amarchinthevines

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


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A Tour Down Under, Queensland

After the busy city, time to relax with a trip to the Whitsunday Islands off the Queensland coast at the southern edge of the Great Barrier Reef. Hamilton Island is a holiday resort essentially, famed for its exclusive residences used by the rich and famous as well as its family hotels. Island visitors are well catered for with restaurants, shops, beaches and pools. To get around the small island golf buggies can be hired as no cars are allowed. The system runs like a well oiled machine.

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Buggy driver outside the church

As well as relaxing in the warm sunshine we made two day trips. The second was to Whitehaven Beach on the largest of the 74 islands, Whitsunday itself. The beach is a shining white colour, the sand is almost pure silica and has a fine flour like texture. The waters are clear and a beautiful colour.

However, star of the visit was the day snorkelling on the Reef itself, notable Bait Reef. I had never snorkelled before but I took to it, well, like a duck to water. I wasn’t sure what to expect from the Reef, whatever expectations I had were surpassed a thousand times over. The magnificent colours of the coral and the fish lit up the ocean. The Reef here was badly damaged by Cyclone Debbie in April 2017 and yet, though some parts died off others were showing signs of recovery with beautiful blue, pink, yellow coral sprouting along with many other colours too.

                          Waves breaking on the coral reef and fish around the boat

Apparently 10% of the Earth’s fish species live on the Reef and it was impossible to keep track of the dozens of species I saw. However, two stood out. A blue spotted ray darted along the seabed and then, as we were returning to the boat I saw a black outline against the white sand. It could only be a shark from its shape but it took a while for me to get my head round that. It sat for a couple of minutes and then turned and swam straight towards me which made my heart skip a beat. It swam right under me and it was a few minutes I shall never forget. I was told by our guide that it was a white tipped reef shark, it was magnificent.

                    Butterfly fish, blue spotted ray and the white tipped reef shark

Then to Brisbane for the final few days of the trip. The city is dominated by the river of the same name, free ferries and buses help the traveller to get around easily. The beautiful botanic gardens sheltered a variety of birds, water dragons and beautiful plants, trees and flowers.

 

Strangely some of the better wines from shops and bars of the whole 2 months were experienced here in Queensland. The bottle shop on Hamilton Island carried good wines such as O’Leary Walker‘s Polish Hill Riesling, D’Arenberg‘s Custodian Grenache and the interesting Toru blend of Gewurztraminer, Riesling and Pinot Gris from Te Whare Ra in Marlborough. All very good. From another bottle shop in Brisbane I secured an old favourite in Coldstream Hills Pinot Noir 2016. I hadn’t tried this since James Halliday gave up the domaine but it proved to be as good, refreshing and fruity as it always was.

At the Silver Fox Wine Bar in Brisbane though came a real treat. We ordered an orange wine from the Barossa Valley and the sommelier advised me to try the Old Vines Grenache from the same producer Kalleske. It was excellent advice. The orange wine, Viognier, had aromas of, well, oranges. Lavender too. It was delicious with tangy zesty fruit and lovely texture. One of the most interesting orange wines I have come across. The old vines Grenache was concentrated black and red fruit delight too. Unlike many reds I have tried here it was full but also light, not jammy, not over oaked. When I looked up the producer online I found that it is a biodynamic domaine in the Barossa, I was not surprised. There was a real energy and finesse to these two wines and I will be seeking out more of them if I can find them in the UK.

So, some good wines to finish and some of the most memorable of experiences too. Australia and New Zealand, thank you.


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A Tour Down Under, Little Things Mean A Lot

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During our holiday in the Adelaide Hills we stayed with James Madden, Sam Bateman and their beautiful year old daughter Flo together with James’ mother Pat. James and Sam travelled in France a couple of years ago and visited Jeff Coutelou which led to James returning to Puimisson a year later to play a  major role in the vendanges of 2016, which is how I got to know him. He became a valued friend in that time and when I told him that we were heading to Australia he invited us to stay with them.

A lot had happened in that 18 months, the birth of Flo, the loss of his father and the establishment of his own winery, Little Things. With all those emotional pulls it would have been easy for his first vintage to be a learning curve, instead James smashed it. The wines he produced from 2017 are extremely good by any standard, extraordinary for a first year. I would understand if you thought me biased, (I am of course), but honestly these are terrific wines.

James’ background is in catering, working in a number of restaurants in Australia, for example Movida in Melbourne. He became fascinated by wine and started to work harvests in 2011 in the Adelaide Hills often with James Erskine of Jauma wines as well as in the Mornington Peninsula and, as I said, with Jeff in the Langeudoc. That experience has instilled in him a desire to make wine with minimal intervention, he is one of the very few in Australia who resists the safety net of SO2. As we recalled over a glass, Jeff used to tell him to believe in his grapes and let them express themselves. When Sam encouraged James to give it a go on his own he took the plunge and from Little Things big things will surely follow.

James sources grapes from trusted organic growers over quite a large area. Vineyard management is done by the growers though in consultation with James and in 2018 he has taken over the running of a couple of vineyards. Ideally the couple want to buy somewhere with their own vines but in the interim, as is the norm here, James buys in the grapes, harvesting them himself.

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The Shed

When James poured me the wines from 2017 I expected to have to be polite and encouraging. Not that I underestimated him, just that it is hard to get things right first time around. There was no need for politeness. I was struck by the purity of the wines, the fruit is clear, pure and typical of the variety, it is not hard to identify Grenache, Shiraz or Chardonnay. Yet there is complexity, seriousness and everything you would want in your glass. As I said, he smashed it.

The wines are made in a shed he shares with Alex Schulkin (The Other Right). Pressing in small batches, maceration in small plastic containers and then the wine goes into old barrels. I recall that James was a master of cleanliness at Jeff’s and this is apparent in the way he works in his own winery. He has listened to advice, observed the right ways to work and made his own path with his own wines. He is still learning, playing around with fermentation techniques etc, and it will be fascinating to watch his, and the wines’, development. I only hope that we in Europe can get hold of some, importers take note.

The Sauvignon Blanc Pet Nat, Flo’s Fizz and the Chardonnay, Sweet Child Of Mine (there’s a theme here!) sold out quickly and it was not hard to understand why. The PetNat is just fresh fruit fun, goes down way too easily but at under 11% not too much danger. The Chardonnay is from 28 year old vines, whole bunch pressed, tank fermented and then aged in old barrels. It is a delight. There is a creamy note but a clean acidity runs through with lemon and spice notes. Seriously good wine.

Purple Patch Shiraz is dry grown Shiraz from Clarendon in the McLaren Vale, nice and light (just 11% abv) and very drinkable. I remember lots of good wines from this area when I first got into Australian reds and this would be a good example. More Shiraz, this time blended with Grenache (75/25%) in Sum Of Many, the fruity Shiraz being spiced up by the hit of Grenache. That Grenache was to cause a few problems for James as he discovered just before the 2018 harvest that there had been a spray on the vineyard and that it was, consequently, not organic. James decided to be open and honest about this and shared his disappointment with buyers. He decided the 2018 could not be used by him because of it not being organic, however he did find another winemaker who would welcome the grapes. In this way the grower, who had made an honest mistake, did not lose out and James will be able to use the vineyard’s grapes in future. I think that was an honest, commendable decision. The Grenache wine Comes A Time was inadvertently made from the vineyard in 2017, I found it a little more subdued than the others even before I found out about its history.

My favourite red though has to be Joy’s Wild Fruits Field Blend. The vineyard is next to the sea at Fleurieu Peninsula and most of the grapes are technically white, eg Pinot Gris, Savagnin, Chardonnay, but they are picked with the Pinot Noir, Merlot and Cabernet from the same vineyard, pressed together and left on skins for more than a week. This is heady wine; bright, light and mighty good. Fresh and zesty from the whites, fruity and spicy from the reds. I love field blends and this just works.

I am really excited for James and Sam that their venture is taking off. The bottles are selling well. Whilst in Adelaide and Melbourne we were in bars and restaurants with Little Things on the list (alongside Mas Coutelou in some places!). James can hold his head high whilst he mixes with James Erskine, Tom Shobbrook and Gareth Belton, his wines stand comparison and promise great things for the future. Proud of you mate!

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Tasting the 2017s

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Last weekend I should have been in the Languedoc with Jeff and attending a wine tasting at Latour De France. Sadly, a 48 hour bug put a stop to that.

Instead I reflected on a tasting we did at Jeff’s on October 3rd of all the 2017 wines in cuve. Regular readers will recall that they vintage is of high quality but low quantity. Quantities will be in short supply of what will be seriously good wines. There was a tinge of sadness about that as we tasted through the range.

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These were my notes on the evening.

  • Maccabeu / Grenache Gris – still some residual sugar. Fresh nose, Fruity, pears. Slight sweetness which will disappear. Clean and lovely.
  • Sauvignon Blanc – fresh apple, bright and zesty. A true Sauvignon character, refreshing.
  • Carignan Blanc – lovely, full, clean, direct – fresh and fruity. Very good.
  • Rosé – very pale, flowery aroma, fresh and clean, exactly what you’d want from a rosé.
  • Syrah (Ste Suzanne) – whole bunch, red fruit, round tannins, good finish, full, very good.
  • Cinsault – lovely, fresh and juicy red fruit, cherry, 13,5% but tastes lighter. Good.
  • Syrah (Segrairals) – amazing passion fruit nose which carries into taste. Fresh, citrus and lovely red fruit, a real star.
  • Syrah (La Garrigue) – La Vigne Haute (fingers crossed). Terrific, direct full tannnins, splendid fruit, full, long – stunner.
  • Flower Power – Maccabeu, Syrah (St Suz), Grenache (St Suz), Grenache Gris, Cinsault, Terret Noir and Flower Power – Despite the different assemblage this has the character of previous Flower Power – fruity, silky tannin and very appealing. Lovely.
  • Grenache – blend of Ste Suzanne / La Garrigue – 2015 St Suz provided 80hl, this year the 2 vineyards made 60hl. Lovely, fresh cherry flavours with a spicy finish.
  • Mourvėdre – crunchy, spicy good tannins and dark fruits. Very true to the grape. Good.
  • Carignan – top of the class. Lovely fresh red and black fruits, excellent balance of freshness and complexity. Star yet again.
  • Merlot – lovely fruit nose, fresh, touch of wildness which should settle. Nice.
  • Cabernet Sauvignon – still some sugar, plenty of fruit, easy to drink with classic blackcurrant notes.

We went on to drink a couple of the 2016 wines which were still in cuve, a very floral and spicy Syrah and an assemblage of Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre which had good fruits with a soft tannin finish.

Reflections on the evening? The quality of 2017 is clear it is up there with the 2015s, just such a shame that fewer people will get to drink them. The whites are very good but the reds shine especially the future La Vigne Haute and Flambadou. The wines had all fermented beautifully causing few worries. A vintage to cherish, can’t wait until it is in bottle.


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Autumn repays the earth

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

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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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Solera, oh oh

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Many visitors to Mas Coutelou would cite their time in the cave des soleras as the most memorable of all. This, for new readers, is the cellar where barrels are stored containing Muscat and Grenache from many vintages. There it ages gently to make Vieux Grenache or Muscat, or a blend of course.

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The system works with new wine being put into barrique as normal but the older wines are blended with wines from previous years. Evaporation and bottling means that some of the wine in the barrels disappears each year so they need to be topped up with younger wines. Gradually, as the years pass, the wines become older and more concentrated and are passed on to older barrels. Some of the wine in the oldest barrels is 100 years old blended in with slightly younger wines.

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Archimedes principle to move wine from cuve to barrel by gravity

On September 20th it was time to clear space in the cellar; barrels topped up, new wine added to the system. Some of the barrels were given a soutirage, emptied of their wine leaving behind the sediment in the bottom. The barrel is then cleaned, the wine returned and topped up.

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Matthieu fills the barrel with water to clean it ready for refilling with wine

Two days later we were back and amongst the barrels being refreshed was one containing the Grenaches (all three varieties) wine I made in 2015. Time to taste. This was the new barrel which permits more oxygen into the wine than the more seasoned barrel. There was definitely a sherry influence to the wine, the effect of the oak and air but still there was good fruit and length. It will soon be topped up with wine from the older barrel which should add more fruit to the profile. The wine in the 27l bottle will be even more fruity and fresh, the blending should be an interesting time.

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Refilling the Grenaches newer barrel

The cellar is a true treasure trove of great wines, and I don’t mean mine. Time spent there is always time well spent. And the guard dog of all guard dogs ensures it is well protected.

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…XYZ – Vendanges 17

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The last case of 2017, Julien looks happy!

In other words, the finish. Well, the finish of the picking. Tuesday September 12th was so much calmer than the previous day as the Cabernet Sauvignon from Segrairals arrived.

Thoughout the vendanges the grapes have been good, smaller than the norm because of the dryness, but in excellent health. The Cabernet was no exception. Sorting was all about snails and dry leaves rather than any problems with the grapes and the vat filled gradually, problem – free, as the day progressed. The stalks were brown showing the maturity of the bunches as the third érafloir of yesterday completed its job efficiently.

 

As we awaited the first cases Jeff and I went around some of the vats and took samples for analysis as well as tasting the wines. I wish that I could convey the bready aromas filling the cellar of the yeasts at work, they give such a sense of change, optimism, alchemy.

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Amongst the wines we tasted were two from 2016, Syrah and Grenache, which have been sparked back into fermentation by the very presence of this year’s grapes in the cellar. The process is truly amazing. The glass in the photo below shows the top Syrah from La Garrigue harvested two weeks ago, which just may become La Vigne Haute. It is a stunner.

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Quality across the board is undoubtedly high though Jeff is counting the cost of the quantity, his first estimates are that the overall yield will be around 39 hectolitres per hectare. Average years would give between 50 and 60 hl/ha.

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Joining us on the day was a  former student of Jeff and Vincent restaurateur Régis Lamazère and his wife and baby. Régis runs his autonymous restaurant in Berlin where Charles who was here for vendanges 2016 used to work.

After the grapes were in and the last cases sorted by Julien and Vincent it was time to start serious cleaning of all the equipment which will be put away for 2018. The picking may be over but the work never stops. A full programme of pressing, remontages etc is in place for the next week. Stay tuned.

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Selene and Matthie, remontage


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Visitors – Vendanges 17

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An unusual few days to report upon. Let’s start with some bad news. Twice in the last week people have dumped their rubbish in Jeff’s vineyards. As these were at opposite ends of the village it must be assumed that there are two selfish, anti-social idiots who would prefer to spoil the local environment than drive to the local tip (déchetterie).

Another unwelcome arrival was Hurricane Irma in the Caribbean. Jeff’s sister Catherine and her husband live on Guadeloupe so we were all concerned for their welfare. Happily she reported that the worst of the storm missed the island. Others may not have been so lucky of course.

 

For me there was one more unwelcome visitor. As I entered the cellar on Tuesday morning I mentioned the smell of Carbon Dioxide in the air. This had built up from fermenting grapes and with the cellar being less busy than usual the CO2 had built up. As Tuesday was hot the cellar doors stayed shut as much as possible and with remontages and open vats the CO2 was strong. Alas it seems I am particularly sensitive to it and it made me breathless and nauseous. I can understand better how some people have serious accidents with gas build up when they are working at open cuves. Maybe it’s because I’m getting old but the others were unaffected, and I’m the non – smoker! Happily, I have soon recovered.

Yet another visitor arrived in the form of the inspector who controls organic certification for Ecocert. I wrote about her annual visit in 2014, this was a spot check during vendanges to ensure that everything is done following organic principles. Reassuring for those of us who want to know that Bio wines are truly organic. Obviously, there was no concern as Mas Coutelou goes well beyond the standards required.

Animal visitors too. Buried in a case of Grenache from Sainte Suzanne was this 6cm caterpillar, quite a size. And, amongst the Carignan vines today was this dragonfly who was there with others and many butterflies. Which makes the actions of the fly tippers even more senseless.

And so to grapes. More cépages to keep me happy. Piquepoul Gris and Terret Blanc along with Maccabeu picked from Peilhan on Tuesday morning will form a new white wine. The pink tint of the Piquepoul Gris will not colour the wine as it was pressed directly to remove the juice from the skins.

The aforementioned Grenache was supplemented with more Grenache on Wednesday this time from La Garrigue. So good was this harvest that Jeff is considering making a special cuvée with it. Together with the excellent Syrah from the vineyard La Garrigue has certainly performed well this year. Cinsault from Segrairals followed on.

With smaller yields and dry weather the picking has been quick this year, efficient too with an excellent team working well. You will see in the photo below how they work in pairs across a vine to ensure that all the fruit is picked, hopefully avoiding each others’ fingers.

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So, what remains? Well probably five days of vendanges with Cabernet, Mourvèdre and Carignan still to come, the latter of course being the headline act in recent years. There are also a few rows of vines in Peilhan, eg the reds such as Oeillade and Castets and more Muscat too. All is set fair for a good finish.