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


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Wines of 2018

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I described my wine related highlights of 2018 in the last article. Not surprisingly some of my favourite wines of the year are related to those highlights, orange wine and Australian wine.

Let me start with orange wine, the focus of the excellent ‘Amber Revolution’ by Simon J Woolf. I could include Jeff Coutelou’s OW 2016 which we drank regularly through the vendanges. However, I have limited myself to just one of Jeff’s wines as part of this case. That is made from Muscat and my favourite orange wine which I drank in 2018 was made from Viognier, not often my favourite grape. It does reinforce a theory that some of the best orange wines are made from aromatic, characterful grapes which add to the sensation of texture created by skin contact. So, the first bottle into my case is by Australian producer Kalleske, Plenarius Viognier 2017. I described it in Brisbane where I came across it as having “aromas of, well, oranges. Lavender too. It was delicious with tangy zesty fruit and lovely texture”. Seven days skin contact only for the biodynamically grown grapes, enough to add tannins without overpowering the fruit. Lovely.

Red wines next.

I drank Patrick Rols’ Les Anciens 2016 late in the year and it jumped straight into this case. I loved the iron filings like aroma and deep red fruit flavours of this wine made from Merlot and the Cabernets, Sauvignon and Franc. To make wine that good from some of my least favourite grapes, real talent and healthy grapes!

That lunch!

My Coutelou wine comes next. There were so many highlights, including 1998 Cabernet and Syrah still brimming with life. However, everyone knows my favourite wine, the one I would choose above any other is La Vigne Haute 2010. The 2017 is a beauty and the 2018 promises to be special too. However, Jeff opened the 2010 one July day over lunch with our friend Steeve. The years add a complexity and depth to the fruit and acidity to make a dream wine. Just stunning.

In New Zealand I was a little disappointed with some of the vaunted Pinot Noirs of Otago but some of the Syrahs were excellent, often from Gimblett Gravels on the North Island. However my favourites were from Hans Herzog in Marlborough, another biodynamic producer next to the Wairau River. I liked everything I tasted there whites and reds such as the Pinot Noir, Tempranillo but my favourite was the outstanding Herzog Nebbiolo 2013. Concentrated fruit flavours including peach and apricot surprisingly, light and fresh. Memorable. (shown in the photos above where Petra poured it)

My final red is Little Things, Joy’s Wild Fruits Field Blend 2017. This was one of the wines in made by James Madden in his first vintage, unbelievable that it could be so good so soon. I described it like this when I was there, “The vineyard is next to the sea at Fleurieu Peninsula and most of the grapes are technically white, eg Pinot Gris, Savagnin, Chardonnay, but they are picked with the Pinot Noir, Merlot and Cabernet from the same vineyard, pressed together and left on skins for more than a week. This is heady wine; bright, light and mighty good. Fresh and zesty from the whites, fruity and spicy from the reds.” I am going to choose this as my wine of the year, the single wine I enjoyed most of all.

Another field blend, another Basket Range wine. Basket Range Vineyard Blend 2016 is made by the Broderick brothers Sholto and Louis. Made from Petit Verdot, Merlot and the Georgian grape Saperavi, fermented and made together. Bright fruits, spice and appealing tannins this was a wine of pleasure but with added complexity too.

White wines provided most of my 2018 highlights, here are the final picks.

Little Things again, no apologies. I am sure some will accuse me of bias but these are genuine picks based on quality. Little Things Sweet Child Of Mine 2017 which I described as “Chardonnay is from 28 year old vines, whole bunch pressed, tank fermented and then aged in old barrels. It is a delight. There is a creamy note but a clean acidity runs through with lemon and spice notes.” Basket Range Chardonnay was a true highlight of my trip Down Under, other fine examples came from James Erskine of Jauma and Alex Schulkin of The Other Right. Interestingly their wines were from the same vineyard as another of my picks.

Gentle Folk Scary White 2017. Named after the vineyard Scary Gulley this blends the Chardonnay with Riesling and Sauvignon Blanc with lovely acidity, a creamy fruit profile and a sense of the area – friendly and classy. Gareth Belton is a very talented producer, excellent Pinot Noir too. One of a very talented bunch of winemakers in Basket Range.

Yet another Australian Chardonnay makes the list. Luke Lambert Chardonnay 2016 is made in the Yarra Valley near Melbourne where I drank it. There is a lovely apple and pear fruit, a touch of citrus and great length. Not Burgundy but similar in profile yet clearly Australian in its ripeness. All class.

Talking of Burgundy. Domaine Valette Macon Chaintré Vieilles Vignes 2016. I drank this from magnum at lunch during vendanges and again in single bottle from the excellent Chai Christine Cannac in Bédarieux. It may not be the most celebrated Burgundy but this relatively humble area produces a pure, creamy but citrus, hazelnut and white fruit flavoured delight. A producer I hope to find out more about.

Four Chardonnays and a Merlot/Cabernet blend so far. What is the world coming to? Well, let’s add some exoticism. Bacchus, Ortega, Huxulrebbe and Segerebbe to be exact. From England. French readers think I have gone mad! Davenport Limney Horsmonden 2016 is the work of a very talented producer in East Sussex whose PetNat is another favourite. This wine has a distinct floral note to the aroma profile, fresh and fruity. English wines are really on the move.

No sparkling wines to add this year, I had some nice ones but nothing which made me go wow. Only eleven wines though. Well to make the case I am adding another bottle of the Little Things Field Blend as my favourite of the year. Or maybe the 2010 La Vigne Haute.

Please would someone bring in some of the Australian wines to the UK market. I am missing them already.

 

 

 

 


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Tasting the older barrel in 2017

 

En francais

Back in September 2015 I wrote my 100th blog post about a great day. Jeff had suggested I do something special to celebrate the event and offered me the chance to pick grapes from my favourite vineyard, Rome. The grapes were a mix of all three Grenaches, Blanc, Gris and Noir as well as a few Muscat grapes. To make it even more special our great friends Martin and May came along to help pick the grapes, it was a day when I was truly blessed to be surrounded by friendship, a day when the Coutelou motto of ‘Grapes, work and love’ was evident.

 

I trod the grapes, pressed them and stored the juice in two barrels and two large 27l bottles. I even used airlocks provided by my friend Barry back in the UK. One of the those bottles was used to top up the barrels over the intervening three years before the wines were ready to be bottled. The wine was racked occasionally to separate the juice from the sediment and dead lees. From time to time we tasted from all three containers and it was fascinating to monitor their development and how they matured differently according to the container they were in.

The newer 60l barrel allowed more oxygen into the wine and this added a drier note to the wine which aged quicker than the other two. The smaller, older 30l barrel had been used for more wines and the wood staves had sealed more as a result. The wine was fruitier, tasted younger and fresher. That was the reverse of what I had expected from the barrels at first but it is logical. Meanwhile the large glass bottle produced a wine like imprisoned fruit, almost as grapey and fruity as the day the juice first went in.

After three years it was time to assemble and bottle the wine. That was supposed to happen in the week before I left France in October but climatic conditions were unfriendly for bottling, heavy atmospheric conditions. Jeff, Michel and Julien kindly did the bottling when conditions were more suitable. I can’t wait to see them, and open one in January when I return.

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I am a winemaker! It has been one of the great experiences of my life. That it is the result of the generosity and kinship of my friends made it even more so. In particular Jeff’s kindness and inspiration is something I appreciate more than he can know.

This is the 300th blog article. I have been delighted and amazed that people from 118 countries have turned to these pages over the last four years, often several thousand a day. Thank you for doing so, it means a lot. I started simply to occupy time and keep my own personal record, your readership has helped it become so much more. I hope that my love for wine, the Languedoc, real wines and, especially, the Coutelou team and wines have brought you some pleasure. And who knows, we may get to share a glass of the century wine.

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A March in the vines (photo by Flora Rey)


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Recent wine highlights

I have had some cracking wines in recent weeks. Let me share some of them with you before I get to my wines of the year in a future article.

 

Jeff Coutelou always provides me with memorable wines and these two from 2017 underline what a great vintage that was from him. Classe is one of the headline acts of the domaine and the 17 is as good as any I recall. Syrah (50%), Grenache (40%) and Mourvedre (10%) with ripe red and black fruit flavours and a depth of flavour indicating many, many years of life ahead if you can resist drinking it now. The Vin De Table (Syrah and Grenache again but this time with Merlot) is made from what was left after the main cuvées were assembled. But, it is no leftover. Ripe, concentrated and very drinkable. Jeff’s wines gets better and better and that is the highest praise I can give him as I have long considered him an exceptional winemaker as well as a friend.

From the same stable comes my good friend Julien Banville who took some of Jeff’s grapes in 2017 to produce his Chateau Des Gueux. A light red wine of intense red fruit aromas and lingering flavours it shows Julien’s talents for stamping his won personality on his wines. Delicious but sadly unavailable commercially.

From Spain two excellent wines. Jordi Llorens‘ wines have long been a source of pleasure and the Blan 5.7 2017 of Macabeo and Parellada was a joy, refreshing but full of creamy, white fruit. Partida Creus XL 2016 made from Xarel.lo was equally good with perhaps a little more acidity. I preferred that to the red VN though that was still good.

Back to France and two eastern regions. Alsace has long been one of my favourite wine regions in the world and the biodynamic Zind Humbrecht domaine one of my favourite producers. This Riesling 2009 was classic of the grape, petrol nose, citrus fruit, dry but with just a slight suggestion of sweetness. Savoie is becoming ultra fashionable and the Altesse from Domaine Giachino was a clear example of why its reputation is high. Floral, fruity, complex and dry, it really convinced me that Savoie and the grape Altesse are top quality.

I mentioned how much I enjoyed Patrick RolsLes Anciens 2016 in the last article with its Merlot and Cabernets from the Auvergne region. There’s an iron edge to the complex red fruit flavours, a wine showing the promise of a region only starting to develop its wines. From the Gard department came the Va Nu Pieds 2016 of the Frères Soulier. Classic Languedoc/Rhone Syrah and Grenache with plenty of black fruits as well as good tannins.

Finally and certainly not least. From England, yes you read that right. Davenport winery in East Sussex produces one of my favourite PetNats but this was the first still wine of theirs I had tasted, the Limney Horsmonden 2017. If Savoie shows promise then this is equally the case for English wine. Ortega, Bacchus, Huxulrebbe and Segerebbe are not grapes I know particularly but this blend had tremendous floral notes and a dry, clear expression of the place and grape. One of the best wines I have tasted this year.

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Vermouth, Kina

En francais

It was interesting to see Oz Clarke* on James Martin’s Saturday morning TV show this week looking at the topic of vermouth. I wrote earlier in the year about the vermouth which Jeff Coutelou is now making and selling, Kina.


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Screenshot from the TV programme

The Languedoc is associated with vermouth since one of the most famous brands, Noilly Prat, is made in the lovely port of Marseillan. Vermouth was never a drink I enjoyed but Kina is changing that.

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According to specialist website The Fine Spirits Corner, “The Kina is a type of fortified wine that is made ​​from dry and sweet wines of high quality to which are added extracts of quinine. Produced mainly in Andalusia, was formerly used as a tonic, invigorating and during the appetizer to open the food.”

After mixing various herbs and spices with the base wine back in July Jeff left the kina to macerate in the cellar for a few weeks. Time for an update.

During vendanges he also prepared some more wine to be mixed with the kina. The wine was mixed with pure alcohol to stop fermentation (mutage) and retain some of the sugars from the grapes. This was then blended with the macerated wine to make Kina.

As the quote above says, supported by Clarke’s introduction, vermouth should be a drink with plenty of flavour and sweetness from the herbs and spices but with a bitter finish to cleanse the palate. I have tried other examples of kina drinks from the commercial, e.g. Lillet or Martini as well as another artisan vermouth from Carcassonne. I liked the latter though it was certainly sweeter than Coutelou Kina. I like the bitter twang of Kina though Jeff is also making a sweeter version if that is your preference.

With Christmas and New Year celebrations on the horizon Kina will definitely be featuring as my aperitif of choice. Vermouth may be the new gin (also made in Puimisson!) and, to my surprise, I welcome its return to the spotlight.

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Taking its place in the Coutelou range

*Oz Clarke is an English wine writer and broadcaster who certainly did a lot to spark my passion for wine

 

 

 

 

 


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After the 2017s, the Coutelou 2018s

 

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Just before leaving the Languedoc for hibernation in the UK I was invited by Jeff Coutelou to taste through this year’s wines. Most are now finishing both fermentations and starting to settle for the winter in cuve. They will change and develop over the next few months of course, they are living wines and still in their infancy. Consequently, these observations are preliminary but, after five years of similar tastings, I feel more confident about predicting which way the wines will go.

2018 has undoubtedly been a troubled year for Jeff and fellow Languedoc producers, in particular those who follow organic and biodynamic principles. The damage began with the long period of rain in Spring and the mildew outbreak which ensued. Mildew damaged the flowers, buds and young grapes. It damaged the leaves making it more difficult for the vines to produce the energy to feed those grapes. Jeff cannot recall a year of such blight. This was followed by a very hot, very dry summer making the vines suffer still further, compounding their difficulty in producing good sized fruit. Yields are down some 50-60% following on from 2017 when they were down 20%.

With all those problems could good wines be made?

We started with white wines. The white grapes from the 2015 Peilhan plantation have been blended with others from older vines in Peilhan such as Carignan Blanc, Maccabeu and Grenache Gris. The small quantity means this will be used for a barrel aged wine. It had finished fermentation and had good fruit with a liquorice streak and depth of flavour. Another batch of the Grenache Gris and Maccabeu was still in malolactic fermentation and cloudy with apples and a directness. Similarly the whites from La Garrigue were still fermenting but with great depth of flavour. There will only be small quantities of any Coutelou white wine, the last couple of years have not been kind to them.

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Onto the reds.

Grenache was the variety which was most affected by mildew, the vines were not pretty and yields were very small. Many of the bunches did not form, many which did suffered from coulure (where only a few berries form) or produced dried, dessicated fruit. The vendangeurs had to be very selective. So was it worth picking? The Grenache from La Garrigue tasted clean with good fruit and a nice acidity. The Grenache from Sainte Suzanne was worst hit of all. Jeff made the wine with only a couple of days on stems as the fruit was delicate. The wine is light as a result, juicy with red fruits, light but tasty.

Cinsault usually provides another light wine and this vintage was no exception. Despite that it was very fruity on the nose and on the finish, a surprising depth of flavour. For rosé, 5SO or both? Jeff will decide as the wine develops.

The tank which will make Flower Power 2018 has a bewildering mix of grapes, from the Flower Power vineyard itself, Rome, some Syrah from Segrairals and the reds from the 2015 Peilhan plantation, eg Morastel and Riveyrenc Noir. There was a lot of mouth feel in the wine, with tannin and substance and a concentration of dark fruits.

Cabernet Sauvignon from the last picking has produced a real glouglou wine, light and juicy. It will bring a fruity freshness to any wine it is used for.

Carignan was one grape which resisted mildew for a long time. This is the parcel producing Flambadou, one of the flagship Coutelou wines. Once again it has produced a high quality wine. Lighter in alcohol than usual yet managing to produce a full, ripe and fresh wine whose flavours lingered long after swallowing it. I look forward to this one a lot.

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Carignan grapes

Perhaps the biggest surprise was the Mourvèdre. It has made good wines before, try the 2015 or 2016 for example. However it could be a real star this year. There was a great depth and freshness with dark fruit flavours made to feel lighter by light acidity leading to an almost saline finish. It would be almost drinkable now but will keep for many years and develop beautifully, I am sure of that.

Syrah from Sainte Suzanne was made using grappe entire or whole bunch. Around 14% abv it has a clean acidity with red fruits and soft tannins (from the stems?) which will support a good wine. The Syrah from Segrairals was quite different, the place and destemming produced a more upfront fruity wine with a clean, dry finish.

And, of course, there was the Syrah from La Garrigue, home of my favourite wine La Vigne Haute. Amazingly, in such a horrible year, the quality of these grapes was excellent. Only made in very good years and yet, hopefully, there will be a 2018 La Vigne Haute. The wine has great character already, freshness, fruit, long flavours supported with lovely tannins which will help the wine to age well. Exciting.

So, out of the ashes rises the phoenix, very good wines despite the vintage. The resilience and quality of the vineyards and vines as well as the winemaking skills of Jeff Coutelou.

 


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Wine with friends, the 2017 Coutelou wines

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One of the highlights of the last few weeks of the 2018 vendanges was tasting the wines from 2017. A group of our friends gathered to enjoy bottles kindly given by Jeff and we tasted through them, scoring them as went. I am not a great fan of wine scores but it was a simple way of tracking our preferences, we revisited scores regularly to ensure there was some context for the earlier marks.

We started with the OW of 2016, so a different vintage but yet to be released. I have tasted it regularly in recent weeks at vendanges lunches and I really like it. Many orange wines are being made but often they are based on grapes which have fairly neutral skins. OW is made from Muscat D’Alexandrie and the skins have a lot of flavour which the long maceration brings out together with the tannins. This has real character, one of my wines of the night. It must be said that for some of my friends it was too much of a shock, unused to skin contact wines they found it too different. If you like orange wines though, believe me, this is excellent.

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On to the reds. 2017 was a vintage of low yields due to the long, dry summer. However, it must be said one of the consequences is a concentration of flavour and high quality. The six wines we shared were all very good and consistent in their length and full flavour. Perhaps the most consistent of any vintage I have been involved with since I started in 2014.

Vin De Table is a supposedly simple wine. Don’t be fooled, it is very good. Assembled from wines left over from the main cuvées with quite a large portion of Merlot for good measure. It received consistently good scores from everyone, it was simply enjoyable and very drinkable, belying its simple status with good fruit, freshness and length. A bargain at the price of well under 10€ seen in many caves.

Tête À Claques was a wine originally made for London restaurants but now sold from the cellars. It is based on Le Vin Des Amis (what was left) to which was added Mourvèdre and other remaining wine. The Mourvèdre boosts the wine with some crunchy, dark fruit flavours and this was one person’s favourite wine of the night.

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The natural successor was Le Vin Des Amis. For two of the group this was their favourite wine of the evening. The 2017 version is based on Cinsault, not the norm. Blended with Syrah and Grenache the Cinsault gives a real lift of red fruit and the result is a classic VDA, a bottle which will please anyone and disappear quickly.

On to the other headlining wine of the Coutelou range, Classe. Syrah, Grenache and more Mourvèdre (there was also a pure Mourvèdre released in 2017 under the name of On Peut Pas Vraiment Dire Que). Classe usually adds a depth and silkiness compared to VDA, it lives up to its name and label. This was no exception, it really is a very good wine and one I would love to age for a year or two even though it would be hard to resist now. One person chose it as their highlight.

Flambadou has been one of the best wines of the domaine for the last few years. Pure Carignan from a vineyard with complex geology the 2017 version is up to those high standards with dark fruits, freshness and ripe tannins. It needs time to mature before it reaches its peak but this is one of my favourite wines and, from experience of this wine, I can tell this will develop into a top class wine.

My absolute favourite Coutelou wine is La Vigne Haute, the pure Syrah from La Garrigue. North facing, villefranchien rock the wine is only released as La Vigne Haute when Jeff decides it is of the required quality, just seven of the last nineteen years. This is the first time I have been involved with making LVH and I am thrilled with it. The fruit is already evident, it is complex, has dark edges as well as the fruit. The flavours are long and fresh with more ripe tannins. It is a beauty, it could be mistaken for a wine from the Rhone or Ardèche. Previous examples of this wine have shown me that it needs 5 years or more to be at it best, 2009 is excellent at present. This will be a wine to treasure for years to come. Three of us chose it as wine of the night.

Overall, my friends showed great taste in selecting La Vigne Haute as the clear leader in scoring (I hope my influence wasn’t too strong!). Classe and Le Vin Des Amis followed on a few points behind. However, all agreed as we enjoyed a wonderful half bottle of Vieux Grenache that the wines were excellent, consistently so.

Thanks to May and Martin for being such great hosts and providing lovely food to accompany the wines. And to Pat, Afshin, Denise, Matt and Jonathan for joining in and making it so enjoyable.

A special night. Jeff told me from the beginning that he makes his wines to be shared with friends and loved ones. This was a night to prove the wisdom of those words as well as the immense talent and passion of Jeff Coutelou.

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One More Time

En francais

“They think it’s all over, it is now,” were the famous words of commentator Kenneth Wolstenholme when England scored their fourth goal to win the World Cup of 1966. Well to mix metaphors one more time, Jeff decided it was time to get the band back together after we had thought the vendanges were completed.

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Not again! I’m sleeping

There remained a parcel of Cabernet Sauvignon that Jeff thought not to be worth collecting but the last couple of weeks they had ripened a bit more and there was enough to warrant one last pick on Tuesday 2nd October. The pickings were meagre, it took 7 or 8 pickers up to two hours to fill the 16 cases which are brought back to the cellar to be sorted again and then put in tank. Aching muscles and stuttering machinery protested a little at the reprise but the stainless steel tank in the photo was just about half filled by the end of the day. The grapes themselves were very good, Cabernet always gives small berries but they were healthy.

The juice went to Thierry for analysis as usual. A solid 14% potential alcohol, though lacking a little acidity. It tastes juicy and clean and I am sure will be used either for blending or in the spirits made for the Coutelou range.

Analyses old and new taking place

We went on to taste more of the tanks and the results are promising. The Syrah of La Garrigue is undoubtedly the star (even allowing for my bias towards this perennial favourite), the Carignan, Flower Power also very good. Perhaps the biggest surprise was a very long, fruity Grenache – the grape which had suffered most from this year’s dreadful mildew. Grapes are very hardy it would seem, helped by a skilful winemaker of course. That will not make up for the loss in yields this year, 50% would appear to be the figure. Sadly this might well bring price rises. We had another caviste at the cellar wanting to buy wine that day, the latest in a long line through the vendanges. Sadly, there is not enough to satisfy existing customers’ demand let alone new outlets.

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A lot more smaller tanks have been needed this year, a sign of low yields

it was good to have a day together again, the financial cost of picking was undoubtedly higher than usual but there is more wine in tank and hopefully that will offset some of this year’s hardships.

Traditional end of vendanges, the boss does some cleaning of the cases

and the workers are crowned with vines