amarchinthevines

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


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Harvest 2018 – Part 1

 

Everything scrubbed and cleaned in readiness

My fifth vendanges with Jeff Coutelou, time has flown and instead of a complete ignoramus helping where I can without getting in the way I now understand the different jobs and skills needed and can tackle most, if not all. This year’s reduced harvest (possibly up to 50% less than average) means we need a reduced team and so I hope I can put those years of experience to use to support Jeff along with Michel, Julien, Nathan and the team of pickers.

This year has been difficult due to the weather as I have tried to explain on here before. The long period of rain during the Spring meant that mildew hit hard across the region. Some friends have lost all their grapes, others significant amounts. Those in organic and biodynamic farming have been hit hardest as synthetic anti-mildew treatments proved more effective than organic ones. A couple of bursts of hail during thunderstorms triggered by the heatwave of July/August also damaged vines and bunches of grapes. One of the effects of both these problems is damage to the foliage, making it more difficult for the vine to have photosynthesis to produce energy to ripen the grapes easily.

Top left – mildew dried bunch on the left, top right – hail damage to grapes and leaves underneath

All of this meant that unlike other regions of France the vendanges began later than usual, the first picking was August 29th a full two weeks after 2015 for example. We began with white grapes, Sauvignon Blanc, Carignan Blanc and Muscat from La Garrigue vineyard. I did a little picking and then moved to the cellar for sorting.

The pickers in action, my bucket and case, back to the cellar and first analysis

With the problems of 2018 sorting might have been very difficult but actually not so much so far. The ripened grapes are healthy, the dry heat of summer means there is no evidence of rot. Instead we are looking for grapes dried by mildew, many bunches have clusters of them, they can be easily separated from the healthy grapes. Another issue is the number of unformed grapes, like little hard, green peas amongst the bunches. This is due a problem called millerandage, where the flower was unable to set the fruit, a product of the rainy, cold Spring and early mildew.

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Cinsault with millerandage left side

The first red grapes soon followed, the Grenache from Sainte Suzanne, often the backbone of Le Vin Des Amis. This was the parcel hardest hit by mildew and the quantities are heartbreakingly reduced. Nonetheless there was enough to take picking on the afternoon of Wednesday and the Thursday morning. The sorted grapes were passed through the new destemmer (mercifully quieter than the previous one) and then sent for a short, cold maceration.

In the video Michel is putting the chapeau into the tank to cover the grapes. Dry CO2 has been added to make the grapes cold so that they do not get too hot and ferment too wildly. The juice was run off the skins on Saturday morning. Jeff has a number of options for using this juice, which was never going to be serious enough for using in a classic red wine.

We restart picking on Tuesday, September 4th. There are lots of healthy parcels ahead and things will perk up. This initial burst was a useful warm up, mechanical problems with the press and pump are now sorted and we head towards the main event. Wish us well.

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There are plenty of healthy, juicy grapes to look forward to like this Carignan for Flambadou

And one member of the team just loves this time of year, with lots of attention.

 


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Nature can be harsh – Part 1: Weather

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It’s not all sunshine in the Languedoc

The stunning BBC Planet Earth II television programme  of snakes attacking baby marine iguanas was a recent reminder of how cruel nature can be. 2016 has seen vineyards across France attacked by a multitude of problems and in this series of three articles I want to show how the vines and the grapes are affected by these problems. Firstly, the weather.

The year began with no frost in the Languedoc throughout the winter. This meant that the vines found it hard to recuperate from 2015’s exertions as they could not sleep. When pruning got under way in earnest during January many vignerons reported sap flowing from the vines. This was bad news, the sap and the vines should have been resting, storing their energy for the year ahead. Consequently, when other problems arrived during the course of the year the vines were always vulnerable, struggling to resist them.

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Frost damaged vine in the Loire

Ironically, after such a warm winter, frost and hail damaged vines across France. The Loire, Rhone, Cahors and Pic Saint Loup were all hit at various stages, Burgundy and Champagne too. When I visited the Loire in early May it was sad to see many vineyards hit by frost, especially those adjacent to other crops whose humidity helped frost to form. Some vignerons faced huge losses of vines and potential grapes.

On August 17th hail hit the Languedoc, especially the Pic St Loup region where vines laden with grapes were smashed leaving some producers with no harvest at all in 2016. Mas Coutelou in Puimisson was also damaged though not so seriously. The storm ran through a corridor across Sainte Suzanne to La Garrigue and on to Segrairals. Even here vine branches were snapped, grapes shredded and bunches ruined. It was possible to see how one side of the vines was damaged where they faced the storm, yet the leeward side was virtually unscathed. Jeff was forced to pick these damaged vines much earlier than normal before the damaged grapes brought disease and rot to them.

The other major weather problem was drought. There was virtually no rain for months in the Languedoc, especially from winter to early summer. Cracks appeared in the soil, plants turned brown. The lack of rainfall meant that when the grapes began to mature the vines could not provide much water, small berries with little juice were the norm. Vignerons everywhere in the region reported much reduced yields, at Mas Coutelou reds down by 20-30%, some whites down by as much as 60%. Rain just before vendanges saved the day but massaged rather than cured the problem.

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When rain did come it was often in the form of storms. Sharp, heavy rainfall does not absorb into the soil so easily. Moreover where vignerons spray herbicides on their land the soils often wash away as there is nothing to hold the soil in place. For more environmentally aware producers this can be frustrating as chemically treated soils could wash onto their land.

This is one reason why Jeff plants trees, bushes and flowers and digs ditches, to protect his vines from the risk of contamination.

The combination of sun (and even sunburned grapes), drought, rain, frost and hail made this a difficult year. However, that is not the end of the story. Climate conditions bring disease and it is that aspect of nature which I shall examine next.


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Hail

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En français

2016 has provided one problem after another. On Wednesday August 17th a hail storm hit Puimisson and the surrounding area. It was very violent and very localised, seeming to have taken a path from east to west across La Garrigue, Sainte Suzanne /Metaierie (worst hit) and on to Segrairals.

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The damage is obvious when you look at the vines: holes in the leaves like bullet holes; stalks bruised making the bunch unstable on the vine; grapes flailed, beaten and emptied or dashed to the ground.

The amount of damage depended often on the direction of the vine row. Those planted east to west were damaged on the end but the hail fell mainly down the rows. However, those planted north to south faced directly into the hail and suffered damage especially those facing east, the direction from which the storm came. Thus if you look at the rows vegetation on one side looks thrashed, the other side looks normal.

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Damaged easterly facing (right), undamaged facing west (left)

The damage means that the vendanges will start a few days earlier than expected as the grapes need to be harvested. Jeff sprayed the affected vines with a tisane of wild rosemary, arnica, propolis and tea tree. All of these are used to treat bruises and cuts in humans as well as plants. The idea was to help to heal the grapes and it seems to have worked well.

After a year of no frost, drought, snails, mildew and vers de la grappe 2016 kept this surprise until late in the day.

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Mildew damages bunch, the black stalk will break soon

However, as Jeff said as we toured the vines, compared to others around Pic St Loup he got off lightly. Vineyards there were ruined by hail the same afternoon. The photos below show the horrific damage done at Mas Thélème in Pic St Loup.

Indeed there was one benefit to the storm. 70mm of rain fell in an hour and the rain was much needed. The grapes have swollen with juice as a consequence and the amount of extra wine gained by the rain will more than compensate for the losses due to hail.

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Healthy Cinsault grapes


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Stormy weather

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Dark sky over the vines today, June 12th

Version française

After weeks of sunny and hot weather storms have hit the region in the last few days. Monday (June 8th) saw the first and hail hit Faugères nearby damaging some vines at Domaine Sylva Plana for example. Hail is a nightmare for vignerons, it can strip the vines of leaves and budding grapes at this stage of the year. Today (June 12th) the storms are back with lots of heavy rain.

The water is welcome, the long weeks of sunshine and high winds have dried out the soils. Steady rain would be better but water will help the vines and reduce stress. However, if the rain turns to hail then disaster strikes.

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The vines have had a hard time in the last year or so, a dry winter and spring in 2014 certainly reduced yields as the vines were stressed. The mildew and oidium which arrived in early May added to their problems. I also mentioned that coulure hit Mas Coutelou as the high winds damaged the delicate flowers. Sadly the problem is widespread across cépages and vineyards. Jeff estimates that it could reduce yields this year by up to 30% compared to an average year and that after reduced yields in 2014.

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Healthy bunch developing

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Coulure in Rome vineyard

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And in Peilhan

Jeff already announced that certain cuvées would not appear from the 2014 harvest, it looks as if that will be repeated in 2015. Bad for those of us who love Coutelou wine but mostly for Jeff himself.

The storms and rains also bring humidity so mildiou will undoubtedly be a threat again. Treatments will be needed. Some vignerons in the area, and certainly in cooler regions, will be pruning and cutting back the lush growth of vines. This allows more air to circulate and therefore hopefully reduce the risk of mildiou. In the Languedoc, heat and sunshine is more common and the grapes will need protection from the direct sun so Jeff prefers not to cut back the main growth, the frequent winds will allow air to circulate naturally without it. However, some particularly vigorous branches will be cut.

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Some vine branches might need to be removed

The other main vineyard task will be to remove the gourmands, the buds and branches which grow directly on the bottom part of the vine trunk. These simply use up the vines’ energy.

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Gourmands (side branches) growing on the trunk of the vine

Finally the palissage wires need to be tightened as they have heavier vines to support. The vine branches can grow between 10cm and 15cm per day at present.

Meanwhile bottling, tidying, cleaning and alterations are happening in the cellars and wine salons/tastings have to be attended to sell the wines that remain (not so many this year). The vignerons must be as vigorous as their vines.

Let’s hope that the stormy weather passes without further damage and that nature helps the vines for the rest of this summer allowing them to produce as well as they can in 2015 and to recover and become stronger for 2016.

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Healthy growth in Rome vineyard