amarchinthevines

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


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Return to Mas Coutelou – in the cellar

Version francaise 

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As pretty as the vineyards are, even in winter, it is the main cellar at Mas Coutelou which attracts attention this January. The continuing modernisation of the cave continues apace. Last year saw the relaying of much of the floor, new stainless steel tanks to replace some of the very large fibre glass ones and the introduction of a new mezzanine built on ironwork. On this level some of the cuves are stored but now there is the addition of two new rooms made from wood. These will form a new office for Jeff to work from (freeing up space in his own home) and, also, a tasting room with bottles laid out for visitors to try and buy. The old windows mean there will be plenty of light and air in here, as well as a good view over the village and countryside. A good view of those of us working down below too!

The cellar has changed so much in the last 3 years, all to make the winemaking more manageable and, now too, the admin side of Mas Coutelou moves forward. Not that the admin gets any easier, Jeff spent two hours on the phone the other day on a minor issue!

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Meanwhile, there were two main jobs being done in the cellar. Habillage of more 2015 wines (Buvette À Paulette, Classe and Flambadou) with Jeff, Michel and Lucas hard at work.

Then, Julien and Carole returned from pruning as the rain had started again They set to work preparing sample bottles for the salons which will dominate the next two weekends, in Montpellier and Saumur. The 2016 wines are still some time from going into bottle and so samples are taken to give clients a chance to taste how the wines are coming along. So, golden opportunity to taste 2-3 wines from cuve, with the Carignan (Flambadou) and one of the Syrahs really shining. With Michel, Carole, Julien and Vincent all there it really was a gathering of the Coutelou clan. And more friends will arrive this next two days as people gather for the salons. Of which, more next time.


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All dressed up

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Happily the wines have plenty of places to go, from France to Australia, the United States, Japan and all around the world. As Christmas approaches the demand for wines reaches a peak and bottles from 2015 are prepared for sending off to those places. The process of putting on labels, capsules etc is known as habillage (dressing).

On Wednesday October 19th we dressed magnums of Classe and Sauvé De La Citerne as well as bottles of 5SO Simple, all from 2015. 5SO was first released in the Spring but  a second wave is now ready. All of these wines are sold out already, demand outstrips supply.

The bottles which were filled back in Spring are checked first to ensure there is no leakage from the corks, a handful do where a cork was not up to scratch. These bottles are known as couleuses. Every effort is made to ensure that the bottle should reach the consumer in premium condition.

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Michel puts on the capsule which is tightened by the machine which then sticks on the labels

The labelling is done by means of a machine which seals the capsule and pastes the label and back label onto the bottle. For the magnums the seal was actually made with wax which requires more work and time. The wax also needs time to dry off before being packed in boxes.

After the single bottles have their capsules and labels added they are placed in their box with protective cardboard to keep them in good condition during transport. This is a fiddly job, it has taken me two years of trying to do it quickly but I have finally got there.

This is the sort of day which I never really considered when I arrived at Mas Coutelou. The vines yes, bottling yes but, as a typical wine drinker, I never really considered the 101 jobs which go into preparing the bottles for market. Meanwhile, Jeff is sorting through his orders and, unfortunately, having to turn down some orders as there simply is not enough wine to meet the requests which he receives. The wines are justifiably in demand, and if you are fortunate to be drinking one, have a thought for the work which goes into preparing the bottle and raise your glass to Jeff, Michel, Julien and everyone else who has helped to make it so good.


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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


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Little fish are sweet

En francais

How do you follow the Perfect Day? Apparently you just wait and, like the proverbial London bus, two come along together.

March 8th dawned chilly, just 2°C when I left Margon at 8am, bright and clear, a perfect day for the last Spring bottling. The biodynamic calendar was favourable too, last day of the descending moon and a flower day.

In fact we started with a morning of habillage (labelling and packaging). The start of a longer process of habillage to prepare wines to send to cavistes around the world, it’s time to earn some money! This morning palettes of ‘5SO Simple’ and ‘7, Rue De La Pompe’ were put together, a smooth enough process as Jeff, Michel, Vincent and I have all done this many times now (I’m getting to be an old hand!). One interesting feature is how different regions require different labels, customs stamps and even palettes, the USA different to Europe for example. So making sure you have the right matériel demands some time and attention.

So far, so good. The banter was enjoyable as ever, Icare provided some amusement when, hiding under the rollers, he gave himself a shock when a case of bottles passed over his head. The day improved with the arrival of Thomas, a sommelier who spent time with us at vendanges, excellent company.  However, the day then took an unexpected turn for the better with a phone call from Sylvain, one of Jeff’s myriad friends. He is a scientist, intellectual and fisherman and phoned to say he was on his way. With him was a cool-box full of sea urchins, sea bass and black mullet – all freshly caught.

So, just after noon, we repaired to 7, Rue De La Pompe, the house rather than the bottle. There Sylvain prepared a feast. The oursins, fresh with their delicate tongues of iodine, concentrated flavours of the ocean; a sea urchin butter spread on fresh bread; sashimi of bass and mullet; sea bass marinated in olive oil and Jeff’s white wine vinegar; sea bass chips (little fried nuggets of flesh and skin); chunks of bass and mullet fried lightly in a tempura beer batter; fish egg omelette; barbecued sea bass; black mullet grilled with broccoli, then coated in a Japanese sauce. Totally delicious, everything was a delight, every morsel.

The freshness of the fish and Sylvain’s imagination and skill provided us with a 3 hour banquet, conversation around the role of fish and wine in religions, lighter topics too. Sometimes I have to pinch myself.

 

And, of course, wines.

Snow Balls 14, that curious cuvée of Sauvignon Blanc, Grenache Gris, Muscat and others, it shouldn’t work but it always does – so fresh, clean, dry and fruity, a perfect match with the sashimi for example.

5SO Simple 15, ( the best 5SO ever?), perfumed cherry Cinsault, dangerously fruity and moreish but with a little more texture this year. A good match for the cooked fish with its cleansing acidity.

La Vigne Haute 2010. Oh my word. This is my favourite Coutelou cuvée and the 2010 is stunning. Pure, pure Syrah, bottled joy. Deep brambly red fruit scents, as you sniff the wine you are drawn in to the luscious aromas. Rich, smooth texture with the softest of tannins supporting it, cassis and red fruit flavours and soooo long with flavours of chocolate and coffee emerging. OK I’m sounding poncey but seriously, this is fantastic wine. It will improve for a few years yet and I have some in my ‘cellar’, happy man.

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2010 La Vigne Haute and its maker

An indulgence, the whole meal. The kind of life affirming meal which everyone should enjoy from time to time.

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And yet, back to bottling on this clear, fresh day. A special cuvee, one of the little cuvées. A barrel of Maccabeu and Grenache Gris from 2012 which will be named after the top Spanish ham, 5J. The aim was to produce a wine like a light Fino, slightly oxidised but concentrated and fresh to match those hams. The barrel was formerly used for making cognac (adding more flavour) and the wine succeeds in its ambition.

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Vincent, Sylvain (standing centre), Thomas (kneeling) and Jeff

It resembles a light fino, it is dry and the slight oxidation adds complexity but it is the clear fruit which lingers, lifted by that barrel influence. I was reminded of the Jura white wines I love, a Ganévat for example, but the fino / light amontillado sherry reference rings true. It is utterly delicious. A special cuvée demands a special bottle, so 50cl flute bottles were used with a glass stopper rather than a cork. Just a few hundred bottles of something very special.

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The Maccabeu / Grenache Gris pressed in 2012 (photo by Jeff)

The barrel was then refilled with some of the top quality Maccabeu of 2015, ready for another delight in a few years. The treats continued though. Little fish are sweet. These were the words used by one of my heroes, WA (Arthur) Stephenson. He was a hugely successful horse racing trainer from my home area in County Durham and when his horse won the Cheltenham Gold Cup (jump racing’s top race) in 1987 he explained why he was at his local track instead of at the big meeting, “little fish are sweet”. As I had referenced Bowie last time I thought it was an apt and indulgent reference to the great man, who shared his time and thoughts generously whenever I spoke with him.

 

There was time to taste the Grenache wine which I made for my 100th blog post with the help of my friends. I intend to write a little more about this, suffice to say that the wine is developing very well in two different sized barrels and one super-sized glass bottle.

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Tasting the grenache

A tasting too of the 2015 Grenache Sélection De Grains Nobles, quietly maturing. Dark plummy colour, rich and round but it was black grapes that I could taste believe it or not with a sweet, raisin edge. A wine to wait for, and it will repay the patience I am sure.

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SGN Grenache

Finally, a 40 year old Muscat. Figgy aromas, black olive and molasses. No sign at all of tiredness just intense, thick, sweet nectar yet still an acidity to keep it in balance. Liquid sunshine, a long past summer captured in a bottle, revived in the glass for us. A perfect end to (another) perfect day.

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40 year old Muscat (and bottle)


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The year so far

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The vineyards of Mas Coutelou

We are a third of the way through 2015 already and the work of making wine has been hard throughout those 4 months. I have put the links together to show a summary of everything that Jeff, Carole, Michel and Renaud have been up to so far. And occasionally me too.

January Part 1  – work in the vineyard

January Part 2  – Pruning (La taille)

February Part 1 – vineyards

February Part 2  – vineyards and grass

February Part 3  – ploughing (labours)

March Part 1  – new planting

March Part 2  – bottling (embouteillage)

March Part 3  – vineyards

April – vineyards

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April – the vines they are a changin’

Version francaise

“Come gather ’round people
Wherever you roam
And admit that the waters
Around you have grown”

(Bob Dylan)

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Magnificent old vine in Rome vineyard, a centurion

After a couple of months of dry and windy weather in the main April brought some relief for vignerons with some good rainfall. Indeed not so much April showers as steady rain on a couple of weekends. The results were immediate in terms of the vine growth as they have shot away in the last week or so as temperatures rise too.

Beginning of April, La Garrigue

Beginning of April, La Garrigue

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Mid April, ploughing evident

End of April

End of April

 

The work of previous months continued; hard work, unglamorous work but vital work for the vineyards and domaines to prosper. I spoke to a very good producer (Plan de l’Homme) and he told me that the commercial side of winemaking is hard work. He was at a salon in Montpellier to celebrate 30 years of Coteaux du Languedoc, one of many salons throughout the month. He and others attend regularly to find buyers, especially cavistes. Deborah Core of Mas Gabriel assured me that such salons do pay for themselves and are worth the effort but they are hard work, long days of repeating the same information to tasters who all matter of course, though some are more receptive than others. Reminds me of being a teacher! I shall come back to the commercial side another time as it is the third important part of the job after vineyard and cellar work.

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With Corine Andrieu of Clos Fantine at a Faugeres tasting

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Bottling also continued as well as habillage, getting the bottles ready to send to cavistes across the world. Previous posts have shown this work so please have a look for them if you have not seen them before. More of the 2014 wines are now in bottle including my old favourite Vin Des Amis which in my view is the best of this cuvée since 2010.

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Cases sent to Belgium, early April

 

However, the real change has been in the vineyards and it is there that the work has been centred as they are literally blossoming. Vines are a climbing plant and will grow very quickly in the next few months. It has been a joy for me to watch their early development, seeing in real life what I had only read about before.

The buds emerged towards the end of March and the beginning of April and as I described their emergence varied in time according to the cépage and the position of the vine. Leaf break, flowering and the formation of the grape bunches, grappes, all quickly followed. In the last week or so the small grappes began to divide showing how they will form.

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Buds form, the leaves just visible

 

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Leaves and flowers

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Grappe formation

 

 

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Bunches form

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

To encourage and support this growth the vineyards were ploughed twice to provide organic matter from last year’s growth of grass, flowers and other plants. Long hours on a tractor going up and down the rows makes for tough days. Then further weeding using a pioche or intercep, forms of hoe, to get inbetween the vines. In some vineyards the base of the vines were covered a bit more in autumn to protect against frost, cavaillonage. These are now removed and the vines stand ready for the heat to come.

Syrah vine, La Garrigue beginning of April

Syrah vine, La Garrigue beginning of April

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Syrah vine, La Garrigue, mid April

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Same vine, La Garrigue, end of April

I went to Barcelona for a few days last week and the difference in the vines was staggering in that short space of time. Nature and the dedication of the vigneron are at work.

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New vine, Peilhan, early April

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End of April

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Mi avril

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Wildflowers bordering Peilhan