amarchinthevines

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


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Vendanges Coutelou 21 – setting the scene

En francais

Picture from The Express Tribune, Lahore

Most readers will already know that this has been a difficult year for winemakers across France and Germany amongst others. Here in France a series of frosts in April damaged vines in regions from the Jura to Provence. When I spoke to Jeff Coutelou on April 11th he was reassured that Puimisson had avoided such calamity, but then disaster struck. On April 12th the frost, unforeseen by forecasters, struck many parcels with temperatures sinking to -7˚C. The Languedoc is no stranger to frosts even if not as vulnerable as other regions but this was sharp and the timing was disastrous. Vines had begun budding and flowering in the previous couple of weeks and the young growth was dried to a crisp by the cold. Jeff predicted that yields might be down as much as 70%.

Photo of a frost hit vine in 2015 from my blog

The vines fought back a little through Spring and Summer, secondary bunches forming but they cannot replace the original growth properly, being smaller and of lesser quality. However, the frost was also part of an ongoing problem with lack of water. Jeff told me that there had been little rain since the end of vendanges 2020, with just one sustained period of rainfall this year. Vines, weakened by drought and frost, become susceptible to other problems too. Every summer downy mildew and oidium (powdery mildew) are present and they found easy targets in 2021.

Ironically, after my first tour of the vineyards this year, it was the Grenache of La Garrigue which stood out as being the best with healthy foliage and beautiful, good sized bunches of grapes. Ironically because last year that was the parcel worst hit by mildew, nature was giving back a little this year in compensation. La Garrigue is also the home of the Syrah which makes my favourite wine, La Vigne Haute. Unfortunately those vines had been damaged this year and were looking sorry for themselves. Syrah does seem to have been particularly badly affected. The first days of this year’s harvest concentrated on Syrah from Sainte Suzanne, Segrairals and, then, La Garrigue. Yields were one third of last year.

In the last 5-6 years Jeff has replanted many vineyards, some of which had been fallow for some years. The fruit of these young vines can be used this year to help produce wines such as the PetNat, Bibonade, that will boost production a little. The estimate is now that there will be just under 50% of a normal year. So, the scene is set. I wish I had a prettier picture to paint, it is the least promising of the seven vintages I have witnessed here. Let us hope for a twist in the tale.


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It means the world to be back

En francais

Getting out of bed on Thursday morning, back aching in various places, the tips of my fingers stained black and blue and a matching bruise on the palm of my right hand. How did I feel? Just great thank you. These were the signs that I was back after two years, back in the Languedoc, back in Puimisson, back in the vines and back with my dear friend Jeff Coutelou.

For six vintages I had reported on how the year on a wine domaine wound its way through peaks and troughs. Six vendanges, hesitant the first time in 2014 then with growing understanding of what was happening, why it was happening and what I could do, in a small way, to help produce the excellent Coutelou wines.

2014

During that time I had progressed from basically standing guard over a basket press (when in reality nothing much could go wrong) and doing rudimentary sorting as the grapes arrived to becoming a much more confident ‘cellar rat’ knowing how to carry out remontage, pigeage, operate the pumps and to stand at the sorting table knowing exactly what I was looking for as the bunches arrived, from disease to ver de la grappe, the feel and the smell of the grapes able to tell me that those grapes did not belong in the tanks of quality wines we were making.

2019

I came to love the various vineyards and to get to know their quirks, strengths and weaknesses. But especially Rome, sheltered from the world by surrounding trees, teeming with wildlife, complex in its geology and filled with its gnarly, gobelet old vines, standing free. My oasis. I came to love the philosophy behind Jeff’s winemaking; biodiversity, supporting nature not exploiting it, grapes, work and love. I already loved the wines but being part of their story made them even more special. And, above all, I came to love the people I met through the years, the revolving cast of characters who spent time with us.

Rome

Whether based in France pretty much full time for three years or spending half a year there I felt at home, but I took my happiness and good fortune for granted. If the COVID-19 pandemic did one positive thing for me, in preventing me from being in France and the 2020 vintage, it was to make me realise how much I missed being part of the wine, how much I did love the place, vines and people.

It is a pure joy to be back, the aches, bruises and stains are very welcome.


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Mini Grand Cru Riesling comparison

Back in 2017 I stayed in the beautiful village of Riquewihr in Alsace. I have been fortunate to stay many times in the region, one of the most beautiful and interesting parts of France. And, of course, home to some fantastic wines and stunning vineyards. I wrote about the stay back then and, also, the natural wine scene. We stayed in a gite run by Domaine Agapé run by Vincent Sipp (a famous wine name in the region) and his wife. Vincent runs his vineyards on a sustainable philosophy, exploring organics but not certified. He invited me to taste his wines and I bought three 2014 Grand Cru Rieslings from different sites in his vineyards. Whilst 2014 wasn’t a great vintage generally in the region Rieslings did well, especially dry versions.

Earlier this summer, on a hot, sunny day in North East England (yes, they do happen) I decided it would be a good time to open all three for comparison. Three Riesling bottles from the same producer, made in the same way, in the same year, they should offer an insight into terroir as that was the only significant difference. We were in my brother in law’s garden and drank them there after they were slightly chilled.

First was Osterberg, a Grand Cru near the village of Ribeauvillé, a little to the North East of Riquewihr. Marl and limestone soils dominate and the vineyard is traditionally a source of good acidity in the wines. I suspect there had been the slightest oxidation of this bottle as the flavours were a tiny bit subdued but there was still good exotic fruit profile with good weight.

Next up was Rosacker and a complete contrast. This vineyard is near Hunawihr, half way between Riquewihr and Ribeauvillé. The soil is different, deep limestone and the vineyard sees less sunshine and is, generally, a little cooler. The result was obvious in the glass, the wine was cleaner, more direct with fresh acidity. White fruit flavours lingered but this was a wine I would have with food, its freshness would enhance any meal. Where Osterberg was exotic and yellow fruit, Rosacker’s apple and pear fruit provided a clear contrast.

Finally, Riquewihr’s own Grand Cru, Schoenenbourg on the north side of the village. We walked around this vineyard (see above) which has very steep slopes down to Riquewihr, they must be hard work to tend and harvest. Marl, limestone and a touch of gypsum mark the site and Schoenenbourg’s wines are often described as having a smoky hint from the gypsum. There was none of that in this bottle, indeed the wine was a perfect middle point for the two previous bottles. Good acidity but with more obviously expressive fruits than Rosacker, fresher than the Osterberg.

Of the three bottles, my wife and Iain both chose the Schoenenbourg as their favourite wine, whereas I went for the Rosacker – maybe the fresh acidity is more in line with my natural wine palate. It was a very enjoyable mini tasting, providing exactly what I had hoped for, an insight into how terroir can produce different wines from the same grape, in this case the wonderful Riesling.

I recommend the Vins Alsace website for bountiful information on the region and its wines.


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July the juice middle

“If June was the beginning of a hopeful summer, and July the juice middle, August was suddenly feeling like the bitter end.” – Sarah Dessen

Let’s start with France, usually the mainstay of my wines but I only had three French wines in July. Firstly, Brocard Chablis La Boissoneuse 2019. I have had a few of Brocard Chablis wines recently and this was the best so far with good concentration and definite hints of what I would call ‘minerality’. By that I mean a very dry, fresh taste with slight texture, a little like running water over pebbles. I bought these Chablis bottles as, though many rate the wines at the top of the white wine world I still struggle with it a little. This one was good though. I still preferred Marc Tempé’s Pinot Gris Zellenberg 2016. I love Alsace wines and this is a very good example of Pinot Gris with its spicy notes and clean, dry finish. Moreish and refreshing. The only French red of the month was Jean David’s Tapatara 2019 and a wine of great interest as it’s the first 100% Counoise wine I have had. From the southern Rhone, specifically the village of Séguret, this is fresh, juicy and refreshing with black fruits on the nose and in flavour. Counoise is one of the Chateauneuf grapes, usualy blended with others but I very much enjoyed this bottle.

To Italy. A warm July day was a perfect one for Maule’s Garg’N’Go 2019. This PetNat is made in the Veneto hills from Garganega and Durella grapes. Some of the grapes are dried to concentrate the sugars and some of this is added to the traditionally fermented grapes so that the sugars restart the fermentation in bottle producing the sparkling wine. Refreshing, white fruit flavours and perfect for the summer. Daniele Piccinin’s Muni 2018 is a blend of Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio and, once again, Durella. I read about Piccinin in Isabelle Legeron’s book ‘Natural Wine’ and was pleased to get my hands on some of his wines. The colour was very golden, looking almost oxidative but it was fresh with good fruit, a very good bottle. From the Emilia Romagna region, one of the natural wine classics, Denavolo’s Dinavolino 2019. Six months maceration produces an orange wine of citrus flavours but with a nice roundness to it. A very good introduction to orange wine, very good.

Another interesting winery I have only discovered recently is the German Staffelter Hof based in the Mosel. Jan Matthias Klein’s family have had vines there for centuries but Jan changed the winemaking of a small part of the wines around 2010 to sulphite free. They proved an instant success and have quickly established themselves on a high level of natural wines. Little Bastard 2019 is a white blend of Muller Thurgau, Muscat, Riesling (60%) and Sauvignon Blanc. I really liked it, fresh and clean, full of white fruit flavours of good length. The Muscat had some skin contact to add more depth. Another good summer wine, don’t be put off by a slight cloudiness. I praised Rennersistas wine in the previous post and I’m happy to add another big tick for Waiting For Tom 2017. A blend of Blaufrankisch, St. Laurent and Zweigelt this was a joyous bottle with full cherry fruit flavours, good depth and freshness.

Testalonga wines are a regular here and the latest Keep On Punching 2020 was another successful Chenin Blanc, very good. Cambridge Road winery in New Zealand is one of the pioneering natural wineries there. Cloudwalker 2018, a blend of Pinot Gris and Riesling, is cloudy (appropriately) but very juicy and clean, direct yet long. They use concrete eggs and old barrels to ferment half of the grapes on skins so there is some skin contact texture in the wine too. I would add this to my summer wine list with pleasure. Barranca Oscura Syrnacha 2018 is a dark rosé from Syrah and Garnacha grapes made for easy drinking yet with good deep red fruit flavours. It had a good amount of CO2 fizziness at first but this settled quickly and it probably added to the wine’s attraction.

Wine of the month though was from Slovakia, one of my first bottles from that country. Slobodne Vronski 2018 is an excellent example of orange wine. Sauvignon Blanc grapes macerated for a week and then given a whole year in concrete egg. The resulting wine is a light gold in colour with herby, almost aniseedy, aromas. There is a very good texture and mouthfeel to the wine with herby, stone fruit flavours and excellent length Very good indeed.


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Updates from Puimisson

All photos by Flora Rey unless indicated

A continuing absence from Jeff, Puimisson and France. This blog was started in 2014 in order to share my experiences as a novice about winemaking spending time with my friend Jeff Coutelou, an expert. The pandemic has made that next to impossible. I am grateful that Jeff and his niece, Flora Rey, keep me updated with messages and photos. Fortunately, they are happy for me to pass them on and I continue to hope that I shall be able to join them soon, fingers crossed.

The vines are ten days or so behind the usual dates for véraison (when red grapes begin to colour) and this will mean later vendanges of course, usually 40 days after véraison. You will recall that April brought devastating losses to this year’s production with up to 70% being damaged by the frosts of April 12th. The grapes which there are look to be in good health though Jeff was worried this week about a weather forecast which could raise the risk of oidium (powdery mildew) due to a northerly wind. This meant he has been out in the vines in a week which was supposed to be a rest time spraying with organic treatments (and made more complicated and time consuming by a puncture).

Meanwhile the plants which are allowed to grow between vines, such as grass and flowers, have been cut down as they start to offer competition for water in the hot summer and will also compost the soils. It has been a very dry year, just a couple of storms worth of real rainfall since last year’s vendanges, so water levels are very low. There was some useful rain a couple of weeks ago to everyone’s relief.

Meanwhile the new plantations need care, they will have been watered as they will produce no crop this year. At the Ste. Suzanne plantation of 2020 young vines need tying up (palissage) a labour intensive job. These are Clairette vines producing their first grapes, not that they will go into the wines.

The week beginning July 7th was an intense period of bottling most of the 2020 wines, I recall long days of hard work in the past. There’s an intriguing new name for one cuvée and a topical inscription on the corks. The wines are apparently very good and I can’t wait to try them. The third cellar at Jeff’s is his stock cellar, always a good place to visit as you can see here.

Meanwhile there was a new delivery last week, a concrete egg. Many wineries now use them to age wines as the shape of the egg is believed to make for better fermentations and ageing, adding more energy and vitality. We shall see. When I asked Jeff what would be going into it he told me that I would see when I got there for vendanges and I hope that will indeed be the case.

Thanks to Flora and to Jeff.


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June wines

The arrival of summer brought a taste for white wines in June, happily the quality of the wines sated that taste. I mentioned in previous posts that I had purchased a number of Chablis wines trying to establish better understanding of the region’s ‘minerality’. This month I opened Brocard’s Vieilles Vignes 2019. Definitely the fullest and most interesting of the wines so far, worth the extra cost. Two South African wines, Testalonga Keep On Punching 2020, Chenin Blanc from this excellent produces – have I ever had a poor bottle from Craig Hawkins? Badenhorst Secateurs 2020 is also Chenin and just as zingy and refreshing. The descriptor from merchant The Sourcing Table mentions it being a light orange wine with skin contact, I didn’t pick up on that but it was a good wine.

Spanish white wines featured heavily in the month. Coto do Gomariz 2017 had pleasing freshness and quite full flavours. A blend of grapes including Albarino and Godello but mainly the Galician grape Treixadura which adds the zestiness. Fedellos do Couto Conasbrancas 2019 was similar but with more depth and concentration. It too features Albarino and Treixadura amongst other grapes from a field blend but as well as the acidity there is more roundness and aroma. Very good.

Heading further south in Spain to Andalucia. Luis Perez’ El Muelle 2019 de Olaso is based on Palomino grapes, the variety used for sherry. Some of the grapes are sun dried for a few hours and aged in old oak but 80% is fermented in stainless steel and this produces a fresh wine with good flavour and length. Cota 45 Miraflores 2018 has a very similar background, Palomino grapes near the sea in the Sanlucar/Jerez area. Ramiro Ibanez ages the grapes in barrel and allows a flor of yeast to develop as in sherry but this is a straight table wine and with only 10.5% alcohol. That lower alcohol does not come at the cost of flavour or weight as the wine fills the mouth with flavour of nuts and fresh apples. The aromas of sherry are, intriguingly present but this is such a great summer wine.

To Italy and a wine from Daniele Piccinin who featured so much in Isabelle Legeron’s book ‘Natural Wine’. Based in the Veneto region Daniele has a healthy approach to farming in general. This new wine, Monte Scarvi 2019, is based on Durella and Garganega grapes and, again, brings a freshness and apple, citrus profile which is perfect for June. Enjoyable. Like Piccinin I had had been looking for some of Rudolf Trossen‘s wines, one of the pioneers of natural wine in Germany. Silbermond 2018 is classic off dry German Riesling from the Mosel Valley. Typical Riesling aromas with citrus and apples (a theme is developing!) and just 11% alcohol. German Riesling is what first attracted me to wine in general and this bottle pleased me greatly.

French reds next. Jeff Coutelou’s La Buvette A Paulette 2019 first of all. This has been a major surprise for me even though I helped to make it. The Merlot grapes planted by his father form the basis and Jeff added some Mourvedre and Syrah grapes too. (The Merlot has since been grubbed up by the way). Full, fresh red fruits, this is not a wine to simply use up grapes, it carries quality well, the 19s are very good all round. Some people have apparently noted some Volatile Acidity but I found nothing out of the ordinary myself. Jeff and I were early champions of Louis and Charlotte Pérot’s wines from the Cahors region. L’Ostal Levant Zamblé 2019 is another new cuvée from them, based on Malbec or Côt of course. Louis’ wines are very similar to Jeff’s in many ways, the profile is on the fruit and he adds a drinkability to Cahors which can be missing from many other producers. One of the other producers in the region is Simon Busser and his Polichinel 2018 was a good comparison. More austere but still with good fruit flavours from the Malbec grapes, a food wine.

Wine of the month? That would be another red (just ahead of the Cota 45) and from a producer already mentioned, Fedellos do Couto As Xaras 2019. The winery is based in the Ribeira Sacra region of Galicia, north of Portugal. They have a multitude of grape varieties, mostly on steep slopes and work them organically. This wine is 100% Mencia, the classic Galician red grape and it was all fresh, raspberry flavours and aromas, with good length. I had this on a hot summer afternoon and chilled it lightly, the 12% alcohol and freshness made it a very good choice. Lovely wine from a very good producer.


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May wines

A sad month with the death of Bruno Rey, a lovely gentle man who made me smile whenever we met.

That sadness was compounded by the loss of winemakers Olivier Lemasson, Pascal Clairet and Laurnet Vailhe, all in tragic circumstances. May all four rest in peace.

At home my second vaccine gave me some hope that I may yet get over to Puimisson this year. I do miss the vines and the cellar as well as my friend Jeff.

So, to the wines of the month starting with the white wines. Firstly a new grape to me Nosiola, native of the Trentino region near Lake Garda. Its name suggests hazelnuts apparently and there was a hint of nuts as well as smokiness from this 2017 wine from producer Vilar made with a couple of days of skin contact and low SO2. The grapes must have been picked with good ripeness as the wine was quite full and juicy. I enjoyed this, slightly unusual wine and would certainly buy it again. Thierry Puzelat of Clos duTue Boeuf in the Loire was one of the natural pioneers in France, Le Petit Buisson 2019 is a regular cuvée from him, pure Sauvignon Blanc aged in old barrels. Fresh, good acidity but not harsh at all, a classy Loire SB, very enjoyable as ever. Clemens Busch were similarly one of the pioneers of organic production in Germany and I bought a selection of their wines a couple of months ago. This Riesling Trocken 2018 was very dry as the name suggests with clean, direct acidity. Ideally a wine for food but perfectly enjoyable on its own with its green fruit flavours.

To my two favourite white wines of the month. Firstly Portuguese Branco 2018 from Filipa Pato, made from Bical and Arinto grapes, I do love the Portuguese varieties being used so well. Slightly golden, perhaps due to a small portion of the grapes being aged in barrel, this gave generous aromas of herbs and yellow fruits. Fresh, round and slightly nutty notes with long lasting flavours. Very good. Then came Deboutbertin’s Achillée 2017, a natural Chenin Blanc from the Anjou. Loire Chenin was one of the grapes which first attracted me to wine, it seems to be finding its way back to the fore of my wine racks again, supported by Chenins from South Africa. This golden coloured wine was spritzy to start with though this disappeared by the second glass. Fresh citrus with surprising herby and spicy flavours, Achillée took me by surprise a little but I loved it – those flavours somehow worked. It’s not the cheapest wine but it was well worth the money.

There were a few red wines, let me start with ones I wouldn’t buy again though others would enjoy them I am sure. Hoffstatter Lagrein 2016, from the Trentino Alto Adige region of Italy. I have had Lagrein before and liked it, I found this perfectly enjoyable, another food wine, but lacking real depth. I liked the first glass of Wassmer Spatburgunder 2017, there was plenty of Pinot fruit but then it went mute and dull on me. Disappointing. Daniel Ramos’ El Berrakin 2019, a natural Garnacha from the Gredos region in central Spain was raspberry fresh, quite light. I liked it but no more than that. These three are perfectly drinkable wines, any that I really don’t like I don’t even mention.

Wines I preferred. Testalonga Follow Your Dream 2020 is a Carignan from one of my favourite producers anywhere. Bright purple in colour, fresh acidity – things you would expect with such a young wine. But there’s a lovely red fruit profile which Carignan can give with good intensity and I like the acidity as it balances the fruit sweetness. Lovely wine, I recommend any wines from this South African star. Scintilla wines’ Shiraz 2019 is made by my good friend James Madden in the Adelaide Hills. Completely natural wine this is another raspberry fruit wine but there was more depth to this than the Garnacha, I hope there will be more of James’ wines here in future. Herdade do Rocim has featured here before and I very much enjoyed the 1 litre bottle Fresh From Amphora 2019, made in the Alentejo region of Portugal from more local grapes, this time Moreto, Tinto Grossa and Trincadeira. Two months of skin contact in amphorae, this offers a juicy, light red with plenty of enjoyment to be had from the fresh fruity profile. The litre size is a real bonus.

Arianna Occhipinti’s SP68 wines are another regular favourite of mine. Sicilian natural wine, the Rosso 2019 made from Nero D’Avola and Frappato another producer making the most of the excellent local grape varieties, this time in Sicily. Frappato, as I discovered on my visit to the island, adds a cherry freshness to wine softening the Nero D’Avola and making a wine to enjoy with and without food. Berry fruits, a hint of liquorice perhaps and freshness (you may have spotted a theme here!). I will certainly buy this again. Jeff Coutelou’s Flower Power 2015 is, of course, a wine I know well. Made in the small Font D’Oulette vineyard from a field blend of twenty plus grape varieties, red and white. This is now at its peak full of red fruit flavours but with a lightness of touch and clean acidity, delicious.

Red wine of the month though, indeed my favourite of all this month, was Rennersistas Grauburgunder 2019. The two sisters are young winemakers but they are fast developing into top class producers. This Grauburgunder (Pinot Gris) was fermented on skins for four days, so it is probably an orange wine. Yet, as you can see in the photo, the wine is a light red in colour. This is the result of the pink tint of the grapes which adds that hue to the wine. I love Pinot Gris grapes, they are so distinctive. Jeff has some and I enjoy seeing them develop their colour. This wine was the Renner sisters’ first production from their Grauburgunder vineyard, what a way to start. Lovely aromas of roses and raspberries, fresh red fruit flavours with nicely balanced acidity – this makes for a good wine for food but also to drink alone. Really classy wine, big recommendation. Was it a red wine? I’m saying yes.

Pinot Gris at Jeff’s


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The cruellest month

T.S. Eliot described April as the cruellest month in his epic poem The Waste Land, a phrase which seems very apt for 2021. The frosts of April 7th have created wastelands throughout French and other European vineyards, winemakers will be reliant upon stocks of wine from previous years, many of which were challenging in themselves. Simon Woolf’s The Morning Claret contains an insightful, moving and challenging article by Hannah Fuellenkemper based in the Ardeche region. I hope you will read it.

On a more personal level the phrase struck me again as I reviewed the bottles opened during this month. A corked bottle, an oxidised one and a lovely wine that turned mousy by midway were three blows. I should add before the natural wine haters start to nod in ‘what do you expect?’ mode that only the latter was a natural wine. I opened six bottles of conventional (though organic) wine and two were faulty. Maybe I should stick to the more reliable natural side.

In truth the month was short on wine excitement. I bought a few different Chablis wines a few months ago and though they have been ok they have left me a little cold, rather like the April weather here in the UK. Similarly an organic Rioja, New Zealand Syrah and a number of Italian wines (another attempt to expand my wine horizon). There was nothing wrong with these wines and it was good to try Teroldego, Tempranillo and Pecorino for example, grapes not usually part of my drinking. Nothing wrong, but nothing exciting.

Back to Ariana Occhipinti, mentioned in the March review, for better things. The SP68 Bianco 2019 was refreshing, dry, flavourful and another hit from this excellent Sicilian producer, a blend of Muscat and Albanella grapes. Muscat was again the feature of another enjoyable wine, this time an orange wine from Alicante, Bodegas Vinessans Tragolargo 2020. Bright orange in colour, characteristic orange wine light tannins and more typical of Muscat with its floral notes than the SP68. It is an easy drinking, light and enjoyable wine, a good introduction to skin contact wines for anyone unfamiliar with the ever increasing range. Another successful wine was the vinho verde from Folias de Baco Uivo Loureiro 2018. Loureiro is the grape, biodynamically grown with no SO2 added. Sappy, fresh but with a round aftertaste from being aged on its lees this was very enjoyable, one of my favourite Portuguese wines of this year, another project I embarked upon. However, I had a better vinho verde this month, Niepoort’s Nat’Cool Drink Me Branco 2019. More Loureiro, blended this time with Alvarino, Arinto and Trajadura and producing a sappy, aromatic wine which was delicious on its own as well as with food. Slightly cloudy, tasting of citrus and apples and in a one litre bottle!

To a limited number of reds. Jeff Coutelou’s Couleurs Réunies 2018 has become a firm favourite in his wide range. A blend of over 20 different grape varieties, red and white it produces a vibrant purple wine with full on fruit which calms as the bottle empties to add a depth of plummy complexity, slightly sweet and sour. I love it, but then you knew I would. A real treat now. I have recommended Little Wine on here many times in the last year, a terrific, ground breaking website and bottle shop. After a year on business they gave away a bottle with purchases and I gladly accepted the enticement. The bottle was lovely, Claus Preisinger’s Puszta Libre 2020. Blending Zweigelt, St Laurent and Pinot Noir with 20% undergoing carbonic maceration and the rest destemmed for a short maceration the result is alight red, almost rosé, but packed with fruit and pleasure. The Little Wine website describes it in Claus’ words as a ‘homage to good Beaujolais’ and it is certainly that. And more.

Wine of the month though went to Marcel Deiss’ Rotenberg La Colline Rouge 2013. A blend of Riesling and Pinot Gris grown biodynamically from a beautiful hillside in Wintzenheim, Alsace this was classic Alsace wine. Dry, clean flavours with a slight sweetness on the end, apples and pears, lemon and a little honey. Someone told me this was heavily filtered which surprised (and disappointed) me, but there was no denying how well this tasted. For purity of the natural wine drinker I should have chosen the Preisinger as wine of the month. By Alsace standards Deiss was a biodynamic pioneer and adventurous and this wine was just lovely.


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Frost

On April 5th Jeff Coutelou’s niece Flora Rey sent some photos of the joyful Spring period when the vines begin to bud. I always found this exciting when I was there full time and still do, the long winter over, the hard work of pruning completed and the new year’s wine in the first stage of arrival. I spoke to Jeff on the 6th as news broke of frosts around France and all was well in Puimisson. That very night the Languedoc was hit by severe frosts, way worse than anything forecast.

The results were catastrophic. Jeff reported on the 7th that around half of the vines were sufficiently damaged that they would produce nothing this year. A few days later as Jeff learned more about the effects of that awful night he sadly raised those estimates to around 70% damaged. At first it seems the buds have survived but over the next few days they lose the struggle to survive as they dry out and fall apart. I have seen frost damage at Jeff’s before but it only affected a few vines or rows on exposed sites. This time every vineyard has been hit.

There will be secondary buds but they will only lead to around 25% of normal productivity. This suggests that overall production will be well less than half of the normal year.

I have written about the effects of frost before but I strongly recommend this article by Jamie Goode to give an authoritative, clear explanation of how frost damages vines and how vignerons can attempt to prevent damage.

Last year was such a dreadful one for everyone that we all hoped things would be better. Sadly, for winemakers all across France, and for my dear friend, it has turned into a different kind of nightmare through no fault of their own.


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March on March: Part Two

As a Francophile and French part time resident I make no apologies that the majority of my wine drinking is based on French wines. My time with Jeff Coutelou clearly bolsters this with his wines making up a good portion of the bottles I have in all shapes and sizes. However, I do try to expand my experience and visits to Sicily and Spain, as well as tastings with winemakers from around the world, encourage me to discover wines and grapes from outside the Hexagon.

March, as you can see from the photo saw a focus on Portugal and Italy. The latter was purely coincidental, I hadn’t realised how many Italian wines I had opened. Portugal was much more by design. A few years ago I was delighted to be able to support the excellent wine writer Simon Woolf with his Kickstarter project for his Amber Wine book. He is a really good writer and enthusiast, the book a delight. His new project with Ryan Opaz is about Portugal and I mentioned to Simon that on my visit there a couple of years ago it was difficult to find many organic or natural wines. Simon gave me a list of producers and I was able to order some wines from Bar Douro in London. Their new Kickstarter project has been a huge success so I am eager to read the book.

Italian reds first. I’m a big fan of Sicilian wines since my visit in 2013 and Arianna Occhipinti‘s wines are amongst the best. Her SP68 red and white are widely available and well worth buying. Nero D’Avola and Frappato grapes in the red version, fragrant aromas and lovely soft cherry and red fruits, Frappato so often adds roundness and sweet fruit. The Nebbiolo was disappointing. I remember having a Langhe Nebbiolo in Valvona and Crolla in Edinburgh many years ago and really liking. I have tried a few since and never found one so good. It is Burgundy pinot like in so many ways and finding the good ones seems to be just as difficult. The Valpolicella Ripasso was better without exciting me. The grapes are dried before being made into wine and this was sour cherry and classic Italian red flavours. Good but I wasn’t convinced. Much better was the Bera Le Varrane 2017. Barbera grapes from 50 year old vines in Piedmont made naturally and aged for two years on lees produce a rich, fruit packed wine with soft tannins. Lovely wine, I will certainly seek out more.

On to Portugal. Filipa Pato was one of the names Simon provided and this Dinamico 2018 red was good. 100% Baga grapes from the Bairrada region the name may reflect the biodynamic winemaking. It was certainly full of life, fresh and fruity with a nice solid structure I should maybe have kept it a while longer but it was enjoyable now. The Folias de Baco Uivo Renegado 2019 was even better. Natural wine made from a field blend of up to 25 different grape varieties. I love field blends especially when they have a mix of red and white grapes. Often looking like a dark rosé they often produce soft, very drinkable wines with good acidity. Well, this one certainly does. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and I love the grapes being names I know not at all such as Viosinho and Gouveio. To me this is a true USP for Portugal as the wine world regularly seeks out the different . Lovely.

Best of the reds though was from Battliu de Sort in the Costers del Segre region. I had heard good things about the producer based in the same region as one of my favourite producers, Casa Pardet. Pinot Noir from vines high in the mountains. The result is fresh, light but fruity Pinot, as good as many much more expensive Burgundy wines. Confirmation that Alsace, Germany and now Spain are going to be the bulk of my Pinot purchases. This Nero de Sort 2018 was delicious.

Herdade do Rocim ‘Fresh from Amphora’ 2019 is made from organic grapes fermented in clay pots for two months. Fresh and very drinkable, I didn’t find the texture I was expecting from skin contact wine. it was certainly clean and zingy. One of the things I love about Portuguese and Italian wines is the treasure trove of grape varieties, often unique. This was from Perrum, Rabo de Ovelha and Mantuedo. No, me neither. The next Portuguese white was Aphros Loureiro 2018. Loureiro is the grape produced here through biodynamics with low sulphites. Pleasant enough, clean and fresh without exciting me too much. Back to Filipa Pato this time FP Branco 2018. Bical and Arinto grapes, this is also produced biodynamically but was more yellow coloured and fuller, rounder than the Aphros with more mouthfeel. Very nice.

Sicily again and a winery I like a lot in Ciello, Baglio Catarrato Antico 2019. An orange wine, subtly done. I saw this described as an introduction to orange wines and I understand that description, the skin contact evident but not powerful. Very fruity, very enjoyable.

I tasted two Chenin Blancs together, a classic Anjou version, Chateau Pierre Bise 2018 and South African Testalonga’s Stay Brave 2019. The Anjou was conventional, clean and had the classic Loire Chenin flavours of dry, appley fruit with a hint of sweetness on the finish. Pleasant enough. Testalonga’s was drier, with more spice and fruit. I have praised Testalonga many times, another success here and the one I would buy again for sure.

On the subject of classic French dry white wines with a hint of sweetness, another of my favourite regions in Jurancon. I loved this, Lapeyre Evidencia 2018, a blend of Gros and Petit Manseng and Courbu all aged in large oak vats. Fresh, full of peach and apple and a slight sweet tang but clean and refreshing. A definite one to buy again, very well made and delicious. Indeed, this would have been my wine of the month but for….

OK, I am biased. But Jeff Coutelou’s Macabeu 2017 is amazing. The Macabeu ( also known as Macabeo and Viura in Spain where it is widely grown) is from Peilhan vineyard. Jeff was so pleased with the 2017 grapes that he put them into a second hand barrel and left it there for two years. We tasted it in 2019 (the photo top left shows Jeff taking a sample from the barrel) and it was really singing, round and full, the barrel adding creaminess and the merest hint of wood which filled out the wine. I am not a great fan of oak but when it is subtle there is no doubt that it does boost a wine, concentrating its flavours. Spice, fruit. freshness. The flavours lingering long. One of the best wines I have tasted from Jeff’s and I have been very fortunate to drink many great wines there.