The year begins with a series of wine salons and assembling wines for those tastings from the previous year. Jeff took me through the various cuves to see how the 15s were developing. Meanwhile the serious work of pruning (la taille) dominates the early months of the year and Julien was hard at work, patiently shaping the vines to enable them to produce their best. This was especially important in such a mild winter where the vines were unable to lie dormant.
Bottling of the 2015s began, this time Vin Des Amis, perennial favourite. Jeff has his own bottling line and the full crates of wine now head to storage for a few months to get over the ‘shock’ of bottling (mise en bouteille).
A March in the vines for sure. One of the highlights of 2016 was also the wettest and filthiest I could possibly be. Grafting vines (la greffe) in Flower Power (Font D’Oulette) on a day when it became impossible to lift the pioche because of all the mud stuck on it. I learned a lot and I loved the whole day.
Spring brings the vines truly to life (though the mild winter meant they were restless all winter). Look at the tendril extending from the pink bud on the left, this vine is already growing fast. Small shoots in Rome vineyard and also the ladybirds, sign of a healthy vineyard. (ébourgeonnage)
The grappes begin to form in clusters and spring flowers are everywhere around the various vineyards of Mas Coutelou. May is perhaps the most beautiful month of all in the vine, warm days, clear light and the colourful natural world – blossom, flowers, butterflies, birds. There is literally no place on earth I would rather be.
In the vines the flowering season (fleuraison) lasts just a few days. They are very delicate and easily damaged by strong winds or heavy rain. Here the Carignan vines of Rec D’Oulette (which make Flambadou) are in full flower.
Meanwhile in the cellar the bottling season restarts and the tanks are emptied and then cleaned with a vivid colouring for the floor. And welcome visitors arrive sometimes bringing delicious gifts of food with which we can accompany the wines. It’s a hard life, believe me.
A detail from an illustration by Sir John Tenniel depicting Alice with the March Hare, Hatter and Dormouse at the Mad Tea Party. From Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll.
It has been a most curious year and as it goes on it becomes curiouser and curiouser, just as Alice said. *
To quote another famous character, a certain Jeff Coutelou, during these last few months there was no proper autumn, no real winter, no true springtime. The last few months of 2015 and early 2016 were abnormally warm, not one single day of frost in Puimisson. Plant life started very early, there was blossom on trees in February, mimosa everywhere. People recorded their vines starting to ‘cry’ as the sap rose. And then, it all stopped. As March and April unfolded the weather was chilly with cold northerly winds. The plant life closed down its growth to a minimum. Budding (ébourgeonnage) was late even after the mild winter.
May is usually warm in the Languedoc and we have had some hot, sunny days but interspersed with cooler days and plenty with a lot of cloud cover. The vines pushed quickly some days, 25 – 30 cm the week before last and then… cooler weather slowed the growth again. Flowering (fleuraison) began last year around May 5th but this year Jeff and I spotted the first flowering on May 26th. Appropriately that was in the Flower Power vineyard, Font D’Oulette. Yet in the white grape vines, such as the Muscat in Peilhan, there is no flowering.
Premiere fleuraison 2016
It is likely that most of the vines will flower at the beginning of next week, most varieties at the same time which is, again, most unusual. Curiouser and curiouser. As the vendanges are calculated at 100 days after flowering, the likely date for harvest to get under way is now well into September, ie 10 – 14 days behind 2015. After a very precocious start to the year!
Carignan Noir, Rec D’Oulette
So why does this matter? Well, the vines have been unable to rest since last harvest. The lack of frost or cold weather in winter meant that the vines did not shut down fully. The sap has been on the move for months. Those early reports of vines crying in February, then delayed growth. Vines have sent out a lot of growth but the lack of sunshine has not produced much photosynthesis, the vines are often green in lower parts but lighter green higher up. The grafted vines in Font D’Oulette have been slow to send out growth, the sap flows and then cooler weather arrives.
Peilhan, note the lighter green near the tops
Humidity and grey clouds means a threat of mildew and some spots are evident on leaves in certain parcels. Jeff spent the night of May 20 spraying from 9pm to 1am, starting over again at 6am the next day. Why then? During the night and early morning the vines are more receptive to the influence of the spray as the pores are open in cooler temperatures. Not the usual spray of course. Mas Coutelou has been organic since 1987 and Jeff has gone much further. This spray was of nettles, horsetail, seaweed mixed with a tiny amount of sulphur and copper (allowed in organic farming). And also in that mix were essential oils of sweet orange and rosemary, pampered vines indeed. This prompt action has mastered the problem supported by timely sunshine and northerly winds.
Spots of mildew on the leaves and on the grappe
Whilst in Rome vineyard the other day we looked at the soils and Jeff pointed out the growth of good mushrooms and fungal life in there. The photos show this life, the white spots. Scientific research shows that it is through fungal life such as this that the vines communicate with each other and support each other. This has taken a lot of soil nurturing and management.
And to further demonstrate the health of the vineyards, remember the vandalism of the Carignan vineyard and the flowers that were planted there? Well they are growing back stronger than ever. Nature wins in the end. We can only choose to support it or fight it, but in the end nature will win.
Cinsault in Rome
At present despite this most curious of years the vines are in good health. The next three months will decide whether the grapes will be of good quality or not. Jeff reckons that the period from April 15 to July 15 the vigneron must be always present, always monitoring the vines to ensure that any problems can be sorted as soon as possible. That will make or break the vintage.
Flowers in the Coutelou vineyards
Meanwhile we have been treated to some beautiful flowers in the wild and around the vineyards. As well as birdsong in Rome vineyard. Nature at its best despite the curious year.
That is if the problems can be solved. Just this week Sancerre and Burgundy were hit by massive hail storms causing damage which means that the year is a write off in some vineyards. The third such storm this year in some of these areas. And on Saturday, May 28th Beaujolais was badly hit too. Again nature decides.
Hail damaged vines in Beaujolais (photo with permission from @duc_lionel)
A curious year, yes. But a disastrous one for some.
( How the wine will turn out no-one can say, before the end of the month of May)
Hopefully the rest of this post will be better than my rhyming translation. The point is however, that May is the turning point. The preparation of pruning, ploughing and pampering paves the way for the lush growth of May. In the wild vines grow in forests and are climbing plants using trees to help them reach sunlight so that photosynthesis can take place to feed the grapes and their seeds. Cultivated vines still climb relentlessly and the growth is stunning to see. Tendrils reach for the sky pulling the vine higher and the leaves fill out.
Tendrils reach up
The buds have grown showing the development of the bunches and these in turn are now dividing ready for the start of flowering which will bring pollination and then the fruit.
The grappes divide
The division accelerates
As for the vignerons it has become a very busy time. In the vineyards a second ploughing to prepare the soils with organic matter as they need help to sustain their rapid growth. In addition the first treatments of pesticides to protect the new growth. Insects are also growing fast and tender buds, leaves and shoots are welcome nourishment. Conventional vignerons use chemical sprays, those who prefer a lutte raisonnée use synthetic chemicals which do less damage to the soils.
A spraying machine with octopus like arms to reach different rows of vines, this one is used on a conventional vineyard
For organic producers the choice is a little diluted sulphur (some use more than others) but also treatments based on plants such as nettles, horsetail weeds and ferns. I shall be picking up this topic in a later post as it is a controversial issue.
Tractor with tank of organic treatment for spraying
The other risk has been the development of mildew. Powdery mildew (oidium) is a threat as colder nights and hot days encourage humidity which oidium requires. The first signs appeared this week (May 10-17) and this is why sulphur and horsetail are used in the spray.
Oidium, powdery mildew, photographed this week. Happily the only vine affected in Peilhan
The nettles and ferns act as insecticides. I am told that mildiou or downy mildew is also appearing in some vineyards in the area though not so far at Mas Coutelou, fingers crossed it stays away.
The other major job in the vineyard has been ébourgeonnage, the removal of some of the lush growth of the vines, sometimes also known as épamprage. They are so fertile at present that the vines need to be cut back so that their energy is not dissipated on surplus leaves and growth.
Carole ties a young vine to support it
Carole is back in Puimisson and she demonstrated to me how ébourgeonnage works in the video below. She was working on newly grafted vines which won’t necessarily be producing much fruit this year but the process is the same. No prisoners are taken.
In the cellar work continues apace. As more of the 2014 wines are ready further bottling has been taking place. Not helped by the breakdown of one machine but older equipment was brought out to continue. In the picture you will see Jeff and Renaud corking a jereboam of Vin Des Amis. Magnums and even Balthazars were also bottled as well as the regular 75cl bottles. More deliveries were sent to various countries around Europe and the USA.
Jeff at the controls of the bottling machine
Magnums standing after bottling. They stand to allow the large corks to expand and seal the bottle. They will then be laid horizontally
A third part of the work is commercialisation and there have been a number of salons where amateurs and professionals have tasted the wines and placed orders or bought wine. Jeff has been to salons in Paris and in the Languedoc and will shortly be heading to the Loire. All time consuming but a necessary part of the job, sales are after all what keep the vines growing.
Finally the office work. France loves its bureaucracy and there are many hours of paperwork to complete. Daily record keeping of work done, treatments used, employment data etc etc etc.
So whilst May has been a beautiful month to be here in the Languedoc with temperatures now consistently high and sunshine aplenty the vignerons are working hard. Ironically France has numerous bank holidays in May, yet I know at least one vigneron who doesn’t get time off.
My favourite vineyard Rome is a lovely place to be at present, the work with the pioche (pick axe or hoe) and grass cutting has prepared the vines. Flowers, butterflies and birds enjoy the peace and shelter of this parcel, two partridges were there on Friday but sadly flew off before I could get my camera ready. The video shows Rome and its beautiful centurion gobelet vines and you can hear the birdsong in all its glory including a hoopoe.