amarchinthevines

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


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Every Picture Tells A Story

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Version francaise

This photo was taken on October 6th in Font D’Oulette, the 0.6ha Flower Power vineyard. It tells a number of stories.

Look at the vineyard itself. Small, youthful vines, only six or seven years old with a rich variety of cépages including some rare ones such as different varieties of Oeillade, Clairette Musquée and one known simply as Inconnue as its origin is unknown. This complantation of cépages was typical of the old ways of growing vines. The use of gobelet training rather than the use of wired trellises (palissage) is another example of traditional viticulture.  This vineyard tells a story of how old ways are often better, its wine has already garnered much praise.

Look also at the vineyard behind Font D’Oulette. You will see vines looking very different. The vines are a rich green in colour and their foliage is still lush. This forms a contrast with the autumnal yellow of Flower Power. This is the result of neighbours’ vineyards being treated with large quantities of chemical fertilisers, especially nitrates. These artificially boost the growth and colour of the vine. Flower Power’s vines, on the other hand, are allowed to develop at their natural pace.

The vineyard is surrounded by olive and fruit trees as well as ditches. This is deliberate on Jeff’s part because he wants to create a barrier to the neighbouring vineyards. When it rains in  the Languedoc, it often rains hard causing the soils to wash away. Sometimes, the soils are compacted by machinery and the treatments on the vines are washed away with the rain. Since Font D’Oulette is in a bowl this would mean that neighbours soils and chemicals would run onto Jeff’s parcel so he uses the ditches and vegetation to prevent his vines from being affected.

One photo but a complicated picture.


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Autumn repays the earth

Autumn repays the earth the leaves which summer lent it.”                                    (Georg Christoph Lichtenberg)

Version francaise

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The 18thC German physicist’s words struck home to me after visiting the vineyards for one last look around before I head back to the UK. They are a beautiful sight at this time of year, a rainbow of colours as I hope my photos will show. And all under a golden, morning sun, of which more later.

That the vineyards are so stunning at this time of year came as no surprise but they had one or two lessons to teach me, my fourth autumn here but still learning.

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There is truth in Lichtenberg’s words. The vines are giving back to the earth some of what they took from it during the year, the leaves mulch into the soil, a repayment yet also an investment for next year. Together with the discarded bunches and berries left from vendanges, they will add life to the earth, indeed there were insects and butterflies, birds and worms aplenty. Healthy soils.

BUT. They are very, very dry. Cracks in the earth in October. Two mornings of light rain, otherwise next to nothing for four to five months. Parts of the Hérault are already being declared as an emergency situation because of the drought. The temperatures remain in the mid to high 20s, lovely for visitors but the local population and the earth need steady rain to arrive soon. The forecast shows no rain.

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My other major lesson was the variation in varieties, not a tautology I promise.

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Compare the two halves of Ste Suzanne taken from La Garrigue, to the left is the Syrah, to the right Grenache. In La Garrigue these two cépages show a difference, the Syrah losing its leaves, the Grenache still mainly green.

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La Garrigue – Syrah left and Grenache right

Meanwhile the Carignan leaves turn a vivid red colour, much more so than any other variety.

And in my favourite vineyard, Rome. The birds are back in numbers after the summer. Birdsong rings around the bowl of the parcel, the fig tree has given its two crops and the olives are turning colour just like those in Font D’Oulette, the Flower Power vineyard.

A beautiful time, a worrying time. Let it rain.

 

 


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Nature can be harsh: Part 3 -pests

In Parts 1 & 2 I have tried to explain some of the difficulties encountered at Mas Coutelou during 2016 due to natural influences such as climate and disease. In this final part of the series I look at pests which have added to those woes.

Vers de la grappe

These are literally grape worms, more specifically caterpillars, which form and grow on bunches of grapes. The caterpillars are the larvae of Eudémis moths which prefer to lay their eggs on shiny surfaces, so grapes are the target more than the rest of the vine. The larvae obviously damage the grapes themselves but that damage is worsened because of juice running on the bunches attracting infection and disease.

The warm weather and humidity of 2016 definitely encouraged vers de la grappe though it is an ongoing problem. It can be treated chemically of course though that is not an option for organic producers. Substances such as clay can be sprayed in spring to add a chalkier, duller surface to new grapes so that moths are not attracted to them. However, the solution favoured by Jeff Coutelou is to plant hedges and trees. These not only act as barriers to less environmentally aware neighbours, add polyculture to a region which can appear solely planted by vines but also they can shelter bats.

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Bat shelter in Sainte Suzanne

Bats feed on Eudémis larvae and moths and can eat thousands every day. Bat shelters are to be found around Mas Coutelou, eg in Sainte Suzanne and Rome vineyards.

The photographs above show a vers de la grappe cocoon and, on the right distinctive holes showing where the moth laid its eggs. When the vendanges begin the pickers and sorters must look out for signs such as these but also damaged, shrivelled grapes in bunches where the larvae have been.

Snails

If I could have named 2016 in the Chinese form  I would have called it the year of the snail. They were everywhere. The two photos below show an olive tree in Segrairals. This was  one of many which were completely covered by snails, blanched by the sun and feeding on the greenery and moisture in the tree.

However, vines were equally attractive to them. I spent whole mornings picking snails from vines during the Spring only to find them covered again a day or two later. Flower Power (Font D’Oulette) was particularly badly affected with the snails heading straight for the new growth and buds in April and May.

The virtual drought in the first six months of 2016 meant that the snails were desperate for moisture and food and so the healthy, young vines were too good to miss. The consequence was obvious, production of this much lauded new wine was reduced drastically, partly by the weather but equally the work of the snails. Birds and other predators would help solve the problem but the monoculture of the area (outside of Mas Coutelou) means there are, sadly, no great numbers of them.

Vendangeurs and sorters must try to pick off snails as they hide in the bunches. Dozens get through to the cellar especially in the early morning when there is moisture around. The photo on the right shows a lot of rejected material, leaves, poor grapes but lots of snails as you will see if you enlarge it. Just imagine how many get through into the wine with machine picking and limited triage.

Neighbours

Yes they can be included under the title of pests. Well, one of them can be. As regular readers will know 2016 has been punctuated by two occasions of vandalism by one particular neighbour, both upon the Carignan Noir vineyard of Rec D’Oulette. First he mowed a patch of wildflowers which Jeff had sown to encourage insects and birds (for reasons identified above). Then he took a machine to some of the young trees Jeff planted around the vines, destroying four year old trees such as hazelnut.

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Vandalised trees with tyre tracks revealing the culprit

Jeff was justifiably upset by these attacks. He was simply trying to enrich the area, bring diversity to it but that was clearly too much for a traditionalist, more used to destroying wildlife for his own short term gain and dreadful wine. However, he was encouraged and revitalised by the massive support of friends and colleagues around the world. The flowers grew back and more densely, the trees replanted in greater numbers and Jeff Coutelou stands tall as the man trying hard to improve the reputation of Puimisson and its wines.

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Between a rock and a hard place

En français

Back in the Languedoc and, the first morning, I went over to see the vines. Jeff had sent me a message that they were in real stress because of the lack of rainfall. Ironically we had driven south through France under leaden skies and through fairly steady rain, until we reached the Languedoc where the skies turned blue and the temperatures rose. It has been very hot here throughout the three weeks I was away and, following a very dry autumn last year and not much rainfall in 2016, the vines are definitely in need of a good drink.

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Stressed vines

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Clear signs of drought

I have written many times this year about the vine stress due to very unusual seasons, the warm winter, cool spring. Sadly, summer has also added to their difficulties. Sure enough the vines look dry. The apex of the vine is often a good way to tell their health and they look tired and bare, almost burned.

To safeguard the health of the young, newly planted or grafted vines Jeff and Julien were busy watering them in the Flower Power vineyard, Font D’Oulette. This is allowed as they are not grape producing this year. Straw was then placed around them to keep the moisture inside. Julien showed his dedication by doing more of this work at night time.

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Even Icare was feeling the heat despite his haircut, he kept hold of the stick when it was thrown as if to say I’m not chasing after this anymore.

Jeff also informed me of yet another problem, ver de la grappe. This is the larvae of a moth which feeds on the grape. I took a photo of an affected grape last year.

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There are chemical treatments available to prevent and to treat the problem, no use to an organic producer of course and these chemicals are especially harmful, you can’t use the grapes until 21 days after spraying.

So, for Jeff the treatment involved spraying clay onto the vines to try to make the grape skins less attractive to the moth so it will lay the eggs elsewhere. This was only the second time in twenty years that he had sprayed against ver de la grappe. Also in the spray was fern and seaweed, the fern is a natural insecticide and the seaweed gives a health boost to the vine. However, having sprayed this morning (July 31st) Jeff was hoping that the much needed rain would hold off for a couple of days to allow the spray to work.

You can guess what happened next. A storm, heavy rain, much of the spray washed off the grapes. It is that sort of year, nothing seems to be going right. The rain which did fall was minimal and only undid the good work. The worst of all worlds. To spray or not to spray? To rain or not to rain? Caught between a rock and a hard place.

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Colour and life remains

 

As I made my way around the vineyards there were plenty of good grapes to see, véraison (the changing colour of red grapes) has begun especially amongst the Syrah and Grenache of La Garrigue.

And I spent some time in Rome, a very parched looking vineyard but the ideal place to reflect upon its creator, Jean-Claude. There are some things to be thankful for even in this difficult year.

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Curiouser and curiouser

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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. *

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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.

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!

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Hail damaged vines in Beaujolais (photo with permission from @duc_lionel)

A curious year, yes. But a disastrous one for some.

*  (No rude comments about mad March please).

 

 

 

 


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Snails, sprays and screen star

En français

April 27th saw a number of visitors to Font D’Oulette (Chemin De Pailhès), home of Flower Power where we grafted vines recently.

France 3 television were here to record some footage for a report on biodiversity, so who better than Jeff to describe and demonstrate how he has worked to bring life to the vineyards around Puimisson.

Rather less welcome was the invasion of snails, I spent all morning removing thousands of them from the vines. They clearly enjoy the organic greenery and, in particular, the young buds. It was noticeable that where the vine had grown more fully the snails were few in number, instead they were grouped on the slower growing vines where the buds were small and fresh. Bullies.

As the days warm up the risk of diseases such as oïdium and mildew increases. Therefore, it was time to spray the vines to help them resist these damaging diseases. However, being organic, there is no question of synthetic chemicals. This was a spray of nettles, comfrey, ferns and seaweed mixed with rain water; organic, natural products. Julien sprayed on foot and then Jeff and he rode on the tractor to spray two rows at once in Rec D’Oulette, home of Flambadou.

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Oy watch where you’re spraying!

Across the vineyards the vines are maturing rapidly. The buds are separating showing the future grapes and bunches. Tendrils are pushing skywards, remember that vines are climbing plants. The leaves are now of good size, soaking up the sunlight to help photosynthesis and provide energy to encourage the growth of the vine.

The soils remain dry and the leaves are a little brittle in places, this has been a very dry winter. More rain would be welcome. However, that night and the next there were reminders that the situation elsewhere can be much worse. The Loire valley and parts of Burgundy were hit by sudden, severe frosts which have devastated vines and mean that some vignerons face a bleak year with little or no wine to be made. The photograph below Credit: Sabrina Cyprien Caslot-Bourdin via Jim Budd / Facebook

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The sunshine and drying winds may not be perfect but the vineyards of Mas Coutelou remain small havens of flora and fauna.

 


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Vineyard, vinification and VAT

There are three main aspects to the life of a winemaker and it’s time to bring you up to date with all three.

Vineyard work. 

It is a lovely time of year to be in the vines as they start their growth for the year, buds of striking colour, first leaves and greenery. 

In Rome vineyard on April 10th there were butterflies, birdsong and bees, beautiful.

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Rome through a new Coeur de Pigeon cherry tree

Taille is complete, ploughing completed (for the moment) and we have even had some rain at last which has encouraged the growth we see in the vines. However, it’s not all green for go. The buds are fragile and any more high winds could cause some damage to them leading to reduced yields in September. Moreover, Jeff pointed out another problem. Some of the buds are actually auxiliary buds (contre bourgeons) which would reduce yields further. The contre bourgeons generally don’t yield fruit and also take energy from the main buds so these don’t grow to full height.

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The winter saw not one single day of frost in Puimisson, the vines were restless and unable to sleep in the face of cold weather. Therefore sap, which should be still, continued to flow and with mild temperatures in January and February the sap nudged the buds. However, a cooler spell at the end of February and March meant that the sap retreated a little and the buds were left stirred but not able to unveil themselves. As warmer weather returned the sap nudged auxiliary buds as the main buds had already seemingly started. In fact they may not now emerge at all and it is these auxiliary buds which will be left. Something to raise concern at a preliminary stage of the season. The vines generally are starting well but a few have this issue. More importantly the vines have had little rest, will they be able to offer their best in 2016?

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Nonetheless it was good to see the newly planted vines in Font D’Oulette are already budding, a promising start.

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Vinification

The 2015 wines made for early drinking, e.g. Vin Des Amis, PM Rosé and Classe, have been bottled and dressed (habillage) with their labels. Other cuvées are still in tank resting after fermentation, maturing towards wines such as Flambadou. 

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Soutirage was carried out on some of these more complex wines as reported in the last article. Meanwhile Jeff continues to taste and to check their progress, to ensure the quality and health of the wines. 

Some wines from previous vintages have been bottled, for example the new barrel aged Maccabeu / Grenache Gris wine ‘5J’. New labels have been designed for these and they will eventually become rare treasures for followers of Mas Coutelou wines. One new wine is the Syrah ‘On Peut Pas Vraiment Dire Que’ and I will be narrating its story in a coming article, a story which reveals again the vinification skills of M. Coutelou.

VAT, sales

It is all  very well making good wines but, if you are to continue as a winemaker, you must be able to sell them. Jeff is in the position of being able to sell all of his wines and he could sell much more if he had it. That is the result of years of great wines which people want but also his ability to sell it. He has built loyal buyers around the world, often former students from his days as a teacher in Paris, for example his importers to Paris and New York, Fleur Godart and Camille Rivière. 

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However, Jeff still attends salons such as Les Affranchis in Montpellier, La Dive Bouteille in the Loire and, last week, La Remise in Arles (again more about La Remise soon). He was very happy with the salon and sold more wine, Vincent was regularly spotted carrying cases from the van to various cars!

Last Wednesday palettes of wine were sent to Paris and it was good to see Paco Mora, whose Cave d’Ivry is a loyal customer, publish some photos of their arrival. He looked happy and was very complimentary about Jeff’s skills and the new syrah.

So, there we are. It’s a busy life being a vigneron. Jeff has lots of paper work and admin to carry out this week as well as spending time in the vines. All with a bad back which he has nursed for several weeks. As you sip, or quaff, your Mas Coutelou wine (hopefully) spare a thought for the work which has gone into the wine in your glass.

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Paperwork? Count me out