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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Harvest 2019 – Mother Nature’s Son

En francais

Sunrise over the Carignan

One of the flagship wines for the Coutelou range in recent years has been Flambadou, made from 100% Carignan Noir in the vineyard Rec D’Oulette (locally known as Chemin De Pailhès). Wine writer Jancis Robinson is amongst those who have praised Flambadou for its dark fruit flavours, subtle tannins and sheer pleasure as well as its ability to age well.

Therefore, it was something of a surprise that Carignan suffered so much this year, especially as a result of the intense heatwave of June 28th. This was the case for vines across the region and Carignan seemed to suffer more than most, a surprise as it is a native of Spain and the Mediterranean, and, therefore, accustomed to heat. Whole vines were grilled in some parts of the Languedoc.

Carignan after the heatwave

In the days following June 28th Jeff’s Carignan showed clear signs of stress, bunches were dried out especially towards the tip. It was almost like the bunch protected itself nearer to the vine itself but the extreme grapes were sacrificed. I have no scientific or botanical justification for that but that is the impression the bunches gave me. On Thursday September 19th (Day 16 of vendanges) it was time to harvest the Carignan.

I helped to pick for two or three hours. The rain of the previous week had left the ground very muddy underfoot so it was hard going. Some rows of the parcel were better than others, careful selection and cutting out of the dried sections was required. After picking I went back to help sorting in the cellar whilst the picking continued.

The Carignan was to be made whole bunch, the first time Jeff had ever done so. Don’t get me wrong there was plenty of good fruit but it had certainly suffered and quantity was, of course, well down on average. More Carignan was added to the tank from Peilhan on Friday 20th, a parcel less affected by the heat than the main Carignan, baffling.

The other problem with the vintage had been coulure and millerandage. These are two sides of the same coin, damage caused to the bunches during the flowering stage by wind so that some of the grapes did not form. The combination of that and the damage of June 28th meant that some bunches were quite open to the elements.

Regular readers will know that leaves the bunches prone to disease but fortunately that was not a problem this year. On the other hand ver de la grappe did take advantage. The grapevine moth lands on the loose bunch, lays its eggs and when they hatch the little worm (ver) buries into the grapes to form its cocoon. The grape is spoiled and its juice runs on to surrounding grapes which can attract rot. Whilst picking I came across one moth sitting on a bunch.

So, in many ways the Carignan was a reflection of the vintage – small quantity because of heat damage, coulure, millerandage and ver de la grappe. However, also a reflection in that much of the fruit was full flavoured, concentrated and delicious. On Monday 23rd we tasted some of the juice from the tank and it was delicious, I know I could be accused of bias but it is honestly true. Let’s not exaggerate the difficulties, the vast majority of the fruit is fine. The Carignan has most definitely been Mother Nature’s Son.

Carignan juice 4 days after picking

And that was it, picking for 2019 was finished. Much work remains in the cellar, for example pressing the reds which have been macerating on skins and pulp for up to two weeks. Jeff must also make the decisions about which wines will be blended with others to balance acidity, flavour and alcohol levels.

How the Carignan emerges will be my biggest point of interest for this vintage. What I am confident of is that Jeff Coutelou will make into something well worth drinking.

Days 16 & 17


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Almost there

En francais

Grenache Noir in Rome

Vendanges will begin on September 2nd, hopefully. A tour of the vineyards on August 19th brought me up to speed with their progress. Mostly it is good news with a little bit of not so good news, take your pick. Let’s start with the negatives which are outweighed by the positives I promise.

Look at how dry the vegetation is in the background and in the Carignan to the left

This has been another year of drought in the region. Sceptics of climate change, if they remain, need to meet up with life in southern France. From 45c temperatures to lack of rainfall agriculturalists such as vignerons have had to cope for the present and plan for the future. Bordeaux is permitting new grape varieties into their blends as these grapes will cope better with higher temperatures (incidentally Castets is one of those grapes, one which we know from Jeff Coutelou’s vines). Many producers here in the Languedoc are using irrigation, no longer frowned upon by authorities. Others, like Jeff refuse to do so believing that irrigation is not natural and disguises the true taste of a vintage and the terroir.

Small Syrah grapes in La Garrigue

The consequence for the vines this year is that whilst the berries are healthy they are smaller than usual, lacking in juice. Unless we get some rain before harvest quantities will be much reduced, the wine may be very concentrated. In such drought conditions vines even start to take back water from the berries so as to survive for the future. After several years of problems from frost, hail, mildew and drought it would have been a relief for many producers to have a bountiful yield, it looks unlikely.

Green berries in the Carignan, millerandage

The other main negatives will also mean lower yields this year, millerandage and coulure. The photo above shows a lot of green berries in the Carignan bunches amongst the black grapes. This is the result of problems in Spring when a cooler, windy spell damaged the flowers and fruit set. This means some bunches don’t grow at all or have many berries missing, coulure. Sometimes the berries mature at different rates or not at all, millerandage. There will need to be careful sorting in the vineyard and cellar when harvest is under way.

Millerandage in Piquepoul Gris to the left, coulure in June on the right

However, there are plenty of positives, let’s not get too gloomy. The bunches are healthy and plentiful for one. From Grenache in La Garrigue to Cinsault in Rome I tasted some sweet and flavoursome grapes. They are still acidic and need time but the fruit flavour is developing well, the pips starting to turn brown, a sign of maturity.

Seeing the many varieties of grapes in the Coutelou range was also rewarding, the Riveyrenc Noir, Piquepoul Gris, Muscat Noir in these photos (left to right) being just three of dozens. There’s even a Chasselas in Rome, the variety which is used as a benchmark for ripening. All other varieties are compared to Chasselas’ average ripening time, a clue as to when to pick.

Chasselas

Jeff has rested a few days during the local féria, a lovely party was held with some special bottles. Next up will be the cleaning of machinery and tanks, we are set fair.

PS – just after publishing this I saw a tweet from Louis Roederer in Champagne saying their harvest would be limited by … lack of rain and millerandage. Plus ca change…


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Vendanges 2018 – Part 2

 

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Tuesday 4th to Thursday 6th September

After the break harvest really kicked into gear this week. One of the effects of mildew (and compounded by the hail storm later) was damage to foliage. The vine uses the foliage to ripen the grapes but also to nourish itself via photosynthesis. Damaged and desiccated leaves mean that there comes a point where the vine struggles to ripen the grapes any more and, even worse for the winemaker, things go into reverse; the vine begins to take back nutrients from the grapes in order to feed itself. This will have consequences not just this year but into the future, as the vine has struggles so much and is weak, it will not be at its best next year and further ahead.

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Riveyrenc Gris grapes in good health but note the mildewed leaves 

Therefore, Jeff Coutelou has had to spend a lot of time in the vines ensuring that he knows exactly the health and condition of the vines to get the best possible grapes for this year whilst being mindful about the health of the vines. A balancing act to cause him more stress in a difficult year.

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Tuesday saw some lovely Muscat being harvested from Peilhan, the grape which smells of grapes. The video below shows them being pressed and I wish I could convey the lovely fresh, grapey aromas which emerged from the press.

 

This is Muscat being made for dry wine, in 2016 for example the Muscat D’Alexandrie made a lovely orange wine which we have shared at lunch. Afterwards the pickers moved into the 2015 plantation at the top of Peilhan, the 12 rows of Morastel, Terret Noir and Riveyrenc Noir picked to blend with Syrah from Sainte Suzanne where the pickers headed next.

On a beautiful Wednesday morning the remaining Syrah was picked. Jeff decided to make a grappe entière wine so Julien and I headed into the top of the cellar to sort the grapes and send them through the chute into the tank. This had been given a dose of CO2 to encourage the fermentation of the grapes inside their skins. After a short period the skins will burst and the resulting juice will have a light, fruitiness. This process is called carbonic maceration. Sorting meant removing any leaves and other vineyard products such as spiders and snails. Mainly though we were looking for the dried grains of berries damaged by mildew and the green, unformed berries caused by millerandage.

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Onto Thursday and the deployment of two teams of pickers. The Moroccan crew picked some lovely bunches of Macabeu from Peilhan before moving on to Syrah from Segrairals.

 

Macabeu and Syrah (note the green unformed berries needing to be sorted

We were also joined by a number of pickers who would tackle some of the more interesting vineyards. As a result of mildew damage in Faugères some growers have little or nothing to harvest and some of their pickers came to join the Coutelou team. And we were joined by Louis who, having completed his professional baccalauréat has begun a course to help him achieve his ambition of becoming a sommelier. His stage will certainly teach him a lot about vines and wines, the numerous cépages he picked will certainly have opened his eyes to the wide world of wine.

This team picked my favourite vineyard, Rome, with its old Cinsault vines, Muscats of various kinds and all three versions of Grenache. In the afternoon the moved on to Font D’Oulette now simply referred to as Flower Power after the wine made from the numerous cépages in there. Using two teams meant that cases were returned thick and fast by Michel and Julien and I had a long, back breaking day sorting these grapes.

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Julien and Nathan sort the last case on Thursday from Flower Power

I have to say the juice tastes great, fruity with good acidity. Now all we need is for the yeasts to play their part and ferment that juice into good wines. The picture below shows yeasts at work in a tank where some of the skins from the pressing of last week’s Grenache. As with the grapey Muscat these bready aromas deserve to be more widely shared. Vendanges is all about the senses.

And, for Icare lovers around the world, he is taking a very keen interest in this year’s harvest.

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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.