amarchinthevines

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


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2021, vintage views

Vintage Chart by The Wine Society

When I first became interested in wine vintages were one of the mysteries which intrigued and infuriated in equal measure. Back in the 80s and 90s Bordeaux and Burgundy ruled the world of wine (plus ca change) and anyone wanting to buy such wines looked at vintage reports, vintage charts and vintage prices to research which wines to seek out. A 1989 or 1990 Bordeaux (my first venture into en primeur purchases) was superior to a 1987 or 1994 simply because of the weather in those years. Things have changed.

Climate change is an obvious cause, it is a rare year now where grapes don’t ripen in cool conditions. Indeed we are in a situation where Bordeaux now allows different grapes, such as this blog’s favourite Castets, to temper the (over)ripe Cabernet and Merlot. Burgundy producers worry about the future of Pinot Noir in their region, a grape which now thrives in cooler Alsace and Germany for example.

Better winemaking and vineyard care are the other major reasons why wines tend to be more consistent year on year. Science, technology and the education of new generations of winemakers mean that vines are given cover crops, different canopy systems, grapes are fermented cooler or longer or on skins more than they used to be. Winemakers through skill (and maybe some artifice) are able to smooth out those vintage chart curves, very few years would now be as scorned as those 87s.

For Jeff Coutelou in the hot Languedoc you’d assume that vintages weren’t that important either. There is hot sunshine every year, grapes ripen ready for harvesting by early September. But there subtle differences, sometimes less subtle. 2017 had a big outbreak of mildew, 2019 saw temperatures reach 45c (I remember it well). Those 2019 grapes were actually harvested in prime condition, the best of any of the seven vintages I have helped with, as good as any Jeff can recall. There was little sorting to do. Yet, those grapes proved difficult in the cellar, fermentations slowed and got stuck, not all but many. The fermentations were not completed until the temperatures picked up again in the Spring of 2020. Was that a product of the overheating of the previous summer?

Outstanding Grenache in La Garrigue this year

Every year is different. Similar problems arise due to climate and disease, drought, mildew, oidium, ver de la grappe. The scale of those issues varies though and in different vineyards. The Grenache of La Garrigue was badly hit in 2020 and produced tiny yields. This year when most vineyards suffered that Grenache was beautiful and abundant. Such vagaries are what keeps a vigneron on her/his toes. What quantities of wine will there be from each vineyard? Will there be some outstanding grapes that should be used for a special cuvée? What might be blended to provide the wine for popular cuvées such as Classe or Le Vin Des Amis? With twenty tanks full of fermenting grapes Jeff must juggle figures, analyses, tastings in order to decide what to do with those wines.

Decisions, decisions

2021 was undoubtedly a vintage which reflects most the circumstances of the year, in my opinion more than any of those seven I have witnessed. It was shaped by the frost of April 12th. That single night wreaked havoc upon the vineyards, throughout France yes, certainly for Jeff. Havoc all the worse in that it was unexpected, there was no warning that it would hit the area. 50-70% of potential fruit was wiped out in those few hours, hitting the vines as they flowered and began to bud. From there on 2021 was a year of catch up. Yes the vines, some of them anyway, produced secondary bunches but nothing like the quality and quantity of what was lost. The vines though were weakened by that night, a situation compounded by ongoing drought. Jeff told me that there was only one significant rainfall in Puimisson from the previous October through to the end of summer. This is a perennial issue in the Languedoc now, climate change in action. The consequence of frost and drought was vines pushing energy towards survival rather than fruit and that when summer’s heat and humidity combined to produce oidium (powdery mildew) the vines had little resistance.

Doom and gloom. And yet there was that Grenache. And most of the fruit was decent quality and fermented well (though with delayed malolactic fermentation in some cases). And the resulting wines taste very well after those fermentations. Jeff will make good wines. He will have to juggle those figures again and no doubt produce different final wines to the norm, there isn’t the quantity to make all the usual bottles. Indeed I can report that Jeff bought in some grapes to bulk out his own this year. Carignan and Syrah were brought back from the Minervois thanks to Vivien Hemelsdael of Le Clos Des Jarres, an excellent producer of natural wines himself. That area was relatively untouched by the frost and Vivien kindly agreed to provide grapes to his friend. Matteo, Steeve, Louis and Jeff went to pick those grapes and were enthusiastic about them, especially the Carignan. Incidentally I can honestly recommend seeking out the Clos Des Jarres wines.

2021 will certainly be a year that Jeff recalls with little fondness. Personally I was delighted to be back there after missing out in 2020. Moreover it was an excellent team to work with, I thoroughly enjoyed being a part of it. The white wines which I tasted from tank just before I left Puimisson are in fine fettle, Jeff assures me that the reds are too. Perhaps vintage is less important to wines these days, but do remember unfortunately there won’t be much of them from Jeff Coutelou. There were new aspects of winemaking in 2021 though and I shall be reporting on how Jeff is looking to the future as well as getting the best out of this year. 2021’s wines were certainly a reflection of the difficult year, maybe vintage does matter after all.

The team, by Manu


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Vendanges Coutelou 21 – First Act

En francais

Jeff with a hefty bunch of Cinsault

The rather gloomy nature of my last post might have made you think that we’re all doomed and no good wine will emerge from the Coutelou vats this year. Of course, that is not the case, there are still 50% of the grapes and Jeff can conjure up magical wines from just about any grape juice. So, let’s be positive and report on what is happening here with the 2021 vendanges.

Jeff has assembled a big team of assistants, as he told me it’s rather ironic that should be the case in this vintage. Firstly there’s Matteo, from Rome, who has been in Puimisson with Jeff since January. He helped to prune the vines this year, together with Englishman Matt who I sadly did not get to meet. Matteo, therefore, knows the vines and vineyards well and leads the team equallly well. Steeve is a friend who has visited Jeff many times and done harvest before with us. From the Jura region, Steeve has decided to change career and is spending the next few months with Jeff to learn more about his new vocation. Gilles, an ebullient and cheerful local man, has been working with Jeff for some time, happy amongst the vines after having his own vineyards for many years. Louis is from Narbonne, did harvest here last year and has returned. He is hard working, cheerful and speaks excellent English.  Boris is another local who comes every year to help with vendanges, a lovely guy who works with nature conservation in his full time job.

We are also fortunate to have Jeff’s sister Catherine helping with picking and looking after us as well as her daughter Flora Rey. You will have seen photos from this talented artist on my blog before as shse has been recording the story of the vines and domaine through her photography and film. I urge you to have a look at this film which Flora put together showing the harvesting of Sainte Suzanne Syrah with music composed by Catherine. Consider subscribing to the Youtube site Vins et Spiritueux Coutelou for more great videos about events in Puimisson.

As I mentioned previously the first stage of the vendanges was to focus on Syrah, most affected by frost. Sainte Suzanne, the young vines of Segrairals and my beloved Syrah from La Garrigue were picked on August 30th and 31st. One third of the normal yield and quite concentrated, Jeff will have to consider how to use it in blending.

The glass on the far side contains Syrah from Ste. Suzanne, very good it was too.

I joined the team on September 1st appropriately in Rome vineyard, my favourite. We collected the Cinsault, Grenaches of three colours and some Muscat before heading to the last few bunches of the La Garrigue Syrah and then on to the complanation of 20+ grape varieties, known now as Flower Power, more correctly as Font D’Oulette. That the few of us picked those three vineyards in one morning is not good news. In the afternoon the Moroccan team went to Segrairals and collected some of the Cinsault grapes of the younger vines. These were full and generous and will add much needed bulk to the grapes from the morning. The Cinsault filled the tank though much of that is pulp and the quantity will fall as the juice emerges.

On September 2nd Jeff wanted some fresh white grapes to make into the PetNat (sparkling), Bobonade. Muscat, Macabeu and Grenache Gris from Peilhan were in good condition and then we moved to the new plantation at the bottom of Sainte Suzanne. These were newly planted when I saw them last but they have grown quickly. The young vines managed to twist themselves round the wires of the trellising so it wasn’t the easiest to pick but the Clairette and Macabeu were fresh and acidic, just what is needed for sparkling wine. They were sent direct to press.

And that brought the first act to a close. Pressing followed the next couple of days but picking resumed on Tuesday September 7th. So, until shortly after then, there will be an intermission.

Icare, the real boss


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Vendanges Coutelou 21 – setting the scene

En francais

Picture from The Express Tribune, Lahore

Most readers will already know that this has been a difficult year for winemakers across France and Germany amongst others. Here in France a series of frosts in April damaged vines in regions from the Jura to Provence. When I spoke to Jeff Coutelou on April 11th he was reassured that Puimisson had avoided such calamity, but then disaster struck. On April 12th the frost, unforeseen by forecasters, struck many parcels with temperatures sinking to -7˚C. The Languedoc is no stranger to frosts even if not as vulnerable as other regions but this was sharp and the timing was disastrous. Vines had begun budding and flowering in the previous couple of weeks and the young growth was dried to a crisp by the cold. Jeff predicted that yields might be down as much as 70%.

Photo of a frost hit vine in 2015 from my blog

The vines fought back a little through Spring and Summer, secondary bunches forming but they cannot replace the original growth properly, being smaller and of lesser quality. However, the frost was also part of an ongoing problem with lack of water. Jeff told me that there had been little rain since the end of vendanges 2020, with just one sustained period of rainfall this year. Vines, weakened by drought and frost, become susceptible to other problems too. Every summer downy mildew and oidium (powdery mildew) are present and they found easy targets in 2021.

Ironically, after my first tour of the vineyards this year, it was the Grenache of La Garrigue which stood out as being the best with healthy foliage and beautiful, good sized bunches of grapes. Ironically because last year that was the parcel worst hit by mildew, nature was giving back a little this year in compensation. La Garrigue is also the home of the Syrah which makes my favourite wine, La Vigne Haute. Unfortunately those vines had been damaged this year and were looking sorry for themselves. Syrah does seem to have been particularly badly affected. The first days of this year’s harvest concentrated on Syrah from Sainte Suzanne, Segrairals and, then, La Garrigue. Yields were one third of last year.

In the last 5-6 years Jeff has replanted many vineyards, some of which had been fallow for some years. The fruit of these young vines can be used this year to help produce wines such as the PetNat, Bibonade, that will boost production a little. The estimate is now that there will be just under 50% of a normal year. So, the scene is set. I wish I had a prettier picture to paint, it is the least promising of the seven vintages I have witnessed here. Let us hope for a twist in the tale.


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It means the world to be back

En francais

Getting out of bed on Thursday morning, back aching in various places, the tips of my fingers stained black and blue and a matching bruise on the palm of my right hand. How did I feel? Just great thank you. These were the signs that I was back after two years, back in the Languedoc, back in Puimisson, back in the vines and back with my dear friend Jeff Coutelou.

For six vintages I had reported on how the year on a wine domaine wound its way through peaks and troughs. Six vendanges, hesitant the first time in 2014 then with growing understanding of what was happening, why it was happening and what I could do, in a small way, to help produce the excellent Coutelou wines.

2014

During that time I had progressed from basically standing guard over a basket press (when in reality nothing much could go wrong) and doing rudimentary sorting as the grapes arrived to becoming a much more confident ‘cellar rat’ knowing how to carry out remontage, pigeage, operate the pumps and to stand at the sorting table knowing exactly what I was looking for as the bunches arrived, from disease to ver de la grappe, the feel and the smell of the grapes able to tell me that those grapes did not belong in the tanks of quality wines we were making.

2019

I came to love the various vineyards and to get to know their quirks, strengths and weaknesses. But especially Rome, sheltered from the world by surrounding trees, teeming with wildlife, complex in its geology and filled with its gnarly, gobelet old vines, standing free. My oasis. I came to love the philosophy behind Jeff’s winemaking; biodiversity, supporting nature not exploiting it, grapes, work and love. I already loved the wines but being part of their story made them even more special. And, above all, I came to love the people I met through the years, the revolving cast of characters who spent time with us.

Rome

Whether based in France pretty much full time for three years or spending half a year there I felt at home, but I took my happiness and good fortune for granted. If the COVID-19 pandemic did one positive thing for me, in preventing me from being in France and the 2020 vintage, it was to make me realise how much I missed being part of the wine, how much I did love the place, vines and people.

It is a pure joy to be back, the aches, bruises and stains are very welcome.


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Updates from Puimisson

All photos by Flora Rey unless indicated

A continuing absence from Jeff, Puimisson and France. This blog was started in 2014 in order to share my experiences as a novice about winemaking spending time with my friend Jeff Coutelou, an expert. The pandemic has made that next to impossible. I am grateful that Jeff and his niece, Flora Rey, keep me updated with messages and photos. Fortunately, they are happy for me to pass them on and I continue to hope that I shall be able to join them soon, fingers crossed.

The vines are ten days or so behind the usual dates for véraison (when red grapes begin to colour) and this will mean later vendanges of course, usually 40 days after véraison. You will recall that April brought devastating losses to this year’s production with up to 70% being damaged by the frosts of April 12th. The grapes which there are look to be in good health though Jeff was worried this week about a weather forecast which could raise the risk of oidium (powdery mildew) due to a northerly wind. This meant he has been out in the vines in a week which was supposed to be a rest time spraying with organic treatments (and made more complicated and time consuming by a puncture).

Meanwhile the plants which are allowed to grow between vines, such as grass and flowers, have been cut down as they start to offer competition for water in the hot summer and will also compost the soils. It has been a very dry year, just a couple of storms worth of real rainfall since last year’s vendanges, so water levels are very low. There was some useful rain a couple of weeks ago to everyone’s relief.

Meanwhile the new plantations need care, they will have been watered as they will produce no crop this year. At the Ste. Suzanne plantation of 2020 young vines need tying up (palissage) a labour intensive job. These are Clairette vines producing their first grapes, not that they will go into the wines.

The week beginning July 7th was an intense period of bottling most of the 2020 wines, I recall long days of hard work in the past. There’s an intriguing new name for one cuvée and a topical inscription on the corks. The wines are apparently very good and I can’t wait to try them. The third cellar at Jeff’s is his stock cellar, always a good place to visit as you can see here.

Meanwhile there was a new delivery last week, a concrete egg. Many wineries now use them to age wines as the shape of the egg is believed to make for better fermentations and ageing, adding more energy and vitality. We shall see. When I asked Jeff what would be going into it he told me that I would see when I got there for vendanges and I hope that will indeed be the case.

Thanks to Flora and to Jeff.


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March on March: (mainly) France

March seemed like a long month in lockdown though, after three months, the end of the month saw a family reunion in my sister’s garden. Together with beautiful Spring flowers in the garden that brought some optimism at last. Sadly, the news from France was not so good as they enter another lockdown to fight a third wave of COVID. Jeff keeps me up to date with what’s going on and his niece Flora has sent some lovely photos, I shall share both in the next week or so.

Let’s start with Jeff Coutelou and, after that opening paragraph, Flower Power 2015. This was, of I recall correctly, the first Flower Power made from the field plantation of Font D’Oulette with added grapes such as Castets from Peilhan. The wine received high praise in La Revue Des Vins De France magazine back in 2016. It was lovely, the 5-6 years of age bringing it to its apogee with fruit and complexity and lingering flavours of plums and blackberries. The tannins and acidity have softened nicely, a lovely bottle. Flambadou 2015 was also at its peak, classic Carignan notes with red fruit and then darker notes coming through. This is consistently one of the best wines from Puimisson and the 2015 is a fine example.

Jeff and Louis

L’Ostal “Plein Chant” has a connection with Coutelou too even though it is a Cahors through and through. There is no vintage clearly marked but it is a 2016. I have recounted how I first met Louis Pérot at La Remise in Arles where he was one of the new producers. I fell in love with his wines, praised them to the high heavens enough that he was able to get some listed in good restaurants. Jeff was also taken by the wines and the strict natural approach of Louis and Charlotte. They became friends and Louis has visited us many times. This pure Malbec (known as Cot locally) has deep berry flavours, the power of Cahors and benefits from decanting in softening out the tannins a little. I loved the wines back in 2016 and I still do.

Brigitte Chevalier of Domaine Cébène in Faugeres has become a renowned producer, praised widely in wine circles for the purity of her fruit and excellent work in the vineyard. I bought her wines from Leon Stolarski long before moving to the region and whilst there met Brigitte on a number of occasions including visits to her vineyards and cellar many times. These are precise, structured wines expressing the schist soils beautifully. Les Bancels 2016 is Syrah and Grenache and a classic example of why the Languedoc. and Faugeres in particular, is my favourite wine region. Fruit, depth, tannins, pleasure.

If you ever needed an example of how wine has changed during my lifetime then the Rieffel Pinot Noir Nature 2018 is it. I first started visiting Alsace 35 years ago or so and Pinot Noirs were largely thin, acidic and fairly undrinkable. Maybe I just didn’t find good examples but at several tastings I left shaking my head even from some famous producers. Nowadays I love Alsace Pinots in general, they have fresh fruit, usually red fruit flavours, they are softer and just enjoyable. I’d rather drink an Alsace Pinot such as this very good example of the grape, region and producer than most Burgundies of similar price. Very enjoyable. Climate change? Better vineyard and cellar management? Winemaking improvements? Probably a combination of all, but heartily recommended.

Morgon 2018 from celebrated producer Jean Foillard was the wine we shared when my family met up again on the 30th. Morgon in Beaujolais is traditionally the most serious of the ten crus producing more structured wines than the typical regional light, juicy wines. This is usually attributed to the schist soils marked by red iron oxide and manganese, most famously on the Mont du Py. This wine is certainly in that tradition, probably opened a year or two early. The Gamay fruit is masked at first by the power though comes through, more ageing should release it sooner in the glass. Foillard is one of the natural pioneers of the region and a source of benchmark wines.

Finally, to balance out this post with a second I have added Franz Weninger’s Ponzichter 2018. Weninger is Austrian but his father bought some vines in Hungary when communism ended and this bottle is made from those vines. A blend of Pinot Noir and Zweigelt this was a lighter style with very enjoyable red fruit showing through and soft tannins to balance it and add a little depth. Very enjoyable and well made.

Garden Spring flowers, optimism for better times ahead.


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February red wines

Let’s start with the Jeff Coutelou wines first. 5SO Simple 2018 has really found its feet now, which is probably too late for the vast majority of bottles opened as it is usually a wine opened for early drinking as a ‘glou glou’. Cinsault is light, the grapes tend to be large and juicy and not have too much acidity. Jeff likes acidity in his wines to help maintain their condition and health, without SO2 as a preservative the acidity can be a useful substitute as well as adding freshness to the wine. The acidity of this 18 bottle was calmed and the fruit was showing more roundness than the last bottle I had. It’s in a very good place, very enjoyable.

I opened two bottles of La Vigne Haute, my favourite wine. A 2013 was in excellent shape, the Syrah black fruit and spice still prominent, the tannins soft and the age was adding another layer of complexity and depth. No rush to drink up but definitely ready. However, the 2017 was on another level. I opened it on my birthday and it was a highlight of the month. It is ready to drink now and very enjoyable too but I’ll hang on to my other bottles a little while. The acidity is fresh but well balanced, the fruit is open and mouth filing. It has a youthful energy but it’s also round and enjoyable from the outset. On this evidence La Vigne Haute 2017 has the potential to be one of the best vintages of this great wine.

Amicis is the wine I made at Jeff’s in 2015 with grapes from Rome vineyard, the three types of Grenache. Aged in three different containers (old barrel, newer barrel and glass). You can read more here. I opened a bottle of the older barrel aged wine meaning the staves were tighter and so there was less exchange with air, the wine is more youthful than the wine in the newer barrel. Cherry red, fresh acidity and the residual sugar giving a sweetness. It is more an aperitif wine than a food wine and it will age for years.

Let’s stay in the Languedoc and near neighbours and friends the Andrieu family of Clos Fantine. Their vineyards are high in the Faugères hills and the vines are gobelet to give them a freedom and energy, described by Corine here. The Fantine reds need time, they have concentrated fruit and tannin which take time to marry and mature. Give them that time and the rewards are plentiful. This bottle of the traditional Faugères is non vintage. They had some Carignan from 2016 and 2017 which took their time to finish fermentation, they were a bit stuck. When they finally completed Corine added some Grenache and Syrah from 2017 and also some Cinsault and Mourvedre from 2019. The blending is therefore similar to what Jeff does with his L’Oublié bottle. The result was excellent, a full bodied, complex wine with a freshness from the 2019 wines. Power and elegance. I must order some more.

Still in the Faugères area and a young winemaking couple whom I first visited in the snow! Simon and Sara Bertschinger have a few hectares around Fos with unusual grape varieties for the region, the Armélot 2015 I opened contains Merlot and Petit Verdot, they also have some Sangiovese. Like the Fantine wine this is unmistakably Faugères, depth, power, freshness to the fore. The 5-6 years of age have brought a lovely maturity, another bottle at its peak. The Merlot adds a roundness to the wine, it is lovely.

Heading down towards Spain, Banyuls. I tasted La Cave des Nomades wines for the first time at La Remise in Arles in 2016 when Jose (Zé) Carvalho was the talk of the town. The wines were exciting and fresh with incredible depth. I haven’t had the chance to drink many since then and was pleased to find Camino Rojo 19 available. Grenache and Syrah (taken direct from pressing) produces a light coloured wine but it is packed with flavour, red fruits and cleansing acidity. More please.

Two examples of Gamay next, both French. I recall visiting and holidaying in the Forez region in central France many years ago and the local wines were a rarity and simply a quaffing wine in local restaurants. Some producers have worked hard to add quality to the region and the leading domaine is Verdier-Logel. They work organically and this Poycelan Cuvée des Gourmets 2019 is made from grapes grown on granite soils, they also have Gamay on volcanic soils. I enjoyed it, there is plenty of fruit though it was fuller and a little heavier than most Gamays. Interesting and good to try wines from less well known areas. More classic Gamay in the form of Beaujolais, indeed a Beaujolais Nouveau 2020. Guy Breton is one of the great producers of the region, I remember a P’tit Max I had in Paris a few years ago as one of the bottles which converted me to a love of natural wine. Cuvée Fanchon was lovely, round, soft red fruits – absolutely classic Beaujolais and Gamay – delicious.

My biggest surprise of the month though was a Malbec from Argentina, Familia Cecchin 2019 no added sulfites. Argentinian Malbec has become very popular in supermarkets with a range of big, powerful wines – I usually find them too big and heavy for my taste. This, though, was a really pleasant surprise. There is a lightness and freshness to the wine as well as plenty of big flavours. Very good winemaking, a real deftness. I decided to try wines from further afield this year and this bottle really supported that decision, a genuine treat.

Wines were purchased: direct from producer, Leon Solarski wines, Buon Vino wines, Petites Caves, Little Wine


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Au courant chez Coutelou

Topical and punning Carte des voeux

Long time readers may recall that every January Jeff Coutelou sends out a New Year card and update to his clients and customers. The card includes a summary of the previous vintage in vineyard and cellar and I pass on its contents as well as other bits of news from Puimisson.

The story of the 2020 vintage begins with the weather from the time of the previous harvest. From October through the winter the weather was mild with a lot of showery rain, there was hardly any frost and unfortunately not enough to ensure that the vines went into a period of ‘hibernation’, shutting down to aid their recovery from the hard work of 2019 and to ensure their health for 2020. Unfortunately, this has become the norm in recent years, climate change is leaving its mark. Budding (débourrement) occurred around the end of March, ten days earlier than the average.

The period from budding to véraison (when red grapes develop their colour) was a time of worry for Jeff, not just because of the consequences of COVID-19 but in the vines. The weather remained wet, indeed there was stormy, heavy rain from mid April to mid May – damp and warmth together bring mildew in their wake. Moreover, the very wet ground meant that he could not take his tractor or other machinery into the vines because they were so muddy. Instead he had to carry a sprayer on his back and walk through the vines in order to try and protect them from the mildew. I recall messages from Jeff, which I mentioned on here, showing his concern that 2020 would be a repeat of the widespread outbreak of 2018.

Fortunately the weather solved the problem it had caused in the first place. June was cool, too cool for mildew to flourish and then, suddenly, heat and wind dried out the vines and mildew. Flowering began on May 25th, still very early. A hot, dry summer meant that the vines, despite the long period of rain from October to May, began to suffer a little from drought. Véraison began on July 20th, once again, early. Harvest usually begins a hundred days from flowering and these early dates meant that vendanges would be nudging the bank holiday of August 15th.

In fact harvest began on August 19th, the earliest of any vintage since Jeff took charge of the domaine in 2002. They would last for just over two weeks. The hot, dry summer meant the grapes were in excellent health, conversely they were small. Those parcels which had been touched by mildew required severe sorting at the cellar door. In the last few days of the vendanges another problem flew in, a moth called Pyrale du Daphné (Cryptoblabes gnidiella) or honeydew moth as I described here. Overall, with small grapes and the damage from mildew and moth the volume of wine from the 2020 harvest was 20% below average yield.

photo from Alchetron

By November with two months in tank the reds had completed their fermentations and were ready to be blended (assemblage). The whites proved a little more troublesome. Just like 2019 they moved through fermentation but then seemed to falter and were completed like an exhausted runner falling over the finishing line. Fortunately this was a hiccup rather than a cough and the wines look to be very good. As well as the usual range of container to hold the wines Jeff bought in some barrels from Cognac which had recently been emptied, they will be used for the oxidative wines.

So, what are the wines likely to produce? In reds there will be Le Vin Des Amis for the first time in a few years, a welcome return, made up of Cinsault, Syrah and Grenache. Classe will be there from Syrah, Grenache, Carignan and Mourvedre, and there will be a separate single variety Mourvedre. A simple Vin Rouge of Syrah and Carignan sounds interesting and others will no doubt appear, Jeff is contemplating over a new version of Oublié, a wine made from the old, traditional varieties such as Morastel, Castets and Terret Noir and Blanc. The 2019 amphora wine is also now ready, a Syrah.

The name of the domaine is now Vins et Spiritueux Coutelou and so I should mention a new spirit, based on gentian from the Aubrac in the Haut Languedoc, some of it aged in barrel blended with the rest which was distilled. Finally, there will be Fine from 2014 in two versions, a 40% and a 64% aged in barrel.

Meanwhile in the vineyards. Jeff has planted more traditional grape varieties replacing grapes such as Merlot and Cabernet which have been grubbed up. Aramon Blanc and Noir, Servant and a grape called ‘Grappy’ which is taken from one vine in an old vineyard an unknown red grape. Jeff has purchased some abandoned parcels next to his Peilhan vineyard creating a 6 hectare parcel in the one place, which should make work much easier. He is planting hedges and olive trees around these new areas to secure their health and separation from conventional vineyards around. A 6 hectare oasis. Vines will gradually be planted over the course of a number of years to ensure the soils are organically sound and certifiable.

Meanwhile my friend Steeve spent some time in Puimisson in January to help out with pruning (taille). He felt honoured to be trusted with Rome vineyard, my favourite and sent me photos of his work which he has kindly allowed me to share. The aim is always to cut back the canes of the previous vintage and encourage others to develop this year, ensuring they are growing in a way to suit the overall vineyard, eg direction. In Rome, as the vines are gobelet, there is no real training of the vines as there are no wires. I hope with all my heart that I will soon be able to go and inspect Steeve’s work!


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Wine pairing and a mystery

Nothing to do with food I promise. That’s an avenue I never really venture into, drink whatever you like provided it doesn’t clash tends to be my motto. Reflecting on January wines consumed it occurred to me that the most interesting aspect came in pairs of bottles. After all, this of all years is not the time for Dry January.

Let’s start with Jeff Coutelou. I opened two bottles which I thought would form an interesting comparison. Both are Syrah, made in exactly the same way from the same vineyard. The principle difference is the vintage but that is also the point of the comparison. The two bottles are from vines on a north facing slope in La Garrigue. The soil is the ubiquitous argilo-calcaire, limestone with clay but this part of the vineyard has more complex geology with various types of soil as this, like Rome vineyard, was at the end of a moraine thousands of years ago and all kinds of rocks were left behind. The vines face north to protect from the direct Languedoc sunshine in afternoons, Syrah likes heat but not too much.

Syrah of La Garrigue

La Vigne Haute is the top wine made from the site, my own favourite wine too. This bottle was a 2013, the wine ages superbly with the vibrant fruit of youth settling and maturing into something gentler and much more complex. Natural wines don’t age without sulphur protection we used to be told, LVH is the perfect riposte to such nonsense. In some years Jeff feels that the fruit hasn’t been absolutely top quality. Perhaps the stream which runs well under the surface of the slope has been swollen by rain and the grapes become dilute. Or maybe a hot vintage stresses the vines, north facing or not. In those vintages Jeff makes a Syrah which is bottled under a different name so that LVH remains a guarantee of top quality. Nonetheless those bottles offer a really good wine, with fresh, fruity Syrah. In recent years Jeff has named this wine On Peut Pas Vraiment Dire Que. The bottle I opened was a 2017 and was pure pleasure.

Onto another pairing, Jeff and one of his best friends, Christian Venier. Christian’s vineyards and home are in the Loire in the Cheverny region. He and Jeff are firm friends with almost identical outlooks on how to tend their vines and make their wines. When Christian holds his annual weekend Portes Ouvertes event Jeff is always there, I have attended too and even hosted the Coutelou stand.

Les Couleurs Réunies 18 is a wine Jeff made for the first time in that vintage. The grapes come from over twenty varieties of vine, planted in Font D’Oulette which we commonly call Flower Power. The vines are still young and yields are tiny. Jeff fleshed them out with grapes such as Castets from Peilhan vineyard, blended in tank to ferment and mature and the result is LCR. The 2018 is on fine form just now, lovely fruit and complexity. To pair it up I chose one of Christian’s white wines, Les Perrières 2018.

With Christian and Jeff in Christian’s vines 2016

How is that a pairing? Well, just as LCR contains grapes of the most obscure varieties (see this article) Les Perrières is made of one I hardly recognise, Menu Pineau. This variety is also known as Arbois and Orbois, by 2011 only a hundred hectares grown around the world, mostly in the Jura and the area around Vouvray in the Loire. My copy of Galet’s Dictionnaire tells me that it is used mostly for adding alcohol and softening the acidity of other grapes by means of blending. Christian’s wine is made purely of Menu Pineau. There is a density to the wine, exotic fruit aromas and the wine tastes dry but it’s aromatic and almost musky. Two vignerons embracing old grapes, old ways of working and producing wines of character and authenticity.

Menu Pineau, Orbois, Arbois in Galet

Finally, to a less successful pairing. Last year one of my favourite wines was the Simplement Gamay from La Paonnerie in the Loire. I bought more and disaster struck. The corkscrew met little resistance, the cork was very soft and I knew what the wine would be like. Sure enough a slight mustiness in the glass and fungal, coarse woody flavours. Bad enough but then I turned to a wine which is a regular, a simple red from the excellent Valle Unite in Piedmont, Ottavio Rube 2018 made from Dolcetto and Croatina grapes. The first glass was exactly what I hoped for, fresh acidity, bright red fruit. A second brought disappointment. Mousey flavours were present at the end of the mouthful. By the third glass the mousiness couldn’t be ignored, I simply can’t drink mousey wine.

I had a second bottle so I opened that the following evening to see whether that too would be spoiled. Same wine, same vintage. No mousiness. I can’t explain it, please feel free to offer suggestions. Mouse is a natural wine issue, it disappears with added SO2. I have experienced it too many times and in various circumstances. It is not as simple as bacterial infection, I have known wines which are mousey when tasted after the bottles have travelled but not mousey in the cellar of the producer. This was a fascinating, frustrating pairing but leaves more questions than answers.

A healthy glass of the wine

If you can, try to find pairs of bottles, they do add another layer of interest to the whole wine experience.


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Assemblage

Thierry measures proportions of the component wines

I am aware of publishing posts all too rarely this year. I don’t post unless I have something to say which I feel may be worthy of your time though you may argue that the quality assurance fails sometimes! The vast majority of posts are about my time working alongside Jeff Coutelou and relating what is happening at his Puimisson domaine. Indeed this is the first year I can recall when I will have spent not one minute in France. Restrictions around COVID-19 made it impossible to spend time with him in 2020 so I have posted updates from Jeff as well as more general posts.

So, what news from the Languedoc? After vendanges the wines complete fermentation and settle in the various tanks for 2-3 months before Jeff makes final decisions about what to do with each of them. The large cement tanks are filled with one grape variety and often from one vineyard, e.g. Syrah from Sainte Suzanne is separate from Syrah of Peilhan. Though Jeff makes some wines from one grape, known as monocépage (5SO Simple for example), he is best known for his wines made from different varieties, Classe, Le Vin Des Amis being the best known.

Bottling with the cement tanks in the background

In order to give these blended wines (assemblages) time to truly mix and marry their flavours and textures it is usually in November that Jeff will make the decisions about what to blend. Last week was the right time, fermentations completed, wines maturing. Thierry, his analyst, joined Jeff to try different blendings. They tasted the various wines, then mix together the typical assemblages for the wines, Classe for example will contain Grenache and Syrah. So they tried different percentages mixed and then judge whether the wine would benefit from another component, perhaps some Cinsault for freshness or some Mourvedre for body. Having played around with various blends they agreed upon the final blend.

An assemblage when I was there in 2016

Some wines will remain in tank, a new blend of those might be put together or they may be used for a small amount of single variety wine. I have been involved in these tastings and though it is fun it is also very important and serious as the decision is final, once the wines are put together there is no going back. Get it wrong and the customer may not like the wine. From there, of course, Jeff will have to physically move the wines, thousands of litres at a time from one tank to another and make the assemblage. There they will settle over winter and spring ready for bottling at some point next year. 2020 wines, a good harvest, promising well for a year which needs something to rescue it.

My Coutelou 2019 purchases

Meanwhile the wines of 2019 which were delayed by slow fermentations have reached the market. Bottling took place before vendanges in order to free up the tanks for the 2020 wines and during October thousands of bottles were habillées (labelled and capsuled). This is hard work, lots of carrying heavy boxes. It is also repetitive but an opportunity for the team to talk and joke together (as well as sampling the odd bottle, purely for more quality assurance of course). Jeff told me that over 32,000 bottles went out in one week and I acted quickly to snap some up from French suppliers as my usual source has been denied me this year. I noticed that the Coutelou wines remain amongst the cheapest on any website, below 10 euros in some cases. And today when I checked one site had already run out of 5SO Simple. I have opened a couple of the bottles so far but will give a fuller tasting when I have opened all of the different cuvées.

I will be posting more regularly this month with not just those tasting notes but also with my choices of recent wines and wines of the year. It has been a pleasant surprise to see reading figures actually go up in recent weeks and months, perhaps the less I write the better it is! But thank you.