amarchinthevines

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


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March on March: Part Two

As a Francophile and French part time resident I make no apologies that the majority of my wine drinking is based on French wines. My time with Jeff Coutelou clearly bolsters this with his wines making up a good portion of the bottles I have in all shapes and sizes. However, I do try to expand my experience and visits to Sicily and Spain, as well as tastings with winemakers from around the world, encourage me to discover wines and grapes from outside the Hexagon.

March, as you can see from the photo saw a focus on Portugal and Italy. The latter was purely coincidental, I hadn’t realised how many Italian wines I had opened. Portugal was much more by design. A few years ago I was delighted to be able to support the excellent wine writer Simon Woolf with his Kickstarter project for his Amber Wine book. He is a really good writer and enthusiast, the book a delight. His new project with Ryan Opaz is about Portugal and I mentioned to Simon that on my visit there a couple of years ago it was difficult to find many organic or natural wines. Simon gave me a list of producers and I was able to order some wines from Bar Douro in London. Their new Kickstarter project has been a huge success so I am eager to read the book.

Italian reds first. I’m a big fan of Sicilian wines since my visit in 2013 and Arianna Occhipinti‘s wines are amongst the best. Her SP68 red and white are widely available and well worth buying. Nero D’Avola and Frappato grapes in the red version, fragrant aromas and lovely soft cherry and red fruits, Frappato so often adds roundness and sweet fruit. The Nebbiolo was disappointing. I remember having a Langhe Nebbiolo in Valvona and Crolla in Edinburgh many years ago and really liking. I have tried a few since and never found one so good. It is Burgundy pinot like in so many ways and finding the good ones seems to be just as difficult. The Valpolicella Ripasso was better without exciting me. The grapes are dried before being made into wine and this was sour cherry and classic Italian red flavours. Good but I wasn’t convinced. Much better was the Bera Le Varrane 2017. Barbera grapes from 50 year old vines in Piedmont made naturally and aged for two years on lees produce a rich, fruit packed wine with soft tannins. Lovely wine, I will certainly seek out more.

On to Portugal. Filipa Pato was one of the names Simon provided and this Dinamico 2018 red was good. 100% Baga grapes from the Bairrada region the name may reflect the biodynamic winemaking. It was certainly full of life, fresh and fruity with a nice solid structure I should maybe have kept it a while longer but it was enjoyable now. The Folias de Baco Uivo Renegado 2019 was even better. Natural wine made from a field blend of up to 25 different grape varieties. I love field blends especially when they have a mix of red and white grapes. Often looking like a dark rosé they often produce soft, very drinkable wines with good acidity. Well, this one certainly does. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and I love the grapes being names I know not at all such as Viosinho and Gouveio. To me this is a true USP for Portugal as the wine world regularly seeks out the different . Lovely.

Best of the reds though was from Battliu de Sort in the Costers del Segre region. I had heard good things about the producer based in the same region as one of my favourite producers, Casa Pardet. Pinot Noir from vines high in the mountains. The result is fresh, light but fruity Pinot, as good as many much more expensive Burgundy wines. Confirmation that Alsace, Germany and now Spain are going to be the bulk of my Pinot purchases. This Nero de Sort 2018 was delicious.

Herdade do Rocim ‘Fresh from Amphora’ 2019 is made from organic grapes fermented in clay pots for two months. Fresh and very drinkable, I didn’t find the texture I was expecting from skin contact wine. it was certainly clean and zingy. One of the things I love about Portuguese and Italian wines is the treasure trove of grape varieties, often unique. This was from Perrum, Rabo de Ovelha and Mantuedo. No, me neither. The next Portuguese white was Aphros Loureiro 2018. Loureiro is the grape produced here through biodynamics with low sulphites. Pleasant enough, clean and fresh without exciting me too much. Back to Filipa Pato this time FP Branco 2018. Bical and Arinto grapes, this is also produced biodynamically but was more yellow coloured and fuller, rounder than the Aphros with more mouthfeel. Very nice.

Sicily again and a winery I like a lot in Ciello, Baglio Catarrato Antico 2019. An orange wine, subtly done. I saw this described as an introduction to orange wines and I understand that description, the skin contact evident but not powerful. Very fruity, very enjoyable.

I tasted two Chenin Blancs together, a classic Anjou version, Chateau Pierre Bise 2018 and South African Testalonga’s Stay Brave 2019. The Anjou was conventional, clean and had the classic Loire Chenin flavours of dry, appley fruit with a hint of sweetness on the finish. Pleasant enough. Testalonga’s was drier, with more spice and fruit. I have praised Testalonga many times, another success here and the one I would buy again for sure.

On the subject of classic French dry white wines with a hint of sweetness, another of my favourite regions in Jurancon. I loved this, Lapeyre Evidencia 2018, a blend of Gros and Petit Manseng and Courbu all aged in large oak vats. Fresh, full of peach and apple and a slight sweet tang but clean and refreshing. A definite one to buy again, very well made and delicious. Indeed, this would have been my wine of the month but for….

OK, I am biased. But Jeff Coutelou’s Macabeu 2017 is amazing. The Macabeu ( also known as Macabeo and Viura in Spain where it is widely grown) is from Peilhan vineyard. Jeff was so pleased with the 2017 grapes that he put them into a second hand barrel and left it there for two years. We tasted it in 2019 (the photo top left shows Jeff taking a sample from the barrel) and it was really singing, round and full, the barrel adding creaminess and the merest hint of wood which filled out the wine. I am not a great fan of oak but when it is subtle there is no doubt that it does boost a wine, concentrating its flavours. Spice, fruit. freshness. The flavours lingering long. One of the best wines I have tasted from Jeff’s and I have been very fortunate to drink many great wines there.


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March on March: (mainly) France

March seemed like a long month in lockdown though, after three months, the end of the month saw a family reunion in my sister’s garden. Together with beautiful Spring flowers in the garden that brought some optimism at last. Sadly, the news from France was not so good as they enter another lockdown to fight a third wave of COVID. Jeff keeps me up to date with what’s going on and his niece Flora has sent some lovely photos, I shall share both in the next week or so.

Let’s start with Jeff Coutelou and, after that opening paragraph, Flower Power 2015. This was, of I recall correctly, the first Flower Power made from the field plantation of Font D’Oulette with added grapes such as Castets from Peilhan. The wine received high praise in La Revue Des Vins De France magazine back in 2016. It was lovely, the 5-6 years of age bringing it to its apogee with fruit and complexity and lingering flavours of plums and blackberries. The tannins and acidity have softened nicely, a lovely bottle. Flambadou 2015 was also at its peak, classic Carignan notes with red fruit and then darker notes coming through. This is consistently one of the best wines from Puimisson and the 2015 is a fine example.

Jeff and Louis

L’Ostal “Plein Chant” has a connection with Coutelou too even though it is a Cahors through and through. There is no vintage clearly marked but it is a 2016. I have recounted how I first met Louis Pérot at La Remise in Arles where he was one of the new producers. I fell in love with his wines, praised them to the high heavens enough that he was able to get some listed in good restaurants. Jeff was also taken by the wines and the strict natural approach of Louis and Charlotte. They became friends and Louis has visited us many times. This pure Malbec (known as Cot locally) has deep berry flavours, the power of Cahors and benefits from decanting in softening out the tannins a little. I loved the wines back in 2016 and I still do.

Brigitte Chevalier of Domaine Cébène in Faugeres has become a renowned producer, praised widely in wine circles for the purity of her fruit and excellent work in the vineyard. I bought her wines from Leon Stolarski long before moving to the region and whilst there met Brigitte on a number of occasions including visits to her vineyards and cellar many times. These are precise, structured wines expressing the schist soils beautifully. Les Bancels 2016 is Syrah and Grenache and a classic example of why the Languedoc. and Faugeres in particular, is my favourite wine region. Fruit, depth, tannins, pleasure.

If you ever needed an example of how wine has changed during my lifetime then the Rieffel Pinot Noir Nature 2018 is it. I first started visiting Alsace 35 years ago or so and Pinot Noirs were largely thin, acidic and fairly undrinkable. Maybe I just didn’t find good examples but at several tastings I left shaking my head even from some famous producers. Nowadays I love Alsace Pinots in general, they have fresh fruit, usually red fruit flavours, they are softer and just enjoyable. I’d rather drink an Alsace Pinot such as this very good example of the grape, region and producer than most Burgundies of similar price. Very enjoyable. Climate change? Better vineyard and cellar management? Winemaking improvements? Probably a combination of all, but heartily recommended.

Morgon 2018 from celebrated producer Jean Foillard was the wine we shared when my family met up again on the 30th. Morgon in Beaujolais is traditionally the most serious of the ten crus producing more structured wines than the typical regional light, juicy wines. This is usually attributed to the schist soils marked by red iron oxide and manganese, most famously on the Mont du Py. This wine is certainly in that tradition, probably opened a year or two early. The Gamay fruit is masked at first by the power though comes through, more ageing should release it sooner in the glass. Foillard is one of the natural pioneers of the region and a source of benchmark wines.

Finally, to balance out this post with a second I have added Franz Weninger’s Ponzichter 2018. Weninger is Austrian but his father bought some vines in Hungary when communism ended and this bottle is made from those vines. A blend of Pinot Noir and Zweigelt this was a lighter style with very enjoyable red fruit showing through and soft tannins to balance it and add a little depth. Very enjoyable and well made.

Garden Spring flowers, optimism for better times ahead.


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February red wines

Let’s start with the Jeff Coutelou wines first. 5SO Simple 2018 has really found its feet now, which is probably too late for the vast majority of bottles opened as it is usually a wine opened for early drinking as a ‘glou glou’. Cinsault is light, the grapes tend to be large and juicy and not have too much acidity. Jeff likes acidity in his wines to help maintain their condition and health, without SO2 as a preservative the acidity can be a useful substitute as well as adding freshness to the wine. The acidity of this 18 bottle was calmed and the fruit was showing more roundness than the last bottle I had. It’s in a very good place, very enjoyable.

I opened two bottles of La Vigne Haute, my favourite wine. A 2013 was in excellent shape, the Syrah black fruit and spice still prominent, the tannins soft and the age was adding another layer of complexity and depth. No rush to drink up but definitely ready. However, the 2017 was on another level. I opened it on my birthday and it was a highlight of the month. It is ready to drink now and very enjoyable too but I’ll hang on to my other bottles a little while. The acidity is fresh but well balanced, the fruit is open and mouth filing. It has a youthful energy but it’s also round and enjoyable from the outset. On this evidence La Vigne Haute 2017 has the potential to be one of the best vintages of this great wine.

Amicis is the wine I made at Jeff’s in 2015 with grapes from Rome vineyard, the three types of Grenache. Aged in three different containers (old barrel, newer barrel and glass). You can read more here. I opened a bottle of the older barrel aged wine meaning the staves were tighter and so there was less exchange with air, the wine is more youthful than the wine in the newer barrel. Cherry red, fresh acidity and the residual sugar giving a sweetness. It is more an aperitif wine than a food wine and it will age for years.

Let’s stay in the Languedoc and near neighbours and friends the Andrieu family of Clos Fantine. Their vineyards are high in the Faugères hills and the vines are gobelet to give them a freedom and energy, described by Corine here. The Fantine reds need time, they have concentrated fruit and tannin which take time to marry and mature. Give them that time and the rewards are plentiful. This bottle of the traditional Faugères is non vintage. They had some Carignan from 2016 and 2017 which took their time to finish fermentation, they were a bit stuck. When they finally completed Corine added some Grenache and Syrah from 2017 and also some Cinsault and Mourvedre from 2019. The blending is therefore similar to what Jeff does with his L’Oublié bottle. The result was excellent, a full bodied, complex wine with a freshness from the 2019 wines. Power and elegance. I must order some more.

Still in the Faugères area and a young winemaking couple whom I first visited in the snow! Simon and Sara Bertschinger have a few hectares around Fos with unusual grape varieties for the region, the Armélot 2015 I opened contains Merlot and Petit Verdot, they also have some Sangiovese. Like the Fantine wine this is unmistakably Faugères, depth, power, freshness to the fore. The 5-6 years of age have brought a lovely maturity, another bottle at its peak. The Merlot adds a roundness to the wine, it is lovely.

Heading down towards Spain, Banyuls. I tasted La Cave des Nomades wines for the first time at La Remise in Arles in 2016 when Jose (Zé) Carvalho was the talk of the town. The wines were exciting and fresh with incredible depth. I haven’t had the chance to drink many since then and was pleased to find Camino Rojo 19 available. Grenache and Syrah (taken direct from pressing) produces a light coloured wine but it is packed with flavour, red fruits and cleansing acidity. More please.

Two examples of Gamay next, both French. I recall visiting and holidaying in the Forez region in central France many years ago and the local wines were a rarity and simply a quaffing wine in local restaurants. Some producers have worked hard to add quality to the region and the leading domaine is Verdier-Logel. They work organically and this Poycelan Cuvée des Gourmets 2019 is made from grapes grown on granite soils, they also have Gamay on volcanic soils. I enjoyed it, there is plenty of fruit though it was fuller and a little heavier than most Gamays. Interesting and good to try wines from less well known areas. More classic Gamay in the form of Beaujolais, indeed a Beaujolais Nouveau 2020. Guy Breton is one of the great producers of the region, I remember a P’tit Max I had in Paris a few years ago as one of the bottles which converted me to a love of natural wine. Cuvée Fanchon was lovely, round, soft red fruits – absolutely classic Beaujolais and Gamay – delicious.

My biggest surprise of the month though was a Malbec from Argentina, Familia Cecchin 2019 no added sulfites. Argentinian Malbec has become very popular in supermarkets with a range of big, powerful wines – I usually find them too big and heavy for my taste. This, though, was a really pleasant surprise. There is a lightness and freshness to the wine as well as plenty of big flavours. Very good winemaking, a real deftness. I decided to try wines from further afield this year and this bottle really supported that decision, a genuine treat.

Wines were purchased: direct from producer, Leon Solarski wines, Buon Vino wines, Petites Caves, Little Wine


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February white wines

February in the North East of England was certainly white. We had snow for most of the time, often quite deep. A time for hunkering down, comfort and red wines? Well not altogether.

Let’s start with the sherry, it doesn’t look white I know but it is a Fino en rama 2017 from the excellent Equipo Navazos. En rama means raw, the sherry is bottled straight from cask without filtering, causing a little cloudiness but more of the natural flavours to be captured in the bottle. This was lovely, salty fino characters, freshness and a slight texture from the non filtering which helped preserve the flavours in the mouth. More and more sherries are being produced like this, a welcome trend. However, few can match the excellence of this producer.

Still in Spain one of the month’s highlights was Casa Pardet’s Chardonnay 2017 which I opened on my birthday. This estate in the Costers del Segre region of North East Spain has been a favourite of mine since I met Pep Torres and his wife at La Remise in Arles back in 2015. Their Cabernet Sauvignon wines at that wine fair were amongst the best wines I have ever tasted. Sadly they are next to impossible to find, the Cabaret Sauvignon bottle is good but not the same. The Chardonnay was macerated, orange wine in colour and style. Lovely herbal, fruit flavours with a liquorice note too. I have bought their wines from a company in Spain, sadly after Brexit they aren’t shipping here for now.

Let’s stick with the Mediterranean and head to Italy whilst remaining on non filtered wines. Fattoria di Vaira’s Vincenzo Bianco 2019 is an orange or skin contact wine produced from biodynamically farmed Falanghina and Fiano grapes in the Abruzzo region. I really enjoyed this, it’s not the most complex wine in the world but had lots of fruit, good texture and the dry aftertaste of many orange wines. It is a very well made wine, a great introduction to skin contact wines if you don’t know them well. It hasn’t got the depth of the Casa Pardet but was very good value at around £13.

Costadila is a producer whose wines have become favourites in a very short time after being recommended by my good friend Vincent, a friend and former colleague of Jeff. Costadila make PetNats in the Prosecco region of the Veneto. No filtering (again) no additions, no SO2. Glera (the main Prosecco grape), Verdiso and Bianchetta grapes fermented in bottle and capturing a sheer joy for life with sparkle, fruit, freshness and lingering flavour. As with most PetNats there is a fair amount of sediment so be careful on that last glass as you try to eek out every drop. (The 280 refers to the altitude of the vineyard, you will have seen me mention other numbers before.) I really like these wines, again I was sourcing them from abroad, again Brexit is making it hard to restock.

The Pebble Dew New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc and Australian Semillon were wines bought as everyday drinking from Les Caves De Pyrène, both offer good value.

Davenport has been one of my favourite English wineries for some years, I was converted by their excellent PetNat but have enjoyed everything they make. Hux was new to me. In 2018 the Huxelrebe grapes were top quality and retained a little unfermented sugar making for a wine with a slight hint of honeyed sweetness on top of the stone fruit flavours. Fresh and clean but just off dry like a well made Mosel wine. Lovely.

German wines were what first made me realise that wine was interesting. I still love them, a well made Riesling from the Mosel would be my choice of desert island white wine. Clemens Busch is a biodynamic producer about which I have been reading god things for some time and I spotted a half case of a range of their wines online and bought it. The first I opened was this 2018 Trocken, a Riesling fermented dry, ironic after the Davenport wine. It is a treat. Flinty, clean with a grapefruit like note. I have another bottle and will store it away for a while as I have no doubt it will develop. However, this one was very enjoyable now.

Finally two more Riesling wines from across the border in Alsace including a 24 year old white wine. Christian Binner is a source of very good natural Alsace wines from one of my favourite villages there, Ammerschwihr. His Riesling Salon des Bains 17 had appley, zesty fruit, long lasting flavours. It’s not the most profound Riesling but good quality and one I’d happily buy again.

I visited Patrick Meyer in Nothalten 4 years ago and spent a very enjoyable couple of hours with him. An early pioneer of natural winemaking in the region I loved talking with him and tasting his wines. What was remarkable about the visit was the number of old wines which we tasted from bottles often opened for a few days already and which tasted fresh and full. No need for SO2 when you make clean wines. Patrick offered me some older bottles and this Julien Meyer 1997 Riesling Grand Cru Muenchberg was one of them. It was aged for four years in barrel and the slight oxidation of the barrel no doubt plays a part in keeping the wine fresh and youthful. There was no sign of fatigue, just pure Riesling flavours with a roundness of oak. Saline, appley, joyful. A memorable wine for a forgettable lockdown month.

With Patrick in 2017, fortunately I have lost a fair amount of weight since then!


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January, forget dry

Dry January, a month of no alcohol after the excesses of the festive season. Worthy and honourable I agree, I do think those of us who are passionate about wine do need to promote concern about the risk of alcohol as well as the pleasures of wine itself. Personally, I try to make Mondays and Tuesdays alcohol free every week to give my liver and body a break. However, the idea of a whole month without wine was a non starter, especially given the ongoing gloom of Covid and the wretched weather here in the North East of England. My only concession to the idea was not to purchase more wine in the month, rectified quickly at the start of February!

So, what reds from the cellar were consumed?

I wrote about the wine pairing of La Vigne Haute and On Peut Pas Vraiment Dire Que here, a comparison I enjoyed immensely. Of the other Coutelou wines 5SO 18 was on very good form (as are all the 18s at present including the Couleurs Réunies) but the highlight was the Grenache, Mise De Printemps 19 which bodes well for that vintage. It was like a top Beaujolais, fresh, fruity and just lovely wine. The Ravaut Ladoix 14 was very good, a reminder of why Pinot Noir Burgundy is hard to beat from a time when it was more affordable. Not a great Burgundy but good. Jouret, Cohen, Padié and Duchene were all very good examples of natural wine – well made and providing much pleasure. The Fonseca Terra Prima is my go to Port, organic and carrying a freshness rather than the cloying nature of many Ports at this price range.

On to white wines, including orange or skin contact wine too.

I chose Costadila‘s 450slm as one of my favourite wines and the producer has fast become one of my favourites. The Veneto grapes of Glera and Moscato Giallo in this Móz PetNat brought a welcome sense of sunshine and joy, Prosecco but not as most would know it. From Prosecco to Champagne and the Drappier Premier Cru was very good for the price (under £25) with nice bready hints and good depth. I wrote about the unusual grape of Christian Venier’s Les Perrieres here and it was another natural wine delivering great pleasure along with the Bock and Valle Unite. I should have included a very good Manzanilla sherry from La Gitana, Pastrana single vineyard. Why is sherry still underrated?

Julien Meyer’s Gewurztraminer Les Pucelles 15 is unusual, vinified very dry to express place rather than grape, just a hint of hidden spice rather than the often overt flavours of the grape. Casa Pardet’s Blanquet 17, an orange wine from Chardonnay and Macabeo, was delicious, I’m a big fan of this producer as regular readers know. They remain mysteriously under reported. The Champalou Vouvray 03 was a lovely sweet wine bought from a visit there, subtle sweetness, fresh and light which is how I enjoy such wines, very good. Special mention for Jean Louis Tribouley’s Gg 18, just lovely. Jean Louis is a friendly, generous man and this Grenache Gris from the Roussillon has long been a personal favourite, this is a very good example, I need to buy some more now that my version of dry January is over!

New Year and my wife’s birthday meant that some very good bottles were opened in January, I would certainly recommend all of these and hope that my comments show special bottles. February is shorter, just as gloomy but includes my birthday. Let’s see what bottles it brings.


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Au courant chez Coutelou

Topical and punning Carte des voeux

Long time readers may recall that every January Jeff Coutelou sends out a New Year card and update to his clients and customers. The card includes a summary of the previous vintage in vineyard and cellar and I pass on its contents as well as other bits of news from Puimisson.

The story of the 2020 vintage begins with the weather from the time of the previous harvest. From October through the winter the weather was mild with a lot of showery rain, there was hardly any frost and unfortunately not enough to ensure that the vines went into a period of ‘hibernation’, shutting down to aid their recovery from the hard work of 2019 and to ensure their health for 2020. Unfortunately, this has become the norm in recent years, climate change is leaving its mark. Budding (débourrement) occurred around the end of March, ten days earlier than the average.

The period from budding to véraison (when red grapes develop their colour) was a time of worry for Jeff, not just because of the consequences of COVID-19 but in the vines. The weather remained wet, indeed there was stormy, heavy rain from mid April to mid May – damp and warmth together bring mildew in their wake. Moreover, the very wet ground meant that he could not take his tractor or other machinery into the vines because they were so muddy. Instead he had to carry a sprayer on his back and walk through the vines in order to try and protect them from the mildew. I recall messages from Jeff, which I mentioned on here, showing his concern that 2020 would be a repeat of the widespread outbreak of 2018.

Fortunately the weather solved the problem it had caused in the first place. June was cool, too cool for mildew to flourish and then, suddenly, heat and wind dried out the vines and mildew. Flowering began on May 25th, still very early. A hot, dry summer meant that the vines, despite the long period of rain from October to May, began to suffer a little from drought. Véraison began on July 20th, once again, early. Harvest usually begins a hundred days from flowering and these early dates meant that vendanges would be nudging the bank holiday of August 15th.

In fact harvest began on August 19th, the earliest of any vintage since Jeff took charge of the domaine in 2002. They would last for just over two weeks. The hot, dry summer meant the grapes were in excellent health, conversely they were small. Those parcels which had been touched by mildew required severe sorting at the cellar door. In the last few days of the vendanges another problem flew in, a moth called Pyrale du Daphné (Cryptoblabes gnidiella) or honeydew moth as I described here. Overall, with small grapes and the damage from mildew and moth the volume of wine from the 2020 harvest was 20% below average yield.

photo from Alchetron

By November with two months in tank the reds had completed their fermentations and were ready to be blended (assemblage). The whites proved a little more troublesome. Just like 2019 they moved through fermentation but then seemed to falter and were completed like an exhausted runner falling over the finishing line. Fortunately this was a hiccup rather than a cough and the wines look to be very good. As well as the usual range of container to hold the wines Jeff bought in some barrels from Cognac which had recently been emptied, they will be used for the oxidative wines.

So, what are the wines likely to produce? In reds there will be Le Vin Des Amis for the first time in a few years, a welcome return, made up of Cinsault, Syrah and Grenache. Classe will be there from Syrah, Grenache, Carignan and Mourvedre, and there will be a separate single variety Mourvedre. A simple Vin Rouge of Syrah and Carignan sounds interesting and others will no doubt appear, Jeff is contemplating over a new version of Oublié, a wine made from the old, traditional varieties such as Morastel, Castets and Terret Noir and Blanc. The 2019 amphora wine is also now ready, a Syrah.

The name of the domaine is now Vins et Spiritueux Coutelou and so I should mention a new spirit, based on gentian from the Aubrac in the Haut Languedoc, some of it aged in barrel blended with the rest which was distilled. Finally, there will be Fine from 2014 in two versions, a 40% and a 64% aged in barrel.

Meanwhile in the vineyards. Jeff has planted more traditional grape varieties replacing grapes such as Merlot and Cabernet which have been grubbed up. Aramon Blanc and Noir, Servant and a grape called ‘Grappy’ which is taken from one vine in an old vineyard an unknown red grape. Jeff has purchased some abandoned parcels next to his Peilhan vineyard creating a 6 hectare parcel in the one place, which should make work much easier. He is planting hedges and olive trees around these new areas to secure their health and separation from conventional vineyards around. A 6 hectare oasis. Vines will gradually be planted over the course of a number of years to ensure the soils are organically sound and certifiable.

Meanwhile my friend Steeve spent some time in Puimisson in January to help out with pruning (taille). He felt honoured to be trusted with Rome vineyard, my favourite and sent me photos of his work which he has kindly allowed me to share. The aim is always to cut back the canes of the previous vintage and encourage others to develop this year, ensuring they are growing in a way to suit the overall vineyard, eg direction. In Rome, as the vines are gobelet, there is no real training of the vines as there are no wires. I hope with all my heart that I will soon be able to go and inspect Steeve’s work!


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Wine pairing and a mystery

Nothing to do with food I promise. That’s an avenue I never really venture into, drink whatever you like provided it doesn’t clash tends to be my motto. Reflecting on January wines consumed it occurred to me that the most interesting aspect came in pairs of bottles. After all, this of all years is not the time for Dry January.

Let’s start with Jeff Coutelou. I opened two bottles which I thought would form an interesting comparison. Both are Syrah, made in exactly the same way from the same vineyard. The principle difference is the vintage but that is also the point of the comparison. The two bottles are from vines on a north facing slope in La Garrigue. The soil is the ubiquitous argilo-calcaire, limestone with clay but this part of the vineyard has more complex geology with various types of soil as this, like Rome vineyard, was at the end of a moraine thousands of years ago and all kinds of rocks were left behind. The vines face north to protect from the direct Languedoc sunshine in afternoons, Syrah likes heat but not too much.

Syrah of La Garrigue

La Vigne Haute is the top wine made from the site, my own favourite wine too. This bottle was a 2013, the wine ages superbly with the vibrant fruit of youth settling and maturing into something gentler and much more complex. Natural wines don’t age without sulphur protection we used to be told, LVH is the perfect riposte to such nonsense. In some years Jeff feels that the fruit hasn’t been absolutely top quality. Perhaps the stream which runs well under the surface of the slope has been swollen by rain and the grapes become dilute. Or maybe a hot vintage stresses the vines, north facing or not. In those vintages Jeff makes a Syrah which is bottled under a different name so that LVH remains a guarantee of top quality. Nonetheless those bottles offer a really good wine, with fresh, fruity Syrah. In recent years Jeff has named this wine On Peut Pas Vraiment Dire Que. The bottle I opened was a 2017 and was pure pleasure.

Onto another pairing, Jeff and one of his best friends, Christian Venier. Christian’s vineyards and home are in the Loire in the Cheverny region. He and Jeff are firm friends with almost identical outlooks on how to tend their vines and make their wines. When Christian holds his annual weekend Portes Ouvertes event Jeff is always there, I have attended too and even hosted the Coutelou stand.

Les Couleurs Réunies 18 is a wine Jeff made for the first time in that vintage. The grapes come from over twenty varieties of vine, planted in Font D’Oulette which we commonly call Flower Power. The vines are still young and yields are tiny. Jeff fleshed them out with grapes such as Castets from Peilhan vineyard, blended in tank to ferment and mature and the result is LCR. The 2018 is on fine form just now, lovely fruit and complexity. To pair it up I chose one of Christian’s white wines, Les Perrières 2018.

With Christian and Jeff in Christian’s vines 2016

How is that a pairing? Well, just as LCR contains grapes of the most obscure varieties (see this article) Les Perrières is made of one I hardly recognise, Menu Pineau. This variety is also known as Arbois and Orbois, by 2011 only a hundred hectares grown around the world, mostly in the Jura and the area around Vouvray in the Loire. My copy of Galet’s Dictionnaire tells me that it is used mostly for adding alcohol and softening the acidity of other grapes by means of blending. Christian’s wine is made purely of Menu Pineau. There is a density to the wine, exotic fruit aromas and the wine tastes dry but it’s aromatic and almost musky. Two vignerons embracing old grapes, old ways of working and producing wines of character and authenticity.

Menu Pineau, Orbois, Arbois in Galet

Finally, to a less successful pairing. Last year one of my favourite wines was the Simplement Gamay from La Paonnerie in the Loire. I bought more and disaster struck. The corkscrew met little resistance, the cork was very soft and I knew what the wine would be like. Sure enough a slight mustiness in the glass and fungal, coarse woody flavours. Bad enough but then I turned to a wine which is a regular, a simple red from the excellent Valle Unite in Piedmont, Ottavio Rube 2018 made from Dolcetto and Croatina grapes. The first glass was exactly what I hoped for, fresh acidity, bright red fruit. A second brought disappointment. Mousey flavours were present at the end of the mouthful. By the third glass the mousiness couldn’t be ignored, I simply can’t drink mousey wine.

I had a second bottle so I opened that the following evening to see whether that too would be spoiled. Same wine, same vintage. No mousiness. I can’t explain it, please feel free to offer suggestions. Mouse is a natural wine issue, it disappears with added SO2. I have experienced it too many times and in various circumstances. It is not as simple as bacterial infection, I have known wines which are mousey when tasted after the bottles have travelled but not mousey in the cellar of the producer. This was a fascinating, frustrating pairing but leaves more questions than answers.

A healthy glass of the wine

If you can, try to find pairs of bottles, they do add another layer of interest to the whole wine experience.


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2020 hindsight

from Private Eye magazine

So, 2020. Next year has to be better, surely? There are so many negatives from the incompetence and corruption of the UK government on the big stage to the personal level with not one minute in France and spending time with my great friend Jeff, especially at vendanges. However, I am here to reflect on some of the better things.

Firstly, thank you to everyone who has connected to my blog over the course of the year, numbers have actually increased despite me posting much less. It could be that the two are connected but probably people have had more time to read.

This was the year that English (and Welsh) wines really made a big impression on me. I have had decent sparkling wines in the past, even good ones such as the single vineyard Nyetimbers. However, Davenport, Westwell, Ancre Hill and Laneberg have all proved to me during the last twelve months that great wines are being made in this country. I have liked Davenport for a number of years and they improve every year. Westwell, also in Kent, are pushing boundaries with field blend and skin contact wines amongst their portfolio and both of those are amongst my favourite wines of the year. I tasted Ancre Hill orange wine last year and was bowled over by it, it was a delight to find that their other wines are also top notch. The estate is up for sale and I hope that the buyer allows it to prosper on the path already taken. Laneberg is special because it is based in my native North East with grapes bought from further south. Elise is making very good wines and her Bacchus is a classic example of what makes English still wine so good. Please support these wineries and others, their progress is rapid and a delight.

With trips to wineries and merchants more difficult this year I have been immensely grateful to delivery companies and online merchants. I rarely buy from supermarkets or big wine companies as I prefer the wines of independent merchants and, as a student of Jeff Coutelou, of those who sell natural wines especially. French and Spanish merchants have been a big source for me, sadly the approach of Brexit makes this more difficult, and indeed, impossible for some time. However, there are many excellent independent merchants in this country who put their hearts into the wines they sell and, again, I urge UK readers to support them. I have listed some examples at the bottom of the page*. Meanwhile my thanks to them and the drivers.

I have written a lot over the years about Jeff championing traditional and rare grape varieties. As I write I am enjoying a glass of Couleurs Réunies, a blend of more than a dozen grapes, some of which even surprised the French treasury of grapes. Surprisingly, therefore it has been a year of traditional grapes for me. Riesling has featured heavily, in its many forms I adore the grape. Aligoté is another to have made a huge impression. A grape which was scorned for most of my life even in Burgundy, regarded only as an ingredient for a kir. I have enjoyed some fine examples this year, citrussy and fresh for some and round and creamy from others.

The other mainstay of the year has been sherry. I adore sherry, again often maligned. From fresh, cleansing Fino to nutty Amontillado to luscious Oloroso and Pedro Ximenex, sherry is a world of flavours. The sherry makers are rediscovering traditional methods and using techniques to get away from the damaging reputation of sweet cream sherry favoured by elderly ladies and vicars. Sherries which don’t involve fortification like Cota 45 (one of my wines of the year last year), others which have reduced filtration and fining (en rama) – the range of great wines is amazing and, no apologies, deserves your support.

Other quick mentions. Little Wine have raised the bar with their online coverage of the natural scene and have a great sales section too. Jamie Goode and David Crossley continue to provide must read material online. I thoroughly and belatedly enjoyed Max Allen’s book on the up and coming producers of Australia. I was unsettled, whilst still enthralled, by Jane Lopes’ book, honestly like no other I have read.

So, what about actual wines? Well, that’s for next time.

*

Caves De Pyrene

Little Wine

Joseph Barnes

Grape Britannia

Buon Vino

Vintage Roots

Whisky Exchange


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Assemblage

Thierry measures proportions of the component wines

I am aware of publishing posts all too rarely this year. I don’t post unless I have something to say which I feel may be worthy of your time though you may argue that the quality assurance fails sometimes! The vast majority of posts are about my time working alongside Jeff Coutelou and relating what is happening at his Puimisson domaine. Indeed this is the first year I can recall when I will have spent not one minute in France. Restrictions around COVID-19 made it impossible to spend time with him in 2020 so I have posted updates from Jeff as well as more general posts.

So, what news from the Languedoc? After vendanges the wines complete fermentation and settle in the various tanks for 2-3 months before Jeff makes final decisions about what to do with each of them. The large cement tanks are filled with one grape variety and often from one vineyard, e.g. Syrah from Sainte Suzanne is separate from Syrah of Peilhan. Though Jeff makes some wines from one grape, known as monocépage (5SO Simple for example), he is best known for his wines made from different varieties, Classe, Le Vin Des Amis being the best known.

Bottling with the cement tanks in the background

In order to give these blended wines (assemblages) time to truly mix and marry their flavours and textures it is usually in November that Jeff will make the decisions about what to blend. Last week was the right time, fermentations completed, wines maturing. Thierry, his analyst, joined Jeff to try different blendings. They tasted the various wines, then mix together the typical assemblages for the wines, Classe for example will contain Grenache and Syrah. So they tried different percentages mixed and then judge whether the wine would benefit from another component, perhaps some Cinsault for freshness or some Mourvedre for body. Having played around with various blends they agreed upon the final blend.

An assemblage when I was there in 2016

Some wines will remain in tank, a new blend of those might be put together or they may be used for a small amount of single variety wine. I have been involved in these tastings and though it is fun it is also very important and serious as the decision is final, once the wines are put together there is no going back. Get it wrong and the customer may not like the wine. From there, of course, Jeff will have to physically move the wines, thousands of litres at a time from one tank to another and make the assemblage. There they will settle over winter and spring ready for bottling at some point next year. 2020 wines, a good harvest, promising well for a year which needs something to rescue it.

My Coutelou 2019 purchases

Meanwhile the wines of 2019 which were delayed by slow fermentations have reached the market. Bottling took place before vendanges in order to free up the tanks for the 2020 wines and during October thousands of bottles were habillées (labelled and capsuled). This is hard work, lots of carrying heavy boxes. It is also repetitive but an opportunity for the team to talk and joke together (as well as sampling the odd bottle, purely for more quality assurance of course). Jeff told me that over 32,000 bottles went out in one week and I acted quickly to snap some up from French suppliers as my usual source has been denied me this year. I noticed that the Coutelou wines remain amongst the cheapest on any website, below 10 euros in some cases. And today when I checked one site had already run out of 5SO Simple. I have opened a couple of the bottles so far but will give a fuller tasting when I have opened all of the different cuvées.

I will be posting more regularly this month with not just those tasting notes but also with my choices of recent wines and wines of the year. It has been a pleasant surprise to see reading figures actually go up in recent weeks and months, perhaps the less I write the better it is! But thank you.


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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.