amarchinthevines

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


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More Frost

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Frost damage (Decanter)

Sad to report that frosts have continued to damage the vineyards of France (and elsewhere) since I first reported on them 10 days ago. Virtually every night in regions such as the Loire and Chablis vignerons have lit fires, used helicopters to circulate the air, sprayed the buds with water to keep them at 0º rather than the colder air temperatures. For all that, nature will prevail and damage to the vineyards has mounted with vignerons facing wipeout in some of their vineyards and heavy losses in others.

Sadly the Languedoc has not been immune. I have heard reports of damage in Aspiran, Caux and elsewhere including to friends’ vines. I can only sympathise as they face a significant loss of income and wine. It is suggested that the Hérault will lose 20% of its production this year. Midi Libre included this map showing the affected areas. Jeff has had a few vines touched but, happily, there are no real losses.

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Areas such as Fronton and Gaillac in the South West, Bugey to the east of Burgundy and in the foothills of the Alps have seen even greater losses and these are regions where viticulteurs struggle to make a living in good years.

Bordeaux has been affected too in recent nights and whilst the big chateaux have been employing the helicopters and braziers smaller vignerons have had to cope as best they could. I was rather annoyed to see one very well known wine writer’s response to this news being to express concern about prices rather than the welfare of the vignerons.

The early spring which promoted bud growth has made this cold spell especially damaging and disastrous. Spring frosts are not unusual, tradition dictates that they are a risk until the Saints De Glaces, this year from May 11 to 13. It was the warm weather of early April which made the vines vulnerable. Climate change? A precocious year? Whatever, the suffering is all too real.

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Update Saturday 29th, a 4th episode

 


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Frost damage

Chablis Germain Bour

Chablis (tweet by Germain Bour)

Sad to hear reports of widespread frost damage to vines all over France and Italy on Tuesday and Wednesday nights. Temperatures plummeted to -6ºC in Chablis and the Jura for example. And at a time when vines have begun to bud and the leaves unfurl. The result, of course, is damage to these buds which will not produce grapes this year. No grapes means no money for the winemaker. And in some regions this is two years on a row. I was in the Loire at this time last year and saw the damage it can do for myself, some vignerons losing whole vineyards.

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Jura before and after the frost (Véroselles)

Two weapons have been deployed by some vignerons. Firstly, impressive photos from Burgundy and Chablis where, perhaps more wealthy, vignerons used fires amongst the vines to try to keep temperatures higher.

The other tactic, more counter intuitive, is too spray the vines with water so that the buds and leaves are immediately covered in ice and this protects them from further damage.

Large scale producers such as Roederer in Champagne are reporting losses of 10-20% of their vines for the year. Some smaller scale winemakers will have lost proportionally much more. I can only sympathise. Let’s hope things turn better for them soon.

Addendum 3.15 pm

I have seen some photos of the Languedoc being hit too.

It appears that hail also struck some areas last night too. The frost risk will last until Saturday.

 


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The first Coutelou of Spring

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It’s a while since I wrote about the happenings at Mas Coutelou, so time for an update. I am thankful to Jeff, Vincent and Julien for keeping me up to date in my absence.

The first few months of 2017 have been damp in the Languedoc, a contrast to the arid 2016. The photos by Julien above show water standing a week after rain and his feet sinking into the soil as he pruned. Jeff had planned to plant a vineyard of different types of Aramon at Théresette next to La Garrigue which has lain fallow for the last few years. However, the soil remains very damp and planting has not been possible, unless things change quickly the project will be postponed until next year. For the same reason, the first ploughing would have begun by now in most years, but is on hold for drier conditions.

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Pruning the last vines (photo and work by Julien)

Julien completed pruning (taille) around March 10th. He photographed the first budding (débourrement) amongst precocious varieties such as the Muscat. However, Jeff told me this week that, generally, budding is later this year, the damper, cooler weather again responsible. That is not necessarily a bad thing. Remember that frost can cause great damage to vines, especially buds, and the Saints De Glace (date when traditionally frost risk is over) is May 11-13. I recall visiting the Loire last April and seeing frost damage, whole vineyards with no production for the year.

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Julien photographed some early buds

The weather conditions are favourable for something, sadly not good news either. Snails, which ravaged large numbers of buds and leaves in Flower Power and Peilhan last year, have found the damp much to their advantage. They are a real pest, a flock of birds would be very welcome or we’ll see more scenes like these from 2016. Of course, one of the reasons why birds and hedgehogs are lacking is the use of pesticides by most vignerons in the region.

In the cellar the new office and tasting room is complete. Our friend Jill completed a montage of Mas Coutelou labels which we gave to Jeff as a gift. Hopefully that may decorate the walls of the new rooms.

The floor which was half covered in resin last year has been finished all over and another new inox (stainless steel) cuve has arrived. (photos by Vincent).

On March 22nd the assemblages of the 2016 wines took place. Or at least most of them. One or two cuves still have active fermentation with residual sugar remaining but otherwise the wines were ready and the conditions were favourable. I won’t reveal what cuvées are now blended, that is for Jeff to unveil. However, I can say that the reduced harvest of 2016 means fewer wines are available and fewer cuvées made. In the next article I shall be giving my thoughts on the 2016 wines from tastings in October and February.

Finally, there was an award for Jeff himself. On March 30th he was made an official ambassador for the Hérault by the Chamber of Commerce of the département. This was an honour for Jeff himself and the generations of the Mas and Coutelou families who made the domaine what it is. Founded in the 1870s at 7, Rue De La Pompe by Joseph Étienne Mas who planted vines and kept cows after he had fought in the Franco – Prussian War of 1870-1. Five generations later Jeff is an ambassador for Puimisson, vignerons and the Hérault and with his wines he is really spoiling us.

 


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The RAW and the cooked

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Version française

French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss proposed that cultural commonalities and differences and similarities are based on everyday opposites such as raw and cooked. I was reminded of that in attending the annual RAW Fair in London March 12th and 13th. It too served up some opposite emotions, to mix my metaphors a game of two halves.

RAW was formed by Isabelle Legeron whose book “Natural Wine” would be the best starting point for anyone who wants to find out about low intervention wines. On its website it describes itself thus: “RAW WINE (rɔː) – adj in a natural state; not treated by manufacturing or other processes.”

There begins my reflection of opposites after attending. Yes there were many wines there which were not treated by manufacturing or other processes but there were also many which, to my mind, are about wines being manipulated by various techniques and by additives, as up to 70 mg per litre of added sulfites are allowed for RAW. Are these natural wines? As there is no actual binding definition then I suppose they are but I doubt that some of the wines at the Fair are truly in the spirit of natural wine. During the posts which I will write about the event, the most important Fair in the UK based on natural wines, I shall be writing about different categories based on the amount of SO2 used.

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No added sulfites for Italian producer Azienda Vitivinicola Selve

The game of two halves? Well, that refers to the two days. Sunday was open to the public as well as press and trade and it was very, very busy. Crowds around the tasting tables, wines running out, no seats for eating, very warm conditions do not make sense of for an optimal tasting experience. Plans for the day (to taste everything bar France, Italy and Spain) were put aside as it was more a case of find a table where it was not necessary to barge through to the wine. The effect was that I was probably too harsh in judging the wines that day, my mood was affected. Monday was much more like it, more opportunity to access the tables, talk to the producers and, it was when I tasted my favourite wines of the weekend.

Other opposites?

  • Amphorae. It is THE most trendy winemaking technique, ferment and age your grapes in clay amphorae, usually 800l or bigger. I have tasted and enjoyed quite a few amphorae wines but generally I am not partial to the drying effect they have on wines (in my opinion). They do seem to give a sense of licking the clay container before drinking the wine ( a description given to me by my friend David Crossley). Winemakers do add a manufacturing process to their wine and quite rightly experiment to make the wines they want, but I don’t necessarily always enjoy the results. I prefer my wine truly raw rather than cooked earth.
  • Young and old. The natural wine movement is growing. Producers from all around the world, traditional producers experimenting with lesser amounts of sulfites (it was interesting to see a big name from Burgundy  at RAW) and most of all amongst younger wine drinkers. It seems to be true that younger wine drinkers, perhaps less weighed down by conventional expectations of what makes good wine, are attracted to natural wines. Those who predicted its demise are being defied by this growing band of supporters. I heard accents and languages from all around the world, long may it continue. And, meanwhile, older wine enthusiasts like myself can appreciate the energy and life in the wines and the people linked to them.
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One older drinker enjoying his wine

  • Faults. Critics of natural wines most often levy accusations of faulty winemaking. I tasted several hundred wines during RAW and I found faults in less than a dozen, mainly mousiness and two corked wines. Some are a little volatile and acidic but personally I enjoy such wines if the volatility is not completely out of control. The winemakers should be praised for their skill, the % of faulty wines was certainly a lot less than the % of dull wines I taste at many conventional wine tastings.

The two days were very enjoyable overall despite the crowding on day one. I was able to get round most tables and to taste some excellent wine. The next posts will describe some of those and some conclusions I drew from the event. The RAW website has excellent profiles of the producers and the wines on show, I will provide links to this site whenever I can. Let me start with my favourite range of the weekend which epitomises the feeling of opposites I had after RAW.

The Scholium Project (California) RAW link

Abe Schoener is a winemaker who pushes the boundaries, restless in trying to improve his wines. The wines are superb, very drinkable yet with great complexity. They made me smile, gave me great pleasure but also made me think. By accident as much as design it was found that by not topping up the barrels and not using pigeage the juice protected itself, the cap of skins helping rather than hindering. Indeed the Chardonnay, Michael Faraday 2014, developed a flor like sherry does. The result was pure juice, no hint of off notes either in aroma or taste. I liked all four wines on show, but especially the 26 day skin contact, no SO2 added Sauvignon Blanc, The Prince In His Caves 2015, and the Petite Sirah, Babylon 2013, which spent 3 years in barrels, again not topped up. I would normally be put off wines aged for so long in wood, I am not a great fan of too much skin contact yet here the wines were full of life and energy. Truly outstanding wines.

See what I mean about contradictions and opposites! RAW played with my expectations and prejudices.

Next time: the sulfite free wines which pleased me.

 

 


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Sorry Pasteur, you were wrong

Version française 

Two years ago I wrote an article whose title was a quote by my historical hero Louis Pasteur, “Wine is the most healthful and most hygienic of beverages.” Well my recent visit to the Languedoc gave me cause to doubt that Pasteur was wrong, in at least half of his statement.

A friend (Chris) drew my attention to a website showing the quality of water in every commune throughout France. The results for the area of the Hérault centred around Puimisson, Puissalicon, Espondeilhan and Thézan-lès-Béziers showed that they along with other communes in the area have poor quality drinking water.

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So why is that? Simply put it is agricultural pollutants and in this area what that means is pollutants from vineyards. In particular it means pesticides getting into the drinking water.

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The area is full of vineyards, mostly managed under a régime of chemical intervention. Weedkillers, herbicides, fertilisers are all used to ensure maximum yields as vignerons are paid by the quantity of grapes they produce, though they do have to respect the maximum yields permitted by, for example, AOP regulations. Unfortunately when it rains, and it often rains very hard in the Hérault, the chemicals are often washed from the vineyards onto the surrounding roads and into the drains and sewers.

I was talking to an Italian vigneron in January and he was telling me that, as an organic producer, he was shocked at the last vendanges. His lovely grapes were growing on vines which had already begun to shed their leaves or were changing colour as the energy of the plant had been channelled into the fruit rather than the leaves. He felt somewhat embarrassed as his neighbours’ vines were pristine, bright green and laden with grapes. That was the result of the chemicals and nitrates sprayed on to those vines, whereas his were treated only with organic tisanes.

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That is the same experience which I have observed in the area around Mas Coutelou. Jeff’s vineyards are surrounded in the main by conventionally tended vines. I remember him telling me as we stood in Rec D’Oulette (the Carignan vineyard) to look around at the bright green sea of vines with his own vines looking rather tired in comparison.

Well, the chemicals which make the greenery and heavy crops are polluting the water. The drinking water of the very place where the vignerons and their families live. When Pasteur spoke about wine being healthy and hygienic he was speaking at a time when most drinking water was polluted, even untreated. He was right, wine was healthier and cleaner than the water. And now, ironically, it is wine production which is making the water of ‘very bad quality’. Nevermind the 100+ additives which are legally allowed into wine, the wine is also a pollutant. That is why I challenge Pasteur’s claim.

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I am amazed that this report created so little reaction, surely the very water which nourishes the vines and slakes the thirst of wine producers should be be safe to drink? At what cost are we producing wine unless producers take more seriously the effects of their farming methods. And you wonder why I prefer to drink mainly organic and natural wines?


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Coutelou crew

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l-r Me, Vincent, (Icare in front), Julien, Carole (with Maya) and Fabrice

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One of the greatest pleasures of being involved at Mas Coutelou is the friendships which are formed with people from all around France and the rest of the world. There is a core group of local people who work most of the time with Jeff at Puimisson, notably Michel and Julien. However, many others come along from week to week to spend time with Jeff because they love his wines and, of course, Jeff himself.

My recent visit was typical. Carole who has worked for many years on the domaine was there to prune the vines alongside Julien. Vincent, a former teaching colleague of Jeff’s was also there, learning the job of vigneron and winemaker as he has planted his own vines in his native Béarn. Fabrice arrived, who harvested Cabernet Sauvignon in Segrairals one day with me in 2015 was back to help plan an event later in the year. Céline (who helped to pick the Grenaches I am making) and her husband Brice were around for a few days too. And Jérom arrived.

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Jérom(e) is a fascinating guy, a skilled metalworker who has made racks for the large format bottles in Jeff’s own cellar (what he calls ‘the library’) and was here to add finishing  touches to the new rooms in the cellar, the office and tasting room. He explained to me how he loves working with iron as it comes from the earth and, like a vigneron, he is working with natural things. I look forward to seeing his finished work when I go back, it will certainly add a touch of class.

Julien and Vincent also shared their own wines, Puimisson is a training ground for future star producers. Julien showed a white and red, I was really taken with his Chateau Des Gueux white last year (Julien’s first vintage) from Terret and Clairette grapes. The 2016s promise to be even better. Vincent had taken the juice from the grapillons of his new vines and though high in acid there was plenty of Manseng character already present.

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James

Whilst there I also heard from James who worked the vendanges last year. He is back in Australia and a proud new father but also about to produce his first wines. As I said Puimisson is a crucible of winemaking talent.

I am very fortunate as yet another incomer from outside the area to have made such great friends who share a passion for wine and, especially, the wines of Mas Coutelou. There is a truth in the belief that wines reflect their producer and the open, warm friendships surrounding Jeff are a parallel of his wines.

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Jeff surrounded by friends


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Fair Play

En francais

The numerous salons at this time of year bring into play various tactics when attending. Faced with dozens, even hundreds, of producers at the wine fairs where do you start? I look though the list in advance and highlight some I must visit, but things never work out so smoothly in situ.

Take Le Vin De Mes Amis an event featuring dozens of very good producers with organic, biodynamic and natural backgrounds from France but also Italy and Spain. Here is the website with the list of producers. Now, there are dozens of great winemakers listed there and I have only a few hours to get around. So, strategy time.

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Get there early

  1. Random chance – just go where the fancy takes me on the day, often because there is nobody else at the stand / table of that particular person. Some of my best discoveries have been like that, Corvezzo at Vinisud last year, Casa Pardet at La Remise. Sure enough the day before this event I tasted Chateau Meylet from Saint Ėmilion at Les Affranchis purely because he was next to a producer I had been tasting at and happened to have nobody there, and I really liked the wines even though Bordeaux, especially Merlot based Bordeaux, would never have been my usual choice.
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Chateau Meylet

2. By region. Faced with so many wines how can I get a really fair comparison of the quality of the wines when I am comparing a tough Cahors with a light Loire Gamay? One method is to try to select a region and try wines from different producers so that house styles emerge, eg Alsace wines taste different from Bott Geyl, Albert Mann and Hausherr. The problem here is that most salons have winemakers scattered all over the room(s) and it becomes difficult to track them all. The Real Wine Fair in London was a notable and welcome exception where regions were grouped together, I found that useful.

3. By style of wine. When I first attended wine fairs I used to try to taste whites in the morning, reds in the afternoon. Reds do become more difficult as tannins begin to coat the mouth. These days I find that that mixing things up and tasting a range from one producer at a time, through the different styles, helps to keep me fresher.

4. By selection. As I said I look through the list of producers and pick out ones that interest me most. That might be because I have tried them before and really like them and I want to taste the new vintage. It may be a name I have had recommended to me and wish to try for myself. The problem here is moving from one stand to another and finding that everybody wants to try Barral, Foillard and other big names, time is lost and patience required. Often these producers are so pressed that they simply pour and move on to the next person without any real opportunity to describe the wine and its provenance, something which is part of the pleasure of a salon.20170130_134143

In the end my strategy is … not to be too bound by a strategy. Go early, try to get in first to the producers you really want to meet and then play things by ear as you see gaps, empty stands. By all means work your way through the list you made but accept that it may not be possible to taste all of the wines and that there will be another day.

Etiquette at the fair (based on real incidents in Montpellier)

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The best behaved attendee, Icare

  1. Please don’t wear heavy perfume or aftershave and then stand next to me at a wine tasting, your smell is much less interesting to me than the aromas of the wines I am tasting.
  2. Just because you are a representative for a big buyer does not mean that you should barge though and demand to be served and never mind the poor sucker (ie me) who is waiting his/her turn
  3. If you are spitting into the provided vessel please bear in mind that as I stand behind it I would rather not have your saliva / wine sample splashing all over me
  4. Please, don’t have a conversation with someone else about your night out last evening whilst standing at the front of the stand and there’s a queue of people behind waiting to taste the wines. As a mild mannered Englishman I will smile and say “Je vous en prie” when you finally move over but inside I am fuming at you.
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Pleasure of talking with Thomas from La Ferme Saint Martin

5. Wearing light coloured clothes and then spitting red wine is a mistake, I often make it.

6. Getting into your car to drive when you have been drinking the wines, not spitting them, is just wrong.

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I have seen this range before somewhere

Salons are great, they are fun, educational, social. But they can be frustrating, even stressful. I need a glass to chill out before La Dive Bouteille this weekend.

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Is that… water?