amarchinthevines

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


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Why wines appeal, or how Jeff Coutelou has changed my taste!

 

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Pinot Noir in Nelson

 

En francais

Reflecting still on my trip down under, my thoughts turned to the question of taste. It is personal of course, a wine which appeals to me may not be to your palate and vice versa. I was delighted to receive an email from Peter Gorley about his recent trip to New Zealand and specifically his tastings of Pinot Noir. Peter is someone whose wine knowledge and appreciation I have great respect for and trust in. His book on the Languedoc is a must buy based on his experience of living there for many years.

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It was clear that Peter was much more enthusiastic about the Pinots he tasted than I was. There were a few we tasted in common though Peter’s tastings were far more extensive especially in the North Island and Marlborough. I honestly trust Peter’s judgements, so why was I less convinced?

 

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The Surveyor Thomson was one we  both tasted

 

I think it is fair to say that Jeff Coutelou has changed my taste in wine. And I am very happy that he has done so  before anyone thinks that sounds like a complaint. Before I really got to know Jeff 10 years ago my taste in wine was very conventional and I rated most highly the wines which garnered praise and were ‘typical’ of their type, variety and place. After sharing so much with Jeff, his own fabulous wines and wines from many other natural producers, I know that my taste has altered.

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I rate enjoyment and excitement much more highly than other factors these days. Does the wine taste good? Is it fruity, clean? Does it make me want to try another glass? Is there a vibrancy about the wine?

I taste wines, both natural and conventional, that can give me positive answers to those questions and much more besides. I taste wines, both natural and conventional, which unfortunately do not. These days it is natural wines which form the majority of wines which fall into the first category. In New Zealand I found too many Pinot wines trying to be aged Burgundy rather than a genuine expression of their place. There is a convention of how good wine tastes and many producers, not just Kiwis, seem to want to be included in that convention. I get more excitement from those who let the grapes speak and produce wine where they are not manipulated to meet a convention.

 

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Kindeli, one of the NZ producers I enjoyed most. I have bought some since returning to the UK

 

That is not to criticise Peter in any way. He included Jeff in his book, has an open mind about wine and I share many of his favourites. We are different. I have spent so much time with Jeff that my palate is inevitably the one which has changed to prefer the natural style. That doesn’t make me right or wrong. We are different, taste is different. Chacun à son gout.

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An excellent article to read from The Guardian


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Vendanges 17 – briefing

Yes that is Jeff Coutelou in his briefs. Why?

It’s a simple explanation honestly. The tank of Mourvèdre was ready for remontage. That is where juice from the bottom of the tank is pumped over the cap of grape skins, pips etc (the must) which rise during fermentation. That cap becomes hard and there is a risk of bacterial infection plus the whole idea of having the skins in there is to extract tannins, colour and flavour so it’s pointless having them separated from the juice.

A normal pigeage

You may recall that this was the tank where Jeff had to improvise last Monday when the érafloir broke down. Some of the bunches were destemmed, others went in whole bunch. There is therefore a higher than usual amount of solid material in the tank. This had formed a solid cap and Jeff needed it to be pushed back into the juice. A fork was used at first as is normal (the process called pigeage), but the crust was too firm. So, Jeff took off his boots and socks and climbed in.

This is dangerous for two reasons. He could fall through the cap and into the juice and, secondly, there is a lot of carbon dioxide coming from the fermentation which, as I found out, can make you ill. So hanging on to the sides and with myself and Matthieu ready to catch hold Jeff pushed down with his feet onto the cap.

He described the cap as cold but underneath the fermentation meant that the juice was hot. As Jeff pushed down the cap it was fascinating to see the gentle bubbling of the fermentation process, sadly it was too dark for the camera to pick up. As he pushed the cap down, Jeff needed to push lower so, off came the trousers. Moving around the tank the cap began to sink bit by bit.

Out he came and a normal remontage took place though in his briefs!

And the wine? Well it tastes very good, perhaps with more legs in the glass than usual.

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Fraternité – Vendanges 17

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Version francaise

Last Monday (September 11th) we were joined at Mas Coutelou by winemakers Charlotte and Louis Pérot and of their friends. You might recall that their Cahors domaine L’Ostal is one which has appeared on these pages before. I first met Louis in spring 2015 at La Remise in Arles where I was taken by his wines and was eager to spread the word of how good they were. Happily Jeff agreed with my judgement and a friendship grew between the winemakers.

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Cabernet Sauvignon 2017

Sadly the spring of 2017 brought 3 nights of frost to the vines of L’Ostal damaging the young growth and buds, up to 80% of the vines were damaged meaning huge losses on the year. Jeff decided to help out and offered the Pérots the opportunity to come to Puimisson and take some Cabernet Sauvignon grapes to ensure they had more wine. I hasten to add that this was a gift, free of any charge, offered simply to help out a colleague and friend. I have heard of similar stories for other winemakers affected but it was humbling to see this fraternity in action for myself.

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Heading home

Louis and Charlotte picked around 60 cases and drove them back to Puy L’Evêque where I am sure they will make another very good wine. We actually opened one of their magnums the following day at lunch, and very good it was too. If you thought Cahors wines are too difficult I urge you to try and find one from L’Ostal, it will change your mind.

In a year when Jeff himself will lose up to 40% of his average production he showed no hesitation in helping out someone who was in a worse situation than himself. A mark of the man.


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Brief return to Mas Coutelou

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Version francaise

After my sojourn in Alsace it was great to return to the Languedoc. Sadly I was already aware that due to a bereavement I would have to leave within a couple of days to return to the UK. However, I was able to spend one of my two days there with Jeff and amongst those vines which I had missed so much.

It was a great time to be there, the vines were in full flower, many already past that stage showing the new grapes, firstly with their brown hoods and then just the green baby berry itself.

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The vines were looking very healthy, plentiful rain in the winter and a sharp frost in early spring had allowed the vines to rest, to gather their strength for the season ahead – a sharp contrast to 2016. Greenery aplenty, wild flowers blooming and, during my visit to Peilhan, I saw a young deer running through the vines and a pheasant. Clearly the Coutelou vines attract wildlife to its oasis amongst the surrounding desert of chemically treated soils.

During the previous weeks the soils of Peilhan had been ploughed, by a horse. Gentler on the soils Jeff asked a local man to till.

Peilhan horse

He himself was giving the soil a light rotivation that afternoon, turning the plants and flowers amongst the vines into the soil, a natural composting. Icare, with an injured paw, and I watched on in the sunshine.

 

The only real problem this year has been the return of the snails. Last year they ravaged Font D’Oulette (the Flower Power vineyard) so that only a few cases of grapes could be picked. Fortunately, that vineyard has been spared this year but they are out in force in the largest vineyard, Segrairals. It was there that I also found Michel, Julien and Vincent working, tightening the wires of the palissage and removing side shoots etc from the vines.

In the afternoon we tasted through the 2016 vines and, they are so different even from February when I tasted them last. The whites are splendid, highlight a hugely successful long maceration Muscat. The reds such as the Carignan were very good and the top wine of the year will be the Mourvèdre, a silky, complex wine with huge depth of flavour – a treat for the short and long term. 2016 was a difficult year but Jeff has still produced some great wines.

So, I look forward to getting back to Puimisson as soon as possible, to follow the vintage further and see the latest progress. There is bottling to be done and plenty more besides.

The cellar is transformed, painted with the new office and floor and the stainless steel cuves plumbed in for temperature control. And perhaps, most interesting of all, there is an amphora. This is the trendy method of vinification around the world. However, very few winemakers have an amphora dating from the time of Julius Caesar with which to make wine. Jeff plans to use it this year, connecting his wine to those made 2,000 years ago. Wines with links to the past, present and future, Mas Coutelou has soul!

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The first Coutelou of Spring

Version francaise

It’s a while since I wrote about the happenings at Mas Coutelou, so time for an update. I am thankful to Jeff, Vincent and Julien for keeping me up to date in my absence.

The first few months of 2017 have been damp in the Languedoc, a contrast to the arid 2016. The photos by Julien above show water standing a week after rain and his feet sinking into the soil as he pruned. Jeff had planned to plant a vineyard of different types of Aramon at Théresette next to La Garrigue which has lain fallow for the last few years. However, the soil remains very damp and planting has not been possible, unless things change quickly the project will be postponed until next year. For the same reason, the first ploughing would have begun by now in most years, but is on hold for drier conditions.

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Pruning the last vines (photo and work by Julien)

Julien completed pruning (taille) around March 10th. He photographed the first budding (débourrement) amongst precocious varieties such as the Muscat. However, Jeff told me this week that, generally, budding is later this year, the damper, cooler weather again responsible. That is not necessarily a bad thing. Remember that frost can cause great damage to vines, especially buds, and the Saints De Glace (date when traditionally frost risk is over) is May 11-13. I recall visiting the Loire last April and seeing frost damage, whole vineyards with no production for the year.

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Julien photographed some early buds

The weather conditions are favourable for something, sadly not good news either. Snails, which ravaged large numbers of buds and leaves in Flower Power and Peilhan last year, have found the damp much to their advantage. They are a real pest, a flock of birds would be very welcome or we’ll see more scenes like these from 2016. Of course, one of the reasons why birds and hedgehogs are lacking is the use of pesticides by most vignerons in the region.

In the cellar the new office and tasting room is complete. Our friend Jill completed a montage of Mas Coutelou labels which we gave to Jeff as a gift. Hopefully that may decorate the walls of the new rooms.

The floor which was half covered in resin last year has been finished all over and another new inox (stainless steel) cuve has arrived. (photos by Vincent).

On March 22nd the assemblages of the 2016 wines took place. Or at least most of them. One or two cuves still have active fermentation with residual sugar remaining but otherwise the wines were ready and the conditions were favourable. I won’t reveal what cuvées are now blended, that is for Jeff to unveil. However, I can say that the reduced harvest of 2016 means fewer wines are available and fewer cuvées made. In the next article I shall be giving my thoughts on the 2016 wines from tastings in October and February.

Finally, there was an award for Jeff himself. On March 30th he was made an official ambassador for the Hérault by the Chamber of Commerce of the département. This was an honour for Jeff himself and the generations of the Mas and Coutelou families who made the domaine what it is. Founded in the 1870s at 7, Rue De La Pompe by Joseph Étienne Mas who planted vines and kept cows after he had fought in the Franco – Prussian War of 1870-1. Five generations later Jeff is an ambassador for Puimisson, vignerons and the Hérault and with his wines he is really spoiling us.

 


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200

 

 

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Version française

This is the 200th blog post of amarchinthevines.org. For the 100th post I wrote about the making of a wine which Jeff Coutelou encouraged me to make in celebration. It was based on the three types of Grenache (Noir, Blanc et Gris) which grow in Rome vineyard. The wine was then put into three separate containers; a younger barrel (60l), an older barrel (30l) and a 27l glass bottle.

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I have reported on their development in previous posts and, in particular, about the influence of the three containers. The older barrel has been used many times before and is almost  airtight, so, the fruit in the barrel is still youthful. The younger barrel shows more wood influence as the staves are less sealed and, therefore, there is more contact with the air. The wine tasted slightly less fruity and has a drier flavour. The glass bottle took much longer to finish fermentation and the wine tasted much more like new grape juice, full of fresh red fruits and still sweet as the sugars remained in the wine awaiting the completion of fermentation.

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Old and new barriques showing clear difference in October 2016

Well, on February 8th it was the day before my birthday and Jeff, as so often, was very generous in making  a bouillabaisse for our dinner and a lovely bottle of Boulard Champagne ‘Les Murgiers’ (the very cuvée I wrote about in my review of Les Affranchis in blog post 199!)

He suggested that we should re-taste the wine so that I could report on its development and make each century an update. So, as the hour approached midnight we were in the solera cellar and the tasting began. The wines tasted much rounder and more complete than the last time I tasted them in October, we discussed the possibility of bottling in early summer when I return to Puimisson. The two barrels showed the same influences, more fruit from the older barrel, more complex, secondary flavours from the newer barrel. The biggest change was from the glass bottle, still very fruity but much less residual sugar as fermentation has completed. This wine is now rounder, it is real wine rather than fermenting juice.

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The glass bottle

Then, in yet another act of incredible kindness, Jeff went into the family cellar and found a bottle of wine from birth year. The 1959 was a Muscat De Frontignan which Jeff thinks was gathered by his grandfather when he worked for an agricultural company, possibly the domaine of the owners of that company.

I have never tasted a 1959 wine before and when it was opened it delivered a delicious depth of old Muscat, deep brown in colour and deep, raisiny fruits which lingered long on the tongue. Just as the memories of a special night will linger long in my memory.

 


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Nature can be harsh: Part 3 -pests

In Parts 1 & 2 I have tried to explain some of the difficulties encountered at Mas Coutelou during 2016 due to natural influences such as climate and disease. In this final part of the series I look at pests which have added to those woes.

Vers de la grappe

These are literally grape worms, more specifically caterpillars, which form and grow on bunches of grapes. The caterpillars are the larvae of Eudémis moths which prefer to lay their eggs on shiny surfaces, so grapes are the target more than the rest of the vine. The larvae obviously damage the grapes themselves but that damage is worsened because of juice running on the bunches attracting infection and disease.

The warm weather and humidity of 2016 definitely encouraged vers de la grappe though it is an ongoing problem. It can be treated chemically of course though that is not an option for organic producers. Substances such as clay can be sprayed in spring to add a chalkier, duller surface to new grapes so that moths are not attracted to them. However, the solution favoured by Jeff Coutelou is to plant hedges and trees. These not only act as barriers to less environmentally aware neighbours, add polyculture to a region which can appear solely planted by vines but also they can shelter bats.

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Bat shelter in Sainte Suzanne

Bats feed on Eudémis larvae and moths and can eat thousands every day. Bat shelters are to be found around Mas Coutelou, eg in Sainte Suzanne and Rome vineyards.

The photographs above show a vers de la grappe cocoon and, on the right distinctive holes showing where the moth laid its eggs. When the vendanges begin the pickers and sorters must look out for signs such as these but also damaged, shrivelled grapes in bunches where the larvae have been.

Snails

If I could have named 2016 in the Chinese form  I would have called it the year of the snail. They were everywhere. The two photos below show an olive tree in Segrairals. This was  one of many which were completely covered by snails, blanched by the sun and feeding on the greenery and moisture in the tree.

However, vines were equally attractive to them. I spent whole mornings picking snails from vines during the Spring only to find them covered again a day or two later. Flower Power (Font D’Oulette) was particularly badly affected with the snails heading straight for the new growth and buds in April and May.

The virtual drought in the first six months of 2016 meant that the snails were desperate for moisture and food and so the healthy, young vines were too good to miss. The consequence was obvious, production of this much lauded new wine was reduced drastically, partly by the weather but equally the work of the snails. Birds and other predators would help solve the problem but the monoculture of the area (outside of Mas Coutelou) means there are, sadly, no great numbers of them.

Vendangeurs and sorters must try to pick off snails as they hide in the bunches. Dozens get through to the cellar especially in the early morning when there is moisture around. The photo on the right shows a lot of rejected material, leaves, poor grapes but lots of snails as you will see if you enlarge it. Just imagine how many get through into the wine with machine picking and limited triage.

Neighbours

Yes they can be included under the title of pests. Well, one of them can be. As regular readers will know 2016 has been punctuated by two occasions of vandalism by one particular neighbour, both upon the Carignan Noir vineyard of Rec D’Oulette. First he mowed a patch of wildflowers which Jeff had sown to encourage insects and birds (for reasons identified above). Then he took a machine to some of the young trees Jeff planted around the vines, destroying four year old trees such as hazelnut.

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Vandalised trees with tyre tracks revealing the culprit

Jeff was justifiably upset by these attacks. He was simply trying to enrich the area, bring diversity to it but that was clearly too much for a traditionalist, more used to destroying wildlife for his own short term gain and dreadful wine. However, he was encouraged and revitalised by the massive support of friends and colleagues around the world. The flowers grew back and more densely, the trees replanted in greater numbers and Jeff Coutelou stands tall as the man trying hard to improve the reputation of Puimisson and its wines.

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