amarchinthevines

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


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In Laudem

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In typically moderate and generous fashion Jeff Coutelou’s response to the vandalism on his vineyard was to remind us of his philosophy for viticulture.

He reminded us that generations of vignerons, as with agriculture in general, were persuaded that mass production aided by mechanisation, chemical fertilisers was the way forward. Grubbing up hedgerows and trees to create space for more vines would boost production and income. Irrigation by water from the Rhone was just the latest of these modernisations.

The consequences have shown how those generations were misled. Compacted soils with little or no life in them, falling numbers of birds and insects, diseases spread through waves of monoculture, vines hooked on fertilisers to keep production high.

In 1987 when Jean-Claude Coutelou made the leap to organic viticulture there were only 200ha of organic vines in the Hérault. Now there are 20,000ha. A tide has turned but it is not easy for everyone to accept that mistakes were made. Those who have returned to traditional methods, planting hedges, bushes, flowers and trees for diversity are, ironically, viewed with suspicion. The birds, bats and insects which shelter there help to fight disease. Thirty years of organic practice make for soils rich with life. And yet some don’t get it.

It is a privilege to stand in Rome vineyard in Spring, listening to the birdsong, bees and cicadas, watching the butterflies and bats, enjoying the colours of the flowers. Knowing that this rich diversity helps the vines makes it even more special. It is the right path aesthetically, morally but, crucially, for the wines too. Nature wins and benefits us as all.

So, Jeff is right. I stand with him.

 

 


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Rare grapes and Vin De France

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This chart was published two weeks ago even though the information refers to 2010. I found it fascinating (I am a sad case I understand). Some of the information would be expected, New Zealand with its Sauvignon Blanc for example, Australia with its Shiraz. I was rather surprised to see Merlot as 13.7% of the French vineyard area however. Admittedly this is partly because it is one of my least favourite grape varieties, though, as always, fine examples are available from good vignerons.

Merlot, like Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and Viognier, were in vogue in the 80s and 90s when I became interested in wine. Languedoc producers reacted to this popularity by planting these cépages, it was commercial sense. One of those producers was Jean-Claude Coutelou and Mas Coutelou still has his Cabernet and Merlot parcels.

However, one of the more recent trends in the region has been the revival of older and rare grape varieties. At Mas Coutelou Jeff has planted grapes such as Riveyrenc Noir, Riveyrenc Gris, Morastel, Piquepoul Noir and Terret Noir in Peilhan (see photos below).

Earlier this year Jeff received a visit from Domaine De Vassal, guardian of the national treasury of grape vines. They record and keep examples all grape varieties as I described after a visit to Vassal. On this occasion they were intrigued by two vines in particular; firstly Clairette Musquée, planted in Peilhan and, secondly, the unknown variety in Segrairals. These are just part of the programme of replanting and grafting which has taken place at Mas Coutelou. The photos below show grafting of other cépages in Flower Power such as Aramon Noir and one unknown variety.

After months of research the experts at Vassal have concluded that Clairette Musquée has its origins in Hungary where it was known as Org Tokosi. It was planted in the Maghreb and after Algerian independence it was probably brought to France by those who repatriated to France.

The unnown variety turns out to be an Italian cépage, quite rare, called Delizia Di Vaprio. This is, according to my copy of Pierre Galet’s “Dictionnaire Encyclopédique des Cépages”, a grape authorised in Italy and Portugal. Under the rules of France’s AOC system it would not be allowed. Jeff, however, chooses to issue his wines under the Vin De France label which means he is free to choose his own methods and grape varieties. Whereas a Languedoc AOC wine must include grapes such as Syrah and Grenache Jeff can choose what to put in his wines including wines from just one grape variety. It also means he can plant these rare grapes and make wines from them which he truly loves and wants to make.

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Interestingly one AOC, Burgundy, is starting to show signs of concern that Vin De France is becoming more popular. They have started a campaign criticising Vin de France. To my mind they should be looking to their own failings and regulations. For example, as climate change bites harder vignerons will have to adapt, investigating different grape varieties will be part of that.

So, yes Merlot has its place (and thrives in the Colombié vineyard in Puimisson) but is it not exciting to see rare, old, traditional grapes being cherished and brought back to prominence? Let us appreciate the range and variety of grapes and the vignerons who bring out their best.

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Every Picture Tells A Story (2) – Terroir

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This is one corner of Segrairals vineyard, found in the North East corner of Puimisson. I took the photo on October 6th and it clearly shows a demarcation in this part of the vineyard. The far side of it still has green vines, further towards me the vines are changing colour as Autumn arrives. Why are the vines at different stages of development? Even a month before on September 7th there was a clear line.

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The reason is that a stream used to run down here many years ago. Its legacy is to have left richer soil behind in the corner where the cannes de Provence now stand. The vines planted on that richer soil find life easier than their peers. They remain greener, feed their grapes more easily. All good?

Well, no. The grapes can be too well fed, ripen earlier than their neighbours, become too sweetened. They will also begin to deteriorate earlier if not picked. So, in one small corner of one vineyard we see how the terroir makes a difference to the vines. We see how a vigneron must know his / her vines to ensure that the highest quality is maintained. The vigneron is part of the whole mystique of terroir and it is a subject to which I shall be turning soon.

 

 


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Every Picture Tells A Story

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This photo was taken on October 6th in Font D’Oulette, the 0.6ha Flower Power vineyard. It tells a number of stories.

Look at the vineyard itself. Small, youthful vines, only six or seven years old with a rich variety of cépages including some rare ones such as different varieties of Oeillade, Clairette Musquée and one known simply as Inconnue as its origin is unknown. This complantation of cépages was typical of the old ways of growing vines. The use of gobelet training rather than the use of wired trellises (palissage) is another example of traditional viticulture.  This vineyard tells a story of how old ways are often better, its wine has already garnered much praise.

Look also at the vineyard behind Font D’Oulette. You will see vines looking very different. The vines are a rich green in colour and their foliage is still lush. This forms a contrast with the autumnal yellow of Flower Power. This is the result of neighbours’ vineyards being treated with large quantities of chemical fertilisers, especially nitrates. These artificially boost the growth and colour of the vine. Flower Power’s vines, on the other hand, are allowed to develop at their natural pace.

The vineyard is surrounded by olive and fruit trees as well as ditches. This is deliberate on Jeff’s part because he wants to create a barrier to the neighbouring vineyards. When it rains in  the Languedoc, it often rains hard causing the soils to wash away. Sometimes, the soils are compacted by machinery and the treatments on the vines are washed away with the rain. Since Font D’Oulette is in a bowl this would mean that neighbours soils and chemicals would run onto Jeff’s parcel so he uses the ditches and vegetation to prevent his vines from being affected.

One photo but a complicated picture.


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Amphorae

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One of the winemaking trends of recent years has been a return to the learning of our forefathers. The revival of old grape varieties, use of horses for ploughing, many of the practices of natural winemaking are references to the past. As a historian these practices are very welcome to me.

Another welcome revival has been the use of amphorae for fermenting or ageing wines. Of course this was the methodology of the Greeks and Romans thousands of years ago but they had all but disappeared in western Europe. Certainly the practice survived in the East, especially Georgia, partly due to the poverty of Soviet times. The fall of communism and this search for the past has brought about a revival of interest in the amphora.

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The advantage is that clay is porous and allows an exchange of the wine with air/oxygen. This is why wooden barrels have been used but the advantage of amphorae is that they do not give the familiar taste of oak. Many producers who have used amphorae claim that they keep wines fresher than barrels.

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Earlier this year I reported how Jeff had been given a present by a diving friend who discovered a Roman (time of Julius Caesar) amphora in the Mediterranean. I had hoped that it could be used for winemaking but it needs a lot of reconstruction as well as disinfection. However, it seemed to inspire Jeff who went to Spain in order to buy two 400l amphorae. On September 29th it was time to fill them.

They had been filled with water for several weeks to remove dust but also to moisten the clay so that it would not soak up the wine. A cuve of Carignan and the very rare Castets was the wine to enter the amphorae which are about 1m50 high. Filled almost to the brim each was sealed with a stainless steel chapeau bought for the job. And so we await the results, regular tasting will allow Jeff to decide how long the wine will be aged.

A new departure, a return to the ways of the ancients.

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Vendanges 17 – the finishing line

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I started my coverage of the 2017 vendanges with racing terminology and, so, I finish in the same way.

It’s definitely over. Vendanges 2017 with all its quality, with so little quantity.

On September 27th the final press of the grapes was completed. It was the turn of the Cabernet Sauvignon, two weeks after picking. The skins, pips and other solids had done their work in giving up flavour, colour, tannins and so much more. The yeasts had started their work of fermentation. Now it was time to press before that grape must started to be problematic rather than beneficial.

The must was pumped from the cuve by the powerful pompe à marc directly into the press. Julien ensured that the press was filled in all corners and then the press began. It inflates a membrane inside which gently presses the must to extract the juice without releasing the more bitter, astringent tannins left in the skins and pips.

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Sediment after the must has gone to press

The grape variety (cépage) will determine the amount of pressure applied, Cabernet has small berries and thicker skins so needs a little more pressure than juicier, thinner skinned Cinsault for example.

 

The juice flows and is sent to another cuve to continue its fermentation, then its malolactic fermentation (which removes the more acid flavours). Indeed the analyses of the 2017 wines show that fermentations have gone through quickly, without fuss or problem. There is no sign of volatility or any other problem, the wines look on course to be as high quality as the grapes themselves. Which, of course, is the goal. Jeff believes in letting the grapes express themselves with as little intervention as possible. This year interventions are minimal, the grapes have done the work.

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Sadly, the quantities do not reflect the quality and that will bring a financial blow to the domaine and to virtually all domaines in the region. When you are asked to pay a few euros for a bottle of 2017 Mas Coutelou, I hope that you will recall all the work which I have described, the stresses and strains, the love and care which has gone into that bottle and you will consider it money well spent.


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Solera, oh oh

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Many visitors to Mas Coutelou would cite their time in the cave des soleras as the most memorable of all. This, for new readers, is the cellar where barrels are stored containing Muscat and Grenache from many vintages. There it ages gently to make Vieux Grenache or Muscat, or a blend of course.

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The system works with new wine being put into barrique as normal but the older wines are blended with wines from previous years. Evaporation and bottling means that some of the wine in the barrels disappears each year so they need to be topped up with younger wines. Gradually, as the years pass, the wines become older and more concentrated and are passed on to older barrels. Some of the wine in the oldest barrels is 100 years old blended in with slightly younger wines.

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Archimedes principle to move wine from cuve to barrel by gravity

On September 20th it was time to clear space in the cellar; barrels topped up, new wine added to the system. Some of the barrels were given a soutirage, emptied of their wine leaving behind the sediment in the bottom. The barrel is then cleaned, the wine returned and topped up.

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Matthieu fills the barrel with water to clean it ready for refilling with wine

Two days later we were back and amongst the barrels being refreshed was one containing the Grenaches (all three varieties) wine I made in 2015. Time to taste. This was the new barrel which permits more oxygen into the wine than the more seasoned barrel. There was definitely a sherry influence to the wine, the effect of the oak and air but still there was good fruit and length. It will soon be topped up with wine from the older barrel which should add more fruit to the profile. The wine in the 27l bottle will be even more fruity and fresh, the blending should be an interesting time.

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Refilling the Grenaches newer barrel

The cellar is a true treasure trove of great wines, and I don’t mean mine. Time spent there is always time well spent. And the guard dog of all guard dogs ensures it is well protected.

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