amarchinthevines

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


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Harvest 2019 – Eight Grapes A Day

En francais

Carignan Blanc, Carignan Noir, Terret Blanc, Piquepoul Gris, Muscat d’Alexandrie, Macabeu, Castets, Morrastel.

These were the eight grape varieties picked on Thursday September 12th (Day 10 of vendanges). There are some unusual ones in there. Morrastel is a Spanish grape by origin (known as Graciano there). Part of the 2015 new plantation of Peilhan, it is already giving generous fruit in big bunches. Castets, from the South West of France, was very rare but has sprung to fame in 2019 as one of the new varieties which the Bordeaux AOC is allowing to be included in its wines. Jeff planted some in Peilhan long before this in 2011, its small, concentrated berries mark it out.

Tackling the Morrastel on a hot day Castets (right)

In Decanter magazine Andrew Jefford recently described winemaking as the litmus of climate change. I think that is an excellent way of describing the situation. When Carignan, a Mediterranean grape, is badly affected by the kind of heatwave we experienced this summer then there is something wrong. Castets, along with other varieties, has been added to the Bordeaux mix to help its vignerons adapt tot he new climate situation. Morrastel and other Spanish/Italian/Greek varieties might well be part of the answer for regions such as the Languedoc.

Jeff is well aware of the problem and it is one of the reasons he has experimented so much with different grapes in recent years, trying to add nuances of flavour, variety and the best way for his terroir to express itself being other reasons.

The Carignan Blanc went straight into the press, it will form its own cuvée or be assembled, we shall see how it turns out and how it might add to other white wines of the year. The Terret Blanc and Piquepoul Gris, both from the same 2015 plantation as the Morrastel, were added to the two new amphorae. This will be an interesting wine to follow as Jeff has previously used red grapes in the older amphorae. I think the white version could well be more interesting still.

The Muscat d’Alexandrie always produces big grapes, perfumed like most Muscats but this is picked before it becomes sweet. The grapes were destemmed and put into tank. They have been used to make the OW (orange wine) in recent years, I suspect this will follow that route.

Muscat d’Alexandrie being destemmed

The Macabeu is another Spanish grape (known as Macabeo or Viura there) but it has taken well in the Puimisson vineyards, often producing its own synonymous cuvee. It was pressed immediately and put into stainless steel like the Muscat. The Carignan from Peilhan was again destemmed and will be used for blending. The Carignan from Rec D’Oulette (the Flambadou grapes) meanwhile is likely to be the last of the harvesting this year.

A fascinating day with such variety of grapes and stories. A sobering one too in reflecting on the litmus situation.

Icare and Bulles (Alain’s dog) certainly found it hot

Day 10


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Almost there

En francais

Grenache Noir in Rome

Vendanges will begin on September 2nd, hopefully. A tour of the vineyards on August 19th brought me up to speed with their progress. Mostly it is good news with a little bit of not so good news, take your pick. Let’s start with the negatives which are outweighed by the positives I promise.

Look at how dry the vegetation is in the background and in the Carignan to the left

This has been another year of drought in the region. Sceptics of climate change, if they remain, need to meet up with life in southern France. From 45c temperatures to lack of rainfall agriculturalists such as vignerons have had to cope for the present and plan for the future. Bordeaux is permitting new grape varieties into their blends as these grapes will cope better with higher temperatures (incidentally Castets is one of those grapes, one which we know from Jeff Coutelou’s vines). Many producers here in the Languedoc are using irrigation, no longer frowned upon by authorities. Others, like Jeff refuse to do so believing that irrigation is not natural and disguises the true taste of a vintage and the terroir.

Small Syrah grapes in La Garrigue

The consequence for the vines this year is that whilst the berries are healthy they are smaller than usual, lacking in juice. Unless we get some rain before harvest quantities will be much reduced, the wine may be very concentrated. In such drought conditions vines even start to take back water from the berries so as to survive for the future. After several years of problems from frost, hail, mildew and drought it would have been a relief for many producers to have a bountiful yield, it looks unlikely.

Green berries in the Carignan, millerandage

The other main negatives will also mean lower yields this year, millerandage and coulure. The photo above shows a lot of green berries in the Carignan bunches amongst the black grapes. This is the result of problems in Spring when a cooler, windy spell damaged the flowers and fruit set. This means some bunches don’t grow at all or have many berries missing, coulure. Sometimes the berries mature at different rates or not at all, millerandage. There will need to be careful sorting in the vineyard and cellar when harvest is under way.

Millerandage in Piquepoul Gris to the left, coulure in June on the right

However, there are plenty of positives, let’s not get too gloomy. The bunches are healthy and plentiful for one. From Grenache in La Garrigue to Cinsault in Rome I tasted some sweet and flavoursome grapes. They are still acidic and need time but the fruit flavour is developing well, the pips starting to turn brown, a sign of maturity.

Seeing the many varieties of grapes in the Coutelou range was also rewarding, the Riveyrenc Noir, Piquepoul Gris, Muscat Noir in these photos (left to right) being just three of dozens. There’s even a Chasselas in Rome, the variety which is used as a benchmark for ripening. All other varieties are compared to Chasselas’ average ripening time, a clue as to when to pick.

Chasselas

Jeff has rested a few days during the local féria, a lovely party was held with some special bottles. Next up will be the cleaning of machinery and tanks, we are set fair.

PS – just after publishing this I saw a tweet from Louis Roederer in Champagne saying their harvest would be limited by … lack of rain and millerandage. Plus ca change…


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Vendanges 2018 – Part 4

Monday 10th to Friday 14th

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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!

 


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Grapes and climate change

Jeff forwarded me an interesting article from Le Figaro this week. The subject was research published in the journal Nature, Climate, Change focusing on the effects of climate change on viticulture and the likely need for change.

NCC

Some, such as Trump, deny such change of course but those of us in the real world can consider evidence. Vendanges in France now take place on average 2-3 weeks before they used to around 1970. The long history of wine writing means that we know that in Burgundy, for example, harvests are at their earliest in 700 years. Extreme weather in all seasons is more common, made worse by some agricultural practices such as soil impaction from machinery as well as the effects of herbicides which discourage rain from soaking into the soils.

As average temperatures rise seemingly year on year and water shortages occur more frequently in the Languedoc and other regions then viticulteurs face the problem that traditional grape varieties ripen earlier and earlier and struggle in drought conditions such as those shown in the map below indicating ’emergency’ zones in summer 2017.

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The researchers, such as Elizabeth Wolkovich from the Harvard University Centre for the Environment, suggest that testing different grape varieties will be necessary. At present many of the world’s leading wine producing countries are dominated by 12 ‘international varieties’ such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Syrah, Riesling and Pinot Noir.* The list at the bottom of the page shows how much these vineyards are dominated by the international varieties.

France is more varied with 43.5% planted with these grapes (though 85% under the top 20 grapes). Altogether more than 300 grape varieties are planted around France. Organisations promoting rare and forgotten grapes, eg Wine Mosaic, are gaining traction and the researchers believe that by finding grapes with longer growing seasons and later ripening then regions badly affected by climate change might find ways to preserve their vineyards and traditions.

Labelled

I have reported many times how Jeff Coutelou has been planting many different cépages. He believes that not only do they provide variety in the vineyard and bottle but that the mix of different grapes in vineyards helps to prevent disease spreading. Castets, Piquepoul Noir, Terret Blanc, Morastel, and even an Inconnue (unknown) are grapes planted int he last few years and he is looking at others such as Picardan which is related to Clairette and Mauzac. Great wines such as Flower Power have resulted from these plantings, more will follow.

This is the way forward, experimenting to find grapes which make good quality wine and which can stand the climatic changes which we face.

 

* % area of vineyards under the 12 varieties

China – 93 (almost 75% Cabernet Sauvignon)

New Zealand 91.6

Australia 84.5

Chile 77.6

USA 70

 

 


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Amphorae

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Version francaise

One of the winemaking trends of recent years has been a return to the learning of our forefathers. The revival of old grape varieties, use of horses for ploughing, many of the practices of natural winemaking are references to the past. As a historian these practices are very welcome to me.

Another welcome revival has been the use of amphorae for fermenting or ageing wines. Of course this was the methodology of the Greeks and Romans thousands of years ago but they had all but disappeared in western Europe. Certainly the practice survived in the East, especially Georgia, partly due to the poverty of Soviet times. The fall of communism and this search for the past has brought about a revival of interest in the amphora.

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The advantage is that clay is porous and allows an exchange of the wine with air/oxygen. This is why wooden barrels have been used but the advantage of amphorae is that they do not give the familiar taste of oak. Many producers who have used amphorae claim that they keep wines fresher than barrels.

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Earlier this year I reported how Jeff had been given a present by a diving friend who discovered a Roman (time of Julius Caesar) amphora in the Mediterranean. I had hoped that it could be used for winemaking but it needs a lot of reconstruction as well as disinfection. However, it seemed to inspire Jeff who went to Spain in order to buy two 400l amphorae. On September 29th it was time to fill them.

They had been filled with water for several weeks to remove dust but also to moisten the clay so that it would not soak up the wine. A cuve of Carignan and the very rare Castets was the wine to enter the amphorae which are about 1m50 high. Filled almost to the brim each was sealed with a stainless steel chapeau bought for the job. And so we await the results, regular tasting will allow Jeff to decide how long the wine will be aged.

A new departure, a return to the ways of the ancients.

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From vine to wine – Vendanges 17

There are numerous different tasks during the vendanges, I thought I’d expand on a few as I reflect on the last two days. Both Thursday and Friday began with lovely sunrises over the vines as we picked, almost worth the early start to the day.

Picking was done by the half dozen Moroccan workers who work non-stop and chatter away even faster. This year there was a more stable team working with Jeff, on previous vendanges there has been a core of people with lots of others coming to spend a couple of days and then moving on. Many of these did sterling work, such as Thomas and Charles, but with an unchanging team for three weeks progress has been smooth.

In the vineyard Julien and Vincent took charge along with Selene, Max, Roxane, Ambroise and  Jeremy. Michel ferried the grapes to the cellar where Jeff controls the process of turning fruit into wine. The team (including myself) would also help out in the cellar as needed, Jeff aiming to give opportunities to learn about the winemaking process to everyone. Ever the teacher.

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This photo shows Roxane, Selene and Max picking Carignan. Roxane is cutting the bunches whilst Selene and Max carefully sort through their bunches to remove anything untoward such as insects, leaves, rotten or dried berries. On the other side of the vines are other pickers to ensure everything is taken. The bunches go into buckets and when they are filled they are emptied into the cases stored under the vine.

Michel arrives in the vineyard and drives between two rows to collect the cases, often supported by Julien. The grapes are returned to the cellar as quickly as speed limits allow, unloaded and subjected to further sorting.

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In the photo below Ambroise is checking for anything which escaped the pickers or fell into the cases whilst waiting to be collected. This year the grapes have been very healthy and so no need for the sorting table to be used. However, snails often sneak into the bunches and cases seeking some nourishment in the very dry weather.

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The bunches are either pressed immediately, eg for white wine or sent to vat. In the latter case they will be destemmed first or sent as whole bunches depending on the style of wine Jeff decided will be most suited to the grapes. They will spend a day or two there before the process of debourbing or délestage. The juice has now been sitting on the skins, flesh and pips which form a cap on the top of the juice or sink to the bottom of the vat. Délestage involves removing the juice from this mass when it has absorbed as much colour, flavour, tannin as Jeff deems optimal. The juice heads to a new tank to recover. In the video below you will see that it passes through a machine which cools down the juice. Fermentation produces a lot of heat, too much can bring problems which would spoil the wine. That is the main reason why Jeff also invested in new temperature controlled stainless steel tanks this year, especially for white wines.

The fermentation begins promptly, the healthy yeasts produced by the grapes themselves triggers the process of turning grape juice and its sugars into alcoholic wine. Odours of bread making and fresh fruits fill the cellar, hints of the pleasures of Mas Coutelou 2017 wines ahead.

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Skins after pressing

Meanwhile, after pressing the grapes skins are recovered from the press itself and put into a large container. There they will ferment and produce the base for brandy and spirits, nothing is wasted.

More interesting varieties were harvested these two days. Top left above is Muscat D’Alexandrie, large oval grapes tasting of pure grape juice. Carignan Blanc is one of my favourite white grapes from the region, it makes dry, complex wines. The middle row shows Carignan and Cinsault picked these days. Last but certainly not least, Castets is a rare red variety, less than 1 hectare in the world and much of that is in Peilhan. Sadly, it too has been hit by the dry summer, lovely quality but lacking in volume, a summary of this vintage.

And, after a hard day for some of us my T shirt shows the fruit of the day. Whilst Icare takes things at his own pace.


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Under starter’s orders

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Le patron earlier tending his vines

Version francaise

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.