amarchinthevines

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


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Go Ouest

A few weeks ago I had a reply to one of the blog posts asking me if I had noticed that there were some Coutelou wines for sale in an online auction. I have never taken part in one before so it was news to me and I put in bids for the 3 lots which were for seven bottles of Ouest 2001 and three bottles of 7, Rue De La Pompe 2010. To my surprise, despite some competition I won all three lots and was happy to receive my bottles from Taversham’s though UPS managed to break one bottle of Rue De La Pompe en route.

I have had Ouest a few times in the past few years always at Jeff’s as I have never had any of my own before. One of the privileges of spending so much time alongside Jeff is that he shares so many bottles, from other producers as well as his own. I have learned a lot as a result. There are a few cuvées of Coutelou wines which are almost mythical, Roberta, the solera and Ouest is another.

The wine is 50% Merlot, 35% Cabernet Sauvignon and 15% Syrah. The Merlot and Cabernet were from vines planted by Jeff’s father Jean Claude in the 1990s (99 and 98 respectively) because those were the grapes in demand at that time. The Cabernet was part of the biggest vineyard Segrairals but has since been scrubbed up by Jeff to be replaced by more local and unusual grape varieties as is the case in so many of the vineyards now. The Syrah in here also came from Segrairals.

The Merlot remains for the time being in its own parcel, Le Colombié, quite a way from the other vineyards. It is a parcel Jeff has had under review, we shall see what he decides.

Back in 2011 Jancis Robinson described Ouest 2001 as having “amazing intensity and subtlety, and only 12.5% alcohol” and recommended it heartily as did some of her readers on her forum. So, almost ten years later would the wine still provide such pleasure? I opened the first bottle with a little trepidation especially as the cork began to crumble. Fortunately the lower half remained intact and the wine was decanted comfortably. It was still red but with a brick or brown edge. Aromas showed a surprising red fruit profile, amazingly youthful and fresh, followed by an earthy, damp leaves smell. The flavour was still intense and subtle, black olive and black fruits along with liquorice and spices.

This was a triumph, not just because it had survived so well but because it was still a very enjoyable, complex wine pleasing both the palate and the intellect. Go Ouest indeed!


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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, news on 2016, 2017 and 2018

En francais

Cartes des voeux 2015 and 2016

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Carte des Voeux 2017, election year

Every January Jeff Coutelou sends out to customers a Carte Des Voeux, a New Year’s card, in which he sends out information about the previous year’s events in Puimisson, thoughts about the vintage and general news. The card is always fronted by a striking, witty image and this year’s was no exception.

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2018

 

The main headlines from this year’s card concerning the wines were:

  • The difficulties of the 2017 vintage, the extremely hot weather and drought and how only a timely wind from the sea (brise marine) saved the harvest
  • The small harvest, though one of very good quality
  • Details of the likely cuvées which Jeff blended in November, these include regulars such as 7, Rue De La Pompe, Vin Des Amis, PM Rosé, Classe, Flambadou, Flower Power and the Blanc but also the Amphora wine from 2016 and …… La Vigne Haute! (Happy writer here)
  • New products, spirits and ‘tonics’. Gin, Fine and Grappa together with a Kina (a wine flavoured with plants) which is delicious.

Other news headlines:

  • The 2016 vintage as proof of how nature decides. The wines were slow to develop and, so, Jeff decided to sit on up to 75% of them rather than commercialise unready wines. (That said, the 2016 bottles which I have opened recently have been very good indeed, well worth waiting for. Good news for the customer with patience, less so for Jeff’s turnover).
  • Problems in the vineyards due to heavy rain in late 2016 meant that new plantings had to be postponed.The problems caused by vandalism in autumn 2017 have damaged the work and progress of biodiversity in the vineyards, eg hedges and trees burned.

Perhaps most startling of all the Domaine will, in future, no longer be named Mas Coutelou. The authorities informed Jeff that a domaine releasing wines as Vin De France rather than AOC or IGP is not permitted to use the term Mas. In Jeff’s case this seems daft as that is the family name of his mother and founders of the Domaine. No matter the logic and common sense, the wines will now simply be called Coutelou.

As for 2018.

The plantations foreseen for 2017 will, hopefully, take place this Spring, eg next to Ste Suzanne where traditional and older grape varieties will take their place amongst the dozens already planted across the domaine.

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The sodden vineyard which could not be planted in 2017

Jeff intends to bring back to life the parcels in the Saint Chinian area which belonged to his father. They will be tidied, replanted as necessary and improved with biodiversity as a core principle. In ten years we can look forward to a whole new range of Coutelou wines from this renowned region.


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Midsummer at Mas Coutelou

After a month back in the UK due to bereavement I apologise for not posting for the last two weeks.

It was good to return to the Languedoc even in the midst of a midsummer heatwave. After a day’s acclimatisation I was at Jeff’s on Thursday morning, good and early. Well I thought so though he and Julien had been at work in the vines from 6am! Michel and Vincent were busy labelling some bottles of 7, Rue De La Pompe.

Leon Stolarski and his wife Diane arrived to meet up with Jeff, I can reveal that Leon will be the importer of Mas Coutelou wines in the UK along with Noble Rot bar in London. I showed them the updated cellar and Jeff led us on a tasting through the 2016 wines, of which more next time.

Almost as much as the people I missed the vineyards. They offer such variety, calm and beauty. The one advantage of being away for a while is to see the change over a month. The sun has seen off the wildflowers, the greenery of the vines now contrasting sharply with the parched grass. The flowers on the vines have also long gone and the grapes are now well formed and starting to swell, the size of peas. There is no sign yet of the red grapes starting to change colour (véraison).

The vines look to be in very good health. The 700mm of rain through the winter, the spell of very cold weather too have helped them to rest and be strong, a vibrant green colour. The humidity of recent days brings the threat of mildew and oidium (downy and powdery mildew respectively) and Jeff has sprayed the vines with organic treatments to help them fight against the disease.

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Mildew spots

The other main risk is from snails. In 2016 they ravaged Flower Power vineyard for example, reducing the harvest there to virtually nil. There is less evidence of them there this year but there are huge numbers in Peilhan and Segrairals. In the former they are covering the trees which Jeff planted around the vines a couple of years ago, feasting on the greenery amidst the parched vegetation.

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Nevertheless so far so good, 2017 promises to be a good vintage.

 


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The first Coutelou of Spring

Version francaise

It’s a while since I wrote about the happenings at Mas Coutelou, so time for an update. I am thankful to Jeff, Vincent and Julien for keeping me up to date in my absence.

The first few months of 2017 have been damp in the Languedoc, a contrast to the arid 2016. The photos by Julien above show water standing a week after rain and his feet sinking into the soil as he pruned. Jeff had planned to plant a vineyard of different types of Aramon at Théresette next to La Garrigue which has lain fallow for the last few years. However, the soil remains very damp and planting has not been possible, unless things change quickly the project will be postponed until next year. For the same reason, the first ploughing would have begun by now in most years, but is on hold for drier conditions.

vigour from every bud last year

Pruning the last vines (photo and work by Julien)

Julien completed pruning (taille) around March 10th. He photographed the first budding (débourrement) amongst precocious varieties such as the Muscat. However, Jeff told me this week that, generally, budding is later this year, the damper, cooler weather again responsible. That is not necessarily a bad thing. Remember that frost can cause great damage to vines, especially buds, and the Saints De Glace (date when traditionally frost risk is over) is May 11-13. I recall visiting the Loire last April and seeing frost damage, whole vineyards with no production for the year.

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Julien photographed some early buds

The weather conditions are favourable for something, sadly not good news either. Snails, which ravaged large numbers of buds and leaves in Flower Power and Peilhan last year, have found the damp much to their advantage. They are a real pest, a flock of birds would be very welcome or we’ll see more scenes like these from 2016. Of course, one of the reasons why birds and hedgehogs are lacking is the use of pesticides by most vignerons in the region.

In the cellar the new office and tasting room is complete. Our friend Jill completed a montage of Mas Coutelou labels which we gave to Jeff as a gift. Hopefully that may decorate the walls of the new rooms.

The floor which was half covered in resin last year has been finished all over and another new inox (stainless steel) cuve has arrived. (photos by Vincent).

On March 22nd the assemblages of the 2016 wines took place. Or at least most of them. One or two cuves still have active fermentation with residual sugar remaining but otherwise the wines were ready and the conditions were favourable. I won’t reveal what cuvées are now blended, that is for Jeff to unveil. However, I can say that the reduced harvest of 2016 means fewer wines are available and fewer cuvées made. In the next article I shall be giving my thoughts on the 2016 wines from tastings in October and February.

Finally, there was an award for Jeff himself. On March 30th he was made an official ambassador for the Hérault by the Chamber of Commerce of the département. This was an honour for Jeff himself and the generations of the Mas and Coutelou families who made the domaine what it is. Founded in the 1870s at 7, Rue De La Pompe by Joseph Étienne Mas who planted vines and kept cows after he had fought in the Franco – Prussian War of 1870-1. Five generations later Jeff is an ambassador for Puimisson, vignerons and the Hérault and with his wines he is really spoiling us.

 


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Busy times

busy

En français

Busy times. In the vines and in the cellar.

I mentioned recently that the cooler weather had delayed some of the growth in the vines and that flowering was late. Well, recent hotter weather has brought sudden change. Flowering happened around the turn of the month and was over very quickly, perhaps catching up lost time. In particular there was a heavy thunderstorm on Saturday June 4th which brought a torrent of rain. The water and the sunshine has really got the vines going. Tendrils reach for the skies and there is more bushiness to the vines.

The flowers gave way to the little hoods which cover the nascent grapes, capuchons. These quickly fall away too revealing the grapes for 2016. On some vines all of this is happening at the same time such as this Carignan (above) in Rec D’Oulette. The weather has also encouraged the growth of the grafted vines which we did back in March.

This brings work too. The palissage has to be lifted to support the vines, hard physical labour. And, sadly, the heat and rain bring problems of disease. Mildew has been around for a couple of weeks and I mentioned that Jeff was spraying in the very early hours and late at night last week. He worked until 1am Friday/Saturday and started again at 6am. Just as things seemed to be settling a big attack of mildew on the Grenache at Ste. Suzanne meant more treatment on Tuesday morning. This ‘curious’ year is proving to be hard work.

Not all negatives though. The storm brought such a downfall that I was fearful for the flowering bunches. damage to them means no grapes. I happened to be in Puimisson during the storm (next article!) and the rain was lashing down, converting streets and roads to waterfalls and lakes. Yet as the rain eased I went to a couple of vineyards and the flowers were coping just fine. A trip round the vines on Monday morning revealed healthy growth and the soils had absorbed the rainfall.

This is not true of everyone. Much of the water on the roads was also full of clay from vineyards nearby, hence the yellowy brown colour. Vineyards which are treated with weedkillers, where the soils are ploughed deeply, even irrigated, were unable to cope so well with the heavy rain. Soils were carried away. Compare these photographs of Jeff’s vineyards with the parcel next door belonging to someone else. The difference is marked. Water can help or can damage.

Meanwhile back in the cellar there was more work to be done. Recent changes to the fabric of the cellar, especially the floor, have brought more efficient drains and a smoother surface, easier to clean. Further work will soon be done to the rest of the floor so the bottling of the next wave of wines had to be brought forward to allow the works to be done and dusted before vendanges.

The spring bottling of wines such as 5SO, PM Rosé, 7 Rue De La Pompe I described earlier. These are wines for early drinking, vins de plaisir. Now it was time for wines with a little more body. On Thursday June 2nd 10,000 bottles of Classe were made, and it is really something special in 2015. It took almost 12 hours and went very smoothly but believe me it is a hard day’s work. On Friday, Flambadou, made from the Carignan vines above, was bottled along with other smaller cuvées.

Before anyone rushes in with orders Jeff will let these bottles rest for a few months to allow them to be at their peak when released, Flambadou probably in 2017 for example. There remains one or two cuvées still in tank which need a little more time, Flower Power being one.

So, most of the 2015  wine is now in bottle, the vines are revealing the grapes for 2016 and there are wines stored for 2017. Busy times at Mas Coutelou for everyone, well except one.

 


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Little fish are sweet

En francais

How do you follow the Perfect Day? Apparently you just wait and, like the proverbial London bus, two come along together.

March 8th dawned chilly, just 2°C when I left Margon at 8am, bright and clear, a perfect day for the last Spring bottling. The biodynamic calendar was favourable too, last day of the descending moon and a flower day.

In fact we started with a morning of habillage (labelling and packaging). The start of a longer process of habillage to prepare wines to send to cavistes around the world, it’s time to earn some money! This morning palettes of ‘5SO Simple’ and ‘7, Rue De La Pompe’ were put together, a smooth enough process as Jeff, Michel, Vincent and I have all done this many times now (I’m getting to be an old hand!). One interesting feature is how different regions require different labels, customs stamps and even palettes, the USA different to Europe for example. So making sure you have the right matériel demands some time and attention.

So far, so good. The banter was enjoyable as ever, Icare provided some amusement when, hiding under the rollers, he gave himself a shock when a case of bottles passed over his head. The day improved with the arrival of Thomas, a sommelier who spent time with us at vendanges, excellent company.  However, the day then took an unexpected turn for the better with a phone call from Sylvain, one of Jeff’s myriad friends. He is a scientist, intellectual and fisherman and phoned to say he was on his way. With him was a cool-box full of sea urchins, sea bass and black mullet – all freshly caught.

So, just after noon, we repaired to 7, Rue De La Pompe, the house rather than the bottle. There Sylvain prepared a feast. The oursins, fresh with their delicate tongues of iodine, concentrated flavours of the ocean; a sea urchin butter spread on fresh bread; sashimi of bass and mullet; sea bass marinated in olive oil and Jeff’s white wine vinegar; sea bass chips (little fried nuggets of flesh and skin); chunks of bass and mullet fried lightly in a tempura beer batter; fish egg omelette; barbecued sea bass; black mullet grilled with broccoli, then coated in a Japanese sauce. Totally delicious, everything was a delight, every morsel.

The freshness of the fish and Sylvain’s imagination and skill provided us with a 3 hour banquet, conversation around the role of fish and wine in religions, lighter topics too. Sometimes I have to pinch myself.

 

And, of course, wines.

Snow Balls 14, that curious cuvée of Sauvignon Blanc, Grenache Gris, Muscat and others, it shouldn’t work but it always does – so fresh, clean, dry and fruity, a perfect match with the sashimi for example.

5SO Simple 15, ( the best 5SO ever?), perfumed cherry Cinsault, dangerously fruity and moreish but with a little more texture this year. A good match for the cooked fish with its cleansing acidity.

La Vigne Haute 2010. Oh my word. This is my favourite Coutelou cuvée and the 2010 is stunning. Pure, pure Syrah, bottled joy. Deep brambly red fruit scents, as you sniff the wine you are drawn in to the luscious aromas. Rich, smooth texture with the softest of tannins supporting it, cassis and red fruit flavours and soooo long with flavours of chocolate and coffee emerging. OK I’m sounding poncey but seriously, this is fantastic wine. It will improve for a few years yet and I have some in my ‘cellar’, happy man.

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2010 La Vigne Haute and its maker

An indulgence, the whole meal. The kind of life affirming meal which everyone should enjoy from time to time.

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And yet, back to bottling on this clear, fresh day. A special cuvee, one of the little cuvées. A barrel of Maccabeu and Grenache Gris from 2012 which will be named after the top Spanish ham, 5J. The aim was to produce a wine like a light Fino, slightly oxidised but concentrated and fresh to match those hams. The barrel was formerly used for making cognac (adding more flavour) and the wine succeeds in its ambition.

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Vincent, Sylvain (standing centre), Thomas (kneeling) and Jeff

It resembles a light fino, it is dry and the slight oxidation adds complexity but it is the clear fruit which lingers, lifted by that barrel influence. I was reminded of the Jura white wines I love, a Ganévat for example, but the fino / light amontillado sherry reference rings true. It is utterly delicious. A special cuvée demands a special bottle, so 50cl flute bottles were used with a glass stopper rather than a cork. Just a few hundred bottles of something very special.

5J maccabeu Grengris

The Maccabeu / Grenache Gris pressed in 2012 (photo by Jeff)

The barrel was then refilled with some of the top quality Maccabeu of 2015, ready for another delight in a few years. The treats continued though. Little fish are sweet. These were the words used by one of my heroes, WA (Arthur) Stephenson. He was a hugely successful horse racing trainer from my home area in County Durham and when his horse won the Cheltenham Gold Cup (jump racing’s top race) in 1987 he explained why he was at his local track instead of at the big meeting, “little fish are sweet”. As I had referenced Bowie last time I thought it was an apt and indulgent reference to the great man, who shared his time and thoughts generously whenever I spoke with him.

 

There was time to taste the Grenache wine which I made for my 100th blog post with the help of my friends. I intend to write a little more about this, suffice to say that the wine is developing very well in two different sized barrels and one super-sized glass bottle.

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Tasting the grenache

A tasting too of the 2015 Grenache Sélection De Grains Nobles, quietly maturing. Dark plummy colour, rich and round but it was black grapes that I could taste believe it or not with a sweet, raisin edge. A wine to wait for, and it will repay the patience I am sure.

SGN Grenache 15

SGN Grenache

Finally, a 40 year old Muscat. Figgy aromas, black olive and molasses. No sign at all of tiredness just intense, thick, sweet nectar yet still an acidity to keep it in balance. Liquid sunshine, a long past summer captured in a bottle, revived in the glass for us. A perfect end to (another) perfect day.

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40 year old Muscat (and bottle)