amarchinthevines

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


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Coutelou 2019

A Coutelou update.

Every year Jeff sends out a New Year friendship card to regular clients and friends. The 2020 version highlights the ongoing protests in France about pensions, I particularly appreciated the mobility scooter with bottles in its basket. Inside is a résumé of 2019 and what happened in the vineyards and vendanges. Here’s a quick summary.

The winter of 18-19 saw a healthy rainfall of 400mm in October and November which went a long way to replenish the water levels. Budding began at the start of April, a normal date. Spring was colder and drier than usual and that slowed down growth and the date of véraison, when the grapes change colour. However, there was little or no disease other than a little coulure, where bunches have gaps. The major problem of 2019 came in June with an exceptional period of heat and the start of a very dry summer. This meant that as harvest began the grapes were struggling to reach phenolic ripeness when tannins are ripe and supple. Harvest lasted just over two weeks after starting a little later than normal at the start of September. The grapes were exceptionally healthy and clean, and very concentrated. “The winemaker is more than satisfied with the results achieved.”

The lack of rain (100mm from January to August) and the exceptional heatwave of June serve as a warning to what faces us with climate change.

After harvest things seemed to be going very well thank you. Plenty of nitrogen, good yeasts and healthy grapes, meant fermentation started well. But, there’s always a but, the wines have struggled to finish those fermentations. This has been the story across the region from other winemakers. Theories abound, the most likely is that the heat and dryness encouraged an excess of potash in the grape must, raising pH levels and so stopping fermentation. Soutirages, moving wine from the bottom of the tank to the top, helps to keep the tank clean and healthy and winter will help tartar to develop which will boost the fermentation when temperatures start to rise again.

The above means that it has been difficult to plan blending as even Jeff cannot be certain of how each tank will taste. However, there will be a wine of white and gris (Grenache for example) in amphora, an orange wine of Muscat d’Alexandrie, a Spring red and a Carignan, Castets and Morastel red wine. Plus the classic Coutelou cuvées with Syrah and Grenache to the fore.

These days the domaine is known as Vins et Spiritueux Coutelou so a word on the spirits. Gin, eau de vie, Kina will be joined by new bottles of an aromatic spirit and a mint based drink.

New planting of Clairette (right) and Macabeu

And in the vines? 200 metres of new hedgerows to replace those destroyed by malicious fires a couple of years ago, new olive trees planted too. A new parcel of Cinsault and a white parcel near Sainte Suzanne of Macabeu and Clairette were planted. So no retiring just yet!


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Oddities 3

En francais

Fabrice disappearing through the floor. What is going on?

Carbonic maceration is a winemaking method most associated with Beaujolais where it has long been the traditional technique. Its ability to draw out fruity, fresh flavours helped make the name of the region especially when railways carried the wines to Paris in the late 19thC. In the 1960s Jules Chauvet carried out research into the technique and his scientific studies showed that Gamay and Grenache were especially suited to carbonic maceration. (He was, incidentally, also the man who pioneered no sulphur or natural wines).

The tank is filled with carbon dioxide

And, Grenache was the grape which had Fabrice climbing down through the floor. Underneath the top floor of the cellar is the top of the wine tanks. The yellow funnel is where the grapes are placed after being sorted, falling through into the tanks. When the tank is filled carbon dioxide gas is added to it. As well as creating an oxygen free atmosphere the CO2 seeps into the grapes and encourages them to start to ferment inside their skins rather than on the skins in traditional winemaking. Some grapes at the bottom of the tank will be crushed by the weight of the others so there is some conventional fermentation.

If the grapes are removed and pressed before fermentation is complete this is known as semi carbonic maceration, a method which Chauvet identified as suitable for grapes such as Mourvedre, Pinot Noir and Syrah.

The popularity and spread of natural wines has brought a renaissance in interest in carbonic maceration because of its ability to produce very drinkable wines, ‘glou glou’ as they are often described. Search any wine bar or merchant list and you will find many such wines listed.

So, Fabrice was checking on how much the tank was filled.


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Reflections on the vintage

En francais

Back in the UK, back in the wet and cold weather, though the Languedoc has suffered severe bad weather itself. Jeff kindly gave me many bottles to bring back, so the Coutelou wines are never far from my mind. And with a little time to reflect on the 2019 vendanges and the wines which are in tank.

The year began brilliantly, healthy rainfall over the winter meant a promising start, the vines were healthy and disease free through budding and flowering. Jeff was hopeful of an excellent vintage. Some damage from winds during flowering took a little of the shine away. And then came months of no rain and the promising start withered away in the heat, the nadir being June 28th with 45˚C temperatures. Though this canicule was worse for other parts of the Languedoc, Jeff’s Carignan was affected too. The continuing drought meant that the grapes were small, lacking in juice and very concentrated.

The positive was that disease such as mildew never formed so the grapes were healthy and clean. There will always be the odd problem, vines are natural, living things and, so, there will be problems. Most reports of wine harvests only ever show beautiful, clean grapes. There is no such thing as completely perfect grapes, every wine domaine will have problems. Jeff and I believe in showing the truth. The risk is that problems can appear worse than the reality. You will have to believe me that in 2019 98% of all bunches were good and healthy and whilst these photos show what problems we did meet they should not be exaggerated.

The wines which were produced will be very good. There is plenty of fruit and the wines are concentrated because of the lack of rain. They are quite high in alcohol and so careful picking and blending by Jeff was necessary to give the wines balance. There is good acidity and freshness despite the concentration. 2019, in my opinion, will not have the great quality of 2017 and the 2018s which taste tremendous at the moment. However, there is plenty of great wine to look forward to, cheers.


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Glass and bottle

En francais

October 2nd proved to be an interesting day in the cellar in two distinct phases. In the morning we were pressing the grapes which had gone into amphorae and then, in the afternoon, we bottled the first 2019 wine! That may sound odd but there is a reason which I shall explain.

The new amphorae had been filled with Piquepoul Gris and Terret Blanc grapes on September 12th and after macerating for three weeks it was time to run off the juice. This is straightforward in a normal wine vat but amphorae take a lot more work. The grape skins and pulp had to be lifted out by hand into the press, a laborious task.

After the bulk of the grapes were removed the rest of the juice could be run off by siphoning it out from the amphorae. The skins were put into the two basket presses and the juice put into a stainless steel tank with the siphoned juice. Some Cinsault grapes had been put aside to add to the mix and they added to the press, making a colourful gâteau after the press. This gateau is then broken up and repressed to add more juice and tannins to the wine.

Just a very gentle press the second time so as not to extract too much bitterness from the pips. The resultant wine, a light pink/orange in colour, tastes really good, there is something textural about the wine as well as the pear and apple flavours. I am really looking forward to trying this when it is finished.

Glass like appearance

One very odd note about the amphorae. Some sugars from the wine had actually managed to seep through the clay to the outside of the vessel. This resulted in a shiny layer of glass like appearance forming. It tasted like honey on the outside of the amphorae, bizarre.

In the afternoon, bottling. Now you may well ask, as I did, why on earth were we bottling a wine which had been grapes hanging on a vine exactly a month earlier? Too soon?

That would certainly be the case for a still wine but what Jeff was making was a PetNat, a sparkling wine made in the bottle. The juice goes into bottle and although the main fermentation is complete there will still be more taking place inside the bottle. The resulting carbon dioxide gas becomes the bubbles. In a few weeks the bottles will be disgorged removing any lees and leaving behind the sparkling wine which will be topped up and resealed. I described this process in this post in 2017. A cap is used as the pressure from the CO2 would push out a normal cork.

We filled a thousand bottles with the wine from La Garrigue’s white grapes such as Sauvignon Blanc and Muscat. This must be one of the earliest bottlings of 2019 in France but, hopefully, you now understand why.


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Jeff and Icare, Netflix stars

En francais

The Netflix series “Rotten” released new episodes last weekend, one of which features Jeff Coutelou. The series examines the food and drink industry and problems associated with it. Previous episodes have featured items such as peanuts, cod, and milk. Series 2 includes an episode about wine called, ‘Reign Of Terroir’.

The programme examines the role of Languedoc Roussillon in supplying wine. It produces a staggering 20% of the wine drunk in the world according to the programme. However, the region faces increasing competition from around the world. ‘Rotten’ looks at how cheap imports from Spain have undermined Languedoc producers and have even been sold fraudulently as French wine. The direct action of some producers against such imports is examined in detail. The programme goes on to look at how new competition is emerging from Chinese wineries.

The film makers came to Puimisson during the vendanges of 2018 and spent a few hours filming Jeff and our harvest lunch. Interviews explain how Jeff and his father, Jean-Claude, moved away from the bulk wine production of most Languedoc vignerons to more specialised organic winemaking, even grubbing up vines to plant trees and plants to diversify the environment of the vineyards. This section of the programme serves as a balance to the winemaking we see at the huge L’Occitane co-operative in nearby Servian.

One of the vans loaded with filming equipment

It is beautifully filmed and the final scenes in Rome vineyard where Icare bounds around amongst the vines are charming. Jeff issues his mantra that love is the secret to good winemaking, a contrast to some of what we see elsewhere in the programme.

Should you watch? Well, of course, it is an interesting programme. It highlights the issues and differing points of view, fitting well into the context of the series’ themes. Call me biased but the stars are clear and obvious.

See for yourselves here, with a Netflix subscription.


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Harvest 2019 – The Long And Winding Road

En francais

It’s getting complicated

Into week three of the harvest, tired bodies all round especially my own as the old man of the group. Nicks and cuts on the hands, aching back and joints, bruises and bumps but still loving it all. Jeff meanwhile is faced with his annual puzzle of which wines go where, what needs to be done for each one to get it to its best, what might be assembled with what. It is a 3D jigsaw puzzle in action.

Two remontages at once

The little blackboards might remind us of what wine is in each tank, when it was picked, the story of its fermentation and transformation into wine from grape juice but Jeff needs to keep all this in his head (and spreadsheet) so we move the right wine from one tank to another, give one a remontage, another its pressing. He leads from the front, lifting and carrying heavy loads, driving, fixing creaking machinery. He must be very tired as well as stressed but he carries on regardless and we respond in turn.

Macabeu and Grenache Gris

Monday 16th, Day 13. A small harvest of Grenache Gris and Macabeu from Peilhan, a wine for blending perhaps or a very small cuvee. Principally it was a cellar day, Tuesday another. Pressing the Rome grapes, punching down the future orange wine of Muscat d’Alexandrie, remontages and pigeages on all the tanks. Picking is the traditional image of vendanges but this cellar work is essential to nurture the juice, to supervise its progress into the 2019 vintage. Pressing the red fruit which has been on its skins and pulp also means that the marc which is leftover after the juice has been extracted can be taken away ready to be distilled. This is after all, Vins et Spiritueux Coutelou.

Wednesday 18th, Day 15 time to get back into the vineyard and pick the Mourvedre from Segrairals. Some of this had been picked on the Sunday by Jeff’s ‘Rugbymen’ friends to make their own cuvee and it was lovely fruit.

The slope of the vineyard means that lower parts can be a bit damp at times and the fruit not so good as the rest so careful picking and sorting ensued. The resulting juice was very good, reflecting the year’s story it is concentrated with quite high alcohol. I would predict that it will be blended though it has been a single grape cuvee in the past.

One welcome addition to the team this week was my friend Steeve from near Besancon in the Jura. He has visited many times and worked at Jeff’s last vendanges and to help with pruning in the winter. His enthusiasm and experience were very useful and helped to rejuvenate us all.

One last effort required, the Carignan remained to be picked. Its story this year is a summary of the vintage however, so I shall leave that until next time.

Day 13 Day 15


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Harvest 2019 – We Can Work It Out

En francais

Team work

If Day 10 saw the eight different grape varieties harvested Days 11 and 12 were a contrast. Friday September 13th was all about Grenache and Saturday was all about Cinsault. These two varieties together with Syrah make up the bulk of the Coutelou production, important for the various wines which emerge each year and for the economic well being of the domaine.

The Grenache was from La Garrigue, planted facing south towards the sun. It copes well with heat, Spanish on origin and grown all around the Mediterranean (known variously as Cannonau, Garnacha, Alicante amongst others). Traditionally this parcel gives good quality fruit which is blended with other wine to make Classe for example.

I was feeling under the weather on the Friday but a day sorting good bunches of tasty grapes helps to improve the day. There was plenty of it too, perhaps the recent rain had boosted the yield a little. A quick tour of the remaining unpicked vines to check maturity also boosted the spirits with some attractive Mourvedre in the pipeline.

Mourvedre

Saturday (I must have been feeling better as I took more photos) and the Cinsault of Segrairals. These grapes are used for the 5SO cuvée as well as being blended with other wines, eg for the rosé.

Cinsault grapes tend to be big and the bunches can suffer a little as a result. The large grapes leave gaps in the bunch which leaves it vulnerable to disease and insects getting in, especially ver de la grappe. This moth lays its eggs in the bunch and the grapes are pierced by the resulting larvae. This causes the juice to flow in the bunch and attract rot.

Ver de la grappe cocoon emerging from a Piquepoul Noir grape

Sorting in the vineyard and on the table in the cellar needs to be thorough. That said 2019 has happily been a year of little or no disease.

The day showed how different sections of the vineyard differed in the quality of grapes. There were parts which gave slightly under ripe fruit but others which provided big, black grapes which tasted great to eat. Since 2019 has been so hot and dry much of the wine this year is very concentrated and high in alcohol. The under ripe grapes in the Cinsault actually served a useful purpose in providing lower alcohol and adding more acidity. Nature sometimes finds its own solutions.

Nothing wrong with this Cinsault

Meanwhile in the cellar there is increasing amounts of work to do. More and more of the tanks are full and needing remontage, batonnage or pigeage. The team has to work well together, fortunately this year’s does just that.

The amphorae, filled on Thursday also needed punching down to soak the skins. Fermentation has already started as you may see in this video.

With the Cinsault picked there are now just two main picks left to do in 2019, the Mourvedre and the Carignan. An intensive two weeks has gone by, much work still remains.

Days 11 and 12