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


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2021, vintage views

Vintage Chart by The Wine Society

When I first became interested in wine vintages were one of the mysteries which intrigued and infuriated in equal measure. Back in the 80s and 90s Bordeaux and Burgundy ruled the world of wine (plus ca change) and anyone wanting to buy such wines looked at vintage reports, vintage charts and vintage prices to research which wines to seek out. A 1989 or 1990 Bordeaux (my first venture into en primeur purchases) was superior to a 1987 or 1994 simply because of the weather in those years. Things have changed.

Climate change is an obvious cause, it is a rare year now where grapes don’t ripen in cool conditions. Indeed we are in a situation where Bordeaux now allows different grapes, such as this blog’s favourite Castets, to temper the (over)ripe Cabernet and Merlot. Burgundy producers worry about the future of Pinot Noir in their region, a grape which now thrives in cooler Alsace and Germany for example.

Better winemaking and vineyard care are the other major reasons why wines tend to be more consistent year on year. Science, technology and the education of new generations of winemakers mean that vines are given cover crops, different canopy systems, grapes are fermented cooler or longer or on skins more than they used to be. Winemakers through skill (and maybe some artifice) are able to smooth out those vintage chart curves, very few years would now be as scorned as those 87s.

For Jeff Coutelou in the hot Languedoc you’d assume that vintages weren’t that important either. There is hot sunshine every year, grapes ripen ready for harvesting by early September. But there subtle differences, sometimes less subtle. 2017 had a big outbreak of mildew, 2019 saw temperatures reach 45c (I remember it well). Those 2019 grapes were actually harvested in prime condition, the best of any of the seven vintages I have helped with, as good as any Jeff can recall. There was little sorting to do. Yet, those grapes proved difficult in the cellar, fermentations slowed and got stuck, not all but many. The fermentations were not completed until the temperatures picked up again in the Spring of 2020. Was that a product of the overheating of the previous summer?

Outstanding Grenache in La Garrigue this year

Every year is different. Similar problems arise due to climate and disease, drought, mildew, oidium, ver de la grappe. The scale of those issues varies though and in different vineyards. The Grenache of La Garrigue was badly hit in 2020 and produced tiny yields. This year when most vineyards suffered that Grenache was beautiful and abundant. Such vagaries are what keeps a vigneron on her/his toes. What quantities of wine will there be from each vineyard? Will there be some outstanding grapes that should be used for a special cuvée? What might be blended to provide the wine for popular cuvées such as Classe or Le Vin Des Amis? With twenty tanks full of fermenting grapes Jeff must juggle figures, analyses, tastings in order to decide what to do with those wines.

Decisions, decisions

2021 was undoubtedly a vintage which reflects most the circumstances of the year, in my opinion more than any of those seven I have witnessed. It was shaped by the frost of April 12th. That single night wreaked havoc upon the vineyards, throughout France yes, certainly for Jeff. Havoc all the worse in that it was unexpected, there was no warning that it would hit the area. 50-70% of potential fruit was wiped out in those few hours, hitting the vines as they flowered and began to bud. From there on 2021 was a year of catch up. Yes the vines, some of them anyway, produced secondary bunches but nothing like the quality and quantity of what was lost. The vines though were weakened by that night, a situation compounded by ongoing drought. Jeff told me that there was only one significant rainfall in Puimisson from the previous October through to the end of summer. This is a perennial issue in the Languedoc now, climate change in action. The consequence of frost and drought was vines pushing energy towards survival rather than fruit and that when summer’s heat and humidity combined to produce oidium (powdery mildew) the vines had little resistance.

Doom and gloom. And yet there was that Grenache. And most of the fruit was decent quality and fermented well (though with delayed malolactic fermentation in some cases). And the resulting wines taste very well after those fermentations. Jeff will make good wines. He will have to juggle those figures again and no doubt produce different final wines to the norm, there isn’t the quantity to make all the usual bottles. Indeed I can report that Jeff bought in some grapes to bulk out his own this year. Carignan and Syrah were brought back from the Minervois thanks to Vivien Hemelsdael of Le Clos Des Jarres, an excellent producer of natural wines himself. That area was relatively untouched by the frost and Vivien kindly agreed to provide grapes to his friend. Matteo, Steeve, Louis and Jeff went to pick those grapes and were enthusiastic about them, especially the Carignan. Incidentally I can honestly recommend seeking out the Clos Des Jarres wines.

2021 will certainly be a year that Jeff recalls with little fondness. Personally I was delighted to be back there after missing out in 2020. Moreover it was an excellent team to work with, I thoroughly enjoyed being a part of it. The white wines which I tasted from tank just before I left Puimisson are in fine fettle, Jeff assures me that the reds are too. Perhaps vintage is less important to wines these days, but do remember unfortunately there won’t be much of them from Jeff Coutelou. There were new aspects of winemaking in 2021 though and I shall be reporting on how Jeff is looking to the future as well as getting the best out of this year. 2021’s wines were certainly a reflection of the difficult year, maybe vintage does matter after all.

The team, by Manu


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Making Wine

En francais

Most of the focus of the posts on Vendanges 21 is on the picking and sorting of grapes, exploring the different varieties and how they are gathered and sent to tank. However, these are the early stages of vendanges and there is much work to follow, not so glamorous but just as important. I have heard a number of vignerons say that their job is to ensure that quality grapes which arrive at the cellar are allowed to express that quality and not to mess up their potential. So, what happens?

The making of wine begins with decisions about how to transform the fruit. The most obvious influence on how to proceed is the colour of the grape. There are some white wines made from red grapes but those are rare. Quality and quantity of the grapes will also determine decisions but let us start with that primary difference.

White grapes will go into white or orange wines. For white wines the grapes will be pressed (usually) soon after picking and the juice is sent to tank for fermentation. For dry whites the winemaker might seek to have only the alcoholic fermentation, not the malolactic in order to keep the freshness of the malic acid. Again, that is a decision for the vigneron. There will still be pulp and pips in that fermentation tank and after fermentation the lees or dried yeast cells will fall to the bottom of the tank after completing their work.

The young wine will be run off that rather dramatic looking sludge to avoid the danger of it spoiling the wine. The vigneron will then decide how to age the white wine, the type of container to use, stainless steel, barrel, amphora, egg, glass. The choice will again be based on the quality of the wine and what the vigneron wants to achieve, a commercial large scale wine or a smaller, more specialised or select wine.

I described the process of orange wine in a recent post. The white grapes will stay on skins to extract tannin, flavour and colour. The length of time will depend upon the preference of the winemaker. Again, the juice will be run off the skins either naturally or by press.

Orange wine

For rosé wines red grapes (perhaps combined with white grapes) will be used. They might be allowed to spend time on skins to extract more colour or they will be pressed directly for a lighter colour. (I recall Emmanuel Pageot in Gabian making a wine called 48h where its name reflected the time on skins to extract a dark pink/light red colour.) Rosé wines are mostly designed for freshness and early drinking so they will usually be fermented and then go to a neutral container to settle and then be bottled.

Red grapes give vignerons more decisions to make. Will they be destemmed totally, partially or not at all? The latter will be whole bunch fermentation and the stems will add a green, sappy touch to the wine. Whole bunch wines might be fermented using carbonic maceration, as in Beaujolais where the grapes ferment in the skins with carbon dioxide added to the tank. Jeff prefers a semi carbonic maceration, some of the grapes will be broken and will ferment as usual whilst others ferment inside their skins. Wines using carbonic maceration tend to have a more upfront fruit profile. That style might be what the vigneron wants to create or it might be that lesser quality fruit would not respond well to traditional fermentation.

Most red grapes at Coutelou are destemmed. Indeed, the new (2020) égraineur takes stems not just from the bunch but from every grape to reduce the amount of stalk in tank during fermentation (some will get through no matter what). The grapes will spend days in a fermentation tank. The red grapes with skins, pulp, pips and yeasts form a bigger quantity of material so Jeff uses the large cement tanks for this. The juice will be carefully monitored to ensure fermentation is happening. For red wines, winemakers want both fermentations to happen, malic acid would make them too tart. Malic fermentation usually happens alongside the alcoholic one or quickly afterwards. This year’s malic fermentation at Coutelou was the first time that it was slightly delayed, happily only a short delay but a surprise nontheless.

Fermentation tanks used for red wines

The bulky pulp has to be then sent to press. Ideally it would travel naturally by gravity but in most cellars a pump is needed, and a heavy duty one at that. The pompe à marc is powerful and noisy but does its work. The press then sends the juice to a tank or other container but usually a tank at this early stage. More tasting and analysis will determine what the winemaker thinks should happen next. Quality, quantity, commercial needs will all play a part in shaping that decision.

Let us not underestimate the commercial aspect of winemaking. The livelihood of the winemaker, their dependants and staff depend on selling the wine. Some cuvées will be made for easy drinking in large quantities, the wine will still be good quality of its type. Le Vin Des Amis and Classe are perennial wines from Jeff Coutelou and are always very good (try the 2020 VdA for proof) but they also provide a financial security. As well as covering costs of equipment, personnel, utilities etc the money helps to subsidise the smaller production wines which often also cost more to produce, eg barrels and longer ageing.

So, though my articles have focussed on the first stages of the vendanges, please don’t think that is the end of the story.


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Vendanges Coutelou 21, Variety Show

En francais

Picking Cinsault in Segrairals

Having talked about new varieties of grape planted at Jeff Coutelou’s domaine in Puimisson the last few days have been about a variety of different activities, vintages and grapes too. After the rain break on the 9th, we restarted on Friday 10th by spending the morning in the vineyards of Segrairals and Peilhan picking Cinsault and Carignan respectively.

The Cinsault often comes in large berries and bunches and, as a consequence, the open bunches can be prone to disease and ver de la grappe. As we picked, therefore, we took great care to conduct a triage on the spot leaving a lot of the grapes behind as you can see. To paraphrase the old John West advert, ‘It’s the grapes we reject that make Coutelou the best.’ Even in a year with much reduced quantity the emphasis has to be on quality, clean grapes if the wines are to be good.

Carignan loaded straight into press by Matteo as Louis, Boris and Jeff look on

Peilhan was quite badly hit by the April frost and the Carignan was particularly damaged. Some vines had no fruit, others still produced well. Again we sorted the grapes carefully in the vineyard. Both harvests went into the press directly. When grapes are not of the highest quality it is not worth destemming and fermenting separately as any taint will spoil the wine. Without the comfort blanket of SO2 Jeff wanted to get the juice from the grapes quickly, likely to produce rosé rather than red after spending so little time on skins extracting colour.

In the afternoon, the Moroccan pickers moved on to the Mourvèdre back in Segrairals. Meanwhile I and some of the team were given a different direction altogether. Jeff had selected some of the best white Macabeu grapes of 2019 for ageing in barrel, they had recently been moved to stainless steel tank in the white wine section of the cellar. The juice was run off the top of the tank and then the marc (skins, pulp, pips etc) were brought to the basket presses.

Operating these presses was one of the first jobs Jeff gave me in 2014 and so I set about extracting more juice from the marc. The pressing must be light as the marc contains more tannins which might make the overall wine more bitter. It is surprising how much extra comes out of the marc, and even more surprising to see whole grapes still amongst it after 2 years. The final wine tasted great and I can’t wait to open a bottle and see how it develops further.

The following day, Saturday, brought more variety and a new job for me. Macabeu and Grenache Gris from Peilhan was brought to cellar and the first couple of rows of vines were sent to press. Jeff, however, decided that the rest was higher quality and wanted to use these grapes for fermenting and maturing in amphora. There have been 4 of these for a while now and Jeff is convinced they do improve the quality of some wines. However, he did not want anything but the grapes themselves in the amphora. Therefore, we used the égrappoir to destem the bunches but then had to pick through every grape to remove any remaining pieces of stalk or stem. Painstaking, meticulous work.

In the afternoon it was time to bring in the Grenache of La Garrigue. I identified this as the best parcel of the vintage in my first blog of this year’s vendanges, the grapes were of very high quality. You might recall that apparently this was hard hit last year and it was as if nature was offering compensation. The quality brought a smile to Jeff’s face and raised the morale of the whole team. The grapes went through the égraineur (which separates each berry not just the whole bunch like the égrappoir), and the juice already tasted especially good, confirmed by the technical analyses.

Grenache from La Garrigue, best of the bunch

Monday 13th brought the longest and hardest day of the vendanges for me personally. It started in typical fashion with the remaining Grenache being sent to a separate tank for using with other wine. However, we then moved to the Carignan of Rec D’Oulette, the parcel which produces Flambadou in good years. Unfortunately, this is not a good year, unless you’re a fan of Grenache and white wines. Jeff decided that the Carignan should be made in whole bunch, carbonic maceration style. Instead of destemming the bunches, everything goes into tank and is protected by CO2 which also kicks off fermentation in the berries themselves.

That meant we set up sorting above the tank which would hold the grapes. On a hot, sultry day that meant working inside and above the rising heat from the grapes. Matteo and I spent the best part of six hours processing the Carignan, it was back breaking, sweaty work and tested this 62-year-old man but I made it through. Just.

From direct press to basket press, destemming single grapes to whole bunches, whites to reds and orange wine too, even grapes from an older vintage. This was a period of the vendanges which was all about variety.

Sorting Carignan whole bunch, Flora stepped in for me for a few minutes


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Vendanges Coutelou 21, the Plot Thickens

En francais

Jeff with a big bunch of Aramon Gris

Vendanges continued for the next couple of days, September 7th and 8th, but there was a literal dark cloud on the horizon in the form of a stormy forecast on the 9th. The predicted rainfall would do even more damage to this benighted vintage. Two varieties are especially vulnerable to rain, Aramon Noir and Cinsault. These varieties have big juicy berries and thin skins so with rain they swell and become dilute and prone to disease. Therefore, the team picked it by that evening.

The new plantation of Sainte Suzanne was revisited too, some of the bunches having been used for the PetNat a few days earlier. Clairette and Macabeu grapes were finished off, as the vines are young we left one bunch on each vine to help the vines mature.

Some lovely Grenache followed those white grapes to the cellar tanks, just next door in Sainte Suzanne itself. There is one more big parcel of Grenache to come from La Garrigue, it looks the best parcel of the year to my eyes. Then came the move to Segrairals to collect the Cinsault and Aramon. In recent years that vineyard has been transformed. Out went the Cabernet Sauvignon to be replaced by a myriad of varieties including the Aramon. Amongst the Noir was also Aramon Gris and some Aramon Rose, just to provide a little diversity and interest.

Segrairals

I have mentioned new plantations in Ste. Suzanne and Segrairals, there are others which will come on stream soon too. The Coutelou vineyards are being transformed year on year. This reflects Jeff’s philosophy and his passion for nature, different grapes and moving towards an era where varieties will have to respond to climate change which some of the imported grapes like Cabernet and Merlot might not do so well in the Languedoc. Aramon, of course, was widely planted in the region at the start of the 20thC, it was used to provide the light wine given to soldiers in World War 1. The Aramon picked here weighed in at a light 10% alcohol, the large berries providing much needed juice.

Another of the grapes from Segrairals was Mauzac, known more around Limoux and Gaillac, bright green in colour and very healthy. It looks an interesting addition to the Coutelou collection along with Grand Noir De La Calmette with its intense red juice from quite small berries. These small quantities will be blended together, Jeff will have a bigger colour palette with which to create his art. Blending is a skill, there have never been many single variety wines but it looks like there will be even fewer.

The forecast storm and rainfall proved to be lighter than expected though there was enough water to delay picking for a day. Cellar work is pressing ahead with the team carrying out the remontages etc. Fermentations have kicked off well, the small slates on each tank revealing the lowering of density in the juice as it turns to alcohol.

More bad weather is unfortunately predicted for next week, yet another problem to add to this year of non-stop problems. The pressure is on to use the next few days to harvest provided the grapes are right. The plot thickens.


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Vendanges Coutelou 21 – First Act

En francais

Jeff with a hefty bunch of Cinsault

The rather gloomy nature of my last post might have made you think that we’re all doomed and no good wine will emerge from the Coutelou vats this year. Of course, that is not the case, there are still 50% of the grapes and Jeff can conjure up magical wines from just about any grape juice. So, let’s be positive and report on what is happening here with the 2021 vendanges.

Jeff has assembled a big team of assistants, as he told me it’s rather ironic that should be the case in this vintage. Firstly there’s Matteo, from Rome, who has been in Puimisson with Jeff since January. He helped to prune the vines this year, together with Englishman Matt who I sadly did not get to meet. Matteo, therefore, knows the vines and vineyards well and leads the team equallly well. Steeve is a friend who has visited Jeff many times and done harvest before with us. From the Jura region, Steeve has decided to change career and is spending the next few months with Jeff to learn more about his new vocation. Gilles, an ebullient and cheerful local man, has been working with Jeff for some time, happy amongst the vines after having his own vineyards for many years. Louis is from Narbonne, did harvest here last year and has returned. He is hard working, cheerful and speaks excellent English.  Boris is another local who comes every year to help with vendanges, a lovely guy who works with nature conservation in his full time job.

We are also fortunate to have Jeff’s sister Catherine helping with picking and looking after us as well as her daughter Flora Rey. You will have seen photos from this talented artist on my blog before as shse has been recording the story of the vines and domaine through her photography and film. I urge you to have a look at this film which Flora put together showing the harvesting of Sainte Suzanne Syrah with music composed by Catherine. Consider subscribing to the Youtube site Vins et Spiritueux Coutelou for more great videos about events in Puimisson.

As I mentioned previously the first stage of the vendanges was to focus on Syrah, most affected by frost. Sainte Suzanne, the young vines of Segrairals and my beloved Syrah from La Garrigue were picked on August 30th and 31st. One third of the normal yield and quite concentrated, Jeff will have to consider how to use it in blending.

The glass on the far side contains Syrah from Ste. Suzanne, very good it was too.

I joined the team on September 1st appropriately in Rome vineyard, my favourite. We collected the Cinsault, Grenaches of three colours and some Muscat before heading to the last few bunches of the La Garrigue Syrah and then on to the complanation of 20+ grape varieties, known now as Flower Power, more correctly as Font D’Oulette. That the few of us picked those three vineyards in one morning is not good news. In the afternoon the Moroccan team went to Segrairals and collected some of the Cinsault grapes of the younger vines. These were full and generous and will add much needed bulk to the grapes from the morning. The Cinsault filled the tank though much of that is pulp and the quantity will fall as the juice emerges.

On September 2nd Jeff wanted some fresh white grapes to make into the PetNat (sparkling), Bobonade. Muscat, Macabeu and Grenache Gris from Peilhan were in good condition and then we moved to the new plantation at the bottom of Sainte Suzanne. These were newly planted when I saw them last but they have grown quickly. The young vines managed to twist themselves round the wires of the trellising so it wasn’t the easiest to pick but the Clairette and Macabeu were fresh and acidic, just what is needed for sparkling wine. They were sent direct to press.

And that brought the first act to a close. Pressing followed the next couple of days but picking resumed on Tuesday September 7th. So, until shortly after then, there will be an intermission.

Icare, the real boss


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Vendanges Coutelou 21 – setting the scene

En francais

Picture from The Express Tribune, Lahore

Most readers will already know that this has been a difficult year for winemakers across France and Germany amongst others. Here in France a series of frosts in April damaged vines in regions from the Jura to Provence. When I spoke to Jeff Coutelou on April 11th he was reassured that Puimisson had avoided such calamity, but then disaster struck. On April 12th the frost, unforeseen by forecasters, struck many parcels with temperatures sinking to -7˚C. The Languedoc is no stranger to frosts even if not as vulnerable as other regions but this was sharp and the timing was disastrous. Vines had begun budding and flowering in the previous couple of weeks and the young growth was dried to a crisp by the cold. Jeff predicted that yields might be down as much as 70%.

Photo of a frost hit vine in 2015 from my blog

The vines fought back a little through Spring and Summer, secondary bunches forming but they cannot replace the original growth properly, being smaller and of lesser quality. However, the frost was also part of an ongoing problem with lack of water. Jeff told me that there had been little rain since the end of vendanges 2020, with just one sustained period of rainfall this year. Vines, weakened by drought and frost, become susceptible to other problems too. Every summer downy mildew and oidium (powdery mildew) are present and they found easy targets in 2021.

Ironically, after my first tour of the vineyards this year, it was the Grenache of La Garrigue which stood out as being the best with healthy foliage and beautiful, good sized bunches of grapes. Ironically because last year that was the parcel worst hit by mildew, nature was giving back a little this year in compensation. La Garrigue is also the home of the Syrah which makes my favourite wine, La Vigne Haute. Unfortunately those vines had been damaged this year and were looking sorry for themselves. Syrah does seem to have been particularly badly affected. The first days of this year’s harvest concentrated on Syrah from Sainte Suzanne, Segrairals and, then, La Garrigue. Yields were one third of last year.

In the last 5-6 years Jeff has replanted many vineyards, some of which had been fallow for some years. The fruit of these young vines can be used this year to help produce wines such as the PetNat, Bibonade, that will boost production a little. The estimate is now that there will be just under 50% of a normal year. So, the scene is set. I wish I had a prettier picture to paint, it is the least promising of the seven vintages I have witnessed here. Let us hope for a twist in the tale.


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It means the world to be back

En francais

Getting out of bed on Thursday morning, back aching in various places, the tips of my fingers stained black and blue and a matching bruise on the palm of my right hand. How did I feel? Just great thank you. These were the signs that I was back after two years, back in the Languedoc, back in Puimisson, back in the vines and back with my dear friend Jeff Coutelou.

For six vintages I had reported on how the year on a wine domaine wound its way through peaks and troughs. Six vendanges, hesitant the first time in 2014 then with growing understanding of what was happening, why it was happening and what I could do, in a small way, to help produce the excellent Coutelou wines.

2014

During that time I had progressed from basically standing guard over a basket press (when in reality nothing much could go wrong) and doing rudimentary sorting as the grapes arrived to becoming a much more confident ‘cellar rat’ knowing how to carry out remontage, pigeage, operate the pumps and to stand at the sorting table knowing exactly what I was looking for as the bunches arrived, from disease to ver de la grappe, the feel and the smell of the grapes able to tell me that those grapes did not belong in the tanks of quality wines we were making.

2019

I came to love the various vineyards and to get to know their quirks, strengths and weaknesses. But especially Rome, sheltered from the world by surrounding trees, teeming with wildlife, complex in its geology and filled with its gnarly, gobelet old vines, standing free. My oasis. I came to love the philosophy behind Jeff’s winemaking; biodiversity, supporting nature not exploiting it, grapes, work and love. I already loved the wines but being part of their story made them even more special. And, above all, I came to love the people I met through the years, the revolving cast of characters who spent time with us.

Rome

Whether based in France pretty much full time for three years or spending half a year there I felt at home, but I took my happiness and good fortune for granted. If the COVID-19 pandemic did one positive thing for me, in preventing me from being in France and the 2020 vintage, it was to make me realise how much I missed being part of the wine, how much I did love the place, vines and people.

It is a pure joy to be back, the aches, bruises and stains are very welcome.


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Updates from Puimisson

All photos by Flora Rey unless indicated

A continuing absence from Jeff, Puimisson and France. This blog was started in 2014 in order to share my experiences as a novice about winemaking spending time with my friend Jeff Coutelou, an expert. The pandemic has made that next to impossible. I am grateful that Jeff and his niece, Flora Rey, keep me updated with messages and photos. Fortunately, they are happy for me to pass them on and I continue to hope that I shall be able to join them soon, fingers crossed.

The vines are ten days or so behind the usual dates for véraison (when red grapes begin to colour) and this will mean later vendanges of course, usually 40 days after véraison. You will recall that April brought devastating losses to this year’s production with up to 70% being damaged by the frosts of April 12th. The grapes which there are look to be in good health though Jeff was worried this week about a weather forecast which could raise the risk of oidium (powdery mildew) due to a northerly wind. This meant he has been out in the vines in a week which was supposed to be a rest time spraying with organic treatments (and made more complicated and time consuming by a puncture).

Meanwhile the plants which are allowed to grow between vines, such as grass and flowers, have been cut down as they start to offer competition for water in the hot summer and will also compost the soils. It has been a very dry year, just a couple of storms worth of real rainfall since last year’s vendanges, so water levels are very low. There was some useful rain a couple of weeks ago to everyone’s relief.

Meanwhile the new plantations need care, they will have been watered as they will produce no crop this year. At the Ste. Suzanne plantation of 2020 young vines need tying up (palissage) a labour intensive job. These are Clairette vines producing their first grapes, not that they will go into the wines.

The week beginning July 7th was an intense period of bottling most of the 2020 wines, I recall long days of hard work in the past. There’s an intriguing new name for one cuvée and a topical inscription on the corks. The wines are apparently very good and I can’t wait to try them. The third cellar at Jeff’s is his stock cellar, always a good place to visit as you can see here.

Meanwhile there was a new delivery last week, a concrete egg. Many wineries now use them to age wines as the shape of the egg is believed to make for better fermentations and ageing, adding more energy and vitality. We shall see. When I asked Jeff what would be going into it he told me that I would see when I got there for vendanges and I hope that will indeed be the case.

Thanks to Flora and to Jeff.


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Frost

On April 5th Jeff Coutelou’s niece Flora Rey sent some photos of the joyful Spring period when the vines begin to bud. I always found this exciting when I was there full time and still do, the long winter over, the hard work of pruning completed and the new year’s wine in the first stage of arrival. I spoke to Jeff on the 6th as news broke of frosts around France and all was well in Puimisson. That very night the Languedoc was hit by severe frosts, way worse than anything forecast.

The results were catastrophic. Jeff reported on the 7th that around half of the vines were sufficiently damaged that they would produce nothing this year. A few days later as Jeff learned more about the effects of that awful night he sadly raised those estimates to around 70% damaged. At first it seems the buds have survived but over the next few days they lose the struggle to survive as they dry out and fall apart. I have seen frost damage at Jeff’s before but it only affected a few vines or rows on exposed sites. This time every vineyard has been hit.

There will be secondary buds but they will only lead to around 25% of normal productivity. This suggests that overall production will be well less than half of the normal year.

I have written about the effects of frost before but I strongly recommend this article by Jamie Goode to give an authoritative, clear explanation of how frost damages vines and how vignerons can attempt to prevent damage.

Last year was such a dreadful one for everyone that we all hoped things would be better. Sadly, for winemakers all across France, and for my dear friend, it has turned into a different kind of nightmare through no fault of their own.


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Coutelou, old and new

In the course of the year I drink many different wines from all over the world but there can be little doubt that the mainstay is the range of Jeff Coutelou. Partly this is due to loyalty and payment for work done but it is also because, well, I do think they are special wines. Last week, by chance, I opened two bottles from the early to later stages of Jeff’s career in winemaking. They tell a story.

Sud 2001 was part of a case of wine I bought at auction earlier this year. I had thought the wines were all Ouest about which I wrote here. I obviously didn’t look closely enough at the bottles as it turned out some were Sud. Where Ouest is made from Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, Sud is based on the more traditionally Languedoc grapes of Carignan, Grenache and Syrah. I honestly only noticed that this was Sud when I tasted the wine, markedly different to Ouest.

Being 2001 the wine had a similar appearance to Ouest, a brick red colour. Aromas began to tell a different story with a more open, fruity profile than Ouest. Sure enough on drinking there was less of the earthy Cabernet flavour and more pruny, black fruits with more richness than the more austere Bordeaux style of Ouest. It was excellent and still full of life, I shall hang on to my remaining bottle to see how it develops further. Really enjoyable. A little research found that, like Ouest, Jancis Robinson was a fan of Sud, describing it as ‘stunning value’ at £14.95 in 2011. She wasn’t wrong.

Carignan vines in Rec D’Oulette

Sud and Ouest were amongst the first wines which Jeff made after taking over the domaine from his father, Jean Claude. That they live so long and contain such pleasure was a sign of things to come. I always drink Coutelou wines youngish but tuck away bottles too so that I can track their development. The overt fruitiness, a hallmark of Jeff’s wines, tends to ease back a little with more complexity and depth emerging. Cuvées such as La Vigne Haute, Flambadou, 7,Rue De La Pompe and L’Oubliée all benefit from time but I find that even bottles such as Le Vin Des Amis and Classe are worth hiding away from temptation for a couple of years. Temptation often does win though.

Some of the wines are meant to be drunk early however, for example 5SO, Tete A Claques and Grenache Mise De Printemps. The latter has been one of my favourites in recent years, light and fruity like a pleasurable Beaujolais. One of the new additions to the range in recent years is Couleurs Réunies. I wrote about this wine here. Reading reviews of this wine the words, juicy, fruit and rich are repeated time and again. Again, they aren’t wrong. It is a joy bringer. The fact that it is made from the field blend of Flower Power’s vineyard Font D’Oulette together with additions of Carignan and the rare Castets from Peilhan is a unique selling point of the wine. The grapes are from every colour (as the name suggests), rare and more familiar varieties which together make a truly enjoyable wine. I believe Jeff has made it again.

From first to later wines the signature fruitiness, drinkability and sheer pleasure of the wines are present. The use of more traditional Languedoc grapes has become more important to Jeff with time, climate change has also confirmed to him that biodiversity and the use of grapes more resistant to heat and later maturing are essential for the future of quality in the region. These two wines show the skills of Jeff and how his wines can age well or be drunk at any stage. And that’s why Coutelou wines will always be a mainstay of the wines I drink and enjoy most.