amarchinthevines

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


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Reflections on the vintage

En francais

Back in the UK, back in the wet and cold weather, though the Languedoc has suffered severe bad weather itself. Jeff kindly gave me many bottles to bring back, so the Coutelou wines are never far from my mind. And with a little time to reflect on the 2019 vendanges and the wines which are in tank.

The year began brilliantly, healthy rainfall over the winter meant a promising start, the vines were healthy and disease free through budding and flowering. Jeff was hopeful of an excellent vintage. Some damage from winds during flowering took a little of the shine away. And then came months of no rain and the promising start withered away in the heat, the nadir being June 28th with 45˚C temperatures. Though this canicule was worse for other parts of the Languedoc, Jeff’s Carignan was affected too. The continuing drought meant that the grapes were small, lacking in juice and very concentrated.

The positive was that disease such as mildew never formed so the grapes were healthy and clean. There will always be the odd problem, vines are natural, living things and, so, there will be problems. Most reports of wine harvests only ever show beautiful, clean grapes. There is no such thing as completely perfect grapes, every wine domaine will have problems. Jeff and I believe in showing the truth. The risk is that problems can appear worse than the reality. You will have to believe me that in 2019 98% of all bunches were good and healthy and whilst these photos show what problems we did meet they should not be exaggerated.

The wines which were produced will be very good. There is plenty of fruit and the wines are concentrated because of the lack of rain. They are quite high in alcohol and so careful picking and blending by Jeff was necessary to give the wines balance. There is good acidity and freshness despite the concentration. 2019, in my opinion, will not have the great quality of 2017 and the 2018s which taste tremendous at the moment. However, there is plenty of great wine to look forward to, cheers.


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Loving Languedoc

After tasting wines from around the world at RAW I opened a bottle or two at home. By chance the bottles I reached for were from the Languedoc, my first love. And how richly I was rewarded.

First up was the Grenache Blanc, The Velvet Underschiste, from La Graine Sauvage in Faugères. The domaine is the work of Sybil Baldassarre and I have got to know her through Jeff Coutelou. Sybil is a trained oenologue who decided to show she can make wine as well as advise upon its making. This bottle had witty references to Velvet Underground all over the labels but the wine itself was What Goes On (sorry). Pure Grenache Blanc the 2016 had lovely tannins underpinning the apple and pear fruit. However, what made this wine stand out was how it evolved over the course of an evening. The last glass was the most delicious of all, the wine had opened out to reveal more fruit. This was a wine of real quality. I have been fortunate to taste other wines of Sybil and suggest that she is a real star to follow.

Next up was another white from Faugères, known more for its reds. Clos Fantine is a long time favourite of mine and I wrote an article about the Andrieu family and their work a few years ago after spending a couple of days with them. Their gobelet bush vines high in the Faugères hills provide clean, pure fruit. Valcabrières is their white wine from the rare Terret Blanc and Terret Gris grapes. More white fruit flavours, pears to the fore but with a clean, fresh acidity. Again this was a wine which opened up as we drank down the bottle, complex and delicious. This was a 2014 and I believe the wine would age much further but it was pretty perfect now.

And, for good measure, I opened a bottle of Jeff’s, Flambadou 2017. The pure Carignan has been a star of the Coutelou domaine for a number of years, certainly whilst I have been there in 2014. This bottle was very youthful, the wine bright purple in colour and full of fresh black and red fruits backed with soft tannins. I shall keep my other bottles for a few years to allow them to develop complexity but it is good to follow a wine’s progress. With every wine of 2017 I taste I become more convinced that it is an absolute peak vintage for Jeff, the fruit and freshness backed with tannin and depth of flavour, they are stunners. Flambadou is a great wine, this 2017 definitively so.

Make no mistake the Languedoc can produce top quality wine, these three bottles were absolute proof to me that it will always be the source of my favourite bottles. I urge you to try them and other wines from the region which is my other home.


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Midsummer at Mas Coutelou

After a month back in the UK due to bereavement I apologise for not posting for the last two weeks.

It was good to return to the Languedoc even in the midst of a midsummer heatwave. After a day’s acclimatisation I was at Jeff’s on Thursday morning, good and early. Well I thought so though he and Julien had been at work in the vines from 6am! Michel and Vincent were busy labelling some bottles of 7, Rue De La Pompe.

Leon Stolarski and his wife Diane arrived to meet up with Jeff, I can reveal that Leon will be the importer of Mas Coutelou wines in the UK along with Noble Rot bar in London. I showed them the updated cellar and Jeff led us on a tasting through the 2016 wines, of which more next time.

Almost as much as the people I missed the vineyards. They offer such variety, calm and beauty. The one advantage of being away for a while is to see the change over a month. The sun has seen off the wildflowers, the greenery of the vines now contrasting sharply with the parched grass. The flowers on the vines have also long gone and the grapes are now well formed and starting to swell, the size of peas. There is no sign yet of the red grapes starting to change colour (véraison).

The vines look to be in very good health. The 700mm of rain through the winter, the spell of very cold weather too have helped them to rest and be strong, a vibrant green colour. The humidity of recent days brings the threat of mildew and oidium (downy and powdery mildew respectively) and Jeff has sprayed the vines with organic treatments to help them fight against the disease.

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Mildew spots

The other main risk is from snails. In 2016 they ravaged Flower Power vineyard for example, reducing the harvest there to virtually nil. There is less evidence of them there this year but there are huge numbers in Peilhan and Segrairals. In the former they are covering the trees which Jeff planted around the vines a couple of years ago, feasting on the greenery amidst the parched vegetation.

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Nevertheless so far so good, 2017 promises to be a good vintage.

 


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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