amarchinthevines

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


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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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Sorry Pasteur, you were wrong

Version française 

Two years ago I wrote an article whose title was a quote by my historical hero Louis Pasteur, “Wine is the most healthful and most hygienic of beverages.” Well my recent visit to the Languedoc gave me cause to doubt that Pasteur was wrong, in at least half of his statement.

A friend (Chris) drew my attention to a website showing the quality of water in every commune throughout France. The results for the area of the Hérault centred around Puimisson, Puissalicon, Espondeilhan and Thézan-lès-Béziers showed that they along with other communes in the area have poor quality drinking water.

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So why is that? Simply put it is agricultural pollutants and in this area what that means is pollutants from vineyards. In particular it means pesticides getting into the drinking water.

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The area is full of vineyards, mostly managed under a régime of chemical intervention. Weedkillers, herbicides, fertilisers are all used to ensure maximum yields as vignerons are paid by the quantity of grapes they produce, though they do have to respect the maximum yields permitted by, for example, AOP regulations. Unfortunately when it rains, and it often rains very hard in the Hérault, the chemicals are often washed from the vineyards onto the surrounding roads and into the drains and sewers.

I was talking to an Italian vigneron in January and he was telling me that, as an organic producer, he was shocked at the last vendanges. His lovely grapes were growing on vines which had already begun to shed their leaves or were changing colour as the energy of the plant had been channelled into the fruit rather than the leaves. He felt somewhat embarrassed as his neighbours’ vines were pristine, bright green and laden with grapes. That was the result of the chemicals and nitrates sprayed on to those vines, whereas his were treated only with organic tisanes.

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That is the same experience which I have observed in the area around Mas Coutelou. Jeff’s vineyards are surrounded in the main by conventionally tended vines. I remember him telling me as we stood in Rec D’Oulette (the Carignan vineyard) to look around at the bright green sea of vines with his own vines looking rather tired in comparison.

Well, the chemicals which make the greenery and heavy crops are polluting the water. The drinking water of the very place where the vignerons and their families live. When Pasteur spoke about wine being healthy and hygienic he was speaking at a time when most drinking water was polluted, even untreated. He was right, wine was healthier and cleaner than the water. And now, ironically, it is wine production which is making the water of ‘very bad quality’. Nevermind the 100+ additives which are legally allowed into wine, the wine is also a pollutant. That is why I challenge Pasteur’s claim.

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I am amazed that this report created so little reaction, surely the very water which nourishes the vines and slakes the thirst of wine producers should be be safe to drink? At what cost are we producing wine unless producers take more seriously the effects of their farming methods. And you wonder why I prefer to drink mainly organic and natural wines?


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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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Becoming naturalised

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En français

I have spent most of the last 25 months living in the Languedoc and as that period draws to an end I have begun to feel naturalised: my French has started to adopt a local accent such as ‘veng’ for ‘vin’; I tut at anybody and everybody; I rush for a jumper if the temperature dips below 20°C; I even went to a rugby match!

We are searching for a house to move more definitively to the area, it is where I feel happy, healthy and home. Sadly, when I look back across the Channel I see little to make me feel at home there. Brexit has seen a fall in the £ of more than 20% in less than four months. There has been a startling increase in racist and homophobic attacks. The government (with an unelected Prime Minister) is hell bent on going it alone, prepared to do without the EU single market even if it means damaging the economy. Companies such as Nissan have warned they will leave the UK if that is the case yet the government ploughs on determinedly. The 48% who voted to Remain in the EU are ignored, reviled and, today, told that they should be silenced.

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Mrs. May told her Party, “If you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere. You don’t understand what the very word ‘citizenship’ means.”

Worrying times. Is it any wonder that I, proud to be a citizen of the world, feel more naturalised here in the Hérault? Though Robert Ménard, the far right mayor of Béziers, is doing his best to out do May’s government by opposing the housing of immigrants relocated from Calais to the town. He sanctioned this poster for example:

 

As for wine?

After a few tranquil months natural wine has again become the focus of attacks and disparaging remarks by those who seem threatened by it.

In France, Michel Bettane, elder statesman of wine critics, accused natural wine drinkers of being ‘peu democratique’ in their words and ways. No great surprise from a man whose connections make him part of the wine establishment.

In the UK one of the most respected and established of wine merchants, The Wine Society, published this statement from one of their senior buyers.

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“Prone to spoilage, high proportion not particularly pleasant to drink, rarely demonstrate varietal character or sense of place.” A damning list. And I am a member of this co-operative group!

Again I feel alienated from mainstream opinion. Sykes is talking complete rubbish and dismisses great wines and talented winemakers with generalisations and prejudice.

I don’t always agree with Alice Feiring, one of natural wine’s more celebrated advocates. However, in a recent article she stated that she cannot support faulty winemaking and those who seem to favour it as an expression of their anti-establishment credentials. I agree. Wine must be drinkable, must be pleasurable, must, above all, be interesting. I could name dozens of natural wine producers who make great wine, it just happens to be natural wine. Are Barral, Foillard, Métras, Coutelou, Occhipinti, Radikon, Ganévat etc making wines as Bettane or Sykes describe?

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Tasting Casa Pardet in 2015, a moment when wine stops you in your tracks and makes you say, wow

I have tasted many natural wines which sing of their cépage and origins, wines from France, Italy, Spain, South Africa, Australia. They tell a tale of their producer and their terroir. They are interesting, some stop you in your tracks and make you reflect on their beauty. Rather those than the very many dull, monotonous wines which taste the same as everybody else’s from Otago to Oregon.

I do enjoy conventional wines, I really like some of them. However, I often find more excitement and interest in the many, well-made natural wines.

Long live freedom of movement, long live the Languedoc and long live great wine.

I am becoming naturalised.

 

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Mas Coutelou Roberta 2003, fresh as a daisy in 2016. Take note Mr. Sykes


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Between a rock and a hard place

En français

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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Grafting vines

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On March 17th we were in Font D’Oulette vineyard which, at just over 0,6 ha, is a small parcel replanted around 6 years ago with a variety of old Languedoc cépages such as Aramon Noir, Aramon Gris, Oeillade and the very rare Clairette Musquée. The grapes are picked together to make a single cuvée representing the parcel , Flower Power. This first appeared in 2014 and has made an impact already, selected by La Revue Du Vin De France as one of the Languedoc’s top 50 wines. As the vines age we can only anticipate eagerly what they will produce in future.

 

However, not all young vines thrive and some needed to be replaced. Two alternatives were in place this day as the rain fell steadily.

The first is to plant vines which are pre-grafted in the conservatory / nursery. These are covered in wax to protect the graft, the wax will fall away in a few weeks. I described this process last March with the new plantation in Peilhan vineyard.

The second method was to graft onto the root stocks already in situ, something I had not seen before. The American root stock has to be used to protect against phylloxera which destroyed much of France’s vineyards in the 19th century. There are different methods of grafting such as ‘chip and bud’ but Jeff brought in a specialist, Tanguy, who uses a method known as ‘greffe en fente’.

The old vine is cut away to reveal the root stock. A very sharp knife, repeatedly sharpened through the day, cleans the surface and then inserts a cut through the wood revealing its core.

The cut is supported by tying string around it. The vine wood is also cut, as if sharpening it to make a thin wedge which is inserted into the cut root stock. The idea is to get the core of the two pieces as close as possible. This is then fastened tightly with the string. The graft is complete.

It looks simple but isn’t that the mark of a skilful worker, making something complicated look easy? Have a look at the video below to see the process in one go.

The vine is staked for support, always to the side which will help the vine against the prevailing north westerly winds. Jeff had brought some basalt soil from the Auvergne and this was then placed around the grafted vine poured into the body of a plastic bottle placed around the vine .

Basalt is one of the oldest forms of rock, roche mère (mother earth or bedrock) and is packed with nutrients. This will help the vine to grow well and by filling the bottle around the vine it is surrounded with top quality soil. Organic compost is added to the hole and then the earth is hoed back over it all, removing the bottle of course.

There is a risk. Up to 20% of vine grafts do not take in theory and with greffe en fente the whole vine would have to be grubbed up next year and replanted. Other methods can simply replace the graft. However, this method is the best for the vine itself and the most likely to take.

So what were the vines? Cinsault, Aramon Noir and Inconnue No.3. Inconnue means unknown, so why is it called this? The original vine was found in an old vineyard where it had never been catalogued. It was taken by the organic nursery where Jeff buys his vines and it was studied but was discovered to have never been indexed. it is unique, unknown, hence its name. One of its benefits is that it is resistant to oidium and it will also add diversity to this complanted vineyard with about 100 of the Inconnue No.3 vines being added. A hint of mystery to the blend.

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The vine canes, only about 7-8 cm will be used

A fascinating day despite the rain which soaked us all to the skin. It was hard graft but a rich, rewarding day celebrated at lunchtime with a magnum of… well it had to be Flower Power.

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A damp guardian of the new vines

 


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The Falling Leaves

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Vine leaves which will become compost in the vineyard

Version française

Autumn is often a melancholy time as the days shorten, temperatures drop and the first signs of winter approach. And yet 2015 in the Languedoc has seen a most untypical autumn. Last week the warmest November day ever was recorded and we have enjoyed blue skies, warm sunshine and hot afternoons, 26°C has been regularly seen on our garden thermometer. The resulting sunshine has produced the most breathtaking scenery, with colours across a wide spectrum of autumn. As I wrote on the Out And About page, every time you turn a corner there is another heart stopping view.

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The vines are now closing down, preparing for winter. Their fruit has gone except for a few overlooked grapes which the birds, wasps and insects have been enjoying. Their leaves are shedding and the skeleton of the vine stands out again for the first time since early May, their form revealed, cordon or guyot for example.

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       First taille of autumn 2015, guyot vines

Indeed, some vignerons have actually started to prune again ready for 2016. I suspect they are working to a pre-prepared timetable as the vines have been slow to lose their leaves and still show some life. At Mas Coutelou the taille will not take place until next year and most top vignerons will leave it until then, just before the growing season. The extra wood helps to protect against frosts for example. Some vignerons are starting to cavailloner, in other words to move earth from between the rows of vines towards the plants themselves, the extra soils will again act as a blanket against the frosts.

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       Puimisson basks in autumn sunshine

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Dew on some Grenache Blanc grapes left behind in Rome

Other jobs remain to be done. After the months of busy vineyard work and harvest it is a time for sending wine to be sold. Pallets have left Puimisson to cavistes and restaurants around the world. Last Friday, November 6th, they set off to Germany, Finland and various regions of France. More have already gone to New York, London, Melbourne amongst many cities.

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The season of salons has started in earnest too. This weekend I was in the Roussillon for La Bande De Latour, highlighting many of the best natural wines of the Roussillon and elsewhere.

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The following day I was in Autignac for a tasting of some of the best Faugères wines and also their fines or brandies. I shall post about these soon. I was talking to the excellent Hausherrs, vignerons who had driven to the Pyrenees from Alsace for La Bande, a long, long way. Hard work.

In the next few weeks Jeff will be starting to assemble the wines for the main cuvées of 2015, the likes of Classe and Vin Des Amis. Decisions to be made about what proportions of which cuves to blend for the wines. Sadly, I shall miss this process as we head back to the UK for a wedding. Into every life a little rain must fall.

It has been a beautiful autumn, the weather and the vendanges have made it a magical time. Thanks as ever to Jeff for allowing me to share the experiences and insights of the season.

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