amarchinthevines

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


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London

Last weekend was supposed to be RAW wine fair in London but it fell victim to the coronavirus pandemic, understandable but disappointing. Nevertheless, having booked trains and a hotel room I decided to go to London anyway and make the most of a bad situation. There’s always plenty to see and do and lots of wine bars and restaurants to enjoy. That makes me sound very provincial!

Highlights included visits to Noble Rot and The Remedy. Noble Rot has been a success story for the last ten years or so in the UK, its wine bar, restaurant and magazine becoming central to the wine scene. One of its founders Mark Andrews was the man who first imported Jeff Coutelou’s wines into this country and when Mark started Noble Rot Jeff was happy to supply wines. The food is excellent, the magazine witty and informative. I enjoyed a 2018 Tissot DD, the equal parts blend of Poulsard, Trousseau and Pinot Noir – the main three red grapes of the Jura. Lovely it was too, a good companion for food.

Continuing the Jura theme I enjoyed two further wines at Noble Rot. Macvin is a style of wine where marc (distilled lees) is added to grapes to stop their fermentation at around 18% alcohol. The resulting drink is similar to Pineau des Charentes, this had a nutty finish after dried fruit flavours and a little alcohol heat. Unusual but very enjoyable.

The other treat was a Chateau Chalon, a vin jaune made in the village of the same name. It must be made from Savagnin which is aged for a minimum of six years and three months in oak barrels which are not filled completely allowing a layer of yeast or flor to grow on the surface of the wine. The result is slight oxidation but the wine is protected by the flor, very much like sherry production but vin jaune is not fortified. One of my favourite wines of last year was a vin jaune and this Chateau Chalon was another delicious treat, and at 34 years old still in its youth. Nutty, fresh and special.

The food, service and wines made Noble Rot memorable, I will certainly return.

The Remedy was another success, good food, a great choice of wines at fair prices by the glass and bottle. It was good to meet Languedoc friend Sue Tigg there and we enjoyed a fresh, juicy Beaujolais Villages 2018 from Karim Vionnet. Afterwards a glass of Adelaide Hills Gewurztraminer from Ochota Barrels, dry and spicy. Best of all was a white from Tenerife. The Canary Island wines are beginning to make an impact on the wine scene and this proved why. Made from the Listan Blanco grape by Envinate it was dry, fresh and had lovely citrus flavours and texture. I’ll be hunting for more of these wines. Small, and friendly, buzzy and welcoming, The Remedy is another easy recommendation to make.

One chance discovery was Compagnie des Vins Surnaturels in Neal’s Yard. I called in to get a light lunch and found an interesting wine list including, to my surprise, more Coutelou wines. There was also a fun listing by the glass where you taste blind and if you guess it right then you get a bottle for free. Nice idea, I failed miserably to identify my least favourite grape Cabernet Franc. A group of sommeliers arrived on their day off and if they choose it, then that should be a recommendation too.

Add in interesting visits to The Photographers’ Gallery, Cartoon Museum and Heddon Street where Bowie posed for the Ziggy Stardust album cover and I enjoyed my trip, despite the obvious disappointment of RAW’s postponement. London was quiet, the immediate future uncertain but wine to the rescue.

From The Cartoon Museum


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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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Seeds

Seeds impregnated into the label

The subject of global warming should never be far from our minds. Extreme weather episodes and the massive fires in Australia over the last few months mean that it is a topic always in the news. Though we recycle, look to cut consumption of oil and plastics the world finds itself at a tipping point as people in lesser developed areas demand the same as we in the West have enjoyed for years. It is difficult not to be gloomy as politicians tinker rather than fix, whilst others deny the scientific evidence.

In the wine world there are a number of issues which need to be addressed regarding its contribution to the problems. Shipping wine across the world in heavy glass bottles, the use of pesticides and power are two factors to be faced. I also came across this chart which stopped me in my tracks.

In viticulture the concentration on a few grape varieties internationally is part of the same process. One reason why I have been so interested in the work of many to rediscover and plant older varieties, to diversify vineyards and offer more choice to the consumer. I have written many times about the work of Jeff Coutelou and how he has dozens of grape varieties, some very rare, how he plants fruit trees, shrubs and flowers to offer a more diverse plant life in the surrounding region of monoculture.

I also was given a port at Christmas, Graham’s Natura, which offered another opportunity. This new organic port, which was very good, had a collar with seeds integrated within, which the consumer can plant. An interesting, admittedly minor, idea. That Graham’s are producing an organic port is another step in the right direction, my visit to the Douro last year revealed a dearth of such production in one of the wine world’s great regions. Fonseca’s Terra Prima is the only other I know of.

As I said these are small steps at the start of a marathon race to combat the global crisis and bigger obstacles remain such as those I outlined above. We must find an alternative to heavy bottles, ways of reducing power and water usage and many other problematic issues. I don’t have the solutions but we need to be raising the debate.

On the subject of the Australian fires I heard from my friend James Madden in the Basket Range area of the Adelaide Hills that a couple of the vineyards he sources grapes from were damaged by fires but fortunately no more and has found other grapes. These will be harvested from Thursday to make the new vintage of his winery which has been renamed Scintilla Wines. Time for a UK importer to get busy!


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Grapes galore and Galet

Happy New Year to readers, we shall see what 2020 brings. Hopefully more excellent wines like those I described in my last posts on wines of the year.

The last year ended with one piece of sad news with the death of Pierre Galet on December 31st. Galet was the authority on grapes and ampelography. He pioneered means of identifying grape varieties, encouraged the collection and conservation of vines and wrote extensively on them. His Dictionnaire encyclopédique des cépages is authoritative and an endless source of information and fascination for me. Galet’s work will go on through his studies and students, a man who enhanced the world.

Appropriately I took delivery of a new Coutelou wine produced in 2018. It is made up of the many varieties which are planted in the Flower Power vineyard, Font D’Oulette. These include Clairette Musquée (originally the Hungarian Org Tokosi), Delizia Di Vaprio, Aramon Gris amongst the twenty plus varieties, red and white, planted in the parcel. The 2018 vintage was much reduced by the mildew outbreak across the region and this vineyard produced very small quantities, eight cases in total from a parcel of more than half a hectare in area. Consequently Jeff added two more varieties to the mix, Carignan and Castets from Peilhan vineyard to bulk out the quantities. Castets is another rare variety, only recently added to the list of permitted grapes in Bordeaux having almost completely vanished from wine production only ten years ago.

The resulting wine is bottled as Couleurs Réunies and has a most attractive label reflecting that name. The wine itself is youthful, a rich purple in colour with huge black fruit flavours and fresh acidity. It is lovely now but will keep for a few years. A triumph from a very difficult vintage, which is producing excellent wines despite the problems.

Grenache on the left

And, so, to my last recommended wine from 2019. I promised that I would include one Coutelou wine and though I enjoyed many, many great bottles I finally chose, ironically, a single variety wine. That wine is Mise De Printemps Grenache. Made for early drinking I enjoyed this wine through the year, its red label meaning it was the wine I drank to celebrate Liverpool’s Champions League triumph for example. Lovely red fruits, soft and with a lovely cherry finish. A true vin de plaisir.


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2019 – Favourite fortified and sparkling wines

I really like Champagne and whilst I had some good examples this year nothing stood out especially. Two sparkling wines made an impression however. I have enjoyed a number of PetNats but my favourite of the year was Les Vignes de Babass Brutal 17, made by Sébastien Dervieux in the natural wine hotspot of Anjou. Part of the pleasure of sparkling wine is sharing it and the circumstance in which it is consumed and this admittedly benefitted from being drunk at a vendanges lunch. I loved the fresh citrus flavours and a richness from the Chenin Blanc. Cleansing yet satisfying.

When I first moved to the Languedoc Crémant De Limoux wines always seemed to disappoint me. I discovered the very good sparkling Limoux wines of Monsieur S a few years ago and they changed my opinion of the are and this more favourable impression was confirmed by Gilles Azam’s Les Hautes Terres Crémant De Limoux Josephine. Lighter than the Babass with fresh citrus flavours this was a really successful wine.

Again the Crémant wine benefitted from being drunk between those of us who worked together with Jeff Coutelou in the vendanges.

A trip to the Douro in February was one of the year’s highlights and I tasted a number of lovely Port wines. A very good lunch at Graham’s lodge in Porto culminated in a splendid tasting of old tawny ports including this splendid 6l bottle of the 20 year old tawny. High in the hills of the Douro valley I was able to taste a magnificent Quinta do Beijo 1963 white port which was liquid gold, incredibly rich and fresh.

A real contestant for my wine of the year was from the magnificent Cota 45 range. These are sherries made without being fortified and I was unsure whether to include them in the white wine selection or in this post. They are made from Palomino grapes and aged in barrel and taste like a sherry but without fortification they are lighter and fresher and incredibly long. This is a traditional method of making sherry which has all but disappeared. I loved them, bought some and continue to love them. Agostado Palo Cortado 2016 was my favourite but it could be any of them.

However, even this magnificent bottle was surpassed by another wine shared at a vendanges lunch. My friend Steeve brought along a bottle of Michel Gahier’s Vin Jaune 2010 from his native Jura. It was truly amazing. Every drop had a fresh salinity to balance the rich oxidised notes. Golden in the glass, mouth filling with amazing complexity which grew on the palate for a long time. We were all stunned into silence as we drank it. When Jeff is blown away by a wine you know it is something special. A very special bottle, one I will remember vividly for a long time.


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2019 – favourite white wines

A year of classic regions for white wines. Let’s start outside of France with a wonderful Riesling from the Rheinhessen. I declare my bias as Rhine and Mosel wines were what sparked my first interest in and love of wines. Riesling would also be my white grape of choice for my desert island.

Weingut Schmitt Riesling M 2017 I tasted at The Real Wine Fair in May and it made a lasting impression. This is how I described it at the time, “Bianka Schmitt explained to me that this was picked slightly later than their other Rieslings and spends a year in old oak. It was a stunner. Aromas ranging from floral to citrus, initial flavours of zest, yellow and green fruitgums. However, what made the wine stand out was what happened next. The wine continued to release flavours even after I had swallowed the liquid (some wines you just do not spit). Lingering melon, grapefruit and even tropical fruits grew and developed for a full minute. I love Riesling and this was a truly special example of its complexity and generosity.”

Another Riesling, this time from just across the border in Alsace. Christian Binner is a long established natural producer and I enjoyed tasting through his whole range of wines, including some lovely Pinot Noir. However, my favourite was the Riesling Grand Cru Schlossburg 2016, lean, steely fresh but with a lovely apple and pear fruit on top. Superb example of the grape and also the value of a great vineyard site and its terroir.

Riesling GC Schlossburg centre

Whilst tasting the Schmitt’s Riesling I was alongside Alice De Moor and one of her wines comes next. Chablis 1er Cru Mont De Milieu 2017 was everything you would want from a Chablis. This outlying area of Burgundy is renowned for its steely, flinty Chardonnay and this wine provided all of those elements but wrapped around with fruit and a creamy nuttiness. Right at the top of my favourite white wines of recent years, showing again how good natural producers bring out the best of their vineyards and grapes.

Two other Burgundy whites reignited my love of that region. A basic Bourgogne Blanc 2016 from Fanny Sabre punched well above its humble label, classic Burgundy with freshness and generous fruit. I must seek out some of the domaine’s more celebrated wines as this showed great winemaking talent. As did AMI is a newish domaine which buys in organic grapes. I liked all their wines but best for me was another more humble label, St. Romain Blanc 2017. Citrus, creaminess, freshness and a hazelnut note – more classic Burgundy Chardonnay. These two show that excellent wine is still available at good prices in Burgundy.

The Jura has become a very fashionable wine region in recent years, very different to when I first visited 20 years ago. I love the wines though their popularity makes them increasingly expensive and difficult to find. I came across the wines of Domaine De La Touraize at RAW and they were a highlight of the year. Bets of all was the Savagnin 2015 which spent 2 years ‘sous voile’ i.e. under the yeast flor. The wine is nutty, stony and had lovely apricot flavours – all of which lingered long in the mouth. Exciting wine.

Jura stars

Two wines from outside of France merit mention here as I enjoyed them greatly. Patrick Sullivan makes wine in Victoria, Australia. I tasted some of his excellent wines in Australia last year and sought some out upon my return to the UK. His Baw-Baw Chardonnay 2018 had great concentration and power and, whilst still very much in its infancy, offers good fruit and drinkability already.

One of my favourite producers in recent years is Casa Pardet from the Costers Del Segre region in Catalonia. One of their Cabernet Sauvignons tasted 4 years ago was one of the greatest wines I have ever had. This year I revelled in their Chardonnay Amfora 2016. Almost an orange wine (perhaps it ought to have been in that section) it has lovely grip and dry, stone fruit flavours with almost liquorice afternotes. Great.

Finally to the Languedoc and the only domaine in Faugères producing only white wines. La Graine Sauvage is the domaine of Sybil Baldassarre. Sybil is an oenologue by profession but now has her vineyards and works with her partner Alexandre Durand whose red Dynamite I chose amongst my red wines of the year. A talented couple as well as being great people. Sybil’s The Velvet Underschiste 2016 shows off Grenache Blanc with apple and pear fruit flavours and a freshness from the schist soils of the Faugères. Lovely now but with long life ahead of it if I can resist drinking my remaining bottle for a few years. Excellent wine.

Reviewing my selections the predominance of Chardonnay and Riesling came as something of a surprise, the predominance of France perhaps less so. I found this the most difficult of all the categories to select a final list. There were so many great white wines which I was fortunate enough to taste this year and apologies to many other producers whose talents I could easily have highlighted on another day.