amarchinthevines

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


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Coutelou renewed

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En Francais

You may recall that for French bureaucratic reasons the Coutelou domaine name had to change this year. Mas Coutelou was a combination of the surnames of Jeff’s parents, Mas being his mother’s family name. However, Mas also means a homestead or farm and only wines under Appellation or IGP labels are allowed to have that name. So, family name or not, Jeff’s Vin De France wines, Mas Coutelou for many years, had to have new branding.

Since he was already planning to release new products such as a fine (eau de vie), a kina (like a vermouth) and other spirits Jeff chose ‘Vins et Spiritueux Coutelou’. I have tried the Kina and like it, even though it’s not really my thing. Made from wine and organic herbs from the vineyards it is a very enjoyable aperitif.

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It seems that renewal is the signature of the year. There has been much updating of the cellar in recent times; roof, insulation, a form of air conditioning, division of cuves to make it possible to vinify smaller parcels and quantities, resin flooring, better drainage, amphorae, temperature controlled stainless steel tanks. A new management space means that it is easier to see at a glance what is where and adds a tidiness to what was a more chaotic central space of the cellar.

Upstairs the new office space has been fitted out beautifully. Jeff commissioned a couple of local carpenters to make furniture. Using old barrels and a foudre of more than 130 years old they made a cupboard, with themed shelves and a stunning chair for the desk. They are real works of art, true craftsmanship. A table from the Coutelou family home has been skilfully renewed to add a feature to the space.

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The empty parcel next to Ste Suzanne

And, in the vineyards more renewal. The small parcel at Sainte Suzanne which has been fallow for many years was supposed to be planted last year, in 2017. A very wet spell then and another this Spring has meant that those plans had to be shelved as the parcel was too wet. However, the vines were already ordered so Jeff has planted them in Segrairals where he had grubbed up some Cabernet Sauvignon. Instead of that extraneous variety Jeff has planted Aramon Noir and Aramon Gris (Aramon being the original grape in the parcel next to Ste Suzanne), Terret, Clairette Blanche, Clairette Rose, Picardan, Olivette, Servan (related to Syrah) and Grand Noir De La Calmette. I must admit to never having heard of some of these. Time to consult my copy of Galet’s wonderful Encycolpedia of Grapes. The Coutelou vineyards are fast becoming a treasure store of rare grapes, there are now several dozen varieties planted.

The very hot and dry month combined with the widespread mildew outbreak have meant that Jeff has spent many hours tending this new plantation, spraying and watering to help the new plants to survive. Happily, all is well.

2018 will always be remembered by Languedoc vignerons as a year of headaches and heartaches, months spent on tractors fighting disease, easy to become disheartened. The Coutelou renewals help to remind us that such problems are temporary.


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On higher ground

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En francais

The last article described the ongoing problems in the Languedoc with mildew spoiling vines and grapes. Last Saturday Jeff  invited me over to try and beat the blues a little. Steve from Besançon was staying with Jeff for a week to learn a bit more about being a vigneron. They had opened a bottle of La Vigne Haute 2013 on the previous evening and Jeff invited me over to try the last glass from the bottle.

When I arrived on the Saturday morning Jeff was spraying the Flower Power vineyard, Font D’Oulette. When he had finished we returned to his house and I had the remaining 2013, delicious it was too, still youthful but starting to add tertiary notes to the fruit. Jeff decided to open the 2010 to show how age helps La Vigne Haute to reveal its quality and depth; fruit, spice and leathery complexity. A bottle demonstrating perfectly why La Vigne Haute is my favourite wine of all. However, that was not the end. From his personal cellar emerged a 2001 LVH with no label. Still vibrant with fruit singing and yet more complexity of spice, classic black pepper notes. Simply excellent.

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So, was that the end? Not at all.  More Syrah from older vintages, 1998, 1997 and 1993. Each was still alive with black fruit and those spicy notes. The 91 was Jeff’s first solo bottling, a real privilege to taste it. He had added, all those years ago, a total of 5mg of SO2, pretty much absorbed now, and would certainly qualify as natural wine from a time when it was virtually unknown. A treasure trove of history as well as further proof of how well these wines do mature, there were no off notes at all.  Indeed, they were delicious.

A 1999 Cabernet Sauvignon showed the quality of that grape from the region and how well it aged. There were still currant flavours, violets and more spice. A fresh acidity cleansed the palate. I hadn’t known what to expect, I was bowled over.

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Legendary Roberta

And to finish the 5 hour lunch a bottle of Roberta, the 2003 white wine made from all three Grenache grapes, one of Jeff’s first no added sulphite wines, aged in a special barrel which gives the wine its name. It is a treat I have tasted on a handful of special occasions, its nutty, round fruit was a perfect ending to a special day. Whatever 2018 brings this was a reminder of the special Coutelou wines.

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Mainly Happy Returns?

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En francais

After eight months away from Puimisson and the Coutelou vines it was definitely a case of being very happy to return. As I stood in Rome vineyard there was the chorus of birdsong, hum of insects, flash of colour from butterflies and flowers. A resounding reminder of why this is one of my favourite places on Earth, capable of making me joyful just by being there.

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In Font D’Oulette (Flower Power), the vines are maturing well, many now sturdy and thriving in their gobelet freedom. The change from when we grafted some of them just two years ago is dramatic, perhaps more to me as I haven’t seen them since last October.

Grafted vine 2016, same vine now

In Peilhan and Rec D’Oulette (Flambadou’s Carignan) the roses were still just in bloom at the end of the rows but starting to wilt under the hot sun.

Carignan left and top right, Peilhan bottom right

And there lies the rub. The hot sun has really only been out in the region for the last week, it has been a catastrophic Spring. Rain has fallen dramatically, almost three times the usual level from March onwards after a wetter winter than usual. The annual rainfall average has been surpassed just halfway through the year. Moreover the rain was not in sudden bursts but steady, regular, in most afternoons. Vineyards all over the region are sodden, tractors and machines unable to fight their way through the mud making vineyard work difficult if not impossible. Even after a week of sun if I press down onto the soil I can feel the dampness on the topsoil.

Mix damp and warmth around plants and there is a sadly inevitable result, mildew.

Look again at the photo of Peilhan, zoom in on the wines at the bottom,

there are the tell tale brown spots.

This downy mildew lives as spores in the soil and the rain splashes them up onto the vines. Jeff had warned me of the damage which I described from afar in my last post. Seeing the tell tale signs of brown spots on the upper leaves on such a scale across vineyards all over the Languedoc is another matter though. All those vines touched will yield nothing (though some will still put them into production, so be confident of your producer). I have heard that some producers have effectively lost most of their vines for this year and similar stories from right across the region. Grenache seems particularly susceptible to mildew and it has been devastated at Jeff’s, the Maccabeu too.

Meanwhile Jeff has been struggling against nature, not a normal situation. He has sprayed all kinds of organic products from seaweed, nettles, essential oils such as orange and lavender, horsetail, clay. He has used the two natural elements permitted under organic rules, copper and sulphur. Jeff is particularly reluctant to use copper but such is the battle this year that it was necessary. Unfortunately like Sisyphus the task is uphill. He sprays, it rains and the effects of the spray are greatly lessened by washing it off the vines, so he has to start again. At least this week that is no longer the case and Jeff has been working all hours to save what he can, to roll that rock uphill once more. He is discouraged, even heartbroken to see the state of some of the vines he tends and cares for so much.

Dare I mention that now is the time when oidium, powdery mildew makes itself known? Please, not this year.

So, production will be down enormously this year, we hold out best hope for Syrah, Mourvèdre, Carignan Noir. Lower production means lower income too, so expect price rises and please do not complain as now you are aware of the reasons.

So happy returns? Well on a personal level yes. To see my great friend again, to have Icare waiting to be tickled, to see the good side of nature. But. This is not a happy time for vignerons across this region and it hurts to see my friends knocked about like this. Let us hope for northerly, drying winds, sunshine and no more disease so that something can be rescued this year, for Sisyphus to reach his summit.

It really is Flower Power now. Jeff sowed wildflowers and plants to help the soils of that vineyard retain moisture, ironic given the Spring.


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Coutelou, news on 2016, 2017 and 2018

En francais

Cartes des voeux 2015 and 2016

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Carte des Voeux 2017, election year

Every January Jeff Coutelou sends out to customers a Carte Des Voeux, a New Year’s card, in which he sends out information about the previous year’s events in Puimisson, thoughts about the vintage and general news. The card is always fronted by a striking, witty image and this year’s was no exception.

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2018

 

The main headlines from this year’s card concerning the wines were:

  • The difficulties of the 2017 vintage, the extremely hot weather and drought and how only a timely wind from the sea (brise marine) saved the harvest
  • The small harvest, though one of very good quality
  • Details of the likely cuvées which Jeff blended in November, these include regulars such as 7, Rue De La Pompe, Vin Des Amis, PM Rosé, Classe, Flambadou, Flower Power and the Blanc but also the Amphora wine from 2016 and …… La Vigne Haute! (Happy writer here)
  • New products, spirits and ‘tonics’. Gin, Fine and Grappa together with a Kina (a wine flavoured with plants) which is delicious.

Other news headlines:

  • The 2016 vintage as proof of how nature decides. The wines were slow to develop and, so, Jeff decided to sit on up to 75% of them rather than commercialise unready wines. (That said, the 2016 bottles which I have opened recently have been very good indeed, well worth waiting for. Good news for the customer with patience, less so for Jeff’s turnover).
  • Problems in the vineyards due to heavy rain in late 2016 meant that new plantings had to be postponed.The problems caused by vandalism in autumn 2017 have damaged the work and progress of biodiversity in the vineyards, eg hedges and trees burned.

Perhaps most startling of all the Domaine will, in future, no longer be named Mas Coutelou. The authorities informed Jeff that a domaine releasing wines as Vin De France rather than AOC or IGP is not permitted to use the term Mas. In Jeff’s case this seems daft as that is the family name of his mother and founders of the Domaine. No matter the logic and common sense, the wines will now simply be called Coutelou.

As for 2018.

The plantations foreseen for 2017 will, hopefully, take place this Spring, eg next to Ste Suzanne where traditional and older grape varieties will take their place amongst the dozens already planted across the domaine.

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The sodden vineyard which could not be planted in 2017

Jeff intends to bring back to life the parcels in the Saint Chinian area which belonged to his father. They will be tidied, replanted as necessary and improved with biodiversity as a core principle. In ten years we can look forward to a whole new range of Coutelou wines from this renowned region.


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Grapes and climate change

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

* % area of vineyards under the 12 varieties

China – 93 (almost 75% Cabernet Sauvignon)

New Zealand 91.6

Australia 84.5

Chile 77.6

USA 70

 

 


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Becoming naturalised

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En français

I have spent most of the last 25 months living in the Languedoc and as that period draws to an end I have begun to feel naturalised: my French has started to adopt a local accent such as ‘veng’ for ‘vin’; I tut at anybody and everybody; I rush for a jumper if the temperature dips below 20°C; I even went to a rugby match!

We are searching for a house to move more definitively to the area, it is where I feel happy, healthy and home. Sadly, when I look back across the Channel I see little to make me feel at home there. Brexit has seen a fall in the £ of more than 20% in less than four months. There has been a startling increase in racist and homophobic attacks. The government (with an unelected Prime Minister) is hell bent on going it alone, prepared to do without the EU single market even if it means damaging the economy. Companies such as Nissan have warned they will leave the UK if that is the case yet the government ploughs on determinedly. The 48% who voted to Remain in the EU are ignored, reviled and, today, told that they should be silenced.

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Mrs. May told her Party, “If you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere. You don’t understand what the very word ‘citizenship’ means.”

Worrying times. Is it any wonder that I, proud to be a citizen of the world, feel more naturalised here in the Hérault? Though Robert Ménard, the far right mayor of Béziers, is doing his best to out do May’s government by opposing the housing of immigrants relocated from Calais to the town. He sanctioned this poster for example:

 

As for wine?

After a few tranquil months natural wine has again become the focus of attacks and disparaging remarks by those who seem threatened by it.

In France, Michel Bettane, elder statesman of wine critics, accused natural wine drinkers of being ‘peu democratique’ in their words and ways. No great surprise from a man whose connections make him part of the wine establishment.

In the UK one of the most respected and established of wine merchants, The Wine Society, published this statement from one of their senior buyers.

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“Prone to spoilage, high proportion not particularly pleasant to drink, rarely demonstrate varietal character or sense of place.” A damning list. And I am a member of this co-operative group!

Again I feel alienated from mainstream opinion. Sykes is talking complete rubbish and dismisses great wines and talented winemakers with generalisations and prejudice.

I don’t always agree with Alice Feiring, one of natural wine’s more celebrated advocates. However, in a recent article she stated that she cannot support faulty winemaking and those who seem to favour it as an expression of their anti-establishment credentials. I agree. Wine must be drinkable, must be pleasurable, must, above all, be interesting. I could name dozens of natural wine producers who make great wine, it just happens to be natural wine. Are Barral, Foillard, Métras, Coutelou, Occhipinti, Radikon, Ganévat etc making wines as Bettane or Sykes describe?

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Tasting Casa Pardet in 2015, a moment when wine stops you in your tracks and makes you say, wow

I have tasted many natural wines which sing of their cépage and origins, wines from France, Italy, Spain, South Africa, Australia. They tell a tale of their producer and their terroir. They are interesting, some stop you in your tracks and make you reflect on their beauty. Rather those than the very many dull, monotonous wines which taste the same as everybody else’s from Otago to Oregon.

I do enjoy conventional wines, I really like some of them. However, I often find more excitement and interest in the many, well-made natural wines.

Long live freedom of movement, long live the Languedoc and long live great wine.

I am becoming naturalised.

 

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Mas Coutelou Roberta 2003, fresh as a daisy in 2016. Take note Mr. Sykes


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Living wine history

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Version française

As a History graduate and teacher I have always believed that to understand the present we must understand our history. Whether it be politics, culture, sport or, indeed, wine the route to the present gives us the fuller picture. In wine terms I relish the stories of the winemakers and how they came to their place in producing the wines we appreciate, that route often explains their philosophy and their hopes for the wines. I often hear from them, as in Clos Fantine or Domaine Montesquiou, how the family history and its relationship with the land influences how they nurture their soils, vines and wines.

Naturally, spending so much time at Mas Coutelou I have come to appreciate the story of the domaine and its roots and traditions through to its present. Nowhere is that history more alive than in one of its most unusual features, the solera system.

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I was talking to Rosemary George at the Mas Gabriel 10th anniversary dinner and I told her how a blog post she wrote first led me to Jeff’s door and, consequently, changed my story and journey to the Languedoc. Rosemary’s greatest memory of Mas Coutelou she said was of the solera system. It is certainly virtually unique in the region. After my initial tour of the vineyards and tasting with Jeff I was amazed by the discovery of a solera. Clearly it left an impact upon Rosemary too.

So, what is it? What is its own history?

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Soleras are usually associated with sherry. The word means ‘on the ground’ in Spanish. Barrels are filled with wine and the oldest wine is used to fill bottles though some of the wine is left. It is refilled from the next oldest barrel and that in turn by the third oldest. As each is only partly emptied the barrel’s contents become a mix of vintages. Traditionally, the oldest barrel is in on the ground and filled from above, hence the name solera. That ground barrel in Mas Coutelou’s solera is over 200 years old! The barrels also lose some of their contents through evaporation. The larger barrels (around 225 litres) lose around 6% of their wine per year, smaller barrels can lose up to 15%! Hence the need to replenish the barrels for natural reasons not just because they have been emptied.

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Michel removing must from muscat ready for the solera

The Coutelou system was started by Jeff’s great grandfather and has become a family tradition. Muscat and Grenache grapes are used to feed the solera each year. They can follow a route of being used for sweet or dry wines, they might be blended together or kept separately. Altogether there are 16 possible paths for the wines to take and Jeff must choose the most appropriate one based on his tasting experience.

The wines vary from the very dry to the very sweet and luscious. Some of the old Grenaches can be very like old amontillado sherries, lightly structured but packing power with long nutty, prune and raisin flavours which linger and fill your mouth. Others, especially the sweeter Muscats, are caramel, toffee and raisin in aroma and flavour and the wine clings to the glass with its viscosity. They are an utter delight and a special treat to savour slowly. Going from barrel to barrel in the two rooms where they lie there is an enormous range of wines, somehow Jeff keeps a record of them all in his head. As you taste them you are enjoying the results of decades of grapes from the lovingly tended vineyards, the work of generations of the family. This is tasting history.

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I love these wines, their complexity, aromas and flavours are captivating, making you smile, savour, sniff, speculate and sigh with pleasure. It is impossible to taste and to drink them without reflecting on the story of the wine and the people who made them. A sense of the past reinforced by the surroundings. The solera cellar contains all sorts of artefacts, equipment used in the vines and the cellars over the years as you can see above. It is a museum to great wines and to great people representing the history of the village and region too. The wines are that history in the glass, rich and rewarding.