amarchinthevines

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


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It never rains but it pours

Version francaise

Amidst the COVID-19 pandemic viticulteurs continue their labours as the 2020 vintage moves on. In France strict regulations about movement and working conditions increase the difficulty of their task. The vines continue to grow and need to be tended. The wines in tank need to be supervised, blended and, even, bottled. Delay in the latter process could lead to financial shortfalls in the short and medium terms, and even in these unique times that has to be on the minds of the winemakers.

Budding began pretty much as normal in Puimisson, there were reports of early budding elsewhere but Jeff reported that he was happy with an average date. Since then the vines have grown quite quickly and around this time Jeff would seek to plough the grass, plants and flowers into the soil to act as a natural fertiliser. Using a pioche to hoe the plants between the vines into the soil is hard physical work. With such a large area of vines Jeff needs other workers to assist and the Moroccan team from vendanges have also been doing work too. Using social distance rules and other safety measures of course.

However, the problems caused by the pandemic have been compounded in the last week by rain. Jeff told me that there was 80mm of rain in that time, a storm on Sunday 26th brought 35mm alone with another heavy period on Monday evening. The videos he sent me of Peilhan vineyard show the result.

These are vineyards with very spongy soil which absorb water very well after 33 years of organic care. My experience of heavy rains in the area showed me a remarkable difference between Jeff’s vineyards and those of neighbours whose soils have been compacted by chemical treatment and heavy machinery such as harvesting machines. Therefore if Peilhan is waterlogged surrounding vineyards are worse. This is another reason why Jeff has ditches, trees and shrubs around his vines to help protect them.

Photos show the problem of working in the vines after such rain. Even Icare found the going too heavy and after running around he was exhausted at lunchtime when he got home.

However, the real threat is not difficult working conditions, rather the threat of mildew, in this case downy mildew. The forecast for the next few days is for higher temperatures, up to 25˚C. That is the ideal combination for mildew to form.

Mildewed leaf 2016

Mildew ravaged the Languedoc and other southern regions two years ago and is a consistent threat. The spores live in the soil and fallen leaves from the last vintage. If a viticulteur was to plough or use a pioche now it would release the spores even more than nature would do.

In any case the very soft ground means that machines could not operate between the vines. Jeff is having to use spray strapped to his back in order to try and protect the vines from mildew, an old fashioned way of working but the only option at present. We can only hope that nature is kinder than looks likely and that the sprays of herbal tisanes and sulphur do work their magic.

It never rains but it pours.


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Harvest 2019 – The End

En francais

Julien loads the last case of 2019

Life is full of surprises.

I went along to the cellars on Monday 23rd September in order to take some photographs of the pressing and progress with the making of the wines. When I arrived Jeff and Julien were on their own pressing the marc from the Cinsault. The free juice had been run off already into tank but the grape skins and pulp contain a lot of juice still so they are pressed adding more tannins and colour to the finished wine.

However, shifting tons of grape skins from a tank through a small doorway and then pumping it into the press is hard work and though they were managing well enough I decided to help out and get stuck in. It’s a proper workout pitchforking all that pulp, it gets very messy (bad news for my trainers) but job done. More remontages in the afternoon but also the chance to taste through the tanks before sending samples off for analysis.

Tasting wines from tank during or immediately after fermentation is challenging. Jeff is used to it and knows how a wine will emerge. I taste a lot of wines and know his very well by now but all I seek to achieve is an idea of acidity, tannin and fruit presence, to see if these elements are balanced. Happily it is good news all round. The wines tasted good, very promising for the vintage following on from last year’s excellent quality. The analyses are also good, there have been one or two scares along the way but the wines have worked themselves out with a little help from Jeff.

A week later I was a little surprised to hear that there was to be one last pick. This has happened in previous years, often picking Muscat for the solera. However, there were a few rows of Grenache Gris unpicked and so on September 30th, a month after harvest began we started over.

I picked all morning with the Moroccan team of four, my aching back a reminder of how quickly we get out of practice and rhythm. Then back to the cellar where the grapes, with a few vines of Macabeu, were pressed.

Grenache Gris is one of my favourite grapes, its pinkish colour marks it out and many of my favourite white wines from the Languedoc, and especially Roussillon, are made with the grape. The bunches were healthy, the wine should be very good.

In the afternoon we used the marc from the Grenache Gris. It was passed back through the destemmer and the grapes placed into a container with a little bit of water. This will make a piquette wine, a light quaffing wine. I was surprised to read a couple of days later that piquette wines are the new trend in the USA. It is something of a tradition in Puimisson. On Wednesday the piquette was already fermenting when we looked in the container.

There still remains much to do in the cellar but this was definitely the end, the final cases are in. I think.


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Wine into bottle, wine out of bottle

En francais

Descending moon, favourable high air pressure, time to bottle some of the 2018 wines. This also means that the vats can be emptied and cleaned in readiness for the 2019 harvest. Yes a winemaker does have to think about that already even as the grape bunches are just forming and 3 or 4 months from being ready to pick.

Filling magnums

Two of my favourite Coutelou wines were being bottled on Friday May 24th, Classe and La Vigne Haute. As the latter is my desert island wine Jeff invited me along for the day to help out. He is fortunate to have his own bottling line so he can choose exactly when conditions are right for this crucial process. The wine must be in bottle and corked as quickly as possible to avoid any oxidation.

The bottling machine automatically:

  • fills the bottle
  • tests the level of wine in there, adding or removing accordingly
  • corks the bottle
  • sends the bottle on a 3 minute journey to let the cork seal in the neck

It is mesmerising to watch as you can see for yourselves.

The bottles are stocked on moulded plastic sheets or in a pallox which is much more difficult to do, the bottles stubbornly find ways to fit awkwardly together causing lumps and bumps in the layers.

Pallox

Julien, Nathan, Christian and myself took turns at the various tasks for a 10 hour day with each of us taking a break for food and drink. We have to check every bottle to ensure that the cork has sealed and there is no leakage of wine. Any that do are set aside for use in up and coming tastings.

Christian and Nathan storing bottles in pallox and pallet
Magnum whose cork has leaked

Jeff, took his turns too, of course, but was also busy with other tasks, tastings for a restaurateur, a radio interview.

Interview

Both wines were in good form, Classe more immediate, La Vigne Haute with more structure and tannins but lovely fruit, it will be great. As with all 2018s though there will not be very much of it.

Another wine was tried too. Jeff sent me to the solera cellar to find one of the bottles of my wine, the one I made from Rome vines in 2015 to celebrate my 100th blog post. This was one from the old barrique. I liked it, the others were generous in their comments. There’s a little residual sweetness as well as the tertiary flavours of 3 years in barrel, a drier influence with a raisiny influence. It will be interesting to compare with the wines from the newer barrique and from the glass bottle.

A long, physically tiring day but, as ever, rewarding. Bottling is such an important process in getting the wine to the customer, imperative that it should be done correctly. It doesn’t improve the wine but it could spoil it. Happily all was well this day and these bottles will be well worth seeking out.

Julien filling magnums, the vat is cleaned including the sparkling tartrate crystals


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Rethinking

At a time when my country is in desperate need of a rethink I have had a couple of wine related examples myself recently. So, here they are.

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Merlot at Coutelou

Merlot. I must admit that I have always been very ambivalent towards this grape. Early wine ventures in my life often featured Merlot blended with Cabernet Sauvignon from Bordeaux or, more usually, Australia. However, it was always the underling, the supporting star. My attention was grabbed by the headline act. Then in recent years Merlot has been a bit of a whipping boy, scorned by me and many others. And yet. I recently noticed that Merlot has featured in a number of my favourite wines this year (of which more soon on these pages).

 

Little Things (James Madden) Joy’s Wild Fruits Field Blend which was the star of my trip Down Under this year, Basket Range Vineyard Blend, Jeff Coutelou‘s Vin De Table (and the 2018 wine in vat) and then Patrick Rols‘ Les Anciens 2016 all feature Merlot in the blends to a greater or lesser extent. The latter, from the up and coming Auvergne wine region, has Merlot as the main constituent together with Cabernets Sauvignon and Franc, and it is a delicious, fresh wine. So mea culpa, I have too easily dismissed this grape, Merlot is back. At least as a grape for blending, I’d happily receive recommendations for single variety wines.

The Rols wine was part of a case I ordered recently now that I am back in the UK. Having looked through the lists of several cavistes in this country I found a bigger range of wines, cheaper by buying from France and Spain. The cases arrived quickly, intact and I can safely and wholeheartedly recommend Petites Caves based in Toulouse and Gourmet Hunters based in Barcelona. Both have websites with English translations. So think wider than your local supermarket, enjoy some natural wines, and give a thought to Merlot!

Now, can we persuade my country to think a bit more?

 


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A Tour Down Under, Adelaide

Time to see the world from a different angle. Two months on a trip to Australia and New Zealand, a lifetime ambition becoming reality. A holiday but also the opportunity to survey the wine scene Down Under. As ever with such visits I am aware that I am scratching the surface, giving an impression rather than a fully informed picture. However, I hope to share my thoughts on what I find, taste and see and that they will offer some insight.

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First stop on the tour was Adelaide, South Australia. A city of 1.2 million people but with a compact centre and excellent free tram and bus service to help get around. Wine is important to the region, the Adelaide Hills and Barossa Valley are close. We were going to stay in the Hills with our friend James who worked harvest with Jeff Coutelou in 2016, his partner Sam and year old daughter Flo. First though was a few days in the city itself.

Things started a little disappointingly with the National Wine Centre. There were some interesting exhibits, one on grape varieties was extensive and another contained a 150 year old Shiraz vine which had been taken up, showing the extent of the root system  and wood above ground. Otherwise though, there was little about the story of Australian wine or examples of the wines. The tasting on offer was via enomatic machines which can work out expensive.

However, better was shortly to come. Having left behind 70cm of snow and freezing conditions in the UK the 35°C of Adelaide meant that a drink was soon needed. By chance, we were close to a bar I had seen on a list of recommended places, La Buvette. Only one table was left so we took our beer to sit down and I surveyed the line of wine bottles arranged on the shelf. What a coincidence to find one of Jeff’s Sauvé De La Citerne!

I went to talk to the barman and owner, Dominique Lentz, who turned out to be from Strasbourg and knows some of my favourite producers such as Patrick Meyer and Julien Albertus. When I asked about local wines he offered by the glass none other than Little Things Shiraz, made by… James! The wine world can be a small one. Good wines, beers and food were available and I would recommend a visit to La Buvette if you are in the city.

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James’ Little Things Syrah 2017

We also visited another wine bar, The Apothecary 1878. More traditional in its choice of wines with celebrated producers from France and Australia there were still one or two natural wines. It was very pleasant and worth a visit too. One final recommendation is Luigi’s Delicatessen where we ate excellent crab pasta and there was plenty of good food to take out or eat in.

I was very taken by the cosmopolitan nature of Adelaide, very much a multicultural city which seemed to be working well. The transport system allowed us to get around easily and see the Oval with its very good statue of Sir Don Bradman, the Cathedral, Botanic Gardens and many other attractions. I was taken by the mix of old and new, especially the intricate ironwork on the older houses. It was a great way to start the tour and I was looking forward to meeting up with James and getting out into the vineyard areas.


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Votez et ….. votez encore

Version francaise

People of France and the (Dis)United Kingdom,

We live in momentous times as elections are upon us. Promises have been made by all and sundry, new facts have been sent to astound us. So let me make it clear…

There is only one choice which makes sense, only one piece of campaigning which has kept its promise since the start of the year.

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So, vote Coutelou, open that bottle and register your support for someone who always delivers on his promise. The last “vigneron de gauche*” who is always right!

Vote and vote again.

*©Vincent Pousson


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New year, new start

Version francaise

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If only winemaking was like this! Bottles, however, do not produce themselves. The year round process of winemaking I have previously described on this blog. Readers will be aware of the work, effort and stress involved.

As 2017 began Julien returned from his travels in Iberia to Puimisson to start the long, finger numbing job of pruning (la taille). He will be joined by Carole who also returned to the village and who has pruned for many years at Mas Coutelou.

Jeff tells me that there is plenty of other work going on. I referred in a previous post to January being named after the Roman god, Janus. He was two faced, one looking to the old year, the other looking forward. So too in winemaking.

The pruning, for example, is finishing off the work of the vines of 2016, cutting away the last vestiges if that vintage whilst preparing the vines for the year ahead. Normally the wines of the previous vintage would be approaching readiness for bottle, the first wave. However, Jeff tells me that they have developed more slowly from 2016 and he is likely to wait until they tell him that they are ready. That may happen when I return to the area at the end of this month or maybe later. In which case he will have to prepare wines for the major salons ahead straight from the tank.

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Floor renewal

Other work is taking place in the cellars. Half of the floor was replaced in early 2016 and the rest will now be done. Other changes will add more facilities such as an office.

Meanwhile the weather is not playing its part so far. It has been warm again allowing no rest to the vines. However, a forecast I saw today suggests that freezing conditions will arrive this weekend. Perhaps, after two years, the vines will finally shut down and rest. This would certainly help 2017 be a more promising vintage. New year, new hopes.


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The case for 2016

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Hard to defend 2016, it has been a dreadful year in so many ways, Brexit, Trump, Aleppo, Bowie and so many other deaths.

However, there were highlights, friendships, the Languedoc, the vendanges, grafting vines and some excellent wines tasted including great salons in London, Montpellier, Arles and the Loire.

So what were my top wines of 2016? I could write about wines I tasted at salons and would include great ranges from Kreydenweiss (père et fils), Pittnauer, Tscheppe, Forja del Salnes, Stentz and Thörle amongst others. Austria provided many of my highlights, so many good wines red and white. Alsace and the Loire were my other top sources of favourite wines.

So here is my case for 2016.

Whites

Clos du Rouge Gorge, Sisyphe 14 – This was in my 2015 selection and it returns this year. Fresh, zesty, long Grenache Gris from one of Roussillon’s great producers. I do love this.

Domaine Ribiera, Y’A Un Terret 13 – Even more zestiness, but balanced and lots of character from a small parcel of Terret, a traditional Languedoc grape. Lovely wine from a lovely couple in Régis and Christine Pichon.

Gérard Schueller, Pinot Blanc 2010 – Schueller’s wines need a few minutes to let them settle after opening. Riesling, Gewürz, and this Pinot Blanc were all characterful, fresh and balanced. This was the pick, from a grape which I have never previously associated with much flavour and showing the benefit of a few years in bottle. Delicious.

Domaine des Miroirs, Mizuiro ‘Les Saugettes’, 13 – A bolt from the blue like the label. I tasted this and got hold of a bottle at the Real Wine Fair in London. It is pure Chardonnay from the Jura from Japanese producer Kenjiro Kagami. It is pure in every sense. Clean and fresh. Nutty, lemon and long. Just superb expression of the variety. The Jura is a source of many great wines, this is well up there with any bottle.

Domaine Montesquiou, Terre De France, 14 – Any collection of white wines is incomplete without the wonderful wines of Montesquiou in Jurancon. Manseng grapes, this particular bottle had too much residual sugar for the appellation so the brothers made it into a Vin de France and it is a beauty. Still thrilling in its freshness but with the slightest hint of honey to boot.

Davenport, PetNat, 15 – Another unexpected delight. I had heard great reports of this English wine but was delighted by it when I managed to get hold of some. Indeed it was much more characterful than the champagnes I tasted recently. Auxerrois grapes, very sparkling but lots of character and acidity to leave you wanting more. An eye opener for me regarding English wine.

Mas Coutelou, RobertA, 2003 – A wine which would not stop fermenting in its barrel (named RobertA) and yet turned into a great wine in Jeff’s first year sans sulfites. A blend of Grenaches Noir, Gris and Blanc, it has nutty notes from barrel but pear and apple too. And still youthful. This was my star of so many great Coutelou wines this year. Despite the bottle this is RobertA.

Reds

Occhipinti, SP 68 Rosso, 15 – I am a real fan of Sicilian wines. COS is one of my favourite producers and the niece of its winemaker is Arianna Occhipinti. Her Frappato is even better than COS’ version and yet it was this bottle with Nero d’Avola added to Frappato which captured me. Black cherry, plum with a lot of floral aromas it is very Sicily,  and just very good.

Christian Venier, La Roche, 11 – The highlight of a fabulous weekend at Christian’s Portes Ouvertes was this wine in magnum. Gamay from a special parcel, with great depth, fruit and one of those wines which got better with every sip. Terrific. (Photo shows a different vintage).

Cédric Bernard, La Cabane A Marcel, 15 –  no writer’s trick this. Cédric’s wine is actually the same parcel as Christian’s wine. Remarkably Christian gave it to his protegé and this litre bottle was very very different. Lighter, more overt fruit but joyful Gamay like the very best Beaujolais but with added pepper and spice.

L’Ostal, Anselme, 14 – Great Cahors wine. Malbec of course and deep purple with dense chewy fruits charcateristic of the area. However, Charlotte and Louis Pérot add amazing drinkability to their wines with the fruit overy enough to make them a pleasure and acidity to cut through the tannins. They will certainly age well but it’s hard to resist L’Ostal wines.

Sweet

David Caer, L’Autre Vendange, 13 – David Caer makes wine in Aspiran the same village as the Pichons (see above). He makes a nice red (Exorde) but this dessert wine is special. 100% Roussanne dried on the vine, aged in barrel. Lovely cinder toffee aromas and flavours with a real twist of acidity. Lovely.

So there we are, I could have chosen many others believe me.

So, all that remains is to wish you a very happy 2017, may it bring you health and happiness.

 


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A year in the vines, Mas Coutelou in photos (Part 2)

July

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Young vines freshly grafted in March (see above) surrounded by straw? What is going on? The weather was so hot and dry over  a prolonged period that the vines were stressed. As these young vines would not be producing any grapes they could be watered to protect them, the straw keeps the moisture in the soil.

The grapes continued to grow though and July saw véraison, the colouring of the red grapes. They were smaller than most years but healthy in the main. Other than those vines affected by the widespread mildew of the spring and early summer, those grapes were dried and shrivelled by the disease.

August

More grape ripening, Carignan to the left, Grenache to the right. There were some beautiful bunches despite the weather problems of the year. Time to start thinking about harvest and that work began in the cellar itself where Jeff had taken out some very large fibre tanks and replaced them with smaller stainless steel tanks with a new steel staircase to take us above the tanks to place in the grapes and to carry out pigeage or remontage during the vendanges. And on the 24th Jeff was testing the grapes to check for ripeness and acidity to see if they were ready for harvest to begin (they weren’t quite!).

September

As dawn rose over Rome vineyard probably the most important month of the year began.

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Vendanges means hard work, fun, pressure, grapes and cleaning amongst other things. Selecting the best fruit from the vines’ year of growth, making the best of that fruit in the cellar to make a natural process work by using care, patience and analysis.

For each of the three harvests in which I have now taken part at Mas Coutelou my main memory is of the people, the teams who work to support Jeff. Friends all, and so many happy memories.

October

Cellar work continues as this year’s wines ferment and start their journey to bottle. Meanwhile time to prepare bottles of more of the 2015s, this time magnums. And in both photos Julien to the left and Michel to the right. The two figures who have been most present in Puimisson working at Mas Coutelou through the year. Two of the best, kindest people you would ever meet. Is it a coincidence that good people congregate together and that the best wines come from the best people?

Meanwhile autumn arrives in the vines, Puimisson in the background.

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November

Cases of wine leave Puimisson to head around the world. Mas Coutelou is sold in Australia, Japan, the USA, all over Europe and at the cellar door. As the end of year and Christmas holidays approach merchants want their wines and exporting the cases involves planning, spreadsheets and collation of the various cases.

Meanwhile, in one corner of North East England one happy vineyard worker sorts his own collection of Coutelou treasures.

December

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A photo from Camille Rivière who imports Jeff’s wines into the USA, those cases above have arrived safely and Camille shares her happiness with the bottles she has opened and enjoyed.

Jeff tells me that there has been a lot of rain in recent weeks, 400mm last month. That is certainly welcome but the weather has also been very mild. Reports of mimosa blossoming (it should happen in February) and Jeff told me he had seen a neighbour’s vines preparing to bud!! Frost is needed for the vines to enter a dormant stage and rest, recover after  a difficult year. More mild weather would mean two years of non-stop activity, which would weaken the vines.

A fantastic year, a memorable year, a complex year in the vines.  But also a year marked with sadness at the passing of Jean-Claude Coutelou. I raise my glass once more in his memory.

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Grapes, work and love

 


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Sailing on a sea of prosecco

Not a pleasant image. I did taste a very nice Prosecco at Vinisud this year so I am sure there are some very pleasing wines. However, since returning to the UK last month everywhere I turn I see Prosecco taking over. It is apparently the chosen tipple of women, young women in particular. In supermarkets trolleys seem to be incomplete without a bottle, in bars people ask for it. Not any particular Prosecco, no thought towards vineyard and production methods let alone quality. Just Prosecco.

I hear people asking for a Chardonnay or Merlot in bars too and it made me realise just how rarified is the world of wine in which I am now happily rooted. For the general wine drinker terroir means nothing, SO2 even less. This blog and the many other forms of writing about wine are a minority interest as we sail the good ship ‘Quality’ against the tide of commercial prosecco.

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Nevertheless quality does matter and little things mean a lot to those of us who are fascinated by wine. I am currently re-reading American wine importer and writer Kermit Lynch’s 1990 book ‘Adventures On The Wine Route’ and was highly amused by a decription of his early work. He was bowled over by the Burgundy wines of Hubert de Montille in the 1970s but, sadly,  when they arrived in the USA he was devastated because the wines were dumb. He contacted de Montille to complain they weren’t the same wines, which of course was not true. The wines had simply cooked on board the ship as they travelled through Panama. De Montille explained that his were ‘natural wines’.

He meant, of course, that his wines were living and are altered by conditions around them and by time etc. Nobody would question de Montille’s statement. Wine is a living thing. Yet just yesterday at a wine conference in Verona an audience member at a session about natural wine made the statement that ‘natural wine does not travel’. Presumably s/he believes that SO2 is travel insurance for wine!

 

As de Montille said back in the 70s all wine will suffer if not transported correctly. The answer lay in Lynch usung refrigerated containers to take wine to California. Jeff Coutelou’s wine travels to the USA, Japan, Australia and all over Europe without problem. Kermit Lynch himself imports plenty of natural wine (the modern version) such as Barral and Ganévat. In the same conference Alice Feiring reported that in 2015 there were no natural wine fairs in the USA, this year there were six and demand is growing. Natural wine doesn’t travel?? Nonsense.

Does this matter? In the wider world these are academic concerns, of little matter to most wine drinkers. Yet amongst those of us to whom wine really matters the argument rages on, full of hot air cooking rational debate as surely as those wines in the 70s. Carried along on the waves of Prosecco rather than the Panama Canal.