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


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2021, vintage views

Vintage Chart by The Wine Society

When I first became interested in wine vintages were one of the mysteries which intrigued and infuriated in equal measure. Back in the 80s and 90s Bordeaux and Burgundy ruled the world of wine (plus ca change) and anyone wanting to buy such wines looked at vintage reports, vintage charts and vintage prices to research which wines to seek out. A 1989 or 1990 Bordeaux (my first venture into en primeur purchases) was superior to a 1987 or 1994 simply because of the weather in those years. Things have changed.

Climate change is an obvious cause, it is a rare year now where grapes don’t ripen in cool conditions. Indeed we are in a situation where Bordeaux now allows different grapes, such as this blog’s favourite Castets, to temper the (over)ripe Cabernet and Merlot. Burgundy producers worry about the future of Pinot Noir in their region, a grape which now thrives in cooler Alsace and Germany for example.

Better winemaking and vineyard care are the other major reasons why wines tend to be more consistent year on year. Science, technology and the education of new generations of winemakers mean that vines are given cover crops, different canopy systems, grapes are fermented cooler or longer or on skins more than they used to be. Winemakers through skill (and maybe some artifice) are able to smooth out those vintage chart curves, very few years would now be as scorned as those 87s.

For Jeff Coutelou in the hot Languedoc you’d assume that vintages weren’t that important either. There is hot sunshine every year, grapes ripen ready for harvesting by early September. But there subtle differences, sometimes less subtle. 2017 had a big outbreak of mildew, 2019 saw temperatures reach 45c (I remember it well). Those 2019 grapes were actually harvested in prime condition, the best of any of the seven vintages I have helped with, as good as any Jeff can recall. There was little sorting to do. Yet, those grapes proved difficult in the cellar, fermentations slowed and got stuck, not all but many. The fermentations were not completed until the temperatures picked up again in the Spring of 2020. Was that a product of the overheating of the previous summer?

Outstanding Grenache in La Garrigue this year

Every year is different. Similar problems arise due to climate and disease, drought, mildew, oidium, ver de la grappe. The scale of those issues varies though and in different vineyards. The Grenache of La Garrigue was badly hit in 2020 and produced tiny yields. This year when most vineyards suffered that Grenache was beautiful and abundant. Such vagaries are what keeps a vigneron on her/his toes. What quantities of wine will there be from each vineyard? Will there be some outstanding grapes that should be used for a special cuvée? What might be blended to provide the wine for popular cuvées such as Classe or Le Vin Des Amis? With twenty tanks full of fermenting grapes Jeff must juggle figures, analyses, tastings in order to decide what to do with those wines.

Decisions, decisions

2021 was undoubtedly a vintage which reflects most the circumstances of the year, in my opinion more than any of those seven I have witnessed. It was shaped by the frost of April 12th. That single night wreaked havoc upon the vineyards, throughout France yes, certainly for Jeff. Havoc all the worse in that it was unexpected, there was no warning that it would hit the area. 50-70% of potential fruit was wiped out in those few hours, hitting the vines as they flowered and began to bud. From there on 2021 was a year of catch up. Yes the vines, some of them anyway, produced secondary bunches but nothing like the quality and quantity of what was lost. The vines though were weakened by that night, a situation compounded by ongoing drought. Jeff told me that there was only one significant rainfall in Puimisson from the previous October through to the end of summer. This is a perennial issue in the Languedoc now, climate change in action. The consequence of frost and drought was vines pushing energy towards survival rather than fruit and that when summer’s heat and humidity combined to produce oidium (powdery mildew) the vines had little resistance.

Doom and gloom. And yet there was that Grenache. And most of the fruit was decent quality and fermented well (though with delayed malolactic fermentation in some cases). And the resulting wines taste very well after those fermentations. Jeff will make good wines. He will have to juggle those figures again and no doubt produce different final wines to the norm, there isn’t the quantity to make all the usual bottles. Indeed I can report that Jeff bought in some grapes to bulk out his own this year. Carignan and Syrah were brought back from the Minervois thanks to Vivien Hemelsdael of Le Clos Des Jarres, an excellent producer of natural wines himself. That area was relatively untouched by the frost and Vivien kindly agreed to provide grapes to his friend. Matteo, Steeve, Louis and Jeff went to pick those grapes and were enthusiastic about them, especially the Carignan. Incidentally I can honestly recommend seeking out the Clos Des Jarres wines.

2021 will certainly be a year that Jeff recalls with little fondness. Personally I was delighted to be back there after missing out in 2020. Moreover it was an excellent team to work with, I thoroughly enjoyed being a part of it. The white wines which I tasted from tank just before I left Puimisson are in fine fettle, Jeff assures me that the reds are too. Perhaps vintage is less important to wines these days, but do remember unfortunately there won’t be much of them from Jeff Coutelou. There were new aspects of winemaking in 2021 though and I shall be reporting on how Jeff is looking to the future as well as getting the best out of this year. 2021’s wines were certainly a reflection of the difficult year, maybe vintage does matter after all.

The team, by Manu


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Frost

On April 5th Jeff Coutelou’s niece Flora Rey sent some photos of the joyful Spring period when the vines begin to bud. I always found this exciting when I was there full time and still do, the long winter over, the hard work of pruning completed and the new year’s wine in the first stage of arrival. I spoke to Jeff on the 6th as news broke of frosts around France and all was well in Puimisson. That very night the Languedoc was hit by severe frosts, way worse than anything forecast.

The results were catastrophic. Jeff reported on the 7th that around half of the vines were sufficiently damaged that they would produce nothing this year. A few days later as Jeff learned more about the effects of that awful night he sadly raised those estimates to around 70% damaged. At first it seems the buds have survived but over the next few days they lose the struggle to survive as they dry out and fall apart. I have seen frost damage at Jeff’s before but it only affected a few vines or rows on exposed sites. This time every vineyard has been hit.

There will be secondary buds but they will only lead to around 25% of normal productivity. This suggests that overall production will be well less than half of the normal year.

I have written about the effects of frost before but I strongly recommend this article by Jamie Goode to give an authoritative, clear explanation of how frost damages vines and how vignerons can attempt to prevent damage.

Last year was such a dreadful one for everyone that we all hoped things would be better. Sadly, for winemakers all across France, and for my dear friend, it has turned into a different kind of nightmare through no fault of their own.


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More Frost

frost

Frost damage (Decanter)

Sad to report that frosts have continued to damage the vineyards of France (and elsewhere) since I first reported on them 10 days ago. Virtually every night in regions such as the Loire and Chablis vignerons have lit fires, used helicopters to circulate the air, sprayed the buds with water to keep them at 0º rather than the colder air temperatures. For all that, nature will prevail and damage to the vineyards has mounted with vignerons facing wipeout in some of their vineyards and heavy losses in others.

Sadly the Languedoc has not been immune. I have heard reports of damage in Aspiran, Caux and elsewhere including to friends’ vines. I can only sympathise as they face a significant loss of income and wine. It is suggested that the Hérault will lose 20% of its production this year. Midi Libre included this map showing the affected areas. Jeff has had a few vines touched but, happily, there are no real losses.

en-bleu-les-zones-touchees-en-rouge-les-communes-touchees_2371463_667x333

Areas such as Fronton and Gaillac in the South West, Bugey to the east of Burgundy and in the foothills of the Alps have seen even greater losses and these are regions where viticulteurs struggle to make a living in good years.

Bordeaux has been affected too in recent nights and whilst the big chateaux have been employing the helicopters and braziers smaller vignerons have had to cope as best they could. I was rather annoyed to see one very well known wine writer’s response to this news being to express concern about prices rather than the welfare of the vignerons.

The early spring which promoted bud growth has made this cold spell especially damaging and disastrous. Spring frosts are not unusual, tradition dictates that they are a risk until the Saints De Glaces, this year from May 11 to 13. It was the warm weather of early April which made the vines vulnerable. Climate change? A precocious year? Whatever, the suffering is all too real.

attention-aux-saintes-de-glace

Update Saturday 29th, a 4th episode

 


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Frost damage

Chablis Germain Bour

Chablis (tweet by Germain Bour)

Sad to hear reports of widespread frost damage to vines all over France and Italy on Tuesday and Wednesday nights. Temperatures plummeted to -6ºC in Chablis and the Jura for example. And at a time when vines have begun to bud and the leaves unfurl. The result, of course, is damage to these buds which will not produce grapes this year. No grapes means no money for the winemaker. And in some regions this is two years on a row. I was in the Loire at this time last year and saw the damage it can do for myself, some vignerons losing whole vineyards.

Jura veroselles

Jura before and after the frost (Véroselles)

Two weapons have been deployed by some vignerons. Firstly, impressive photos from Burgundy and Chablis where, perhaps more wealthy, vignerons used fires amongst the vines to try to keep temperatures higher.

The other tactic, more counter intuitive, is too spray the vines with water so that the buds and leaves are immediately covered in ice and this protects them from further damage.

Large scale producers such as Roederer in Champagne are reporting losses of 10-20% of their vines for the year. Some smaller scale winemakers will have lost proportionally much more. I can only sympathise. Let’s hope things turn better for them soon.

Addendum 3.15 pm

I have seen some photos of the Languedoc being hit too.

It appears that hail also struck some areas last night too. The frost risk will last until Saturday.

 


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The first Coutelou of Spring

Version francaise

It’s a while since I wrote about the happenings at Mas Coutelou, so time for an update. I am thankful to Jeff, Vincent and Julien for keeping me up to date in my absence.

The first few months of 2017 have been damp in the Languedoc, a contrast to the arid 2016. The photos by Julien above show water standing a week after rain and his feet sinking into the soil as he pruned. Jeff had planned to plant a vineyard of different types of Aramon at Théresette next to La Garrigue which has lain fallow for the last few years. However, the soil remains very damp and planting has not been possible, unless things change quickly the project will be postponed until next year. For the same reason, the first ploughing would have begun by now in most years, but is on hold for drier conditions.

vigour from every bud last year

Pruning the last vines (photo and work by Julien)

Julien completed pruning (taille) around March 10th. He photographed the first budding (débourrement) amongst precocious varieties such as the Muscat. However, Jeff told me this week that, generally, budding is later this year, the damper, cooler weather again responsible. That is not necessarily a bad thing. Remember that frost can cause great damage to vines, especially buds, and the Saints De Glace (date when traditionally frost risk is over) is May 11-13. I recall visiting the Loire last April and seeing frost damage, whole vineyards with no production for the year.

buds

Julien photographed some early buds

The weather conditions are favourable for something, sadly not good news either. Snails, which ravaged large numbers of buds and leaves in Flower Power and Peilhan last year, have found the damp much to their advantage. They are a real pest, a flock of birds would be very welcome or we’ll see more scenes like these from 2016. Of course, one of the reasons why birds and hedgehogs are lacking is the use of pesticides by most vignerons in the region.

In the cellar the new office and tasting room is complete. Our friend Jill completed a montage of Mas Coutelou labels which we gave to Jeff as a gift. Hopefully that may decorate the walls of the new rooms.

The floor which was half covered in resin last year has been finished all over and another new inox (stainless steel) cuve has arrived. (photos by Vincent).

On March 22nd the assemblages of the 2016 wines took place. Or at least most of them. One or two cuves still have active fermentation with residual sugar remaining but otherwise the wines were ready and the conditions were favourable. I won’t reveal what cuvées are now blended, that is for Jeff to unveil. However, I can say that the reduced harvest of 2016 means fewer wines are available and fewer cuvées made. In the next article I shall be giving my thoughts on the 2016 wines from tastings in October and February.

Finally, there was an award for Jeff himself. On March 30th he was made an official ambassador for the Hérault by the Chamber of Commerce of the département. This was an honour for Jeff himself and the generations of the Mas and Coutelou families who made the domaine what it is. Founded in the 1870s at 7, Rue De La Pompe by Joseph Étienne Mas who planted vines and kept cows after he had fought in the Franco – Prussian War of 1870-1. Five generations later Jeff is an ambassador for Puimisson, vignerons and the Hérault and with his wines he is really spoiling us.