amarchinthevines

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


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Regenerative viticulture – in theory and practice

Jamie Goode’s books are always a source of information, learning and entertainment, I have reviewed and recommended a number in the past. This year he produced ‘Regenerative Viticulture’ a preliminary publication designed to be updated in a new edition with more science and depth in coming months. This interim book, published by Amazon, is around 170 pages long. I read it in France this summer, expecting it to be challenging and there is a good basis of science of course, Dr. Goode is a trained scientist and expert on plants. I had not expected to be so entertained, I zipped through the book in a couple of days and enjoyed it greatly.

Regenerative viticulture is very much a topic of our times. As Jamie says the thinking has changed about winemaking, emphasis has moved from the cellar to the vine and now to the soil. Our increasing concerns about the environment, climate and the damage modern agriculture has done to both mean that we have to look for change. The book shows that by turning back to the past as well as unearthing new science, viticulture can begin to make our soils healthy and productive. The clearly set-out chapters deal with issues such as the mycorrhizal layer, cover crops, soil management, pest control, and composting. They include scientific thinking as well as interviews with winemakers from all parts of the winemaking world who are working to incorporate such thinking into their practice. I found this very readable and learned a lot, it is a book to be read by anyone interested in agriculture generally, not simply viticulture.

Page 13 gives us a neat summary of the topic. The memorable quotation of James Milton, New Zealand winemaker, is there, there is no better précis, “We’re not standing on dirt, but the rooftop of another kingdom”. This refers of course to the role of fungae and other life in the soils in helping plants such as vines to grow. Research into this underworld is in its infancy but delivering fascinating information about the relationships between plants and fungae, future learning may well transform our practices. Jamie writes, “What regenerative viticulture gives you is a toolkit that can be adapted to place, recognizing that there is no one-size-fits-all way to farm.”. These two statements on page 13 inevitably made me think about how regenerative viticulture works in practice and, as I was working alongside Jeff Coutelou at the time of reading, how it relates to Puimisson.

The subject is certainly not new to Jeff, he has been a pioneer of regenerative agriculture in a locality where quantity and chemical boosting has been rife for decades. Indeed, Jeff has suffered vandalism, the burning of some of his regenerative hedgerows being one example. So, I talked with him and also used an interview he did for Radiovino with Julien Gangard to relate Jamie’s book to what Jeff actually does.

The Coutelou vineyards have been certified (Ecocert) organic from 1987, the work of Jeff’s father, Jean Claude. Since taking the reins of the domaine at the turn of the century Jeff has sought to bring life to the wines not just by making natural wines in the cellar but by improving the soils and environment of the vineyards. I well recall a tour of the vines where we settled in Rome vineyard and Jeff lifted the topsoil with his hand. A web of white threads spread out across the opened up earth, we were looking at the mycorrhizal layer. This network of fungae connects the vines to its neighbours and other plants sending information about minerals, food, predators and disease to support the fungae and plants together.

The photograph on the left shows some of the web of fungae, hard to see I know but it is visible.

Rome vineyard is a good case study in fact. It was Jean Claude’s favourite vineyard and is mine too. Jeff began to experiment with the soil here by not ploughing or tilling for seven years from 2008, a favourite methodology in regenerative viticuture. However, the results were not what Jeff expected. In 2015 I was there when he had to replace a hundred vines which had perished in the last few years. Holes were dug into the earth for the replacements and Jeff was taken aback by what we found. The theory is that by not ploughing the soil is undisturbed and life such as fungae, worms and insects are left untouched to aerate and improve the soil. However, in the heat of the Languedoc what actually happened was the formation of a hard crust on the surface and Jeff found no earthworms in any of the hundred holes. The earth below was also quite sodden because the crust was not allowing natural evaporation. Water in Languedoc soils is precious but, in this instance, the moisture was unhealthy and almost harmful. The crust, he believes, was preventing aeration too, hence the lack of worms.

This is why I quoted Jamie’s comment about needing to adapt the regenerative toolkit to the actual vineyards. During the Gangard interview Jeff says that it is for every viticulteur to make their own decision about what suits the soils which they know best. The practice which seemed best in theory did not work in practice for a healthy soil in that particular vineyard. Therefore, Jeff moved back to a very light, surface raking of the soils at most two or three times a year in order to break up the surface but not disturb life below the top 2cm or so. Since that time Rome has recovered its earthworms and insects and inspections, as above, reveal a healthy living soil.

Cover crops have long been a feature of the Coutelou vineyards, I recall my first visit in 2011 and naively considering them a bit messy because of all the other plants growing amongst the vines! The spring flowers, grasses and herbs are cut in summer to provide nourishment to the soils and prevent too much competition for water. After harvest the must of grape skins and stalks are piled into compost heaps recycling life back into the soils from which they grew. However, as Jamie points out, that must is very rich in potassium, too rich for a balanced soil so the compost must be mixed with other sources too.

Compost waiting to be used on land ready to be planted in La Garrigue

Vineyard planning and the training of vines is another chapter in the book and the best example from Puimisson is the La Garrigue vineyard. The vineyard is on a ridge with one side facing south, the other facing north. Jeff thought about what grape variety would suit each slope best. He wanted Syrah and Grenache to be grown, grapes which form the majority of his wines such as Classe. Grenache, originating in the Mediterranean, especially Spain, loves the heat. Syrah, from the Rhone Valley, prefers some cooler temperatures. Therefore, Syrah was planted on the north facing slope (photo below), Grenache facing south.

Two of the vineyards, Rome and Font D’Oulette, are now planted with gobelet trained vines to reduce metal and wires. So too is Jeff’s retirement vineyard in St. Chinian which we worked on in late 2021. Hybrid varieties are being much investigated at present to help combat the climate chaos we see in the world and the vineyards. As temperatures rise some varieties simply don’t cope. Jeff thinks that acidity levels will drop in many European wines because of higher temperatures, picking too early to maintain acidity leads to wines made from unripe grapes. Therefore, he is looking at grapes which add bitterness to wine rather than acidity. Acidity is a Western feature of food and drink, citrus and vinegar for example. Asian cuisine often uses bitterness instead and grapes such as Clairette bring a slightly bitter flavour, Jeff has planted more and more of it around his vineyards.

Jeff with Matteo and Icare in the new gobelet trained St Chinian vineyard, Clairette being labelled

The book also considers the role of animals in the vineyards, both harmful and beneficial. Pest management is a serious issue and one to which I will be returning in the next article. From, ironically, fungal attacks to moths and snails, winegrowers face numerous challenges. Controlling them without recourse to chemicals and soil damaging products is a real challenge. One answer is the use of animals in the vineyards, for example ducks are used in parts of South Africa to eat snails. Didier Barral in Faugeres and other winegrowers graze cattle and other animals in the vines especially in winter. The animals eat and manure the soil at the same time, a perfect symbiotic relationship. I have come across deer, hares, rabbits and all sorts of birds in Jeff’s vines over the years and he is determined to encourage wildlife in an area which is unhealthily monocultural. The most recent example is the reservoir he has constructed in Peilhan vineyard with plants to clean the water, bird roosts and measures to help animals find water all year round. This reservoir is supplied with local water and fills very quickly. Steps have been built in to allow the animals to get to the water. You can read more about this in the latest edition of Aaron Ayscough’s Not Drinking Poison, the interview contains some excellent photos too. Pleasingly, the pond has already attracted insects, birds and small game.

Elsewhere, beehives, bat boxes (bats eat the main vine damaging ver de la grappe) and huge numbers of trees and shrubs have been added. Jeff’s belief is that not only do they help to regenerate the vineyards with flora and fauna but add to the welfare of the humans who work in the vineyards. If you’re pruning in the cold winds of January then simply having trees around is more stimulating, and in the heat of a Languedoc summer they provide shelter and respite for human, animal and vine. The vineyard is a workplace so make it as pleasant as possible, from Puimisson the Montagne Noir and the Pyrenees are visible, bringing back trees, shrubs and plants makes parts of the vineyards almost idyllic.

This is an enormous subject but a vital one. Many winegrowers, certainly around Puimisson, simply ignore the issues of climate change. With every heavy rainstorm comes banks of mud washed off the vineyards as the soil is loose and dusty from herbicide use. Soils with better management absorb those rains better and stay in place.

I urge everyone to read Jamie Goode’s book, anticipating the extended edition too and to ask questions about the vineyards which provide the wines we drink. As Jeff says when he plants a tree he knows that he will not see it in its maturity, he does it for the future of our planet and vineyards. That seems to be to be the only healthy approach to agriculture and viticulture. No aspect of wine is more important.


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A summer of wine

As I write the rain is tipping down and it is 13c at midday here in North East England. A good time, therefore, to reflect on a warm summer and its good wines, it brings a little reflected glow to a bleak day. Both here and in France I have opened dozens of bottles over the last few months and have also shared in some lovely bottles opened by others, notably Jeff Coutelou during vendanges. I have selected a few bottles which really excited me in addition to one or two which raised questions to me about my selection of wines and when I drink them.

I don’t often drink Champagne or much sparkling wine generally. I do love them but, the price of Champagne means I see it as a treat and my Protestant upbringing makes me feel that a treat has to be a very special occasion, so they are rarely opened. Maybe the ‘treat’ aspect and the circumstances of drinking Val Frison’s Lalore make me recall it with rose tinted spectacles but I think I can honestly say it was my favourite wine of the summer. Those circumstances were Jeff opening it on the last day of vendanges and the team sharing it together sat round the table in the garden. So, there is certainly a happy memory but the wine itself was stunning. A consistent effervescence, fresh opening taste followed by lingering white fruits and a deliciously smooth aftertaste – it really was a fantastic Champagne. Val works using natural methods including very low SO2 but this is classic Champagne and would appeal to natural wine sceptics. A genuinely exciting wine.

Allow me to include one of Jeff Coutelou‘s wines, indeed one I opened very recently. On Peut Pas Vraiment Dire Que 2015 is Syrah from La Garrigue vineyard, a wine made from the grapes which would make La Vigne Haute in the best vintages. The seven years of age had really brought out the best of the wine; tannins present but smooth as silk, dark fruit flavours made more complex by the tertiary flavours of ageing, a leathery note. The wine stayed consistent from first to last glass and I am confident that I opened it at its peak. I am always pondering on the right time to open bottles to experience them at their best. In recent years I have moved towards early drinking to maximise the fruit and freshness but I have opened a few bottles this summer which have developed so much by the last glass that I became all too aware that I should have shown more patience. Perhaps it is the natural world’s promotion of glouglou, everyday drinking wines which has influenced me. This OPPVDQ has convinced me to wait longer with some wines.

Two more of my selections confirm that decision for me. Firstly, Christian Venier’s La Pierre Aux Chiens 2018. This is Christian’s pure Pinot Noir and the four years of age had done it good but it developed so much as we drank it through one evening that I know that more time would have benefited it. Nonetheless this was excellent with round red fruits and good freshness and length. The sort of Pinot Noir which makes me realise how great a variety it is and how many great Pinots are now being produced outside of Burgundy. Certainly, this will be on the shortlist for my best wines of the year. Another Pinot Noir also pleased me greatly, this time from Alsace. Jean Pierre Rietsch’s Pinot Noir Vieilles Vignes 2020 had a peppery note to the bright red fruits, a genuine pleasure. And, yes, I should have kept it for a couple of years but it was lovely now.

The other two wines I have chosen reflect another of my recent wine contemplations. I am a Francophile and proud to be so. I also have favourite producers to whom I return most for purchases. I really need to broaden my wine tasting further, both outside of France and also with newer, younger producers. Therefore, when I was in the Languedoc I consulted my friend Frédéric Lambeau who runs the excellent restaurant/winebar Picamandil in Puissalicon. He recommended a number of very good wines and I have selected two.

The only vendanges I have missed in the since 2014 was the pandemic year of 2020 and a young winemaker worked with Jeff. Unfortunately, I didn’t meet Thomas Angles but I can heartily recommend his first wines made in the St. Chinian area. Fred advised me to start with the Carignan and it was lovely, good fruit with balancing tannins and freshness. This is a wine to drink fairly young but it is one of the best debut wines that I can recall. I hope to seek him out next time I am in the area.

The other wine was from Le Picatier, Picatier Un Jour, Picatier Toujours 2017. Le Picatier is run by the Pialoux family west of Roanne in the high Loire, Auvergne region. They have been making wine since 2007 and, unfortunately, in 2017 disaster struck with frosts damaging a large part of their vines. Sometimes good can come from disaster, however, and the Pialouxs blended their remaining grapes, mainly Gamay but with some Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. The latter two varieties really lift the Gamay and the result is a refreshing, fruity deep wine of real class. I would have guessed this was a young wine, it wears the years well.

So impressed was I by these two wines that I bought more of the range of both producers, I look forward to them but will give them some time!

I have included some photos of other very good wines but hope that you have enjoyed the selection and my reasoning for it.


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First taste through Coutelou 22

As we were due to head back to the UK on September 28th and Jeff was heading briefly to Monaco he invited us to taste through the wines from this year’s vintage. He was going to a launch party for our friend Aaron Ayscough’s new book, The World of Natural Wine, of which more in a future post. We were joined by two New York honeymooners, Jenny and Jerry who have become fans of Jeff’s wines. Jeff had given them a tour of some vineyards and we met up at the cellar in late afternoon Jenny and Jerry were en route to a hotel a few miles away but that would have to wait as tastings with Jeff are never brief. Not that I ever complain.

We began upstairs with the white wines. This range has expanded a great deal over the last decade and I believe that some of them are amongst the best wines which Jeff produces. One of the interesting features of this tasting was trying wines from the same parcel but made in different methods, for example in his choice of press or fermenting vessel.

We began with Clairette, a mix of grapes from Segrairals and Sainte Suzanne, I have mentioned before that Jeff likes this grape for the bitterness it brings. He believes that climate chaos means acidity is harder to achieve in the hot Languedoc so bitterness adds freshness to white wines instead. This wine had already completed fermentation and it reminded me so much of the Clairette 21 which I had opened the previous evening and have really enjoyed whenever I have drunk it. More of the Sainte Suzanne Clairette had been blended with the Macabeu from the same parcel, pressed together and producing a good texture and freshness though a little sugar still remained with fermentation continuing.

Concrete egg with Macabeu inside

By contrast Jeff had taken the free run juice of that Macabeu and put it into a concrete egg to ferment and age. The aromas were incredible, rich with coffee and pear and the flavours continued the pleasure, pears again but a nice freshness too. This was a real star at this very early stage. Another fascinating contrast as more Macabeu had been placed into an amphora, the resulting wine was much more closed and tight than the egg-made Macabeu. Tougher to taste at this stage but clean and concentrated. Onto yet another Macabeu based wine, this time with some Grenache Gris grapes I think, blended in to add colour and make an Amphore Métissé. This was lovely, one of my highlights, with good texture showing the influence of the amphora as well as lovely fruit.

Blended whites from small parcels featured prominently amongst the whites too. One was an interesting mix of the Gris grapes, Grenache, Piquepoul and Ribeyrenc with the Grenache Gris making up half of that blend. The grapes were pressed direct from picking and the result was a flavoursome apple fruit profile and another example of the slight bitterness which Jeff likes. Another blend was made from some of the last grapes to be picked, more Grenache Gris this time with Carignan Blanc and Terret Blanc which had been macerated for a few days before pressing. More white fruit profile and one to look forward to. Finally, among the upstairs wines was the orange wine made from Muscat D’Alexandrie, OW. The aromas had a rich, grapey Muscat profile, the wine is dry and clean with the slight texture of skin contact wine. I loved this, it could well develop into the best example of OW I can recall.

The photograph shows the Syrah of La Garrigue in the foreground and the parcel of Clairette/Macabeu (circled red) as well as the Grenache and Syrah of Sainte Suzanne (circled blue)

Time for the red wines downstairs in the main part of the cellar. Cinsault from Segrairals was light, fruity and fresh, a possible cuvée of 5SO with its enjoyable juiciness. More Cinsault next, this time blended with Aramon which is definitely making a comeback in the region. This had good acidity and clean fruit, very enjoyable, ready for a quaffing wine.

Sainte Suzanne is the vineyard planted half and half with Grenache and Syrah, the juice usually going to make Le Vin Des Amis. The Grenache was classic in style, full of red fruits with pleasing roundness. Two more batches of Grenache from the parcel had been vinified separately. One part was made with grappe entière (whole bunch) producing a lighter red with good freshness, the other batch was made in cuve having been destemmed and the result was good acidity and clear red fruit.

Grenache of Ste Suzanne

The Syrah from Ste. Suzanne was much fuller and weightier in the mouth with 14% alcohol but balanced because of the clear black fruit, a tank destined, in all probability, for the cuvée Classe.

La Garrigue vineyard also grows Grenache and Syrah. The Grenache, again intended for Classe, still had some sugars fermenting but was weighty and full of ripe fruits and already tasted very well. Regular readers know that the Syrah of La Garrigue is my favourite parcel of all Jeff’s wines, making La Vigne Haute in very good vintages. He is unsure whether it will be LVH just yet but the wine is a deep, rich garnet colour and tasted of red fruits with nice soft tannins and a definite minerality. The 12.5% alcohol means that the flavours shone through but will it be enough to support the finished wine?

Syrah of La Garrigue

Couleurs Réunies has become a successful cuvée for Jeff and its distinctive colourful label reflects the vast array of grapes which make up the wine. The reds of the terrace of Peilhan (Morastel, Ribeyrenc, Terret Noir, Piquepoul Noir) are joined by the Cinsault and Grenache of Rome vineyard, the Flower Power vineyard with its twenty varieties and, yes there’s more, Macabeu to add freshness with some more of the Garrigue Grenache and, finally, some whole bunch Carignan from Peilhan (the last grapes we picked). Phew. A lovely nose already, full of fruit matched in flavour too and a lovely clear finish. This is going to be one to watch.

Carignan at the start of September, by Flora Rey

The Mourvedre from Segrairals had a good, deep ruby colour and a lovely depth of dark fruit flavours showing through. The Carignan of Rec D’Oulette was certainly amongst the best of the wines we tasted that day, Jeff said that it reminded him very much of the 2017 version of Flambadou which is the wine made from the grapes. Full in colour, fruit flavours and length, this was really very good. Flambadou doesn’t get the love which it deserves in my opinion, it always ages well and is a wine of real quality. I have no doubt that the 22 will confirm my belief in Flambadou.

A tasting which confirmed the quality of the 2022 vintage which is fortunately matched by good quantity too. Jerry, Jenny, Pat and I all enjoyed it immensely and it was good to see Jeff looking relaxed and happy after the stresses of harvest time. The tasting moved to the solera cellar, vermouth and gin but that’s another story. Much will change with the wines in coming months as they complete fermentation and begin élevage and ageing let along bottling. However, this is a highly promising vintage.


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Coutelou, buzz

If you’d like to find out more about the goings on at Puimisson with Jeff Coutelou, there are other sources as well as this blog. I thought I’d mention a few here with links.

Photography and video

I have mentioned Jeff’s niece Flora Rey before and shared some of her excellent photographs. Flora works all year round with Jeff so, just as I did a few years back, gets to see all that is happening. Her photography is shared on her Facebook page but she has also created a very good video of Jeff, Matteo and Gilles preparing an amphora using time lapse pictures.

Writing

During vendanges 2021 we were paid a visit by the magazine 180˚C. A full year later the article has appeared, giving background to the Coutelou domaine, vineyards and wines as well as describing Jeff’s thoughts and beliefs about them. It is good to see a mainstream food and wine publication featuring less conventional winemaking. It was a surprise to find a photo of myself in a magazine!

Audio

To hear from Jeff himself as he tours the vineyards then it is well worth listening in to this podcast from Radio Vino, the first part can be found here online or here on Soundcloud. Conducted during the summer of 2022 it brings us right up to date and is the next best thing to being with Jeff in the vines.

TV, streaming

Finally, let us not forget the Netflix series ‘Rotten’ Season 2 Episode 2 which looks at winemaking in the Languedoc generally and includes an interview with Jeff and some excellent footage of him in the vines and cellar with Icare and some of the team too.

So, no excuses for not becoming informed about Coutelou culture though I hope you will continue to follow this blog for updates even as I head back to the UK, I have saved some stories to share soon.

Addendum

Today, September 29th, Jeff was in Monaco attending a launch party for a new book by our friend Aaron Ayscough who writes an excellent newsletter, Not Drinking Poison, about the natural wine world. Aaron’s book, The World Of Natural Wine, is already on order for me and I heartily recommend it to you all. Jeff sent me a photo of the page with him on it so that I could add it to this post. An interesting selection by Aaron of all Jeff’s wines, OW, the skin contact, maceration wine of Muscat D’Alexandrie. I tasted the 2022 version yesterday and it is just fabulous so, an unusual choice from Aaron but a good one. And a hint of a future post about the 2022 wines.


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Vendanges Coutelou 22 – #4

The final day of my truncated vendanges this year was Friday September 9th. The Carignan of Rec D’Oulette, which I described in the last post, needed to be completed in the morning and this was to be followed by Carignan again, this time from Peilhan. The quality of the grapes there tends to be good without the absolute quality of the former. Jeff wanted some Carignan for blending and to add some fruit profile to those blends so we were going to be doing whole bunch semi-carbonic maceration. There was also a slight time pressure that afternoon as the Moroccan pickers were finishing that day as well as Tony, Marco, Boris and Manu. Consequently, we worked late finishing the parcel, sorting and cleaning by 7.45 that evening.

It is slower to sort like this as you are bent over the hatch into the cuve and have to go through each bunch picking them out one by one. The space is limited and muscles become sore quickly. Matteo and I did most of the sorting whilst the others went to help the Moroccans complete the picking. It was a case of déja vu as Matteo reminded me that we did the same job with the same parcel last year. The grapes fall directly into the cuve through the yellow chute and the large cuve was pretty full by the time we completed our work, a good example of vendanges 22 in that there was the quantity as well as quality. Jeff smiled despite the three weeks of worry and stress with more to come as the cellar work continues.

Carignan of Rec D’Oulette by Flora Rey

We celebrated with a lovely bottle of Val Frison Champagne and a 2013 Rouge Gorge L’Ubac too. And we said our farewells to most of the team, a pleasure to spend time with.

A few days later Jeff was keen to bottle a few hundred bottles of Bibonade, his PetNat made with almost fermented grapes from this year’s vintage. Some of the white juice I described in the last post such as Aramon Blanc and Olivette were fermenting very quickly so Jeff, Matteo, Flora and Gilles went to pick some Grenache Blanc, there is just one row in La Garrigue and it had been left in case it was needed for such a role. The juice was put into a basket press and added to slow the fermentation. Fortunately, Flora was able to take some photos too.

For now the work continues in the cellar, pressing, remontages, pigeages, running the juice from the must. There ought to be many good wines from 2022 and, happily, good supplies of them too. To complete the profile of vendanges I liked this photo of Flora Rey showing the pickers, especially Marco and Tony, walking off into the distance.


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Vendanges Coutelou 22 – #3

Hot off the presses. Well, more like cool to the press on the morning of September 7th. The pickers were in Segrairals but this time working in the fairly youthful plantings of interesting white grape varieties, Aramon Blanc, Clairette, Clairette Rose, Servant and Olivette. Jeff is a firm believer that variety is the spice of life and wine. And the more varieties the better. The Flower Power vineyard (Font D’Oulette) was the trial run for what has been happening in recent years. That parcel was planted with over twenty varieties of grape, some so obscure that even the national conservatory was unaware of them, for example Clairette Musquée, Delizia di Vaprio and Aramon Gris. Jeff was so pleased by the results that he has continued to expand his palette range to provide more choices for his own particular art. A new planting of Xarel-lo in Peilhan is the latest example.

From Segrairals arrived these white grapes, put directly into press. The blend of different grapes will provide a natural complexity to the resulting juice and wine. Olivette grapes are often used for eating rather than wine and are related to Poulsard the red grape widely grown in the Jura. Servant is another variety commonly used for the table whilst Aramon Blanc is an early ripening mutant grape from its more celebrated red relative. Clairette Blanc has become a favourite of Jeff in recent years with plantings elsewhere and its first single variety bottling released in 2021. It has a lovely slight bitterness on the finish which Jeff has come to think is important for wines grown in warm regions affected by climate chaos, as natural acidity is harder to achieve. Its mutant Clairette Rose provides colour and variety.

Meanwhile Matteo was working in another part of the cellar on some grapes and wines picked earlier in the harvest and also from last year. This latter was destined for barrel and some longer ageing, a blend of Carignan Blanc, Grenache Gris and Macabeu. Another example of the tapestry of interweaving activity going on in the vineyard, cellar and Jeff’s imagination. In the photograph below you may be surprised to see the colour of the wine emerging from the stainless steel tank as it looks quite brown. This is normal, the effects of contact with oxygen and it will clear as the wine settles in its new resting place. Indeed, the contact with oxygen will help to stabilise the wine for the future, making it less susceptible to oxygenation, rather like a vaccine works.

Carignan is one of the grapes most famous from the Languedoc and there are two parcels in Jeff’s vineyards. The Carignan of Peilhan would be the last parcel picked in 2022 but the best Carignan comes from Rec D’Oulette (sometimes called Chemin De Pailhès). This is usually made into Flambadou, one of Jeff’s most celebrated and best wines. 2021 saw this parcel badly affected by frost and Jeff was worried when I was with him in June that the vines might still be suffering and prone to disease. Fortunately, the disease risk was low this year and the vines grew well with some lovely fruit. Boris and I did most of the sorting for these grapes on the afternoon of the 7th and all day on the 8th. In truth there was not much to sort, the grapes were in good shape and hopes for Flambadou are high for those of us who love this wine which ages so well. I have included a couple of photos of the seeds and skins and the bucket used to collect juice after destemming just to show the vibrant colour of this Carignan.

One day of vendanges remained. What would it bring?


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Vendanges Coutelou 22 – #2

In a reverse of all those school essays, what did I do when I was at work?

Clearly my late arrival meant that the bulk of the grapes in the main vineyards had been picked delivering quantity and quality. Coincidentally, and I’m sticking to that rather than me being a jinx, rain arrived the day after me and so the grapes whilst still good needed more care in sorting which is fine by me as that is probably my forte. Years of being here now and learning from experts like Jeff (and Carole in the early years) mean that I can recognise issues from looking at a bunch of grapes, smelling them and touching them. Something like powdery mildew or oidium are fairly obvious, the grey dusting and discolouring of the grapes are clear signs. Rot, through dampness, disease or the grape worms, vers de la grappe, need a little more finding. Often a bunch can look very healthy on the outside, good sized, juicy grapes. In 99+% of cases that is the situation but occasionally those grapes disguise what is going on in the middle of the bunch.

Showing that I do actually work! Photo by Flora Rey

I usually find the problem by getting hold of the bunch and feeling for the squishiness which tells me of problems. A quick sniff can then confirm that I need to cut open the bunch and root out any rot or worm damage. The tell-tale odours can be vinegary or a dry, dustiness. Careful snipping with the secateurs removes the affected grapes and leaves the healthy ones to go into the wine. Inevitably there will be some bad grapes that escape our attention but, hand on heart, not many and not enough to affect quality by the time that fermentation has completed its work. It’s a question of keeping out foliage, insects, snails as well as those bad grapes so that the overwhelmingly healthy grapes can do their magic with the yeasts they carry and the those in the cellar.

On September 6th I spent the morning working in the cellar as we sorted even more carefully. The Clairette and Macccabeu were heading into an amphora and Jeff wants even the tiniest bits of stalk removed. The grapes are sent through the destemmer and the grapes then examined closely for any remaining stalks, as we can see Marco doing in this photograph. The crates are then sorted again, the third such tri, as we can see myself and Tony doing (on the right photographed by Flora).

Jeff reminded me as were sorting some grapes that when I started there were usually only two or three of us receiving the grapes at the cellar and processing them into the tanks. These days we have more hands to help, somehow the work doesn’t seem any easier despite new machinery to help too.

Jeff, Tony and Manu putting Riveyrenc Gris grapes into the press

Whilst the amphora was being prepared with Clairette and Maccabeu more grapes were arriving to go into press. The terrasse from Peilhan, planted back in 2015 is now producing very good grapes from the mix of old varieties such as Morrastel, Piquepoul Noir, Riveyrenc Noir. These grapes will go to help make the cuvée Couleurs Réunies whilst the white grapes from the terrasse such as Piquepoul Gris, Riveyrenc Gris and Piquepoul Blanc will head to another amophora, Jeff having invested in more of these vessels to ferment wine.

The amphora was filled with the Riveyrenc Gris first and then white grapes added on top (above)

Elsewhere in the cellar the grapes from the previous two weeks are well on the way with fermentation and some need pressing or remontage to pump the juice in the bottom of the tank over the top of the thick layer of grape skins which floats on top. This prevents the skins and must from drying out and risking the health of the wine. So, we were in teams throughout the day with Matteo, now two years in Puimisson working with Jeff, leading much of that cellar work.

Grape skins left after the juice has been run off

I have described before the 3D puzzle which Jeff must maintain in his head. He has new grapes arriving and has to put them in a tank. Previous grapes get moved from tank to tank for fermentation, after fermentation, for pressing etc. He has to be aware always of that moving pattern of over 20 different tanks, amphorae, concrete eggs and barrels at this stage of the vendanges whilst working out what they all need next as well. Add in supervising teams of pickers, cellar workers and others and there is no wonder he is stressed at this time of year. I don’t envy him.

The pickers had moved to Segrairals by the afternoon at the opposite end of the village and to the large section of Mourvedre. Now, I have a love hate relationship with Mourvedre, it can be great or it can be awful both as a wine (it often seems to get too animal if not made right) and as grapes. The parcel runs from higher land to lower and the weekend’s rain meant that the vines had wet feet. And Mourvedre is not good in the damp. Therefore, there was some careful sorting to do, the grapes at the top end of the parcel would be much better than those at the bottom and we were sorting the latter that afternoon. Nonetheless there was plenty of good fruit in cuve by the end of the day and it was such a vibrant colour too as you can see on the elevator which takes the sorted grapes to the tank.

That was my first day back. So much going on, a team of hard workers giving their all to ensure that the lovely grapes of 2022 are going to make even better wines. I hope that it has given you a picture of the complexity of what was going on in the cellars by this stage. Next time, a simpler look at some of the unusual varieties of grapes which make Jeff Coutelou fairly unique as a winemaker and conservator of nature.


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Vendanges Coutelou 22 – #1

The harvest was early, I was late. Family matters meant that I was always going to miss the start of harvest 2022 but the long, hot summer advanced the ripening of the grapes so that Jeff Coutelou started early, August 19th. My ninth vintage and start times have crept forward even in that time. When I was in the area in June Jeff told me that it had been a good year with decent rainfall in Spring and then dry, clear weather meaning that disease was very limited. Though the summer months have been extremely hot and dry the grapes grew well, there was sufficient moisture in the ground to allow them to swell to a good size. All was set fair and Jeff told me after the first week that they had picked more in the six days to that point than in the whole of either 2020 or 2021. Another good week followed before I arrived at the very end of August.

Cellar is full of these little blackboards showing what is the tank and its progress in fermenting

As well as being a late arrival I also brought some bad weather, we have had a few days of stormy weather and humidity, the good harvest tarnished by me turning up! Fortunately, nothing too serious though and I have joined the team for the last few days of vendanges. I’ll report back on the events of my harvest experience next time but some thoughts on what I found first of all.

Floating caps near the top of tanks, a good sign

It was good to see Jeff looking happy about the harvest even though he is stressed and tired by now. At least he knows that he has good quantities at last as well as good quality from healthy grapes. There was a late attack of oidium in places and vers de la grappe in others (more on the latter in a future post too). However, careful sorting, as always, means that the grapes in tank should produce some very good wines and with enough to supply demand at last. It was good to see from the gantry in the cellar that the floating caps which sit in the tank above the level of the grapes are high in those tanks meaning they are full. Jeff was doing a remontage (pumping over) when I arrived to work on Monday 5th September and the aromas coming from the wine were beautiful. All augurs well.

Remontage

I have been fortunate to work with some excellent people over the various vintages, Jeff seems to attract them to work with him. This year the core team of Matteo, Gilles and Flora are joined by three more Italians. Benvenuto Manu (who was also here last year of course), Marco and Tony. As with all the teams over those nine vintages they work hard, are welcoming, friendly and good fun. It is a bit odd to hear Italian spoken as the main language in the cellar, Matteo making four native speakers. Last year Jeff made a wine inspired by the Plousard wines of the Jura, Ploutelou, perhaps this year we will have a wine inspired by Italy.

Flora at work

If you want to find some superb photos of the vendanges in those first two weeks I urge you to seek out the Facebook page of Flora Rey, she has a real talent and eye. I have included some here below, with Flora’s permission, but it is well worth looking at others there. Next time, my first couple of days of work.

And of course, vendanges with Jeff would not be the same without the star of the show:

Icare, the star


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June & July Jewels

It’s been a while since I updated on bottles of interest, two months when I have actually had a high ratio of hits with wines tried both in France and back in the UK. Whilst in Coulobres I had some bottles delivered from companies which no longer deliver to the UK after Brexit, including a good range of wines from other countries, Slovenia for example. I leave you to draw your own conclusions about my views on this country.

I had a curious encounter with a sommelier in a Michelin starred restaurant with an excellent chef. The wine list was very conventional and he declared himself “not a fan of natural wines”, so he doesn’t include them or many organic / biodynamic wines on the wine list which seemed a skewed approach to creating one, not providing choice. I have also begun Jamie Goode’s new book, ‘Regenerative Viticulture’, there is an excellent review on my friend David Crossley’s site here.

So, to the bottles. I am going to mention just a handful of wines which really stood out for me. Natural wine really got going in Beaujolais, a region I have spent a lot of time visiting and getting to know its crus. One of the most attractive of those crus for me is the appropriately named Fleurie and I really enjoyed a good example from Justin Dutraive, Fleurie La Madone 2020. Son of a famous father, Jean Luis Dutraive, Justin is one of the next generation of Beaujolais producers like Alex Foillard and Charly Thévenet. This was bright in colour, attractive red fruit nose and flavours. One of those bottles where you wish you’d bought a magnum.

Alexandre Bain has been making natural wine under his own name since 2007 and I have enjoyed many of his bottles over the years. He has had plenty of run ins with the authorities during that time with the Appellation label sometimes refused because his wines are different to the ‘norm’. La Levée 2019 is typically very ripe compared to other producers and has exotic fruit notes, very round and approachable. The wine is balanced with a good clean finish, more typical of most Sauvignon Blanc wines. One of the best white wines I have enjoyed in recent times.

Two more white wines were amongst my summer highlights, a seasonal influence perhaps? Another of the senior figures of natural wine is Thierry Puzelat. Together with his wife Zoe he created Le Clos De Tue Boeuf in the Loire village of Les Montils. Puzelat was one of the influences which brought American writer Alice Feiring to natural wine, surely one of its most important advocates. The wines are distinctive and exciting to my taste. I loved Tue Boeuf’s Pineau De La Loire 2019. This is the historic name of Chenin Blanc and this bottle had the classic Chenin trick of being dry but having the merest hint of sweetness without ever actually being sweet. My first real love of French wine was for the Chenins of the Loire and this bottle rekindled that enthusiasm, great wines.

In my article on the Faugeres wine tasting I regretted the absence of wines by Clos Fantine, Alexandre Durand and Sybil Baldassarre amongst others. Maybe it was a response to that which influenced me to open a bottle of Sybil’s La Graine Sauvage Lutz 2016, one of her first wines. Lutz is a blend of Roussanne and Marsanne, has the roundness associated with those grapes but a clean, refreshing acidity to balance it. White fruits dominate, a wine of real class.

My final offering is from Adelaide Hills producer Gentle Folk, Vin De Sofa 2019. I am fortunate enough to have visited Gareth and Rainbo Belton when I was staying with Scintilla Wines producer James Madden in 2018. Their cellars are high in the hills with beautiful views across the Basket Range hills. This is a blend of Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris, usually fermented together (though not in the following year 2020 when the grapes ripened at different times). The result is a light bodied and light coloured red which had enticing red fruit aromas and my favourite combination of red fruits and fresh acidity. It is dangerously easy to drink, a fabulous wine from an outstanding producer.

So, those are my favourites, I have omitted some of Jeff Coutelou’s wines as I have mentioned them before and you, regular readers, know that I would always include them amongst my favourites. Here are some with other bottle I liked too.


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Updates

Whilst in France I had intended to update the blog every week at least and then there was a 2-3 week gap. Apologies, I contracted Covid whilst there and was confined for a week so didn’t get to do one or two things I had hoped to as well as my brain being a little fuddled. Fortunately I recovered (just in time to return to the UK), so one or two updates on recent posts.

Bottling the Coutelou 21s was completed with some of the bigger cuvées such as Classe as well as the one which I am keen to acquire, the new Flower Power. The tanks are, therefore, empty and await this year’s harvest. Matteo and Jeff were busy rearranging steel tanks and topping up barrels when I called just before leaving. Meanwhile Jeff took delivery of a new concrete egg which involved a lot of machinery and manoeuvring to get in place next to the previous one. A two tonnes vessel to be placed on the upper floor was a complicated operation, Flora took a video which you can see here.

I can also update my post on tasting the 2021 wines. In addition to the wines I tasted with our Australian visitors I was fortunate to be present when the owners of Michelin starred restaurant Cyril Attrazic came with some of their chefs and sommelier and Jeff opened one or two other bottles. They were mainly there to taste the spirits of Vins et Spiritueux Coutelou but over a very enjoyable lunch we also tried a new bottling of 5J, the 2016 Carignan Blanc aged in oak barrel for five years. Concentrated, a slight oak character with a tiny amount of planned oxidation but ultimately it is the fruit which wins through those influences to deliver a long lasting wine of real quality. A special bottle. We also enjoyed a new white cuvée TSCC, made from young Terret Blanc, Servant, Clairette Blanc and Clairette Rose vines. There’s a white fruit profile and then a lovely late acidity lifts that fruit, very refreshing. Only 400 bottles were made as this is a small, young plantation in Segrairals. Macabeu B5 -21 is the Macabeu I mentioned, aged in barrique for six months after fermenting in the first concrete egg. Jeff was so pleased with this wine that he ordered that second one. Finally, Apérodrome an apéritif made from white wine infused with gentian and orange peel. Very dry and concentrated it is at its best when mixed with sparkling water and proved to be a delicious, refreshing summer drink. The spirits such as an almond alcohol and gentian spirits were loved by Cyril and the team.

In the post Vineyard Views I explained how Jeff was expanding Peilhan vineyard including a drinking hole for wild animals and birds. He has also bought a parcel next to the Vigne Haute Syrah in La Garrigue vineyard. This will, I understand, be planted with more Syrah on the north facing slope. The land has been cleared and compost has been delivered ready to use. Jeff is concentrating on a few vineyards such as Peilhan rather than having his work spread over a large number, more efficient altogether.

Meanwhile in the month I was there the grapes began to swell and grow. Compare some from the beginning of June to the beginning of July.

It is the summer break for the domaine now, preparations will soon begin for the vendanges which will be quite early this year, the Spring heat having advanced growth and ripening. I hope to be back for some, if not all, the vendanges and will, of course, update you about how things are going.