The harvest (vendange) began on Friday August 21st with a small parcel of Muscat grapes as described here. The next few days saw further preparations for the main harvest, for example clearing space in the barrels of the solera system for this year’s grapes. I shall write more about the solera later in the year.
So, it was Thursday 27th which was the start of the real vendanges with parcels of white and Syrah grapes collected from La Garrigue. This day was described here.
Friday 28th saw more Syrah being harvested, this time the Syrah of Metaierie usually referred to as Sainte Suzanne by Jeff. This is the vineyard of Vin Des Amis though options are always open. The pickers, led by Carole and Julien, worked through a cloudy morning to collect some high quality bunches.
Michel transported the cagettes back to the cellar as quickly as possible. The cagettes are about two thirds filled so as not to overload the grapes in there which might damage them.
No, these cagettes are not full!
Upon arrival at the cave the cagettes are quickly taken for triage, sorting through the grapes to select only the best quality. Foreign objects such as snails and spiders are removed as are unripe grapes, any damaged or rotten grapes. It is important that only the best goes into the wines to keep them fresh and at the high quality we expect from Mas Coutelou. Two people sift through the cagette, removing any inferior grapes for further sorting by a third person. Jeff, Cameron and I took these roles on Friday. It is hard work, on your feet all day and lifting, carrying and sorting requires physical effort and also full concentration. There is, happily, also time to chat and laugh.
Cameron is from Melbourne, Australia and has been living and working in London as a sommelier for four years. He decided to learn more about the winemaking process and to “get his hands dirty”. He is already proving his worth and is a great addition to the team.
Meanwhile, the grapes which had gone to vat (cuve) have to be taken care of. Fermentation has started and the wine is already producing material which needs to be removed to keep the wines clean. They are, therefore, pumped out of their original cuve into another to allow the waste to be cleaned away and the fresh, juice ready to settle for its longer journey of fermentation.
Fermentation beginning in the Sauvignon Blanc grapes collected yesterday (Thursday)
And at the end of the day the cleaning work is intense. Everything is cleaned throughout the day but at its end another full clean takes place. This removes the risk of contamination from dirt or damaged fruit which would ruin the wine. It is laborious but necessary.
Julien cleaning the cagettes
Ready for tomorrow
The égrappoir (destemmer) ready for tomorrow too
What else needs cleaning? Proof that I did work!
Analysis of the Syrah showed that the alcohol level was around 12.7% with medium levels of acidity. Later picking would have added more sugar and more potential alcohol but would have lowered levels of acidity. The skins are essential to the quality of the wine as they contain the colour, tannin and much of the flavour of the wine. These were in excellent condition according to the analysis, good news.
Jeff’s own calculations from cellar tests. Samples go to the oenologue for full analysis
Classic shape for a bunch of Syrah grapes
There have already been some concerns expressed by winemakers and analysts that the heat of 2015 might affect the quality of wines around France especially regarding acidity. The decision to harvest the Syrah was therefore the right one, fresh, cleansing acidity is a hallmark of Jeff’s wines. Many winemakers have been waiting to start harvest as, on August 30th, the moon is at a perigee, the time when it is closest to Earth in its orbit. As it begins to wane and move away from Earth many winemakers will start their harvest. Jeff has chosen to put the quality of the grapes first rather than principles about biodynamics.
Moon over Margon at its perigee on August 30th
Saturday 29th was a work day for the cellar and the pickers and saw the harvesting of Cinsault grapes from my favourite vineyard, Rome. The grapes were big and juicy though some were uneven and needed more careful sorting. Clearly these were precious grapes as Icare was guarding and watching over them assiduously. The harvest was not as big as many years and so the pickers moved onto Sainte Suzanne again for more Syrah grapes whilst yesterday’s grapes have begun to ferment already.
All photos taken on August 2nd unless otherwise stated
It was June 12th when rain last fell on Margon and the vines in the region, although generally doing well, were starting to show signs of fatigue and heat stress; leaves curled in upon themselves, some yellowing, a slight shrivelling.
Vines near Pézenas showing some stress
Vines in Margon which were not pruned in spring and are really suffe
A few drops fell on July 25th but the skies had been very dark and had promised much more, it was almost cruel to have that rain, a tease of what might have been. However, July 31st brought around 10mm to Puimisson. A decent rainfall, enough to give the vines a drink and to stop the drying out process. Not enough of course after weeks of lack of moisture and some more rain in the next few weeks would be very much welcome to swell the grapes and the harvest. The vines are now pouring their energy into their fruit rather than their vegetation, but they need the nutrients to do so.
So, how had the vines responded to the rain which fell? Well a tour on Sunday (August 2nd) showed the vineyards of Mas Coutelou to be in rude health, a decent harvest is now predicted though that extra rain would be most welcome.
Segrairals in full bloom, healthy, happy vines
Segrairals, biggest of the vineyards, showed some healthy Cinsault, Syrah and Grenache with no signs of stress or disease. As the home of Classe, 7,Rue De La Pompe and 5SO this is especially welcome, as they are some of the big sellers.
Cinsault in Segrairals
To Rome, my favourite vineyard. The gobelets were looking well, plenty of grapes both the white varieties and the Cinsault. There was a little mildew around the entrance but minimal, no cause for concern. Could there be a cuvée of Copains in 2015? Jeff tells me that no decisions are made as yet, caution prevails and he will wait to see what the harvest gives him before he makes final choices about how to use the grapes and the wines which result.
Rome’s centurion vines in good health
Muscat Noir grapes, a tiny bit of mildew top left
Sainte Suzanne (Metaierie) suffered from coulure in May with the strong winds blowing off some of the flowers on the vines, which will reduce yields a bit. However, the grapes there are growing well, what might have been a problem looks now a much brighter picture, good news for fans of Vin Des Amis.
Peilhan, just a little more tired and suffering
The only vineyard parcel which has shown stress is Peilhan, There was a lot of regrafting and replanting in the spring and the dryness has caused problems for these new vines. There was also oidium in this parcel, the only vineyard to be attacked by this powdery mildew. Yet amongst those problems there are plenty of healthy grapes, some careful picking and sorting will be needed but it will produce good wine.
The famous Castets grapes of Peilhan
La Garrigue was blooming, the white varieties such as the Muscats are swollen and changing hue to lovely golden shades.
Muscat a Petits Grains in La Garrigue
The Syrah is well advanced, a dark purple colour across virtually the whole bunches, the pips though betray a little immaturity as they taste and look green and sappy. A little more time and patience will pay dividends. As the world’s biggest fan of La Vigne Haute, I have my fingers crossed.
Syrah in La Garrigue, ripening beautifully in the shade of the vine
The Grenache in La Garrigue, despite facing south, is a little more delayed in colour but getting there and very healthy.
Grenache in La Garrigue
In fact despite risks of disease earlier in the year (see here) Jeff has been able to use minimal treatments in 2015. Oidium and mildew (powdery and downy mildew) can be controlled by copper sulphate, sometimes called the Bordeaux mix when added to slaked lime. This is a bluish colour when sprayed by conventional and organic vignerons and is often seen on the leaves of vines. Vignerons might also use chemical fungicides if they are not organic producers.
Neighbouring vineyard which was given herbicide shortly after harvest last year and whose new vines have been treated regularly
Some neighbours have also irrigated their vines and one alarming consequence is the changing of the soil and its pH as the calcium carbonate in the water shows through, you can see it in the white parts of the soil in this photo taken on July 22nd.
The irrigation is also causing the vines to grow quickly and tall with thin trunks as seen below. It should be acknowledged that there are many conventional producers who take great pride in the health of their soils and vines and would be horrified by some practices described here.
As a proud holder of Ecocert organic status and as a natural wine maker Jeff must use natural products only. Tisanes of plants which fight mildew such as horse tail, fern and nettles can be sprayed and this is the basis of many biodynamic treatments. However, the two main weapons in the armoury of organic producers are copper and sulphate, both natural products.
Copper is used against mildew, but is harmful to the soils and kills life in them if used in significant quantities. Organic producers are limited to 30kg per hectare over a 5 year period, allowing more to be used in years with more downy mildew for example but only if less is used in the other years. In fact Jeff has used just 200g per hectare in 2015 and this after years of well below average use, his use of copper is on a major downward trend. He is reluctant and very careful in using copper as he is aware of its danger to the soils, yet mildew has not been a major threat this year.
Oidium seen in May
Similarly Jeff has used sulphur in soluble form at doses much lower than the permitted level, three treatments over the course of the growing season. In addition one dose of sulphur powder was sprayed when the risk of oidium was high (May) and a second spraying for Peilhan only as it is the vineyard which was attacked by oidium. In contrast to neighbouring vignerons who have sprayed every 10 days including after the bunches closed up (so more than a dozen treatments) this really is minimal intervention.
So July’s parting gift of 10mm of rain was welcome, August might like to follow by offering some rain soon. Too near the harvest is bad as it would dilute the juice rather than help the grapes to reach a good size. Things look promising, let us hope that nature completes its bounty. There is an old saying that June makes the wine and August makes the must, ie the character of the wine with its colour, yeast and flavour. With 3 weeks or so until picking begins it is an exciting, and nervous, time, waiting to see what that character will be.
No Icare this time but look what we found amongst the vines, he’s been here!
NB there are lots of reports about recent wine tastings here.
The traditional image of a vineyard is that of one big parcel of vines surrounding a chateau as in Bordeaux, with its smart house and cellar buildings for making and storing wine. However, that is not the reality for most vineyard owners. Jeff Coutelou has his home and his cellars in the centre of Puimisson in the Hérault, surrounded by a childrens’ nursery, houses and work buildings. The vineyard itself surrounds the village but comes in a number of small parcels rather than one big vineyard. Each brings its own characteristics in terms of soil, surroundings and exposure to the elements, ie its own terroir. The parcels have been accumulated over the years by Jeff’s grandfather, father and himself. In the satellite photograph below you will see the parcels and how they relate to the village. Vineyards are shown in green, olive groves in red.
(Photo taken from Rapport Biodiversité d’Exploitation Mas Coutelou produced by Agrifaune)
There are about 17.5 hectares (43 acres) of land though olive trees occupy about 2.5ha (6.7 acres) and well over 1 ha (3 acres) is fallow land or has other trees, hedges and plants. The soil is virtually all clay and limestone. As you may be able to see in the satellite photograph much of the land to the south of Puimisson is vineyard, to the point of monoculture. Jeff wants to use his land to produce biodiversity so olives, figs, roses and hedges help to create little oases of wildlife. More details are outlined at the end of this post.
Segrairals and Caraillet (6.8ha, 5.7 under vines)
This is the biggest of the parcels and the only one situated to the north of the village and closest to it. Surrounded by the village and a couple of roads it is well protected by trees and hedges, including figs and olives. A variety of grapes are planted with the oldest being some Syrah planted in 1993, Cabernet Sauvignon planted 1998 and younger plantings of Mourvedre, Syrah and especially Cinsault. The Syrah goes into bottles such as Classe and 7, Rue De La Pompe. Mourvedre goes into Sauvé De La Citerne and the Cinsault into 5SO. The Cabernet grapes will be used for blending in various cuvées or sold to the UK to make the new London Cru Cabernet Sauvignon, a project run by Roberson in London.
Main body of Syrah and Cabernet grapes
Planted olive trees in the foreground with some younger Cinsault and Syrah vines in the background
La Prairie (0.5ha)
To the west of Puimisson La Prairie is an olive grove in a very pleasant area with an official ecology walk going past it. No vineyard planted.
Mountains seen from La Prairie
Prairie olive plantation
Le Colombié (0.6ha)
Just at the southern tip of the village Le Colombié is planted entirely with Merlot vines. These will produce grapes used to blend for cuvées prepared for restaurants, bag in box etc. Merlot is not a typical Languedoc variety, these were planted in 1999.
Le Colombié – Merlot vines
Possibly my personal favourite vineyard of them all. It is quite isolated even though there are other vineyards around. Isolated, because there is a wood which shelters it. The gobelet Cinsault vines date back to 1966 and 1975 and go into the Copains or,in some years, Vin Des Amis or Classe. These old vines are also surrounded with young olive trees and the parcel is an attractive and quiet haven. There is also a planting of some 20 different varieties of grapes including various types of Muscat which are used in a solera system. This was started many years ago by Jeff’s grandfather and ever since wines have been used to top up the old barrels to make Vieux Grenache and Vieux Muscat. Sensational wines. The added benefit is that because there are so many different types of vine they cross pollinate and this adds an extra layer of complexity to the Cinsault in the Rome vineyard.
All vines lead to Rome
Gobelet Cinsault vines, olive trees and the surrounding woods
The parcel which was the basis of my post One Day Like This when we harvested the last grapes of 2014, some Grenache. There are a few older Merlot vines (to be replaced in 2015) but the parcel is mainly the home of Grenache and Syrah grapes which are used to make the ever popular Vin Des Amis.
Smaller Metaierie parcel
Main Metaierie vineyard, home of Vin Des Amis
La Garrigue (1.8ha)
Described in some detail in the post Working In The Vineyards (January). Made up of three sections: some younger Syrah facing north for freshness, a section of Grenache facing south, as it likes the heat and some 20 year old Sauvignon Blanc vines too. The Sauvignon is used to make the white blend PM or other white cuvées, the Syrah goes into my favourite La Vigne Haute and the Grenache is used to make Classe along with the Syrah from Segrairals.
La Grangette (0.5ha)
A parcel of half a hectare (just over an acre) surrounded by vines, Jeff decided that it is compromised in terms of quality grapes so he planted 112 olive trees in 2011 to provide contrast to the fairly barren land and vines surrounding Grangette.
Rec D’Oulette (1ha plus a smaller, separate parcel of 0.3ha)
Actually made up of two parcels of land. This has seen a lot of work in recent years as Jeff has tried to diversify it. The central block is half a hectare of 30 year old Carignan, used in making Flambadou, a wine which is really improving and was one of the stars of 2013. Surrounding these vines Jeff has planted half a hectare of olive trees to keep them away from the chemicals of neighbouring vineyards. The second part of Rec resembles Grangette as an isolated small parcel and again Jeff has planted olive trees to diversify as it is too small and isolated in its organic nature for grapes.
Carignan vines for Flambadou
Font D’Oulette (0.65ha)
A parcel where Jeff has worked hard in recent years. More olive trees planted in 2011 as were those in the small section of Rec. In addition he has grafted an older variety Aramon into the vineyard covering over half a hectare. These grapes will be used to create new cuvées and the first blend of grapes produced in 2014 is highly promising tasted from tank.
Olive trees to protect the new Aramon vines
Les Roques (1ha, not on satellite photo)
One hectare of land to the south east of the village heading into Lieuran-les-Béziers, this was the vineyard I showed after the storms of November 28th 2014 when it was flooded. In fact the vines have been grubbed up and there is a programme in place to plant trees and to provide a barrier to the Libron river in case it should flood gain.
Les Roques shortly after the November storms
An attractive vineyard nicely protected. About a hectare is planted with white grape varieties, including a section of Carignan Blanc which has been used to make a cuvée all on its own. Maccabeu, Grenache Gris and different types of Muscat make up the other white varieties and these are usually picked, assembled and vinified together as part of the PM white blend. This also the home of the Castets vines I have written about a lot, one of only two Castets vineyards in France. More Carignan vines are joined by another interesting grape variety, Clairette Musquée which was blended with the Aramon from Font D’Oulette last year. This is the vineyard where a recent plantation took place to bring back older varieties to the area. Terret Blanc, Riveyrenc Gris and Piquepoul Gris were planted along with Terret Noir, Morastel and Riveyrenc Noir. picked, assembled and vinified together as part of the PM white blend. This also the home of the Castets vines I have written about a lot, one of only two Castets vineyards in France. More Carignan vines are joined by another interesting grape variety, Clairette Musquée which was blended with the Aramon from Font D’Oulette last year. This is the vineyard where a recent plantation took place to bring back older varieties to the area. Terret Blanc, Riveyrenc Gris and Piquepoul Gris were planted along with Terret Noir, Morastel and Riveyrenc Noir.
Main parcel with white vines, Castets, Carignan and Clairette Musquée
Planting the new parcel of Peilhan
Overall Syrah is the predominant grape variety making up around one third of production, although 2014 saw a big reduction in the harvest due to the dry spring and early summer. Red grapes dominate with well over 90% of production.
Jeff and his Castets
(L-R) Vin Des Amis, 7 Rue De La Pompe, Paf
Organic since 1987, no synthetic chemical products have been used on the soils for over 25 years now. No artificial yeasts are added in the winemaking process, the grapes produce healthy yeasts themselves to stimulate fermentation. Grapes also naturally produce tiny quantities of sulphites but Jeff has been experimenting with using no added sulphur since 2003 and has successfully completed the last three harvests without adding any sulphur to the wines. This dedication to producing wines which are as natural as possible, made with as little intervention as possible means that Jeff is restless in seeking to improve the quality of his soils and in protecting them from the non-organic practices of neighbouring vineyards. He has also brought in Agrifaune to put together a project to plant over I kilometre of hedges. These will help to prevent soil erosion, protect Coutelou vines from surrounding vineyards and also provide shelter to wildlife which in turn will help to protect the vines, for example by eating damaging insects. Trees such as oak, laurel and elder are being planted along with plants such as agrypis and wild rose. Around the vineyards wider borders of grasses and wild plants are being allowed to grow even if that means that vines have to be scrubbed up. Similarly ditches and fallow land will be used to encourage biodiversity. So in an area of monoculture these oases of biodiversity and wildlife will help to enrich nature, the vineyards and, ultimately, the wines.
So February is turning out to be a very busy month in the vines. On Wednesday Jeff invited me over to see the first ploughing (labour)of the year. The plant cover of winter is ploughed into the soil to add organic matter. This has been a long established practice and as scientific research continues it is proving to be another example of traditional practice being based unwittingly in sound theory. According to research** by leading soil expert Claire Chenu in 2011 the organic matter which is ploughed into the soil helps to boost microbial and animal life in the soil. In turn this adds air to the soil which the vine roots can use to help them take up water and nutrients. Healthy vines make good wine and will hopefully be able to resist diseases. Certainly as the plough turned over the soil some big worms were speedily digging back into the earth, a clear sign of healthy soils.
The plough was set to a very shallow depth,no more than 20cm as this is a first plough of the year. Jeff worked the soil in every two rows allowing the tractor to turn easily, the other row will be ploughed in two or three days. The tractor is not a full size that you might see farmers using but more lightweight to try to minimise compaction of the soil.
Blades set to be shallow
Meanwhile at the Peilhan vineyard Michel and Renaud were busy working on the trees and plants which guard part of the parcel.They were cutting down cannes de provence, pruning the blossoming almond trees and strimming the plants between them. All part of the effort Jeff makes to improve the ecology of his vineyards.
Renaud and Michel at work
Elderflower just starting to bud at Peilhan
Carole was busy over in La Garrigue vineyard pruning the grenache section. She talked me through the decisions she was making at each cut to explain how the vines would benefit. What struck me was how she was thinking ahead to how the vine would grow not just this year but in the next 2 – 3 years. A skilled worker is always great to watch in action and I was honoured to listen to Carole explain it to me. You can see her at work in the video here.
So,the patron, Carole, Michel and Renaud were hard at work. What about me? Well, Jeff offered to let me drive the tractor but I doubt I could afford to pay him the compensation for all the vines I would have ripped up! Meanwhile there was one very critical observer, a crucial part of the team.