amarchinthevines

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


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Into the red – Vendanges 17

After the white grapes picked last week it was time to tackle the red, which form the main part (just under 90%) of Mas Coutelou’s production.

Monday was hot, very hot – Jeff’s car measured 42°C at one point in the vineyard of Le Colombié where we were picking Merlot grapes. This small (0.5 ha) parcel was planted with Merlot back in 1999 and, though not Jeff’s favourite cépage, the grapes provide a useful backup and the vines are in particularly good health. I spent a couple of hours picking and the heat made it very hard work, believe me. The quality was very good though the grapes lacked juice due to the lack of any rain in two months. Jeff said that they provided around 50% of last year’s juice which in turn was 20% below average.

Back in the cellar after lunch I sorted the remaining Merlot and some Syrah from Segrairals, the biggest of the Coutelou vineyards with 4ha under vine. These were juicier and were added to the Merlot in tank in order to bolster the quantity. The alcohol level was good at around 14% for both.

Today, Tuesday, it was off to Sainte Suzanne where Jeff thinks some of the best grapes of the year are to be found. The vineyard is planted with Syrah and Grenache and these are usually the grapes which make up Le Vin Des Amis, one of the more famous wines of the domaine. Jeff was proved correct, not that I would have doubted him of course! The bunches which came in were full, firm and in excellent condition. There was hardly any sorting to do other than removing leaves and snails. This will certainly make good wine. By the end of the day a few rows of Grenache from the parcel were added to the mix.

The grapes were all put into tank in whole bunches, grappes entières, rather than being separated from the stalks as the bunches were so healthy Jeff wanted to let them express themselves. In tank the grapes will begin to ferment within their skins under the weight and heat, though some will ferment as they burst. It was good to see Jeff happy with the results of the day’s harvest, long may it continue.

In the photos above Vincent is preparing the cuve for the whole bunches which will enter through the trapdoor at the top. In the second he adds CO2 to the tank which is part of the carbonic maceration process to help the berries ferment inside their skin.


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Stress and grapes – Vendanges 17

Day two and the weather remained overcast and humid, there were even a few drops of rain. Rain which has been sorely missed in the last two months, there has been no real rain since June 26th, almost two months now. Some vines have found that stressful and virtually shut down therefore not ripening the grapes as well as they ought to do. Others, with underground water supply more available, are more vigorous and channeling their energy into the grapes. Judging what to harvest and when, is therefore even more difficult and stressful for Jeff.

The picking today began in Peilhan where the Muscat À Petits Grains was golden, starting to raisin in places. The berries are a little smaller than usual, another sign of the lack of recent rain. Nonetheless they were sweet, ripe and ready, measuring 15° of potential alcohol. In the press the lack of juice means that even a decent amount of grapes will produce only one barrique this year.

Then on to Clairette Musquée, a couple of rows in Peilhan, next to the red grape vines. This cépage is so rare that an ampelography expert recently failed to identify it on a visit. Into the mix was added Grenache Blanc from La Garrigue, which has fared better than some in that vineyard with the drought. Indeed one berry seemed to have thrived as you can see in the following photo.

GrBl huge

Whilst Roxane, Max and myself picked the Grenache the others moved into the newer plantation of Peilhan and picked Riveyrenc Noir, Riveyrenc Gris, Piquepoul Gris and Morastel. This really was a day for ampelography fans like myself. All of these grapes with the Clairette will help to make the rosé for 2017 and the first glass, hot from the press, tasted very good indeed over lunch.

Friday lunch was leisurely, we were joined by the excellent Paco Mora of La Cave D’Ivry, and some good bottles opened including a fabulous Sauvignon Blanc 002 from Jeff, 15 years old and still in great shape. Julien opened his new cuvée (one of only 50 bottles) from Faugères (Grenache Blanc and Roussanne) which was very good too. Monday will see the start of more full on days, bigger quantities, more work and faster lunches – so allow us this convivial interlude. Meanwhile, Icare continued in his inimitable style.

 


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And they’re off – Vendanges 17

 

No more racing metaphors I promise but today, Thursday August 24th, the Mas Coutelou 2017 harvest began. Just a gentle canter rather than a full gallop start to events with several rows of Sauvignon Blanc and Muscat vines picked. They will be vinified separately, the Sauvignon went into the large press immediately, the Muscat is lying on skins for a few hours. Julien made the first cut just after 7.30 this morning (photos above).

There was a good team of helpers available coming from Italy, Spain, France and, of course, the UK. Carole was back too which always brightens the day. The day was rather overcast and humid, which made the back breaking job of picking all the more tiring but we pressed on until the vines were finished at around 1pm, so five and a half hours of work.

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My own first bucket with leaf to identify the Sauvignon Blanc

In the cellar Jeff was anxious about how ripe the grapes were in La Garrigue so was a little relieved when the first readings came in around the 14° potential alcohol mark. There was a generous aroma of green apples coming from the press which augurs well. The Muscat was certainly riper, the grapes full of that hallmark Muscatty taste – they are the wine grapes which taste of grapes!

Caisses unloaded, grapes put into the press and the first juice flows

So, a good start, the team found its rhythm, gelled through conversation and over lunch and we attack the Muscat of Peilhan tomorrow. The bit is between the teeth, the finishing line is still far in the distance but on we go.

And for fans of Icare! Well, he’s still firmly in charge.

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Under starter’s orders

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Le patron earlier tending his vines

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Other than wine my main interest is horse racing and I couldn’t help feeling a similarity as I toured the vineyards at Mas Coutelou this morning. The trainer has prepared his charges to the best of his ability throughout the year, faced up to problems of weather and disease, been up all night tending them and must now carefully select when they are at their peak for the big challenge ahead. Meanwhile his assistants and stable hands gather together, friends old and new to lend a hand to the master and to learn from him.

Old Cinsault vines of Rome

OK, maybe I am getting carried away. However, there is a feeling on the eve of my 4th vendanges of excitement that the race is on to bring in the best possible harvest from the grapes. Through winter, spring and early summer all went well, the rain came, the sun shone, the vines grew well. Latterly there have been setbacks it must be said. There has been next to no rain since June and the ground is once more parched. Some of the vines are stressed and their sap has lowered. This means that instead of concentrating energy into the grapes and ripening them fully the vines are protecting themselves. That is a real shame as everything was set for a top class vintage, now we have to wait and see what the next few weeks bring along. Rain is currently absent from the weather forecast, let’s hope that the meteorologists are mistaken.

Flower Power and ‘friends’

That said as I toured the vines I was impressed by the quality of the grapes. Yes the vines look tired, they should at this time of year as they ought to be giving everything to the fruit rather than the plant.

The grapes though look healthy, big bunches in the Carignan vineyard (above) for example though there is still some greenness in the juice and the pips. The Muscat is yellow, orange and flecked with gold and tastes very characteristic with its floral, sweet notes. They will be harvested on Friday, the Carignan in weeks to come.

Ones to follow? Well, in Peilhan the Castets looked lovely and tasted even better. Flower Power has so much more fruit this year though the snails are still present. The Grenache of La Garrigue, Syrah of Sainte Suzanne and the splendid old Cinsault vines of Rome would be my tips for future winners. There will be others which will surprise and delight, and hopefully few will prove lame and disappointing. (That racing metaphor just won’t go away!)

 

Meanwhile back at the cellar; cleaning, checking the equipment (the large press being serviced above) and even bottling the skin contact Carignan Blanc which James took charge of last year.

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James served his time here in Puimisson, learned and has just completed his first vendanges with his own wines in the Adelaide hills in Australia. Vincent’s vines in the Béarn are easing towards maturity, Julien has his vines here in the Languedoc. The team are back in Puimisson though, together with Michel and myself. And joining us this year is Ambroise from the Loire, come to learn too (in the photo with Vincent).

And even Jeff will be learning as two new arrivals from Spain will mean a new form of vinification this year. They will take their place alongside the (much) smaller amphora dating back to Julius Caesar which was donated to Jeff during the winter.

So we are under starter’s orders, Jeff will press the button on Thursday morning and we’ll be off. Let’s hope for a classic year.


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The ageing process

A few weeks ago I wrote about some wines from 2009 and how good they were. Ageing wines is a tricky business for a number of reasons:

  • Storing wines is fraught with risk; temperature, light, vibration and humidity (or lack of it) can all spoil bottles so care must be taken.
  • Some wines benefit from keeping, others are designed to be drunk fairly early.
  • How long to keep them so that they are at their best? Some people prefer younger wines when fruit is more upfront, others prefer more flavours from age; leathery, earthy, more complex perhaps.

If possible it can be interesting to have a few bottles of the same wine and drink some early, some over time. I have done this with 1990 Bordeaux wines and still have a couple of bottles of cases I bought all those years ago. It has been interesting to watch their development from tough and tannic, through balanced and fruitful with classic cigar box notes to the dry, mushroom and port like flavours when tasted this year. The colour too changed from purple/red to claret and ruby to orange brown. The last bottles need drinking now, they are less pleasurable perhaps than even 2-3 years ago though they are still enjoyable and pleasing in a more academic manner.

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However, buying a case is not always possible or desirable. Some wines are intended to be aged for a few years, certainly the more expensive bottles from classic regions of Bordeaux, Burgundy and the Rhone. Sweet wines too age well and develop richer flavours (I generalise of course). Wines from grapes such as Mourvèdre, Syrah, Grenache, Carignan can age very well because of the levels of tannin in the wine, Italian grapes such as Nebbiolo likewise. Back labels might offer advice about how long to keep the wines, otherwise search vintage charts or the producer’s website. Some like Domaine Treloar offer clear advice on each vintage of each wine.

I bring this all up because this week I opened two bottles of Languedoc wines from 2007. Both were excellent and were perfect examples of the advantages of ageing wines.

Domaine D’Aupilhac in Montpeyroux is one of the most famous of Languedoc wine producers. Sylvain Fadat has long produced a range of very good wines. Les Cocalières 2007, a blend of Syrah, Mourvèdre and Grenache it was still fruity but had aromas of herbs and the age had developed leathery, earthy notes. Very good, the flavours lingered long.

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Even better, one of the best wines I have tasted this year was Domaine La Marfée’s Les Vignes Qu’On Abat 2007. Pure Carignan made by this domaine on the outskirts of Montpellier by Thierry Hasard. If you need proof of how good Carignan can be (other than Flambadou) then make a beeline for this wine. Brambly, liquorice flavours with almost citrus freshness, the wine improved over the course of several hours, developing yet more flavours and aromas. This would have kept for many more years, the colour was still bright ruby and there was no sign of tiredness. Truly excellent.

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I am sure these wines would have been excellent a few years ago, though would have needed to be opened for a while to allow their flavours to open up, perhaps by decanting which can be an alternative to keeping bottles for a long time and is something I do with many, even most, wines.

 

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Orange Is Not The Only Wine

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Orange wine (this was over extracted and medicinal)

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Orange wine is very, very fashionable. Often associated with the natural wine movement that is not strictly true as many conventional winemakers are experimenting with orange wines too. Perhaps the fact that they have both emerged into the spotlight in recent years has brought the two such an association. I must say I like the idea but I have not always been convinced by the wines themselves, so here are some recent experiences.

First of all we should clarify what orange wine means. They are made from white wine grapes which are left on the skins for an extended period in order to extract more flavour. This long maceration also adds tannin and colour to the wine just as happens with red grapes when making red wine. The length of time for skin contact and the type of grapes will add more or less colour, flavour and texture to the wine.

This was how wines were made many years ago, the current trend is a revival of ancient practices. Some countries such as Georgia have always made wines like this. I have had the opportunity to taste such wines from all over the world including Georgia. Mostly I find them pleasing the mind and appreciating the technique rather than pleasing my palate. Academic rather than pleasurable. Often they lack charm, taste very dry and with no fruit, perhaps the result of overlong maceration.

However I have recently tasted some very attractive orange wines. Les Choix 2014 came from Turner Pageot in Gabian, a very well judged wine as there was still plenty of apricot fruit as well as being dry and textured, made from Marsanne grapes. Very good. Ora(n)ge Sur Les Canilles 2016 is made by Domaine Ribiera in Aspiran. Régis and Christine Pichon make this delicious wine from Clairette and Terret grapes, again they have extracted good texture and dry flavours as well as white fruit flavours. Both wines have the slightest note of Fino sherry which really appealed to me.

At Mas Coutelou in 2015 and 2016 Jeff used white grapes such as Muscat Petits Grains to make orange wines, usually supervised by our two Australian assistants Cameron in 2015 and James in 2016. The result in 2015 went to make OW1, a blend of eight grape varieties macerated for a couple of weeks. It is a bright colour, has good texture and plenty of fruit along with a herbal note. The following year James made the Muscat based wine and this is a real success, the muscat notes are there but restrained to give white fruit flavours which linger with good spicy notes and a dry finish.

Orange, skin contact, long maceration. Whatever name you give this style these are wines requiring judgement and skill from the winemaker. I encourage you to try them but select ones from winemakers you trust.

For more information from someone who knows orange wines much beter than me I would recommend this website from Simon J Woolf.


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On Vintage and Video

Back in the UK and its grey climate after the blue skies of the Languedoc, the need for some colour was apparent. Other than friends and family it was a vintage and some videos which helped me to find some.

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The vintage was 2009. I first opened a bottle of one of my favourite wines the Cuvade Préciouse from Domaine Montesquiou, a dry Jurancon. This would be just about my house white wine, I love its dry, zesty flavours with just the faintest hint of sweetness on the finish. I often drink my bottles fairly quickly as it is so attractive but I tucked a few away and found this 2009 lurking on my wine racks. Lesson learned, I need to age more of these bottles. The years had added a directness, softened the zestiness a little and with the slight oak notes this was very much a Burgundy like wine. Just lovely.

I then opened a 2009 Motus from Domaine Treloar. 96% Mourvèdre (with a touch of Grenache) this was smooth as silk, tannins melted into a cocktail of red fruit flavours with great length and complexity. A wine truly at its peak and delicious. A prime example of the quality of the vintage in the Languedoc Roussillon region and of how good Mourvèdre can  be.

Intrigued by the success of those two bottles I then opened (all on different nights I should say) a Rhone 2009. It was Jeff who encouraged me to visit Domaine Du Cayron in Gigondas a few years ago. Run by the Faraud sisters their wines are made from the same grape varieties as the Languedoc and it is interesting to compare the regions. Very peppery, liquorice notes and dark red fruits this softened through the evening and still has the ability to age further. Classic Rhone, a lovely wine.

2009 was a good vintage and the benefits of maturing wine were clear with these bottles. A coincidence of two bottles became a mini examination of a vintage and it passed with flying colours.

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The other thing which brightened the days was the blog post of Jacques Bonum Vinum after a visit to Mas Coutelou, in particular the accompanying interviews. Well worth listening to, (it will stretch your French it must be said), it captures the passion and spirit of sharing which typifies Jeff. A very good piece of work, highly recommended.