amarchinthevines

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


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The Boys Are Back In Town

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En francais

A morning in the cellars, a good chance to catch up with not just Jeff but Michel and Julien who I hadn’t seen since last October. The gathering was to do the assemblage of L’Oublié the cuvée made up not just of different grape varieties but different vintages of those grapes. Old Carignan and Grenache from ‘forgotten’ barrels includes years such as 2001, 2007 and 2010. Added to these are younger wines such as Syrah from 2014 and 2015, Copains 2013 and some 2017 Grenache amongst others. There is even some of the grapes often used to make La Vigne Haute, my favourite wine of all.

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As always with work in the Coutelou cellar the priority is cleanliness, the safeguard which ensures that no added sulphites are added to the wines. Everything is cleaned thoroughly before use and after use, every time a piece of equipment is needed. It adds to the work load but it is vital for the wines to be pure.

The wines were then taken from the various barrels and tanks to one of the large fibre glass tanks to spend time blending and harmonising before it will be bottled at some point in the future. The resultant blend was excellent. I had coincidentally opened a bottle of the last blend of this cuvée just two days before and it was on fine form so this one has a lot to live up to. First impressions are that it will do just that, a new star is born!

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Component wines to make L’Oublié

Then more moving around of different wines to free up some of the tanks which will be needed for the 2018 vintage. Checks were made on all the wines in the cellar including the new amphorae. This is the second wine to be matured in them, the first having been bottled already. I tasted some of that first amphora wine and it was very impressive, a real stand out. Jeff kindly gave the three of us a jereboam of that first wine and it will be a very special occasion when it is opened. Offers for an invitation are welcome!

After the final clean up and a couple more tastings the morning’s work was completed, yes work – honestly. The team was back together, the wines are together. All is well.

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On higher ground

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En francais

The last article described the ongoing problems in the Languedoc with mildew spoiling vines and grapes. Last Saturday Jeff  invited me over to try and beat the blues a little. Steve from Besançon was staying with Jeff for a week to learn a bit more about being a vigneron. They had opened a bottle of La Vigne Haute 2013 on the previous evening and Jeff invited me over to try the last glass from the bottle.

When I arrived on the Saturday morning Jeff was spraying the Flower Power vineyard, Font D’Oulette. When he had finished we returned to his house and I had the remaining 2013, delicious it was too, still youthful but starting to add tertiary notes to the fruit. Jeff decided to open the 2010 to show how age helps La Vigne Haute to reveal its quality and depth; fruit, spice and leathery complexity. A bottle demonstrating perfectly why La Vigne Haute is my favourite wine of all. However, that was not the end. From his personal cellar emerged a 2001 LVH with no label. Still vibrant with fruit singing and yet more complexity of spice, classic black pepper notes. Simply excellent.

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So, was that the end? Not at all.  More Syrah from older vintages, 1998, 1997 and 1993. Each was still alive with black fruit and those spicy notes. The 91 was Jeff’s first solo bottling, a real privilege to taste it. He had added, all those years ago, a total of 5mg of SO2, pretty much absorbed now, and would certainly qualify as natural wine from a time when it was virtually unknown. A treasure trove of history as well as further proof of how well these wines do mature, there were no off notes at all.  Indeed, they were delicious.

A 1999 Cabernet Sauvignon showed the quality of that grape from the region and how well it aged. There were still currant flavours, violets and more spice. A fresh acidity cleansed the palate. I hadn’t known what to expect, I was bowled over.

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Legendary Roberta

And to finish the 5 hour lunch a bottle of Roberta, the 2003 white wine made from all three Grenache grapes, one of Jeff’s first no added sulphite wines, aged in a special barrel which gives the wine its name. It is a treat I have tasted on a handful of special occasions, its nutty, round fruit was a perfect ending to a special day. Whatever 2018 brings this was a reminder of the special Coutelou wines.

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Broad thoughts from home

A number of wine issues have been in my thoughts the last couple of weeks without anything being strong enough to warrant a blog post on its own. So, why not compile them?

There have been a number of discussions on Twitter and other social media about wine judging. This is probably connected with publication of Decanter’s annual wine awards but there has been much debate about the merit of such awards and judging in general. As so often it was Andrew Jefford who kicked things off with an article in the aforementioned Decanter with some valid points. As so often I agree with some of what he says, not with everything.

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Photo from The Academic Wino

Other professional judges and experts then got heated at criticism on social media about whether their marks were really worth that much. I have written before that I no longer take any notice of wine awards, medals and competitions. My own experience of judging was certainly a contributory factor in putting me off, I left unconvinced by the results from the panels I took part in and even the basis on which medals were awarded. I also tend to think that many judges have certain expectations of wines and mark according to what they think is expected rather than on the actual wines in their glass, for example based on region. Judging blind, i.e. without knowing what the label says, should help to overcome this but I remain unconvinced. I know that when I have tried some wines awarded top medals I have been disappointed far too often to place much faith in the system.

I do respect the opinions of some judges and experts whose taste I know does align more with mine than most but, medals, that don’t impress me much as Shania Twain would sing if she was a wine drinker.

 

I will soon be heading back to the Languedoc and to Jeff’s so my other main thoughts have been about what has been going on there. He has sent me a number of reports of the poor weather in the region this year, a lot of rain and cooler weather. Sadly it wasn’t difficult to predict what would happen when the weather warmed up, mildew. I have written about this before but warm, damp conditions encourage this disease. Jeff sent me a photo of Grenache in Sainte Suzanne being affected by mildew. What alarmed him was that normally it would affect stem, leaf or bud. This time it hit them all together. Unfortunately, Jeff reports that much of the Grenache has been spoiled. This problem is widespread in the region and even made the newspapers.

 

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Photo by Jeff Coutelou

 

 

Another side effect has been that such weather conditions encourage snails and apparently they have been active in the Carignan and in Peilhan vineyard. Happily Font D’Oulette (Flower Power) which has suffered from snails eating the buds in the past has been spared this year and looks very good in these photos of Jeff.

 

I hope that is the end of the problems for the year and look forward to reuniting with events in Puimisson  and updating you.


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Why wines appeal, or how Jeff Coutelou has changed my taste!

 

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Pinot Noir in Nelson

 

En francais

Reflecting still on my trip down under, my thoughts turned to the question of taste. It is personal of course, a wine which appeals to me may not be to your palate and vice versa. I was delighted to receive an email from Peter Gorley about his recent trip to New Zealand and specifically his tastings of Pinot Noir. Peter is someone whose wine knowledge and appreciation I have great respect for and trust in. His book on the Languedoc is a must buy based on his experience of living there for many years.

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It was clear that Peter was much more enthusiastic about the Pinots he tasted than I was. There were a few we tasted in common though Peter’s tastings were far more extensive especially in the North Island and Marlborough. I honestly trust Peter’s judgements, so why was I less convinced?

 

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The Surveyor Thomson was one we  both tasted

 

I think it is fair to say that Jeff Coutelou has changed my taste in wine. And I am very happy that he has done so  before anyone thinks that sounds like a complaint. Before I really got to know Jeff 10 years ago my taste in wine was very conventional and I rated most highly the wines which garnered praise and were ‘typical’ of their type, variety and place. After sharing so much with Jeff, his own fabulous wines and wines from many other natural producers, I know that my taste has altered.

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I rate enjoyment and excitement much more highly than other factors these days. Does the wine taste good? Is it fruity, clean? Does it make me want to try another glass? Is there a vibrancy about the wine?

I taste wines, both natural and conventional, that can give me positive answers to those questions and much more besides. I taste wines, both natural and conventional, which unfortunately do not. These days it is natural wines which form the majority of wines which fall into the first category. In New Zealand I found too many Pinot wines trying to be aged Burgundy rather than a genuine expression of their place. There is a convention of how good wine tastes and many producers, not just Kiwis, seem to want to be included in that convention. I get more excitement from those who let the grapes speak and produce wine where they are not manipulated to meet a convention.

 

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Kindeli, one of the NZ producers I enjoyed most. I have bought some since returning to the UK

 

That is not to criticise Peter in any way. He included Jeff in his book, has an open mind about wine and I share many of his favourites. We are different. I have spent so much time with Jeff that my palate is inevitably the one which has changed to prefer the natural style. That doesn’t make me right or wrong. We are different, taste is different. Chacun à son gout.

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An excellent article to read from The Guardian


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A Tour Down Under, conclusions

It was always going to be the trip of a lifetime but, my word, it lived up to that billing. There are so many positives to Australia and New Zealand. I couldn’t help thinking that these young nations are energetic, vibrant and forward thinking in comparison to so much of Europe. Links with Pacific and Asian countries are to the fore and that will be their future though they retain a tremendous affection for their European links. The many people who were more than keen to talk with us were rightly proud of their countries, eager to find out about our trip and delighted to hear our enthusiasm. Positivity abounds.

The people themselves were such a highlight, as I have said before, they are helpful, polite and know how to enjoy themselves. The climate is obviously helpful in encouraging outdoor lifestyles, admittedly we were very lucky with the weather on our trip.

The wildlife was a constant joy, seeing kangaroos, koalas and kiwis in real life was just marvellous. Birds, fish and shark were stunning. Please look after them.

Above all though it was the joy of their natural landscapes which will live longest in the memory. These are jaw droppingly beautiful countries with such variety from coastlines, mountains, equatorial forest to the wonders of the Barrier Reef. Add on man made wonders such as Sydney Harbour’s Bridge and Opera House, I find myself smiling just thinking about them all.

Regarding wine. To be honest overall I was a trifle disappointed with so many wines and wine lists. The safe, conventional and commercial are everywhere. Perfectly drinkable wines but lacking excitement. However, dig a little and quality emerges. From Kalleske in the Barossa to Hans Herzog in Marlborough and Domaine Road in Otago I found conventional wines that were very good to drink. The highlights though were from the emergence of a natural wine scene in both countries. Kindeli, Cambridge Road and The Hermitage Ram in New Zealand were certainly highlights. Shobbrook, Sullivan, Tausend are names to look up in Australia.

In a way though I was spoiled early on. The Adelaide Hills was the source of so many of my favourite wines of the trip. There is a lively community of producers, supporting each other, who are making exciting, vibrant clean wines. Gentle Folk, Jauma, Manon, Basket Range, The Other Right are just some of the names to seek out. Add to that list the excellent bottles of my friend James Madden of Little Things wines. I am biased but his wines were amongst the best I tasted during this trip. The brilliant Chardonnay, refreshing PetNat, complex Field Blend were all in my top wines.

Australia and New Zealand have young winemakers looking to break with traditional methods. Behind the wave of producers in Europe perhaps but starting to create an impression and proving to my mind that there will be some wonderful wines to savour in coming years. It is no coincidence that most of these producers have worked in Europe, for example James at Jeff Coutelou’s. They will use that learning, adapt it to their local conditions to make their interpretation of Australian and New Zealand wines. I buy into their vision wholeheartedly.

Thanks to everyone we met for making the trip so special. Above all thanks to James, Sam, Flo and Pat for sharing their home with us and being so generous. And to Howard, a great chef, host and friend.

 


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A Tour Down Under, Queensland

After the busy city, time to relax with a trip to the Whitsunday Islands off the Queensland coast at the southern edge of the Great Barrier Reef. Hamilton Island is a holiday resort essentially, famed for its exclusive residences used by the rich and famous as well as its family hotels. Island visitors are well catered for with restaurants, shops, beaches and pools. To get around the small island golf buggies can be hired as no cars are allowed. The system runs like a well oiled machine.

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Buggy driver outside the church

As well as relaxing in the warm sunshine we made two day trips. The second was to Whitehaven Beach on the largest of the 74 islands, Whitsunday itself. The beach is a shining white colour, the sand is almost pure silica and has a fine flour like texture. The waters are clear and a beautiful colour.

However, star of the visit was the day snorkelling on the Reef itself, notable Bait Reef. I had never snorkelled before but I took to it, well, like a duck to water. I wasn’t sure what to expect from the Reef, whatever expectations I had were surpassed a thousand times over. The magnificent colours of the coral and the fish lit up the ocean. The Reef here was badly damaged by Cyclone Debbie in April 2017 and yet, though some parts died off others were showing signs of recovery with beautiful blue, pink, yellow coral sprouting along with many other colours too.

                          Waves breaking on the coral reef and fish around the boat

Apparently 10% of the Earth’s fish species live on the Reef and it was impossible to keep track of the dozens of species I saw. However, two stood out. A blue spotted ray darted along the seabed and then, as we were returning to the boat I saw a black outline against the white sand. It could only be a shark from its shape but it took a while for me to get my head round that. It sat for a couple of minutes and then turned and swam straight towards me which made my heart skip a beat. It swam right under me and it was a few minutes I shall never forget. I was told by our guide that it was a white tipped reef shark, it was magnificent.

                    Butterfly fish, blue spotted ray and the white tipped reef shark

Then to Brisbane for the final few days of the trip. The city is dominated by the river of the same name, free ferries and buses help the traveller to get around easily. The beautiful botanic gardens sheltered a variety of birds, water dragons and beautiful plants, trees and flowers.

 

Strangely some of the better wines from shops and bars of the whole 2 months were experienced here in Queensland. The bottle shop on Hamilton Island carried good wines such as O’Leary Walker‘s Polish Hill Riesling, D’Arenberg‘s Custodian Grenache and the interesting Toru blend of Gewurztraminer, Riesling and Pinot Gris from Te Whare Ra in Marlborough. All very good. From another bottle shop in Brisbane I secured an old favourite in Coldstream Hills Pinot Noir 2016. I hadn’t tried this since James Halliday gave up the domaine but it proved to be as good, refreshing and fruity as it always was.

At the Silver Fox Wine Bar in Brisbane though came a real treat. We ordered an orange wine from the Barossa Valley and the sommelier advised me to try the Old Vines Grenache from the same producer Kalleske. It was excellent advice. The orange wine, Viognier, had aromas of, well, oranges. Lavender too. It was delicious with tangy zesty fruit and lovely texture. One of the most interesting orange wines I have come across. The old vines Grenache was concentrated black and red fruit delight too. Unlike many reds I have tried here it was full but also light, not jammy, not over oaked. When I looked up the producer online I found that it is a biodynamic domaine in the Barossa, I was not surprised. There was a real energy and finesse to these two wines and I will be seeking out more of them if I can find them in the UK.

So, some good wines to finish and some of the most memorable of experiences too. Australia and New Zealand, thank you.


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A Tour Down Under, Sydney

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Since I was a little boy I have always wanted to see Sydney Harbour, the bridge and the Opera House. So, for 6 days I was entranced by this place and at the end of my stay I remained awed by the spectacle. We were lucky to stay in a room which afforded this view through the window and I would get up and simply look out of the window from time to time to make sure I was not dreaming it. As man made attractions go, it is as good as any.

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The view from the room window

I hadn’t realised just how much of Sydney is a collection of villages and suburbs dotted around the huge harbour. Darling Harbour, Potts Point, Rose Bay, Manly were all places dotted around the magnificent waters linked by ferries and, so, easy to get around. Manly Beach was especially good (better than Bondi in my humble opinion, but then I am not a beach person) and a thriving place of its own, 30 minutes from the Circular Quay ferry wharf.

Darling Harbour is the scene of new building, banks and museums sitting side by side, Chinatown and Paddy’s Market just around the corner. I can recommend the Powerhouse science museum, try to avoid school holidays though unlike us.

A terrific day at Randwick races was another highlight, facilities which would put any UK course to shame, free shuttle buses, cheap entry, well-priced food and drink of good quality and, top class racing. I combined my two passions by having a glass of Chandon sparkling wine ($8.50 or just uner £5) to celebrate winning on the first race and some decent Barossa Shiraz after winning on one of the big races.

Sydney is certainly cosmopolitan, Asian culture is a big part of the city’s appeal. The people were without exception friendly and helpful, more than once when we were looking lost passers-by stopped to help and even walked us in the right direction. Some even recognised the North East England accent, one man born in the next village to our home town. Beautiful gardens and green spaces, that stunning harbour – it is a lovely city.

Jeff Coutelou wines are imported to Sydney by Andrew Guard and he kindly recommended places to eat and drink. Sadly, we missed him by 10 minutes in one of those, he must have seen me coming and done a runner! It was good to meet one of his assistants, Andy Ainsworth, at 10 William Street in Paddington. This is a wine bar/restaurant recommended to us from other friends too and we walked there after visiting the Sydney Cricket Ground. Lovely food including a memorable Brussel sprout dish. Yes Brussel sprouts, I’d never have imagined them so tasty.

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Sprouts stir fried with mint and candied almonds

To drink, a Beaujolais from Karim Vionnet but mostly a bottle of Riesling from Adelaide Hills winemaker Travis Tausend. This was recommended to us by Andy who reckons this is one of the most up and coming producers. The Riesling was zesty, vibrant, fruity and had a lovely, Riesling finish. He reported that Tausend worked with Riffault in Sancerre and borrowed the idea of picking 3 times to get a mix of early higher acidity grapes, the main pick and then others just showing the merest hint of botrytis. The result was excellent. No SO2 either.

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The other restaurant of note was Fratelli Paradiso in Potts Point. The pasta with langoustine I had there was certainly the best pasta I have eaten outside of Italy. To accompany a Vineyard Blend from Basket Range, yes another Adelaide Hills wine. Basket Range is made by Sholto and Louis Broderick whose wines I praised in my post on Melbourne. This blend included Petit Verdot, Merlot and whole bunch Saperavi, a Georgian grape I had only ever had once before. The result was fresh, sappy, fruity and terrific with the pasta, I liked this a lot. And no SO2.

Elsewhere I tried a number of wines from fairly familiar names from Hunter, Barossa and Mclaren Vale. They were fine in a typical Australian wine way, they just seemed a bit heavy, perhaps the heat didn’t help them. Instead I turned to the many craft beers for refreshment, Pale Ale is very much on trend and to my taste. For me though this was further evidence that Adelaide Hills is the exciting region to explore, I urge you to do so. Meanwhile the people and those views will long live in my memory as the absolute stars of Sydney.