After eight months away from Puimisson and the Coutelou vines it was definitely a case of being very happy to return. As I stood in Rome vineyard there was the chorus of birdsong, hum of insects, flash of colour from butterflies and flowers. A resounding reminder of why this is one of my favourite places on Earth, capable of making me joyful just by being there.
In Font D’Oulette (Flower Power), the vines are maturing well, many now sturdy and thriving in their gobelet freedom. The change from when we grafted some of them just two years ago is dramatic, perhaps more to me as I haven’t seen them since last October.
Grafted vine 2016, same vine now
In Peilhan and Rec D’Oulette (Flambadou’s Carignan) the roses were still just in bloom at the end of the rows but starting to wilt under the hot sun.
Carignan left and top right, Peilhan bottom right
And there lies the rub. The hot sun has really only been out in the region for the last week, it has been a catastrophic Spring. Rain has fallen dramatically, almost three times the usual level from March onwards after a wetter winter than usual. The annual rainfall average has been surpassed just halfway through the year. Moreover the rain was not in sudden bursts but steady, regular, in most afternoons. Vineyards all over the region are sodden, tractors and machines unable to fight their way through the mud making vineyard work difficult if not impossible. Even after a week of sun if I press down onto the soil I can feel the dampness on the topsoil.
Mix damp and warmth around plants and there is a sadly inevitable result, mildew.
Look again at the photo of Peilhan, zoom in on the wines at the bottom,
there are the tell tale brown spots.
This downy mildew lives as spores in the soil and the rain splashes them up onto the vines. Jeff had warned me of the damage which I described from afar in my last post. Seeing the tell tale signs of brown spots on the upper leaves on such a scale across vineyards all over the Languedoc is another matter though. All those vines touched will yield nothing (though some will still put them into production, so be confident of your producer). I have heard that some producers have effectively lost most of their vines for this year and similar stories from right across the region. Grenache seems particularly susceptible to mildew and it has been devastated at Jeff’s, the Maccabeu too.
Meanwhile Jeff has been struggling against nature, not a normal situation. He has sprayed all kinds of organic products from seaweed, nettles, essential oils such as orange and lavender, horsetail, clay. He has used the two natural elements permitted under organic rules, copper and sulphur. Jeff is particularly reluctant to use copper but such is the battle this year that it was necessary. Unfortunately like Sisyphus the task is uphill. He sprays, it rains and the effects of the spray are greatly lessened by washing it off the vines, so he has to start again. At least this week that is no longer the case and Jeff has been working all hours to save what he can, to roll that rock uphill once more. He is discouraged, even heartbroken to see the state of some of the vines he tends and cares for so much.
Dare I mention that now is the time when oidium, powdery mildew makes itself known? Please, not this year.
So, production will be down enormously this year, we hold out best hope for Syrah, Mourvèdre, Carignan Noir. Lower production means lower income too, so expect price rises and please do not complain as now you are aware of the reasons.
So happy returns? Well on a personal level yes. To see my great friend again, to have Icare waiting to be tickled, to see the good side of nature. But. This is not a happy time for vignerons across this region and it hurts to see my friends knocked about like this. Let us hope for northerly, drying winds, sunshine and no more disease so that something can be rescued this year, for Sisyphus to reach his summit.
It really is Flower Power now. Jeff sowed wildflowers and plants to help the soils of that vineyard retain moisture, ironic given the Spring.
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.
I have visited hundreds of vineyards over the years but very few have stirred the same excitement and admiration as those of Clos Fantine, run by the Andrieu family of Corine, Carole and Olivier. With a helping hand from their New York importer Camille Rivière, who also imports Mas Coutelou wines, Corine asked me to visit on May 21st and I returned on June 11th.
There are around 30ha of vines around their base in La Liquière high in the Faugères hills. The soil is schist, Corine told me of 3 types, grey, blue and pink. This slaty soil makes it difficult for vines to send their roots down into the bedrock as it ends to lie horizontally, so they must seek fissures and faults for their roots to penetrate as the topsoil is meagre. This undoubtedly adds to the qualities of freshness and energy which mark so many of the best Faugères wines and certainly those of Clos Fantine. Corine explained that they do not try to fight this natural acidity but rather they work with nature, a philosophy which is fundamental to every aspect of the domaine. Nature rules, the Andrieus guide it perhaps.
The three siblings took over the running of Clos Fantine from their father in 1997 and continued to work conventionally until 2000 when they began to use the natural yeasts of their terroir and then, in 2004, more confident of their vineyards and of themselves and of their ideas and beliefs, they stopped adding sulphites. This was no trendy whim on their part, they were certainly not riding a natural wine bandwagon. Corine is a qualified oenologue who reads widely around viticulture and agronomy. She used, and still uses, her scientific background to guide her winemaking as well as the philosophy about nature which she shares with her family. As she said to me, “You have 3 core tenets; the use of science, faith in what you are doing and the art in creating the wine.”
As we drove around the vineyards with their stunning setting there was a true feeling of well being. We met Olivier who was hard at work in one parcel strimming grass between the vines. The Andrieus do not plough the soil as they feel that this upsets the balance of it, and that the hot Languedoc sunshine and strong winds would dry the soil out too much if ploughed, leading to erosion of the already thin topsoils. Sunshine is not a problem in the region, water is and by not ploughing the family also help to preserve the water in the soil. Grass, flowers and other plants grow naturally and when the grass is fully grown and starts to seed they strim it to add organic matter to the soils and seed for the following year.
Olivier strimming the grass
The grass also provides shelter for insects and spiders which in turn will help the vines by attacking grape parasites such as ver de la grappe. These are real living vineyards, illustrated by the discovery of two separate partridge nests, both filled with eggs, at the base of vines in that one parcel.
Partridge eggs in their nest below one of the vines
Corine talked about how they see the land as between 3 stages, farm/grassland, garrigue and forest. They are seeking to keep their vines on the edge between the first two stages so that the vines are having to work a little to compete with flora and fauna without being overstressed. Meanwhile, Olivier also spoke about keeping good quality air around the vines, eg allowing the air to circulate freely around the vines to keep disease at bay and also about using the flowers and grass.
The fresh air of La Liquiere
Disease, of course, is an issue at the domaine despite their hard work to minimise it. This is true of all vineyards. Mildew had hit when I was there in May, nothing too serious but a reminder that nature can also be cruel. Natural treatments available to them include the use of sulphur and copper which had been used for the first time in a few years. However, the vines were not in any danger, the mildew had been contained.
Marcottage vine training, in fact this mother vine was attached to two offshoot vines
All the vines are gobelet, low to the ground. Corine described how they had recently bought a parcel of vines and their first action was to remove the palissage, the stakes and wires used to train the vines. The vines flopped and spread out as if relaxing, in Corine’s words, like a woman released from her corsets in Victorian times. Gobelet is the traditional method of growing vines in the Languedoc. The bushy vines have plenty of foliage to shelter the grapes from the sun but also have space to fan out allowing the air inside to stop humidity and defend against disease. The gobelets did give the impression of a vineyard which could have been from any period of the last few centuries, ageless.
Corine used the word ‘energy’ a lot whilst I was there. She was referring to the soils and the vineyards. The nurturing of the soil and the vines is about channelling the energy of nature into those vines and ultimately the grapes and the wines through their management of soil and air. However, energy also describes the work of Corine, Olivier and Carole. They are relentless in their quest to improve the vineyards and the wines.
They read widely, for example Corine is an admirer of Jean Marie Pelt and his writings on plants and nature. She quotes science, history and nature readily and compares her wines to others in the region but also to wines and vineyard practices from the rest of France and internationally. Corine seeks to learn from these and we talked about viticulture in Australia and Chile, as there are little things done there which might help to improve wines, “we may never be perfect but we can try to be the best we can be.” This awareness of learning and the outside world is more widespread than it used to be in France but I have not come across that many vignerons who are so keen to learn from various sources.
Corine, happy in her vines
At the start of this blog article I mentioned how happy and at ease I felt in the vineyards of Clos Fantine. The location, its touch of wildness and naturetogether with the philosophy of the Andrieus all rubbed off on me too.
At that point a wagon arrived to collect some palletts of wine to take to Belgium. As the domaine is up a narrow road Corine was going to have to transport the wines using the forklift down to the wagon in the village. I was actually quite pleased as it gave me the opportunity to return a few weeks later to visit the cellars and to taste the wines.
As a storm broke over La Liquière on June 11th it was a dramatic backdrop in which to return. The cellar has been designed to allow the grapes to be moved by gravity rather than pumping after being harvested by hand and gathered in small cagettes. The cement vats we tasted from were full of single variety wines busy fermenting. Corine uses no pigeage or remontage in the vats, something which was new to me, and as the weather cools down in autumn and winter the cellar doors are opened to allow the temperatures to drop and halt the fermentations naturally. These resume in spring as temperatures rise again. The result is a gentle, long and cool maceration with as little intervention as possible.
Doors lead over the vats meaning the grapes can be moved by gravity
And the results… Well we tasted Carignan, Syrah, Grenache, Mourvèdre from the vats and each was clear, direct, mineral and oh so fresh with fruit singing out. They were also classic in their cépage typicity, it was relatively straightforward even for me to identify each one. They were excellent as was a Terret from a barrel which contained wines from a number of vintages, in other words in a solera type system. Complex, long, mineral and the slight oxidative notes were refreshing and interesting.
We then retired to the kitchen and tasted from bottle. The Terret, Valcabrières, was a delight. Great depth of flavour with zesty refreshment and white fruits such as notes of pear. Long in the mouth it was delicious. Recently bottled it was already very good but will improve as it settles in bottle. Lanterne Rouge is Aramon and Cinsault, very much Languedoc varieties and a wine I have described on here a few times as it is a favourite with lively fruit aromas and a deceptively light first taste which grows more complex in the mouth. The Clos Fantine Tradition is mainly Carignan and Grenache and has real depth of dark fruit flavours and great complexity and a refreshing, clean finish. It is classic Languedoc red wine but with added zest and liveliness. Finally Cuvée Courtiol is made from the best grapes of the millésime. Ripe, full and delicious with length and soft tannins that will marry into the wine with age. I really love these wines and when Corine said there was no obligation for me to buy any wines when I asked if I could, I hastened to reassure her that I felt no obligation, I wanted to buy some and will certainly want to do so again!
I learned so much in my time at Clos Fantine with the Andrieu family and I admire and respect their work, their philosophy, their passion for learning and nature and, of course, their wines. I implore you to seek out their wines and drink them.
It was the 30th January and having promised to write about vineyard work in each month of the year, I felt that a deadline was looming! After tasting wines in Montpellier for a few days it was definitely time to get back to the vineyard the key component of those wines. Jeff took me to the vineyard called La Garrigue which is to the south east of Puimisson, home of Mas Coutelou. It is one of around a dozen parcels of land which Jeff owns, though some are home to olive and fig trees as well as hedgerows and other methods of reintroducing biodiversity into a district which has become one large vineyard. I shall be writing soon about the various parcels and Jeff’s work to safeguard and boost the local environment and biodiversity.
La Garrigue is rather like a small pyramid in form with a peak in the middle and vines around the sides.
Facing north is a parcel of Syrah planted in 2006, so the vines are still young. They face north so that the freshness and spiciness of the grape variety are preserved rather than being overcooked. They are also planted in rows facing north to south so that the wind blows down the rows, helping to prevent disease and to dry the grapes after rain. Carole was busy pruning this area and the preferred method is the gobelet style. This is the traditional and most natural way of growing vines in the Languedoc and Jeff has preferred to use this method for his vines for a number of years and so these Syrah vines are grown using gobelet.
Syrah vine pruned in the gobelet style
However, as you will see in the video, Carole studies each vine carefully and if she feels it would benefit from a different style she will prune in the more suitable way. This may be because the vine canes are growing too vigorously between the rows of vines and need shaping along the rows. As these are young vines they are being supported by wire trellising. In this case a cordon de royat system might be used.
Syrah vine pruned in cordon rather than the gobelet style which most of the Syrah vines are. It was felt its needs suited cordon better
Facing south is a parcel of Grenache vines. This is a variety which welcomes heat and is grown through Spain and around the Mediterranean. It adds spice and complexity to wines and, facing south, the sunshine brings out these characteristics. In this parcel cordon de royat is used as the pruning method. This was the system used when the Grenache vines were planted back in 2000 and so they continue to be grown in that style as it is not advisable or even possible to change them to gobelet now. The Grenache is usually used in the popular cuvee Classe.
Grenache vines,cordon pruning
A magnum of Classe
To the easterly side of La Garrigue is a block of Sauvignon Blanc. This is not a variety often grown in the Languedoc as it gives green, fresh almost acidic notes in its wines and the region is often too hot for it to show those qualities. Facing east, however, means that the sun hits the grapes in the morning so does not overheat or over ripen them, preserving the freshness of the fruit. In this parcel guyot is the preferred system of pruning. This system allows more air to circulate around the grapes and as the white grapes are more fragile guyot training helps to protect their health. The white grapes are usually used in the white blend, PM.
Sauvignon Blanc vines pruned in guyot style up the wire trellising
What struck me most, other than a bitingly cold, northerly wind, was how carefully Carole and Jeff study each vine to ensure that it is given a pruning which suits its needs. Direction, quality of the wood, crowding are all considered before they decide what to cut and at what length the remaining cane should be left. Some canes were cut very short, others had 8 to 10 eyes which will produce bunches of grapes. It depended upon the capability of the vine to bear such fruit. It is this care and attention which characterises the work of the skilled artisanal vineyard worker and winemaker.
Jeff studying a Syrah vine
Getting to the heart of the vine
The finished vine
I would compare this with a machine I watched around Margon which cut the vines to the same shape and size regardless of their health and
needs. The cutting was fast and much easier work but the pruning was brutal and imprecise with no regard for the individual vines. For vignerons producing cheap, bulk wines I can understand their actions.However, it confirmed in my mind that artisanal vignerons are the ones producing the wines I want to drink
Machine pruning vines, the yellow arm contains the blades
Pruning is not glamorous. But is a vital part of the winemaking year, preparing the vines for when they reawaken in spring and enabling them to produce the right quantity of healthy grapes which in turn will produce great wine.
Back in Margon after a few weeks back in the UK, it was good to see family and friends again over Christmas. It was good to hear of many of them enjoying Mas Coutelou wines with their Christmas meals.
Santa was generous so I have new books to read. Hopefully I shall learn something to help brighten and enlighten this blog.
Jeff assured me that last week the temperature in the Languedoc reached 20C and he was working in the vineyards in shirtsleeves. Sadly, no sign of that this week.
The vines are resting through the winter weather as you can see in these photos taken in Aloxe Corton on Sunday morning. Burgundy, of course, is much further north than Margon.
As we went for a walk in the vines (as opposed to a march in the vines) the pruning work I described in December showed clearly. Below are examples of all 3 types of pruning I described then.
Guyot trained vines. The long right branch attached to the wire will provide grapes in 2015. The cut branch will provide fruit in 2016.
I came across these cordon trained vines which are clearly older and very sturdy. They will need further pruning!
And finally we saw this really wizzened and elderly vine growing in classic Languedoc gobelet style.
So the vines are resting but I know that work for the vigneron is continuing. More pruning, assembling the wines from last year’s harvest and more vineyard work which I shall report back upon later in the week.
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.
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
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.
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!!