amarchinthevines

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


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A year in the vines, Mas Coutelou in photos (Part 1)

January

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.

February

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).

March

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.

April

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)

May

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.

June

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.


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Grafting vines

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On March 17th we were in Font D’Oulette vineyard which, at just over 0,6 ha, is a small parcel replanted around 6 years ago with a variety of old Languedoc cépages such as Aramon Noir, Aramon Gris, Oeillade and the very rare Clairette Musquée. The grapes are picked together to make a single cuvée representing the parcel , Flower Power. This first appeared in 2014 and has made an impact already, selected by La Revue Du Vin De France as one of the Languedoc’s top 50 wines. As the vines age we can only anticipate eagerly what they will produce in future.

 

However, not all young vines thrive and some needed to be replaced. Two alternatives were in place this day as the rain fell steadily.

The first is to plant vines which are pre-grafted in the conservatory / nursery. These are covered in wax to protect the graft, the wax will fall away in a few weeks. I described this process last March with the new plantation in Peilhan vineyard.

The second method was to graft onto the root stocks already in situ, something I had not seen before. The American root stock has to be used to protect against phylloxera which destroyed much of France’s vineyards in the 19th century. There are different methods of grafting such as ‘chip and bud’ but Jeff brought in a specialist, Tanguy, who uses a method known as ‘greffe en fente’.

The old vine is cut away to reveal the root stock. A very sharp knife, repeatedly sharpened through the day, cleans the surface and then inserts a cut through the wood revealing its core.

The cut is supported by tying string around it. The vine wood is also cut, as if sharpening it to make a thin wedge which is inserted into the cut root stock. The idea is to get the core of the two pieces as close as possible. This is then fastened tightly with the string. The graft is complete.

It looks simple but isn’t that the mark of a skilful worker, making something complicated look easy? Have a look at the video below to see the process in one go.

The vine is staked for support, always to the side which will help the vine against the prevailing north westerly winds. Jeff had brought some basalt soil from the Auvergne and this was then placed around the grafted vine poured into the body of a plastic bottle placed around the vine .

Basalt is one of the oldest forms of rock, roche mère (mother earth or bedrock) and is packed with nutrients. This will help the vine to grow well and by filling the bottle around the vine it is surrounded with top quality soil. Organic compost is added to the hole and then the earth is hoed back over it all, removing the bottle of course.

There is a risk. Up to 20% of vine grafts do not take in theory and with greffe en fente the whole vine would have to be grubbed up next year and replanted. Other methods can simply replace the graft. However, this method is the best for the vine itself and the most likely to take.

So what were the vines? Cinsault, Aramon Noir and Inconnue No.3. Inconnue means unknown, so why is it called this? The original vine was found in an old vineyard where it had never been catalogued. It was taken by the organic nursery where Jeff buys his vines and it was studied but was discovered to have never been indexed. it is unique, unknown, hence its name. One of its benefits is that it is resistant to oidium and it will also add diversity to this complanted vineyard with about 100 of the Inconnue No.3 vines being added. A hint of mystery to the blend.

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The vine canes, only about 7-8 cm will be used

A fascinating day despite the rain which soaked us all to the skin. It was hard graft but a rich, rewarding day celebrated at lunchtime with a magnum of… well it had to be Flower Power.

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A damp guardian of the new vines

 


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February

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The Romans were late to add February as a month to their calendar having previously put together December, January and February as one long winter month. When it did become a distinct month February was seen as a month of purification, the end of winter feasting and preparation for the year ahead (February was actually seen as the last month of the year for a long time). In the Christian calendar the beginning of Lent and the tradition of Mardi Gras reflect this Roman influence.

Similarly, in the vineyard the work reflects the calendar. The Languedoc vineyards are still dormant. White vans are dotted amongst them containing the workers and their tools seeking to prune and to palisade their vines in preparation for the growing season ahead. I have described this work in detail recently so I won’t repeat myself but la taille proceeds all around us. (See here and here)

 

Vans and cars parked amongst the vines

Vans and cars parked among the vines

Sauvignon Blanc vines grafted short to reduce the yield and concentrate flavour

Sauvignon Blanc vines (at Turner Pageot) grafted short to reduce the yield and so concentrate flavours

The month began with very cold northerly and easterly winds and even one morning of snow (Feb 3rd).

February 3rd - the view from our back window

February 3rd – the view from our back window

The cold was needed to remind the vines not to start to emerge from their hibernation too soon. Early budding (bourgeonnement) can be disastrous as frosts can hit for a couple of months yet, traditionally it is mid May when the risk of frost is said to be over in the region. Those who pruned early run more risk as budding can sometimes happen sooner. Whether there was enough cold weather remains to be seen as by February 9th we were enjoying temperatures between 15C and 18C. I have heard of almond trees budding already, the mimosas were out for the festival in their name at Roquebrun on the 8th and so the vines may well be stirring already.

The mimosa is out to the left of the tower at Roquebrun

The mimosa is out to the left of the tower at Roquebrun

At Mas Coutelou there was also work to be done in preparing new vine canes to be grafted onto older vine stocks. Jeff is trying to establish some parcels with a mix of grape varieties as these cross pollinate during flowering and help to protect each other in resisting disease. He wants to bring older varieties (cépages) into his vineyards such as Aramon (noir and gris) and the Castets I wrote about in October. These are already producing great results in the quality of wine produced so far, even if it is in small quantity so far. Therefore, some old Cabernet Sauvignon vines are being removed from a vineyard such as Peilhan and being replaced by these more traditional Languedoc cépages.

Michel, Renaud and Jeff work amongst the wild rocket

Michel, Renaud and Jeff work amongst the wild rocket

Believe it or not it was quite warm despite Jeff's attire

Believe it or not it was quite warm despite Jeff’s attire

The grafting itself will not take place until around May time. For those who are interested in the technical side of this I can highly recommend this article which raises some interesting points and questions about grafting, vines and terroir. Steve Slatcher has a very good blog, well worth reading.

February also continues to bring lots of paperwork, customs and taxes for example. Many hours of such work are certainly unglamorous. Selling wine is also vital and Jeff took some cases to Gabian on the 13th to Domaine Turner Pageot to form a groupement (a pallet of wines made up from different producers) to head to Leon Stolarski, a very good merchant based in Nottingham. I have sung the praises of Turner Pageot many times on here and so it was a pleasure to see two of my favourite winemakers come together and visit Manu’s vineyards as well as tasting his wines.

Jeff and Manu study the grass which Manu has sewn between vines. This will retain moisture in summer, strengthen the structure of the soil and attract helpful insects amongst other advantages

Jeff and Manu study the grass which Manu has sewn between vines. This will retain moisture in summer, strengthen the structure of the soil and attract helpful insects amongst other advantages

There is also a belief that February is named after Febris the Latin for fever. Jeff has been suffering from flu, there is an epidemic in the Hérault at present, and Manu too was far from well. Fortunately their passion for their vines and wines shone through, a reminder that February also has its other big date on the 14th.

A warm, sunny birthday for me on February 9th but snow in the mountains still lingers

A warm, sunny birthday for me on February 9th but snow in the mountains still lingers