amarchinthevines

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


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Harvest 2019 – We Can Work It Out

En francais

Team work

If Day 10 saw the eight different grape varieties harvested Days 11 and 12 were a contrast. Friday September 13th was all about Grenache and Saturday was all about Cinsault. These two varieties together with Syrah make up the bulk of the Coutelou production, important for the various wines which emerge each year and for the economic well being of the domaine.

The Grenache was from La Garrigue, planted facing south towards the sun. It copes well with heat, Spanish on origin and grown all around the Mediterranean (known variously as Cannonau, Garnacha, Alicante amongst others). Traditionally this parcel gives good quality fruit which is blended with other wine to make Classe for example.

I was feeling under the weather on the Friday but a day sorting good bunches of tasty grapes helps to improve the day. There was plenty of it too, perhaps the recent rain had boosted the yield a little. A quick tour of the remaining unpicked vines to check maturity also boosted the spirits with some attractive Mourvedre in the pipeline.

Mourvedre

Saturday (I must have been feeling better as I took more photos) and the Cinsault of Segrairals. These grapes are used for the 5SO cuvée as well as being blended with other wines, eg for the rosé.

Cinsault grapes tend to be big and the bunches can suffer a little as a result. The large grapes leave gaps in the bunch which leaves it vulnerable to disease and insects getting in, especially ver de la grappe. This moth lays its eggs in the bunch and the grapes are pierced by the resulting larvae. This causes the juice to flow in the bunch and attract rot.

Ver de la grappe cocoon emerging from a Piquepoul Noir grape

Sorting in the vineyard and on the table in the cellar needs to be thorough. That said 2019 has happily been a year of little or no disease.

The day showed how different sections of the vineyard differed in the quality of grapes. There were parts which gave slightly under ripe fruit but others which provided big, black grapes which tasted great to eat. Since 2019 has been so hot and dry much of the wine this year is very concentrated and high in alcohol. The under ripe grapes in the Cinsault actually served a useful purpose in providing lower alcohol and adding more acidity. Nature sometimes finds its own solutions.

Nothing wrong with this Cinsault

Meanwhile in the cellar there is increasing amounts of work to do. More and more of the tanks are full and needing remontage, batonnage or pigeage. The team has to work well together, fortunately this year’s does just that.

The amphorae, filled on Thursday also needed punching down to soak the skins. Fermentation has already started as you may see in this video.

With the Cinsault picked there are now just two main picks left to do in 2019, the Mourvedre and the Carignan. An intensive two weeks has gone by, much work still remains.

Days 11 and 12


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Harvest 2019 – Rain

En francais

Finally. Maybe a few weeks too late but we had around ten hours of rain on Tuesday to relieve the parched Languedoc. That said, it soon dried out again and much more rain will be needed for the well being of the region. However, for the vines it was a welcome relief and should revive some parched vines.

Jeff Coutelou told me that in Peilhan vineyard for example the grapes were pretty much skins and pulp, now there is some juice to balance them. We have had some lovely fruit through the vendanges but it is very concentrated and lacking juice. Whilst for Jeff’s bank balance the rain would have been more welcome a month ago to fill out all the grapes and provide more wine, this was better than nothing. I saw one southern Rhone producer say it was like 100€ notes falling from the sky. That may be true for Chateauneuf du Pape but not for Jeff who said maybe a few centimes coins would be nearer the mark.

Cinsault in the rain, some of these were picked Wednesday

Grenache being put whole bunch into tank

The day before the rain, Monday 9th (Day 8 of vendanges) was a picking of Grenache from Sainte Suzanne. It was put into tank in whole bunches to give a more fruit driven wine, a semi carbonic maceration.

Anthony collecting cases, star over the stable

No picking on the Tuesday or Wednesday morning , the photos show why with water standing on the grapes. Wednesday afternoon (Day 9) saw more Grenache and the first Cinsault of the year. This was destemmed as usual.

Cinsault (left) and Grenache

Meanwhile the break gave Jeff the opportunity to do more work on the wines in tank which have all begun their fermentations, the whites took a little longer in their temperature cooled tanks but have started too: Remontage, pouring or pumping wine over the top of the crust of grape skins and pulp; Batonnage, stirring the white wines in tank; Pigeage, pushing down the cap or crust into the wine for the same reason as remontage.

Meanwhile the figures on specific gravity for the wines continue to decline, indicating the fermentation process is going ahead successfully.

To give you some idea of how hard that crust can be and how much effort it takes to punch it down have a look at the video of Jeff treading on the cap of the Syrah from La Garrigue.


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Harvest 2019 – Getting Better

En francais

Rome, ready to harvest

Day 3 was all about grapes from one vineyard so Day 4, September 4th, was a contrast. Muscat from Peilhan, the remaining Syrah in Ste. Suzanne (Metaierie) plus a few rows of Grenache from there, a few rows of the Syrah of Segrairals were all picked.

The highlight for me, however, was picking Rome. This is my favourite vineyard, I think most readers will know that by now. The semi seclusion, surrounding trees, wildlife and collection of vines in gobelet (free standing) all make this one of my favourite places on Earth, just look at the photo under the heading.

The variety and nature of the vines make them more interesting to pick, they are individual with bunches spread around them rather than the more uniform growth in most vines trained on wires. This makes it slower work but the rewards of Rome make the work pleasurable. Jeff will blend these grapes with some of the others to make a cuvée as Rome, like most of the parcels, was producing rich, concentrated juice but small quantities due to the drought.

Tony Boris et Alain Alain, Boris Fabrice

Picking there did give me the opportunity to get to know better the 2019 team. Fabrice, a long-time friend of Jeff’s, I have got to know a little over the years but it is good to have more time with him. Alain, Tony, Boris are new friends. One of the benefits and joys of each vendange is getting to know new people. Most of these guys are spending their holidays as volunteers, they are all good company, work hard and are shaping into one of the best teams I have known in my six years here.

Jeff et Julien

Day 5 brought another interesting harvest. Riveyrenc is a traditional, but rare, grape variety in the Languedoc. Thierry Navarre in St. Chinian has done much to maintain its profile and deserves much credit for his very good wine. In March 2015 Jeff planted Riveyrenc Noir and Riveyrenc Gris along with other rare varieties such as Terret Noir and Blanc, Piquepoul Noir and Gris, Morastel. I was there that hot day and four years later these vines are producing really good grapes already.

March, 2015

We picked around 37 cases of Riveyrenc and, I’m happy to report, the grapes were much juicier than anything we had picked so far. It was a joy to see juice in the cases as we sorted them back at the cellar, up to now the cases have been very dry. The Terret Noir and Blanc were rather less generous in quantity but were added to boost the quantity. That these vines are producing such good fruit so young promises well for the future.

Riveyrenc Gris Terret Noir and Blanc

Syrah and Grenache (just a few rows of each) from La Garrigue were also picked in the morning. The afternoon brought the first Cinsault of the year, from Segrairals. Cinsault grapes are commonly big and juicy, the vintage means that is not totally the case this year but the idea was to bring in some low alcohol fruit to blend with other varieties, mission accomplished.

The boss patrols the Syrah of La Garrigue

I also helped Jeff carry out a débourbage of the white and rosé, that is separating the juice from the solids which remained to clarify the wine as it begins its fermentation. The colourful residue always looks interesting, but it has no place in a fresh wine.

Débourbage

Rome, juicy grapes, cellar work, rare varieties –  it’s getting better all the time.

Jour 4 Jour 5


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Slipping back into the vines

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Back in the Coutelou vineyards. As I drive into them there’s a sense of never being away but also of anticipation – what’s new? That may sound strange as the vineyards don’t change too much year to year, yet every vintage is different. In 2018 the vines were already suffering from the widespread mildew following a wet Spring. This year the weather has been very different. A dry Winter and Spring  with cool, sunny weather has benefited the vines. They look as healthy as I can remember in the years I have been here.

Healthy Grenache leaves, left and débourrement in Rome

New plantings and grafts mean that there is always change in the vineyards, this year it has been mostly a case of replacing vines which had failed, some Cinsault, Clairette and Macabeu amongst others. It is time to let the rare and old grape variety plantations of 2018 mature and establish themselves.

New Clairette and Macabeu, Ste Suzanne’s vines in the background, right

However, one new plantation of note. A small parcel next to Sainte Suzanne has been too wet to work in for the last 2 years, it is now planted with Macabeu and Clairette so more white wine will be produced in future.

New vine; the plantation can be seen as the brownish patch on the left of the 2nd photo from La Garrigue’s Syrah vines

The dry year has also meant that Jeff has been able to lightly plough vineyards which have been too damp in recent years, Rome was given a light scratching for example. Nothing too serious that would upset the life in the soil, just enough to aerate.

Flower Power, Julien and Christian attching the vines to stakes

They really do look well. Flower Power has been lightly worked too, to allow the young vines there to thrive without so much competition from the grass. If you look at the photos you will see the neighbouring vineyards belonging to others, planted much more densely. Those vines are flourishing with their irrigation and fertilisers, almost uniform, dark green with the nitrogen they are fed. The Flower Power vines are shorter and more delicate for sure, they are growing at a natural pace, finding their own maturity slowly. Here, and in all the other vineyards, flowering is almost complete, the bunches are set (débourrement).

After last year’s much reduced harvest it would be good to have an abundant year, to restock the vats and barrels which have been emptied to make up shortfalls in wine and income. The signs are propitious, let us hope the northerly winds and sunshine continue to maintain the health of the vines and allow them to fulfil such a promising start.

One curiosity over the winter. In late 2018 artist Anthony Duchene wanted to create a display to highlight the effect of healthy soils. In many of the natural vineyards of the region underwear was buried. At Jeff’s a pair of underpants was buried in Rome vineyard. This Spring they were dug up and reveal the activity taking place in the soils by animal and microbial life. An unusual but effective demonstration. Duchene’s work is on display in Liège at the Yoko Uhoda Gallery.

And, of course, regular readers frequently ask how Icare is getting along. Coincidentally it was his summer haircut on Tuesday so you can see that he has been well prepared for the warmer weather. He is a happy dog.

It was a beautiful, sunny day as I toured around on the 21st May. Rome was vibrant with colour from broom and flowers, roses lined the vineyards in Peilhan and Rec D’Oulette. It was good to be back.


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The good, the very good and the ugly

Some recent wines. I was on a roll of good wine after good wine since the start of the year but that came to a stop on Saturday. The wine responsible for that was a Georgian amber wine from Pheasant’s Tears. I have had the good fortune to drink a number of similar Georgian wines from the Rkatsiteli grape and many were excellent. Sadly, this wine was full of volatile acidity. VA is caused by bacteria which create acetic acid (the acid which gives vinegar its taste). The bacteria could be produced during fermentation or by contamination by unclean equipment.

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Sometimes a little VA adds something interesting to the flavour of the wine, Chateau Musar in Lebanon is famous for having  a little. It depends on individual preference whether you like it. I quite like it myself. However, this was way too tainted to be drinkable. Unfortunate.

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As for the good wines. Unsurprisingly one was a Coutelou wine, Classe 2013, Grenache, Syrah and a little Carignan Jeff informed me. Still a lively purple colour with delicious red fruit flavours with soft tannins to support and add complexity. Classe ages so well, it is hard to resist when young but this showed the benefits of letting the wine knit together over a number of years.

From Sicily the Vino Rosso 2016 from Vino Di Anna was a fine example of how good the wines from this island are. I was fortunate to visit and taste many wines there a few years ago and met Anna Martens at a tasting a couple of years ago. This red made from 90% Nerello Mascalese and 10% Nerello Cappuccio had fresh, cherry flavours the clean acidity helping the red fruits. Lovely.

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South African wines, on the other hand, are more of a mystery to me. Testalonga is the domaine of Craig and Carla Hawkins in the Swartland. Chin Up 2018 is pure Cinsault, one of my favourite grapes. This was very light in colour, almost a rosé or clairet. Yet Chin Up had power and plenty of light, juicy fruit. This was a genuine pleasure to drink and I am looking forward to trying more of the Testalonga wines.

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Finally a port, Quinta Da Noval 2003. There was a lovely balance in this wine, the alcohol had blended perfectly with the Touriga Nacional grapes, there was no alcohol aftertaste that often happens with lesser ports. Apparently the vines are at high altitude and there was a lightness and freshness to this wine, full fruit which was long, long lasting. A reminder of how good port can be.

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After the 2017s, the Coutelou 2018s

 

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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.

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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.

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Carignan grapes

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.

 


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Wine with friends, the 2017 Coutelou wines

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One of the highlights of the last few weeks of the 2018 vendanges was tasting the wines from 2017. A group of our friends gathered to enjoy bottles kindly given by Jeff and we tasted through them, scoring them as went. I am not a great fan of wine scores but it was a simple way of tracking our preferences, we revisited scores regularly to ensure there was some context for the earlier marks.

We started with the OW of 2016, so a different vintage but yet to be released. I have tasted it regularly in recent weeks at vendanges lunches and I really like it. Many orange wines are being made but often they are based on grapes which have fairly neutral skins. OW is made from Muscat D’Alexandrie and the skins have a lot of flavour which the long maceration brings out together with the tannins. This has real character, one of my wines of the night. It must be said that for some of my friends it was too much of a shock, unused to skin contact wines they found it too different. If you like orange wines though, believe me, this is excellent.

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On to the reds. 2017 was a vintage of low yields due to the long, dry summer. However, it must be said one of the consequences is a concentration of flavour and high quality. The six wines we shared were all very good and consistent in their length and full flavour. Perhaps the most consistent of any vintage I have been involved with since I started in 2014.

Vin De Table is a supposedly simple wine. Don’t be fooled, it is very good. Assembled from wines left over from the main cuvées with quite a large portion of Merlot for good measure. It received consistently good scores from everyone, it was simply enjoyable and very drinkable, belying its simple status with good fruit, freshness and length. A bargain at the price of well under 10€ seen in many caves.

Tête À Claques was a wine originally made for London restaurants but now sold from the cellars. It is based on Le Vin Des Amis (what was left) to which was added Mourvèdre and other remaining wine. The Mourvèdre boosts the wine with some crunchy, dark fruit flavours and this was one person’s favourite wine of the night.

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The natural successor was Le Vin Des Amis. For two of the group this was their favourite wine of the evening. The 2017 version is based on Cinsault, not the norm. Blended with Syrah and Grenache the Cinsault gives a real lift of red fruit and the result is a classic VDA, a bottle which will please anyone and disappear quickly.

On to the other headlining wine of the Coutelou range, Classe. Syrah, Grenache and more Mourvèdre (there was also a pure Mourvèdre released in 2017 under the name of On Peut Pas Vraiment Dire Que). Classe usually adds a depth and silkiness compared to VDA, it lives up to its name and label. This was no exception, it really is a very good wine and one I would love to age for a year or two even though it would be hard to resist now. One person chose it as their highlight.

Flambadou has been one of the best wines of the domaine for the last few years. Pure Carignan from a vineyard with complex geology the 2017 version is up to those high standards with dark fruits, freshness and ripe tannins. It needs time to mature before it reaches its peak but this is one of my favourite wines and, from experience of this wine, I can tell this will develop into a top class wine.

My absolute favourite Coutelou wine is La Vigne Haute, the pure Syrah from La Garrigue. North facing, villefranchien rock the wine is only released as La Vigne Haute when Jeff decides it is of the required quality, just seven of the last nineteen years. This is the first time I have been involved with making LVH and I am thrilled with it. The fruit is already evident, it is complex, has dark edges as well as the fruit. The flavours are long and fresh with more ripe tannins. It is a beauty, it could be mistaken for a wine from the Rhone or Ardèche. Previous examples of this wine have shown me that it needs 5 years or more to be at it best, 2009 is excellent at present. This will be a wine to treasure for years to come. Three of us chose it as wine of the night.

Overall, my friends showed great taste in selecting La Vigne Haute as the clear leader in scoring (I hope my influence wasn’t too strong!). Classe and Le Vin Des Amis followed on a few points behind. However, all agreed as we enjoyed a wonderful half bottle of Vieux Grenache that the wines were excellent, consistently so.

Thanks to May and Martin for being such great hosts and providing lovely food to accompany the wines. And to Pat, Afshin, Denise, Matt and Jonathan for joining in and making it so enjoyable.

A special night. Jeff told me from the beginning that he makes his wines to be shared with friends and loved ones. This was a night to prove the wisdom of those words as well as the immense talent and passion of Jeff Coutelou.

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