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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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 SauvageLutz 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.
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.
Félicitations Faugères AOC on your fortieth birthday. I have stated many times on here that of the regions of Languedoc, Faugères would be my favourite for consistently good wines across a number of producers, for its wild landscape, altitude and soils of schist and granite as well as the usual clay and limestone. The Terrasses Du Larzac might be more celebrated with producers such as Grange Des Pères and Daumas Gassac but Faugères has its own star names, Cébène, Barral, Alquier, Fantine, Graine Sauvage, Peira Levada to name but a few.
In 1982 the Faugères producers achieved AOC status for its red wines, followed in 2005 by its white wines. My profiles of Clos Fantine and Cébène have included descriptions of the complexity of the soils in the region, the schist in particular adds a fascinating dimension to the region and was what attracted Brigitte Chevalier to establish Cébène. The altitude and proximity to the Mediterranean also mean that winds keep the air fresh and help to combat disease such as mildew. In 2021 this area was one of the few in the Languedoc not to be badly hit by the April frosts. The wildness of the area is perhaps what has encouraged well over half the producers to be certified organic with many more in conversion. There is so much to admire but what about the wines? Well, last month the producers decided to organise a tasting at Chateau de Grézan to show off their wines and celebrate the anniversary.
It was a fine venue for a tasting in a large parkland area with plenty of shade as we were on the tail end of a canicule or heatwave with temperatures in the high 30s. Unfortunately my natural producer friends were not present which was a shame but that created time to meet up with some old friends as well as try one or two new producers.
Mas Lou is one of the latter, a young domaine midway through the three year organic conversion process at present. Situated near Fos this is classic Faugères terroir with a mix of soils and altitude of 200-300m, factors bringing freshness to the wines if they are well made. Happily, there was every indication that Mas Lou is making good wines from its predominantly Syrah and Carignan vines with others available to bring character. For example Angacio has Carignan but with some Grenache and a little of the local grape Lledoner Pellut. The sum of these grapes was a fresh, lively and easy drinking red wine, a good introduction. Aksou showed off Syrah and the schist helps to give direct, fresh fruit and length. Perhaps my favourite of the wines was Jalka, made from old Cinsault vines with 400m of altitude, instantly recognisable as Cinsault with its juicy, light red fruit notes. I look forward to finding out more about Mas Lou in future.
I first met Jérôme Rateau at a Faugères tasting in Montpellier in 2015, a young winemaker based at the top of the village of Faugères itself, Chateau Haut Lignières. His wines are always good value and both white and red offer classic regional character. He makes two ranges one under the domaine name and one under his own. I tend to prefer the latter and enjoyed Empreinte Carbone19, Syrah and Grenache aged in old barrels for 22 months with only a small addition of SO2 and Petites Plumes Blanc 21 a refreshing blend of equal parts Vermentino, Roussanne and Grenache Blanc. However, my favourite wine, indeed possibly my favourite wine of the day, was Aramon 19. Yes you read that right, Aramon. The grape which was grown so widely to produce low alcohol, everyday plonk (served up to French troops in World War 1 for example) and has a dreadful reputation. Well, Jérôme has hundred year old vines and they are producing a cracking light, fruity red with a dusting of tannin and real length. Unfortunately, the vines are slowly dying off and needing to be replaced so buy some of this now. Bravo Jérôme for making such an unfashionable but excellent wine.
Another good friend in the area is another Jérôme, this time Jérôme Py of Domaine Causse Noir, midway between Cabrerolles and Caussiniojouls, which means high altitude and healthy winds. Jérôme started his domaine in 2011 and makes no compromises with his big, powerful wines, given plenty of time to mature and reach their peak, look at the vintages he was showing here. Certified organic, his harvests often starts when most are nearly finished lower down in the region. He is a gentle giant and a lovely man, I want his wines to be good and, happily, they always are. 3,14 2017 is a wordplay on his surname of course. It is a lovely red blending Carignan, Syrah, Grenache and Mourvedre full of red and black fruit flavours and yet fresh and easy to drink. Caius 2016 blends Syrah, Grenache and Mourvedre and has barrel age to produce a deep, elegant and balanced wine with good fruit and tannin. Matthias 16 with more Mourvedre and then Syrah and Grenache feels lighter at first but the wine is very deep and concentrated, the Mourvedre brings real power but is balanced, fine winemaking skills in evidence to control the power.
The most underrated domaine in Faugères for me is Mas Des Capitelles, situated near the start of the village on the road from Roujan. The Laugé family are behind this domaine, they have been winemakers for many generations and Cédric and Brice are currently at the helm. Certified organic and biodynamic their vines are on schist and the wines are classic examples of the Appellation with lovely freshness and generous fruit. Faugères 20 and Primus 20 are the introductory wines and if you want a wine to typify Faugères then either would serve you well, lovely bottles. However, the real stars reveal the restless experimentation of the brothers. Vintage 2015 made from old Carignan vines whose grapes are barrel aged with Mourvedre before a final addition of Grenache to the bottle. Fresh raspberry fruit with underlying structure and elegance, I wrote the word ‘beautiful’ in my tasting notes. Crescendo 19 is a similar blend with minimal SO2 and is spicy, lighter than Vintage but long lasting. Two special cuvées made from the very best grapes were called simply #3 (Mourvedre, Syrah) and #4 (Mourvedre, Carignan). In my enthusiasm I forgot to note vintages but these are wines tended for a long time, left to mature. Both were powerful yet balanced and a joy to drink. I have a lot of time for the Laugé family, they really are working to get the best from their soils and vines and I urge you to seek them out.
Two more domaines to mention both run by excellent women winemakers. Mas D’Alezon, based in the village itself, is run by Catherine Roque who set the ball rolling at the excellent Domaine Clovallon in Bédarieux now run by her daughter Alex. Catherine concentrates on Alezon, with three main vineyards all certified organic and biodynamic, and the wines are made with minimal or no use of sulphites. I have tasted and bought Alezon wines many times and it is always a pleasure to discover new vintages of such high quality wines. The white Cabretta 21 is made from Roussanne, Clairette and Grenache Blanc near the village, the wine fermented in concrete egg and barrel. Delicious, refreshing with generous white fruit notes and mouth filling round flavours. And Presbytère 21 made from Cinsault on slate soils with small additions of Lledoner Pellut and Carignan. Full of that lovely Cinsault character of juicy, red fruit with a clean, refreshing acidity too. Perfect wines for a hot day.
Finally to Domaine de Cébène. Regular readers know that this is one of my favourite wine domaines anywhere, run by the exceptional Brigitte Chevalier and about whom I wrote last year here. It was good to catch up with Brigitte again, taste new vintages and chat. I won’t add much to what I wrote last year, the domaine is organic and biodynamic, based high in the hills between Faugères and Caussiniojouls. Brigitte has transformed and revived old vineyards as well as adding new plantings. Praised by Jancis Robinson and many others, I can only agree. A La Venvole 20 is the newish addition (2nd vintage) designed to be lighter and easier drinking and successfully achieves its goal without compromising on quality. Ex Arena 21 made from Grenache primarily and from outside the Faugères area, hence its name and IGP status. Very low yields but an elegant, savoury wine, complexity too and the most beautiful aromas swirling in the glass.
Les Bancels 20, the definitive Faugères wine for me. I chose the 2019 version as my wine of the year in 2021. The 20 is delightful too, fresh, direct Syrah but backed up by light tannins and lengthy flavours. It felt lighter than the 19 version but still captivating. Belle Lurette 20 is made largely from very old Carignan vines on schist, which Brigitte loves with a passion. This needs time but is already just lovely, a noticeable herby, garrigue influence on the red and black fruits. Elegant. Felgaria 17 brings Mourvedre to the fore backed up with some Syrah and Grenache, all taken from the best plots at 320m altitude. There is so much depth and power in here, balanced of course and so many different flavours emerging, blackcurrant for example. Having spent time in oak it is weighty and needs even more time to reach its peak, a true vin de garde. Brigitte pours so much of herself into her vines and wines, restless to improve at all times, experimenting now with amphorae and eggs. Must buy wines.
So, a worthy event to celebrate the fortieth anniversary. I wish I had time to try other domaines whose reputations are growing fast. Faugères is making great strides with old and new winemakers bringing innovation to the traditional winemaking and vineyards. From Aramon and Lledoner Pellut to concrete eggs and biodynamics there is so much to admire and enjoy.
It is bottling season. As this year’s grapes slowly develop in the Languedoc sunshine the wines from previous vintages reach a stage where they can be prepared for sending out into the wider world. This also frees up tanks and containers which will be required for this year’s wines after harvesting. With a good sized crop (hopefully) in 2022 Jeff Coutelou will need all the space he can acquire.
Wines that require more time in tank or barrel will get that time of course, it would be madness to bottle immature wines which are undergoing changes and may produce a final product which could have been so much better with patience. However, most of the wines that were assembled a few months ago have had time to integrate and are ready to put into bottle. There they will rest again for a few months before being labelled and made ready for market. Why the need for rest? There is a widespread belief in bottle shock, that the process of going into bottle shakes up the liquid and its various chemical processes (phenolics, tannins etc) and that these need time to settle again. The scientific evidence of this is, as I understand, a little shaky but most winemakers will tell you that drinking wine that has just been bottled (or indeed shaken up when transported) will lead to an unsatisfactory experience, the wine’s tastes and smells are subdued. Indeed I attended a wine tasting last night where I was told exactly that by a winemaker whom I respect enormously.
Matteo, Flora and Gilles hard at work
On Thursday 16th June the Languedoc was experiencing a heatwave and so bottling was limited to the morning even in the cool cellars. Jeff has his own bottling line which means that he does not have to bring in machinery which is usually on a lorry and the wines have to be taken out into the open, the 38c temperatures notwithstanding. A variety of smaller scale wines went into bottle such as the red amphora wine you can see in the video above, Amphore Métissée and Macabeu. The bottles are vacuumed by the machine to remove any dust, debris and stale air. They are then filled, moved to a regulator which adds or removes wine so that all are filled to the exact same level and then the cork is put into the bottle. The corking is a relatively violent process, forcing pressure into the wine so the bottles follow a long, circuitous route to allow the gasses to dissolve and the wine to settle before the bottles are laid into a pallox (in the video this is done by Jeff’s niece, Flora) after being checked to make sure there are no leaks or problems.
On Monday June 20th over 7,000 bottles of Matubu were prepared on a cooler day. More wines will follow later in the week. Jeff then transports the pallox or pallet to the storage cellar for their next period of rest and maturing.
Bottling is not the most arduous in the full range of jobs which winemakers have to master but it one of the most important. Mistakes here would be disastrous, the bottles and corks are expensive and the wine is now beyond any control as it sits ready to be consumed. Many would add sulphites at this stage to protect the wine even if it has not been added before this point. Jeff adds nothing to his wine at all and, therefore, preparations, hygiene and the machines have be meticulous.
So, when you open a bottle of Matubu 2021 in a few months time think back to how it was bottled and, I trust, the wine will bring you great pleasure.
On the day of my first tour of the vineyards in 2022 I was able to join a group of visitors for a tasting of some of last year’s wines. The three were all from Australia, Jason has been in London for over ten years but is now dividing his time with Biarritz and has the wine bug. His parents have a farm near Melbourne and are considering planting some vines and, after the covid hiatus are happily touring French vineyards with their son, Jeff’s being one of the first calls, naturally.
Whilst they toured the vines I helped Flora label some of the bottles of En Commun, the name given to the wine made from the Carignan and Syrah grapes secured from Vivien Hemelsdael of Le Clos Des Jarres after the harvest here was cut in half by the April frost. I love the name and the way the label plays on the En Commun / Commune theme, a reflection of one vigneron helping another. I opened a bottle of En Commun a few days later and was excited even more by the wine. Light, red fruits to the fore, easy to drink on its own or with food, this is Carignan at its most friendly. A lovely wine, bravo Vivien and Jeff.
Back from their tour Jeff offered a tasting of wines from bottle and tank, some of the bottles had been open a couple of days from a previous tasting (coincidentally with Jeff’s Australian importer Andrew Guard) but all of them were in good condition, not a fault to be seen. Remember that some of these wines will be in short supply after that crippling frost.
Clairette, as the advert used to say does what it says on the tin, or in this case bottle. This Languedoc native white has increased in planting with Jeff recently and here was evidence of why. Clean, fresh and with a good length of white fruit flavours. Clairette is low in acidity but carries a slight bitterness which makes it feel like there is more acidity but also adds a grown up feel to the wine. Good start. This was followed by Macabeu, the other white grape which Jeff has favoured in recent times. However, what made this wine different was the use of a concrete egg to mature the wine after it fermented in steel tank. The wine was bottled directly from the egg by gravity and this means that there is a tiny amount of sediment in some of the bottles, obviously more towards the end of bottling. We tasted one from the beginning and one from the end of that process and, in truth, there is little real sediment. Stand the bottle up before serving and you won’t notice. Was it autosuggestion from the egg but there was a real minerality to this wine, ie a feeling of texture and a stoniness to the fruits. It was lovely, Jeff has ordered another egg so is clearly happy about the benefits for the wines.
On to reds. Ploutalou is a new cuvée, every year brings them! Aramon, another traditional and maligned Languedoc variety to the fore this time, supported by Cinsault, Grenache and a dash of Clairette. Aramon makes light wines, Cinsault too and the white Clairette exaggerates it. Not surprisingly light in colour, Ploutalou has fresh, red fruit – a wine for sheer pleasure. The playful label, a nod to the rabbits who helped themselves to the fruit in the vineyard.
Matubu was a new cuvée in 2020 and its success has gained it a place in the Coutelou pantheon. This is still in tank and an assembly of Cinsault from Segrairals vineyard with Syrah from the same vineyard topped up with Grenache. The Cinsault is eveident on the nose, the strawberry fruit gives it away for me. Another fresh, light red, another bottle to open at any time.
Talking of the celebrated Coutelous, well Classe is back of course, its pink label with a diamond easily Jeff’s most recognisable wine. Syrah, Grenache and Carignan blended to make a much fuller wine than those tasted so far, more body and tannin but depth of flavour and richness too. Classic Classe, always a joy.
By comparison there is another new cuvée, yet to be named, still in tank. Carignan, Castets, Terret Noir and Morastel – now there’s a blend you won’t see anywhere else. A dark, brooding colour with generous fruit and acidity, I’d say this needs a little time still but it carries a lot of promise, I really liked it. However…
Back in 2015 when I was here full time Jeff produced a bottle called Flower Power which garnered plaudits from everyone including influential French wine magazines. For the first time since then it is back and, I have kept it till the end because on first taste this is one of the star wines that Jeff has ever made. I was not surprised that he then told us it was made from the Syrah of La Garrigue (the grapes which go into my favourite, La Vigne Haute). These were blended with the grapes from the Flower Power vineyard itself, Font D’Oulette, the parcel with over twenty different varieties planted at random. The red and black fruit aromas filled the glass and the mouth, it was pleasure from start to finish with a good backbone of tannin and acidity too. This was lingering in my mouth for a long time after we finished, it will age well. Unfortunately, there had to be a downside, there isn’t much of it, probably just a few hundred bottles. I’m first in the queue and Jason won’t be far behind.
2021 was such a year of torment for winemakers across Europe, 50% of harvest was good compared to many. It is a relief that the wines which have emerged are of such a high standard, we’ll have to be patient for them but they are definitely worth the wait.
Meanwhile 2022 has begun very well, Jeff’s vines have grown healthily, the grapes are formed and in plentiful supply promising a big crop at this stage. Disease is at a minimum, a touch of oidium on one or two parcels but manageable. There is a lack of rain, it is not just vignerons who would love some sustained rainfall. Ironically last week we had two to three hours of such rain at the house just eight kilometres away from Puimisson. I was astonished when Jeff said they had had virtually none. My next door neighbour told me some of his parcels had hardly any rain, just a kilometre away. Now we have 35c in early June, the climate is certainly confusing. Enjoy the bottles while we can.
Below – some of the 2021 grapes mentioned here, l-r Jeff with Segrairals’ Cinsault, Castets and Macabeu
The start of June and the start of another period visiting Jeff Coutelou in Puimisson and updating myself with changes to the vineyards and how the vines are faring in this vintage. I also tasted through a number of the 2021 wines which are in a good place including one of the best I have ever had from Jeff but I’ll leave those notes until next time. A tasting teaser if you will.
The main work done over the winter has been in developing the large new parcel of land which extends the Peilhan vineyard. Peilhan used to have around 2.5 hectares of vines when I first began to work with Jeff in 2014 a red parcel of Carignan, Grenache and Castets alongside the white parcel of Muscat, Carignan Blanc, Maccabeu and Grenache Gris. In 2016 we planted the plot on higher ground (shaded blue on the satellite image (bottom left corner) with Terret Blanc, Piquepoul Gris, Riveyrenc Gris, Riveyrenc Noir, Terret Noir and Morastel. That parcel is producing good grapes already as we saw last autumn.
I reported then how Jeff had bought the adjacent parcel which adds another 2-2.5ha of land, of which only a tiny part has been planted so far though excitingly with the Catalan white grape Xarel-lo featuring there. This is an example of how Jeff is responding to climate change, planting to grapes which welcome heat whilst also producing very good wines. The main area is enjoying a period of fallow whilst in the top corner a reservoir was dug for wildlife to use and a roost and nesting box for birds of prey or owls. It will be fascinating to see how this develops. The vineyard was alive with birds singing when I visited on Thursday June 2nd.
Planting around the reservoir has begun and the replanting of the long stretch of Peilhan which was burned by a vandal as I reported last year. It is an exciting project and when the vines are planted this will help to consolidate the domaine in one area making work more efficient.
Elsewhere the vines are at the end of flowering with the development of little pea-like grapes, some with the brown caps still attached from when they emerged from flower. This is a fascinating period in the vines’ annual cycle, a time of year with all the year’s potential ahead.
The period of frosts is gone and though there has been a little evidence of oidium for the most part everything has gone well and Jeff was optimistic enough to predict a big harvest, much needed after the 50% cut last year due to frosts. Other regions have been less fortunate, mostly in the Loire, Savoie, Auvergne and Northern Italy, where hail storms damaged vineyards and buildings at the end of last week. A reminder of how delicate the balance is between a promising vintage and a disastrous one. And sure enough Thursday brought a marin, a wind from the sea with humidity, which can instigate an outbreak of mildew or oidium so vignerons across the area were to be found spraying to prevent damage where possible.
It was good to catch up with Jeff of course, as well as Matteo and Gilles who continue to work with him as they did last year too. Let’s hope that good fortune here continues.