Happy New Year to readers, we shall see what 2020 brings. Hopefully more excellent wines like those I described in my last posts on wines of the year.
The last year ended with one piece of sad news with the death of Pierre Galet on December 31st. Galet was the authority on grapes and ampelography. He pioneered means of identifying grape varieties, encouraged the collection and conservation of vines and wrote extensively on them. His Dictionnaire encyclopédique des cépages is authoritative and an endless source of information and fascination for me. Galet’s work will go on through his studies and students, a man who enhanced the world.
Appropriately I took delivery of a new Coutelou wine produced in 2018. It is made up of the many varieties which are planted in the Flower Power vineyard, Font D’Oulette. These include Clairette Musquée (originally the Hungarian Org Tokosi), Delizia Di Vaprio, Aramon Gris amongst the twenty plus varieties, red and white, planted in the parcel. The 2018 vintage was much reduced by the mildew outbreak across the region and this vineyard produced very small quantities, eight cases in total from a parcel of more than half a hectare in area. Consequently Jeff added two more varieties to the mix, Carignan and Castets from Peilhan vineyard to bulk out the quantities. Castets is another rare variety, only recently added to the list of permitted grapes in Bordeaux having almost completely vanished from wine production only ten years ago.
The resulting wine is bottled as Couleurs Réunies and has a most attractive label reflecting that name. The wine itself is youthful, a rich purple in colour with huge black fruit flavours and fresh acidity. It is lovely now but will keep for a few years. A triumph from a very difficult vintage, which is producing excellent wines despite the problems.
And, so, to my last recommended wine from 2019. I promised that I would include one Coutelou wine and though I enjoyed many, many great bottles I finally chose, ironically, a single variety wine. That wine is Mise De Printemps Grenache. Made for early drinking I enjoyed this wine through the year, its red label meaning it was the wine I drank to celebrate Liverpool’s Champions League triumph for example. Lovely red fruits, soft and with a lovely cherry finish. A true vin de plaisir.
The magical mystery tour which is the vendanges is under way. That’s an invitation to read on for the next few weeks to follow the course of what happens in Puimisson with Jeff Coutelou and the gang. Satisfaction guaranteed, I hope.
Regular readers will be aware that nature has not been kind this year. What promised to be a great vintage in June with bountiful, beautiful fruit has been undermined by drought. It has not rained since then and so the bunches are still bountiful but they are made up of small grapes, quantities will be meagre. The ratio of juice to skins, pips and stalk is nowhere near the average meaning choices about winemaking have to be made, for example removing stalks rather than whole bunch to improve the ratio.
The 8 cases from Flower Power
We began on Friday August 30th with a morning pick to make a new cuvee. Flower Power vineyard (Font D’Oulette) was the starting point. This vineyard was planted with a rich variety of grapes, twenty or more – some rare. Clairette Musquée (originally the Hungarian Org Tokosi), Delizia Di Vaprio, Aramon Gris to name just three. Jeff has invested heavily in this parcel, for example bringing volcanic soils to add life, and the vines have looked healthier than previous years with more fruit. However, as a prime example of the ravaging effects of drought, despite more bunches on the vines, we harvested only eight cases, as opposed to seven last year.
Clairette Musquée and Aramon Gris, amongst the rare Flower Power grapes
To supplement the Flower Power, more Clairette Musquée from Peilhan and some Syrah from Segrairals at the other end of the village. The grapes were taken back to the cellar, and put into stainless steel tank with some dry ice to stop fermentation and allowing the juice to soak up some of the colour and flavours from the skins. (The wine was pressed three days later and will now ferment).
Syrah is sorted then put into the dry ice filled tank
Day two, Monday September 2nd began with the white grapes of La Garrigue; Sauvignon Blanc (low alcohol, bright acidity, very Sauvignon), Muscat d’Alexandrie, Viognier. Straight into the press, sent into stainless steel upstairs in the cellar, a fresh dry white wine in the making.
La Garrigue’s white grapes, Julien loading the press, brown pips show ripeness, the grapes are fleshy rather than juicy
Afterwards time for the Merlot of Le Colombié. Not the grape which Jeff favours particularly but year after year it produces good wine to be blended with others in cuvées such as Sauvé De La Citerne and Vin De Table.
This year the grapes were very small, they were destemmed and into one of the original concrete tanks. I had been sorting it for 4 hours or so and the tank was less than half full, such is the paucity of juice. More was added but yields were well down.
Alain and Alan sorting Merlot, one of us has hair
The fruit is clean, dry and disease free so sorting is mainly about removal of leaves, snails and unformed grapes. The quality is excellent, the juice tastes delightful with plenty of fruit profile and acidity – just wish there was more of it. Jeff ‘joked’ feelingly that with the small tank of Merlot he might make 10 euros profit.
Day 3 and the Syrah of Sainte Suzanne (Metaierie on the map). This is the parcel which provides much of the fruit for the much loved Coutelou wine, Le Vin Des Amis. More of the same, very healthy fruit, concentrated and tasting sweet and ripe but… small berries.
A losing argument with a boiling hot cup of tea put me out of action on Day 3 but I did manage to get some photos (of the grapes not my blisters you will be relieved to know).
There will be twists and turns ahead in the next few weeks, sadly there is no forecast of any rain to help us. Let us see where the mystery tour takes us.
This chart was published two weeks ago even though the information refers to 2010. I found it fascinating (I am a sad case I understand). Some of the information would be expected, New Zealand with its Sauvignon Blanc for example, Australia with its Shiraz. I was rather surprised to see Merlot as 13.7% of the French vineyard area however. Admittedly this is partly because it is one of my least favourite grape varieties, though, as always, fine examples are available from good vignerons.
Merlot, like Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and Viognier, were in vogue in the 80s and 90s when I became interested in wine. Languedoc producers reacted to this popularity by planting these cépages, it was commercial sense. One of those producers was Jean-Claude Coutelou and Mas Coutelou still has his Cabernet and Merlot parcels.
However, one of the more recent trends in the region has been the revival of older and rare grape varieties. At Mas Coutelou Jeff has planted grapes such as Riveyrenc Noir, Riveyrenc Gris, Morastel, Piquepoul Noir and Terret Noir in Peilhan (see photos below).
Earlier this year Jeff received a visit from Domaine De Vassal, guardian of the national treasury of grape vines. They record and keep examples all grape varieties as I described after a visit to Vassal. On this occasion they were intrigued by two vines in particular; firstly Clairette Musquée, planted in Peilhan and, secondly, the unknown variety in Segrairals. These are just part of the programme of replanting and grafting which has taken place at Mas Coutelou. The photos below show grafting of other cépages in Flower Power such as Aramon Noir and one unknown variety.
After months of research the experts at Vassal have concluded that Clairette Musquée has its origins in Hungary where it was known as Org Tokosi. It was planted in the Maghreb and after Algerian independence it was probably brought to France by those who repatriated to France.
The unnown variety turns out to be an Italian cépage, quite rare, called Delizia Di Vaprio. This is, according to my copy of Pierre Galet’s “Dictionnaire Encyclopédique des Cépages”, a grape authorised in Italy and Portugal. Under the rules of France’s AOC system it would not be allowed. Jeff, however, chooses to issue his wines under the Vin De France label which means he is free to choose his own methods and grape varieties. Whereas a Languedoc AOC wine must include grapes such as Syrah and Grenache Jeff can choose what to put in his wines including wines from just one grape variety. It also means he can plant these rare grapes and make wines from them which he truly loves and wants to make.
Interestingly one AOC, Burgundy, is starting to show signs of concern that Vin De France is becoming more popular. They have started a campaign criticising Vin de France. To my mind they should be looking to their own failings and regulations. For example, as climate change bites harder vignerons will have to adapt, investigating different grape varieties will be part of that.
So, yes Merlot has its place (and thrives in the Colombié vineyard in Puimisson) but is it not exciting to see rare, old, traditional grapes being cherished and brought back to prominence? Let us appreciate the range and variety of grapes and the vignerons who bring out their best.
This photo was taken on October 6th in Font D’Oulette, the 0.6ha Flower Power vineyard. It tells a number of stories.
Look at the vineyard itself. Small, youthful vines, only six or seven years old with a rich variety of cépages including some rare ones such as different varieties of Oeillade, Clairette Musquée and one known simply as Inconnue as its origin is unknown. This complantation of cépages was typical of the old ways of growing vines. The use of gobelet training rather than the use of wired trellises (palissage) is another example of traditional viticulture. This vineyard tells a story of how old ways are often better, its wine has already garnered much praise.
Look also at the vineyard behind Font D’Oulette. You will see vines looking very different. The vines are a rich green in colour and their foliage is still lush. This forms a contrast with the autumnal yellow of Flower Power. This is the result of neighbours’ vineyards being treated with large quantities of chemical fertilisers, especially nitrates. These artificially boost the growth and colour of the vine. Flower Power’s vines, on the other hand, are allowed to develop at their natural pace.
The vineyard is surrounded by olive and fruit trees as well as ditches. This is deliberate on Jeff’s part because he wants to create a barrier to the neighbouring vineyards. When it rains in the Languedoc, it often rains hard causing the soils to wash away. Sometimes, the soils are compacted by machinery and the treatments on the vines are washed away with the rain. Since Font D’Oulette is in a bowl this would mean that neighbours soils and chemicals would run onto Jeff’s parcel so he uses the ditches and vegetation to prevent his vines from being affected.
Day two and the weather remained overcast and humid, there were even a few drops of rain. Rain which has been sorely missed in the last two months, there has been no real rain since June 26th, almost two months now. Some vines have found that stressful and virtually shut down therefore not ripening the grapes as well as they ought to do. Others, with underground water supply more available, are more vigorous and channeling their energy into the grapes. Judging what to harvest and when, is therefore even more difficult and stressful for Jeff.
The picking today began in Peilhan where the Muscat À Petits Grains was golden, starting to raisin in places. The berries are a little smaller than usual, another sign of the lack of recent rain. Nonetheless they were sweet, ripe and ready, measuring 15° of potential alcohol. In the press the lack of juice means that even a decent amount of grapes will produce only one barrique this year.
Then on to Clairette Musquée, a couple of rows in Peilhan, next to the red grape vines. This cépage is so rare that an ampelography expert recently failed to identify it on a visit. Into the mix was added Grenache Blanc from La Garrigue, which has fared better than some in that vineyard with the drought. Indeed one berry seemed to have thrived as you can see in the following photo.
Whilst Roxane, Max and myself picked the Grenache the others moved into the newer plantation of Peilhan and picked Riveyrenc Noir, Riveyrenc Gris, Piquepoul Gris and Morastel. This really was a day for ampelography fans like myself. All of these grapes with the Clairette will help to make the rosé for 2017 and the first glass, hot from the press, tasted very good indeed over lunch.
Roxane with a huge bunch of Morastel
Friday lunch was leisurely, we were joined by the excellent Paco Mora of La Cave D’Ivry, and some good bottles opened including a fabulous Sauvignon Blanc 002 from Jeff, 15 years old and still in great shape. Julien opened his new cuvée (one of only 50 bottles) from Faugères (Grenache Blanc and Roussanne) which was very good too. Monday will see the start of more full on days, bigger quantities, more work and faster lunches – so allow us this convivial interlude. Meanwhile, Icare continued in his inimitable style.
September 3rd began with further picking at the southern quarter of the vineyards of Mas Coutelou, Peilhan and Font D’Oulette, followed by an afternoon of picking in the northern end in Segrairals.
Peilhan and Font D’Oulette are both complanted, ie they have lots of different grape varieties being grown and often in the same rows. However it was the Grenache Gris in Peilhan which was being picked first to provide the juice for a rosé wine. Grenache Gris is, in my opinion, one of the most interesting cépages in the Languedoc Roussillon providing many of its best white wines. It also has a grey, pink skin which can provide a little colour to the wine if the juice is allowed to stay in contact with those skins for a few hours. In this case it would provide a very pale rosé wine, I heard the style described recently as a gris de gris. How this turns out we shall see, it could yet make a white wine.
Cameron loading the press with the Grenache Gris
When the Grenache Gris was through the press it was time to bring in the grapes from Font D’Oulette. This has a whole variety of cépages from the traditional Aramon Noir to the more unusual Oeillade Muscat, Clairette Blanche and Aramon Gris along with many others.
This assemblage will be added to some Cinsault (perhaps from Rome vineyard, perhaps not) to make Flower Power which was made for the first time in 2014 and has proved to be a big success. Indeed we shared a magnum on Friday at lunch and it was excellent, starting to really open up.
Syrah from Segrairals
Then onto Syrah, some lovely bunches from Segriarals and Caraillet, the biggest of the Coutelou vineyards. The rich juice provided plenty of colour as you might see!
And then, of course….
Cameron and Michel are becoming a true double act
This was a long day, we finished around 7.15 pm, the day starts at 7.30am. I slept well that night.
September 4th brought a whole day of Syrah grapes from Segrairals and Caraillet again. It was also the last day we had the superb Carole with us for the harvest as she heads to Champagne for picking there. Carole is a true expert in all aspects of the vineyard and cellar and she is always willing to teach and to share, she will be a big miss.
Boxes of Syrah waiting for destemming on Friday (Sept. 4th)
Whilst we worked on the sorting of the Syrah Jeff and Cameron set about testing and remontage (pumping over the grapes already in the tanks).
Remontage of Flower Power grapes
We also tasted samples from the various tanks. The Syrah shows real fruit and is already developing different characteristics. Segrairals was gaining weight and power, Sainte Suzanne much more floral and elegant. The white juice from the complanted Peilhan, still in contact with skins, is beginning to ferment quickly as the yeasts get to work, perhaps because the yeasts are on those skins. It is a treat to watch the development of these wines from infancy as they take their first steps towards the final wine.
And of course….
We finished around 6.15 and then went to Jeff’s for a special treat to send off Carole in some style. Oysters and mussels together with some Chardonnay from the brilliant Spanish domaine, Casa Pardet, lovely. Even the sky responded.
Meanwhile Icare fans, your hero was guarding his favourite toy, a plastic, squeaky sandwich. And sleeping, it is fun to watch him as he dreams because his tail wags furiously.
Saturday September 5th was a day off for me but not for the rest as they continued to process the Syrah form Segrairals, I did say it is a big parcel. The Grenache and Cinsault are still not quite ready and they will dictate when the team can start to harvest them but that will not be before Tuesday. The weather forecast is good for next week so conditions should be right.
I did call round however and the work had certainly been going on as you can see from the bacs of the stalks (rafle) .
And of course….
I did manage to sneak into lunch however. These are a highlight of the harvest season, with food prepared by Marie France from Puimisson and bottles opened including a terrific bottle of Castets, that rare grape I have described before. We sit at a big table int he garden of Jeff’s father, right next to the cellar.
Sunday will be a day of rest except for Jeff and Cameron who will do a round of the tanks to check on their progress and carry out more remontage. There is already a lot for Jeff to be thinking about, which wines are where, how are they progressing, have the remontages been done, are the analyses done. Plus all the options about which grapes to blend, what cuvées to make and, for example, whether the Grenache Gris will be white or rosé. Then off to the vineyards to check on the grapes and their readiness for harvest. Pressure, worries, and hard work – spare a thought for the vigneron.
Even during lunch Jeff is up and down checking on things in the cellar
Aug 30th was a Sunday so no picking but Jeff was still in the cellar working. The early wines needed to be checked and moved as necessary.
Monday 31st dawned cloudy again and it was time to tackle the biggest of the vineyards at Mas Coutelou, Segrairals. The Syrah was ready to be picked and Jeff had decided to use carbonic maceration to ferment the grapes which are probably not of the same top quality as those from La Garrigue or Sainte Suzanne which were picked last week.
Grapes which are pressed like those described last week ferment in tank as yeasts react with the juice to change the sugar to ethanol, ie alcohol. The yeasts are natural from the skins of the grapes and the atmosphere of the cellar. In the case of Mas Coutelou and many artisanal winemakers this is the case though other winemakers will buy yeasts some of which are designed to add particular flavours to the wine. None of that in Puimisson, these are natural wines.
Carbon dioxide pumped into the tank
Carbonic maceration means that the whole bunches go into the tanks, grapes and stalks alike. The tank is filled with carbon dioxide which permeates the grape skins and starts the fermentation within the cells of the berry. Some of the berries at the bottom of the tank will be crushed by the weight of the grapes and so there will be some conventional fermentation too.
Whole bunches in the tank
All the grapes are given a light crushing later by which time ethanol will have formed inside the skins and so the resultant juice is ready made wine. The result is often more fruity and juicy wine.
Grapes arrive through the little back door above the cement tanks
To achieve this the tanks are filled from above so we worked in the space above the cement tank with the grapes arriving at the back door which is a level higher than the front door. The space is smaller and the heat from the grapes was high. It was hard work, believe me. Sorting still had to be done before the grapes could go into the tank, quality comes first.
Some of the rejected bits
The pipe carries the CO2 into the tank
And after 9 hours of back breaking lifting, carrying and sifting it was, as ever, time to clean everything from top of the cellar to bottom as we see here with Jeff and Michel.
One visitor from the vineyard
The boss letting us know we should get a move on
The night of the 31st brought a big storm with lots of rain, not the ideal conditions for harvest at all. Rain can cause rot and problems. However, it could have been much worse as news arrived of huge damage caused by hail in the Chablis region. For all the forecasts of how the harvest might turn out it is only when the grapes are safely in the tank that a vigneron can be assured of the quality of wine they might make. Commiserations to the Chablis producers.
September 1st was a quiet day as the rains from the storms meant the grapes were too wet to harvest. In the cellar more checking and remontage, the process of pumping the wine over the cap of skins and must. Further analysis of the wines showed that the yeasts are acting quickly and the fermentation is progressing very well.
Today, September 2nd, the remaining white grapes, Grenache Blanc, from La Garrigue. Then on to Peilhan to gather some of the white grapes there, Maccabeu, Grenache Gris, Carignan blanc and Clairette Musquée.
The core team of Jeff, Carole, Michel, Cameron and myself were joined by Matthieu who has worked the harvest before here. There were some lovely bunches though the wet weather has caused some rot inside some of them, Careful sorting took place in the vineyard to take only the best grapes which tasted really sweet and juicy, the Clairette was especially tasty.
Cameron especially pleased with this bunch of Clairette
The white grapes were taken back to the cellar and placed in tank after being destemmed. It is possible that Jeff will make his first orange wine with them. An orange wine is a white wine made like a red wine, ir the wine is fermented on the skins thus extracting more colour, texture and flavour from them and giving the wine an orange tint. However, analysis and the next few days will be needed before the final decision is made.
In tank and the future might be orange
In the afternoon, Matthieu, Jeff and myself did more remontage of the Syrah grapes harvested in the last week, which is already tasting well, with very healthy technical analysis and beautiful aromas. And, then, as ever, the cleaning.