amarchinthevines

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


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Back To The Future

Version francaise

I promised two updates from Puimisson with news with Jeff Coutelou but, first of all, a follow up from last time. Jeff tells me that fine weather has held back any outbreak of mildew though more rain is forecast this weekend. He cannot touch the soils and the grass and flowers which have grown around the vines as that would certainly trigger the mildew spores which live in the soil. This growth will compete with the vines for nutrients and, if Jeff has to leave it in place all year, for fear of triggering disease, then it will lower the yields.

All is not bleak however. Jeff was enjoying the sunshine last week and the vines’ lush growth. He has also assembled an interesting team to help work in the vines, local people who can work safely without travelling. There is an ex seminarian, a teacher, a young man wanting to learn about winemaking, a scientist and others. Sadly, not me.

Fermentations finishing, 2020

Last years’ wines stalled towards the end of their fermentations at the end of 2019 but the warmer temperatures of Spring rectified that, reawakening the fermentations and the wines are now completed and settled. The various wines have been assembled into the blends which Jeff wanted for the 2019 cuvées. They will rest, be bottled in the next few months but not for sale until much later in the year.

Part of the blending record, giving nothing away!

Most exciting though, there has been a lot of looking to the future. A new plantation of mainly Aramon and Mourvedre with smaller amounts of Aramon Blanc and Servant, an old Languedoc variety which is very little planted. Yet another addition to the Coutelou catalogue, reversing the long term decline in plantings of the grape (down to just 75 hectares in 2011.)

Other work has been done to put up the stakes and wires for plantations from the last couple of years, for example in the parcel next to Sainte Suzanne which had been fallow for years and in Segrairals, shown in the photo below.

And Jeff has been looking still further into the future. When he retires Jeff intends to move to St. Chinian where part of the Coutelou family had their traditional home. The 4 hectares of vines which were there have been grubbed up and replanted with the varieties of the area (and no doubt some typical Jeff extras) as well as trees such as oak and olive, shrubs and plants too. This was a major task and timed for Jeff’s birthday too as plants and vines are what excite him.

So, the virus has undoubtedly altered the way that Jeff has had to do things but, happily, it hasn’t brought the domaine to a halt. The vines are growing well, there will be a 2020 vintage. And there is plenty to look forward to once we are past this.


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Looking to the future

No particular theme to this week’s article, more a blending of various thoughts and ideas. I will be updating from Puimisson in the next article as Jeff Coutelou keeps me up to date with all that is happening there, which makes me happy but also sad not to be there.

Yesterday was one of those occasions when I had an article pretty much ready to run and then I clicked on a website and found someone had pretty much beaten me to it. This time it was an interesting article by Hannah Fuellenkemper on The Morning Claret website, which is one I follow and heartily recommend. It follows up the issue of natural wine certification by looking at not just what winemakers need to be doing for that (and whether it is worthwhile) but what they should be doing extra. I was thinking along similar lines, as we go through this pandemic crisis surely we should take the time to reflect on how we live and what we can do to make the world better in future. The world of wine included.

Getting every tiny part of every piece of equipment clean uses a lot of water

Fuellenkemper tackles issues such as the use of water, certainly an issue in the Languedoc that I have highlighted before. Jeff recirculates water and has his own well but that is not common. Water usage is high in winemaking, especially natural wines where equipment has to be thoroughly cleaned to eliminate any risk of contamination. She then criticises the use of cleaning chemicals which I understand but, believe me, pips and bits of grape skin get into the tiniest spaces and need to be cleansed. Sometimes a small amount of chemical might be needed to sterilise machinery, though it is then washed intensively with water to get rid of residues.

Heavy bottles, use of plastic are issues I have covered before, why some wines have glass weighing almost 1kg is beyond me. Sparkling wines do need thicker glass because of the pressure within but I have had far too many still wines in heavy bottles for no good reason other than to give an air of quality, not always matched by their contents.

Vines stretching everywhere, Oic Vissou in the background

One further issue raised is that of monoculture. Living in the Languedoc it still amazes me that there is such an expanse of vines, they cover a huge surface area, 223,000 hectares. Jeff is unusual in having planted many hectares of trees, shrubs and flowers to provide diversity and a shelter for beneficial wildlife such as bats. It has made him the target of vandalism in the past when in fact it is the way that vineyards need to be.

One bottle I drank recently also made me think of diversity. La Vigne d’Albert from Tour des Gendres in the Bergerac region has Merlot and the two Cabernets like so many wines from there but it also has Périgord (aka Mérille) and Abouriou, a little Cot (or Malbec) and Fer Servadou.

This no sulphites added wine was big and bold, a glass on the third day after opening still had tannin and an earthy, red fruit profile. However, it was the use of the obscure grape varieties which made it a noteworthy wine for me. Mérille / Périgord is only planted on about 100 hectares in the world, mainly in the Bergerac and Fronton areas. Abouriou has more planting (470ha in 2006), is another south western native grape and possibly has more impact on the wine than Mérille with greater tannins and colour as well as some of those red fruit aromas I detected.

As readers will know one of my favourite things about Jeff’s vineyards is the huge number of grape varieties, thirty or more. As well as complexity and variety I think that different types of vine has to be good for the vineyard, diversity and the fauna of the countryside. Moreover I believe there is a need to seek alternatives from the main grape varieties which dominate the world of wine but which may not suit vineyard regions in future because of the effects of climate change.

This table shows how the Languedoc has actually increased plantings of those dominant varieties this century at the expense of more indigenous, regional grapes, commercial demand winning over common sense and the future of a healthy vineyard region. So, I applaud Tour des Gendres, Jeff and all those seeking to put the earth and diversity first not the supermarkets.

Finally at a time of lockdown I have been pondering on travel and carbon footprints. Travel is one of the greatest pleasures and privileges of life, I have been fortunate to meet winegrowers in Australia, New Zealand and across Europe with other journeys not featuring wine (I know!). I read wine writers who are constantly on the move flying to countries for assignments, commissions and competition judging. Is that sustainable? Is it compatible with demands on winemakers to be more environmentally aware? Whenever and however we emerge from this crisis I do think we should all consider just how much travel is sustainable.

In the meantime I wish you all good health, stay safe.


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To certify or not to certify

During the current lockdown I have bought a few cases of wine, including a fascinating dozen from Westwell Wines in Kent. However, a bottle from a different case brought to mind an issue which has been much discussed in the wine media recently (the current situation meaning that people have more time to discuss such issues).

The Niepoort Redoma Branco 2018 was very enjoyable with fresh, citric flavours from old vines in the Douro. The grapes were from typically unusual Portuguese grapes such as Rabigato and Codega and aged in barrel for a short time. The oak was subtle and added complexity. Overall, a good wine in my opinion, one I would be happy to purchase again.

The wine was described as natural by the merchant and the informative, detailed technical data from Niepoort allows me to examine that description. In doing so I see a total of 87mg of total SO2 which is very high for a ‘natural’ wine, for example the RAW charter allows up to 70mg. In addition though I have scoured the Niepoort website I can’t see any evidence that this was made with organically grown grapes, to be fair the bottle did not claim it to be and Niepport are gradually moving towards organics. For me those two things mean this cannot be described as natural. But there lies the problem. What is natural wine?

The natural wine movement began in the Beaujolais and Loire as a rebellion against the modernisation of winemaking with its techniques to filter, pasteurise and homogenise. Over the last 30 years the natural wine world has expanded exponentially with like minded producers across the world. And yet there is no agreed definition of what constitutes a natural wine. This frustrates many wine drinkers, I know some myself. They would like to know what is in the bottle, how it was produced.

Are the grapes organic for example? How do we know? Some producers say they are working organically but have no certification to prove it. Jeff Coutelou for example goes through rigorous testing every year by Ecocert to guarantee his organic methods, as I described here. Jeff goes much, much further in his vineyards as readers will know, working to ensure biodiversity and better soils without synthetic products, use of sulfur and copper (allowed under organic production) is way below the levels permitted and only in extremis. However, how do I know that a bottle without certification is produced organically? How do I know that a producer claiming to make natural wines does not add more SO2 than expected unless there is analysis?

Frustration with these blurred lines has persuaded some producers to attempt to draw up a certification for natural wine on a number of occasions. The breakthrough recently however is French government support for the work of the Syndicat de défense des Vins Nature’l. With names like producers Carroget, David and Binner and the wine writer Antonin Iommi-Amunategui the Syndicat has heft and credibility for its work. So what are their rules?

  • Grapes from certified organic vines (from 2nd year of conversion)
  • Hand harvesting
  • Natural, native yeasts only
  • No additives
  • No manipulation of the natural grapes
  • No techniques such as reverse osmosis, flash pasteurisation (described as brutal and traumatic in the charter)
  • No SO2 added before fermentation, though up to 30mg may be added before bottling
  • A separate logo for wines with no added SO2 is available
The logos for certified wines

One hundred natural producers have so far signed up to the Syndicat, ot will be fascinating to see how this develops. Many have welcomed the move, for example Simon J Woolf a writer whose opinions I greatly respect wrote an article in favour in his Morning Claret website. Others such as Jamie Goode, another writer I respect greatly, have generally argued against it. I shall set out these arguments and opinions in the next article.


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Wine in a time of corona

It was in the first few months of writing this blog that I used the quotation of Louis Pasteur, “Wine is the most healthful and most hygienic of beverages”. It’s a saying which has sprung frequently to mind in recent days as we enter a period unprecedented in my lifetime. The COVID19 pandemic has closed down the world in a way few of us could possibly have foreseen when we celebrated New Year just 12 weeks ago, hoping that this year would be better than the last!

Icare enjoying the Spring

Jeff Coutelou has been in touch to report that he is trying to do all he can in his vineyards, the problem being that in a time of lockdown he is on his own and with 11ha of vines to tend facing a heavy workload. First priorities have been a light ploughing and time spent amongst the newly planted vines to ensure they start life in Puimisson healthily. He reported that being in the vines was a pleasure because of the sheer peace and quiet with traffic virtually non existent. As he prunes the vines later than many budding is in its very earliest stage.

Budding on March 25th 2016

Others in the region have reported an early budding and, frost forecasts bring nervous times. I saw photos of Burgundy lighting their braziers amongst the vines to try and ward off frost damage. Fortunately Jeff’s vine management means that is not a concern at present though the ‘Saints de Glace’* are still almost two months away.

Meanwhile here in the UK there has been a huge demand for alcohol, part of the panic buying we have unfortunately seen as lockdown approached. Bigger merchants such as The Wine Society have shut down, Majestic’s website could not cope and supermarket shelves have been cleared regularly. To be fair the supermarkets have restocked quickly. Smaller merchants face a precarious time, needing turnover to stay in business. I ordered a case from Buonvino based in Settle who I have used before and wanted to support again. I debated whether I was being fair on delivery drivers expected to put themselves at risk but I decided to go ahead. As I unpacked the bottles and washed them down I had to admit to not having noticed the names of some bottles from South African producer Testalonga. Stay Brave, Keep On Punching and I Wish I Was A Ninja were three bottles, maybe I was sending an unconscious message!

Jancis Robinson has published a list of merchants around the world prepared to deliver. The Three Wine Men have done the same thing for the UK here. I buy regularly, almost exclusively in fact, from independent merchants and I hope that many of you will give them a browse at least.

Whatever you are doing in the next few weeks, wherever you are please stay healthy, stay at home and stay safe.

* Saints De Glace refers to a period in mid May which is traditionally the final days where frost is a risk for plants. It was named after the three saints of the days, which in 2020 are May 11-13, Mamert, Pancrace and Servais.


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Some recent Coutelou wines

In my last post I shared news from Jeff Coutelou about the vines and wines of the 2019 vintage. Following on from that I thought I would share some recent drinking updates of Jeff’s wines which, as you might expect, form a major part of my proverbial cellar. This might guide some of you with decisions about when to drink any Coutelou wines you may have.

Let’s start with an older wine, Le Vin Des Amis 2014. I know many people regard natural wines in general as wines to be drunk young when their fruit profile is high, wines for drinking for pleasure. However, my experience of years spent with Jeff is that many of his wines (and those of other natural producers) age very well, with more complex flavours replacing the overt fruitiness. Vin Des Amis is one of the headline wines of the domaine and is certainly very enjoyable young. This 2014 (40% Syrah, 40% Grenache, 20% Cinsault) was in prime condition, the freshness calmed down and darker fruit flavours to the fore rather than the bright red fruits of its youth. A lovely bottle.

2016 was a problematic vintage with drought and hail and much reduced yields especially for Grenache and Syrah, the main grapes of the domaine. It is by far the vintage least represented in my collection but I opened a couple recently. 5SO, a play on the single grape name Cinsault which makes the cuvee, was still fresh and fruity though had a little mousiness on the finish, just a hint nothing to spoil it overall. Some of the Grenache and Syrah which was produced in 2016 went into 7, Rue De La Pompe together with some Merlot to fill it out. This was still fresh with a spicy red fruit profile giving a nice lingering finish.

A good mix of wines here. Let’s start with 5SO again, this time the 2018. Notice the name change, it was 5SO Simple in 2016, but the 18 is so good that it became Formidable 5SO! The name change is justified, 2018 being an exceptional vintage. This wine took a little longer to come round than usual so bottling was later and the wine seems to have benefitted, cherry red fruits and almost flowery aromas. Lovely. The other 2018 was the new cuvee Couleurs Réunies. This is a blend from two parcels with the many different grapes from the Flower Power vineyard blended with Carignan and Castets from Peilhan. As I recall we only managed to harvest less than 10 cases from Flower Power in 2018 so the extra grapes were much needed. And it is well up to Coutelou standard with big, fresh fruit to the fore (still very young of course). I shall keep a bottle or two back to watch it age but it is a lovely addition to the range.

The two older bottles form that group were Classe 15 and La Vigne Haute 2017. Classe was highlighted by a UK wine expert as one of the best organic wines to drink, Olly Smith went on to say that he buys Jeff’s wines whenever possible. This Classe was 75% Syrah with Grenache and 5% Mourvedre making up the difference. Classic in its style, silky smooth flavours of red fruit, ridiculously drinkable for a wine which will age further. Very long lasting in the mouth it is hard to resist. Possibly in its peak time but it will develop complexity. Regular readers will know that La Vigne Haute is my favourite of all Jeff’s wines. This is still youthful, pure Syrah with more floral notes in its aroma, very silky tannins (which will allow it to age) and a combination of red and black fruits detectable in its huge fruit. There is also a slight smokiness in the finish to add even more complexity. A worthy example of my desert island wine.

Every year Jeff takes some of the best white grapes and ages them for special cuvées, sometimes in oak. Macabeu 2017 is a gorgeous example of the benefits of this vinification. The oak adds weight to the wine and just a very subtle hint of vanilla but the oak is very much in the background. More noticeable is a slickness in the wine, almost viscous in nature and this helps to coat the mouth with delicious apple and pear flavours helping to make them last even longer. Petits Grains 2017 is made from Muscat A Petits Grains and the Muscat flavours are there but this wine is not sweet, other than from the ripe fruit. From the old barrel the wine has taken a light oxygenation which adds dryness and complexity to the Muscat grape flavours. Two bottles showing off the quality of the grapes but also the deftness and talent of their winemaker.


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Coutelou 2019

A Coutelou update.

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

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

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

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

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

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

New planting of Clairette (right) and Macabeu

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


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Oddities 3

En francais

Fabrice disappearing through the floor. What is going on?

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

The tank is filled with carbon dioxide

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

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

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

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