amarchinthevines

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


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Nature can be harsh: Part 2 – Disease

The mild weather over winter was followed in the Languedoc by a slow start to summer heat. The resulting warm, humid weather brought disease as it did in many regions of France. Mildew, oidium and couloure are all vine diseases which occur regularly and 2016 was no different but with a bigger hit than usual.

Mildew (downy mildew)

 

Sadly, humid days in the mid 20s and cool nights are exactly the conditions favoured by downy mildew, and it prospered. The humidity in the soils created ever more favourable conditions for mildew. Downy mildew lives as spores in the soils and any rain splashes them onto the vines. Mildiou is not a fungus as commonly believed, it is a one celled spore which germinates in warm, humid conditions especially between 16 and 24 Centigrade – exactly the conditions we saw in April and May of this year.

Jeff Coutelou spent many nights out on his tractor spraying the vines to try to protect them. As an organic producer (and much more) he cannot (and does not want to) use manufactured, chemical sprays. Instead he used sprays based on rainwater with seaweed, nettles, horsetail and essential oils of sweet orange and rosemary. These are better absorbed by the vines in the cool of the night.

Mildew appears as small yellow / green spots on the upper surface of the leaf which gradually turn brown and spread to leave an unsightly vine. Underneath downy white /grey spots appear, the mildew is well established by this point. It affects the grape bunches and leaves them dried out and shrivelled.

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Mildew on a Carignan bunch, organic spray residue on the leaves

By the time harvest arrives the bunches contain a mix of healthy and diseased grapes. Severe triage is required. Bunches such as the one in the photo above will be discarded immediately. Where there are health sections though the bunches will arrive at the triage table and be sorted rigorously. Jeff reckoned that in some vineyards, especially the white vines of Peilhan, losses were up to 60% from mildew. Seriously damaging.

Here is a clear demonstration of the advantage of hand harvest (vendange manuelle), machines would simply swallow the lot and in less thorough domaines or caves the bunches will all go into the wine.

Oidium (powdery mildew)

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Oidium on buds and leaf

Oidium is a related problem to mildew but slightly different. It too thrives in warm days and cold nights (so springtime is its peak period) , it too loves humidity. So, spring 2016 was ideal though oidium was less rampant than mildew. Unlike mildew it is a fungal based spore.

Conventional treatments would be chemical and even organic producers will use sulphur, a naturally occurring element. Organic producers are limited to the amounts they can use as sulphur does damage the fauna of the soils. Jeff Coutelou uses less than a quarter of the permitted amounts because he sees it as  a last resort. Instead he prefers treatments based on horsetail weed, nettles and other beneficial plants made into a tisane which can be sprayed. It may not be as all-destroying as synthetic chemicals but Jeff prefers the soils to be healthy in the long term by using these natural plant based treatments.

These photos show grape bunches hit by oidium in 2016, the powdery residue is clear though the bunches are less damaged than mildew affected ones. Nevertheless oidium is destructive and spoils wine so, again, careful work in the vineyard and cellar is needed to keep oidium out of the grape juice.

Coulure

Like most fruit plants vines grow flowers which then develop into the fruit. Vine flowers are very beautiful but also very delicate and don’t live long on the plants, a matter of a few days.

If heavy rain and wind hits the vines at this stage of their development then the flowers can be easily damaged or broken off the plant.

The result is that fruit cannot develop where there is no flower, coulure. Where flowers are damaged then berries might grow very small and seedless, this is called millerandage. Similarly berries might ripen unevenly within a bunch, green berries alongside healthy, ripe grapes.

There is nothing that the vigneron can do of course, the damage is done by the weather and no producer can successfully combat weather. Nature wins in the end. So, once again, the vendangeur and those sorting in the cellar are crucial in ensuring that only healthy fruit goes into the wine.

I cannot emphasise enough the importance of all stages of wine growing and production. From their budding through to vendanges the vines must be tended, and in the cellar observation, determination and care are needed too. To make good wine requires hard work, healthy grapes and love as Jeff has said many times.

And have a look at one of those last photos again.

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In the top right corner you will see another of 2016’s natural problems, one subject of the final part of this series.


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Last of the summer wine

 

Flower Power

Flower Power 2015

En français

As work on the cellar ratchets up a notch in the next few weeks it was time to bottle the last of the 2015 wines which will be made for the moment.

The framework for the new mezzanine floor is in place and actually looks quite beautiful. It will be reinforced with concrete however, and the metal cross bars will disappear (which might stop us knocking our heads). Plumbing has also been tidied up and improved. Cuves will be placed below and on top of the structure. More work on stairs, flooring and around the cellar will happen soon. As I am heading back to the UK for a couple of weeks or so, it will be exciting to see the changes upon my return.

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Peilhan June 30

The vines continue their growth in the sunshine and heat. Mildew problems are largely contained though some humidity leads to sporadic outbreaks (apologies for the pun). Sadly, there is a new threat of oïdium (powdery mildew) which likes that humidity and the warm days with cool nights we have been having. Powdery mildew shows as grey, white spots on the leaves and the grappe. Certain cépages are more vulnerable, including some of the traditional Languedoc varieties such as Carignan. The treatment is to spray sulphur powder and Jeff Coutelou made the first treatment this week in an effort to contain the problem, a job completed on Saturday morning. 2016 certainly has been a struggle.

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Meanwhile 2015 wines such as Flower Power and L’Oublié went into bottle on Wednesday June 29th. You might recall that the L’Oublié assemblage was made a few weeks ago and after spending time in tank, marrying together, it is now in bottle. Both of these wines are extremely good, well worth waiting for when they are finally released which won’t be for a while.

Jeff also put together a new cuvée exclusively for the French market, it will come in litre sized, Bordeaux style bottles as a «vin de table». An assemblage of various cépages it will be cheap, very drinkable and very desirable. The size of the bottles meant that they had to be filled by hand rather than the machine so Thursday was fully occupied with this cuvée. Jeff refers to it as a vin de gauche, after wine writer Vincent Pousson referred to Jeff as one of the last vignerons de gauche (left wing winemakers) because of his low prices making his wines accessible to all. It will be a wine to share and it will disappear down that litre bottle very quickly.

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The new litre bottle of the vin de gauche

2015 seems increasingly like a golden year, its wines are certainly glittering. 2016, well despite all it has thrown at us, there is hope. Meanwhile the summer wine is bottled and the heat is getting to some of us, even after his haircut.

 


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Mildew

Su mildew

As I have posted regularly in 2016, this has been a most unusual year weather wise. After no real autumn in 2015, no real winter, no true spring we have had a stop start summer in June. Yes there have been a few hot sunny days but lots of rain and cloud too with many days in the mid 20s.

Sadly, humid days in the mid 20s and cool nights are exactly the conditions favoured by downy mildew, and it has prospered in 2016. Jeff Coutelou has spent many nights out on his tractor spraying the vines to try to protect them. As an organic producer (and much more) he cannot (and does not want to) use manufactured, chemical sprays. Instead he has used sprays based on rainwater with seaweed, nettles, horsetail and essential oils of sweet orange and rosemary. These are better absorbed by the vines in the cool of the night.

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On June 3rd Jeff spent much of the night spraying only for it be ruined by a storm on the 4th which had the effect of washing away the spray from the vines. The rainwater created other problems however. The humidity in the soils created ever more favourable conditions for mildew, the disease spread. And, there was a third effect; downy mildew lives as spores in the soils and the rain splashes them onto the vines. Mildiou is not a fungus as commonly believed, it is a one celled spore which germinates in warm, humid conditions especially between 16 and 24 Centigrade.

Once the spores are on the vine they attack the new growth and can create a downy white covering. Leaves show a mottled surface with oily spots, first of light green or yellow and then turning to brown as the mildew dries out. Underneath the leaf appears a downy white or grey growth.

The big question was whether to spray with copper. This is effective against mildew but has an effect on the soils, killing the micro organisms which live in them. It is allowed for organic production as long as no more than 25kg per hectare is used in a five year period, it is a natural product. Jeff has used hardly any in the last few years and was very reluctant to start this year. His belief was that it was better to have some losses this year from mildew than lose the life in the soils for a longer period. However, as the mildew spread so quickly he was forced to relent and use a little copper.

His long nights of unpleasant work have helped Jeff to contain the problem but there have been damages. In some parcels as much as 50% of the crop is lost. Mildew thrives on the leaves but spreads to the actual grapes and destroys them. We may go into the vines and cut away damaged bunches.When harvest arrives we will have to be even more vigilant than ever to ensure that affected bunches do not make their way into the  vats and, ultimately, the wines.

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Dried out leaves and grappe

Meanwhile the sprays do not kill wildlife, such as that photographed below after the treatment.

The north wind which so often helps to dry out the vines has finally started to blow, though even it was humid for much of the past fortnight. The forecast is for hot, sunny weather which will stop mildew, so the threat should now diminish but it has left the vines looking mottled and a bit sickly. After a restless winter where the sap has been constantly on the move they have been less able to resist mildew’s effects.

The wire trellises which are used in many parcels have helped to ensure that air can circulate amongst the bunches to stop them becoming too humid and prone to mildew. Everything has been done but it has been a hard fight and losses suffered.

However, all is not doom and gloom. Most of the vines are now lush with growth. Flowering (fleuraison) was very late but last week the vines made up for lost time and the small grapes swelled greatly. Let’s hope for smoother progress in the next three months.

 


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Busy times

busy

En français

Busy times. In the vines and in the cellar.

I mentioned recently that the cooler weather had delayed some of the growth in the vines and that flowering was late. Well, recent hotter weather has brought sudden change. Flowering happened around the turn of the month and was over very quickly, perhaps catching up lost time. In particular there was a heavy thunderstorm on Saturday June 4th which brought a torrent of rain. The water and the sunshine has really got the vines going. Tendrils reach for the skies and there is more bushiness to the vines.

The flowers gave way to the little hoods which cover the nascent grapes, capuchons. These quickly fall away too revealing the grapes for 2016. On some vines all of this is happening at the same time such as this Carignan (above) in Rec D’Oulette. The weather has also encouraged the growth of the grafted vines which we did back in March.

This brings work too. The palissage has to be lifted to support the vines, hard physical labour. And, sadly, the heat and rain bring problems of disease. Mildew has been around for a couple of weeks and I mentioned that Jeff was spraying in the very early hours and late at night last week. He worked until 1am Friday/Saturday and started again at 6am. Just as things seemed to be settling a big attack of mildew on the Grenache at Ste. Suzanne meant more treatment on Tuesday morning. This ‘curious’ year is proving to be hard work.

Not all negatives though. The storm brought such a downfall that I was fearful for the flowering bunches. damage to them means no grapes. I happened to be in Puimisson during the storm (next article!) and the rain was lashing down, converting streets and roads to waterfalls and lakes. Yet as the rain eased I went to a couple of vineyards and the flowers were coping just fine. A trip round the vines on Monday morning revealed healthy growth and the soils had absorbed the rainfall.

This is not true of everyone. Much of the water on the roads was also full of clay from vineyards nearby, hence the yellowy brown colour. Vineyards which are treated with weedkillers, where the soils are ploughed deeply, even irrigated, were unable to cope so well with the heavy rain. Soils were carried away. Compare these photographs of Jeff’s vineyards with the parcel next door belonging to someone else. The difference is marked. Water can help or can damage.

Meanwhile back in the cellar there was more work to be done. Recent changes to the fabric of the cellar, especially the floor, have brought more efficient drains and a smoother surface, easier to clean. Further work will soon be done to the rest of the floor so the bottling of the next wave of wines had to be brought forward to allow the works to be done and dusted before vendanges.

The spring bottling of wines such as 5SO, PM Rosé, 7 Rue De La Pompe I described earlier. These are wines for early drinking, vins de plaisir. Now it was time for wines with a little more body. On Thursday June 2nd 10,000 bottles of Classe were made, and it is really something special in 2015. It took almost 12 hours and went very smoothly but believe me it is a hard day’s work. On Friday, Flambadou, made from the Carignan vines above, was bottled along with other smaller cuvées.

Before anyone rushes in with orders Jeff will let these bottles rest for a few months to allow them to be at their peak when released, Flambadou probably in 2017 for example. There remains one or two cuvées still in tank which need a little more time, Flower Power being one.

So, most of the 2015  wine is now in bottle, the vines are revealing the grapes for 2016 and there are wines stored for 2017. Busy times at Mas Coutelou for everyone, well except one.

 


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Curiouser and curiouser

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A detail from an illustration by Sir John Tenniel depicting Alice with the March Hare, Hatter and Dormouse at the Mad Tea Party. From Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll.

It has been a most curious year and as it goes on it becomes curiouser and curiouser, just as Alice said. *

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To quote another famous character, a certain Jeff Coutelou, during these last few months there was no proper autumn, no real winter, no true springtime. The last few months of 2015 and early 2016 were abnormally warm, not one single day of frost in Puimisson. Plant life started very early, there was blossom on trees in February, mimosa everywhere. People recorded their vines starting to ‘cry’ as the sap rose. And then, it all stopped. As March and April unfolded the weather was chilly with cold northerly winds. The plant life closed down its growth to a minimum. Budding (ébourgeonnage) was late even after the mild winter.

May is usually warm in the Languedoc and we have had some hot, sunny days but interspersed with cooler days and plenty with a lot of cloud cover. The vines pushed quickly some days, 25 – 30 cm the week before last and then… cooler weather slowed the growth again. Flowering (fleuraison) began last year around May 5th but this year Jeff and I spotted the first flowering on May 26th. Appropriately that was in the Flower Power vineyard, Font D’Oulette. Yet in the white grape vines, such as the Muscat in Peilhan, there is no flowering.

It is likely that most of the vines will flower at the beginning of next week, most varieties at the same time which is, again, most unusual. Curiouser and curiouser. As the vendanges are calculated at 100 days after flowering, the likely date for harvest to get under way is now well into September, ie 10 – 14 days behind 2015. After a very precocious start to the year!

So why does this matter? Well, the vines have been unable to rest since last harvest. The lack of frost or cold weather in winter meant that the vines did not shut down fully. The sap has been on the move for months. Those early reports of vines crying in February, then delayed growth. Vines have sent out a lot of growth but the lack of sunshine has not produced much photosynthesis, the vines are often green in lower parts but lighter green higher up. The grafted vines in Font D’Oulette have been slow to send out growth, the sap flows and then cooler weather arrives.

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Peilhan, note the lighter green near the tops

Humidity and grey clouds means a threat of mildew and some spots are evident on leaves in certain parcels. Jeff spent the night of May 20 spraying from 9pm to 1am, starting over again at 6am the next day. Why then? During the night and early morning the vines are more receptive to the influence of the spray as the pores are open in cooler temperatures. Not the usual spray of course. Mas Coutelou has been organic since 1987 and Jeff has gone much further. This spray was of nettles, horsetail, seaweed mixed with a tiny amount of sulphur and copper (allowed in organic farming). And also in that mix were essential oils of sweet orange and rosemary, pampered vines indeed. This prompt action has mastered the problem supported by timely sunshine and northerly winds.

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Spots of mildew on the leaves and on the grappe

Whilst in Rome vineyard the other day we looked at the soils and Jeff pointed out the growth of good mushrooms and fungal life in there. The photos show this life, the white spots. Scientific research shows that it is through fungal life such as this that the vines communicate with each other and support each other. This has taken a lot of soil nurturing and management.

And to further demonstrate the health of the vineyards, remember the vandalism of the Carignan vineyard and the flowers that were planted there? Well they are growing back stronger than ever. Nature wins in the end. We can only choose to support it or fight it, but in the end nature will win.

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Cinsault in Rome

At present despite this most curious of years the vines are in good health. The next three months will decide whether the grapes will be of good quality or not. Jeff reckons that the period from April 15 to July 15 the vigneron must be always present, always monitoring the vines to ensure that any problems can be sorted as soon as possible. That will make or break the vintage.

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Flowers in the Coutelou vineyards

Meanwhile we have been treated to some beautiful flowers in the wild and around the vineyards. As well as birdsong in Rome vineyard. Nature at its best despite the curious year.

That is if the problems can be solved. Just this week Sancerre and Burgundy were hit by massive hail storms causing damage which means that the year is a write off in some vineyards. The third such storm this year in some of these areas. And on Saturday, May 28th Beaujolais was badly hit too. Again nature decides.

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Hail damaged vines in Beaujolais (photo with permission from @duc_lionel)

A curious year, yes. But a disastrous one for some.

*  (No rude comments about mad March please).

 

 

 

 


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Stormy weather

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Dark sky over the vines today, June 12th

Version française

After weeks of sunny and hot weather storms have hit the region in the last few days. Monday (June 8th) saw the first and hail hit Faugères nearby damaging some vines at Domaine Sylva Plana for example. Hail is a nightmare for vignerons, it can strip the vines of leaves and budding grapes at this stage of the year. Today (June 12th) the storms are back with lots of heavy rain.

The water is welcome, the long weeks of sunshine and high winds have dried out the soils. Steady rain would be better but water will help the vines and reduce stress. However, if the rain turns to hail then disaster strikes.

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The vines have had a hard time in the last year or so, a dry winter and spring in 2014 certainly reduced yields as the vines were stressed. The mildew and oidium which arrived in early May added to their problems. I also mentioned that coulure hit Mas Coutelou as the high winds damaged the delicate flowers. Sadly the problem is widespread across cépages and vineyards. Jeff estimates that it could reduce yields this year by up to 30% compared to an average year and that after reduced yields in 2014.

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Healthy bunch developing

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Coulure in Rome vineyard

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And in Peilhan

Jeff already announced that certain cuvées would not appear from the 2014 harvest, it looks as if that will be repeated in 2015. Bad for those of us who love Coutelou wine but mostly for Jeff himself.

The storms and rains also bring humidity so mildiou will undoubtedly be a threat again. Treatments will be needed. Some vignerons in the area, and certainly in cooler regions, will be pruning and cutting back the lush growth of vines. This allows more air to circulate and therefore hopefully reduce the risk of mildiou. In the Languedoc, heat and sunshine is more common and the grapes will need protection from the direct sun so Jeff prefers not to cut back the main growth, the frequent winds will allow air to circulate naturally without it. However, some particularly vigorous branches will be cut.

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Some vine branches might need to be removed

The other main vineyard task will be to remove the gourmands, the buds and branches which grow directly on the bottom part of the vine trunk. These simply use up the vines’ energy.

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Gourmands (side branches) growing on the trunk of the vine

Finally the palissage wires need to be tightened as they have heavier vines to support. The vine branches can grow between 10cm and 15cm per day at present.

Meanwhile bottling, tidying, cleaning and alterations are happening in the cellars and wine salons/tastings have to be attended to sell the wines that remain (not so many this year). The vignerons must be as vigorous as their vines.

Let’s hope that the stormy weather passes without further damage and that nature helps the vines for the rest of this summer allowing them to produce as well as they can in 2015 and to recover and become stronger for 2016.

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Healthy growth in Rome vineyard

 


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There May be trouble ahead – disease

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Version française

May was a drying month. Lots of sunshine with temperatures comfortably in the high 20s almost every day. However, this year was also marked by high winds. The Tramontane / Mistral blew for over a week and was truly maddening. Other winds meant the vines spent almost three weeks blowin’ in them.

With the rise in temperatures during the day and cool nights natural problems emerged. Oidium or powdery mildew showed itself first encouraged by the humidity resulting from daytime heat and cold nights.

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Oidium on buds and leaves

This was followed by mildiou or downy mildew and vignerons all around the region were talking about its appearance by mid May. And in fact the high winds were helpful here, drying the vines and lessening the impact of mildew. At this stage if the vigneron can get on top of the disease then it is not a huge problem unlike if it were to get amongst the grapes later in the season as this could influence the taste of the wine.

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Mildiou on a leaf near Margon

 

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Mildiou scars and chemical treatment used to treat it (Margon)

 

Oidium can be treated by pesticides. Pesticides refers to any treatment which will get rid of problems, animal or fungal. Conventional vignerons will use chemicals or synthetic products to spray onto the vines. Organic producers also use a chemical, sulphur (I shall use the UK spelling of sulfur). Many non organic producers point out that sulphur is chemical and does damage life in the vineyard such as yeasts. Organic producers would counter that sulphur has little lasting effect especially on the soils and that sulphur is natural. The amount used will vary depending on the year, in 2014 Jeff used less than a quarter of the amount he had to use in 2013 when there was more oidium around. Other organic / natural producers will no doubt have used more as Jeff uses the least possible. Indeed on Saturday morning he was spraying between 2 and 5 in the morning as he feels that during the night the vines are more relaxed and take the sulphur better, so needing less of it. Not all vignerons would be doing that! In addition he uses horsetail weed and nettles in a tisane to treat the vines so as to use less sulphur. This practice is common amongst organic and biodynamic producers. Conventional producers can use various chemicals instead.

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A conventional spray

 

Organic producers would say that these are absorbed by the plant rather than just being in contact with it and so the vine becomes resistant and needs more of the treatment. Many conventional vignerons would deny this and say that synthetic chemicals are longer lasting and reduce quantities.

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This monstrous looking machine directs spray onto the vines more directly (Alignan du Vent)

 

Mildew is more complex. The traditonal treatment is copper, again a natural product but one which does leave its impact upon the soils and their ecosystem, for example killing worms and some mushrooms/fungae which support the soil. This inevitably draws criticism from conventional producers. Organic producers in one of the licensing bodies, Ecocert, are allowed to use up to 30kg per hectare over a 5 year period, averaging 6kg per year but amounts can vary annually according to the risk of mildew within the 5 year limit. Jeff used 2.9kg in 2013 but only 0.9kg in 2014 so well under the limits allowed.

So as a wine buyer you have choices to make. As ever much depends on the producer. There are some who spray chemicals in large quantities, usually for cheaper, bulk wines. Select wines by the producer if you know them, knowing that their practices aim to support the health of their soils and their vines.

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Healthy flowering

However, May brought one final twist in its tail. Just as the winds helped relieve the problem of mildew they created a new problem. Jeff contacted me on Friday to say that coulure was showing in the Syrah vines of one vineyard. Coulure is the uneven development of grapes. Flowering is a highly delicate time for the vigneron as they are very fragile. The wind damaged some of them and the Syrah vines especially. Without a flower the grape can’t develop. So the bunch will have some but not all grapes, leading to reduced yields.

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Coulure, missing flowers means missing grapes

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Not a clear picture but you can see the uneven development

The remaining grapes will grow a little larger to compensate but not enough to make up the losses. Not good news, especially for lovers of Vin Des Amis like me. All the vigneron can do is wait and see how things develop, patience is required. As ever nature rules the day.

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At least one member of the team is laid back!