amarchinthevines

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


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The grapes, they are a-changin’

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Syrah in Ste. Suzanne, photo by Jeff

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Come gather round people.

The summer heat is settled and the vines are entering their final stage of the year. They have pushed out long stems, tendrils reaching around supporting wires, foliage at its maximum size and fruit has turned from tiny, green, pea-like balls into round, plump grapes. Taste them and they are still highly acidic, sour and sharp. Pips have formed and the red grapes are just beginning to change colour.

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Vines in La Garrigue reaching 2m into the air

This process of véraison is one of the magical turning points of the year, the grapes are now becoming the focus of the vine’s energy. It will spend less time growing and reaching out and more time in creating sugars for the grapes. The bunches are tightening up, the grapes swelling. From now until vendanges they will continue to grow and to store more sugar. The reason, of course, is to attract birds and animals to eat them and scatter the pips to allow the vines to reproduce. It is humans who have learned that this energy from sun and soil can be directed to the creation of wine, we encourage the sugars to change into alcohol and the juice to become wine.

Grapes 2 weeks ago above, and now (below)

Neighbouring vines to Mas Coutelou show dark green foliage, fed by nitrates. the natural evolution on this domaine means that they are a lighter colour but they are vigorous, healthy and all is set fair. Small outbreaks of mildew have been managed by a few organic tisanes. Most of the disease has formed on the new growth which has not been treated, so Jeff has been around affected areas cutting back the foliage to remove the mildew and its spores which could bring back the disease if rain splashed them onto the vines in the next few weeks.

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Some mildew on outer leaves, these will be cut away

2017 has been relatively kind, much more so than the drought affected 2016 vintage. Yet other regions have been hit by frost and hail, Beaujolais recently damaged by the latter for example. Remember it was August last year when a hail storm hit the Languedoc and wiped out much of the production in Pic St. Loup and some vines in Puimisson. So, it is still to early to say that 2017 is set fair but it is promising. The vines are a-changin’, time to start getting excited.

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Grapes and vines battered by hail in Ste Suzanne 2016


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Return to the vines of Mas Coutelou

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Looking from La Garrigue towards Sainte Suzanne

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After almost three months away it is good to be back in the Languedoc, and especially to be back in Puimisson, the home of Mas Coutelou. Jeff and Icare greeted us warmly and it didn’t take me long to get back into the vines.

Carole and Julien were hard at work pruning in Rome vineyard, my favourite of all, I was happy to see them all. Fortunately, the day I was there (24th January) was a lovely, sunny afternoon and quite warm but recent weeks have seen freezing temperatures overnight and pruning on such mornings is brutal. However, it is vital work.

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Dead vines removed, their place ready for new ones

The vine needs to be trained for the season to come, cutting away dead wood and restricting the growth of the vine so that it is does not overproduce which would reduce the quality of the wine. Pruning also offers the opportunity to check the health of each vine and to identify vines which need to be replaced.

The vine is studied, first cuts remove the growth of last year and then decisions made about which branches to remove and which to leave as spurs, which direction the growth will take and, also, about which spurs might be prepared for the following year too. All with freezing fingers and aching back.

Much work had already been done but much remains ahead. In the photos below the Grenache of Sainte Suzanne has been pruned but the Syrah remains to be done. Similarly, the reds of Peilhan are pruned but the white parcel remains to do.

Work has also begun on preparing a parcel next to Sainte Suzanne which has remained fallow for a few years giving recovery to the soil. Known as Théresette this parcel will be planted with Aramon (Noir and Gris) which is what used to be planted in this parcel many years ago and which was well suited to the soil.

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The ‘new ‘ parcel under preparation. La Garrigue in the background.

The winter also offers the chance to see the bare vineyards and their topography. When people talk about the value of a particular parcel or vineyard it is easy to overlook how even within a small area there are variations of slope and gradient which would alter drainage and exposition to the sun. Vines are all different even within a parcel and the pruning process treats each vine on its own merits to help it to produce the best fruit it can.

The vineyard soils are covered in white this January, not with snow, not here in the Languedoc at least. The white flowers of wild rocket form a spectacular blanket contrasting with the stark wood of the vines themselves. Even in winter there is something special and beautiful about being in this place, a march in the vines is so fulfilling.


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Vendanges 2016 #9 – Days Like This

“When all the parts of the puzzle start to look like they fit
Then I must remember there’ll be days like this”               (Van Morrison, Days Like This)

As we approached the end of vendanges a number of the team were moving on. It was an inspired move to have a farewell day, picking, tasting and celebrating together, though we were already missing some like Charles, Carole and Maylis.

The morning dawned over Peilhan and the vineyard which we planted in March 2015. Rows of Terret Blanc and Noir, Riveyrenc Gris and Noir, Piquepoul Noir and Morastel produced grapes this year. They cannot be used in major cuvées sold to the public as they are too youthful. However, Jeff decided to pick them to make something for himself out of interest. So, on a bright, warm autumnal morning we gathered, picked, chatted and laughed.

Interesting to see how some varieties produce more than others already, more precocious perhaps, the Terret Noir being especially shy. Altogether we picked around six cases only but there was a real mix of colour and some nice looking fruit which went into a small cuve in whole bunches.

 

Later that day we gathered again, this time in the main cellar along with Thierry Toulouse, Jeff’s oenologue. We tasted through the whole range of 2016 wines in cuve before heading to a local restaurant for a meal. The results of the tasting were fascinating. Clearly, they are in a stage of transition, fermentations still progressing. Nonetheless the wines were already showing their character. I won’t go into too much detail here, though I did take notes to help me record how the wines change in coming months.

In summary though I was amazed. I have said many times on here how difficult this year has been. A very warm winter, drought, mildew, delayed summer being just some of the problems. Yet here we tasted some lovely fresh fruit, lively acidity and other promising signs. I would mention the Carignan Blanc, lovely Syrah and Grenache from La Garrigue, juicy Mourvèdre and in particular the wonderful Carignan Noir of Flambadou. All those puzzles which Jeff had to hold in his head about harvesting dates, moving wines, possible assemblages etc, well those puzzles were solved in the glass. I had expected some disappointments but somehow Jeff has conjured some potentially top quality wines.

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2003 Roberta

At the end of the current wines Jeff also shared a 2003 bottle of white wine based on Grenache Blanc, Noir and Gris, called Roberta (it’s a long story!). This was one of three cuvées which were the first that Jeff made sans sulfites. Yet it was complex; fresh, fruity, nutty. A wine which made my heart sing, proof that SO2 is not required for ageing wines as we are often told. Perhaps in 13 years time we shall be tasting the 2016 wines and marveling at them too.

A fitting way to close the vendanges period, a team rightly proud of what it had achieved.

“When all the parts of the puzzle start to look like they fit
Then I must remember there’ll be days like this”

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Vendanges 2016 #7 – Last Pickings

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Cabernet Sauvignon sheltering the Moroccan pickers

En français

Wednesday (September 21st) was officially the last day of summer and, appropriately, the last day of picking at Mas Coutelou. It was, as in 2015, the Cabernet Sauvignon of Segrairals which was the last major parcel gathered in. Lovely, clean bunches of small, healthy berries, classic Cabernet and virtually nothing to sort in the vineyard or in the cellar. 

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Cabernet Sauvignon

The day before had seen the start of the Cabernet in the afternoon following a morning of picking Mourvèdre, also from Segrairals. As I hadn’t ventured into the vineyard much in 2016 I took the opportunity to do so that morning. Our friend Jill had expressed a wish to do some grape picking and Jeff kindly agreed so I accompanied her (so at least there was one less experienced picker than me!). I really enjoyed being out in the fresh air but it was also good to get a grip on how the vineyard topography can have such an impact upon the grapes.

The Mourvèdre grows on an easterly slope with the rows running down the slope. The vines at the bottom of the slope gave lower quality bunches than those at the top, indeed we stopped picking the last few vines at the bottom of each row. The reason was that when it does rain the water runs down the slope taking nutrients etc. The grapes there tend to ripen much sooner with more humidity in the ground, it was a clear example of terroir. Rest assured that only good grapes went into cuve, much was left behind in the vineyard and at the side of the sorting table.

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The slope in the Mourvedre vines, rejected fruit on the ground

On Monday the lovely Carignan Noir of Rec D’Oulette (Chemin De Pailhès) was added to the tanks. The quality was high and signs are promising for yet another good vintage of Flambadou, arguably the domaine’s best wine in recent years.

Since the last article the other major harvest was some bountiful, good quality Grenache from La Garrigue on Saturday 17th.

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Gorgeous Grenache

There remain a few rows here and there with some grapes left and they may or may not be picked in coming days and weeks. However, the Cabernet marked the last of the major picking. Time to say farewell to the Moroccan pickers, part of the Coutelou crew for the last month.

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Stage 1 is therefore over. Stage 2 the cellar work of remontages and pigeage continues apace as most cuves are now full and need looking after. Stage 3, pressing, is also in full swing as grapes from previous weeks have now gone through fermentation on skins and need to be pressed to take the juice away. I shall be writing about this more in the next article.

So, we head into autumn, the vines are fatigued after a very stressful year. The leaves are already changing colour and the Languedoc will be an even more beautiful place in coming weeks. The picking may be over but the vendanges are not. 

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Mourvedre in autumnal glory

 


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Vendanges 2016 #5 – Bolts from the blue

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La foudre s’est abattue sur le cirque de Gavarnie, dans les Hautes-Pyrénées, dans la nuit du 13 au 14 septembre. (Photo : capture d’écran webcam Gîte Oxygène Gavarnie)

En français

Tuesday September 13th, the return of picking, with a little urgency in light of the weather forecast for heavy storms that night. The objective was to collect the Syrah from La Garrigue, the grapes which go into La Vigne Haute, my personal «cuvée mythique» of Mas Coutelou.

Last year the grapes were slightly swollen so Jeff decided to make another cuvée instead, On Peut Pas Vraiment Dire Que, and it is now 3 or 4 years since we saw LVH. It remains to be seen whether Jeff decides that the grapes were of high enough quality in 2016 for such a prestigious wine.

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Syrah in La Garrigue on Saturday 10th

The grapes started a little messy requiring some careful triage both in the vineyard and cellar.

However, the quality improved after the first few cases which had been picked in a lower part of the vineyard. Certainly by the end of the day we had sorted a good quantity and quality of fruit, my shirt can certainly testify to their juiciness.

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That night came the predicted thunderstorm, violent though not as long lasting as perhaps expected. I saw that some parts of the region saw over 200mm of rain, fortunately Puimisson did not reach those levels. However, there was enough to stop picking for the next few days. As I said last time wet grapes are not ideal. In addition the soft ground in the vineyards would be churned up by feet and wheels.

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James working hard as usual

In a way the storm came at a good time on a personal level. I developed a mild case of bronchitis out of the blue on Tuesday which would have prevented me from working on Wednesday and Thursday. So, I have left cellar work to the experts whilst I recharge my batteries for Saturday when we may get to the Grenache in La Garrigue which looks bountiful and ripe.

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Grenache in La Garrigue Sept. 10th

Meanwhile analysis of the grapes continues. There was the result of Ecocert’s evaluation showing that Mas Coutelou successfully retains its organic certification and also their analysis proving that no sulphites were or are added in the wines. And then there is the daily analysis from the oenologue which shows information such as alcohol levels, total acidity, pH levels, residual sugar etc. These help Jeff to think about how to look after the wines and which ones might blend together successfully in future.

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The weather is now set fair until we finish; Grenache, Carignan, Mourvèdre, Cabernet Sauvignon should arrive in good conditions with a light north wind and under blue skies.

 


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Vendanges 2016 #4 -cellar and weather

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En français

The weather has had its say and threatens to shout out loud in the next few days. Should we expect anything different in this most problematic of years? Saturday (Sept. 10th) was supposed to be a day for picking but a heavy shower fell in the morning and that was enough to stop the day in the vineyards. Grapes covered in rainwater would provide diluted juice, no good for quality producers though that did not stop some in the area.

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Some picked on Saturday

However, there was still work to do in the cellar, remontages and pressing. The previous day some of the team had been clearing space in the solera cave so that the Muscat and Grenache picked from Rome vineyard would have room.

Sunday was a day off though more remontage and cellar work was done. There is no rest. Today (Monday 12th) was a normal day for many vignerons but at Mas Coutelou a big part of the team are the Moroccan pickers and it is Eid Mubarak. Therefore Jeff decided that they deserved the opportunity to celebrate their holy day and so no major picking. An act of respect which deserves mention.

Sadly, that act seems unlikely to be rewarded by the weather. There is a major threat of a large storm on Wednesday which would halt work again and require a few days for the grapes to recover before they could be harvested. More careful triage will also be required. Let us hope that the storm weakens or diverts.

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Carignan Noir Saturday

Meanwhile Carole, James, Vincent and Charles were out picking Carignan Blanc this morning in Peilhan and the Grenache from Sainte Suzanne was pressed. Work continues despite everything this year throws at us. Tomorrow will see the harvest of Syrah from La Garrigue, the grapes which usually make La Vigne Haute.

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La Garrigue, Syrah on the left

 


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Between a rock and a hard place

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Back in the Languedoc and, the first morning, I went over to see the vines. Jeff had sent me a message that they were in real stress because of the lack of rainfall. Ironically we had driven south through France under leaden skies and through fairly steady rain, until we reached the Languedoc where the skies turned blue and the temperatures rose. It has been very hot here throughout the three weeks I was away and, following a very dry autumn last year and not much rainfall in 2016, the vines are definitely in need of a good drink.

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Stressed vines

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Clear signs of drought

I have written many times this year about the vine stress due to very unusual seasons, the warm winter, cool spring. Sadly, summer has also added to their difficulties. Sure enough the vines look dry. The apex of the vine is often a good way to tell their health and they look tired and bare, almost burned.

To safeguard the health of the young, newly planted or grafted vines Jeff and Julien were busy watering them in the Flower Power vineyard, Font D’Oulette. This is allowed as they are not grape producing this year. Straw was then placed around them to keep the moisture inside. Julien showed his dedication by doing more of this work at night time.

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Even Icare was feeling the heat despite his haircut, he kept hold of the stick when it was thrown as if to say I’m not chasing after this anymore.

Jeff also informed me of yet another problem, ver de la grappe. This is the larvae of a moth which feeds on the grape. I took a photo of an affected grape last year.

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There are chemical treatments available to prevent and to treat the problem, no use to an organic producer of course and these chemicals are especially harmful, you can’t use the grapes until 21 days after spraying.

So, for Jeff the treatment involved spraying clay onto the vines to try to make the grape skins less attractive to the moth so it will lay the eggs elsewhere. This was only the second time in twenty years that he had sprayed against ver de la grappe. Also in the spray was fern and seaweed, the fern is a natural insecticide and the seaweed gives a health boost to the vine. However, having sprayed this morning (July 31st) Jeff was hoping that the much needed rain would hold off for a couple of days to allow the spray to work.

You can guess what happened next. A storm, heavy rain, much of the spray washed off the grapes. It is that sort of year, nothing seems to be going right. The rain which did fall was minimal and only undid the good work. The worst of all worlds. To spray or not to spray? To rain or not to rain? Caught between a rock and a hard place.

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Colour and life remains

 

As I made my way around the vineyards there were plenty of good grapes to see, véraison (the changing colour of red grapes) has begun especially amongst the Syrah and Grenache of La Garrigue.

And I spent some time in Rome, a very parched looking vineyard but the ideal place to reflect upon its creator, Jean-Claude. There are some things to be thankful for even in this difficult year.

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