amarchinthevines

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


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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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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.

 

 


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I can’t really say how good – Vendanges 17

 

Syrah Garr

I don’t intend to record thoughts on every single day of the vendanges but there are some days which deserve a special mention. Yesterday, August 30th, was one of those days. And the reason was simply the quality of the grapes. These are my fourth vendanges and I do not recall such a consistently high standard of fruit coming from one parcel from the first case to the last.

parcel map cropped

The grapes were Syrah and they came from La Garrigue vineyard. La Garrigue is interesting because it has a ridge running through the middle, west to east. The slope facing south is planted with Grenache as it is a cépage which loves the sun and heat. The slope facing north is planted with Syrah, which certainly likes sun and heat, for example in the Rhone Valley, but not so much as Grenache.

The Syrah of La Garrigue produces, in very good years, my favourite wine of all from Jeff Coutelou (and therefore, in effect, my favourite wine). That wine is La Vigne Haute which combines the warmth and fruit of the Languedoc with the serious, mineral complexity of the Rhone. Sadly there has been no Vigne Haute produced since 2013 as Jeff has felt that the quality was not quite high enough for such a cuvée. In the excellent vintage of 2015 the decision was marginal and instead he produced the excellent On Peut Pas Vraiment Dire Que, which you can read about here.

Perhaps its my bad influence since the 2014 vendanges but La Vigne Haute eludes me. This year when I took the photos of the Syrah in La Garrigue (above), Jeff was concerned that the very dry months of summer had spoiled the Syrah but recent humid days had allowed the vines to recover and put their energy into the grapes.Well, I really have my fingers crossed for 2017. The grapes came in firm bunches, healthy to the core. Classic Syrah bunches too, almost T shaped.

The cases smelled of spice and fruit, other than snails with good taste there was little to sort. The juice gave aromas of passion fruit – not something I would ever have imagined possible but tropical fruits for sure. Flavours of raspberry, wild strawberry with a lovely vivacity. This was exceptional. Now, a lot can happen in the next few days, weeks and months. Jeff will simply allow the juice to express itself and not intervene, Coutelou wines are what nature makes with a simple guiding hand.

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Making sure the workers look after these great grapes

There are many more days of the vendanges to come, and there are some exciting grapes on the vines still. However, these grapes motivated me to write, to cross my fingers and trust in nature and Jeff to, maybe, finally deliver my favourite wine. Whatever, it will be worth buying and drinking, I can hardly wait.


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Stress and grapes – Vendanges 17

Day two and the weather remained overcast and humid, there were even a few drops of rain. Rain which has been sorely missed in the last two months, there has been no real rain since June 26th, almost two months now. Some vines have found that stressful and virtually shut down therefore not ripening the grapes as well as they ought to do. Others, with underground water supply more available, are more vigorous and channeling their energy into the grapes. Judging what to harvest and when, is therefore even more difficult and stressful for Jeff.

The picking today began in Peilhan where the Muscat À Petits Grains was golden, starting to raisin in places. The berries are a little smaller than usual, another sign of the lack of recent rain. Nonetheless they were sweet, ripe and ready, measuring 15° of potential alcohol. In the press the lack of juice means that even a decent amount of grapes will produce only one barrique this year.

Then on to Clairette Musquée, a couple of rows in Peilhan, next to the red grape vines. This cépage is so rare that an ampelography expert recently failed to identify it on a visit. Into the mix was added Grenache Blanc from La Garrigue, which has fared better than some in that vineyard with the drought. Indeed one berry seemed to have thrived as you can see in the following photo.

GrBl huge

Whilst Roxane, Max and myself picked the Grenache the others moved into the newer plantation of Peilhan and picked Riveyrenc Noir, Riveyrenc Gris, Piquepoul Gris and Morastel. This really was a day for ampelography fans like myself. All of these grapes with the Clairette will help to make the rosé for 2017 and the first glass, hot from the press, tasted very good indeed over lunch.

Friday lunch was leisurely, we were joined by the excellent Paco Mora of La Cave D’Ivry, and some good bottles opened including a fabulous Sauvignon Blanc 002 from Jeff, 15 years old and still in great shape. Julien opened his new cuvée (one of only 50 bottles) from Faugères (Grenache Blanc and Roussanne) which was very good too. Monday will see the start of more full on days, bigger quantities, more work and faster lunches – so allow us this convivial interlude. Meanwhile, Icare continued in his inimitable style.

 


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And they’re off – Vendanges 17

 

No more racing metaphors I promise but today, Thursday August 24th, the Mas Coutelou 2017 harvest began. Just a gentle canter rather than a full gallop start to events with several rows of Sauvignon Blanc and Muscat vines picked. They will be vinified separately, the Sauvignon went into the large press immediately, the Muscat is lying on skins for a few hours. Julien made the first cut just after 7.30 this morning (photos above).

There was a good team of helpers available coming from Italy, Spain, France and, of course, the UK. Carole was back too which always brightens the day. The day was rather overcast and humid, which made the back breaking job of picking all the more tiring but we pressed on until the vines were finished at around 1pm, so five and a half hours of work.

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My own first bucket with leaf to identify the Sauvignon Blanc

In the cellar Jeff was anxious about how ripe the grapes were in La Garrigue so was a little relieved when the first readings came in around the 14° potential alcohol mark. There was a generous aroma of green apples coming from the press which augurs well. The Muscat was certainly riper, the grapes full of that hallmark Muscatty taste – they are the wine grapes which taste of grapes!

Caisses unloaded, grapes put into the press and the first juice flows

So, a good start, the team found its rhythm, gelled through conversation and over lunch and we attack the Muscat of Peilhan tomorrow. The bit is between the teeth, the finishing line is still far in the distance but on we go.

And for fans of Icare! Well, he’s still firmly in charge.

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Under starter’s orders

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Le patron earlier tending his vines

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Other than wine my main interest is horse racing and I couldn’t help feeling a similarity as I toured the vineyards at Mas Coutelou this morning. The trainer has prepared his charges to the best of his ability throughout the year, faced up to problems of weather and disease, been up all night tending them and must now carefully select when they are at their peak for the big challenge ahead. Meanwhile his assistants and stable hands gather together, friends old and new to lend a hand to the master and to learn from him.

Old Cinsault vines of Rome

OK, maybe I am getting carried away. However, there is a feeling on the eve of my 4th vendanges of excitement that the race is on to bring in the best possible harvest from the grapes. Through winter, spring and early summer all went well, the rain came, the sun shone, the vines grew well. Latterly there have been setbacks it must be said. There has been next to no rain since June and the ground is once more parched. Some of the vines are stressed and their sap has lowered. This means that instead of concentrating energy into the grapes and ripening them fully the vines are protecting themselves. That is a real shame as everything was set for a top class vintage, now we have to wait and see what the next few weeks bring along. Rain is currently absent from the weather forecast, let’s hope that the meteorologists are mistaken.

Flower Power and ‘friends’

That said as I toured the vines I was impressed by the quality of the grapes. Yes the vines look tired, they should at this time of year as they ought to be giving everything to the fruit rather than the plant.

The grapes though look healthy, big bunches in the Carignan vineyard (above) for example though there is still some greenness in the juice and the pips. The Muscat is yellow, orange and flecked with gold and tastes very characteristic with its floral, sweet notes. They will be harvested on Friday, the Carignan in weeks to come.

Ones to follow? Well, in Peilhan the Castets looked lovely and tasted even better. Flower Power has so much more fruit this year though the snails are still present. The Grenache of La Garrigue, Syrah of Sainte Suzanne and the splendid old Cinsault vines of Rome would be my tips for future winners. There will be others which will surprise and delight, and hopefully few will prove lame and disappointing. (That racing metaphor just won’t go away!)

 

Meanwhile back at the cellar; cleaning, checking the equipment (the large press being serviced above) and even bottling the skin contact Carignan Blanc which James took charge of last year.

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James served his time here in Puimisson, learned and has just completed his first vendanges with his own wines in the Adelaide hills in Australia. Vincent’s vines in the Béarn are easing towards maturity, Julien has his vines here in the Languedoc. The team are back in Puimisson though, together with Michel and myself. And joining us this year is Ambroise from the Loire, come to learn too (in the photo with Vincent).

And even Jeff will be learning as two new arrivals from Spain will mean a new form of vinification this year. They will take their place alongside the (much) smaller amphora dating back to Julius Caesar which was donated to Jeff during the winter.

So we are under starter’s orders, Jeff will press the button on Thursday morning and we’ll be off. Let’s hope for a classic year.


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The grapes, they are a-changin’

Jeffs photo

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