amarchinthevines

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


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Mildew

Su mildew

As I have posted regularly in 2016, this has been a most unusual year weather wise. After no real autumn in 2015, no real winter, no true spring we have had a stop start summer in June. Yes there have been a few hot sunny days but lots of rain and cloud too with many days in the mid 20s.

Sadly, humid days in the mid 20s and cool nights are exactly the conditions favoured by downy mildew, and it has prospered in 2016. Jeff Coutelou has spent many nights out on his tractor spraying the vines to try to protect them. As an organic producer (and much more) he cannot (and does not want to) use manufactured, chemical sprays. Instead he has used sprays based on rainwater with seaweed, nettles, horsetail and essential oils of sweet orange and rosemary. These are better absorbed by the vines in the cool of the night.

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On June 3rd Jeff spent much of the night spraying only for it be ruined by a storm on the 4th which had the effect of washing away the spray from the vines. The rainwater created other problems however. The humidity in the soils created ever more favourable conditions for mildew, the disease spread. And, there was a third effect; downy mildew lives as spores in the soils and the rain splashes them onto the vines. Mildiou is not a fungus as commonly believed, it is a one celled spore which germinates in warm, humid conditions especially between 16 and 24 Centigrade.

Once the spores are on the vine they attack the new growth and can create a downy white covering. Leaves show a mottled surface with oily spots, first of light green or yellow and then turning to brown as the mildew dries out. Underneath the leaf appears a downy white or grey growth.

The big question was whether to spray with copper. This is effective against mildew but has an effect on the soils, killing the micro organisms which live in them. It is allowed for organic production as long as no more than 25kg per hectare is used in a five year period, it is a natural product. Jeff has used hardly any in the last few years and was very reluctant to start this year. His belief was that it was better to have some losses this year from mildew than lose the life in the soils for a longer period. However, as the mildew spread so quickly he was forced to relent and use a little copper.

His long nights of unpleasant work have helped Jeff to contain the problem but there have been damages. In some parcels as much as 50% of the crop is lost. Mildew thrives on the leaves but spreads to the actual grapes and destroys them. We may go into the vines and cut away damaged bunches.When harvest arrives we will have to be even more vigilant than ever to ensure that affected bunches do not make their way into the  vats and, ultimately, the wines.

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Dried out leaves and grappe

Meanwhile the sprays do not kill wildlife, such as that photographed below after the treatment.

The north wind which so often helps to dry out the vines has finally started to blow, though even it was humid for much of the past fortnight. The forecast is for hot, sunny weather which will stop mildew, so the threat should now diminish but it has left the vines looking mottled and a bit sickly. After a restless winter where the sap has been constantly on the move they have been less able to resist mildew’s effects.

The wire trellises which are used in many parcels have helped to ensure that air can circulate amongst the bunches to stop them becoming too humid and prone to mildew. Everything has been done but it has been a hard fight and losses suffered.

However, all is not doom and gloom. Most of the vines are now lush with growth. Flowering (fleuraison) was very late but last week the vines made up for lost time and the small grapes swelled greatly. Let’s hope for smoother progress in the next three months.

 


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July’s parting gift

Colourful Cinsault

Colourful Cinsault

Version française

All photos taken on August 2nd unless otherwise stated

It was June 12th when rain last fell on Margon and the vines in the region, although generally doing well, were starting to show signs of fatigue and heat stress; leaves curled in upon themselves, some yellowing, a slight shrivelling.

Vines near Pézenas showing some stress

Vines near Pézenas showing some stress

Vines in Margon which were not pruned in spring and are really suffering

Vines in Margon which were not pruned in spring and are really suffe

A few drops fell on July 25th but the skies had been very dark and had promised much more, it was almost cruel to have that rain, a tease of what might have been. However, July 31st brought around 10mm to Puimisson. A decent rainfall, enough to give the vines a drink and to stop the drying out process. Not enough of course after weeks of lack of moisture and some more rain in the next few weeks would be very much welcome to swell the grapes and the harvest. The vines are now pouring their energy into their fruit rather than their vegetation, but they need the nutrients to do so.

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So, how had the vines responded to the rain which fell? Well a tour on Sunday (August 2nd) showed the vineyards of Mas Coutelou to be in rude health, a decent harvest is now predicted though that extra rain would be most welcome.

Segrairals in full bloom, healthy, happy vines

Segrairals in full bloom, healthy, happy vines

Segrairals, biggest of the vineyards, showed some healthy Cinsault, Syrah and Grenache with no signs of stress or disease. As the home of Classe, 7,Rue De La Pompe and 5SO this is especially welcome, as they are some of the big sellers.

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Cinsault in Segrairals

To Rome, my favourite vineyard. The gobelets were looking well, plenty of grapes both the white varieties and the Cinsault. There was a little mildew around the entrance but minimal, no cause for concern. Could there be a cuvée of Copains in 2015? Jeff tells me that no decisions are made as yet, caution prevails and he will wait to see what the harvest gives him before he makes final choices about how to use the grapes and the wines which result.

Rome's centurion vines in good health

Rome’s centurion vines in good health

Muscat Noir grapes, a tiny bit of mildew top left

Muscat Noir grapes, a tiny bit of mildew top left

Sainte Suzanne (Metaierie) suffered from coulure in May with the strong winds blowing off some of the flowers on the vines, which will reduce yields a bit. However, the grapes there are growing well, what might have been a problem looks now a much brighter picture, good news for fans of Vin Des Amis.

Peilhan, just a little more tired and suffering

Peilhan, just a little more tired and suffering

The only vineyard parcel which has shown stress is Peilhan, There was a lot of regrafting and replanting in the spring and the dryness has caused problems for these new vines. There was also oidium in this parcel, the only vineyard to be attacked by this powdery mildew. Yet amongst those problems there are plenty of healthy grapes, some careful picking and sorting will be needed but it will produce good wine.

The famous Castets grapes of Peilhan

The famous Castets grapes of Peilhan

La Garrigue was blooming, the white varieties such as the Muscats are swollen and changing hue to lovely golden shades.

Muscat a Petits Grains in La Garrigue

Muscat a Petits Grains in La Garrigue

The Syrah is well advanced, a dark purple colour across virtually the whole bunches, the pips though betray a little immaturity as they taste and look green and sappy. A little more time and patience will pay dividends. As the world’s biggest fan of La Vigne Haute, I have my fingers crossed.

Syrah in La Garrigue, ripening beautifully in the shade of the vine

Syrah in La Garrigue, ripening beautifully in the shade of the vine

The Grenache in La Garrigue, despite facing south, is a little more delayed in colour but getting there and very healthy.

Grenache in La Garrigue

Grenache in La Garrigue

In fact despite risks of disease earlier in the year (see here) Jeff has been able to use minimal treatments in 2015. Oidium and mildew (powdery and downy mildew) can be controlled by copper sulphate, sometimes called the Bordeaux mix when added to slaked lime. This is a bluish colour when sprayed by conventional and organic vignerons and is often seen on the leaves of vines. Vignerons might also use chemical fungicides if they are not organic producers.

Neighbouring vineyard which was given herbicide shortly after harvest last year and whose new vines have been treated regularly

Neighbouring vineyard which was given herbicide shortly after harvest last year and whose new vines have been treated regularly

Some neighbours have also irrigated their vines and one alarming consequence is the changing of the soil and its pH as the calcium carbonate in the water shows through, you can see it in the white parts of the soil in this photo taken on July 22nd.

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The irrigation is also causing the vines to grow quickly and tall with thin trunks as seen below. It should be acknowledged that there are many conventional producers who take great pride in the health of their soils and vines and would be horrified by some practices described here.

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As a proud holder of Ecocert organic status and as a natural wine maker Jeff must use natural products only. Tisanes of plants which fight mildew such as horse tail, fern and nettles can be sprayed and this is the basis of many biodynamic treatments. However, the two main weapons in the armoury of organic producers are copper and sulphate, both natural products.

Copper is used against mildew, but is harmful to the soils and kills life in them if used in significant quantities. Organic producers are limited to 30kg per hectare over a 5 year period, allowing more to be used in years with more downy mildew for example but only if less is used in the other years. In fact Jeff has used just 200g per hectare in 2015 and this after years of well below average use, his use of copper is on a major downward trend. He is reluctant and very careful in using copper as he is aware of its danger to the soils, yet mildew has not been a major threat this year.

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Oidium seen in May

Similarly Jeff has used sulphur in soluble form at doses much lower than the permitted level, three treatments over the course of the growing season. In addition one dose of sulphur powder was sprayed when the risk of oidium was high (May) and a second spraying for Peilhan only as it is the vineyard which was attacked by oidium. In contrast to neighbouring vignerons who have sprayed every 10 days including after the bunches closed up (so more than a dozen treatments) this really is minimal intervention.

So July’s parting gift of 10mm of rain was welcome, August might like to follow by offering some rain soon. Too near the harvest is bad as it would dilute the juice rather than help the grapes to reach a good size. Things look promising, let us hope that nature completes its bounty. There is an old saying that June makes the wine and August makes the must, ie the character of the wine with its colour, yeast and flavour. With 3 weeks or so until picking begins it is an exciting, and nervous, time, waiting to see what that character will be.

No Icare this time but look what we found amongst the vines, he's been here!

No Icare this time but look what we found amongst the vines, he’s been here!

NB there are lots of reports about recent wine tastings here.

 

 

 


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There May be trouble ahead – disease

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Version française

May was a drying month. Lots of sunshine with temperatures comfortably in the high 20s almost every day. However, this year was also marked by high winds. The Tramontane / Mistral blew for over a week and was truly maddening. Other winds meant the vines spent almost three weeks blowin’ in them.

With the rise in temperatures during the day and cool nights natural problems emerged. Oidium or powdery mildew showed itself first encouraged by the humidity resulting from daytime heat and cold nights.

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Oidium on buds and leaves

This was followed by mildiou or downy mildew and vignerons all around the region were talking about its appearance by mid May. And in fact the high winds were helpful here, drying the vines and lessening the impact of mildew. At this stage if the vigneron can get on top of the disease then it is not a huge problem unlike if it were to get amongst the grapes later in the season as this could influence the taste of the wine.

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Mildiou on a leaf near Margon

 

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Mildiou scars and chemical treatment used to treat it (Margon)

 

Oidium can be treated by pesticides. Pesticides refers to any treatment which will get rid of problems, animal or fungal. Conventional vignerons will use chemicals or synthetic products to spray onto the vines. Organic producers also use a chemical, sulphur (I shall use the UK spelling of sulfur). Many non organic producers point out that sulphur is chemical and does damage life in the vineyard such as yeasts. Organic producers would counter that sulphur has little lasting effect especially on the soils and that sulphur is natural. The amount used will vary depending on the year, in 2014 Jeff used less than a quarter of the amount he had to use in 2013 when there was more oidium around. Other organic / natural producers will no doubt have used more as Jeff uses the least possible. Indeed on Saturday morning he was spraying between 2 and 5 in the morning as he feels that during the night the vines are more relaxed and take the sulphur better, so needing less of it. Not all vignerons would be doing that! In addition he uses horsetail weed and nettles in a tisane to treat the vines so as to use less sulphur. This practice is common amongst organic and biodynamic producers. Conventional producers can use various chemicals instead.

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A conventional spray

 

Organic producers would say that these are absorbed by the plant rather than just being in contact with it and so the vine becomes resistant and needs more of the treatment. Many conventional vignerons would deny this and say that synthetic chemicals are longer lasting and reduce quantities.

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This monstrous looking machine directs spray onto the vines more directly (Alignan du Vent)

 

Mildew is more complex. The traditonal treatment is copper, again a natural product but one which does leave its impact upon the soils and their ecosystem, for example killing worms and some mushrooms/fungae which support the soil. This inevitably draws criticism from conventional producers. Organic producers in one of the licensing bodies, Ecocert, are allowed to use up to 30kg per hectare over a 5 year period, averaging 6kg per year but amounts can vary annually according to the risk of mildew within the 5 year limit. Jeff used 2.9kg in 2013 but only 0.9kg in 2014 so well under the limits allowed.

So as a wine buyer you have choices to make. As ever much depends on the producer. There are some who spray chemicals in large quantities, usually for cheaper, bulk wines. Select wines by the producer if you know them, knowing that their practices aim to support the health of their soils and their vines.

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Healthy flowering

However, May brought one final twist in its tail. Just as the winds helped relieve the problem of mildew they created a new problem. Jeff contacted me on Friday to say that coulure was showing in the Syrah vines of one vineyard. Coulure is the uneven development of grapes. Flowering is a highly delicate time for the vigneron as they are very fragile. The wind damaged some of them and the Syrah vines especially. Without a flower the grape can’t develop. So the bunch will have some but not all grapes, leading to reduced yields.

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Coulure, missing flowers means missing grapes

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Not a clear picture but you can see the uneven development

The remaining grapes will grow a little larger to compensate but not enough to make up the losses. Not good news, especially for lovers of Vin Des Amis like me. All the vigneron can do is wait and see how things develop, patience is required. As ever nature rules the day.

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At least one member of the team is laid back!


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Diversity and debate

 

 

 

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My last post about the organic control stirred up a few reactions from a number of people. I don’t set out to upset people but I recognise the debate about organic status. This website from Domaine du Garinet in the Lot summarises the debate quite well, have a look at what it says about viticulture.  Organic viticulture allows the use of some chemicals which many feel are damaging to soils and their ecosystem, eg the use of copper is allowed yet remains in the soil for many years and is damaging to potentially beneficial animals such as earthworms. Other winemakers feel that there are now alternative treatments which they can use which do less damage to the biodiversity of their vineyard but are not allowed by official organic certification.

Instead these winemakers use a system called lutte raisonnée or agriculture raisonnée. Jonathan Hesford runs Domaine Treloar in Trouillas, Roussillon with his wife Rachel using this approach. They make excellent wines across a wide range, white, red, rosé and different wines such as a Rivesaltes Muscat and a Rancio. I have visited the domaine several times and bought more in the UK and will continue to do so. Jonathan is one of a number of winemakers who have moved into the Languedoc Roussillon from outside the region and have brought new ideas and a fresh approach. Jonathan and Rachel lived within a few hundred metres of the World Trade Centre in September 2001 and witnessed 9/11. That shocking event influenced them to live differently. Wine study and time working in wineries in New Zealand (Rachel’s native country) gave them the confidence to establish their own domaine in Trouillas.

   

Jonathan and Rachel put as much dedication, thought and passion  into their wines as any winemaker. Jonathan was quick to point out  to me after my last post that many, if not most, artisanal  winemakers nowadays care about their terroir and minimise  chemical use, whether organic or not. Jonathan says, “My decisions are based on on what, scientifically, are best for the vines, the soils, the environment and me, the guy spraying. In many cases the organic product is more dangerous or more environmentally damaging that the synthetic product I have chosen.” He does not seek organic certification as he does not welcome the bureaucracy and feels it is often a marketing tool. I have spoken to other French winemakers recently who have said exactly the same thing. For further information on Jonathan’s approach look at his own website page.

The wines are testament to his skills and beliefs. They shine with the freshness which I love in wine and reflect the healthy fruit which he produces. Particular favourites from my visit in early November were the white La Terre Promise (Grenache Gris dominant) and the red Three Peaks (Grenache, Syrah, Mourvedre) but I can honestly recommend all the wines.

Mas Gabriel is run by Deborah and Peter Core an English couple. The domaine is based in Caux, not far from us and is run along organic and biodynamic practices. Their reasons for doing so are explained far better by themselves on their website than I could do so please have a look. There are many parallels with Jonathan and Rachel in that the Cores left successful jobs in a big city to follow a dream to be winemakers. Both Peter and Deborah studied winemaking in New Zealand and worked in wineries there and then in Bordeaux before settling in Caux.

It is interesting that despite similarities they took a different view about winemaking to Domaine Treloar by pursuing organic and biodynamic practices. Deborah and Peter spend many hours in their vines debudding them when necessary to allow more aeration and therefore less risk of humidity leading to mildew. They, like Jeff Coutelou, are allowed to use copper and sulphur but in fact use less than one third of the permitted level of copper, treating only when necessary. A recent survey by a botanist found over 40 plant varieties in their vineyards, a sign of health and diversity.

With Peter in the vines

With Peter in the vines

Again the proof of their hard work and passion is in the bottle. Mas Gabriel produce 4 wines, a white (Carignan Blanc dominated), rosé, and two reds. The white, Clos Des Papillons, is one of my favourite white wines from Languedoc Roussillon, dry with fruit and body it is a wine which makes you contemplate and smile as you drink it. The reds from 2012 and 2013 which I tasted during a visit at the end of October were also fresh and fruity yet contain complexity and depth. No doubt in my mind that the range of wines is all getting better and better, a testament to their growing skills and experience both in the cellar and in the vineyard.

So there we are, two excellent domaines. They all work incredibly hard and give everything they  have to produce the best, most healthy fruit from their soils. Yet in different ways. Both produce superb wines which I would strongly recommend without hesitation. Both have different views about the way to look after their terroir and I have compared them here for the sake of my debate about organic winemaking not in terms of quality. That would be unfair and impossible as they are two of my favourite domaines in France as my own wine collection would attest. Incidentally I say that not because of their English & New Zealand origins but because of the quality of their wines. I will be posting soon about some of the diversity of winemakers in the Languedoc Roussillon.

I attended a conference last Thursday where the famous vineyard analysts the Bourgignons (advisers to Romanée Conti amongst others) set out the chemical, geological and agricultural make up of healthy soil. Amongst the interesting points to emerge was that the vine takes over 90% of its needs from the air and about 6% from the soil but that 6% is what can make the difference in quality of a wine. It is certainly produced by passionate, artisanal producers. But is it best achieved through agriculture which is organic, biodynamic, natural or raisonnée? I have a lot still to learn.

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