amarchinthevines

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


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After the 2017s, the Coutelou 2018s

 

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Just before leaving the Languedoc for hibernation in the UK I was invited by Jeff Coutelou to taste through this year’s wines. Most are now finishing both fermentations and starting to settle for the winter in cuve. They will change and develop over the next few months of course, they are living wines and still in their infancy. Consequently, these observations are preliminary but, after five years of similar tastings, I feel more confident about predicting which way the wines will go.

2018 has undoubtedly been a troubled year for Jeff and fellow Languedoc producers, in particular those who follow organic and biodynamic principles. The damage began with the long period of rain in Spring and the mildew outbreak which ensued. Mildew damaged the flowers, buds and young grapes. It damaged the leaves making it more difficult for the vines to produce the energy to feed those grapes. Jeff cannot recall a year of such blight. This was followed by a very hot, very dry summer making the vines suffer still further, compounding their difficulty in producing good sized fruit. Yields are down some 50-60% following on from 2017 when they were down 20%.

With all those problems could good wines be made?

We started with white wines. The white grapes from the 2015 Peilhan plantation have been blended with others from older vines in Peilhan such as Carignan Blanc, Maccabeu and Grenache Gris. The small quantity means this will be used for a barrel aged wine. It had finished fermentation and had good fruit with a liquorice streak and depth of flavour. Another batch of the Grenache Gris and Maccabeu was still in malolactic fermentation and cloudy with apples and a directness. Similarly the whites from La Garrigue were still fermenting but with great depth of flavour. There will only be small quantities of any Coutelou white wine, the last couple of years have not been kind to them.

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Onto the reds.

Grenache was the variety which was most affected by mildew, the vines were not pretty and yields were very small. Many of the bunches did not form, many which did suffered from coulure (where only a few berries form) or produced dried, dessicated fruit. The vendangeurs had to be very selective. So was it worth picking? The Grenache from La Garrigue tasted clean with good fruit and a nice acidity. The Grenache from Sainte Suzanne was worst hit of all. Jeff made the wine with only a couple of days on stems as the fruit was delicate. The wine is light as a result, juicy with red fruits, light but tasty.

Cinsault usually provides another light wine and this vintage was no exception. Despite that it was very fruity on the nose and on the finish, a surprising depth of flavour. For rosé, 5SO or both? Jeff will decide as the wine develops.

The tank which will make Flower Power 2018 has a bewildering mix of grapes, from the Flower Power vineyard itself, Rome, some Syrah from Segrairals and the reds from the 2015 Peilhan plantation, eg Morastel and Riveyrenc Noir. There was a lot of mouth feel in the wine, with tannin and substance and a concentration of dark fruits.

Cabernet Sauvignon from the last picking has produced a real glouglou wine, light and juicy. It will bring a fruity freshness to any wine it is used for.

Carignan was one grape which resisted mildew for a long time. This is the parcel producing Flambadou, one of the flagship Coutelou wines. Once again it has produced a high quality wine. Lighter in alcohol than usual yet managing to produce a full, ripe and fresh wine whose flavours lingered long after swallowing it. I look forward to this one a lot.

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Carignan grapes

Perhaps the biggest surprise was the Mourvèdre. It has made good wines before, try the 2015 or 2016 for example. However it could be a real star this year. There was a great depth and freshness with dark fruit flavours made to feel lighter by light acidity leading to an almost saline finish. It would be almost drinkable now but will keep for many years and develop beautifully, I am sure of that.

Syrah from Sainte Suzanne was made using grappe entire or whole bunch. Around 14% abv it has a clean acidity with red fruits and soft tannins (from the stems?) which will support a good wine. The Syrah from Segrairals was quite different, the place and destemming produced a more upfront fruity wine with a clean, dry finish.

And, of course, there was the Syrah from La Garrigue, home of my favourite wine La Vigne Haute. Amazingly, in such a horrible year, the quality of these grapes was excellent. Only made in very good years and yet, hopefully, there will be a 2018 La Vigne Haute. The wine has great character already, freshness, fruit, long flavours supported with lovely tannins which will help the wine to age well. Exciting.

So, out of the ashes rises the phoenix, very good wines despite the vintage. The resilience and quality of the vineyards and vines as well as the winemaking skills of Jeff Coutelou.

 


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Wine with friends, the 2017 Coutelou wines

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One of the highlights of the last few weeks of the 2018 vendanges was tasting the wines from 2017. A group of our friends gathered to enjoy bottles kindly given by Jeff and we tasted through them, scoring them as went. I am not a great fan of wine scores but it was a simple way of tracking our preferences, we revisited scores regularly to ensure there was some context for the earlier marks.

We started with the OW of 2016, so a different vintage but yet to be released. I have tasted it regularly in recent weeks at vendanges lunches and I really like it. Many orange wines are being made but often they are based on grapes which have fairly neutral skins. OW is made from Muscat D’Alexandrie and the skins have a lot of flavour which the long maceration brings out together with the tannins. This has real character, one of my wines of the night. It must be said that for some of my friends it was too much of a shock, unused to skin contact wines they found it too different. If you like orange wines though, believe me, this is excellent.

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On to the reds. 2017 was a vintage of low yields due to the long, dry summer. However, it must be said one of the consequences is a concentration of flavour and high quality. The six wines we shared were all very good and consistent in their length and full flavour. Perhaps the most consistent of any vintage I have been involved with since I started in 2014.

Vin De Table is a supposedly simple wine. Don’t be fooled, it is very good. Assembled from wines left over from the main cuvées with quite a large portion of Merlot for good measure. It received consistently good scores from everyone, it was simply enjoyable and very drinkable, belying its simple status with good fruit, freshness and length. A bargain at the price of well under 10€ seen in many caves.

Tête À Claques was a wine originally made for London restaurants but now sold from the cellars. It is based on Le Vin Des Amis (what was left) to which was added Mourvèdre and other remaining wine. The Mourvèdre boosts the wine with some crunchy, dark fruit flavours and this was one person’s favourite wine of the night.

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The natural successor was Le Vin Des Amis. For two of the group this was their favourite wine of the evening. The 2017 version is based on Cinsault, not the norm. Blended with Syrah and Grenache the Cinsault gives a real lift of red fruit and the result is a classic VDA, a bottle which will please anyone and disappear quickly.

On to the other headlining wine of the Coutelou range, Classe. Syrah, Grenache and more Mourvèdre (there was also a pure Mourvèdre released in 2017 under the name of On Peut Pas Vraiment Dire Que). Classe usually adds a depth and silkiness compared to VDA, it lives up to its name and label. This was no exception, it really is a very good wine and one I would love to age for a year or two even though it would be hard to resist now. One person chose it as their highlight.

Flambadou has been one of the best wines of the domaine for the last few years. Pure Carignan from a vineyard with complex geology the 2017 version is up to those high standards with dark fruits, freshness and ripe tannins. It needs time to mature before it reaches its peak but this is one of my favourite wines and, from experience of this wine, I can tell this will develop into a top class wine.

My absolute favourite Coutelou wine is La Vigne Haute, the pure Syrah from La Garrigue. North facing, villefranchien rock the wine is only released as La Vigne Haute when Jeff decides it is of the required quality, just seven of the last nineteen years. This is the first time I have been involved with making LVH and I am thrilled with it. The fruit is already evident, it is complex, has dark edges as well as the fruit. The flavours are long and fresh with more ripe tannins. It is a beauty, it could be mistaken for a wine from the Rhone or Ardèche. Previous examples of this wine have shown me that it needs 5 years or more to be at it best, 2009 is excellent at present. This will be a wine to treasure for years to come. Three of us chose it as wine of the night.

Overall, my friends showed great taste in selecting La Vigne Haute as the clear leader in scoring (I hope my influence wasn’t too strong!). Classe and Le Vin Des Amis followed on a few points behind. However, all agreed as we enjoyed a wonderful half bottle of Vieux Grenache that the wines were excellent, consistently so.

Thanks to May and Martin for being such great hosts and providing lovely food to accompany the wines. And to Pat, Afshin, Denise, Matt and Jonathan for joining in and making it so enjoyable.

A special night. Jeff told me from the beginning that he makes his wines to be shared with friends and loved ones. This was a night to prove the wisdom of those words as well as the immense talent and passion of Jeff Coutelou.

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Vendanges 2018 – Part 6 (Grapes, work and love)

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2018 will be remembered by team Coutelou for mildew, hail, mechanical breakdowns and successive problems. Yet as we reached the end of the vendanges the habitual feelings of pride, camaraderie and friendship were to the fore.

Though the harvest of Mourvèdre the previous week was the last of the major parcels Jeff had left grapes in Peilhan to pick. The reason was a visit by a film crew from Netflix making a programme (or series) about different ways of making wine in the region from cave co-ops to big scale producers and négotiants like Bertrand to the natural producer which is Jeff Coutelou.

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Some of the camera equipment

Carignan Blanc and Muscat D’Alexandrie was picked in the morning, even I did 4.5 hours of picking. Over the final harvest lunch (my favourite Fideua plus jeroboams of the first Amphora wine) the crew joined us and then filmed the afternoon picking of the new plantation of Peilhan with its Piquepoul Gris and Riveyrenc Gris. They shot scenes in the cellar as we sorted and then carried out a long interview with Jeff. I am not really allowed to say much more until the broadcast and shall update when we get the date.

And that was it. The last grapes. There remains much work to do with the processes I described here needing to continue for all the wines in tank, from the first to these last. The Muscat will go to make a maceration orange wine as in 2016, a wine I truly love and which has featured regularly through harvest lunches.

Carignan Blanc, Riveyrenc Gris, sorting the last cases

It is time for Jeff to count the costs of these vendanges in terms of actual production and I shall feedback when things settle down. Suffice to say we had a big drop in quantity, the Coutelou wines will be even harder to find. Having tasted most, if not all, as they ferment steadily I can say that quality remains high, Flower Power, Carignan, La Garrigue Syrah and Mourvedre especially.

Muscat and the new plantation grapes in cuve

Jeff’s motto of “grapes, work and love” is never more true than at this time of year. We have worked hard, we have formed friendships and made the best of what nature gave.

Amphora jeroboam poured by our resident sommelier Louis, Michel shows his team loyalty


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Vendanges 2018 – Part 4

Monday 10th to Friday 14th

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Cuves containing new wine including, potentially, La Vigne Haute. Note how the near one is far from full, this is 2018!

A hectic and busy week, including 12 hour days. The picking team had reduced in number therefore Jeff Coutelou had to make the time work to best advantage. Grenache Gris was amongst grapes picked on Monday to head towards rosé and other cuvées. The main focus though was the Carignan of Flambadou, the flagship of the domaine for the last few years. It may well be joined in cuve by the small, juicy berries of that rare Cépage, Castets.

Cabernet Sauvignon followed on Tuesday and Wednesday with more Syrah and Cinsault from different parts of the vineyards. Mourvèdre was the last big block of vines to be tackled and took a very full day on Thursday to pick. This parcel in Segrairals has varied topography, the lower parts become a little damp and are more prone to rot. It is important for Michel to convey not just the grapes but also the location of the grapes picked so that triage is made more efficient.

Top left – Carignan, top right – Castets, below Grenache Gris

By now Jeff was concerned that some of the vines were becoming so stressed by all the issues this year, mildew above all, that they were struggling to ripen the grapes. In order to ensure the health of the vines for next year it was no longer worth pushing them that little bit further so that next year would be compromised. Vines are fragile, living things which need to be looked after, Jeff nurtures them carefully.

Whilst picking was in full swing and cases were stacked up for sorting there was plenty of activity in the cellar. Wines in cuve or tank need treating carefully too, ensuring the juice ferments into wine with nothing added to it requires the vigneron makes good decisions about, for example, levels of acidity and alcohol, exposure to air and skins. I shall be coming back to this in the next post in a couple of days time.

And, after all that work, it is all too tiring for some of us!

 


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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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Vendanges 17 – briefing

Yes that is Jeff Coutelou in his briefs. Why?

It’s a simple explanation honestly. The tank of Mourvèdre was ready for remontage. That is where juice from the bottom of the tank is pumped over the cap of grape skins, pips etc (the must) which rise during fermentation. That cap becomes hard and there is a risk of bacterial infection plus the whole idea of having the skins in there is to extract tannins, colour and flavour so it’s pointless having them separated from the juice.

A normal pigeage

You may recall that this was the tank where Jeff had to improvise last Monday when the érafloir broke down. Some of the bunches were destemmed, others went in whole bunch. There is therefore a higher than usual amount of solid material in the tank. This had formed a solid cap and Jeff needed it to be pushed back into the juice. A fork was used at first as is normal (the process called pigeage), but the crust was too firm. So, Jeff took off his boots and socks and climbed in.

This is dangerous for two reasons. He could fall through the cap and into the juice and, secondly, there is a lot of carbon dioxide coming from the fermentation which, as I found out, can make you ill. So hanging on to the sides and with myself and Matthieu ready to catch hold Jeff pushed down with his feet onto the cap.

He described the cap as cold but underneath the fermentation meant that the juice was hot. As Jeff pushed down the cap it was fascinating to see the gentle bubbling of the fermentation process, sadly it was too dark for the camera to pick up. As he pushed the cap down, Jeff needed to push lower so, off came the trousers. Moving around the tank the cap began to sink bit by bit.

Out he came and a normal remontage took place though in his briefs!

And the wine? Well it tastes very good, perhaps with more legs in the glass than usual.

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ABC – Vendanges 17

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“Quelle journée!” That was how Jeff messaged me on Monday evening. Safe to say things didn’t go exactly to plan, nor did Plan B work so it was Plan C in the end. What am I talking about? Let me explain a day which shows how impromptu thinking is important.

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Mourvedre waiting to be picked

Plan A was straightforward and, maybe, things had gone too smoothly up till then. I wrote recently how the team was in the groove and the grapes were being harvested efficiently. Monday was the day for the Mourvèdre to be picked, a real star of the 2016 crop, hopes were high for a repeat.

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Jeff surveys the Mourvèdre under a gorgeous sky

Everything began well. A silvery dawn revealed grapes in tip top condition though smaller yields in keeping with the vintage. The first cases arrived and I was sorting through them with Matthieu, a trainee sommelier on work placement. And then the destemmer (érafloir) suddenly stopped. On opening the main body Jeff found the fan belt off and one of the wheels sheered away. No easy fix.

These cases were sorted Plan A ; the offending mechanics

We had already destemmed 20 cases or so and the grapes were in stainless steel tank. With no érafloir, however, we could not destem. Jeff declared that we would have to move to whole bunches. We moved upstairs to the new mezzanine floor created in the cellar renovations of the last two years. Trapdoors in the floor are positioned above the tanks and big plastic chutes are connected so that the bunches can fall through into the tank. The cases are brought by Michel to the upper floor via the garden and then sorted just as carefully.

 

The tank was now filled with destemmed bunches and lots of juice but also whole bunches in amongst that. This was Plan B. A neighbour then offered the use of his destemmer which was brought down and put in place whilst Plan B was working. We started this and did a few cases of destemming again but it was a big machine, meant for huge quantities of grapes and was too powerful for the amount we were processing.

Jeremy and Matthieu sort whole bunches

Lunchtime. Reflection. Back to Plan B, whole bunches.

Meanwhile Jeff took the original destemmer to the repairers who declared it unrepairable! However, these were the same people who had renovated the cellar and they kindly offered Jeff the use of a third érafloir. Plan C. This proved just the job, even quieter and more efficient than the original. So, we have an interesting tank of Mourvèdre, a millefeuille of grapes, juice and stems. No doubt it will still produce very good wine as the grapes were healthy and of very good quality. However, it had been a day to try Jeff’s patience whilst other tanks also demanded his attention.

The third érafloir of the day ; Matthieu and Ambroise

He had also damaged one of the large tubes used for pumping the grapes and juice first thing, I think a black cat must have crossed his path on the walk to the cellar that morning! All’s well that ends well however, but it was certainly proof that you need to have contingencies and how experience can help a vigneron to overcome adversity.

Magnificent Mourvèdre ; In tank