amarchinthevines

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


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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.

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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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Return to the vines of Mas Coutelou

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Looking from La Garrigue towards Sainte Suzanne

Version francaise

After almost three months away it is good to be back in the Languedoc, and especially to be back in Puimisson, the home of Mas Coutelou. Jeff and Icare greeted us warmly and it didn’t take me long to get back into the vines.

Carole and Julien were hard at work pruning in Rome vineyard, my favourite of all, I was happy to see them all. Fortunately, the day I was there (24th January) was a lovely, sunny afternoon and quite warm but recent weeks have seen freezing temperatures overnight and pruning on such mornings is brutal. However, it is vital work.

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Dead vines removed, their place ready for new ones

The vine needs to be trained for the season to come, cutting away dead wood and restricting the growth of the vine so that it is does not overproduce which would reduce the quality of the wine. Pruning also offers the opportunity to check the health of each vine and to identify vines which need to be replaced.

The vine is studied, first cuts remove the growth of last year and then decisions made about which branches to remove and which to leave as spurs, which direction the growth will take and, also, about which spurs might be prepared for the following year too. All with freezing fingers and aching back.

Much work had already been done but much remains ahead. In the photos below the Grenache of Sainte Suzanne has been pruned but the Syrah remains to be done. Similarly, the reds of Peilhan are pruned but the white parcel remains to do.

Work has also begun on preparing a parcel next to Sainte Suzanne which has remained fallow for a few years giving recovery to the soil. Known as Théresette this parcel will be planted with Aramon (Noir and Gris) which is what used to be planted in this parcel many years ago and which was well suited to the soil.

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The ‘new ‘ parcel under preparation. La Garrigue in the background.

The winter also offers the chance to see the bare vineyards and their topography. When people talk about the value of a particular parcel or vineyard it is easy to overlook how even within a small area there are variations of slope and gradient which would alter drainage and exposition to the sun. Vines are all different even within a parcel and the pruning process treats each vine on its own merits to help it to produce the best fruit it can.

The vineyard soils are covered in white this January, not with snow, not here in the Languedoc at least. The white flowers of wild rocket form a spectacular blanket contrasting with the stark wood of the vines themselves. Even in winter there is something special and beautiful about being in this place, a march in the vines is so fulfilling.


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Grafting vines

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On March 17th we were in Font D’Oulette vineyard which, at just over 0,6 ha, is a small parcel replanted around 6 years ago with a variety of old Languedoc cépages such as Aramon Noir, Aramon Gris, Oeillade and the very rare Clairette Musquée. The grapes are picked together to make a single cuvée representing the parcel , Flower Power. This first appeared in 2014 and has made an impact already, selected by La Revue Du Vin De France as one of the Languedoc’s top 50 wines. As the vines age we can only anticipate eagerly what they will produce in future.

 

However, not all young vines thrive and some needed to be replaced. Two alternatives were in place this day as the rain fell steadily.

The first is to plant vines which are pre-grafted in the conservatory / nursery. These are covered in wax to protect the graft, the wax will fall away in a few weeks. I described this process last March with the new plantation in Peilhan vineyard.

The second method was to graft onto the root stocks already in situ, something I had not seen before. The American root stock has to be used to protect against phylloxera which destroyed much of France’s vineyards in the 19th century. There are different methods of grafting such as ‘chip and bud’ but Jeff brought in a specialist, Tanguy, who uses a method known as ‘greffe en fente’.

The old vine is cut away to reveal the root stock. A very sharp knife, repeatedly sharpened through the day, cleans the surface and then inserts a cut through the wood revealing its core.

The cut is supported by tying string around it. The vine wood is also cut, as if sharpening it to make a thin wedge which is inserted into the cut root stock. The idea is to get the core of the two pieces as close as possible. This is then fastened tightly with the string. The graft is complete.

It looks simple but isn’t that the mark of a skilful worker, making something complicated look easy? Have a look at the video below to see the process in one go.

The vine is staked for support, always to the side which will help the vine against the prevailing north westerly winds. Jeff had brought some basalt soil from the Auvergne and this was then placed around the grafted vine poured into the body of a plastic bottle placed around the vine .

Basalt is one of the oldest forms of rock, roche mère (mother earth or bedrock) and is packed with nutrients. This will help the vine to grow well and by filling the bottle around the vine it is surrounded with top quality soil. Organic compost is added to the hole and then the earth is hoed back over it all, removing the bottle of course.

There is a risk. Up to 20% of vine grafts do not take in theory and with greffe en fente the whole vine would have to be grubbed up next year and replanted. Other methods can simply replace the graft. However, this method is the best for the vine itself and the most likely to take.

So what were the vines? Cinsault, Aramon Noir and Inconnue No.3. Inconnue means unknown, so why is it called this? The original vine was found in an old vineyard where it had never been catalogued. It was taken by the organic nursery where Jeff buys his vines and it was studied but was discovered to have never been indexed. it is unique, unknown, hence its name. One of its benefits is that it is resistant to oidium and it will also add diversity to this complanted vineyard with about 100 of the Inconnue No.3 vines being added. A hint of mystery to the blend.

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The vine canes, only about 7-8 cm will be used

A fascinating day despite the rain which soaked us all to the skin. It was hard graft but a rich, rewarding day celebrated at lunchtime with a magnum of… well it had to be Flower Power.

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A damp guardian of the new vines

 


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Turning over some more new leaves

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Version française

In my last post I described the leaves and some other features of the five main red grape varieties to be found in the Languedoc Roussillon region. This is all part of my attempt to learn how to identify different vines more easily. So what about other varieties which are to be found at Mas Coutelou?

Red grapes

Cabernet Sauvignon

Usually associated with Bordeaux and other regions of France there is Cabernet to be found in the Languedoc. Much was planted in the 1980s and 90s as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Chardonnay were the big sellers on world markets and vignerons here tried to make money from that market. It is easy to deride this move but vignerons have to make a living and if they can sell grapes then who is to blame them?  Besides the domaine which first brought the Languedoc to the world stage, Mas de Daumas Gassac, uses these international varieties as part of their blends. I have to admit that it is not my favourite wine, certainly not the domaine’s red, but it has made an impact.

Anyway, to ampelography. I love Cabernet Sauvignon leaves, they are so easy to identify with their two eyes in the leaf which makes them look like a startled face.

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               Cabernet Sauvignon in Segrairals

A rich green colour the leaves have more lobes than most and the lower lobes overlap to cover the base of the pétiole sinus (the space where the stalk meets the leaf) giving the mouth like appearance you can see in the photo above. Generous teeth around the lobes are noticeable but it is the two spaces in the leaf which makes this easy for me to recognise. The grapes are small with hard skins and form small clusters too.

Recommended wines

Mas Coutelou – Buvette À Paulette

Others – Casa Pardet, Cabernet Sauvignon (Spain)

Cab Sauv grapes

        Cabernet Sauvignon grapes

Merlot

Poor old Merlot seems to be currently out of fashion. Seemingly everybody’s favourite in the 1990s I regularly hear people now say how it is their least favourite variety, and I confess it is one of my least popular grapes. It is capable of great things on the right bank of Bordeaux and elsewhere but it is little seen here in the Languedoc. Jeff has one parcel, Colombié, entirely planted with Merlot which is mainly used for restaurant blends and bag in box wine. 

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             Merlot in La Colombé

The leaf in the photo shows that these are rich green in colour with 5 or 7 lobes. The sinus around the stalk is open and U shaped with a large white spot where the veins come together just above this sinus. In this photo the veins are quite green as they spread out. Medium sized teeth surround the leaves. Grapes are medium sized and so are the bunches so few clues there.

Mas Coutelou – 7, rue de la Pompe (small amount)

Others – Fons Sanatis, Coudereu

Aramon

This local grape was once widely planted in the Languedoc but was grubbed up in recent years as its reputation spread as wines with little flavour. This was unfair as it was often grown to give big yields and so flavours were diluted but there are many who still scorn it. Nevertheless, with low yields it can make good wines and there is a recent trend to replanting Aramon. 

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                    Aramon Noir in Font D’Oulette

The leaves are almost trefoil in character with big veins which stand out against the dark green colour. The teeth are quite large in the lower lobes and taper gently to the top. The pétiolar sinus is big and V shaped. It is the grapes which make Aramon identifiable. They are big in size and form large cylindrical clusters. This reinforces the reputation as a big cropper of light red wines, one of its synonyms is Pisse – Vin which needs no translation. However, this is unfair and Aramon is starting to make some interesting wines again.

Mas Coutelou – Flower Power

Others – Domaine Banjoulière, Aramon;   Clos Fantine, Lanterne Rouge

White grapes

Less than 30% of wine produced in Languedoc Roussillon is white, I was actually surprised at how high that figure is. The last few years has seen Picpoul De Pinet become very trendy around the world, reaching prices over £30 in some UK restaurants for wine which costs around 5-6€ around here. Improvements in vinification and the use of temperature controls means that the quality of white wine being made here is improving and there are plenty of excellent examples.

Jeff produces a few cuvées of white wine but many of the white grapes are complanted, mixed together in the vineyard, to add complexity to the blend and an expression of terroir. In terms of identifying these varieties the challenge is, therefore, more complex, as they are mixed up I tend to be too! Therefore, I have only included the main white varieties of the domaine here, there are many, many others!

Muscat

There are actually many different varieties of Muscat just to make identification even more difficult, e.g. Muscat A Petits Grains, Muscat d’Alexandrie and there’s even a Muscat Noir just to completely baffle me. Muscat is usually used to make sweet wines such as Muscat De Rivesaltes, Muscat De Frontignan and Muscat De St. Jean De Minervois. Jeff uses it in dry blends, is considering using it for a pétillant wine this year and also uses it in his sensational solera system to make rich, sweet and dry old Muscats.

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                             Muscat from La Garrigue

Muscat Noir

                          Muscat Noir, Font D’Oulette

Muscat has quite dark green leaves and can be in 5 lobes though both the photos above show just 3, almost like a maple leaf. There are some big teeth around the leaf edge. The leaf is also relatively long compared to the width at the base and the sinus around the stalk is V shaped. The other distinctive feature is the crinkly, dimpled appearance between the veins. The grapes are actually fairly medium in size (despite the Petits Grains name) but form small clusters. The grapes are distinctive in colour as they become golden and bronzed in the sunshine with freckles too!

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Muscat grapes, admittedly more green than golden. These were picked early for dry wine.

Mas Coutelou – Vieux Muscat blends

Others – Treloar, One Block Muscat;      Clos Gravillas, Muscat de St Jean de Minervois

Sauvignon Blanc

Not a variety much found in the Languedoc as it tends to prefer slow ripening and cooler climates. In Mas Coutelou it is used for blending with other white grapes to add a little zest and bite to the mix, picked early to keep that freshness as you can read here.

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Sauvignon Blanc, La Garrigue

Quite round in shape with 5 lobes and teeth which are sizeable but more round than angular. The veins stand out as they are not coloured, reaching down to the stalk sinus which is often closed or barely open. One distinguishing feature which is observable in the photo is that the leaf tends to curl a little at the edge, note how one lobe is curling under the other on the right of the photo. Small bunches of oblong but small grapes.

Recommended – Turner Pageot, La Rupture

There are many other white varieties which I could add but these suffice for my needs. Carignan Blanc and Grenache Gris and Blanc are related to their black grape cousins and have similar appearances. Maccabeu, Picpoul etc are for another day but I think that is enough studying for the moment!

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     Viognier grapes in La Garrigue

There is a very pleasing trend in the Languedoc Roussillon towards replanting old varieties of vines. Terret, Ribeyrenc, Piquepoul Noir, for example were all planted at Mas Coutelou in March. And there remains the very rare Castets, brought in from Chateau Simone in Provence to be only the second vineyard to have this variety.

The famous Castets grapes of Peilhan

The famous Castets grapes of Peilhan

So ampelograhy is an ongoing lesson for me, if you want to find out more these websites are worth a visit.

http://www.vindefrance-cepages.org/en/vin-de-france  (English and French)

http://lescepages.free.fr/    (French)


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February

Version francaise

The Romans were late to add February as a month to their calendar having previously put together December, January and February as one long winter month. When it did become a distinct month February was seen as a month of purification, the end of winter feasting and preparation for the year ahead (February was actually seen as the last month of the year for a long time). In the Christian calendar the beginning of Lent and the tradition of Mardi Gras reflect this Roman influence.

Similarly, in the vineyard the work reflects the calendar. The Languedoc vineyards are still dormant. White vans are dotted amongst them containing the workers and their tools seeking to prune and to palisade their vines in preparation for the growing season ahead. I have described this work in detail recently so I won’t repeat myself but la taille proceeds all around us. (See here and here)

 

Vans and cars parked amongst the vines

Vans and cars parked among the vines

Sauvignon Blanc vines grafted short to reduce the yield and concentrate flavour

Sauvignon Blanc vines (at Turner Pageot) grafted short to reduce the yield and so concentrate flavours

The month began with very cold northerly and easterly winds and even one morning of snow (Feb 3rd).

February 3rd - the view from our back window

February 3rd – the view from our back window

The cold was needed to remind the vines not to start to emerge from their hibernation too soon. Early budding (bourgeonnement) can be disastrous as frosts can hit for a couple of months yet, traditionally it is mid May when the risk of frost is said to be over in the region. Those who pruned early run more risk as budding can sometimes happen sooner. Whether there was enough cold weather remains to be seen as by February 9th we were enjoying temperatures between 15C and 18C. I have heard of almond trees budding already, the mimosas were out for the festival in their name at Roquebrun on the 8th and so the vines may well be stirring already.

The mimosa is out to the left of the tower at Roquebrun

The mimosa is out to the left of the tower at Roquebrun

At Mas Coutelou there was also work to be done in preparing new vine canes to be grafted onto older vine stocks. Jeff is trying to establish some parcels with a mix of grape varieties as these cross pollinate during flowering and help to protect each other in resisting disease. He wants to bring older varieties (cépages) into his vineyards such as Aramon (noir and gris) and the Castets I wrote about in October. These are already producing great results in the quality of wine produced so far, even if it is in small quantity so far. Therefore, some old Cabernet Sauvignon vines are being removed from a vineyard such as Peilhan and being replaced by these more traditional Languedoc cépages.

Michel, Renaud and Jeff work amongst the wild rocket

Michel, Renaud and Jeff work amongst the wild rocket

Believe it or not it was quite warm despite Jeff's attire

Believe it or not it was quite warm despite Jeff’s attire

The grafting itself will not take place until around May time. For those who are interested in the technical side of this I can highly recommend this article which raises some interesting points and questions about grafting, vines and terroir. Steve Slatcher has a very good blog, well worth reading.

February also continues to bring lots of paperwork, customs and taxes for example. Many hours of such work are certainly unglamorous. Selling wine is also vital and Jeff took some cases to Gabian on the 13th to Domaine Turner Pageot to form a groupement (a pallet of wines made up from different producers) to head to Leon Stolarski, a very good merchant based in Nottingham. I have sung the praises of Turner Pageot many times on here and so it was a pleasure to see two of my favourite winemakers come together and visit Manu’s vineyards as well as tasting his wines.

Jeff and Manu study the grass which Manu has sewn between vines. This will retain moisture in summer, strengthen the structure of the soil and attract helpful insects amongst other advantages

Jeff and Manu study the grass which Manu has sewn between vines. This will retain moisture in summer, strengthen the structure of the soil and attract helpful insects amongst other advantages

There is also a belief that February is named after Febris the Latin for fever. Jeff has been suffering from flu, there is an epidemic in the Hérault at present, and Manu too was far from well. Fortunately their passion for their vines and wines shone through, a reminder that February also has its other big date on the 14th.

A warm, sunny birthday for me on February 9th but snow in the mountains still lingers

A warm, sunny birthday for me on February 9th but snow in the mountains still lingers

 

 


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Mas Coutelou 2014

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‘Proof’ that drinking Mas Coutelou wines is good for you

en francais

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The assemblage for the 2014 wines is well under way, the wines are settling in tank for some of the well known cuvées such as Classe and Vin Des Amis. (Above are glasses of richly coloured Vin Des Amis). Both are delicious already and in the few days since I first tasted them they have shown development as they marry together. The fruit and freshness which characterise Mas Coutelou wines are evident and there is a marked concentration which shows that the wines will mature well.

Jeff has published his vintage report for 2014. Winter, spring and early summer were exceptionally dry (less than 150mm or 6 inches of rain in the 9 months to the end of June) and at that moment Jeff was far from sure that he would be able to harvest any grapes. Some relief came from a summer which was not too hot and peppered by storms. However, the vines had to dig deep into their reserves of energy in order to produce grapes. Troubles continued with some storms towards the end of harvest time and then the Marin wind with their warmth and high pressure meant that through the autumn and into December the wines in tank were not able to truly rest. It was a difficult year in short, a reminder that nature rules the life of the vigneron. Indeed some local producers have seen their crops virtually wiped out by hail and mildew so the wines that Jeff has produced are to be even more cherished.

Nevertheless there are some drawbacks. The harvest was smaller especially for Syrah, (down by 40%), Carignan and Mourvedre. Syrah is a major part of many Coutelou wines so Jeff has had to improvise and make the most of what he has. The lack of Mourvedre may mean that one of his popular wines ‘Sauvé De La Citerne’ will not be made. In addition the effort made by the vines means that they would benefit from a rest and yet this winter (thus far) has been so mild that they are starting to show signs of producing buds even in January (débourrement) Instead of resting they are starting to work hard already.

The wines I tasted from tank are marked by concentration and minerality. The vines had to push deep into the soil for water in the arid early part of 2014 so they have drawn up minerals from the soil’s depths. The mineral flavours are evident when drinking. A difficult vintage has produced some highly promising wines but in smaller quantity, so guard what you already have and appreciate the quality of the new wines.

Two wines to note.

PM, the rosé,  is already gorgeous, full of fruit and perfume yet dry and absolutely delicious. At only 11% alcohol it is a wine to drink and enjoy.

A new wine made from old Cinsault, Aramon, Oeillade and Muscate. Tasted from tank this was already sensational, a red wine with grapey, perfumed scents and deep, concentrated red fruits. Can’t wait to see how this develops.

Jeff will be showing some of these new wines at a couple of tastings in the next 10 days, in Montpellier and the Loire. Today Jeff put the bottles together for those tastings, including some corking by hand. Nothing was easy about 2014!!

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Taking Classe from tank

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Bottles prepared

 

 


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Attention les Rugbymen!!

(Version française)

The Grenache you harvested and pressed has been added to large 26 litre bottles and is beginning its journey towards maturity and drinking.

Moving from bonbonnes to bottles

Moving from bonbonnes to bottles

Yesterday was a superb day to be at Mas Coutelou.

It started fairly routinely by continuing habillage, preparing bottles for sending to merchants around the world. But then Jeff took me out into the vineyards to meet up with Michel who was already out there. He was in a vineyard of young vines, including some of the almost forgotten variety Aramon Noir as well as other cépages. There is a mix of ages too with vines from this year and the last two or three years. Michel, and then Jeff, were checking each vine to check on their health and progress since they were grafted. If the graft had not taken then they will be replaced later. If everything was looking good then stakes were added to support the young vines in their growth. As it was a lovely, warm and sunny day it was good to be out in the open air.

Michel has checked that this vine is healthy and will add a wooden stake

Michel has checked that this vine is healthy and will add a wooden stake

Jeff and Icare get to work

Jeff and Icare get to work

The weather has been remarkably mild and the vineyards were full of unusual sights for mid November such as flowering roses, wild leeks and wild rocket.

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It was interesting to note the differences between two neighbouring vineyards. Jeff’s has vines living in soil which supports wildlife and olive trees for diversity. A neighbour’s vineyards show clean soils with neat rows of vines. How are they so clean? Fertilisers and chemicals. Here are obvious differences in ideas about wine and agriculture in general. Personally I am becoming ever more convinced that organic, minimal intervention is the way to healthy and tasty wines but others will disagree.

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Biodiversity

 

A regiment of vines

A regiment of vines

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

After lunch Jeff decided it was time to put into bottles the Grenache harvested in late September by the Rugbymen and ourselves. The wine had been placed in a series of bonbonnes after pressing and we tasted each one to look for the best assemblages, eg bonbonnes B and E had a sweeter edge so were mixed together in a large 26 litre bottle. The bottles were enormous and 8 were filled with the Grenache.

Michel tasting the Grenache as we agree on best assemblages

Michel tasting the Grenache as we agree on best assemblages

 

Bottles, sample bottles and emptied bonbonnes

Bottles, sample bottles and emptied bonbonnes

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As the work finished for the afternoon we were joined by Jeff’s niece Flora, a talented photographer. Jeff opened some Vieux Grenache as he checked on the progress of some new small barrels used in a new solera system to supplement the older more established one. Some bottles from 20, 30 and even 40 years ago were sampled and were truly delicious, rich with layers and layers of different flavours and varying from dry to sweet. Finally he took a sample of a very special bottle, Sélection Des Grains Nobles 2012 made with Grenache Noir. Apparently some of the Grenache was affected by noble rot that year and Jeff and Michel spent a whole day doing triage to ensure only the right grapes were selected. The result even after two years is astonishing. My mind was truly blown. How to describe something so stunning, ethereal and rewarding? One of the very best wines I have tasted and a fitting climax to a truly memorable day which was full of sunshine, teamwork and friendship.

Icare in control again

Icare in control again