amarchinthevines

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


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One More Time

En francais

“They think it’s all over, it is now,” were the famous words of commentator Kenneth Wolstenholme when England scored their fourth goal to win the World Cup of 1966. Well to mix metaphors one more time, Jeff decided it was time to get the band back together after we had thought the vendanges were completed.

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Not again! I’m sleeping

There remained a parcel of Cabernet Sauvignon that Jeff thought not to be worth collecting but the last couple of weeks they had ripened a bit more and there was enough to warrant one last pick on Tuesday 2nd October. The pickings were meagre, it took 7 or 8 pickers up to two hours to fill the 16 cases which are brought back to the cellar to be sorted again and then put in tank. Aching muscles and stuttering machinery protested a little at the reprise but the stainless steel tank in the photo was just about half filled by the end of the day. The grapes themselves were very good, Cabernet always gives small berries but they were healthy.

The juice went to Thierry for analysis as usual. A solid 14% potential alcohol, though lacking a little acidity. It tastes juicy and clean and I am sure will be used either for blending or in the spirits made for the Coutelou range.

Analyses old and new taking place

We went on to taste more of the tanks and the results are promising. The Syrah of La Garrigue is undoubtedly the star (even allowing for my bias towards this perennial favourite), the Carignan, Flower Power also very good. Perhaps the biggest surprise was a very long, fruity Grenache – the grape which had suffered most from this year’s dreadful mildew. Grapes are very hardy it would seem, helped by a skilful winemaker of course. That will not make up for the loss in yields this year, 50% would appear to be the figure. Sadly this might well bring price rises. We had another caviste at the cellar wanting to buy wine that day, the latest in a long line through the vendanges. Sadly, there is not enough to satisfy existing customers’ demand let alone new outlets.

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A lot more smaller tanks have been needed this year, a sign of low yields

it was good to have a day together again, the financial cost of picking was undoubtedly higher than usual but there is more wine in tank and hopefully that will offset some of this year’s hardships.

Traditional end of vendanges, the boss does some cleaning of the cases

and the workers are crowned with vines

 


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Vendanges 2018 – Part 6 (Grapes, work and love)

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2018 will be remembered by team Coutelou for mildew, hail, mechanical breakdowns and successive problems. Yet as we reached the end of the vendanges the habitual feelings of pride, camaraderie and friendship were to the fore.

Though the harvest of Mourvèdre the previous week was the last of the major parcels Jeff had left grapes in Peilhan to pick. The reason was a visit by a film crew from Netflix making a programme (or series) about different ways of making wine in the region from cave co-ops to big scale producers and négotiants like Bertrand to the natural producer which is Jeff Coutelou.

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Some of the camera equipment

Carignan Blanc and Muscat D’Alexandrie was picked in the morning, even I did 4.5 hours of picking. Over the final harvest lunch (my favourite Fideua plus jeroboams of the first Amphora wine) the crew joined us and then filmed the afternoon picking of the new plantation of Peilhan with its Piquepoul Gris and Riveyrenc Gris. They shot scenes in the cellar as we sorted and then carried out a long interview with Jeff. I am not really allowed to say much more until the broadcast and shall update when we get the date.

And that was it. The last grapes. There remains much work to do with the processes I described here needing to continue for all the wines in tank, from the first to these last. The Muscat will go to make a maceration orange wine as in 2016, a wine I truly love and which has featured regularly through harvest lunches.

Carignan Blanc, Riveyrenc Gris, sorting the last cases

It is time for Jeff to count the costs of these vendanges in terms of actual production and I shall feedback when things settle down. Suffice to say we had a big drop in quantity, the Coutelou wines will be even harder to find. Having tasted most, if not all, as they ferment steadily I can say that quality remains high, Flower Power, Carignan, La Garrigue Syrah and Mourvedre especially.

Muscat and the new plantation grapes in cuve

Jeff’s motto of “grapes, work and love” is never more true than at this time of year. We have worked hard, we have formed friendships and made the best of what nature gave.

Amphora jeroboam poured by our resident sommelier Louis, Michel shows his team loyalty


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Vendanges 2018 – Part 5

Monday 10th to Friday 14th – in the cellar

Tanks before vendanges and on Friday

Cellar work becomes the focus of vendanges as more and more of the cuves are filled. The grapes pass through a variety of actions to produce the wine. Hopefully this post will help to explain some of these actions.

White grapes are usually pressed quickly after entering the cellar to get the juice without too much contact with skins which would colour the juice. Orange wines, becoming more popular every year, are made by such contact, macerating the juice on the skins, to extract colour and tannins.

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To prove I do some work!! (photo by Flora Rey)

 

 

After sorting, red grapes are sent to the tanks either destemmed or in whole bunches as I have described before in this series. That decision would be influenced by the quality of the grapes and what Jeff feels will be the best for that particular harvest. In either case, as with orange wine, the juice sits with the skins, flesh and pips for a while to extract colour, flavour and tannins.

Busy cellar; Louis putting the destemmer to work

Too much skin contact becomes counter productive though. As fermentation begins the grapes become hot and it easy to extract too much tannin for example which will make the wine tough and harsh. Yeasts which feed the fermentation produce lees as they die off and these can become a cause of rot and off flavours unless removed. Therefore the infant wines pass through actions known as débourbage and délestage.

Débourbage is where the juice is run off from the cuve leaving the marc behind, the sludge of skins and stems. The juice goes into another cuve where fermentation will continue without the risk of going off. The marc can be used for distilling alcohol.

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Débourbage

Délestage is similar but as the juice is run off it passes through a basket to collect seeds which might add bitter tannins. The marc might then be lightly pressed, producing more juice which can be added to the original juice, adding more tannin and alcohol.

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These two processes mean that the wine becomes clearer and, for a natural producer like Jeff, that filtering is not needed at a later stage. The wine will be clear, juicy and fruity.

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Looking into this cuve before remontage you can see the skins lying on top of the juice

Whilst in contact with the juice the skins rise to the top of the tank and form a crust (chapeau) on top of the juice. If left like that this cap would become dried out and add bitterness to the wine. Meanwhile the juice fermenting below would produce lots of carbon dioxide which would be trapped inside. Therefore the juice needs to be passed over the crust to moisten it, release the CO2 and to get the best out of the skins and grape flesh.

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Remontage (photo by Flora Rey)

There are two methods of doing this, remontage and pigeage. Remontage is pumping the juice from the bottom back over the crust, rather like a fireman hosing down a blaze. Pigeage is where the crust is pushed down into the juice, traditionally by treading but, more usually, by pushing it with a fork or tool. This is hard work believe me. When Steeve, a friend of Jeff’s from Besancon, carried out pigeage on the La Garrigue Syrah on Friday the crust was easily 30-40cm thick.

Jeff wants to interfere with the wines as little as possible but these actions are an important part of winemaking. Experience and observation helped him to find the balance between overworking the wine and helping it to make itself.

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Pipes running in all directions, a good memory is required


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Vendanges 2018 – Part 4

Monday 10th to Friday 14th

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Cuves containing new wine including, potentially, La Vigne Haute. Note how the near one is far from full, this is 2018!

A hectic and busy week, including 12 hour days. The picking team had reduced in number therefore Jeff Coutelou had to make the time work to best advantage. Grenache Gris was amongst grapes picked on Monday to head towards rosé and other cuvées. The main focus though was the Carignan of Flambadou, the flagship of the domaine for the last few years. It may well be joined in cuve by the small, juicy berries of that rare Cépage, Castets.

Cabernet Sauvignon followed on Tuesday and Wednesday with more Syrah and Cinsault from different parts of the vineyards. Mourvèdre was the last big block of vines to be tackled and took a very full day on Thursday to pick. This parcel in Segrairals has varied topography, the lower parts become a little damp and are more prone to rot. It is important for Michel to convey not just the grapes but also the location of the grapes picked so that triage is made more efficient.

Top left – Carignan, top right – Castets, below Grenache Gris

By now Jeff was concerned that some of the vines were becoming so stressed by all the issues this year, mildew above all, that they were struggling to ripen the grapes. In order to ensure the health of the vines for next year it was no longer worth pushing them that little bit further so that next year would be compromised. Vines are fragile, living things which need to be looked after, Jeff nurtures them carefully.

Whilst picking was in full swing and cases were stacked up for sorting there was plenty of activity in the cellar. Wines in cuve or tank need treating carefully too, ensuring the juice ferments into wine with nothing added to it requires the vigneron makes good decisions about, for example, levels of acidity and alcohol, exposure to air and skins. I shall be coming back to this in the next post in a couple of days time.

And, after all that work, it is all too tiring for some of us!

 


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Vendanges 2018 – Part 3

Friday 7th and Saturday 8th

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Some serious hard work. A lot of grapes came through the cellars in these two days and we worked longer hours than usual. I can almost hear regular readers thinking, “Hang on, you said there were fewer grapes this year!” That is, sadly, still the case. Whereas in previous years all the grapes that came through in similar quantities might have been from one or two parcels this time it was grapes from several different parcels. All the grapes from those parcels. What might have taken three or four days was done in two.

White grapes from Peilhan, Cinsault from Segrairals came in thick and fast on Friday. Cinsault is a generous grape with big, floppy leaves and big, juicy grapes to match. Problematically the size of those grapes means that bunches can grow to quite a size but with large gaps between the round berries. Into those gaps rot, leaves, insects and moths find their way. Therefore it needs careful sorting, the rolling sorting table was needed. Amongst the usual leaves, grass, snails, earwigs and spiders I spotted an unwelcome visitor.

Lobesia botrana or European grape moth (ver de la grappe in French) lays its eggs inside bunches of grapes and the cocoon resembles cotton wool. They emerge as worms which eat into the grapes for nourishment, leaving a trail of juice which can attract rot. The moth’s main predators are birds and bats which is why Jeff Coutelou and others try to attract these species into their vineyards. As you can see I found one worm clinging to its Cinsault grape.  I need to add this is rare, you will not be drinking worm juice in your wine!

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So keen to bring home the Syrah and part of the van!

Saturday and more parcels. My favourite wine of Jeff’s is La Vigne Haute, the pure Syrah from La Garrigue vineyard with its north facing vines with some villefranchien soils. Jeff only makes this when the grapes are very good, seven times in the last seventeen years, this decade there are only three. I love LVH and always hoped to help to make it and last year was the first time, having tasted it in bottle (not yet released) I can promise that the wait was worth it. Surprisingly, despite the problems of 2018, the Syrah from this vineyard is in very good shape and might just make it as La Vigne Haute. A lot less sorting, healthy bunches, fingers crossed for the first star wine of this troublesome vintage.

Syrah from La Garrigue

The afternoon brought in the Grenache from La Garrigue. Sadly, this is not of the same quality as Grenache was most susceptible to and damaged by the mildew epidemic. The juice will receive a short maceration before being separated from its skins and then used for a project as yet undecided. There were some lovely bunches harvested, you can only think of what might have been. That the Grenache and Syrah from this vineyard was picked in one day tells its own story.

Lovely bunch of Grenache which Julien and Élise help to sort

Meanwhile soutirages, débourbages and pressings all take place, the cellar is a hive of activity. And of course there is the endless cleaning of everything. Analyses of the wines so far are positive and the juices taste very good, I particularly liked the Flower Power / Rome assemblage.

As I said long hours, hard work, aching back, stained hands and dirty fingernails. In between there were the usual laughs and camaraderie, bottles shared at lunchtime and after work. Despite everything the year has thrown at the Languedoc and Coutelou we know that there will be some good wines.

 

 


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Harvest 2018 – Part 1

 

Everything scrubbed and cleaned in readiness

My fifth vendanges with Jeff Coutelou, time has flown and instead of a complete ignoramus helping where I can without getting in the way I now understand the different jobs and skills needed and can tackle most, if not all. This year’s reduced harvest (possibly up to 50% less than average) means we need a reduced team and so I hope I can put those years of experience to use to support Jeff along with Michel, Julien, Nathan and the team of pickers.

This year has been difficult due to the weather as I have tried to explain on here before. The long period of rain during the Spring meant that mildew hit hard across the region. Some friends have lost all their grapes, others significant amounts. Those in organic and biodynamic farming have been hit hardest as synthetic anti-mildew treatments proved more effective than organic ones. A couple of bursts of hail during thunderstorms triggered by the heatwave of July/August also damaged vines and bunches of grapes. One of the effects of both these problems is damage to the foliage, making it more difficult for the vine to have photosynthesis to produce energy to ripen the grapes easily.

Top left – mildew dried bunch on the left, top right – hail damage to grapes and leaves underneath

All of this meant that unlike other regions of France the vendanges began later than usual, the first picking was August 29th a full two weeks after 2015 for example. We began with white grapes, Sauvignon Blanc, Carignan Blanc and Muscat from La Garrigue vineyard. I did a little picking and then moved to the cellar for sorting.

The pickers in action, my bucket and case, back to the cellar and first analysis

With the problems of 2018 sorting might have been very difficult but actually not so much so far. The ripened grapes are healthy, the dry heat of summer means there is no evidence of rot. Instead we are looking for grapes dried by mildew, many bunches have clusters of them, they can be easily separated from the healthy grapes. Another issue is the number of unformed grapes, like little hard, green peas amongst the bunches. This is due a problem called millerandage, where the flower was unable to set the fruit, a product of the rainy, cold Spring and early mildew.

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Cinsault with millerandage left side

The first red grapes soon followed, the Grenache from Sainte Suzanne, often the backbone of Le Vin Des Amis. This was the parcel hardest hit by mildew and the quantities are heartbreakingly reduced. Nonetheless there was enough to take picking on the afternoon of Wednesday and the Thursday morning. The sorted grapes were passed through the new destemmer (mercifully quieter than the previous one) and then sent for a short, cold maceration.

In the video Michel is putting the chapeau into the tank to cover the grapes. Dry CO2 has been added to make the grapes cold so that they do not get too hot and ferment too wildly. The juice was run off the skins on Saturday morning. Jeff has a number of options for using this juice, which was never going to be serious enough for using in a classic red wine.

We restart picking on Tuesday, September 4th. There are lots of healthy parcels ahead and things will perk up. This initial burst was a useful warm up, mechanical problems with the press and pump are now sorted and we head towards the main event. Wish us well.

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There are plenty of healthy, juicy grapes to look forward to like this Carignan for Flambadou

And one member of the team just loves this time of year, with lots of attention.

 


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Coutelou renewed

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En Francais

You may recall that for French bureaucratic reasons the Coutelou domaine name had to change this year. Mas Coutelou was a combination of the surnames of Jeff’s parents, Mas being his mother’s family name. However, Mas also means a homestead or farm and only wines under Appellation or IGP labels are allowed to have that name. So, family name or not, Jeff’s Vin De France wines, Mas Coutelou for many years, had to have new branding.

Since he was already planning to release new products such as a fine (eau de vie), a kina (like a vermouth) and other spirits Jeff chose ‘Vins et Spiritueux Coutelou’. I have tried the Kina and like it, even though it’s not really my thing. Made from wine and organic herbs from the vineyards it is a very enjoyable aperitif.

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It seems that renewal is the signature of the year. There has been much updating of the cellar in recent times; roof, insulation, a form of air conditioning, division of cuves to make it possible to vinify smaller parcels and quantities, resin flooring, better drainage, amphorae, temperature controlled stainless steel tanks. A new management space means that it is easier to see at a glance what is where and adds a tidiness to what was a more chaotic central space of the cellar.

Upstairs the new office space has been fitted out beautifully. Jeff commissioned a couple of local carpenters to make furniture. Using old barrels and a foudre of more than 130 years old they made a cupboard, with themed shelves and a stunning chair for the desk. They are real works of art, true craftsmanship. A table from the Coutelou family home has been skilfully renewed to add a feature to the space.

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The empty parcel next to Ste Suzanne

And, in the vineyards more renewal. The small parcel at Sainte Suzanne which has been fallow for many years was supposed to be planted last year, in 2017. A very wet spell then and another this Spring has meant that those plans had to be shelved as the parcel was too wet. However, the vines were already ordered so Jeff has planted them in Segrairals where he had grubbed up some Cabernet Sauvignon. Instead of that extraneous variety Jeff has planted Aramon Noir and Aramon Gris (Aramon being the original grape in the parcel next to Ste Suzanne), Terret, Clairette Blanche, Clairette Rose, Picardan, Olivette, Servan (related to Syrah) and Grand Noir De La Calmette. I must admit to never having heard of some of these. Time to consult my copy of Galet’s wonderful Encycolpedia of Grapes. The Coutelou vineyards are fast becoming a treasure store of rare grapes, there are now several dozen varieties planted.

The very hot and dry month combined with the widespread mildew outbreak have meant that Jeff has spent many hours tending this new plantation, spraying and watering to help the new plants to survive. Happily, all is well.

2018 will always be remembered by Languedoc vignerons as a year of headaches and heartaches, months spent on tractors fighting disease, easy to become disheartened. The Coutelou renewals help to remind us that such problems are temporary.