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.
I mentioned recently that the cooler weather had delayed some of the growth in the vines and that flowering was late. Well, recent hotter weather has brought sudden change. Flowering happened around the turn of the month and was over very quickly, perhaps catching up lost time. In particular there was a heavy thunderstorm on Saturday June 4th which brought a torrent of rain. The water and the sunshine has really got the vines going. Tendrils reach for the skies and there is more bushiness to the vines.
The flowers gave way to the little hoods which cover the nascent grapes, capuchons. These quickly fall away too revealing the grapes for 2016. On some vines all of this is happening at the same time such as this Carignan (above) in Rec D’Oulette. The weather has also encouraged the growth of the grafted vines which we did back in March.
This brings work too. The palissage has to be lifted to support the vines, hard physical labour. And, sadly, the heat and rain bring problems of disease. Mildew has been around for a couple of weeks and I mentioned that Jeff was spraying in the very early hours and late at night last week. He worked until 1am Friday/Saturday and started again at 6am. Just as things seemed to be settling a big attack of mildew on the Grenache at Ste. Suzanne meant more treatment on Tuesday morning. This ‘curious’ year is proving to be hard work.
Jeff a Ste Suzanne (photo de La Garrigue)
Peilhan, feuilles pulverisées
Not all negatives though. The storm brought such a downfall that I was fearful for the flowering bunches. damage to them means no grapes. I happened to be in Puimisson during the storm (next article!) and the rain was lashing down, converting streets and roads to waterfalls and lakes. Yet as the rain eased I went to a couple of vineyards and the flowers were coping just fine. A trip round the vines on Monday morning revealed healthy growth and the soils had absorbed the rainfall.
Grenache vines with flowers intact after the storm
This is not true of everyone. Much of the water on the roads was also full of clay from vineyards nearby, hence the yellowy brown colour. Vineyards which are treated with weedkillers, where the soils are ploughed deeply, even irrigated, were unable to cope so well with the heavy rain. Soils were carried away. Compare these photographs of Jeff’s vineyards with the parcel next door belonging to someone else. The difference is marked. Water can help or can damage.
Meanwhile back in the cellar there was more work to be done. Recent changes to the fabric of the cellar, especially the floor, have brought more efficient drains and a smoother surface, easier to clean. Further work will soon be done to the rest of the floor so the bottling of the next wave of wines had to be brought forward to allow the works to be done and dusted before vendanges.
Nouveau plancher en résine
Plancher plus vieux
The spring bottling of wines such as 5SO, PM Rosé, 7 Rue De La Pompe I described earlier. These are wines for early drinking, vins de plaisir. Now it was time for wines with a little more body. On Thursday June 2nd 10,000 bottles of Classe were made, and it is really something special in 2015. It took almost 12 hours and went very smoothly but believe me it is a hard day’s work. On Friday, Flambadou, made from the Carignan vines above, was bottled along with other smaller cuvées.
Vincent, Julien et Benoit
Julien prépare un magnum
Before anyone rushes in with orders Jeff will let these bottles rest for a few months to allow them to be at their peak when released, Flambadou probably in 2017 for example. There remains one or two cuvées still in tank which need a little more time, Flower Power being one.
So, most of the 2015 wine is now in bottle, the vines are revealing the grapes for 2016 and there are wines stored for 2017. Busy times at Mas Coutelou for everyone, well except one.
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.
Time to head back to the UK for 3 weeks or so. Time to reflect on all that has happened since the dark, cold days of January. It has been wonderful to witness changes in seasons from almond blossom to irises to poppies to full bloom of flowers, fruits and, of course, vines. From the pruned sticks of January to the lush, verdant vines of June. Changes everywhere.
Let’s start in my favourite vineyard, Rome with photos from various months showing the gobelet vines I call the centurions in deference to their stature and location.
La Garrigue, a vineyard of Syrah and Grenache as well as white varieties is one I have watched closely as it was where I watched Carole and Jeff prune in January. Read this collage left to right on both rows before the full growth in the centre.
So what has changed in the grapes?
left – bourgeons / buds with their cottony covering and green specks of leaf
2nd from left – Etaillage and grappes / first leaves with the formation of future bunches
3rd from left – grappes / buds form in bunches
right – the bunches separate
right – fleuraison with capuchons / the flowering of the grapes with little brown hoods
middle – fleuraison complete flowering bunch
left – boutons / the grapes begin to form
The grapes are starting to form their seeds which will gradually harden (nouaison). When I return here in July the black grapes will start to change colour (véraison). Can’t wait to see it.