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

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To drink or to vote? (A Coutelou update)

It is a tradition of Jeff to begin every year with a ‘carte des voeux’ or greetings card which contains humorous topical references and also a review of the previous year and the wines which it produced. With Jeff’s permission I can share some of those updates here.

Previous cards with this year’s top left

It is a Presidential election year in France so the card offers the voters a helping hand. Far be it from an Englishman to make any reference to voting and politics given the appalling state of affairs here. So let me move on to the information about the wines and vineyards.

Jeff recounts the story of 2021 beginning with a wistful comment on how the vintages unravel but are becoming less and less similar to each other with climate producing a seemingly endless rota of problems. Autumn and winter were mild but with little rainfall (unfortunately one feature which is repeating itself this year Jeff tells me). A very warm March was quickly followed by the disastrous frost of April 7th-8th which I described here and was seen across the whole of France. It was the timing of that frost which was the hammer blow, the heat of March had brought forward budding of the vines and so this young growth was laid waste by the frost. As Jeff puts it, “It was necessary to find courage within yourself to face up to getting back to caring for the vines.” With losses of whole vineyards, that seems an understatement.

More cold weather followed which put the vine growth behind schedule even with warmer weather in June. Summer was unusually cool and cloudy though storms did bring needed irrigation. Vendanges began on August 30th, a week behind the average of recent years. The grapes were healthy and of good quality but at only 50% of the normal quantity.

I was there for vendanges and recall a very enjoyable, friendly time with a good crew but there was always a tinge of regret and sympathy for Jeff who had lost so much of his annual income as well as seeing his beloved vineyards ravaged that Spring. Fermentations were straightforward when I was there and that continued through the autumn, including in the new amphorae and concrete egg.

Jeff told me last week that he had carried out the assemblages on January 27th after tasting through the various wines a few weeks earlier. Obviously there will be fewer final wines and less wine altogether. There is a new wine with grapes bought from Clos Des Jarres in the Minervois which I described at the time. Classe, Matubu and a Tradition (with grapes such as Castets, Morastel and Terret Noir) reappear as does Flower Power for the first time in 7 years and there’s a new wine, Ploutelou which sounds intriguing. Let’s not forget the whites, Clairette Blanche from a young vineyard, OW returns as does the amphora white and a Macabeu which includes the grapes raised in the egg.

As for the vineyards. A lot of work will have to be done to repair damages caused by the frost, a third of the Aramon planted in 2020 will have to be replaced for example. Most exciting for me is the planting of a new parcel of Xarello, the Catalan white grape which makes some of my favourite white wines there. I love that grape and can’t wait for the results of this development. Meanwhile the work on Peilhan continues with the large new vineyard and its reservoir which has begun to fill with water (though more would be welcome). Moreover, after the destruction of olive and fruit trees there by an arson attack, a hundred new trees will be planted.

As Jeff concludes, COVID, lockdowns, arson – 2022 has to be better surely?

Meanwhile Steeve and Matteo, central to that team at vendanges, remain in Puimisson and are working their way through the vineyards to carry out pruning which, after the frost damage, is particularly demanding of care and precision. Steeve has sent me some photos of the vineyards as he works through them. It whets my appetite for a visit there soon and for the wines to come.

Let us all hope that fortune does favour Jeff more kindly this year.

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January jottings

Dry January? Well maybe in terms of the weather in North East England. Unseasonable warm temperatures and lack of rain have brought out insects, flowers and, no doubt, animals when they should still be dormant. The decline in birds in the garden has been alarming, only a visit to Durham Wildlife Trust’s Low Barns scratched my twitching itch.

If there was a month not to drink wine it would not be January, it is a long, generally dreary month. I am, though, very mindful of the health effects of wine. We may choose to believe a litle wine is beneficial for our health but the science would suggest it is far more likely to be damaging. For the last few years, I have opted not to drink alcohol on Mondays and Tuesdays to give my system time to recover and rest. If, there’s a special occasion I on those days I compensate on two other consecutive days. However, I see no need to take out a whole month especially as my wife Pat celebrates her birthday in January, of which more later.

Indeed, I have opened some exceptionally good bottles this month, to brighten it up. We started the New Year with one of my favourite champagnes, Drappier’s Brut Nature which is full of life and flavour, as well as a clean, characteristic Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc 20, a perky, natural 2017 Brouilly and, the now traditional La Vigne Haute, this time the 2017. It remains my favourite wine. I also opened two new wines from Jeff Coutelou. Quoi qu’il en Goutte is a blend of Syrah and Carignan from 2019 assembled with more Syrah from the 2020 vintage. The name means ‘No Matter What’, and no matter what Jeff makes it is worth trying to get a bottle. Leon Stolarski describes this wine beautifully on his website (he is the UK importer) as having sweet and sour notes and how it develops with time. I liked it a lot though might keep my other bottles a few months. Even better, to my taste, and also needing more time was Matubu. This was basically made by assembling the wines that were left over after Jeff had put together the 2020 bottlings. Leon offers more detail on how the Syrah, Carignan and Grenache were pressed etc. It is delicious, still highly coloured withbright fruit aromas and flavours but a good tannic spine which will make it age well. As a wine born out of chance rather than planning it is is exceptional, far better than the quaffing wine it was essentially made to be.

Other highlights included a beautiful Fino sherry from Equipos Navazas, exceptional quality and deserving of more space than I am giving it. Westwell Wines, from Kent in England, have provided me with some lovely bottles and their Ortega Skin Contact 18 was another exceptional wine, the skin contact adding texture to the deep yellow fruit flavours. Other good wines are shown below including an interesting first red wine from a favourite Jurancon producer Montesquiou, very promising.

Pat’s birthday brought a weekend of fine bottles, with our favourite winemaker featuring prominently. Another lovely Fino sherry, the Una Palma bottling from Tio Pepe, deserves a mention. Montesquiou’s Amistat 2017 was a delicious Jurancon, unmistakable in aroma and flavour, such a balance of sweetness and freshness. From Jeff we had Bibonade, his refreshing PetNat, Sauvé De La Citerne 19, light and drinkable, Classe 17 with its bright cherry flavours and drinkability. There was also a bottle of Petits Grains, a rare barrel aged Muscat which is so fine, the dry, Muscat flavours tamed by the old barrel but still typical, very long in the mouth. A Jura Pinot Noir 18 from Marnes Blanches was one of the highlights, a lovely example of why Pinot Noir is so special with its depth and rich flavours. Better than most Burgundy? Finally, one of the bottles I made from 2015 grapes, Amicis, the N on the label showing it was aged in new barrel and the oxygenation has aged it beautifully, I am very proud of it.

So, definitely not a dry January.

One point which did occur to me through the month repeatedly from these bottles and others which we opened but I have not described. I had, for example, a couple of Australian wines, organic, very well made and enjoyable wih good fruit and depth. However, those and other conventional wines I tasted in January, really didn’t change or develop much after the bottle was opened. By contrast, some of the natural wines were very different from one glass to another and more interesting as a result. Now, that is not always a good thing. The Beaujolais above developed a trace of the mosuiness I can’t stand, fortunately not enough to ruin the wine in this case. Others in recent months have become tired very quickly. Most though develop much finer fruit or more tertiary notes of age or barrel influence. I am not claiming by any means that conventional wines don’t develop, many do but the ones I have had recently have been good for the first glass then, well, just a little dull.

I recall Jeff telling me back in 2014 that spending so much time with him would change my taste in wine. I didn’t really believe him but it was true. The paragraph above proves how right he was.

January is also the month where my friend and I exchange lists of our favourite songs from the previous year. Janus, god of the doorway, looks forward and backward. Music plays a big part in my life and I was listening to a playlist from an English TV programme which included a performance of Debussy’s Clair De Lune. As it played I was struck again how perfect it is, how it builds naturally on the melody as it develops moods and emphases. My favourite wines travel through that same process, the Vigne Haute, Westwell Skin Contact, Equipo Navazos Bota de Florpower, Marnes Blanches Pinot Noir move from glass to glass bringing new flavours, balances and provoking thought and mood.  (The sherry showing that more conventional winemaking can achieve this.)

I had other musings too but I shall leave subjects such as glassware, wine pairing etc to another time. Thank you for reading and may 2022 bring us health, joy and good wine.


Odds and ends

As another year ends I wanted to add a few final observations to summarise it. This time last year we all were hoping that the horrendous events of 2020 would not be repeated and that we had something to look forward to. Well, 2021 was not as bad as that year but far from the renewal for which we had hoped, variants complicating the resumption of travel and ‘normal’ life. However, all was not lost.

September saw our return to France, the opportunity to renew friendships and, for the purposes of this blog, the chance to work with Jeff Coutelou once again for my seventh vendanges with him. Though the harvest was small because of the horrendous frost of April, I enjoyed the chance to work in the vines. How good it was to work alongside a lovely team and to share our work with you. I know from my statistics that vendanges brings more readers eager to find out about Jeff and what wines he will be producing as well as discovering the realities of grape harvest and winemaking.

If that was my personal highlight and the last blog post described my favourite wines of the year there were other good things wine related to enjoy too.

I was delighted to be one of those who helped to crowdfund Simon Woolf’s latest book, Foot Trodden, which he co-authored with Ryan Opaz, about Portuguese wine. I am happy to say that it is an excellent read, like his previous book Amber Revolution. It led me to seek out a range of wines from Portugal using their advice and some were very good indeed. It was also good to meet Aaron Ayscough whilst I was in France. His blog/journal Not Drinking Poison has provided me with fascinating insights about the natural wine scene across France and other countries as well as his personal story in studying wine. I would highly recommend a subscription at just $30 or £22 a year, a bargain. More good reading came on stream during 2021 with Trink reporting on German language wines and The Drop. However, please continue to read my blog too!

As we were planting all kinds of varieties of grape in St Chinian in September and began to enjoy wines from even more varieties which Jeff has planted it was pleasing to discover that across the world there is a drive to rediscover old grapes and revive their planting and use for wines. This follows on nicely of course from the topic of Portugal, a country rich in native grapes unfamiliar to most including myself. Field blends and grapes such as these are a continuation of the search to go back to old ways of winemaking and a desire for authenticity for regions.

In recent weeks I have had wines from grapes such as Aligoté Doré, Roter Veltliner and Savignon Gris. For those who enjoy ampelography like me it is the beginning of research into the varieties. It turns out for example that Roter Veltliner is not related to Gruner Veltliner, whereas Aligoté Doré is a clone of Aligoté just as Savignon Gris is a mutated clone of Sauvignon Blanc. So, a wine label can be the beginning of an enjoyable and fascinating journey, confusing at times too.

Christmas brought a more conventional line up of wines than I am used to these days. I bought a mixed case of bin end Burgundy wines a few years ago from The Wine Society. One of those was La Vougeraie’ Clos De Vougeot Grand Cru 2000, a wine I coould not really afford to buy these days. It was maybe just past its prime but still a real treat to enjoy a Pinot Noir from its real home in the heart of the Cotes De Nuits, the fruit dimmed a little but still showing dark and plummy backed by a depth of tertiary flavours. We had started with a champagne called Latitiude from biodynamic producer Larmandier-Bernier, pure Chardonnay and a refreshing, fruit led joy. Albarino D’ Fefinane from Palacios in northern Spain was the other Christmas Day treat, a fine example from a top producer

Most amusing discovery of the year was coming across a book from the 1960s called ‘Making Wines Like Those You Buy’. It was aimed at the home winemaking public, I do recall it being very popular in my youth and I know that there are still specialist shops now. Amongst the recipes were some for various classic wines such as Chianti, Madeira and the ones below. Not exactly the natural wine movement.

My favourite quote of the year came from US winemaker and pioneer of good vineyard practice Randall Grahm, famous for his Bonny Doon wines. “The absence of defect in wine does not necessarily equate to the presence of quality.” My experience of retrying some conventional wines this year showed the wisdom of those words.

Let us hope that 2022 brings us further towards a resumption of pre COVID times. I am sure I had similar wishes last year. Fortunately wine provided some highlights and I trust that the same was true for you too and that 2022 will be an even better one for you. Thank you once again for giving some of your time to my writing, I am truly grateful.

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My favourite wines of 2021

In previous years I have selected whole cases of wine but this year I am going to share just my favourite wine of each colour and type. I hope you find it of interest.

Let’s start with Jeff Coutelou. As readers know this blog is based around Jeff’s vineyards and wines and my experiences with both as well as with Jeff and the people who share in his generosity and friendship. I get to experience just about all of his wines, those sold commercially and the ones made for himself and friends. I genuinely love them, the range is staggering but the quality remains consistently high. This year we enjoyed some lovely wines at lunch during vendanges, such as old vintages of La Vigne Haute, amphora aged wines and others. The one that really stands out though was a surprise.

‘Une Syrah‘ – beautifully understated

As I have reported many times my favourite wine of all is La Vigne Haute, made from Syrah grapes in La Garrigue vineyard but only in exceptional years. In other years those grapes can be used to make a wine labelled as something else or blended with others. In 2015 they made On Peut Pas Vraiment Dire Que, labelled in simple blue. It was good but when I opened a bottle this month it was exceptionally good. I could be accused of recency bias in choosing this bottle but it was a genuine surprise. Age has softened some of the acidity though the wine was still fresh and clean. The fruit had rounded out to deliver red and black fruits with great depth. It carried weight to accompany a lasagne with ease but could be consumed on its own with pleasure. If I had tasted this blind I would have opted for La Vigne Haute and one of the best vintages. I chose it as my Jeff wine of the year because it shows how age can boost a natural wine as any other wine, because it shows the wonderful fruit of that vineyard and the skills and quality of Jeff himself. I have one bottle remaining, I shall treasure it.

To my favourite red wine of the year. I used this year’s wine buying to explore regions and countries which I did not know so well, Portugal, Australia, Greece, the Canary Islands. There were some very good wines from producers such as Filipa Pato, Niepoort, Brash Higgins, Envinate and Boesch. However, my favourite wine of the year was much closer to ‘home’.

Belle Lurette on the left at the domaine in September

I have known Brigitte Chevalier of Domaine De Cébène in Faugeres for ten years, having first bought her wines from Leon Stolarski in England. Her wines have always been favourites. Her transformation of the vineyards she took over after moving from Bordeaux is now reaping rewards in terms of the quality of grapes. Combine those biodyamically grown grapes with Brigitte’s growing expertise in the cellar and the result is a range of exceptional wines which I described here after a recent visit. The wine which sang for me was Belle Lurette 2018. Based on Carignan grown near the winery on schist soils, typical of Faugeres, Brigitte added Grenache and Mourvedre which form 30% of the final wine. In the glass the aromas of herbs and spices and red fruits were backed up by a palate of bright fruits. The wine is light in body but, rather like a good Burgundy, is packed with power and length which will enable the wine to age well if you can resist drinking it now as it is delicious. A real stunner, bravo Brigitte.

I probably drank more white wines this year than red, somewhat unusual for me. Great Alsace and New Zealand wines were a highlight together with more from Portugal, Savoie and the Jura. The wine which sticks in my memory though is from Slovakia and is actually a skin contact or orange wine. A visit to a relatively new wine shop / delicatessen, Kork in Whitley Bay, resulted in me purchasing Slobodne Vronski 2018. Made from Sauvignon Blanc grapes, macerated on skins for a week and then aged in a concrete egg for a whole year. The skin contact added texture and mouth feel but the fruit and freshness burst out on the palate. Exceptionally good. I know nothing about winemakers Agnes Lovecka and Mišo Kuropka but I am seeking out more of their wines and this bottle has made me very keen to travel to central Europe to discover more of the exciting wines there.

May I wish you a very Happy Christmas and thank you again for reading my blog in such numbers, I appreciate your time.

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Coutelou – new vintages, new cuvées

Jeff, the tasting room and some of the bottles

As my stay in France was coming to a close Jeff invited me to taste the 2020 wines as well as some of the recently harvested whites I had helped to bring in. Leon Stolarski and his wife Diane were also in the region and came along as Leon is an importer of Jeff’s wines to the UK. We gathered in the tasting room upstairs at the cellars in Rue De L’Estacarade, one of the improvements of recent years with its fine furniture recycled from barrels. You can see an example in the photo above. Two hours of tasting, chat and laughter – is there a better way to spend time?

In the last couple of weeks I have had a number of requests from people who sell Jeff’s wines to inform them about the cuvées which Jeff is offering at present and which will be heading to market soon, therefore I decided to reproduce my thoughts to a wider audience. Please bear in mind that I am biased, I don’t recall any wines of Jeff that I didn’t like a little bit at least but these are my views based on the notes I took at the time.

We started with the Macabeu which is ageing in the concrete egg, another recent innovation. It had been in there just five days when we tasted so has a long way to go before being ready, still cloudy in the glass. There was a fresh, liquorice note and all is set fair. The Macabeu from tank was more ready, more winey with apple and pear flavours. Continuing the Macabeu run was a skin contact wine, aged for five days on those skins after harvesting in the new plantation of Ste. Suzanne. The skins’ influence was clear, much more texture and graininess and a real depth of flavour already, impressive for juice from such young vines. Macabeu is becoming the backbone of Jeff’s white wines, a grape suited to the influence of climate change in liking heat. In recent years he has also planted a lot of Clairette, a local Languedoc speciality and it formed the next new wine we tasted, a blend of grapes from Segrairals and Ste. Suzanne’s new plantation. These grapes had been pressed directly, there was a distinct saline note and good freshness. The last 2021 baby was more Clairette but this time blended with Muscat à Petits Grains, the other white grape which Jeff loves so much. This had been intended to make a PetNat but lacked the acidity, a fortunate happenstance perhaps as this was lovely, full of fruit (the Muscat influence for sure) and the most pleasurable of these five wines. It is not easy to taste new wines, it is an art learned through experience, and there is a long way to go before these young wines go into bottle but all seemed promising.

Macabeu skin contact

So, on to the 2020s. A vintage which will be remembered for a global context and, by me, with regret for not being there. The grapes were good, the quantities were a little down on average but nothing compared to this year. Fermentations were much more straightforward than the 2019s even though the grapes were not as consistently high quality as 2019. Jeff is very keen on the 20s, he believes the wines are very good.

We started with OW, Orange Wine. This is based on Muscat, aged on skins for three weeks, and needs a little time still to settle the tannins. That said it is lovely, full of floral notes typical for Muscat. A nice reminder that orange / skin contact wines can be true to their grape and not just about texture.


On to the red wines. To begin with was a new cuvée, now named Matubu (a play on words for the expression m’as tu vu? (Do you get me). This is a blend of Carignan, Grenache and some whole bunch fermented Syrah. In all honesty this blend was made because it was what was left over after the other wines were put together, the idea was to make a cheap wine for early drinking. And it achieves its aim with ease, very drinkable, good forward fruit and nice and fresh. It will be cheap and worth every penny or centime. Next was a Sauvé De La Citerne, the name suggesting that this was the original wine made from the leftovers and now a regular label from Jeff. This is half made up from a blend of Carignan and Grenache made whole bunch and the other half from destemmed Grenache and Syrah. Before finding that out I had written down ‘Good balance’ and having heard the complicated blend it seems appropriate. There is a little greenness (from the stems perhaps?) but balanced by the red fruit profile. Good.

Le Vin Des Amis is a signature cuvée of course. The 2020 version is a blend of half Cinsault and the other half comes from previously blended Syrah and Grenache. Cinsault often adds the distinguishing lift and lightness of Vin Des Amis and this vintage is trademark for that, a lovely lightness of flavour and fresh, clean fruit. Really lovely. On to another new cuvée, given the name Quoi qu’il en goutte which translates as ‘no matter what’, perhaps a reference to the year’s events. This is another example of Jeff’s experimental nature, his willingness to try something different to achieve good wines. He took Carignan and Syrah from 2019 and added some more Syrah but this time from 2020. The Carignan was clear with its deep, leathery and cherry notes but the Syrah lifts the fruit profile further. A definite success.

Couleurs Réunies

The next wine was has been labelled as Couleurs Réunies, a cuvée familiar in recent years. This time Jeff has blended some white grapes into the red majority, as done in the Rhone for example. The grapes come from the 2015 plantation in Peilhan a mix of Morastel and Terret Noir but with Terret Blanc and Riveyrenc Gris added. There is also the Castets from the main Peilhan planting. I really liked this, the red fruit flavours were followed up by deeper notes but there was a lightness (from the Terret Blanc?) on the finish. There is a lot going on here and I suspect that is why Jeff has held it back to settle down a little but I am eager to follow its progress. Classe, the other signature Coutelou wine, came next. Syrah, Mourvèdre blended with previously blended Carignan and Grenache for the 2020 version. This was the star of the show, silky tannins, full of fruity notes and the Syrah showing through particularly. This is excellent. More Mourvèdre, this time bottled on its own, from Segrairals vineyard. Black cherry fruits, good depth and long lasting in the mouth, it will benefit from a little ageing perhaps. Good.

Amphorae arrived at the domaine four or five years ago and Jeff aged some of his Syrah in one of them, I think from La Garrigue given that there is no La Vigne Haute in 2020. The results were excellent. If Classe was the star then this Amphora runs it close. The fruit was forward and sweet but lingered long. Freshness, depth and real pleasure. I’ll be eagerly seeking this out. Finally, another classic, L’Oublié. As most readers will know this is a wine made by blending a mix of grapes and vintages, going back to Carignan from 2012. I wrote about the making of this wine here. The blend changes every year, this time Jeff went for a higher proportion of older wines and sought a more oxidative profile. It is typical of the label and, if you like oxidative wines like me, a treat.

All wines are sealed with a cork marked Le Plus Dur Est Fait (the hard part is done), a reference to the events of 2020

A lovely morning spent in great company and great wines too. I hope you will find these notes of use, I must add that the wines will continue to evolve but I have enough experience of Jeff’s wines to be confident of my thoughts. The 20s will be worth your money, and provide something far more pleasurable to recall that vintage than the circumstances in which the wines were made.

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Peilhan from a distance showing the new parcel in preparation top right

En francais

I had intended to write about the new developments by Jeff Coutelou to follow the article about the new vineyard at St. Chinian. Sadly, that plan was foiled by the incident at Peilhan which I reported last time. However Jeff’s determination to carry on and continue his plans is undimmed. So, what’s going on?

Let’s start with the regular renewals. Every year vines die off for various reasons, e.g. age, disease and drought. In some vineyards such as Rec D’Oulette where all the vines are Carignan Noir then clearly they are replaced by more Carignan Noir vines. However, the pattern for some vineyards recently has been for Jeff to diversify planting. The model is Flower Power where over twenty varieties are planted, all mixed up. That is what we were doing at St Chinian by adding varieties such as Mauzac and Fer Servadou to the range of vines already in place.

In larger vineyards such as Segrairals and Peilhan there are a number of different areas. In Segrairals for example there were areas of Mourvedre, Cinsault, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah. Jeff decided to grub up the Cabernet as it is not a traditional grape of the Languedoc and he replaced it with plantings of Oeillade, Aramon and others.

I have already mentioned that there is a new parcel below Sainte Suzanne which we harvested this year for Jeff’s PetNat, Bibonade. The new vines are Macabeu and Clairette, white grapes which originate in Spain and the local area and will hopefully stand up well to climate change. The Syrah of La Garrigue which goes to make La Vigne Haute in good years is going to be expanded. The parcel next to it has been purchased by Jeff, former vines taken out and ploughed. Syrah vines will be planted there in coming months, the north facing slope helping this southern grape to produce well. All the new parcels need time to grow and it takes three years for them to be also certified as organic.

This type of expansion is not new to Jeff, I reported upon the expansion of Peilhan back in 2015 when I helped to plant the terrace area with varieties such as Morastel, Riveyrenc Noir and Gris, Terret Blanc and Noir and Piquepoul Gris. These vines are now healthy, mature and producing good fruit. The parcels of Ste. Suzanne and La Garrigue will hopefully produce more great wine for us to enjoy.

The most exciting developments though are in the Peilhan vineyard. Jeff has purchased the large plot next door to his existing vineyards and work has begun to transform them. The old vines are torn out and will be replaced with more unusual varieties, this is Jeff’s work after all. At the ends of the rectangular plot trees have been planted already, for example with olive trees, there will be one tree at the end of each set of two rows, roughly 1m-2m apart. On the eastern side various types of tree were planted. Unfortunately these were part of the arson attack two weeks ago and will need to be replanted.

Most spectacularly, to the west a large earth bank has been constructed. It creates a large basin behind which will be lined and used as a water reservoir, storing rainfall. The slope will be gentle in order that wildlife can gain easy access to drink. Jeff described this project to me proudly as his “legacy to the area”. Ironic then that the attack should happen here. Be sure that Jeff will press on and it will be fascinating to watch this project develop.


Vandalism returns to Puimisson

En francais

I was in a positive mood about the blog yesterday, very high reading figures after my article about the St. Chinian vineyard. I had a post in preparation about the new Puimisson vineyards of Jeff Coutelou, especially the exciting project to boost nature in the Peilhan vineyard. This photo taken at the end of September shows the hedge and fruit trees which Jeff has nurtured there to bring biodiversity to an area which is very much a monoculture of vines.

This work had been disrupted back in 2016 and 2017 by the acts of a vandal who set fire to the first trees and plants which Jeff put in. That person also burned other parts of Jeff’s vineyards, destroying more trees, plants and vines. I was based in France at that time and spent much of my time with Jeff. I know how hurt he was by those attacks for doing something which he, and all right minded people, saw as helping to improve the area. Whether jealousy, bitterness or madness the acts of the vandal or vandals were criminal. Then things seemed to stop, there were no more attacks. Until yesterday.

The same scene yesterday

It was a shock to receive a message from Jeff in the afternoon that he had just returned from Peilhan to find 500m of the hedgerow destroyed and still smoking when he was there, 500 trees included. To burn that much plantation the criminal had planned their actions, using petrol to target the length of the hedge.

It is just sickening, I am angry and frustrated and I can only imagine how Jeff must feel at this attack on everything he stands for. The messages of support he has received will boost his morale but I can only hope that he feels strong enough to fight back.

Nature still resists

Quick update – Jeff just posted this photo, he will fight back and trust in nature

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Looking to the future

Many winemakers state that they are custodians of their land rather than owners. The emphasis is on the land rather the winemaker. The land has been there, often as a vineyard before the winemaker and will be there for a long time after the winemaker has departed. Therefore, the human interaction with that land is one of care and nourishment rather than exploitation. Whilst many say that, not all of them fulfil that important statement. It is a fact that as winemakers age the future of their vineyards becomes an issue, what will happen to them, who will take over?

Jeff Coutelou is aware that as he gets older there is a question mark over the future. He has no children and his nephew and niece are not interested in becoming winemakers. Jeff is the 4th generation of Coutelous and has built upon the work of his family to create a domaine renowned around the world. After 20 years of making the wine himself he is also looking to the future. I will explore some of the new vineyards he has purchased in the last year or two but in this post I want to describe how work has begun for his own personal future.

The Coutelou family have their origins in St. Chinian and Jeff himself attended school there. The family home is still there with its small vineyard but there is also a vineyard just outside of the village itself. When he retires Jeff would like to have that vineyard so that he can look after himself without the need to employ others and the associated bureaucracy and social charges of the current large domaine. The vineyard is in a quiet valley, on a slope looking over towards St Chinian and the dividing line in the appellation, there is schist soil to the right in the photo below and limestone to the left. At a couple of hectares it would keep him busy but not overwhelmed.

Back in 2019 the vineyard was cleared and planted with some classic Languedoc grapes. However, due to the pandemic the vineyard has not had the attention Jeff would have liked until we went there on September 23rd. A bright, sunny day started off chilly but by mid afternoon we were working at almost 30c temperatures and were in the direct sun. It was hard work. The vineyard had overgrown with weeds, brush. Quite a few of the young vines planted in 2019 had died, as is the norm, and needed to be replaced. A full day’s hot and sweaty work lay ahead.

Manu, had rejoined us towards the end of the vendanges and he spent a lot of the morning with Gilles strimming away large clumps of weeds and brush and using a pick and pioche to dig some out. Matteo was hard at work on the drill which was a heavy machine, vibrating heavily as it scooped out the hole which would be used to plant the replacement vines. Steeve, Joffroi and myself busied ourselves mainly with the planting.

As ever these days Jeff wanted to create a complantation on the site. Mixed in with the traditional varieties planted in 2019 would be some Grenache, Macabeu and Muscat d’Alexandrie, one of Jeff’s favourite grapes, but also Fer Servadou and Mauzac. Fer Servadou (often just called Fer) is relatively unknown, mostly found in Marcillac and Gaillac between Languedoc and Bordeaux. I like it as a grape as I am fond of wines from both areas and it gives a distinct spicy, peppery flavour to wines and, maybe its name is suggestive, but a sense of iron filings. Mauzac is widely planted in the Limoux area as well as Gaillac again. A white grape, usually made into sparkling wine, it adds weight to blends with its white fruit flavours.

We were under strict instructions from Jeff to spread the new plantings around the vineyard and avoid clumps of the same variety, forming a true field blend but also hopefully reducing the risk of disease spreading from one variety to another as some are more resistant to mildew than others. Into the hole went the young vine, organic fertiliser and the hole was refilled. New plants need watering, especially on a hot day like that so Jeff was to and fro with containers. Matteo and Steeve have returned regularly to the vineyard to ensure these tender plants have been watered and are healthy.

By 4pm we were tiring and the machine must have been to, a part sheered off and we had to abandon the work with just a few rows to finish. They were completed the following day with a repaired machine.

The broken drill with harvesting going on next door

It was hard work but rewarding for many reasons. It is good to see a vineyard developing with its promise for the future, especially this one as it will mean a lot to my dear friend in years to come. The views over the St Chinian hills were a treat and the camaraderie was, as ever, fulfilling – sharing lunch and wine whilst looking out over our work and the scenery with great people. Living in the moment but also looking to the future.

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2021, vintage views

Vintage Chart by The Wine Society

When I first became interested in wine vintages were one of the mysteries which intrigued and infuriated in equal measure. Back in the 80s and 90s Bordeaux and Burgundy ruled the world of wine (plus ca change) and anyone wanting to buy such wines looked at vintage reports, vintage charts and vintage prices to research which wines to seek out. A 1989 or 1990 Bordeaux (my first venture into en primeur purchases) was superior to a 1987 or 1994 simply because of the weather in those years. Things have changed.

Climate change is an obvious cause, it is a rare year now where grapes don’t ripen in cool conditions. Indeed we are in a situation where Bordeaux now allows different grapes, such as this blog’s favourite Castets, to temper the (over)ripe Cabernet and Merlot. Burgundy producers worry about the future of Pinot Noir in their region, a grape which now thrives in cooler Alsace and Germany for example.

Better winemaking and vineyard care are the other major reasons why wines tend to be more consistent year on year. Science, technology and the education of new generations of winemakers mean that vines are given cover crops, different canopy systems, grapes are fermented cooler or longer or on skins more than they used to be. Winemakers through skill (and maybe some artifice) are able to smooth out those vintage chart curves, very few years would now be as scorned as those 87s.

For Jeff Coutelou in the hot Languedoc you’d assume that vintages weren’t that important either. There is hot sunshine every year, grapes ripen ready for harvesting by early September. But there subtle differences, sometimes less subtle. 2017 had a big outbreak of mildew, 2019 saw temperatures reach 45c (I remember it well). Those 2019 grapes were actually harvested in prime condition, the best of any of the seven vintages I have helped with, as good as any Jeff can recall. There was little sorting to do. Yet, those grapes proved difficult in the cellar, fermentations slowed and got stuck, not all but many. The fermentations were not completed until the temperatures picked up again in the Spring of 2020. Was that a product of the overheating of the previous summer?

Outstanding Grenache in La Garrigue this year

Every year is different. Similar problems arise due to climate and disease, drought, mildew, oidium, ver de la grappe. The scale of those issues varies though and in different vineyards. The Grenache of La Garrigue was badly hit in 2020 and produced tiny yields. This year when most vineyards suffered that Grenache was beautiful and abundant. Such vagaries are what keeps a vigneron on her/his toes. What quantities of wine will there be from each vineyard? Will there be some outstanding grapes that should be used for a special cuvée? What might be blended to provide the wine for popular cuvées such as Classe or Le Vin Des Amis? With twenty tanks full of fermenting grapes Jeff must juggle figures, analyses, tastings in order to decide what to do with those wines.

Decisions, decisions

2021 was undoubtedly a vintage which reflects most the circumstances of the year, in my opinion more than any of those seven I have witnessed. It was shaped by the frost of April 12th. That single night wreaked havoc upon the vineyards, throughout France yes, certainly for Jeff. Havoc all the worse in that it was unexpected, there was no warning that it would hit the area. 50-70% of potential fruit was wiped out in those few hours, hitting the vines as they flowered and began to bud. From there on 2021 was a year of catch up. Yes the vines, some of them anyway, produced secondary bunches but nothing like the quality and quantity of what was lost. The vines though were weakened by that night, a situation compounded by ongoing drought. Jeff told me that there was only one significant rainfall in Puimisson from the previous October through to the end of summer. This is a perennial issue in the Languedoc now, climate change in action. The consequence of frost and drought was vines pushing energy towards survival rather than fruit and that when summer’s heat and humidity combined to produce oidium (powdery mildew) the vines had little resistance.

Doom and gloom. And yet there was that Grenache. And most of the fruit was decent quality and fermented well (though with delayed malolactic fermentation in some cases). And the resulting wines taste very well after those fermentations. Jeff will make good wines. He will have to juggle those figures again and no doubt produce different final wines to the norm, there isn’t the quantity to make all the usual bottles. Indeed I can report that Jeff bought in some grapes to bulk out his own this year. Carignan and Syrah were brought back from the Minervois thanks to Vivien Hemelsdael of Le Clos Des Jarres, an excellent producer of natural wines himself. That area was relatively untouched by the frost and Vivien kindly agreed to provide grapes to his friend. Matteo, Steeve, Louis and Jeff went to pick those grapes and were enthusiastic about them, especially the Carignan. Incidentally I can honestly recommend seeking out the Clos Des Jarres wines.

2021 will certainly be a year that Jeff recalls with little fondness. Personally I was delighted to be back there after missing out in 2020. Moreover it was an excellent team to work with, I thoroughly enjoyed being a part of it. The white wines which I tasted from tank just before I left Puimisson are in fine fettle, Jeff assures me that the reds are too. Perhaps vintage is less important to wines these days, but do remember unfortunately there won’t be much of them from Jeff Coutelou. There were new aspects of winemaking in 2021 though and I shall be reporting on how Jeff is looking to the future as well as getting the best out of this year. 2021’s wines were certainly a reflection of the difficult year, maybe vintage does matter after all.

The team, by Manu

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Making Wine

En francais

Most of the focus of the posts on Vendanges 21 is on the picking and sorting of grapes, exploring the different varieties and how they are gathered and sent to tank. However, these are the early stages of vendanges and there is much work to follow, not so glamorous but just as important. I have heard a number of vignerons say that their job is to ensure that quality grapes which arrive at the cellar are allowed to express that quality and not to mess up their potential. So, what happens?

The making of wine begins with decisions about how to transform the fruit. The most obvious influence on how to proceed is the colour of the grape. There are some white wines made from red grapes but those are rare. Quality and quantity of the grapes will also determine decisions but let us start with that primary difference.

White grapes will go into white or orange wines. For white wines the grapes will be pressed (usually) soon after picking and the juice is sent to tank for fermentation. For dry whites the winemaker might seek to have only the alcoholic fermentation, not the malolactic in order to keep the freshness of the malic acid. Again, that is a decision for the vigneron. There will still be pulp and pips in that fermentation tank and after fermentation the lees or dried yeast cells will fall to the bottom of the tank after completing their work.

The young wine will be run off that rather dramatic looking sludge to avoid the danger of it spoiling the wine. The vigneron will then decide how to age the white wine, the type of container to use, stainless steel, barrel, amphora, egg, glass. The choice will again be based on the quality of the wine and what the vigneron wants to achieve, a commercial large scale wine or a smaller, more specialised or select wine.

I described the process of orange wine in a recent post. The white grapes will stay on skins to extract tannin, flavour and colour. The length of time will depend upon the preference of the winemaker. Again, the juice will be run off the skins either naturally or by press.

Orange wine

For rosé wines red grapes (perhaps combined with white grapes) will be used. They might be allowed to spend time on skins to extract more colour or they will be pressed directly for a lighter colour. (I recall Emmanuel Pageot in Gabian making a wine called 48h where its name reflected the time on skins to extract a dark pink/light red colour.) Rosé wines are mostly designed for freshness and early drinking so they will usually be fermented and then go to a neutral container to settle and then be bottled.

Red grapes give vignerons more decisions to make. Will they be destemmed totally, partially or not at all? The latter will be whole bunch fermentation and the stems will add a green, sappy touch to the wine. Whole bunch wines might be fermented using carbonic maceration, as in Beaujolais where the grapes ferment in the skins with carbon dioxide added to the tank. Jeff prefers a semi carbonic maceration, some of the grapes will be broken and will ferment as usual whilst others ferment inside their skins. Wines using carbonic maceration tend to have a more upfront fruit profile. That style might be what the vigneron wants to create or it might be that lesser quality fruit would not respond well to traditional fermentation.

Most red grapes at Coutelou are destemmed. Indeed, the new (2020) égraineur takes stems not just from the bunch but from every grape to reduce the amount of stalk in tank during fermentation (some will get through no matter what). The grapes will spend days in a fermentation tank. The red grapes with skins, pulp, pips and yeasts form a bigger quantity of material so Jeff uses the large cement tanks for this. The juice will be carefully monitored to ensure fermentation is happening. For red wines, winemakers want both fermentations to happen, malic acid would make them too tart. Malic fermentation usually happens alongside the alcoholic one or quickly afterwards. This year’s malic fermentation at Coutelou was the first time that it was slightly delayed, happily only a short delay but a surprise nontheless.

Fermentation tanks used for red wines

The bulky pulp has to be then sent to press. Ideally it would travel naturally by gravity but in most cellars a pump is needed, and a heavy duty one at that. The pompe à marc is powerful and noisy but does its work. The press then sends the juice to a tank or other container but usually a tank at this early stage. More tasting and analysis will determine what the winemaker thinks should happen next. Quality, quantity, commercial needs will all play a part in shaping that decision.

Let us not underestimate the commercial aspect of winemaking. The livelihood of the winemaker, their dependants and staff depend on selling the wine. Some cuvées will be made for easy drinking in large quantities, the wine will still be good quality of its type. Le Vin Des Amis and Classe are perennial wines from Jeff Coutelou and are always very good (try the 2020 VdA for proof) but they also provide a financial security. As well as covering costs of equipment, personnel, utilities etc the money helps to subsidise the smaller production wines which often also cost more to produce, eg barrels and longer ageing.

So, though my articles have focussed on the first stages of the vendanges, please don’t think that is the end of the story.