amarchinthevines

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


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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.


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Celebrating harvest via Flora

The two reports on the 2020 vendanges with Jeff Coutelou featured the photography of Flora Rey, Jeff’s niece. I thought it was worth highlighting some of the other photos Flora took as well as my favourites. Flora is very skilled, I gave her my camera last year and her photos were on a completely different level to mine. It inspired me to go on a course, sadly I haven’t had the opportunity to apply that learning. Anyway, here are the photos

Enjoying the product of the work

And my favourite photograph, showing the camaraderie and work of vendanges in an ethereal light. What a great photo this is Flora.


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The Winery by Laneberg Wine

2020 has been horrendous for everyone in many ways and, though not important on a wider scale, one of those ways for me was not being able to get to spend time in the vines and cellars of Jeff Coutelou. Little did I know that by an indirect route I would end up amongst barrels and tanks which had contained Coutelou grapes. In my native North East England, specifically on Team Valley, Gateshead – a most unlikely turn of events.

Elise and Liam

Elise Lane set up The Winery and Laneberg Wines on Team Valley when she returned to the North East with her family. She studied Chemistry at Oxford University before working in the world of finance in London. She told me that she became interested in wine at University and, unsurprisingly, it was her curiosity about the chemistry of wine which was the catalyst for further study. WSET qualifications followed but then Elise enrolled at Plumpton College to earn a Post Graduate Diploma, working in the winery there.

Plumpton graduates have gone on to become winemakers around the world, some in my region of Languedoc Roussillon such as Peter Core and Jonathan Hesford. Elise and her husband Nick looked at vineyards in Kent but then decided to relocate to the North East and set up an urban winery. All this whilst pregnant with her second son. Team Valley, a large business and industrial estate in Gateshead became the location for The Winery by Laneberg Wines.

Elise bought equipment from London Cru, the original English urban winery. There lies my connection as London Cru bought Cabernet Sauvignon grapes from Jeff, I helped to pick them! The wine they made was often considered their best wine by critics such as Jamie Goode. So, when Elise showed me the basket press and barrels she had purchased from that winery I had to smile at the small world we live in.

Elise told me that there are around 400 vineyards in the UK but only a quarter of so actually make their own wines. Therefore, grapes can be bought readily enough and, in her first year of production in 2018 she sourced them from Leicestershire and Gloucestershire. Since then the Lane family have used their campervan to tour other vineyards in southern England and, with two years’ experience, Elise has kept some of her original suppliers and selected new ones.

The grapes are transported by lorry overnight to Gateshead, ready for sorting in the morning. They are placed in stainless steel tanks for fermentation and then Elise makes decisions about nurturing the wines, eg in barrels, judging what will serve them best. The barrels are used to impart a smoky influence rather than overt oakiness.

Bacchus 2018 and 2019, note the change in label showing the fruits redolent in the wine in a style based on Bacchus’ hair

Bacchus is the main white grape for Laneberg, reflecting the national picture. In my opinion it is the grape which brings a unique character to English white wine. The 2018 Laneberg Bacchus is now sold out having immediately created a big impression. So much so that Fortnum and Mason have asked Elise to provide their House English wine. A tremendous vote of confidence in Elise’s talents. I thoroughly enjoyed the 2019 Bacchus, my wine loving brother in law who was there when I opened a bottle said he would definitely buy this wine. Floral, fruity aromas with a zingy, citrus flavour, the wine was as good the second day as the first and its fresh acidity is a good food match. I had a Singapore curry dish with the Bacchus and the wine stood up to the flavours and enhanced them, it was a great match. Give me this over most Sauvignon Blancs or Albarinos. No wonder the Bacchus has brought plaudits.

Technical detail about the 2019 Bacchus from The Winery website

Harvest time means that the family get together to support Elise and work to sort and crush the grapes. Her cousin Liam is a full-time employee immersing himself in the wine world. Team Valley teamwork. Lots of farmers’ markets, stalls and marketing followed the first winemaking, drumming up interest and sales. Now the word is out. Excellent reviews from respected critics such as the great Oz Clarke have helped; mentions and articles in Decanter, local and national press and television have followed. Laneberg had earned the Regional Award for The Midlands and North in The Wine GB Awards the night before I made my visit.

Elise has a wise business plan, her time in finance and accounting no doubt helping. I have met a number of young winemakers who have found the business and sales side an unwelcome reality check. Elise and Nick had a plan and stuck to it, the success that has followed is well deserved. Elise knows that she has to make wines that will appeal to the customer and give her financial security. Initially ten thousand bottles were made, that will rise to around thirteen thousand with the 2020 harvest.

So, what about the other wines? It’s worth mentioning that there are excellent notes about each wine on the Laneberg website with tasting notes by outside tasters as well as technical information for each wine. The labels, by a North East designer, back these up by showing the sort of fruits which may be in the bottle based on the original picture of the god of wine, Bacchus, with the fruit replacing his hair.

‘This Mortal Angel’ (Geordie references abound) is a semi sparkling wine made from 100% Seyval Blanc, a hybrid grape which ripens early and is suited to cool climates. The wine was enjoyed on a hot, September North East England afternoon and provided welcome refreshment. It is very dry, as all the Laneberg wines are. There was a gripping acidity, I think this wine will age well, accompanying dishes such as seafood. There were apple and pear flavours which revealed themselves as the bottle emptied. Only 10% alcohol, so this really was a good afternoon aperitif wine.

Pinot Gris 2018 was less convincing for me. It is very dry again, citrussy and probably needs longer in bottle. Don’t expect Pinot Grigio style wine, this variety is on the margins in England and the full aromatic, ripe style is not what this wine is about. Pleasant but not the character of the Bacchus.

Elise made other wines in 2018, now unavailable, Solaris, a white grape developed in Germany in 1975 was one. Madeleine Angevin, a white grape, was also bought and blended with red Regent grapes to make a rosé by crushing them together so that the white juice had contact with red grape skins. Hopefully I will find some of the next vintage.

Finally, the Regent grape was used to make the first red at the winery in 2019. Named after her son Maximilian this was a wine which I found intriguing. Regent was created by crossing a white vitis vinifera grape, Diana, with a red hybrid, Chambourcin. It grows well in cooler climates and is resistant to downy mildew, an important attribute in such regions. The label shows blackberries and raspberries and it was the latter which dominated on my palate. However, its first wow factor is the vibrant purple colour, striking. Aromas of cherry and raspberry, flavours of sharp raspberry with a cleaning acidity. The wine was better on the second day, softening the acidity a little, I will definitely put my second bottle away for a year or two. More plummy fruit emerged on that second day though raspberry still dominated for me. Again, a food wine. I’d buy more.

I was curious about an urban winery in my home region, would it work, was it a serious venture? I should have had no doubts. Elise’s background in science and finance have given her the tools to make a success of The Winery. Her talents as a winemaker are evident in the bottles and the warm reception they have received. Laneberg Wines is a name to add to your list of regular purchases.


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Vendanges 2020 – Part 2

En francais

All photos by Flora Rey, you can find more of her work on Facebook

I had a chat with Jeff on Saturday to check on progress and plans for this week. Heavy rain (30mm) that day meant that harvesting would be a little more difficult on Monday as the cars and vans would not be able to get into the vineyards. However, that has been the only significant blip in this year’s vendanges (perhaps me not being there has brought good luck!). There has been little disease despite an outbreak of mildew back in June but Jeff was able to get on top of that before it became significant. Happily, he repeated that the grapes are in excellent condition.

Icare awaits his master

The other good news is that quantity is also good, which should mean more wine available for everyone. Remember that many of the 2019 cuvées are not yet released due to slow fermentations delaying the whole process of winemaking. Therefore, I would think it is likely that many of the 2020s will be held back too. Overall, though there will be plenty of Coutelou wines in the next couple of years. The rain of Saturday will also boost quantities a little more in grapes such as Grenache and Carignan which were the later ones to be picked. The Grenache is rich so the rain will help to make it more balanced as well as providing higher yields, it was a well-timed break in the weather.

Boris in early morning Peilhan

The only other issue, and one I had heard was an issue in other areas of the Languedoc, was vers de la grappe, the moth larvae which is hatched in the grapes and can spoil bunches as grape juice flows onto the bunch. Fortunately, the problem is not on a large scale though Jeff wanted to get a move on in finishing the harvest as the moths are now adult and will lay eggs if the grapes are still on the vine.

As most grapes are now picked, the hard work shifts to the cellar and the making of the wine, pressing, remontage, pigeage. Decisions about which grapes go into which tank, which might be mixed together and in what type of container, the cement or stainless steel tanks, amphora or barrel. The 3D puzzle in Jeff’s head, and spreadsheet, gets complicated.

Flower Power, the complantation of Font D’Oulette vineyard, continues to provide meagre returns, 8 cases this year after similar yields in the last two vintages. These young vines will take some years to properly mature and produce more fruit. The grapes were mixed with Syrah from Segrairals which was picked early. That combination was pressed on Saturday and will make a good, juicy, light wine.

The Cinsault of Rome was good but the whites (Muscats, Grenaches Blanc and Gris) of the higher part of the vineyard yielded little though that was partly due to some locals having helped themselves to some bunches probably as eating grapes. The few cases brought back were mixed with Macabeu and Grenache Gris from Peilhan and put into one of the amphorae.

The other amphora will be used for the various blanc and gris grapes (Carignan, Grenache etc) also from Peilhan.

Meanwhile the grapes picked have started to ferment well. Jeff is especially pleased with the Syrahs and the good news, for me at least, is that La Vigne Haute could well be made from La Garrigue. So, lots of positive news from Puimisson, the team is clearly working well and we can enjoy these excellent photographs to glimpse what is happening there.

I love this photo showing the team sorting the grapes together, a true image of vendanges teamwork


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Vendanges 2020

En francais

Jeff with an early case

I may not be there in person but I certainly am in Puimisson in spirit. Jeff has kept me up to date however and his niece Flora has taken some lovely photos and allowed me to share them. So what has been happening with the Coutelou harvest.

Before they began Jeff reported to me that the grapes were ‘magnifiques’, high praise indeed from a viticulteur, a group who are infamously pessimistic. The promise of 2020 producing something exceptional would be very in keeping, a year when nothing ordinary happens. The grapes ripened early however, problematically, at much the same rate across varieties. This means that there has been a need to get the grapes in as quickly as possible.

Normally, certain varieties ripen earlier than others and so it is easy to organise picking and plan it across the weeks of harvest. When they ripen simultaneously there is pressure to get them in before they become too mature and over ripe.

Fortunately, all has gone well so far. The white grapes were picked first, as usual, and came in with good acidity and around 13,5% alcohol. There was talk of bubbles being made, not an annual event.

Segrairals and Sainte Suzanne followed with Grenache and Syrah to the fore, the two grapes which provide the foundation of many of the Coutelou cuvées, Ste. Suzanne for example being the traditional home of Le Vin des Amis. A successful harvest with those two grapes means a successful harvest overall and relief for Jeff.

La Garrigue was picked on Wednesday 26th and Flora took some great photos of the picking of its Syrah, home of La Vigne Haute in good years. Regular readers know that this is my favourite wine of all so fingers crossed that this Syrah is up to standard, if not perfect it is used for other cuvées. Rome was harvested on Thursday and that gave me a pang of regret and disappointment, I miss my favourite vineyard.

With a new team working in the vines and in the cellar Jeff along with the regular team of Moroccan pickers things have moved along quickly. The new machine to help to sort the grapes has worked very well and saved time as well as being very accurate and efficient. Flora’s photos suggest at least some whole berry fermentations, the carbonic maceration technique which often makes fresh, fruity wine.

So far so good. Fingers crossed for what remains, some of the later varieties such as Carignan and Mourvedre. Something good may come out of this wretched year after all.

Top photo and videos from Jeff and the team.

All other photos by Flora Rey


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10 things I think I think

As a fan of the writing of NFL journalist Peter King I have ‘borrowed’ the idea for this post from his FMIA articles.

1. An update from Jeff. Mildew hit badly in late May early June and Jeff sent countless hours treating the vines with his organic prophylactics and treatments. As was the case in 2018 it was the Carignan of Rec D’Oulette (Flambadou) and the Grenache of Ste. Suzanne which was most affected. This suggests the spores are well embedded in the soils there perhaps and Jeff must take extra care when working in these vineyards. Fortunately he reported to me last week that he seems to have mastered the outbreak and rescued the crop. Good news.

Photo from Jeff showing mildew on a leaf

2. I have read a few books about wine recently, here’s a couple of recommendations. ‘Vignette’ by Jane Lopes is one of the more interesting books. It made me feel uncomfortable at times as it is very honest and open about her own personal life but this was combined with recommendations, pictures and information about wines which were presented in a fascinating way. Max Allen’s ‘The Future Makers’ is not new at all but I found it a very useful guide to how Australian wines are shifting in light of climate change and the organic/biodynamic culture.

3. I am conflicted about the role of sommeliers, their influence seems to be ever growing in the wine world. I know some and they are passionate about their work. I recall one or two who improved restaurant experiences for me, a New Zealander at The Ledbury for example, but I have met some poor ones too. Sommeliers such as Pascaline Lepeltier are extremely knowledgeable and their writings teach me a lot. However, I have read some amazingly entitled social media posts from certain sommeliers (and writers to be fair) recently, for example demanding samples be sent in half bottles at extra cost to the producer.

4. Lots of wines tasted during this period, I have assembled a montage of photos of some but it is certainly not exhaustive. Producers such as Testalonga, Valle Unite in Barbaresco and Jeff have been regular sources of good wines. The Muster wines are always a pleasure.

I am very happy to report that English wine goes from strength to strength with Westwell and Davenport both reliable and exciting.

5. As we emerge from lockdown I hope that customers continue to support the local independent merchants who have gone out of their way to provide a service during these extraordinary months. Caves De Pyrene, Buonvino, Vintage Roots are three whose services I shall continue to use. Please give them your custom. One more I need to mention is Leon Stolarski. Leon is a friend (full disclosure) and it is no coincidence that he has Jeff’s wines in the UK. Leon has a very good range of wines and his service is second to none. New in are the Coutelou 2018s Couleurs Réunies, La Vigne Haute and L’Oublié. All recommended of course.

The two on the right came from Leon

6. Sherry continues to provide me with great drinking pleasure and value for money. The Gonzalez Byass Una Palma was a lovely rich fino with more depth than many other of that type. I tasted the full range of Palmas wines (special barrels) a few years ago and loved them but they are expensive and hard to get hold of. I especially enjoyed the Cesar Florido Fino En Rama. En rama sherries are very lightly filtered, if at all, and in my view, this leaves more flavour in the wine. It was delicious.

7. Hybrid grapes are being discussed more and more. The effects of climate change are bringing more examples of disease and heat stress and winemakers are exploring grape varieties which are bred and engineered to resist these problems. Many have proved to be pretty undrinkable with odd flavours, I have tasted a few myself. However, there are signs of promise with other hybrids. One to watch. These articles might offer you more insight than I can provide at present, by Simon Woolf and Shelby Vittek.

8. Good to see Jancis Robinson leading the way in addressing the Black Lives Matter issue. At Jeff’s we are used to seeing people from all backgrounds, races and religions but that appears to be unusual. Robinson wrote an article for The Financial Times highlighting the under representation of black people working in the wine industry. I was shocked and saddened to read some of the comments from readers. There is a long way to go.

9. A website to recommend. Little Wine is the work of Christina Rasmussen and Daniela Pillhofer. Packed with articles, interviews and sales of natural wines in particular it is beautifully presented and well worth the £24 annual fee. I am finding a lot of fascinating information there including one article to which I shall return soon. There is free content too, so have a look.

10. On a personal note. Thank you for the various emails asking whether I am ok due to the length of time since the last article. It is appreciated that you show concern. And what joy with the 19th league win for Liverpool. I was fortunate to witness a number of league wins in person but after 30 years of poor teams and near misses it finally happened. I ought to have opened a German Riesling to honour Jurgen Klopp who has transformed the club but what else would I choose? La Vigne Haute 2018.


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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.