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


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2021, vintage views

Vintage Chart by The Wine Society

When I first became interested in wine vintages were one of the mysteries which intrigued and infuriated in equal measure. Back in the 80s and 90s Bordeaux and Burgundy ruled the world of wine (plus ca change) and anyone wanting to buy such wines looked at vintage reports, vintage charts and vintage prices to research which wines to seek out. A 1989 or 1990 Bordeaux (my first venture into en primeur purchases) was superior to a 1987 or 1994 simply because of the weather in those years. Things have changed.

Climate change is an obvious cause, it is a rare year now where grapes don’t ripen in cool conditions. Indeed we are in a situation where Bordeaux now allows different grapes, such as this blog’s favourite Castets, to temper the (over)ripe Cabernet and Merlot. Burgundy producers worry about the future of Pinot Noir in their region, a grape which now thrives in cooler Alsace and Germany for example.

Better winemaking and vineyard care are the other major reasons why wines tend to be more consistent year on year. Science, technology and the education of new generations of winemakers mean that vines are given cover crops, different canopy systems, grapes are fermented cooler or longer or on skins more than they used to be. Winemakers through skill (and maybe some artifice) are able to smooth out those vintage chart curves, very few years would now be as scorned as those 87s.

For Jeff Coutelou in the hot Languedoc you’d assume that vintages weren’t that important either. There is hot sunshine every year, grapes ripen ready for harvesting by early September. But there subtle differences, sometimes less subtle. 2017 had a big outbreak of mildew, 2019 saw temperatures reach 45c (I remember it well). Those 2019 grapes were actually harvested in prime condition, the best of any of the seven vintages I have helped with, as good as any Jeff can recall. There was little sorting to do. Yet, those grapes proved difficult in the cellar, fermentations slowed and got stuck, not all but many. The fermentations were not completed until the temperatures picked up again in the Spring of 2020. Was that a product of the overheating of the previous summer?

Outstanding Grenache in La Garrigue this year

Every year is different. Similar problems arise due to climate and disease, drought, mildew, oidium, ver de la grappe. The scale of those issues varies though and in different vineyards. The Grenache of La Garrigue was badly hit in 2020 and produced tiny yields. This year when most vineyards suffered that Grenache was beautiful and abundant. Such vagaries are what keeps a vigneron on her/his toes. What quantities of wine will there be from each vineyard? Will there be some outstanding grapes that should be used for a special cuvée? What might be blended to provide the wine for popular cuvées such as Classe or Le Vin Des Amis? With twenty tanks full of fermenting grapes Jeff must juggle figures, analyses, tastings in order to decide what to do with those wines.

Decisions, decisions

2021 was undoubtedly a vintage which reflects most the circumstances of the year, in my opinion more than any of those seven I have witnessed. It was shaped by the frost of April 12th. That single night wreaked havoc upon the vineyards, throughout France yes, certainly for Jeff. Havoc all the worse in that it was unexpected, there was no warning that it would hit the area. 50-70% of potential fruit was wiped out in those few hours, hitting the vines as they flowered and began to bud. From there on 2021 was a year of catch up. Yes the vines, some of them anyway, produced secondary bunches but nothing like the quality and quantity of what was lost. The vines though were weakened by that night, a situation compounded by ongoing drought. Jeff told me that there was only one significant rainfall in Puimisson from the previous October through to the end of summer. This is a perennial issue in the Languedoc now, climate change in action. The consequence of frost and drought was vines pushing energy towards survival rather than fruit and that when summer’s heat and humidity combined to produce oidium (powdery mildew) the vines had little resistance.

Doom and gloom. And yet there was that Grenache. And most of the fruit was decent quality and fermented well (though with delayed malolactic fermentation in some cases). And the resulting wines taste very well after those fermentations. Jeff will make good wines. He will have to juggle those figures again and no doubt produce different final wines to the norm, there isn’t the quantity to make all the usual bottles. Indeed I can report that Jeff bought in some grapes to bulk out his own this year. Carignan and Syrah were brought back from the Minervois thanks to Vivien Hemelsdael of Le Clos Des Jarres, an excellent producer of natural wines himself. That area was relatively untouched by the frost and Vivien kindly agreed to provide grapes to his friend. Matteo, Steeve, Louis and Jeff went to pick those grapes and were enthusiastic about them, especially the Carignan. Incidentally I can honestly recommend seeking out the Clos Des Jarres wines.

2021 will certainly be a year that Jeff recalls with little fondness. Personally I was delighted to be back there after missing out in 2020. Moreover it was an excellent team to work with, I thoroughly enjoyed being a part of it. The white wines which I tasted from tank just before I left Puimisson are in fine fettle, Jeff assures me that the reds are too. Perhaps vintage is less important to wines these days, but do remember unfortunately there won’t be much of them from Jeff Coutelou. There were new aspects of winemaking in 2021 though and I shall be reporting on how Jeff is looking to the future as well as getting the best out of this year. 2021’s wines were certainly a reflection of the difficult year, maybe vintage does matter after all.

The team, by Manu


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Vinisud – the Languedoc

vinisud2016

And so, to the Languedoc and I visited a number of domaines, some I knew already some were names I wanted to follow up. I am glad to report that the region more than held its own against the others represented. The Languedoc, and Roussillon, are sources of great wines.

Chateau Maris is in the Minervois area, I enjoyed their wines at Millésime Bio last year and was pleased to taste the new vintages. Some were brut de cuve (straight from the tank so immature) and still a little young for me to really appreciate but there were some good bottles especially Las Combes 2014, 100% Grenache with ripe, round fruit balanced with soft tannins. Lovely now, better in a couple of years.

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Domaine Gros-Tollot produce Minervois wines as well as other wines which are made outside the appellation rules. I confess to some bias against the domaine at first, two top Burgundy producers with a side project in the Languedoc? Surely this can’t be honest Languedoc wines. I was proved completely wrong. The wines are excellent, soft fruits with structure and complexity behind them, often from an outstanding use of oak which really does melt into the wine, adding to its aromas and flavours. I liked all the wines such as 2014 La 50/50, Fontanilles 14, and Combettes 14 which is produced from Marselan grapes, very much a Languedoc wine. Best of the bunch for me was La Ciaude 14 made from one vineyard of Syrah, Carignan and a little Grenache.

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Mas Gabriel is a firm favourite of mine, almost a  neighbour in the village of Caux. We enjoyed a chat with Deborah Core as well as tasting the new vintages of some of my favourite Languedoc wines such as the Carignan Blanc Clos Des Papillons. Special mention though for Les Fleurs Sauvages 2015, the rosé is medium coloured, clear though delicate red fruits and scents of those wild flowers. Very clean and dry it is a top quality rosé, which deservedly sells out very quickly.

Le Conte Des Floris comes next, also based in Caux, though the new cellar is in Pézenas. I love the wines of this domaine, I can’t remember a dull one. Driving forces behind the Wine Mosaic project Daniel and Catherine Conte Des Floris make a great Carignan Blanc Lune Blanche, the 13 was excellent. I really liked Carbonifère 12 and Homo Habilis 12 but my favourite was the Carignan Noir wine Basaltique 2014. Classic Carignan red fruits with an earthy, dark side adding complexity and, undoubtedly, longevity. Amazingly long, very fresh, full of flavour – one of my favourite wines of the whole event. This is one of the very best Languedoc domaines.

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Alain Chabanon is a renowned Languedoc producer, I am told he takes no prisoners but it was his wife who presented the wines. I have tasted them before, eg at last year’s Montpeyroux Portes Ouvertes, but they were on better form here. Campredon 14 and Saut De Côté 12 were both very good but my star was Les Boissières 2012. A classic Languedoc blend of Grenache/ Syrah/ Mourvèdre there was a depth of red fruits on the nose and in the mouth with complexity from 24 months of maturing before bottling. I preferred these three wines with classic Languedoc cépages to the more famous Merlot based wines which he makes. Incidentally his website is terrific with a short video of him presenting each of the cuvées and good technical detail.

Domaine De La Marfée is another which I would consider to be one of the very best Languedoc producers, and another I know thanks to Leon. I highlighted every single one of the wines in my notebook, from the lovely Blanc 13 to the most structured of their wines Champs Murmures 12. Complex, full, fruity, Della Francesca 12 and Les Vignes Qu’On Abat 12 were equally good but I actually chose the simplest of their red wines as my star on this occasion. Les Gamines 2013 is Mourvèdre/ Syrah and a little Grenache with a lighter structure than the other reds but no less complexity and fruit. I liked it so much that when we went out to eat at Trinque Fougasse in Montpellier that night I chose this wine to accompany the excellent food. Rare to find a whole range which is outstanding but Domaine De La Marfée achieves it.

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Domaine Canet Valette is yet another Languedoc star name, this time from the St. Chinian area. The reds are the stand out wines, Marc Valette described Antonyme as a vin de soif, his beaujolais, and it is a good everyday wine. I have often bought bottles of Une Et Mille Nuits in the past and the 2013  has delicious soft red fruits. The most famous name here though is Maghani and with reason. Marc served three vintages, 08, 10 and 14 and though the older vintages showed just how well it ages it was the Maghani 14 which I liked most. Concentrated and tannic still (this was a bottle made just for the event) there is an enormous depth of red fruits and real power, yet beautifully balanced.

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With Marc Valette

Mas Des Capitelles is a Faugères producer whose Carignan, Loris, was a wine which I really liked at a Millésime Bio offline where tasting reds was difficult. I wondered how in better conditions their wines would hold up and I am delighted to say they were even better. Catiède is classic Faugères from a vineyard under biodynamic conversion, 13 and 14 were good. The Vieilles Vignes 13 and 14 were even better, nice gentle use of oak to add complexity and extra depth from the greater use of Mourvèdre. Loris was good again, a new favourite of mine. Then we came to a series of three wines which the Laugé family make only in special years when they have an exceptional crop of one grape. Collection no. 1 2007 was made from Mourvèdre (with a small amount of Carignan and Syrah), and was chosen by the magazine Terre De Vins as one of their top 12 Languedoc wines. And for once I agree with a magazine! Complexity in a bottle, still fresh and youthful after all these years, great wine in short. Collection No. 2 is from 2011 and this time it was the Syrah which was exceptional and so dominates this wine. And no spitting this wine, I drank my glass. The Syrah leaps from the glass with its dark and red fruit aromas, the flavours match up and are deep and long. Great Syrah, great Faugères. I was also treated to a sample of the Collection No. 3 which will again be Mourvèdre led and it didn’t disappoint. Hard to choose just one wine but Collection No. 2  and that memorable Syrah just edges it for me.

Faugères is, in my opinion, the Languedoc’s star region and I enjoyed meeting up with other favourite producers in their area of Vinisud (incidentally it was very useful to have the producers from one region all in on area). My friend and top class producer Brigitte Chevalier of Domaine De Cébène was there; Jérôme Py of Causse Noire whose wines are getting better and better including a lovely Mathias 2011; and Jérôme Rateau of Haut Lignières as well as his eponymous range including an excellent Sur Le Fil 14 which is not yet bottled.

Finally it was a pleasant surprise to run into one stand just as I was preparing to leave Vinisud. Les Beaux Nezs Rouges was a group of natural wine producers sharing the stand. Amongst them were three very good producers from Aspiran, David Caer (Clos Mathélisse), Grégory White and Régis Pichon (Domaine Ribiera). I like the wines of all three and it was good to finish the salon on a high with a just a hint of the new style of winemaking. (More on David Caer on my wine of the week page.)

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Régis and Grégory beneath their red nose images

A very enjoyable salon, lots of good wines and a range of food stalls, wine accessories and various wine related activities. This is a salon for the trade and lots of business was being done all around. At the heart though is the wine and, happily, it remained the star of the show.

Part 1 of my Vinisud experience is here.