amarchinthevines

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


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To certify or not to certify (Part 2)

In the last article I described the new, INAO approved, certification plan for natural wines in France. Building on previous efforts to certify and define natural wine this initiative seems to have support based on the popularity of and respect for the leaders of Le Syndicat de défense des Vins Nature’l. In this article I want to set out arguments for and against certification.

I found a recent podcast by Real Business of Wine very useful in helping me and recommend it to you. The first 50 minutes or so deal with the certification issue including contributions from Jacques Carroget of La Paonnerie in the Loire, one of the leaders of this Syndicat. Robert Joseph introduced the broadcast with contributions from Alice Feiring, Simon Woolf, Emma Bentley and Eric Asimov, an excellent line up. The discussion moved on to other issues around natural wine in the last half hour. Well worth a watch or listen.

Arguments against certification revolve around the philosophy of natural wine. The movement began as a reaction to the ways in which modern winemaking had developed with techniques to homogenise wine. Natural producers wanted a return to the simple wines of the past from ancient Georgia to the beginning of the 20th century where the wine was simply fermented grape juice. This revolt against industrialisation is an idea and philosophy, not something which can be certified. Those who led the new wave of producers were rebelling against the strictures of the very government bodies which are now seeking to regulate them. Moreover those bodies have made life difficult for some natural producers, rejecting wines from AOP status, for example those of Sebastian David, one of the leaders of the Syndicat.

I could also add an example I am familiar with when Jeff Coutelou was forced to alter the name of the domaine from Mas Coutelou by authorities who said the word Mas was not permissible in Vin De France. Though Jeff pointed out that it was his mother’s family name and that Mas Coutelou was, therefore, the product of two families coming together, he was forced to change something which had become his trademark. This happened at large expense for packaging etc. Why would producers then seek approval from such heavy handed bureaucracy? *

Another issue is one of probity. The Syndicat offers two marks one for wines without added SO2, the other for wines with up to 30mg of SO2 (ie 30 parts per million in the wine). For the latter how would it be proved when the SO2 was added? The rules say it can only be added at bottling but how would analyses of bottles prove that, the addition could have been used on grape must which is prohibited in the rules?

Emma Bentley raised the question of inspections and whether they would be required as happens now when authenticating organic status for example. (Described here at Coutelou). Carroget explained that 1% of cuvées will be selected at random and analysed (indeed 3% in the early years) and the winemaker will be asked to provide traceability and provenance of those cuvées to guarantee that methods conform to the rules. Is this enough to satisfy those who are suspicious of natural wines? If not then certification is meaningless.

Arguments in favour were well set out by Carroget. The aim is to protect producers who are working within the philosophy of natural wine. Those who do not produce grapes organically for example will not be recognised. He explained that last year an analysis of 34 natural wines was done by a wine magazine and 2 of those were found to be based on non organic production, thus undermining the other 32 in the eyes of consumers. If the wine was certified then the consumer knows that there have been no shortcuts in the vineyard or cellar, the wine is what the label and certificate says.

In this way imitations of natural wine, simply sticking the word natural on a label of any old wine for example, can be avoided. This might also stop carpetbaggers (the word used in the podcast), large commercial producers who are trying to muscle into the popularity of natural wine. On the other hand any move to organic production by any producer, no matter how large, is to be welcomed.

One point I thought worthy of consideration is that wines sold as organic in the USA have to be sulphite free. If producers sell there then their wines have to be certified organic, is this initiative any different?

USA label for organic wine

After listening to Carroget my initial scepticism was somewhat alleviated. I tended to side with Alice Feiring who said that whilst in her heart she remained a rebel she believed that the best natural producers are being undermined by bandwagon jumpers and imitators who are making lower quality wines. Certification might add authenticity to those working cleanly and prove its worth, a point supported by Woolf. Having spent much of the last six years immersed in natural wine I know many of the best producers who are authentic. However, for those who just want to buy a bottle of natural wine without knowing much about it the certificates and logos of the Syndicat might be a welcome guide.

* I have related this story before on the blog, but it is my own question I ask here I am not citing Jeff himself who has made no decision or even thought about the certification.


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Coutelou, news on 2016, 2017 and 2018

En francais

Cartes des voeux 2015 and 2016

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Carte des Voeux 2017, election year

Every January Jeff Coutelou sends out to customers a Carte Des Voeux, a New Year’s card, in which he sends out information about the previous year’s events in Puimisson, thoughts about the vintage and general news. The card is always fronted by a striking, witty image and this year’s was no exception.

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2018

 

The main headlines from this year’s card concerning the wines were:

  • The difficulties of the 2017 vintage, the extremely hot weather and drought and how only a timely wind from the sea (brise marine) saved the harvest
  • The small harvest, though one of very good quality
  • Details of the likely cuvées which Jeff blended in November, these include regulars such as 7, Rue De La Pompe, Vin Des Amis, PM Rosé, Classe, Flambadou, Flower Power and the Blanc but also the Amphora wine from 2016 and …… La Vigne Haute! (Happy writer here)
  • New products, spirits and ‘tonics’. Gin, Fine and Grappa together with a Kina (a wine flavoured with plants) which is delicious.

Other news headlines:

  • The 2016 vintage as proof of how nature decides. The wines were slow to develop and, so, Jeff decided to sit on up to 75% of them rather than commercialise unready wines. (That said, the 2016 bottles which I have opened recently have been very good indeed, well worth waiting for. Good news for the customer with patience, less so for Jeff’s turnover).
  • Problems in the vineyards due to heavy rain in late 2016 meant that new plantings had to be postponed.The problems caused by vandalism in autumn 2017 have damaged the work and progress of biodiversity in the vineyards, eg hedges and trees burned.

Perhaps most startling of all the Domaine will, in future, no longer be named Mas Coutelou. The authorities informed Jeff that a domaine releasing wines as Vin De France rather than AOC or IGP is not permitted to use the term Mas. In Jeff’s case this seems daft as that is the family name of his mother and founders of the Domaine. No matter the logic and common sense, the wines will now simply be called Coutelou.

As for 2018.

The plantations foreseen for 2017 will, hopefully, take place this Spring, eg next to Ste Suzanne where traditional and older grape varieties will take their place amongst the dozens already planted across the domaine.

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The sodden vineyard which could not be planted in 2017

Jeff intends to bring back to life the parcels in the Saint Chinian area which belonged to his father. They will be tidied, replanted as necessary and improved with biodiversity as a core principle. In ten years we can look forward to a whole new range of Coutelou wines from this renowned region.


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New Year, old favourites

Happy New Year to all of you who are good to enough to click on to my site, it is much appreciated. May 2018 bring you health and happiness.

The transition from one year to another is another excuse to open a good bottle or two and star of the show this time was, yes you guessed it, a Mas Coutelou wine. This time it was Copains 2013. This wine is based on grapes from my favourite vineyard, Rome, based on Cinsault grapes from those old twisted vines I love so much.

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Rome’s Cinsault vines

It is still youthful, bright fresh cherry fruits to the fore and a nice backbone of tannin. Further proof of how well Jeff’s wines will mature if resisted in their youth. A lovely red, worthy of the occasion.

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photo by amicalementvin

On New Year’s Day itself I opened an orange wine. 2017 had been the year which saw me converted to orange wines and also beginning to understand the value of using amphorae to age wines. The wine in question came from Casa Pardet in the Costers del Segre, Catalonia. This domaine produced one of the most stunning wines I have ever tasted, a Cabernet Sauvignon and is one whose wines I have sought out ever since. This wine was a Chardonnay 2014 and the fruit shone through as well as the characteristic tannins and dusty influence imparted from the amphora. Yet more proof of the skills of Mia and Pep Torres.

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Amazing label of Casa Pardet

So 2017 ended and 2018 began with top class wines. May the standard be maintained!


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Festive bottles

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Christmas Eve, a time to celebrate. It could have been Champagne but instead I opened one of my favourite wines, Flower Power, this time the 2016 in magnum. This is a field blend of many types of grape largely based around Aramon Noir and Gris but many more besides. This was very young, fresh and fruit filled. It was rounder two days afterwards, another sign that it needs more time. Regular 75cl bottles will mature quicker of course but no matter how long you wait the wine is worth it. Flower Power is a relatively new wine from a young vineyard, yet it is developing into a real star.

Christmas Day lunch is often a time when we share good bottles with my brother in law Iain. This year was no exception. Iain brought a Portuguese white based on Alvarinho (Albarino in Spain) to match the smoked salmon starter. Fresh, zesty but with a fruity roundness this was very good and a great match with the salmon, cutting through the smokiness and richness. Portugal is becoming a source of excellent table wines which are still undervalued.

Then, following the article I wrote for Frankie Cook’s website, it was time for my favourite Mas Coutelou wine La Vigne Haute 2013. Pure Syrah and everything I hoped for. Plummy, dark fruits, spice and with great length it matched perfectly with my vegetarian crumble and, I am told, with the turkey and ham. Brilliant wine.

For dessert I brought along a Jurancon from Domaine Montesquiou, La Grappe D’Or 2014. Pure Petit Manseng this is another exceptional wine from one of the very best white wine producers in  France. Sweet, of course, with baked apple, spice and a pure acidity to cut through the Christmas Pudding. Finished two days later it was still on top form, there are many years ahead for this wine. Happily I have some more.

A few days later we shared another meal and more great wines. I opened the 2015 barrel aged Macabeo from Mas Coutelou. The grapes were in excellent condition (as so many were in that exceptional vintage) so Jeff chose a special barrel. The result is something unusual for the domaine, not many oak aged wines emerge. Macabeo is the same grape as Viura in Spain, especially Rioja. And this wine reminds us of white Rioja. There is an unctuous, round pear flavour with a slight resin/oak influence. It is a food wine rich and long. Another which aged well opened over the next 24 hours.

Iain brought along a very special wine. RWT is another pure Syrah or Shiraz in this case (another example of grapes with multiple names!). It is one of Penfolds top wines, made from specially selected grapes. This bottle was 1999 and was a full, rich wine with plenty of dark fruits, a subtle oak influence and great length, In truth, it would age for many years to come but it was great now. A special bottle. Note the sticker on the bottle. Iain bought this for £9 a few years ago, bottles of more recent vintages sell at around £100! Australian wines, especially those from Penfolds, emerged on the market at very reasonable prices, these days they are very much wines for special occasions.

Finally, another treat. I opened a bottle of Vieux Grenache from Jeff. This is, of course, from the solera cellar, built on wines from up to 150 years old, topped up every year with Grenache, and Muscat in some barrels. Nutty, dry, raisiny – very resonant of top notch sherry. Amazing length, evocative of the place and of the Coutelou family. And a fantastic match for the bread and butter pudding.

 


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My Christmas wine

 

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I was recently honoured to be asked to contribute to the blog of well known Irish wine expert Frankie Cook in a series of posts about wines people would choose for Christmas. Naturally I chose a Mas Coutelou and, in particular, my favourite wine of all from Jeff.

Here is the article but I recommend a visit to Frankie’s website and reading articles from other contributors too, there is a rich variety of wine selected from all around the world as well as lots of other good reading.

“Christmas is about family and friends, sharing and reflection on the year which is fading. My choice of wine reflects these. I have lived most of the last 3 years in the Languedoc and spent much of the time helping at and writing about Mas Coutelou. Jean-Francois (Jeff) Coutelou makes a series of excellent natural wines but for this special occasion I shall choose La Vigne Haute 2013.

The wine is pure Syrah, it is labelled as a Vin De France because Jeff chooses to avoid the rules of appellation status which would, for example, mean that a single grape wine would not be allowed. Syrah is one of the main five Languedoc red grapes along with Grenache, Carignan, Cinsault and Mourvèdre. The grapes which make La Vigne Haute are grown in a vineyard called La Garrigue planted on two sides of a ridge, Grenache facing the southerly sun and Syrah, more sheltered and cool, facing north.

2013 was the last vintage of La Vigne Haute, if the grapes and quality are not high enough they will be used in other wines. (Happily, 2017 will see a new vintage!). The 2013 offers warmth, long flavours of red fruits and soft tannins, great with Christmas food. Made by my friend, shared with family and a reminder of so many happy days in Puimisson.”

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Mas Coutelou in the UK

 

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After an absence of two to three years I am delighted to say that Mas Coutelou wines are available once more in the UK. I won’t go over the reasons for the absence but instead celebrate their return.

Leon Stolarski will be the main source of the wines for UK customers from his online store. There is a real cross section of the range with whites, reds and, a true treasure, the Vieux Grenache. This is the page where you will find the wines. I am delighted to have been the connection between Jeff and Leon and I have already placed an order to restock some wines in my collection and add some that have been recently bottled like the excellent Flambadou 2016.

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Leon tasting in Puimisson in June

I know that Jeff was also keen to send wines to Noble Rot wine bar in London as one of the owners, Mark Andrew, was the man who first imported his wines into the UK when he worked with his former company. Noble Rot garners rave reviews for its food and wine list as well as its wine magazine. I really must make a visit soon.

So, no excuses. It’s time for the UK to embrace Mas Coutelou.


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Tasting the 2017s

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Last weekend I should have been in the Languedoc with Jeff and attending a wine tasting at Latour De France. Sadly, a 48 hour bug put a stop to that.

Instead I reflected on a tasting we did at Jeff’s on October 3rd of all the 2017 wines in cuve. Regular readers will recall that they vintage is of high quality but low quantity. Quantities will be in short supply of what will be seriously good wines. There was a tinge of sadness about that as we tasted through the range.

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These were my notes on the evening.

  • Maccabeu / Grenache Gris – still some residual sugar. Fresh nose, Fruity, pears. Slight sweetness which will disappear. Clean and lovely.
  • Sauvignon Blanc – fresh apple, bright and zesty. A true Sauvignon character, refreshing.
  • Carignan Blanc – lovely, full, clean, direct – fresh and fruity. Very good.
  • Rosé – very pale, flowery aroma, fresh and clean, exactly what you’d want from a rosé.
  • Syrah (Ste Suzanne) – whole bunch, red fruit, round tannins, good finish, full, very good.
  • Cinsault – lovely, fresh and juicy red fruit, cherry, 13,5% but tastes lighter. Good.
  • Syrah (Segrairals) – amazing passion fruit nose which carries into taste. Fresh, citrus and lovely red fruit, a real star.
  • Syrah (La Garrigue) – La Vigne Haute (fingers crossed). Terrific, direct full tannnins, splendid fruit, full, long – stunner.
  • Flower Power – Maccabeu, Syrah (St Suz), Grenache (St Suz), Grenache Gris, Cinsault, Terret Noir and Flower Power – Despite the different assemblage this has the character of previous Flower Power – fruity, silky tannin and very appealing. Lovely.
  • Grenache – blend of Ste Suzanne / La Garrigue – 2015 St Suz provided 80hl, this year the 2 vineyards made 60hl. Lovely, fresh cherry flavours with a spicy finish.
  • Mourvėdre – crunchy, spicy good tannins and dark fruits. Very true to the grape. Good.
  • Carignan – top of the class. Lovely fresh red and black fruits, excellent balance of freshness and complexity. Star yet again.
  • Merlot – lovely fruit nose, fresh, touch of wildness which should settle. Nice.
  • Cabernet Sauvignon – still some sugar, plenty of fruit, easy to drink with classic blackcurrant notes.

We went on to drink a couple of the 2016 wines which were still in cuve, a very floral and spicy Syrah and an assemblage of Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre which had good fruits with a soft tannin finish.

Reflections on the evening? The quality of 2017 is clear it is up there with the 2015s, just such a shame that fewer people will get to drink them. The whites are very good but the reds shine especially the future La Vigne Haute and Flambadou. The wines had all fermented beautifully causing few worries. A vintage to cherish, can’t wait until it is in bottle.


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Rare grapes and Vin De France

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This chart was published two weeks ago even though the information refers to 2010. I found it fascinating (I am a sad case I understand). Some of the information would be expected, New Zealand with its Sauvignon Blanc for example, Australia with its Shiraz. I was rather surprised to see Merlot as 13.7% of the French vineyard area however. Admittedly this is partly because it is one of my least favourite grape varieties, though, as always, fine examples are available from good vignerons.

Merlot, like Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and Viognier, were in vogue in the 80s and 90s when I became interested in wine. Languedoc producers reacted to this popularity by planting these cépages, it was commercial sense. One of those producers was Jean-Claude Coutelou and Mas Coutelou still has his Cabernet and Merlot parcels.

However, one of the more recent trends in the region has been the revival of older and rare grape varieties. At Mas Coutelou Jeff has planted grapes such as Riveyrenc Noir, Riveyrenc Gris, Morastel, Piquepoul Noir and Terret Noir in Peilhan (see photos below).

Earlier this year Jeff received a visit from Domaine De Vassal, guardian of the national treasury of grape vines. They record and keep examples all grape varieties as I described after a visit to Vassal. On this occasion they were intrigued by two vines in particular; firstly Clairette Musquée, planted in Peilhan and, secondly, the unknown variety in Segrairals. These are just part of the programme of replanting and grafting which has taken place at Mas Coutelou. The photos below show grafting of other cépages in Flower Power such as Aramon Noir and one unknown variety.

After months of research the experts at Vassal have concluded that Clairette Musquée has its origins in Hungary where it was known as Org Tokosi. It was planted in the Maghreb and after Algerian independence it was probably brought to France by those who repatriated to France.

The unnown variety turns out to be an Italian cépage, quite rare, called Delizia Di Vaprio. This is, according to my copy of Pierre Galet’s “Dictionnaire Encyclopédique des Cépages”, a grape authorised in Italy and Portugal. Under the rules of France’s AOC system it would not be allowed. Jeff, however, chooses to issue his wines under the Vin De France label which means he is free to choose his own methods and grape varieties. Whereas a Languedoc AOC wine must include grapes such as Syrah and Grenache Jeff can choose what to put in his wines including wines from just one grape variety. It also means he can plant these rare grapes and make wines from them which he truly loves and wants to make.

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Interestingly one AOC, Burgundy, is starting to show signs of concern that Vin De France is becoming more popular. They have started a campaign criticising Vin de France. To my mind they should be looking to their own failings and regulations. For example, as climate change bites harder vignerons will have to adapt, investigating different grape varieties will be part of that.

So, yes Merlot has its place (and thrives in the Colombié vineyard in Puimisson) but is it not exciting to see rare, old, traditional grapes being cherished and brought back to prominence? Let us appreciate the range and variety of grapes and the vignerons who bring out their best.

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Every Picture Tells A Story (2) – Terroir

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This is one corner of Segrairals vineyard, found in the North East corner of Puimisson. I took the photo on October 6th and it clearly shows a demarcation in this part of the vineyard. The far side of it still has green vines, further towards me the vines are changing colour as Autumn arrives. Why are the vines at different stages of development? Even a month before on September 7th there was a clear line.

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The reason is that a stream used to run down here many years ago. Its legacy is to have left richer soil behind in the corner where the cannes de Provence now stand. The vines planted on that richer soil find life easier than their peers. They remain greener, feed their grapes more easily. All good?

Well, no. The grapes can be too well fed, ripen earlier than their neighbours, become too sweetened. They will also begin to deteriorate earlier if not picked. So, in one small corner of one vineyard we see how the terroir makes a difference to the vines. We see how a vigneron must know his / her vines to ensure that the highest quality is maintained. The vigneron is part of the whole mystique of terroir and it is a subject to which I shall be turning soon.

 

 


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Vendanges 17 – the finishing line

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I started my coverage of the 2017 vendanges with racing terminology and, so, I finish in the same way.

It’s definitely over. Vendanges 2017 with all its quality, with so little quantity.

On September 27th the final press of the grapes was completed. It was the turn of the Cabernet Sauvignon, two weeks after picking. The skins, pips and other solids had done their work in giving up flavour, colour, tannins and so much more. The yeasts had started their work of fermentation. Now it was time to press before that grape must started to be problematic rather than beneficial.

The must was pumped from the cuve by the powerful pompe à marc directly into the press. Julien ensured that the press was filled in all corners and then the press began. It inflates a membrane inside which gently presses the must to extract the juice without releasing the more bitter, astringent tannins left in the skins and pips.

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Sediment after the must has gone to press

The grape variety (cépage) will determine the amount of pressure applied, Cabernet has small berries and thicker skins so needs a little more pressure than juicier, thinner skinned Cinsault for example.

 

The juice flows and is sent to another cuve to continue its fermentation, then its malolactic fermentation (which removes the more acid flavours). Indeed the analyses of the 2017 wines show that fermentations have gone through quickly, without fuss or problem. There is no sign of volatility or any other problem, the wines look on course to be as high quality as the grapes themselves. Which, of course, is the goal. Jeff believes in letting the grapes express themselves with as little intervention as possible. This year interventions are minimal, the grapes have done the work.

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Sadly, the quantities do not reflect the quality and that will bring a financial blow to the domaine and to virtually all domaines in the region. When you are asked to pay a few euros for a bottle of 2017 Mas Coutelou, I hope that you will recall all the work which I have described, the stresses and strains, the love and care which has gone into that bottle and you will consider it money well spent.