amarchinthevines

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


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A great bunch

En francais

In the vineyards the grapes have had little respite from the heat, the extreme temperatures of Friday, June 28th may have eased but it has been a very hot week. There has been little rainfall this year in the region so the vines are having to dig deep into the soils for moisture. That is one reason why Jeff Coutelou does a very light raking of the soil in early summer, to create small ridges which will help moisture to be retained rather than evaporate.

Raked soils in Flower Power

Nonetheless, the risk is that without some rain the vines, unable to find moisture in the soil or air, will begin to use up its store of water and energy which should be going into the grapes.

At present that danger has not manifested into vine stress but, with no rain forecast, it is one weighing on Jeff’s mind. As one who refuses to irrigate his vines Jeff runs a risk, as he does through many aspects of organic agriculture, 2018’s mildew epidemic being the most recent example. Indeed as I toured the vines in the last few days there are some lovely bunches forming. The pea sized grapes of a fortnight ago have grown. As they continue to do so, rain would certainly help them to swell, the bunch will close up, the grapes rubbing up against each other to form the classic bunch we know from vendanges.

And, but of course, there is a risk at this stage too. As the bunch closes up any grape damage will be spread across the bunch. A lack of air inside the bunch will encourage any rot or disease there may be. The ver de la grappe moth might have lain eggs and these will form the caterpillar / worm (ver) which damages grapes especially in a bunch. However, let me not be too gloomy. The bunches are there, the vast majority in good health. It is a matter of vigilance.

A bunch of another sort brought a very happy day a couple of weeks ago. Cédric, who runs the website* vinsnaturels.fr, and some of his friends from Grenoble visited. A lunchtime visit said Jeff. A nine hour lunch it turned out to be!

Case filled with cold water to keeping bottles cool, Coutelou spirits and olive oil, new cuvées

We tasted lots of wines now on sale such as the Blanc and Grenache Mise De Printemps. However, it was the barrels tucked away and the older bottles which made this yet another special day. Tasting the 2018 blend of Maccabeu and Grenache Gris from different barrels and containers. A fortified Grenache Gris. Amazing bottles of the legendary Roberta 2003 and La Vigne Haute 2010.

Surprise after surprise, delight after delight. Accompanied by an unusual but very tasty barbecue, yes that is a wheelbarrow. Add in an amazing plateau of cheeses and it was a feast fit for a king.

So, great bunches all round. May they all stay healthy and prosper.

*also in English Deutsch Italiano Español


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Expert eye

Version francaise

I regularly tour the Coutelou vineyards, looking at the changes and growth, relishing the tranquillity and connection with nature, the vines, flora and fauna. Nonetheless, far more interesting is to tour with Jeff himself. His expert knowledge of his land and the vines adds so much. Jeff was a teacher for many years and I always learn a great deal from him.

Living soils of Rome

We began in my favourite vineyard, Rome. This parcel, surrounded by trees, is a haven for wildlife. The tall Grenache gobelet vines are 40 years old and more and Jeff explained how the soil in Rome is around 30-40cm deep, made up mostly of forest residue, for example rotted leaves. The soil is a rich humous and full of life. Lifting a clump revealed fungal threads, insects (look for the black bodies) and worms.

Syrah with its large leaves and bunches forming

On to Sainte Suzanne and its Syrah and Grenache, so much a part of le Vin Des Amis, a famous part of the Coutelou range. Flowering completed in the main, the Syrah more forward than other varieties as is usual. The bunches resemble peas. Huge leaves such as this Syrah and Muscat in Peilhan show how Mediterranean varieties protect their grapes from the fierce sun because of their size and thick, quilted texture.

Flowering on the right whilst Jeff indicates coulure

Disappointingly there was also evidence of coulure, here and in La Garrigue especially with Grenache, which flowers later. Flowering has lasted longer this year, making them more susceptible to coulure.

This happens when wind or rain damages the flowers and the fruit cannot set on the vine. A shower of unformed grapes fell into Jeff’s hand as he ran it across a bunch. The consequence is that the harvest will be good but not as big as hoped for, especially after last year’s mildew hit year.

Oidium on bunch

That disease was downy mildew, this year the greater threat is powdery mildew or oidium. As we toured the Carignan vineyard, Rec D’Oulette, Jeff immediately spotted the signs, I would likely not have seen it. Oidium usually attacks the leaf and stem, leaving a white, powdery residue. Here the oidium had attacked the bunch directly, leaving a grey tinge to the green pea-like grape. Encouraged by the alternation between hot days and cold nights which we have had recently oidium needs to be treated. Jeff uses sulphur mixed with clay which helps the sulphur to stick to the plant. So far the damage is limited and the weather has heated up which might help to dry out the disease. Certainly there was evidence of that, the black spots on these stems and leaves is evidence of that, see the photo below.

Another pest was seen too. This white, cottony substance on my hand is the cocoon of ver de la grappe, a moth which will lay eggs in the grapes and the larvae pierce the skins causing bacterial spoilage. Insecticides would be the conventional response but not for organic vignerons. Natural predators such as bats are the solution, one reason why Jeff has bat houses in the trees around the vines.

More trees have been planted, Nathan and Julien were tending the border of Peilhan vineyard where fruit trees such as this pear are beginning to grow and become established. In the vines things looked good, such as this Carignan Blanc, Piquepoul Gris and Muscat in Peilhan and the Mourvèdre in Segrairals.

A 3 hour tour revealed so much about the state of the vines this year. Things are set for a good quality harvest, though it is still early days. Coulure means that it will not be a bumper crop, oidium that there is much work to be done to tend the vines which Jeff nurtures so carefully.

Healthy vines

New plantings such as that next to Sainte Suzanne of Clairette and Maccabeu are signs of a healthy future too.

Plantation, Clairette right, Maccabeu left

No matter what some British politicians would tell you it is always good to listen to experts and this was no exception. The strapline of my blog says “learning about wines, vines and vignerons”, this was a morning which certainly helped me to achieve that goal thanks to Jeff and his expert eye.


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New moon

En francais

Delicate flowers, brown hoods which fall off the bunches

The weather continues to confound here in the Languedoc. A couple of days of sunshine and heat and then back to grey clouds, warmth and wind. And now we have humidity and a few short but heavy showers.

The vines have been in terrific health until now and they still are as I write on June 10th. The new moon was on June 3rd and that is a time when biodynamic producers start to get twitchy as they believe it can bring out disease. The alternation between heat and chilly nights with humidity certainly encourages oidium and there have been a few hints of it emerging, for example in the Maccabeu. Nothing too concerning yet but Jeff used an organic treatment last week to nip any danger in the bud.

A tour of the vines the day after the new moon showed what good condition they are in and how quickly they have grown.

Sainte Suzanne Grenache, growth in one week

It also showed how mistaken I was when I wrote recently about the end of flowering. In fact everything is a couple of weeks delayed due to the dry winter and spring so there were flowers in profusion. A week later flowering is done, there are a lot of bunches on the vines and it is still very promising but let’s hope this humidity disappears soon.

One point of interest, the new plantings in Rome. The thick material around the base of the vines is to deter weeds from competing with the young plants and also to preserve moisture in the soil for their benefit.

Meanwhile the radio show I mentioned recently was broadcast and the podcast is well worth a listen, not least for The Clash classic.


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Slipping back into the vines

https://amarchinthevines.org/2019-en-francais/P1040542

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

Healthy Grenache leaves, left and débourrement in Rome

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

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

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

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

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

Flower Power, Julien and Christian attching the vines to stakes

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

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

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

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

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


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Loving Languedoc

After tasting wines from around the world at RAW I opened a bottle or two at home. By chance the bottles I reached for were from the Languedoc, my first love. And how richly I was rewarded.

First up was the Grenache Blanc, The Velvet Underschiste, from La Graine Sauvage in Faugères. The domaine is the work of Sybil Baldassarre and I have got to know her through Jeff Coutelou. Sybil is a trained oenologue who decided to show she can make wine as well as advise upon its making. This bottle had witty references to Velvet Underground all over the labels but the wine itself was What Goes On (sorry). Pure Grenache Blanc the 2016 had lovely tannins underpinning the apple and pear fruit. However, what made this wine stand out was how it evolved over the course of an evening. The last glass was the most delicious of all, the wine had opened out to reveal more fruit. This was a wine of real quality. I have been fortunate to taste other wines of Sybil and suggest that she is a real star to follow.

Next up was another white from Faugères, known more for its reds. Clos Fantine is a long time favourite of mine and I wrote an article about the Andrieu family and their work a few years ago after spending a couple of days with them. Their gobelet bush vines high in the Faugères hills provide clean, pure fruit. Valcabrières is their white wine from the rare Terret Blanc and Terret Gris grapes. More white fruit flavours, pears to the fore but with a clean, fresh acidity. Again this was a wine which opened up as we drank down the bottle, complex and delicious. This was a 2014 and I believe the wine would age much further but it was pretty perfect now.

And, for good measure, I opened a bottle of Jeff’s, Flambadou 2017. The pure Carignan has been a star of the Coutelou domaine for a number of years, certainly whilst I have been there in 2014. This bottle was very youthful, the wine bright purple in colour and full of fresh black and red fruits backed with soft tannins. I shall keep my other bottles for a few years to allow them to develop complexity but it is good to follow a wine’s progress. With every wine of 2017 I taste I become more convinced that it is an absolute peak vintage for Jeff, the fruit and freshness backed with tannin and depth of flavour, they are stunners. Flambadou is a great wine, this 2017 definitively so.

Make no mistake the Languedoc can produce top quality wine, these three bottles were absolute proof to me that it will always be the source of my favourite bottles. I urge you to try them and other wines from the region which is my other home.


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More words about bottles and wine

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This weekend I head down to London for RAW and will have lots of wine to report back so I thought I should mention some wines I have enjoyed over the last few weeks before they were forgotten amidst all those RAW discoveries.

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Let’s start with my birthday which I spent in the company of family and friends, it doesn’t get better than that.  A number of bottles were opened of course. Let’s start with the Coutelou wines, how could I celebrate without Jeff? The Blanc 2016 is a blend of many white grapes such as Maccabeu, Grenache Gris, Grenache Blanc and Muscat which were aged in barrel for a year. That oak age gives a richness which is different to many of the previous Blanc/PM wines. There’s an unctuousness rather than a taste of wood but the wine remains clean and satisfying. Lovely.

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The magnum of Flower Power 2015, a blend of Syrah with the Flower Power (Font D’Oulette) vineyard of so many varieties. Still youthful and fresh with bright red fruits there is also a growing power and complexity. The other bottles will be kept for a few years. And no celebration of mine would be complete without La Vigne Haute. This was 2017, turning into an exceptional vintage. The Syrah is generous with red fruit but has a streak of fine tannin and a firm edge still, hard to resist now but with discipline I shall keep some bottles for the future. My desert island wine.

Along with those gems other bottles went down well too, there were many of us! Jordi Llorens’ Blankafiorti 17 is a blend of Garnacha, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah in the Tarragona region. A definite sense of Spanish warmth with a richness but plenty of fresh dark and red fruits, however, maybe one to keep for a couple more years to be at its best. Valette Macon Villages 15 is a lovely wine, a lovely example of Chardonnay with a citric edge to the Chardonnay richness, well balanced and delicious. Tollot Beaut’s 2006 Chorey les Beaune was classic Burgundy, the age adding smoky, vegetal notes to good Pinot fruit.

Other wines on other occasions. Testalonga wines from South Africa are becoming a firm favourite with me as mentioned on here recently. Stay Brave 18 is a Chenin Blanc matured on skins for 11 days, a relatively light maceration, giving a golden colour and very fine texture but plenty of fruit and pleasure. This made a real impression on me, a wine I will remember for a long time. La Bufarella 17 from La Salada comes from further along the coast from Tarragona towards Barcelona in the Penedes region. The Xarel.Lo grape has good acidity (it’s the main Cava grape) so stands up well to the 6 months maceration here. Much more orange in colour than Stay Brave and with more complexity and tannin. Also from Xarel.Lo was the Clot De Les Soleres 15, light, fresh with a touch of sparkle, a good aperitif wine.

Red wines included Andrea Calek’s À Toi Nous, a lovely blend of Grenache and Syrah from the Ardeche. Rich fruit but plenty of freshness, this is one of my favourite domaines in France, the labels aren’t bad too. Domaine La Marfée Della Francesca 2007 comes from near Montpellier. The age has allowed the 80% Mourvèdre to develop plummy, leathery notes, the Syrah adding more direct fruit still. Certainly its age has made this biodynamic wine more complex, this was my wife’s favourite wine of recent weeks. By contrast the 2018 50-50 Gamay – Pinot Noir blend from the Auvergne producer Domaine Miolanne, Volcane Rouge, was light and fresh. The Gamay dominates, this is very like a young Beaujolais and the Pinot adds a little richness. I liked this a lot, a food wine for sure. La Paonnerie is in the Ancenis area of the Loire. Jacques and Agnès Carroget plant various crops such as oats and clover amongst the vines to add nitrogen to the soils amongst many other organic, environmentally sound practices. Simplement Gamay 16 is very enjoyable on a drinkability level but there is some complexity in the bottle with sharp raspberry fruit.

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Different altogether was one of my favourite sherry wines, the Palo Cortado Cayetano Del Pino which offers the freshness of a manzanilla with the complex nutty notes of an amontillado. It is a great wine, I’d sneak some onto that desert island with La Vigne Haute.

There have been a couple of duds along the way but the last few weeks have provided some excellent wines, I hope you have enjoyed sharing my thoughts. On to RAW and more new wines.

 


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The good, the very good and the ugly

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

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

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

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

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

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

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