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

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Oddities 2

En francais

This photograph was taken on September 5th, so fairly early in the period of the vendanges. It shows white wine being run off its lees after being in tank.

Regular readers will recall that to make a white wine the grapes are usually pressed immediately after picking. The resulting juice heads to tank and ferments. The juice will contain some pulp and various natural substances from the skins such as the yeasts which kick start the fermentation process. As it continues the exhausted and dead yeast cells fall down into the bottom of the tank, these are the lees.

You can see the wine still fermenting because of all the bubbles in the container as it is run off the tank. Leaving the wine on the lees too long can be self defeating, risking bacterial contamination. However, the lees can add a creamy depth to the wine so it is matter of judgement as to how long to leave the wine in contact with them.

I love the golden colour in the photo, offering promise and hope to the wine which will follow. Having tasted the wine I know that the promise will be fulfilled.

Red wines spend time on their skins to extract colour and flavour from them during fermentation. The wine is run off and the skins removed when the winemaker decides. In the photo the skins are being removed by Jeff. However, after that the process is the same. There will be lees in the runoff wine and they will settle as did the white wine lees.

The sludge with lees and some juice

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Sparkling Coutelou


Leon snaps, Jeff pops

Version francaise

With UK importer Leon Stolarski in attendance Jeff offered us the chance to taste through the 2016 wines which are largely still in tank. Fermentations have been slow from last year, some are still bubbling away gently, finally eating up the last sugars. Jeff thinks the very dry winter and spring and heat of July meant that the yeasts were perhaps weakened meaning fermentation has been slower. The key point is, how does that affect the quality?


Even from when I tasted them a month ago they have changed in nature, more streamlined, less opulent, more complex. And, as always chez Coutelou, very drinkable. The whites show lots of fruit but restrained and serious too, the long maceration Muscat a definite highlight. Sadly, quantities are down, another result of the dry winter and spring. Reds show fruit and complexity, the Carignan beginning to emerge as a star (true of so many recent vintages) and the Mourvèdre continuing to shine bright.

In the afternoon a new treat. Bibonade is Jeff’s PetNat, a natural sparkling wine. The white and rosé version have been sitting in bottle for a while and it was time to disgorge them. Sparkling wines, including champagne, age in bottle rather than tank and as they do so they throw a sediment. Still wines do the same, the sediment (lees) falls to the bottom of the tank and the wine is then taken out leaving the sludge behind. In bottle the sediment also falls to the bottom, if the bottle is laid flat the sediment will coat the inside. To gather the lees the bottles are placed in special racks (pupitres) with the neck pointing down. By turning the bottle 90° every day the winemaker can ensure that the sediment doesn’t stick to the sides and all gathers in the neck above the capsule.

Fermentation in bottle produces carbon dioxide which in turn creates the fizz in there. By opening the bottle, the release of pressure forces the sediment out of the bottle. Obviously this has to be controlled or you lose too much of the wine as well, so Jeff quickly covers the bottle as soon as he sees the sediment is gone.

The bottle can then be topped up from others and resealed.

It is a messy business, the small steel tank stops the capsule from flying off and the wine from coating the whole cellar. Jeff’s arms were quickly covered in flecks of lees. However, the result is delicious, refreshing and Bibonade is a firm favourite chez March.




Soutirage is known as racking in English. After the wine has fermented the tank or barrel will contain the lees (dead yeast cells) and sediment. The yeast fermented the wine, lees have added flavour and some antibacterial properties but if left in contact with the wine they will start to add off flavours, cloud the wine and generally hinder the final wine. The process is carried out as gently as possible, using gravity rather than electrical pumps.

So on April 6th Jeff messaged me to say that the day had arrived to carry out soutirage of the wine I made for my 100th blog post and the vendanges tardives Grenache we picked on the last day of the vendanges.

We started with the Grenache. A tube was placed into the stainless steel tank, suction applied and the wine flowed gently into large 15l bottles. Jeff chose clear bottles so that he can watch the progress of the wines. They will be stored in his cellar in the dark so no problems from light damage. The Grenache still contained some residual sugar, was sweet, fresh and clean.

It was appropriate that we also racked the maceration white wine. Cameron had taken the lead on this wine and he was here after attending La Remise, the natural wine salon in Arles, I’ll be writing about soon. The wine was fresh, lots of fruit and also a light texture from the 4 month maceration. Very good.

And then the 3 Grenaches wine I took charge of. Most of this has been aged in barrels so the soutirage ended with them being emptied of their sediment.

There wasn’t that much sediment as the small vertical press I used controlled what entered the barrels, ie mainly juice. Naturally we had to top up those barrels after soutirage to replace the volume taken away. And now they continue their gentle ageing. I am very happy with the progress of the Grenaches, again more soon.



Traffic light wines

A fascinating day, another new process in winemaking for me to learn.



Work life balance – soutirage, surchargé

Soutirage? It’s where you take wine from one container and move it to another. Traditionally this was done from barrel to barrel by gravity but these days it applies to moving the wine by other methods too. Why? Well the wine has been fermenting on lees, the dead yeast cells and other parts of the grapes. The wine needs to be removed from these as they cause cloudiness and you don’t want to drink wine full of lees. The lees can also cause off flavours in the wine so once they have served their purpose in helping to ferment and flavour the wine in a positive way they need to be separated.


                         All pumps to the full

By moving the wine you also add oxygen to it and remove the risk of carbon dioxide building too much in the cuve which might cause issues such as reduction, a wine fault leading to odours of rotten eggs, rubber, struck matches or worse. That oxygen acts as a kind of inoculation too, a little bit helps to reduce the risk of wine oxidising later.



Julien checking the level of wine in the recipient cuve

Therefore, on Friday 30th October, Jeff decided to carry out soutirage. Also, as the weather has been very warm they will continue to ferment a little longer in their new home before the colder weather does arrive. This means that there will still be some CO2 in the wine. Too much is bad but a little is good and this is the core of winemaking – finding the balance between all these different pros and cons. CO2 in small quantities helps to stabilise a wine and makes not using SO2 easier (important at Mas Coutelou) and also adds a little freshness and sense of texture, possibly a sense of acidity too. Oxygen, carbon dioxide, lees – you want to get just the right amount but no more.


               Cuve being emptied to another

What this did mean was more planning and more of the puzzles of what wine goes where. My last post showed how complex this is. And here we bring in the surchargé part of the title. Jeff has had a busy week with lots of paperwork, orders to sort, bottles to label, package and get ready for sending out to cavistes around the world. Add in administration work for customs, taxes and many other agencies. The side of being a winemaker that people don’t really see.


Same wine before (left) and after (right) soutirage, there was a noticeable difference in taste

I went to the vineyards on Thursday to take some photos of the beautiful colours in the vine leaves, unexpectedly I found Jeff in Peilhan digging out cannes de provence near a stream with a pick. He said this was his break from the paperwork, he needed some fresh air.


Looked like more hard work to me, and people ask me if I would not want to become a vigneron!

Please note that I have updated the Out And About and Tastings pages recently, click the links at the top of the page to see what’s been happening.


     The last leaf on a Grenache vine in Rome


                        There’s always one


Peilhan, wild rocket growing between the vines


                              Cinsault in Rome