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


Véraison, drought and other issues

Version française

The weather in the Languedoc has been a talking point, apparently it is not just a topic for us British people. No rain since June 12th, very high temperatures, 39C one day last week. Fires in the garrigue, vineyards and even towns, including our neighbouring village of Roujan. The result of this has been fissures in the ground, e.g. the photograph below in one of Jeff’s vineyards.


This crack in the soil is over 30cm deep, a sign of the drought conditions

Some of the vignerons in the area have been irrigating their vines and a sign of this has been evident too. If you look at the photos below you will see white traces in the soil. This is calcium carbonate which is a product of the water imported to irrigate the vines. In other words the irrigation is changing the nature of the soil itself.



The vines themselves are remarkably resistant and strong even in the face of the lack of water. This summer is nothing unusual for the Languedoc but it builds on a fairly dry year in 2014 too. The leaves of the vines are curling in on themselves, a sign of some stress.

Other problems are showing too. Esca is a virulent wood disease which is a major threat to the vineyards of France, working like a cancer inside the wood. It suddenly emerges and affects the leaves and causes the grapes to shrivel and drop off.


Esca showing on vine leaves in the Languedoc, July 21st

Some have linked its spread with rainy springs and higher summer temperatures, such as 2015. There is no cure, it was formerly treated with arsenic but that has, understandably, been banned. It is thought that 10 – 20% of French vines may be infected by the fungus, they have to be replaced and, of course, they take time to grow and don’t produce the same quality as older vines would have produced.


Vine stock showing the signs of esca after being cut

One perennial problem is vers de la grappe. These are the larvae of butterflies and they grow in coccoons amongst the grape bunches, leaving a white filament as proof of their residence. They pierce the skins of some grapes causing them to be ruined.


Characteristic puncture marks of vers de la grappe, July 21st

Careful pruning must follow.


July 21st

Bats and other predators eat these pests which is why Jeff, amongst others, encourages bats to live near his vines by putting up bat houses and encouraging the growth of plants, trees etc around and amongst their vineyards.


Bat house at Ste. Suzanne, (Metaierie)

The main concern is that the lack of water will reduce yields, rain would help to swell the grapes and produce more wine. Some rain was forecast on July 22nd but in Puimisson and many other areas, none arrived.

Not all bad news however. The vines are resistant and the careful management of soils, unlike the irrigated vines above, means that their roots go deep into the soil searching for water. Struggling vines produce the most interesting wines. Let us hope that this is the case in 2015.

Diversity amongst the vines at Mas Coutelou continues, less than 10 metres from the fissure in the ground above were these partridge eggs which had hatched recently.


And in the cellars work has begun to replace the leaky roof, which is built on timbers hundreds of years in age. It is a beautiful roof and happily the timbers have been saved, most tiles will be recycled. I will write more about the changes in the cellar as preparations for the vendange begin.


And finally véraison is in full swing. The change of colour of the red grapes is one of the key events in their development as they approach maturity. This marks the change in growth of the berries, they are now producing sugars within the grape rather than concentrating on simply growing and producing acidity. It is certainly one of the most noticeable and landmark changes in the grapes.



Note the curling leaves, the vines are feeling the lack of water.

Véraison and the increase in sugar levels also attracts more animals to eat them, birds, insects etc. Problems, problems everywhere. Who would be a vigneron?

Two creatures love being in the vines for sure, me to watch their growth and, more importantly, Icare who loves to be in amongst the dirt and, in this heat, he loves the shade of the vines.

IMG_1921 IMG_1930




A walk in the vines (2) – Pruning




(En français)

Travelling around the area, or walking as I was when I took the photo above near Magalas, scenes like this are everywhere. It is pruning time for many viticulteurs. This is known as taillage (or prétaillage when the vines are prepared for a later pruning in the new year). Vines are freely growing plants and if left they would grow too fast, produce too many bunches of grapes which would become increasingly small and lacking in flavour. They would also be more susceptible to diseases such as mildew which would kill the vine in a matter of 3 – 5 years.

Pruning therefore is necessary to ensure that the vine produces an optimum number of bunches to enhance flavour. In the case of the viticulteur in the photo who obviously uses a lot of machinery it makes access to the vines for later pruning and treatments easier as the cut vines are trained along the lines of wires which support many vines.

The pack on the man’s back is for battery powered secateurs, making the job easier than manual cutting though it is still back breaking work.


Different viticulteurs will use different systems of pruning. This might depend on the age of the vine, the particular vineyard topography and her/his own traditions.

The classic method is known as Guyot, named after the doctor who studied viticulture in the 19th Century. There are variations but Guyot pruning usually means pruning the vine to 2 branches (sarments). One of these is cut short leaving only 2 buds (bourgeons or yeux), the other is longer with around 6 buds. The longer will be the part of the vine to produce grapes in the next harvest, the shorter branch will grow this year and be the fruit bearing sarment the following year.  This allows space along the vines for air to circulate to avoid disease.




Guyot pruning

Guyot pruning










Another system which I have seen commonly used in the area is Cordon de Royat. Here the vine is shaped with 2 branches reaching horizontally in opposite directions (but always along the row). Each branch will have 4 to 5 buds for the development of grapes the next harvest. The advantage is that the bunches will grow at a similar height making work and harvesting easier.

Cordon de royat

Cordon de royat

In the Languedoc Roussillon region the hotter, drier climate, together with frequent winds, means that disease should, in principle, be less of a problem that damper regions such as Burgundy or Bordeaux. Many viticulteurs prefer a less interventionist method than training the vines along trellises. Vines often grow like small bushes, especially varieties such as Grenache and Carignan. Jeff Coutelou prefers to use this method known as gobelet as much as possible.

Gobelet vines

Gobelet vines




However, there is one other decision which viticulteurs must make. When to prune?

In principle pruning can be done all the way from the harvest and leaves falling to bud break, around 4 – 5 months in total. Leaving it late has a number of advantages such as avoiding problems with frost or drying out and avoiding problems of wood disease such as esca, which is an increasing threat in France. Many prefer to prune when the sap is starting to rise in the early spring, an old saying goes. “Taille tôt, taille tard, rien ne vaut la taille de mars.” (Pruning early, pruning late, nothing is as good as pruning in March) 

As I said I have seen many people out pruning in recent weeks. This could be for simple reasons of habit or because as wines quietly ferment and work their magic in the cellars the winemakers have time now to get into the vines. Smaller producers who must do everything themselves might decide that earlier pruning suits their timetable best. Some also like to burn as soon as possible any pruned wood which might have been affected by disease. Jeff prefers a later pruning and so work will begin from January through to March, I shall report later.

Pruning is seriously hard, repetitive and dull work but it is an essential part of the viticulteur’s year.

On a less serious note, not just the vines have been pruned!!

On a less serious note, not just the vines have been pruned!!