amarchinthevines

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


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2020 hindsight

from Private Eye magazine

So, 2020. Next year has to be better, surely? There are so many negatives from the incompetence and corruption of the UK government on the big stage to the personal level with not one minute in France and spending time with my great friend Jeff, especially at vendanges. However, I am here to reflect on some of the better things.

Firstly, thank you to everyone who has connected to my blog over the course of the year, numbers have actually increased despite me posting much less. It could be that the two are connected but probably people have had more time to read.

This was the year that English (and Welsh) wines really made a big impression on me. I have had decent sparkling wines in the past, even good ones such as the single vineyard Nyetimbers. However, Davenport, Westwell, Ancre Hill and Laneberg have all proved to me during the last twelve months that great wines are being made in this country. I have liked Davenport for a number of years and they improve every year. Westwell, also in Kent, are pushing boundaries with field blend and skin contact wines amongst their portfolio and both of those are amongst my favourite wines of the year. I tasted Ancre Hill orange wine last year and was bowled over by it, it was a delight to find that their other wines are also top notch. The estate is up for sale and I hope that the buyer allows it to prosper on the path already taken. Laneberg is special because it is based in my native North East with grapes bought from further south. Elise is making very good wines and her Bacchus is a classic example of what makes English still wine so good. Please support these wineries and others, their progress is rapid and a delight.

With trips to wineries and merchants more difficult this year I have been immensely grateful to delivery companies and online merchants. I rarely buy from supermarkets or big wine companies as I prefer the wines of independent merchants and, as a student of Jeff Coutelou, of those who sell natural wines especially. French and Spanish merchants have been a big source for me, sadly the approach of Brexit makes this more difficult, and indeed, impossible for some time. However, there are many excellent independent merchants in this country who put their hearts into the wines they sell and, again, I urge UK readers to support them. I have listed some examples at the bottom of the page*. Meanwhile my thanks to them and the drivers.

I have written a lot over the years about Jeff championing traditional and rare grape varieties. As I write I am enjoying a glass of Couleurs Réunies, a blend of more than a dozen grapes, some of which even surprised the French treasury of grapes. Surprisingly, therefore it has been a year of traditional grapes for me. Riesling has featured heavily, in its many forms I adore the grape. Aligoté is another to have made a huge impression. A grape which was scorned for most of my life even in Burgundy, regarded only as an ingredient for a kir. I have enjoyed some fine examples this year, citrussy and fresh for some and round and creamy from others.

The other mainstay of the year has been sherry. I adore sherry, again often maligned. From fresh, cleansing Fino to nutty Amontillado to luscious Oloroso and Pedro Ximenex, sherry is a world of flavours. The sherry makers are rediscovering traditional methods and using techniques to get away from the damaging reputation of sweet cream sherry favoured by elderly ladies and vicars. Sherries which don’t involve fortification like Cota 45 (one of my wines of the year last year), others which have reduced filtration and fining (en rama) – the range of great wines is amazing and, no apologies, deserves your support.

Other quick mentions. Little Wine have raised the bar with their online coverage of the natural scene and have a great sales section too. Jamie Goode and David Crossley continue to provide must read material online. I thoroughly and belatedly enjoyed Max Allen’s book on the up and coming producers of Australia. I was unsettled, whilst still enthralled, by Jane Lopes’ book, honestly like no other I have read.

So, what about actual wines? Well, that’s for next time.

*

Caves De Pyrene

Little Wine

Joseph Barnes

Grape Britannia

Buon Vino

Vintage Roots

Whisky Exchange


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Assemblage

Thierry measures proportions of the component wines

I am aware of publishing posts all too rarely this year. I don’t post unless I have something to say which I feel may be worthy of your time though you may argue that the quality assurance fails sometimes! The vast majority of posts are about my time working alongside Jeff Coutelou and relating what is happening at his Puimisson domaine. Indeed this is the first year I can recall when I will have spent not one minute in France. Restrictions around COVID-19 made it impossible to spend time with him in 2020 so I have posted updates from Jeff as well as more general posts.

So, what news from the Languedoc? After vendanges the wines complete fermentation and settle in the various tanks for 2-3 months before Jeff makes final decisions about what to do with each of them. The large cement tanks are filled with one grape variety and often from one vineyard, e.g. Syrah from Sainte Suzanne is separate from Syrah of Peilhan. Though Jeff makes some wines from one grape, known as monocépage (5SO Simple for example), he is best known for his wines made from different varieties, Classe, Le Vin Des Amis being the best known.

Bottling with the cement tanks in the background

In order to give these blended wines (assemblages) time to truly mix and marry their flavours and textures it is usually in November that Jeff will make the decisions about what to blend. Last week was the right time, fermentations completed, wines maturing. Thierry, his analyst, joined Jeff to try different blendings. They tasted the various wines, then mix together the typical assemblages for the wines, Classe for example will contain Grenache and Syrah. So they tried different percentages mixed and then judge whether the wine would benefit from another component, perhaps some Cinsault for freshness or some Mourvedre for body. Having played around with various blends they agreed upon the final blend.

An assemblage when I was there in 2016

Some wines will remain in tank, a new blend of those might be put together or they may be used for a small amount of single variety wine. I have been involved in these tastings and though it is fun it is also very important and serious as the decision is final, once the wines are put together there is no going back. Get it wrong and the customer may not like the wine. From there, of course, Jeff will have to physically move the wines, thousands of litres at a time from one tank to another and make the assemblage. There they will settle over winter and spring ready for bottling at some point next year. 2020 wines, a good harvest, promising well for a year which needs something to rescue it.

My Coutelou 2019 purchases

Meanwhile the wines of 2019 which were delayed by slow fermentations have reached the market. Bottling took place before vendanges in order to free up the tanks for the 2020 wines and during October thousands of bottles were habillées (labelled and capsuled). This is hard work, lots of carrying heavy boxes. It is also repetitive but an opportunity for the team to talk and joke together (as well as sampling the odd bottle, purely for more quality assurance of course). Jeff told me that over 32,000 bottles went out in one week and I acted quickly to snap some up from French suppliers as my usual source has been denied me this year. I noticed that the Coutelou wines remain amongst the cheapest on any website, below 10 euros in some cases. And today when I checked one site had already run out of 5SO Simple. I have opened a couple of the bottles so far but will give a fuller tasting when I have opened all of the different cuvées.

I will be posting more regularly this month with not just those tasting notes but also with my choices of recent wines and wines of the year. It has been a pleasant surprise to see reading figures actually go up in recent weeks and months, perhaps the less I write the better it is! But thank you.


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Coutelou, old and new

In the course of the year I drink many different wines from all over the world but there can be little doubt that the mainstay is the range of Jeff Coutelou. Partly this is due to loyalty and payment for work done but it is also because, well, I do think they are special wines. Last week, by chance, I opened two bottles from the early to later stages of Jeff’s career in winemaking. They tell a story.

Sud 2001 was part of a case of wine I bought at auction earlier this year. I had thought the wines were all Ouest about which I wrote here. I obviously didn’t look closely enough at the bottles as it turned out some were Sud. Where Ouest is made from Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, Sud is based on the more traditionally Languedoc grapes of Carignan, Grenache and Syrah. I honestly only noticed that this was Sud when I tasted the wine, markedly different to Ouest.

Being 2001 the wine had a similar appearance to Ouest, a brick red colour. Aromas began to tell a different story with a more open, fruity profile than Ouest. Sure enough on drinking there was less of the earthy Cabernet flavour and more pruny, black fruits with more richness than the more austere Bordeaux style of Ouest. It was excellent and still full of life, I shall hang on to my remaining bottle to see how it develops further. Really enjoyable. A little research found that, like Ouest, Jancis Robinson was a fan of Sud, describing it as ‘stunning value’ at £14.95 in 2011. She wasn’t wrong.

Carignan vines in Rec D’Oulette

Sud and Ouest were amongst the first wines which Jeff made after taking over the domaine from his father, Jean Claude. That they live so long and contain such pleasure was a sign of things to come. I always drink Coutelou wines youngish but tuck away bottles too so that I can track their development. The overt fruitiness, a hallmark of Jeff’s wines, tends to ease back a little with more complexity and depth emerging. Cuvées such as La Vigne Haute, Flambadou, 7,Rue De La Pompe and L’Oubliée all benefit from time but I find that even bottles such as Le Vin Des Amis and Classe are worth hiding away from temptation for a couple of years. Temptation often does win though.

Some of the wines are meant to be drunk early however, for example 5SO, Tete A Claques and Grenache Mise De Printemps. The latter has been one of my favourites in recent years, light and fruity like a pleasurable Beaujolais. One of the new additions to the range in recent years is Couleurs Réunies. I wrote about this wine here. Reading reviews of this wine the words, juicy, fruit and rich are repeated time and again. Again, they aren’t wrong. It is a joy bringer. The fact that it is made from the field blend of Flower Power’s vineyard Font D’Oulette together with additions of Carignan and the rare Castets from Peilhan is a unique selling point of the wine. The grapes are from every colour (as the name suggests), rare and more familiar varieties which together make a truly enjoyable wine. I believe Jeff has made it again.

From first to later wines the signature fruitiness, drinkability and sheer pleasure of the wines are present. The use of more traditional Languedoc grapes has become more important to Jeff with time, climate change has also confirmed to him that biodiversity and the use of grapes more resistant to heat and later maturing are essential for the future of quality in the region. These two wines show the skills of Jeff and how his wines can age well or be drunk at any stage. And that’s why Coutelou wines will always be a mainstay of the wines I drink and enjoy most.


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Celebrating harvest via Flora

The two reports on the 2020 vendanges with Jeff Coutelou featured the photography of Flora Rey, Jeff’s niece. I thought it was worth highlighting some of the other photos Flora took as well as my favourites. Flora is very skilled, I gave her my camera last year and her photos were on a completely different level to mine. It inspired me to go on a course, sadly I haven’t had the opportunity to apply that learning. Anyway, here are the photos

Enjoying the product of the work

And my favourite photograph, showing the camaraderie and work of vendanges in an ethereal light. What a great photo this is Flora.


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The Winery by Laneberg Wine

2020 has been horrendous for everyone in many ways and, though not important on a wider scale, one of those ways for me was not being able to get to spend time in the vines and cellars of Jeff Coutelou. Little did I know that by an indirect route I would end up amongst barrels and tanks which had contained Coutelou grapes. In my native North East England, specifically on Team Valley, Gateshead – a most unlikely turn of events.

Elise and Liam

Elise Lane set up The Winery and Laneberg Wines on Team Valley when she returned to the North East with her family. She studied Chemistry at Oxford University before working in the world of finance in London. She told me that she became interested in wine at University and, unsurprisingly, it was her curiosity about the chemistry of wine which was the catalyst for further study. WSET qualifications followed but then Elise enrolled at Plumpton College to earn a Post Graduate Diploma, working in the winery there.

Plumpton graduates have gone on to become winemakers around the world, some in my region of Languedoc Roussillon such as Peter Core and Jonathan Hesford. Elise and her husband Nick looked at vineyards in Kent but then decided to relocate to the North East and set up an urban winery. All this whilst pregnant with her second son. Team Valley, a large business and industrial estate in Gateshead became the location for The Winery by Laneberg Wines.

Elise bought equipment from London Cru, the original English urban winery. There lies my connection as London Cru bought Cabernet Sauvignon grapes from Jeff, I helped to pick them! The wine they made was often considered their best wine by critics such as Jamie Goode. So, when Elise showed me the basket press and barrels she had purchased from that winery I had to smile at the small world we live in.

Elise told me that there are around 400 vineyards in the UK but only a quarter of so actually make their own wines. Therefore, grapes can be bought readily enough and, in her first year of production in 2018 she sourced them from Leicestershire and Gloucestershire. Since then the Lane family have used their campervan to tour other vineyards in southern England and, with two years’ experience, Elise has kept some of her original suppliers and selected new ones.

The grapes are transported by lorry overnight to Gateshead, ready for sorting in the morning. They are placed in stainless steel tanks for fermentation and then Elise makes decisions about nurturing the wines, eg in barrels, judging what will serve them best. The barrels are used to impart a smoky influence rather than overt oakiness.

Bacchus 2018 and 2019, note the change in label showing the fruits redolent in the wine in a style based on Bacchus’ hair

Bacchus is the main white grape for Laneberg, reflecting the national picture. In my opinion it is the grape which brings a unique character to English white wine. The 2018 Laneberg Bacchus is now sold out having immediately created a big impression. So much so that Fortnum and Mason have asked Elise to provide their House English wine. A tremendous vote of confidence in Elise’s talents. I thoroughly enjoyed the 2019 Bacchus, my wine loving brother in law who was there when I opened a bottle said he would definitely buy this wine. Floral, fruity aromas with a zingy, citrus flavour, the wine was as good the second day as the first and its fresh acidity is a good food match. I had a Singapore curry dish with the Bacchus and the wine stood up to the flavours and enhanced them, it was a great match. Give me this over most Sauvignon Blancs or Albarinos. No wonder the Bacchus has brought plaudits.

Technical detail about the 2019 Bacchus from The Winery website

Harvest time means that the family get together to support Elise and work to sort and crush the grapes. Her cousin Liam is a full-time employee immersing himself in the wine world. Team Valley teamwork. Lots of farmers’ markets, stalls and marketing followed the first winemaking, drumming up interest and sales. Now the word is out. Excellent reviews from respected critics such as the great Oz Clarke have helped; mentions and articles in Decanter, local and national press and television have followed. Laneberg had earned the Regional Award for The Midlands and North in The Wine GB Awards the night before I made my visit.

Elise has a wise business plan, her time in finance and accounting no doubt helping. I have met a number of young winemakers who have found the business and sales side an unwelcome reality check. Elise and Nick had a plan and stuck to it, the success that has followed is well deserved. Elise knows that she has to make wines that will appeal to the customer and give her financial security. Initially ten thousand bottles were made, that will rise to around thirteen thousand with the 2020 harvest.

So, what about the other wines? It’s worth mentioning that there are excellent notes about each wine on the Laneberg website with tasting notes by outside tasters as well as technical information for each wine. The labels, by a North East designer, back these up by showing the sort of fruits which may be in the bottle based on the original picture of the god of wine, Bacchus, with the fruit replacing his hair.

‘This Mortal Angel’ (Geordie references abound) is a semi sparkling wine made from 100% Seyval Blanc, a hybrid grape which ripens early and is suited to cool climates. The wine was enjoyed on a hot, September North East England afternoon and provided welcome refreshment. It is very dry, as all the Laneberg wines are. There was a gripping acidity, I think this wine will age well, accompanying dishes such as seafood. There were apple and pear flavours which revealed themselves as the bottle emptied. Only 10% alcohol, so this really was a good afternoon aperitif wine.

Pinot Gris 2018 was less convincing for me. It is very dry again, citrussy and probably needs longer in bottle. Don’t expect Pinot Grigio style wine, this variety is on the margins in England and the full aromatic, ripe style is not what this wine is about. Pleasant but not the character of the Bacchus.

Elise made other wines in 2018, now unavailable, Solaris, a white grape developed in Germany in 1975 was one. Madeleine Angevin, a white grape, was also bought and blended with red Regent grapes to make a rosé by crushing them together so that the white juice had contact with red grape skins. Hopefully I will find some of the next vintage.

Finally, the Regent grape was used to make the first red at the winery in 2019. Named after her son Maximilian this was a wine which I found intriguing. Regent was created by crossing a white vitis vinifera grape, Diana, with a red hybrid, Chambourcin. It grows well in cooler climates and is resistant to downy mildew, an important attribute in such regions. The label shows blackberries and raspberries and it was the latter which dominated on my palate. However, its first wow factor is the vibrant purple colour, striking. Aromas of cherry and raspberry, flavours of sharp raspberry with a cleaning acidity. The wine was better on the second day, softening the acidity a little, I will definitely put my second bottle away for a year or two. More plummy fruit emerged on that second day though raspberry still dominated for me. Again, a food wine. I’d buy more.

I was curious about an urban winery in my home region, would it work, was it a serious venture? I should have had no doubts. Elise’s background in science and finance have given her the tools to make a success of The Winery. Her talents as a winemaker are evident in the bottles and the warm reception they have received. Laneberg Wines is a name to add to your list of regular purchases.


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A sting in the tail

En francais

Vendanges is finished at Jeff Coutelou’s for 2020. That is the good news, with some lovely grapes and good quantities all seemed well. Then on Saturday Jeff messaged me to say that there had been a final twist, a proverbial sting in the tail. The problem was an insect though, admittedly, not one with an actual sting. I mentioned in the last post that there had been a little ver de la grappe (grape worm moth) problem. Well, that problem suddenly worsened in the last few days of harvesting.

Some Grenache, Cinsault but especially Mourvedre were affected. The latter is a later ripening grape and no less than 60% of the grapes had to be rejected and were lost. That is a huge loss. The culprit was not the usual grape moth Eudémis which lays its eggs on the grapes, the larvae and caterpillars then attacking the grapes and spoiling them. Jeff is used to those and recognises the problem coming.

This was a new moth to the area, Pyrale du Daphné (Cryptoblabes gnidiella) or honeydew moth. This menace has been damaging grape crops (and other fruits) in Tuscany and more recently in Provence. Clearly it has spread to the Languedoc.

Three or four generations of adults appear in any year with the biggest populations coming at the end of August and into September. They feed on ripe fruit juice and honeydew from aphids, things you would find in vineyards at harvest time. The eggs are laid in the bunch and the larvae eat not just grape juice but also attack the stems. The grapes empty completely and the spoilage damages other bunches with botrytis and rot. They are much more damaging to the grapes than the usual ver de la grappe, as Jeff sadly found with his Mourvedre.

Chemical treatments are available for spraying but Jeff and organic producers generally cannot use them. There are naturally occurring bacterial treatments such as Spinosad (made from crushed sugar cane) which organic producers are permitted to use. Otherwise vignerons can try to use pheromones which confuse the male moths so that they don’t breed, confusion sexuelle. Insect traps are another option. Italian scientists are also experimenting with the use of trichogramma. These are wasps which lay their eggs inside the moth eggs meaning that the moths do not develop. These have been used successfully in other fruit production and vineyard trials seem to be promising. Whether upsetting the balance of natural order is a good thing is open to debate.

Therefore, though the 2020 harvest will generally be a good one, there was a final problem. Mourvedre is used by Jeff, occasionally for a single variety cuvée but more often to blend in various cuvées such as Le Vin des Amis and Sauvé de la Citerne. Now that this new menace is identified Jeff will look out for it next year, a hard frost in winter would help to kill off the hibernating adults. Let us hope that this is a problem which we can look back upon as a curiosity, that may be looking at it with glass half full.

More about the problem here (article in French)


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Vendanges 2020 – Part 2

En francais

All photos by Flora Rey, you can find more of her work on Facebook

I had a chat with Jeff on Saturday to check on progress and plans for this week. Heavy rain (30mm) that day meant that harvesting would be a little more difficult on Monday as the cars and vans would not be able to get into the vineyards. However, that has been the only significant blip in this year’s vendanges (perhaps me not being there has brought good luck!). There has been little disease despite an outbreak of mildew back in June but Jeff was able to get on top of that before it became significant. Happily, he repeated that the grapes are in excellent condition.

Icare awaits his master

The other good news is that quantity is also good, which should mean more wine available for everyone. Remember that many of the 2019 cuvées are not yet released due to slow fermentations delaying the whole process of winemaking. Therefore, I would think it is likely that many of the 2020s will be held back too. Overall, though there will be plenty of Coutelou wines in the next couple of years. The rain of Saturday will also boost quantities a little more in grapes such as Grenache and Carignan which were the later ones to be picked. The Grenache is rich so the rain will help to make it more balanced as well as providing higher yields, it was a well-timed break in the weather.

Boris in early morning Peilhan

The only other issue, and one I had heard was an issue in other areas of the Languedoc, was vers de la grappe, the moth larvae which is hatched in the grapes and can spoil bunches as grape juice flows onto the bunch. Fortunately, the problem is not on a large scale though Jeff wanted to get a move on in finishing the harvest as the moths are now adult and will lay eggs if the grapes are still on the vine.

As most grapes are now picked, the hard work shifts to the cellar and the making of the wine, pressing, remontage, pigeage. Decisions about which grapes go into which tank, which might be mixed together and in what type of container, the cement or stainless steel tanks, amphora or barrel. The 3D puzzle in Jeff’s head, and spreadsheet, gets complicated.

Flower Power, the complantation of Font D’Oulette vineyard, continues to provide meagre returns, 8 cases this year after similar yields in the last two vintages. These young vines will take some years to properly mature and produce more fruit. The grapes were mixed with Syrah from Segrairals which was picked early. That combination was pressed on Saturday and will make a good, juicy, light wine.

The Cinsault of Rome was good but the whites (Muscats, Grenaches Blanc and Gris) of the higher part of the vineyard yielded little though that was partly due to some locals having helped themselves to some bunches probably as eating grapes. The few cases brought back were mixed with Macabeu and Grenache Gris from Peilhan and put into one of the amphorae.

The other amphora will be used for the various blanc and gris grapes (Carignan, Grenache etc) also from Peilhan.

Meanwhile the grapes picked have started to ferment well. Jeff is especially pleased with the Syrahs and the good news, for me at least, is that La Vigne Haute could well be made from La Garrigue. So, lots of positive news from Puimisson, the team is clearly working well and we can enjoy these excellent photographs to glimpse what is happening there.

I love this photo showing the team sorting the grapes together, a true image of vendanges teamwork


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Vendanges 2020

En francais

Jeff with an early case

I may not be there in person but I certainly am in Puimisson in spirit. Jeff has kept me up to date however and his niece Flora has taken some lovely photos and allowed me to share them. So what has been happening with the Coutelou harvest.

Before they began Jeff reported to me that the grapes were ‘magnifiques’, high praise indeed from a viticulteur, a group who are infamously pessimistic. The promise of 2020 producing something exceptional would be very in keeping, a year when nothing ordinary happens. The grapes ripened early however, problematically, at much the same rate across varieties. This means that there has been a need to get the grapes in as quickly as possible.

Normally, certain varieties ripen earlier than others and so it is easy to organise picking and plan it across the weeks of harvest. When they ripen simultaneously there is pressure to get them in before they become too mature and over ripe.

Fortunately, all has gone well so far. The white grapes were picked first, as usual, and came in with good acidity and around 13,5% alcohol. There was talk of bubbles being made, not an annual event.

Segrairals and Sainte Suzanne followed with Grenache and Syrah to the fore, the two grapes which provide the foundation of many of the Coutelou cuvées, Ste. Suzanne for example being the traditional home of Le Vin des Amis. A successful harvest with those two grapes means a successful harvest overall and relief for Jeff.

La Garrigue was picked on Wednesday 26th and Flora took some great photos of the picking of its Syrah, home of La Vigne Haute in good years. Regular readers know that this is my favourite wine of all so fingers crossed that this Syrah is up to standard, if not perfect it is used for other cuvées. Rome was harvested on Thursday and that gave me a pang of regret and disappointment, I miss my favourite vineyard.

With a new team working in the vines and in the cellar Jeff along with the regular team of Moroccan pickers things have moved along quickly. The new machine to help to sort the grapes has worked very well and saved time as well as being very accurate and efficient. Flora’s photos suggest at least some whole berry fermentations, the carbonic maceration technique which often makes fresh, fruity wine.

So far so good. Fingers crossed for what remains, some of the later varieties such as Carignan and Mourvedre. Something good may come out of this wretched year after all.

Top photo and videos from Jeff and the team.

All other photos by Flora Rey


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What a year

A March is definitely not in the vines this year. Sadly, the UK government’s introduction of quarantines for travel to and from France was the straw which broke the camel’s back. It was unlikely that I would have been joining Jeff Coutelou this year for vendanges but that is now definitive. I have worked the last six vendanges with Jeff but that run has come to an end. It is very sad.

On the positive side Jeff reports that the grapes are ‘magnifiques’, there is every hope that he will be making excellent wines. A silver lining to the cloud which is 2020. He has a novice team this year, my experience might have been useful but it is not to be.

Jeff has been busy and unable to take his usual break in the summer. Last year’s wines were slow to finish their fermentations, he had to wait for Spring for that to happen. He has given the wines time to settle and mature in the large tanks but, as harvest approaches, he needs those tanks for the 2020 wines. Therefore, the team has been busy bottling and the wines will sit and rest for a few months before they go on sale.

Last week he had a visit from Christina Rasmussen, one of the founders of Little Wine, the website I have acclaimed on here before. Christina sent me a lovely photo of them with Icare and I am looking forward to her report on the site.

Really sad news from the Languedoc with the death of Raymond Le Coq, former owner of the Cave St Martin in Roquebrun. He was the most generous and friendly of hosts and I spent many happy times at the restaurant and wine bar, including the harvest evening when local natural producers got together with magnums of their wines.

Raymond in the red shirt

On a positive note I was chatting with James Madden the other day. James worked the 2016 harvest with us and now has his own winery in the Adelaide Hills. I reported on this when we stayed with James and his family in 2018. At the time his wines were labelled under the name of Little Things but, due to a large company using that name on one of their wines, he had to change the name to Scintilla Wines. The good news is that a couple of his wines are being imported into the UK. Brunch Wine Bar in Liverpool is the wise importer. As James and I are both Liverpool FC supporters that seems very appropriate.

James tells me that last year’s harvest is his best yet, he has been busy pruning and is looking for more vines of his own. Exciting times for him and I hope that at some point not too distant I can return to visit him. Meanwhile I have ordered some of those wines!

Jeff will send me photos of vendanges and keep me in the loop. Hopefully I can still report on what is going on in Puimisson so stay tuned.


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Natural wine – a victim of its own success?

That natural wine has always been a source of controversy is a given. From the outset people have sniped at the term ‘natural’ wine (I lost count of the times I heard that old trope “wine doesn’t make itself”), the faults of the early wines, not being certificated etc etc. Many critics would now admit that faults are rarer and that natural wines have enthused many, especially younger wine drinkers. I am almost proud to be a 61 year old natural wine advocate, at last I am on trend!

Amongst a crowd of younger wine enthusiasts

The growth of natural wine across the world, the increase in winemakers and certainly in media attention (he writes) has been dramatic in the last few years. That growth brings its own problems however. Big companies using the term to promote wines which are really not natural (no certification makes that possible so something of an own goal to be fair) I have mentioned before. The large number of new winemakers rushing to join the trend often with little experience means that there have been some questionable wines, I have tried quite a few.

So why continue? Well the sense of drinking wine more reflective of the actual grapes with minimal intervention, the stories of the producers which are consistently more interesting than those of big brands) and the sheer excitement of many of the wines. I remain as enthusiastic for natural wine as ever.

However a couple of recent stories make me sad. In an article on the excellent Little Wine website (paywall I’m afraid) Jamie Goode reported how one of my favourite natural wines has reached alarming prices on the grey market. I was fortunate to taste a bottle of Domaine Des Miroirs’ Mizuiro Les Saugettes 2013 and meet its maker Kenjiro Kagami at a tasting in 2016. It was memorable for its razor sharp, precise Chardonnay, a joy. I have sought bottles ever since without luck.

Jamie reported that bottles were selling for £600 in bond (tax still to pay) on the Berry Bros & Rudd website. These are bottles people have bought and traded on for profit. Other big stars in the natural firmament are seeing huge mark ups too and this on top of prices which are often relatively high due to the extra costs involved of organic and natural winemaking.

Inevitably, with many natural producers farming just a few hectares the small scale production means that bottles are fewer in number. With demand having grown exponentially it often exceeds supply. I recall one merchant, having been told by Jeff Coutelou that he had no more wine to sell replying that Jeff should simply produce more, as if he could wave a magic wand or lower quality to achieve more bottles. This is the market sadly, good wines will cost good money. The task is to seek the next great producers before their bottles reach collector status. It is sad but inevitable.

Then last week another story. the actress Cameron Diaz has been linked with a wine which has been branded as ‘clean’. Interviewed she explained how many additives are allowed in wine, so far so good. The wine uses organic grapes and this has been verified, Penedes in Spain is the source, mainly Xarel.lo a variety I really like. Still all good. However, alarm bells ring when Diaz expressed surprise that grapes should be used which had not been washed. Grape skins bring yeast into the vat to help ferment the wine, washing them means that the wine uses commercial yeast. It is far from natural, they have carefully avoided the term, clean being an alternative which in these extraordinary times will resonate with many.

Unwashed Carignan heading into tank to ferment

Wines being linked with celebrities is not new. My wife recently tried a very ordinary, dull Provence rosé retailing at £10 due to being named after a celebrity. Some celebrities have vineyards making good wine, Sam Neill’s Two Paddocks in New Zealand is one example. As someone sceptical of anything celebrity I am not the target consumer but I really am uncomfortable with the ‘clean’ wine designation even if the intentions are good and especially when the wine costs $24 (£19).

I love natural wines, implore you to seek out the good ones (just not too hard or you’ll drive up the price!), Jeff’s being especially good though I may be biased. However, beware of imitations. Reliable recommendations can be found from many sources, including here I hope.