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!
Just before leaving the Languedoc for hibernation in the UK I was invited by Jeff Coutelou to taste through this year’s wines. Most are now finishing both fermentations and starting to settle for the winter in cuve. They will change and develop over the next few months of course, they are living wines and still in their infancy. Consequently, these observations are preliminary but, after five years of similar tastings, I feel more confident about predicting which way the wines will go.
2018 has undoubtedly been a troubled year for Jeff and fellow Languedoc producers, in particular those who follow organic and biodynamic principles. The damage began with the long period of rain in Spring and the mildew outbreak which ensued. Mildew damaged the flowers, buds and young grapes. It damaged the leaves making it more difficult for the vines to produce the energy to feed those grapes. Jeff cannot recall a year of such blight. This was followed by a very hot, very dry summer making the vines suffer still further, compounding their difficulty in producing good sized fruit. Yields are down some 50-60% following on from 2017 when they were down 20%.
With all those problems could good wines be made?
We started with white wines. The white grapes from the 2015 Peilhan plantation have been blended with others from older vines in Peilhan such as Carignan Blanc, Maccabeu and Grenache Gris. The small quantity means this will be used for a barrel aged wine. It had finished fermentation and had good fruit with a liquorice streak and depth of flavour. Another batch of the Grenache Gris and Maccabeu was still in malolactic fermentation and cloudy with apples and a directness. Similarly the whites from La Garrigue were still fermenting but with great depth of flavour. There will only be small quantities of any Coutelou white wine, the last couple of years have not been kind to them.
Onto the reds.
Grenache was the variety which was most affected by mildew, the vines were not pretty and yields were very small. Many of the bunches did not form, many which did suffered from coulure (where only a few berries form) or produced dried, dessicated fruit. The vendangeurs had to be very selective. So was it worth picking? The Grenache from La Garrigue tasted clean with good fruit and a nice acidity. The Grenache from Sainte Suzanne was worst hit of all. Jeff made the wine with only a couple of days on stems as the fruit was delicate. The wine is light as a result, juicy with red fruits, light but tasty.
Cinsault usually provides another light wine and this vintage was no exception. Despite that it was very fruity on the nose and on the finish, a surprising depth of flavour. For rosé, 5SO or both? Jeff will decide as the wine develops.
The tank which will make Flower Power 2018 has a bewildering mix of grapes, from the Flower Power vineyard itself, Rome, some Syrah from Segrairals and the reds from the 2015 Peilhan plantation, eg Morastel and Riveyrenc Noir. There was a lot of mouth feel in the wine, with tannin and substance and a concentration of dark fruits.
Cabernet Sauvignon from the last picking has produced a real glouglou wine, light and juicy. It will bring a fruity freshness to any wine it is used for.
Carignan was one grape which resisted mildew for a long time. This is the parcel producing Flambadou, one of the flagship Coutelou wines. Once again it has produced a high quality wine. Lighter in alcohol than usual yet managing to produce a full, ripe and fresh wine whose flavours lingered long after swallowing it. I look forward to this one a lot.
Perhaps the biggest surprise was the Mourvèdre. It has made good wines before, try the 2015 or 2016 for example. However it could be a real star this year. There was a great depth and freshness with dark fruit flavours made to feel lighter by light acidity leading to an almost saline finish. It would be almost drinkable now but will keep for many years and develop beautifully, I am sure of that.
Syrah from Sainte Suzanne was made using grappe entire or whole bunch. Around 14% abv it has a clean acidity with red fruits and soft tannins (from the stems?) which will support a good wine. The Syrah from Segrairals was quite different, the place and destemming produced a more upfront fruity wine with a clean, dry finish.
And, of course, there was the Syrah from La Garrigue, home of my favourite wine La Vigne Haute. Amazingly, in such a horrible year, the quality of these grapes was excellent. Only made in very good years and yet, hopefully, there will be a 2018 La Vigne Haute. The wine has great character already, freshness, fruit, long flavours supported with lovely tannins which will help the wine to age well. Exciting.
So, out of the ashes rises the phoenix, very good wines despite the vintage. The resilience and quality of the vineyards and vines as well as the winemaking skills of Jeff Coutelou.
“They think it’s all over, it is now,” were the famous words of commentator Kenneth Wolstenholme when England scored their fourth goal to win the World Cup of 1966. Well to mix metaphors one more time, Jeff decided it was time to get the band back together after we had thought the vendanges were completed.
Not again! I’m sleeping
There remained a parcel of Cabernet Sauvignon that Jeff thought not to be worth collecting but the last couple of weeks they had ripened a bit more and there was enough to warrant one last pick on Tuesday 2nd October. The pickings were meagre, it took 7 or 8 pickers up to two hours to fill the 16 cases which are brought back to the cellar to be sorted again and then put in tank. Aching muscles and stuttering machinery protested a little at the reprise but the stainless steel tank in the photo was just about half filled by the end of the day. The grapes themselves were very good, Cabernet always gives small berries but they were healthy.
The juice went to Thierry for analysis as usual. A solid 14% potential alcohol, though lacking a little acidity. It tastes juicy and clean and I am sure will be used either for blending or in the spirits made for the Coutelou range.
Analyses old and new taking place
We went on to taste more of the tanks and the results are promising. The Syrah of La Garrigue is undoubtedly the star (even allowing for my bias towards this perennial favourite), the Carignan, Flower Power also very good. Perhaps the biggest surprise was a very long, fruity Grenache – the grape which had suffered most from this year’s dreadful mildew. Grapes are very hardy it would seem, helped by a skilful winemaker of course. That will not make up for the loss in yields this year, 50% would appear to be the figure. Sadly this might well bring price rises. We had another caviste at the cellar wanting to buy wine that day, the latest in a long line through the vendanges. Sadly, there is not enough to satisfy existing customers’ demand let alone new outlets.
A lot more smaller tanks have been needed this year, a sign of low yields
it was good to have a day together again, the financial cost of picking was undoubtedly higher than usual but there is more wine in tank and hopefully that will offset some of this year’s hardships.
Traditional end of vendanges, the boss does some cleaning of the cases
Cuves containing new wine including, potentially, La Vigne Haute. Note how the near one is far from full, this is 2018!
A hectic and busy week, including 12 hour days. The picking team had reduced in number therefore Jeff Coutelou had to make the time work to best advantage. Grenache Gris was amongst grapes picked on Monday to head towards rosé and other cuvées. The main focus though was the Carignan of Flambadou, the flagship of the domaine for the last few years. It may well be joined in cuve by the small, juicy berries of that rare Cépage, Castets.
Cabernet Sauvignon followed on Tuesday and Wednesday with more Syrah and Cinsault from different parts of the vineyards. Mourvèdre was the last big block of vines to be tackled and took a very full day on Thursday to pick. This parcel in Segrairals has varied topography, the lower parts become a little damp and are more prone to rot. It is important for Michel to convey not just the grapes but also the location of the grapes picked so that triage is made more efficient.
Top left – Carignan, top right – Castets, below Grenache Gris
By now Jeff was concerned that some of the vines were becoming so stressed by all the issues this year, mildew above all, that they were struggling to ripen the grapes. In order to ensure the health of the vines for next year it was no longer worth pushing them that little bit further so that next year would be compromised. Vines are fragile, living things which need to be looked after, Jeff nurtures them carefully.
Whilst picking was in full swing and cases were stacked up for sorting there was plenty of activity in the cellar. Wines in cuve or tank need treating carefully too, ensuring the juice ferments into wine with nothing added to it requires the vigneron makes good decisions about, for example, levels of acidity and alcohol, exposure to air and skins. I shall be coming back to this in the next post in a couple of days time.
And, after all that work, it is all too tiring for some of us!
The last article described the ongoing problems in the Languedoc with mildew spoiling vines and grapes. Last Saturday Jeff invited me over to try and beat the blues a little. Steve from Besançon was staying with Jeff for a week to learn a bit more about being a vigneron. They had opened a bottle of La Vigne Haute 2013 on the previous evening and Jeff invited me over to try the last glass from the bottle.
When I arrived on the Saturday morning Jeff was spraying the Flower Power vineyard, Font D’Oulette. When he had finished we returned to his house and I had the remaining 2013, delicious it was too, still youthful but starting to add tertiary notes to the fruit. Jeff decided to open the 2010 to show how age helps La Vigne Haute to reveal its quality and depth; fruit, spice and leathery complexity. A bottle demonstrating perfectly why La Vigne Haute is my favourite wine of all. However, that was not the end. From his personal cellar emerged a 2001 LVH with no label. Still vibrant with fruit singing and yet more complexity of spice, classic black pepper notes. Simply excellent.
So, was that the end? Not at all. More Syrah from older vintages, 1998, 1997 and 1993. Each was still alive with black fruit and those spicy notes. The 91 was Jeff’s first solo bottling, a real privilege to taste it. He had added, all those years ago, a total of 5mg of SO2, pretty much absorbed now, and would certainly qualify as natural wine from a time when it was virtually unknown. A treasure trove of history as well as further proof of how well these wines do mature, there were no off notes at all. Indeed, they were delicious.
A 1999 Cabernet Sauvignon showed the quality of that grape from the region and how well it aged. There were still currant flavours, violets and more spice. A fresh acidity cleansed the palate. I hadn’t known what to expect, I was bowled over.
And to finish the 5 hour lunch a bottle of Roberta, the 2003 white wine made from all three Grenache grapes, one of Jeff’s first no added sulphite wines, aged in a special barrel which gives the wine its name. It is a treat I have tasted on a handful of special occasions, its nutty, round fruit was a perfect ending to a special day. Whatever 2018 brings this was a reminder of the special Coutelou wines.
Last weekend I should have been in the Languedoc with Jeff and attending a wine tasting at Latour De France. Sadly, a 48 hour bug put a stop to that.
Instead I reflected on a tasting we did at Jeff’s on October 3rd of all the 2017 wines in cuve. Regular readers will recall that they vintage is of high quality but low quantity. Quantities will be in short supply of what will be seriously good wines. There was a tinge of sadness about that as we tasted through the range.
These were my notes on the evening.
Maccabeu / Grenache Gris – still some residual sugar. Fresh nose, Fruity, pears. Slight sweetness which will disappear. Clean and lovely.
Sauvignon Blanc – fresh apple, bright and zesty. A true Sauvignon character, refreshing.
Carignan Blanc – lovely, full, clean, direct – fresh and fruity. Very good.
Rosé – very pale, flowery aroma, fresh and clean, exactly what you’d want from a rosé.
Syrah (Ste Suzanne) – whole bunch, red fruit, round tannins, good finish, full, very good.
Cinsault – lovely, fresh and juicy red fruit, cherry, 13,5% but tastes lighter. Good.
Syrah (Segrairals) – amazing passion fruit nose which carries into taste. Fresh, citrus and lovely red fruit, a real star.
Syrah (La Garrigue) – La Vigne Haute (fingers crossed). Terrific, direct full tannnins, splendid fruit, full, long – stunner.
Flower Power – Maccabeu, Syrah (St Suz), Grenache (St Suz), Grenache Gris, Cinsault, Terret Noir and Flower Power – Despite the different assemblage this has the character of previous Flower Power – fruity, silky tannin and very appealing. Lovely.
Grenache – blend of Ste Suzanne / La Garrigue – 2015 St Suz provided 80hl, this year the 2 vineyards made 60hl. Lovely, fresh cherry flavours with a spicy finish.
Mourvėdre – crunchy, spicy good tannins and dark fruits. Very true to the grape. Good.
Carignan – top of the class. Lovely fresh red and black fruits, excellent balance of freshness and complexity. Star yet again.
Merlot – lovely fruit nose, fresh, touch of wildness which should settle. Nice.
Cabernet Sauvignon – still some sugar, plenty of fruit, easy to drink with classic blackcurrant notes.
We went on to drink a couple of the 2016 wines which were still in cuve, a very floral and spicy Syrah and an assemblage of Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre which had good fruits with a soft tannin finish.
Reflections on the evening? The quality of 2017 is clear it is up there with the 2015s, just such a shame that fewer people will get to drink them. The whites are very good but the reds shine especially the future La Vigne Haute and Flambadou. The wines had all fermented beautifully causing few worries. A vintage to cherish, can’t wait until it is in bottle.
I started my coverage of the 2017 vendanges with racing terminology and, so, I finish in the same way.
It’s definitely over. Vendanges 2017 with all its quality, with so little quantity.
On September 27th the final press of the grapes was completed. It was the turn of the Cabernet Sauvignon, two weeks after picking. The skins, pips and other solids had done their work in giving up flavour, colour, tannins and so much more. The yeasts had started their work of fermentation. Now it was time to press before that grape must started to be problematic rather than beneficial.
The must was pumped from the cuve by the powerful pompe à marc directly into the press. Julien ensured that the press was filled in all corners and then the press began. It inflates a membrane inside which gently presses the must to extract the juice without releasing the more bitter, astringent tannins left in the skins and pips.
Sediment after the must has gone to press
The grape variety (cépage) will determine the amount of pressure applied, Cabernet has small berries and thicker skins so needs a little more pressure than juicier, thinner skinned Cinsault for example.
The juice flows and is sent to another cuve to continue its fermentation, then its malolactic fermentation (which removes the more acid flavours). Indeed the analyses of the 2017 wines show that fermentations have gone through quickly, without fuss or problem. There is no sign of volatility or any other problem, the wines look on course to be as high quality as the grapes themselves. Which, of course, is the goal. Jeff believes in letting the grapes express themselves with as little intervention as possible. This year interventions are minimal, the grapes have done the work.
Sadly, the quantities do not reflect the quality and that will bring a financial blow to the domaine and to virtually all domaines in the region. When you are asked to pay a few euros for a bottle of 2017 Mas Coutelou, I hope that you will recall all the work which I have described, the stresses and strains, the love and care which has gone into that bottle and you will consider it money well spent.
Last Monday (September 11th) we were joined at Mas Coutelou by winemakers Charlotte and Louis Pérot and of their friends. You might recall that their Cahors domaine L’Ostal is one which has appeared on these pages before. I first met Louis in spring 2015 at La Remise in Arles where I was taken by his wines and was eager to spread the word of how good they were. Happily Jeff agreed with my judgement and a friendship grew between the winemakers.
Cabernet Sauvignon 2017
Sadly the spring of 2017 brought 3 nights of frost to the vines of L’Ostal damaging the young growth and buds, up to 80% of the vines were damaged meaning huge losses on the year. Jeff decided to help out and offered the Pérots the opportunity to come to Puimisson and take some Cabernet Sauvignon grapes to ensure they had more wine. I hasten to add that this was a gift, free of any charge, offered simply to help out a colleague and friend. I have heard of similar stories for other winemakers affected but it was humbling to see this fraternity in action for myself.
Louis and Charlotte picked around 60 cases and drove them back to Puy L’Evêque where I am sure they will make another very good wine. We actually opened one of their magnums the following day at lunch, and very good it was too. If you thought Cahors wines are too difficult I urge you to try and find one from L’Ostal, it will change your mind.
In a year when Jeff himself will lose up to 40% of his average production he showed no hesitation in helping out someone who was in a worse situation than himself. A mark of the man.
In other words, the finish. Well, the finish of the picking. Tuesday September 12th was so much calmer than the previous day as the Cabernet Sauvignon from Segrairals arrived.
Thoughout the vendanges the grapes have been good, smaller than the norm because of the dryness, but in excellent health. The Cabernet was no exception. Sorting was all about snails and dry leaves rather than any problems with the grapes and the vat filled gradually, problem – free, as the day progressed. The stalks were brown showing the maturity of the bunches as the third érafloir of yesterday completed its job efficiently.
Myself and Jeremy
As we awaited the first cases Jeff and I went around some of the vats and took samples for analysis as well as tasting the wines. I wish that I could convey the bready aromas filling the cellar of the yeasts at work, they give such a sense of change, optimism, alchemy.
Amongst the wines we tasted were two from 2016, Syrah and Grenache, which have been sparked back into fermentation by the very presence of this year’s grapes in the cellar. The process is truly amazing. The glass in the photo below shows the top Syrah from La Garrigue harvested two weeks ago, which just may become La Vigne Haute. It is a stunner.
Quality across the board is undoubtedly high though Jeff is counting the cost of the quantity, his first estimates are that the overall yield will be around 39 hectolitres per hectare. Average years would give between 50 and 60 hl/ha.
Joining us on the day was a former student of Jeff and Vincent restaurateur Régis Lamazère and his wife and baby. Régis runs his autonymous restaurant in Berlin where Charles who was here for vendanges 2016 used to work.
After the grapes were in and the last cases sorted by Julien and Vincent it was time to start serious cleaning of all the equipment which will be put away for 2018. The picking may be over but the work never stops. A full programme of pressing, remontages etc is in place for the next week. Stay tuned.
I had heard good reports about Karim Vionnet’s wines and I enjoyed the lighter non-oaked versions in particular. Du Beur Dans Les PInards 2015 had well balanced fruit and depth, very good Beaujolais. The light, straightforward Chiroubles ‘Vin De KaV’ 2015 would please anyone, though added sulfites seemed unnecessary.
The Roussillon is home to many excellent winemakers and I had seen some rave reviews about Riberach so it was good to taste their wines at last. Riberach is a collection of grower, winemakers and others with 20ha of vines certified by Ecocert. I liked the wines in general especially the white wines. Hypothèse Rouge 2011 had good fruit and mineral mouthfeel but top for me was the Hypothèse Blanc 2014. The red is based on Carignan Noir, the white on Carignan Gris – a Carignan whitewash for me.
The highlights of the Montpellier tastings in January included Chateau Meylet from St. Émilion and, perhaps, Bordeaux based wines are making a comeback in my affections as Chateau Massereau based in Barsac was a favourite here. Certainly the Sauternes wines were a real delight (La Pachère lighter than Cuvée M) but the reds were the core wines, I liked them all but especially the Cuvée Socrate 2009, picked early for freshness which shone in the glass. A word too for a really good Clairet 2015, weightier than a rosé with 48 hours of skin contact, fruity, light and delicious.
Another Austrian producer makes my list, it really is a source of some of the best wines at present. I presume Eduard Tscheppe is somehow related to the excellent Andreas whose wines I have praised so often on here. Together with his partner Stephanie they make very attractive and drinkable wines. So popular that they ran out of wine early on the Sunday so I made a bee line for them on Monday morning. The Theodora (weiss) 2015 was very mineral but plenty of fruit too, complex and good. my other favourite was Emmeram 2015 made from Gewurztraminer, not everybody’s favourite grape but this was long, fruity, exotic and just a touch of residual sugar to add a pleasurable finish.
More from Austria and amongst the best of its producers, another to run out of wine early. Delicious Foam White 2015, a petnat with superb freshness and depth after 15 months on lees. Graupert Pinot Gris 2015 had chewy fruit (2 weeks on skins) and a lovely clean finish. The two Konkret wines (raised in concrete eggs) were particularly good, proof that ageing wines in this style does work well. The white had lovely peachy aromas and long fruit, the red was clear, direct and long. The Zweigelt 2015 was a highlight, beautiful precise fruit and a mineral, clean finish. I should also praise the delicious Foam Cider.
So much did I like the wines and cider from Meinklang that I immediately ordered some.
I tried wines from quite a few East European producers and was a bit disappointed by them. However, Batic, a Slovenian producer, was outstanding. A lovely 2016 Cabernet Sauvignon but the real star was Angel 2011 a blend of 7 varieties complanted in the vineyard, 31 days on skins and 4 years in barrel. How does that make such a light, fruity, pleasurable wine? I don’t know but it was a terrific wine.
Excellent Italian wine based on Sangiovese and Cabernet Sauvignon. Freshness was the hallmark of the wines. Particular favourites were Vigna Alla Sughera Rosso 2013, lovely sharp cherry flavours. The Vigna Al Mare 2013 had real Cabernet profiles of blackcurrant. Vino Rosso Base 2014 was a light blend of the 2 grapes and very drinkable.
A very good tasting offering the opportunity to taste wines from many countries. Natural wines are on the up, producers emerging not just in the traditional hotspots of France and Italy. One well-known wine writer recently suggested in a description of one wine that natural wine is a fashion. Apparently she is unaware that they have been made for almost 40 years, they are no fad. More producers, more customers, more restaurants – the demand for natural grows every month.
I remain unconvinced by amphorae, some producers are mastering the technique but there is a lot of clumsy, inexperienced use at present. Concrete eggs on the other hand do seem to be more sympathetic to the wine.
Most producers at RAW were certified organic or biodynamic. It is important that consumers should be confident that their wine is really natural. The wine described by the critic was made SO2 free but not organic, to my mind (and in RAW’s charter) that would not be a natural wine. I also did wonder why some producers continue to feel the need to add sulfites to the wine.
Natural wines are here to stay, they will hopefully become known as simply very good wines. The wines described in the last 3 articles should help to provide many examples of such very good wines. And that is without covering the wines of such illuminati as Cornelissen, Gravner and Texier.