glasses and to everyone who made the effort to turn up and, I hope, enjoy the evening. Hopefully many will feel encouraged to try some different wines from different sources.

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I was lost…

Regular readers will be aware that I love to learn about different types of grape, an amateur ampelographer. One of the most precious books I own was given to me by Jeff Coutelou, Pierre Galet’s ‘Dictionnaire des cépages’ full of detail about every wine grape known. One of the things I have loved about spending time with Jeff is that shared interest in grapes and his willingness to plant grapes old and new to the Languedoc. Visiting Domaine Vassal, a repository of all French grapes, planting Piquepoul Noir and Gris, Riveryrenc and others in March 2015 was one of the highlights of the three years I was there full time. Last autumn we planted Mauzac and Fer Servadou in his new vineyard at St. Chinian, he has also planted one of my favourite white grapes Xarel-lo amongst dozens of others.

Therefore, I have been delighted to see some of the UK supermarkets seek out wines from grapes not usually found on their shelves. Marks & Spencer has been one of those supermarkets with their range of wines called ‘Found’. Commercial wines are mostly not organic or natural in any way but I bought a few to try.

Some countries have lots of grapes not familiar to most, Portugal and Greece for example. I have written about Portugal a fair amount with the publication of Foot Trodden so I concentrated on Greece. Two bottles came from the latter. Moschofilero and Roditis made up the first wine, both white grapes, though the latter has a pink skin. Moschofilero is very aromatic and the first sensation on trying this wine was of the aroma of spice and flowers, rather like an Alsace Gewurztraminer. The wine was dry and fairly flavourful without exciting. The other wine from Greece was from Xinomavro and Mandilaria grapes. The former is fairly well known, the latter is often used to add depth of colour. This was, indeed, a very dark red/purple colour and quite tannic with full flavours of plums and other black fruits, certainly a food wine.

Two Italian wines next. The first came from Sicily and the Nerello Cappuccio grape which I have had in blends before but not as a single variety wine. I liked this, a medium colour with attractive red fruit aromas and flavours, balanced with some sweet fruit in the mouth. I would try this again. The Ribolla Gialla comes from the Venice region of northern Italy, a grape I have enjoyed before often made in a skin contact method in the North East of Italy and Slovenia. This was a more traditional white wine with nice yellow fruit aromas and a tang to the taste.

To South America. Pais is a thin skinned variety, probably descended from Spanish black grapes and it was the most common variety in Chile until the rise of Cabernet Sauvignon there. By coincidence I drank this the night before I attended a wine tasting in Newcastle where more Pais was to be found. To be honest those examples were superior to the one in the Found range which was darker than expected and had a cherry like flavour without much excitement. From Argentina came the example of Cabernet Franc, one of the more classic grapes in this range found in Bordeaux and the Loire for example. I must be frank (sorry) and confess to really struggling with Cabernet Franc, years of under ripe, green wines from the Loire put me off. Nor did I enjoy this wine, it was ripe certainly but it had no real distinguishing profile, just a red wine.

The best of the range which I tasted was the Weissburgunder (Pinot Blanc) from Germany. This had a freshness on the nose and in the mouth. Yellow fruits, a touch of aromatics with a cleansing, fruity aftertaste which lingered. I would definitely buy this one again. Pinot Blanc used to be a neutral grape, I remember lots of very average examples from stays in Alsace thirty years ago. Nowadays, climate change and winemaking improvements have led to much fuller and enjoyable wines and this German example certainly falls into that category.

My brother in law, Iain, tried the Mazuelo (known as Carmenere elsewhere) from the Rioja region of Spain and he tells me that it was very good so I will seek that out and can pass on his recommendation with confidence in his judgement. There are also a South African Grenache Blanc, Gros Manseng from SW France, a Blanquette de Limoux and a rosé from Portugal. Most of these would be more familiar to me and on these pages.

Overall, I really like the range in promoting appreciation of a greater variety of grapes and wines. I hope that it succeeds in encouraging vignerons to continue to grow and to plant traditional and unusual varieties and consumers to experiment and deepen their appreciation of wines. I am running a wine tasting soon about this topic and will report back, again based on commercial wines from some different grapes.


March on March

The Caves De Pyrene tasting I described in my post last time was certainly the highlight of my wine drinking month, not because it had better wines than the ones I usually open but because of the variety and new wines which I was able to taste there. However, the rest of the month had its moments too and I share them with you here.

I read Oz Clarke’s book ‘English Wine’ with interest, there were some fascinating facts about the rapid expansion of the UK wine growing scene, production rising from just over a million bottles per annum to 15 million in a decade for example. I was also taken aback by the dominance of the Champagne grapes in England, I had expected more of the German varieties and grapes such as Bacchus (which I believe is the English USP) but sparkling wine dominates and so Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier are the three most planted grapes. I enjoyed the book though felt it was a little biased. That said there are some exciting wines now in the UK, producers such as Ancre Hill, Westwell, Davenport would be my personal favourites.

It was definitely a month in which white wines starred for me, maybe the unusually warm and sunny weather led me that way. Jurancon’s Domaine Montesquiou is a firm favourite of mine but their Vin Libre 2020 was a new wine for me, their first venture into natural wine. Made with the traditional Petit and Gros Manseng grapes and (I think) a little Courbu the wine was delicious with clean, zingy freshness and a persistent flavour of pear and apple. If I had to select one French region for good value white wine it would be Jurancon and Montesquiou would be my preferred producer. This new addition to their range is very welcome to me. By contrast I have always struggled to really appreciate Chablis, though I recognise that is heresy to many who laud it widely, including many whose opinions I rate highly. I find a lot of Chablis lacking in character, probably because I do not drink the higher priced wines from top sites. However, I really did like The Wine Society’s Exhibition Chablis 1er Cru Montmains 2019. There was more depth in flavour, texture and I picked up that stony, dry ‘minerality’ which is the Chablis hallmark. I need to investigate the top end of Chablis, it is many years since I did.

Niepoort in Portugal is a producer I respect enormously for fortified and still wines and I regularly buy the simple Drink Me white and red wines in 1 litre bottles, designed for simple enjoyment. The red was the one I enjoyed most this month, made from organic Baga grapes in the Bairrada region producing light, red fruit flavours like a good simple Beaujolais in style. A drink me and enjoy bottle, well named.

Favourite wine of the month though was one of Jeff Coutelou’s, yes I am biased but on a lovely, warm sunny afternoon in my sister’s garden OW 2019 was a treat. Bright orange in colour this is made from skin contact Muscat D’ Alexandrie grapes. I tend to think that orange wines (OW of course) made from more aromatic varieties can be the most interesting, the aromatics still offer interest but are more controlled by the skin contact. There were clean, dry spicy, tea notes with a citrus-like finish and characteristic texture. It was in cracking form.

Finally, I bought a range of wines from Marks And Spencer, their ‘Found’ range in which they offer wines from around the world made from grapes which are unusual to most supermarket wine buyers. As this is one of my main interests in the world of wine I thought I should explore this range a little as it is one I applaud even if the wines are conventional in nature. I shall report back on my findings next time. This is a them which other supermarkets are also exploring and will also be the theme for a charity wine tasting I have been invited to lead in May here in NW Durham. No doubt I shall report on that too. The year is starting to open up and I look forward to getting back to Puimisson in coming months too.

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Back in the saddle

My first wine tasting in two years. How I have missed them. Appropriately it was natural wine UK pioneers Les Caves De Pyrène who organised it, in Newcastle at The French Quarter restaurant near the Castle itself, a place I visited with countless school groups as a teacher. It felt a little odd being in a fairly small room with a lot of people but once in the swing of the event I relaxed and enjoyed it (honestly that wasn’t the result of the 70 or so wines I tasted!!).

The room was set out with informal stands for France, Spain, Italy, the Americas, the rest of Europe and one for Australia, New Zealand and South Africa combined. The hosts at each stand were excellent, knowledgeable and helpful. There were a lot of good wines ( as you would expect from Les Caves, a regular supplier for me through lockdowns) and only one that was faulty (mousiness after starting as a lovely white). I have selected a few favourites to describe.

Let’s start with familiar France and, indeed, it was a familiar wine which stole the show, possibly even of the whole event. Clos de Tue-Boeuf, the home of Thierry and Zoe Puzelat in the Touraine is one of the most famous of natural wine domaines, much loved by the likes of Alice Feiring. I have always liked the wines but the Cheverny Blanc Frileuse 2020 was in seriously good form. The blend of Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc was clean and fresh with lovely white fruits which were sharp yet left a roundness behind. Seriously good. The Cheverny Rouge Rouillon was also good.

I enjoyed the Pinot Blanc 2018 from Achillée with good ripeness though still fresh. Chénas is the Beaujolais village which I visited most over the years but it seems to have been left behind by the other cru villages in recent years, especially its neighbour Morgon. It was very pleasing, therefore, to come across Chénas Les Carrières 2020 from Domaine Thillardon. Nice fruit with a clean start, complexity grew in the mouth. Very good.

On to Spain. A consistently good range was on offer and I struggled to keep my recommendations to a reasonable number. In the end my four favourite wines came from two of the producers. Firstly Partida Creus, whose wines I already knew. GB Garnaxta Blanca 2020, light in colour for a maceration wine but there was clear texture from the skin contact and a lovely herby, fruity flavour. Equally good was UL Ulldellebre Tinto 2018. Uldellebre is a Catalan name for Tempranillo, perhaps the most famous Spanish grape. This example was fresh, very well balanced with fruit and complexity with lots of spice and length.

The other producer, new to me, was Pedro Olivares from the Murcia region. Muscat Blanc D’Argila 2020, its name suggesting the skin contact in amphorae (?). Very aromatic and fruity with good texture from the maceration of 24 days, well judged winemaking balanced the wine nicely. Similar comments apply to the lovely fruits of Monastrell 2019, lovely fruit and complexity. Definitely worth seeking out this producer.

The Italian range was more mixed for my taste but there some lovely wines in there. AA Tuccio Raffaele is based in Puglia and I liked the Antica Enotria Vriccio 2019, made from Primitivo grapes. I often think of Primitivo wines as being light but this was a big, complex wine, dark and powerful with a classic Italian red finish of sour cherries. Very good. From Sicily came Etnella‘s Attia Rosso 2020 from Nerello Mascalese grapes. I have a real fondness for Sicilian wines and this was a classic example with fresh red fruits, full and balanced. Finally a Barolo, not a wine I usually find easy to enjoy. Barolo Casina Bric 2015 was, as expected, very full and rich with dark fruits and tannins but those fruits were clear and spicy. A convert.

I tasted the wines from the Americas first and they were the ones which perhaps left the longest impression from the event. I confess to not being as familiar with Chilean geography as I ought to be and I have found South America to be lacking in wines from the natural sphere so it was good to discover a range unearthed by Les Caves. Coincidentally I had opened a Pais wine from Itata in the south of Chile the previous evening so I was drawn to a comparison, believe me the wines here were better and I shall be writing about the other wine soon.

There was a lovely entry level wine, Vinos Inacayal‘s La Cueva 2021 made from Pais and Carignan in the Colchagua region. Organic grapes made with minimal intervention in cement tanks. The Carignan added finesse to the blend, good and fruity. Mauricio Gonzalez in Yumbel has made a lovely wine in Pipeno Tinto 2021. Pipeno is a style of wine made to be drunk early and this was a good example of a young, fruity and savoury wine, a Beaujolais style with simple enjoyment to the fore. A Los Vinateros Bravos is based in Itata and I enjoyed the Cinsault wine Las Curvas 2019, direct with clean light red fruits and a little texture.

My favourite wine from Chile though was from Vina Ventisouero, a new producer in the Atacama, just south of the desert itself. Their Tara Chardonnay 2018 had lovely intensity with fresh fruits and a roundness on the finish. Made from whole bunches part fermented in barrel and partly in tank this Chardonnay is quite expensive but worth it. There was also a very good wine from Oregon in the USA, Bow and Arrow‘s Time Machine NV. Pinot Gris, macerated in concrete egg is blended with barrel aged Chardonnay and the result is clean fruits with a ripe, round finish.

The European stand showed bottles from England, Wales, Greece, Austria, Slovenia and Georgia. It was my first tasting of Tillingham wines, both very good. Wales’ Ancre Hill was just as good though. I have praised their orange wine on here before, and bought a bottle just last week. The two sparkling wines on show here were very pleasing, the Pet Nat Red and Blanc De Noirs. I have had mixed experiences with Georgian producer Pheasant’s Tears in the past but enjoyed the two wines here, the white Rkatsiteli had the most dusty skin contact mouthfeel of any wine I can recall for many years and I enjoyed it a lot. My favourite wine here though was Arndorfer‘s Gruner Veltliner Naturtrüb 2021. I find a lot of Gruners to be fairly neutral though pleasant this one was much better with apple and pear fruit flavours, clean and fresh but nice complexity too.

Finally, back to the southern hemisphere. I really enjoyed a Barossa Shiraz, not my usual thing at all. Stone Spring‘s Shiraz 2021 was full but there was a good balance of direct acidity and the wine was very well balanced. Good winemaking. South Africa is fast becoming one of my favourite sources of wine. Intellego produce good value wines and their Chenin Blanc / Chardonnay blend Story of Harry 2020 was savoury, fruity and had good length and fruit. Radford Dale‘s Renaissance Chenin Blanc 2017 was even better with balanced, concentrated flavours of apple and pear and excellent complexity.

Excellent wines from a cool Welsh climate to the edges of a desert in Chile. Grapes familiar and new. A Barolo that I really enjoyed and a confirmation of Spain as a real driving force in exciting winemaking. I thoroughly enjoyed being back to discovering wines, a big thank you to Les Caves De Pyrène and The French Quarter for their hospitality.


February favourites

It wasn’t exactly a resolution but I had thought at the start of the year that I would make more effort to update the blog more regularly than the last couple of years. However, the events in Ukraine made it seem trivial and irrelevant. Did we really think that 2022 would be worse than the last two tainted years? However, time to press on.

I have read a couple of good wine books in the last month and pass on recommendations. A thread on Twitter about wine books brought up the suggestion of Terry Theise and his book ‘Reading Between The Wines’. Theise imports German, Austrian and Champagne wines into the USA but his book describes his relationship with wines and its making. I found it hard to get into at first but its style and philosophy gradually won me over and I found myself nodding along rather than nodding off. I will re-read it soon as there were some sections which raised thoughts I would like to consider more. The other was a new book by Rachel Signer, You Had Me At PetNat. Signer is also American and the book tells of her journey from New York to living and making wine in the Adelaide Hills, a journey aided by her love of natural wine. It is a very confessional and personal book, as an older white male it was different to my background but like my love of natural wine it pays to be open minded and the book repaid my time with insight and warmth.

To wines. I decided to select my three favourite wines of the month. Orange wine has quickly established itself as a style I love and there were two excellent examples last month. Firstly a familiar wine, Ariana Occhipinti’s SP68 Bianco 2020. Made in Sicily from Muscat D’Alexandrie (familiar to we Coutelou devotees) and Albanello grapes. The latter has been in decline, just 125 hectares remaining. It is a grape which ripens late and usually used to make sweet wine. Here Occhipinti makes a dry wine with 15 days of maceration on skins producing a light orange wine but with enough texture to satisfy. The Muscat comes through in flavour but the wine avoids a surfeit of aromatics and is simply delicious.

The second orange wine to make my favourites list was Hopera by Slobodne, the Slovakian producer whose Vronski I chose as my wine of the year for 2021. Hopera is a 50/50 blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Gruner Veltliner fermented with hops. The seven days of skin contact produce more distinct colour than the SP68 surprisingly but the results are fresh, fruity and flipping lovely. As it happens I had a bottle of Slobodne’s rosé, La Rose et La Vampire 2020, when we went for my birthday meal. It was pleasing, fresh, light and red fruit flavours galore, a very good match with the excellent Mexican food of Barrio Comida in Durham. So, three Slobodne wines tasted, all three were winners.

My third wine of the month was a very pleasant surprise despite being a Coutleou wine (no surprise there of course). When I bought some bottles of Jeff’s 2001 Sud and Ouest from an auction house in the UK there were also some bottles of 7, Rue De La Pompe 2010. This blend of (mostly) Syrah and Grenache is a regular cuvée from Jeff but usually consumed within a couple of years. I was concerned that a simple bottle such as this would have tired and be past its best. I am delighted to report that it was bright, vibrant and delicious. The fruitiness was intact, the acidity was balanced and the flavours lingered. It was genuinely excellent, I know I am biased but this was top class. I doubt this wine has ever tasted better, another example of how natural wine ages well when it is made by a skilled producer.

There were more very good wines, I have put up a gallery of photos and if you would like more thoughts on them then please contact me and I shall pass them on directly.

This is the week of La Dive in the Loire and its satellite tastings, one of the benchmark tastings of the natural wine calendar with a history of significant discoveries. I wish all there a successful and happy time. My friend Aaron Ayscough, author of the website Not Drinking Poison and a forthcoming book, has published a list of tastings to look forward to.

This was my 400th blog post, I had thought to create something special but, as I said in the opening paragraph, it just doesn’t seem the right moment. Thank you for reading the blog as always and for keeping up such high numbers. I shall get back to posting more regularly.

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To drink or to vote? (A Coutelou update)

It is a tradition of Jeff to begin every year with a ‘carte des voeux’ or greetings card which contains humorous topical references and also a review of the previous year and the wines which it produced. With Jeff’s permission I can share some of those updates here.

Previous cards with this year’s top left

It is a Presidential election year in France so the card offers the voters a helping hand. Far be it from an Englishman to make any reference to voting and politics given the appalling state of affairs here. So let me move on to the information about the wines and vineyards.

Jeff recounts the story of 2021 beginning with a wistful comment on how the vintages unravel but are becoming less and less similar to each other with climate producing a seemingly endless rota of problems. Autumn and winter were mild but with little rainfall (unfortunately one feature which is repeating itself this year Jeff tells me). A very warm March was quickly followed by the disastrous frost of April 7th-8th which I described here and was seen across the whole of France. It was the timing of that frost which was the hammer blow, the heat of March had brought forward budding of the vines and so this young growth was laid waste by the frost. As Jeff puts it, “It was necessary to find courage within yourself to face up to getting back to caring for the vines.” With losses of whole vineyards, that seems an understatement.

More cold weather followed which put the vine growth behind schedule even with warmer weather in June. Summer was unusually cool and cloudy though storms did bring needed irrigation. Vendanges began on August 30th, a week behind the average of recent years. The grapes were healthy and of good quality but at only 50% of the normal quantity.

I was there for vendanges and recall a very enjoyable, friendly time with a good crew but there was always a tinge of regret and sympathy for Jeff who had lost so much of his annual income as well as seeing his beloved vineyards ravaged that Spring. Fermentations were straightforward when I was there and that continued through the autumn, including in the new amphorae and concrete egg.

Jeff told me last week that he had carried out the assemblages on January 27th after tasting through the various wines a few weeks earlier. Obviously there will be fewer final wines and less wine altogether. There is a new wine with grapes bought from Clos Des Jarres in the Minervois which I described at the time. Classe, Matubu and a Tradition (with grapes such as Castets, Morastel and Terret Noir) reappear as does Flower Power for the first time in 7 years and there’s a new wine, Ploutelou which sounds intriguing. Let’s not forget the whites, Clairette Blanche from a young vineyard, OW returns as does the amphora white and a Macabeu which includes the grapes raised in the egg.

As for the vineyards. A lot of work will have to be done to repair damages caused by the frost, a third of the Aramon planted in 2020 will have to be replaced for example. Most exciting for me is the planting of a new parcel of Xarello, the Catalan white grape which makes some of my favourite white wines there. I love that grape and can’t wait for the results of this development. Meanwhile the work on Peilhan continues with the large new vineyard and its reservoir which has begun to fill with water (though more would be welcome). Moreover, after the destruction of olive and fruit trees there by an arson attack, a hundred new trees will be planted.

As Jeff concludes, COVID, lockdowns, arson – 2022 has to be better surely?

Meanwhile Steeve and Matteo, central to that team at vendanges, remain in Puimisson and are working their way through the vineyards to carry out pruning which, after the frost damage, is particularly demanding of care and precision. Steeve has sent me some photos of the vineyards as he works through them. It whets my appetite for a visit there soon and for the wines to come.

Let us all hope that fortune does favour Jeff more kindly this year.

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January jottings

Dry January? Well maybe in terms of the weather in North East England. Unseasonable warm temperatures and lack of rain have brought out insects, flowers and, no doubt, animals when they should still be dormant. The decline in birds in the garden has been alarming, only a visit to Durham Wildlife Trust’s Low Barns scratched my twitching itch.

If there was a month not to drink wine it would not be January, it is a long, generally dreary month. I am, though, very mindful of the health effects of wine. We may choose to believe a litle wine is beneficial for our health but the science would suggest it is far more likely to be damaging. For the last few years, I have opted not to drink alcohol on Mondays and Tuesdays to give my system time to recover and rest. If, there’s a special occasion I on those days I compensate on two other consecutive days. However, I see no need to take out a whole month especially as my wife Pat celebrates her birthday in January, of which more later.

Indeed, I have opened some exceptionally good bottles this month, to brighten it up. We started the New Year with one of my favourite champagnes, Drappier’s Brut Nature which is full of life and flavour, as well as a clean, characteristic Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc 20, a perky, natural 2017 Brouilly and, the now traditional La Vigne Haute, this time the 2017. It remains my favourite wine. I also opened two new wines from Jeff Coutelou. Quoi qu’il en Goutte is a blend of Syrah and Carignan from 2019 assembled with more Syrah from the 2020 vintage. The name means ‘No Matter What’, and no matter what Jeff makes it is worth trying to get a bottle. Leon Stolarski describes this wine beautifully on his website (he is the UK importer) as having sweet and sour notes and how it develops with time. I liked it a lot though might keep my other bottles a few months. Even better, to my taste, and also needing more time was Matubu. This was basically made by assembling the wines that were left over after Jeff had put together the 2020 bottlings. Leon offers more detail on how the Syrah, Carignan and Grenache were pressed etc. It is delicious, still highly coloured withbright fruit aromas and flavours but a good tannic spine which will make it age well. As a wine born out of chance rather than planning it is is exceptional, far better than the quaffing wine it was essentially made to be.

Other highlights included a beautiful Fino sherry from Equipos Navazas, exceptional quality and deserving of more space than I am giving it. Westwell Wines, from Kent in England, have provided me with some lovely bottles and their Ortega Skin Contact 18 was another exceptional wine, the skin contact adding texture to the deep yellow fruit flavours. Other good wines are shown below including an interesting first red wine from a favourite Jurancon producer Montesquiou, very promising.

Pat’s birthday brought a weekend of fine bottles, with our favourite winemaker featuring prominently. Another lovely Fino sherry, the Una Palma bottling from Tio Pepe, deserves a mention. Montesquiou’s Amistat 2017 was a delicious Jurancon, unmistakable in aroma and flavour, such a balance of sweetness and freshness. From Jeff we had Bibonade, his refreshing PetNat, Sauvé De La Citerne 19, light and drinkable, Classe 17 with its bright cherry flavours and drinkability. There was also a bottle of Petits Grains, a rare barrel aged Muscat which is so fine, the dry, Muscat flavours tamed by the old barrel but still typical, very long in the mouth. A Jura Pinot Noir 18 from Marnes Blanches was one of the highlights, a lovely example of why Pinot Noir is so special with its depth and rich flavours. Better than most Burgundy? Finally, one of the bottles I made from 2015 grapes, Amicis, the N on the label showing it was aged in new barrel and the oxygenation has aged it beautifully, I am very proud of it.

So, definitely not a dry January.

One point which did occur to me through the month repeatedly from these bottles and others which we opened but I have not described. I had, for example, a couple of Australian wines, organic, very well made and enjoyable wih good fruit and depth. However, those and other conventional wines I tasted in January, really didn’t change or develop much after the bottle was opened. By contrast, some of the natural wines were very different from one glass to another and more interesting as a result. Now, that is not always a good thing. The Beaujolais above developed a trace of the mosuiness I can’t stand, fortunately not enough to ruin the wine in this case. Others in recent months have become tired very quickly. Most though develop much finer fruit or more tertiary notes of age or barrel influence. I am not claiming by any means that conventional wines don’t develop, many do but the ones I have had recently have been good for the first glass then, well, just a little dull.

I recall Jeff telling me back in 2014 that spending so much time with him would change my taste in wine. I didn’t really believe him but it was true. The paragraph above proves how right he was.

January is also the month where my friend and I exchange lists of our favourite songs from the previous year. Janus, god of the doorway, looks forward and backward. Music plays a big part in my life and I was listening to a playlist from an English TV programme which included a performance of Debussy’s Clair De Lune. As it played I was struck again how perfect it is, how it builds naturally on the melody as it develops moods and emphases. My favourite wines travel through that same process, the Vigne Haute, Westwell Skin Contact, Equipo Navazos Bota de Florpower, Marnes Blanches Pinot Noir move from glass to glass bringing new flavours, balances and provoking thought and mood.  (The sherry showing that more conventional winemaking can achieve this.)

I had other musings too but I shall leave subjects such as glassware, wine pairing etc to another time. Thank you for reading and may 2022 bring us health, joy and good wine.


Odds and ends

As another year ends I wanted to add a few final observations to summarise it. This time last year we all were hoping that the horrendous events of 2020 would not be repeated and that we had something to look forward to. Well, 2021 was not as bad as that year but far from the renewal for which we had hoped, variants complicating the resumption of travel and ‘normal’ life. However, all was not lost.

September saw our return to France, the opportunity to renew friendships and, for the purposes of this blog, the chance to work with Jeff Coutelou once again for my seventh vendanges with him. Though the harvest was small because of the horrendous frost of April, I enjoyed the chance to work in the vines. How good it was to work alongside a lovely team and to share our work with you. I know from my statistics that vendanges brings more readers eager to find out about Jeff and what wines he will be producing as well as discovering the realities of grape harvest and winemaking.

If that was my personal highlight and the last blog post described my favourite wines of the year there were other good things wine related to enjoy too.

I was delighted to be one of those who helped to crowdfund Simon Woolf’s latest book, Foot Trodden, which he co-authored with Ryan Opaz, about Portuguese wine. I am happy to say that it is an excellent read, like his previous book Amber Revolution. It led me to seek out a range of wines from Portugal using their advice and some were very good indeed. It was also good to meet Aaron Ayscough whilst I was in France. His blog/journal Not Drinking Poison has provided me with fascinating insights about the natural wine scene across France and other countries as well as his personal story in studying wine. I would highly recommend a subscription at just $30 or £22 a year, a bargain. More good reading came on stream during 2021 with Trink reporting on German language wines and The Drop. However, please continue to read my blog too!

As we were planting all kinds of varieties of grape in St Chinian in September and began to enjoy wines from even more varieties which Jeff has planted it was pleasing to discover that across the world there is a drive to rediscover old grapes and revive their planting and use for wines. This follows on nicely of course from the topic of Portugal, a country rich in native grapes unfamiliar to most including myself. Field blends and grapes such as these are a continuation of the search to go back to old ways of winemaking and a desire for authenticity for regions.

In recent weeks I have had wines from grapes such as Aligoté Doré, Roter Veltliner and Savignon Gris. For those who enjoy ampelography like me it is the beginning of research into the varieties. It turns out for example that Roter Veltliner is not related to Gruner Veltliner, whereas Aligoté Doré is a clone of Aligoté just as Savignon Gris is a mutated clone of Sauvignon Blanc. So, a wine label can be the beginning of an enjoyable and fascinating journey, confusing at times too.

Christmas brought a more conventional line up of wines than I am used to these days. I bought a mixed case of bin end Burgundy wines a few years ago from The Wine Society. One of those was La Vougeraie’ Clos De Vougeot Grand Cru 2000, a wine I coould not really afford to buy these days. It was maybe just past its prime but still a real treat to enjoy a Pinot Noir from its real home in the heart of the Cotes De Nuits, the fruit dimmed a little but still showing dark and plummy backed by a depth of tertiary flavours. We had started with a champagne called Latitiude from biodynamic producer Larmandier-Bernier, pure Chardonnay and a refreshing, fruit led joy. Albarino D’ Fefinane from Palacios in northern Spain was the other Christmas Day treat, a fine example from a top producer

Most amusing discovery of the year was coming across a book from the 1960s called ‘Making Wines Like Those You Buy’. It was aimed at the home winemaking public, I do recall it being very popular in my youth and I know that there are still specialist shops now. Amongst the recipes were some for various classic wines such as Chianti, Madeira and the ones below. Not exactly the natural wine movement.

My favourite quote of the year came from US winemaker and pioneer of good vineyard practice Randall Grahm, famous for his Bonny Doon wines. “The absence of defect in wine does not necessarily equate to the presence of quality.” My experience of retrying some conventional wines this year showed the wisdom of those words.

Let us hope that 2022 brings us further towards a resumption of pre COVID times. I am sure I had similar wishes last year. Fortunately wine provided some highlights and I trust that the same was true for you too and that 2022 will be an even better one for you. Thank you once again for giving some of your time to my writing, I am truly grateful.

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My favourite wines of 2021

In previous years I have selected whole cases of wine but this year I am going to share just my favourite wine of each colour and type. I hope you find it of interest.

Let’s start with Jeff Coutelou. As readers know this blog is based around Jeff’s vineyards and wines and my experiences with both as well as with Jeff and the people who share in his generosity and friendship. I get to experience just about all of his wines, those sold commercially and the ones made for himself and friends. I genuinely love them, the range is staggering but the quality remains consistently high. This year we enjoyed some lovely wines at lunch during vendanges, such as old vintages of La Vigne Haute, amphora aged wines and others. The one that really stands out though was a surprise.

‘Une Syrah‘ – beautifully understated

As I have reported many times my favourite wine of all is La Vigne Haute, made from Syrah grapes in La Garrigue vineyard but only in exceptional years. In other years those grapes can be used to make a wine labelled as something else or blended with others. In 2015 they made On Peut Pas Vraiment Dire Que, labelled in simple blue. It was good but when I opened a bottle this month it was exceptionally good. I could be accused of recency bias in choosing this bottle but it was a genuine surprise. Age has softened some of the acidity though the wine was still fresh and clean. The fruit had rounded out to deliver red and black fruits with great depth. It carried weight to accompany a lasagne with ease but could be consumed on its own with pleasure. If I had tasted this blind I would have opted for La Vigne Haute and one of the best vintages. I chose it as my Jeff wine of the year because it shows how age can boost a natural wine as any other wine, because it shows the wonderful fruit of that vineyard and the skills and quality of Jeff himself. I have one bottle remaining, I shall treasure it.

To my favourite red wine of the year. I used this year’s wine buying to explore regions and countries which I did not know so well, Portugal, Australia, Greece, the Canary Islands. There were some very good wines from producers such as Filipa Pato, Niepoort, Brash Higgins, Envinate and Boesch. However, my favourite wine of the year was much closer to ‘home’.

Belle Lurette on the left at the domaine in September

I have known Brigitte Chevalier of Domaine De Cébène in Faugeres for ten years, having first bought her wines from Leon Stolarski in England. Her wines have always been favourites. Her transformation of the vineyards she took over after moving from Bordeaux is now reaping rewards in terms of the quality of grapes. Combine those biodyamically grown grapes with Brigitte’s growing expertise in the cellar and the result is a range of exceptional wines which I described here after a recent visit. The wine which sang for me was Belle Lurette 2018. Based on Carignan grown near the winery on schist soils, typical of Faugeres, Brigitte added Grenache and Mourvedre which form 30% of the final wine. In the glass the aromas of herbs and spices and red fruits were backed up by a palate of bright fruits. The wine is light in body but, rather like a good Burgundy, is packed with power and length which will enable the wine to age well if you can resist drinking it now as it is delicious. A real stunner, bravo Brigitte.

I probably drank more white wines this year than red, somewhat unusual for me. Great Alsace and New Zealand wines were a highlight together with more from Portugal, Savoie and the Jura. The wine which sticks in my memory though is from Slovakia and is actually a skin contact or orange wine. A visit to a relatively new wine shop / delicatessen, Kork in Whitley Bay, resulted in me purchasing Slobodne Vronski 2018. Made from Sauvignon Blanc grapes, macerated on skins for a week and then aged in a concrete egg for a whole year. The skin contact added texture and mouth feel but the fruit and freshness burst out on the palate. Exceptionally good. I know nothing about winemakers Agnes Lovecka and Mišo Kuropka but I am seeking out more of their wines and this bottle has made me very keen to travel to central Europe to discover more of the exciting wines there.

May I wish you a very Happy Christmas and thank you again for reading my blog in such numbers, I appreciate your time.