amarchinthevines

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


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Routine and variety – Vendanges 17

Ambroise, Selene and Vincent in the Syrah

A week into picking and the team is in a routine, working smoothly to steadily bring in the grapes. The quality remains high but there can now be no doubt that the ongoing dry spell has taken its toll. Quantities are down by up to 50%, bottles of the 2017 Mas Coutelou wines will be more difficult to seek out I’m afraid and, inevitably, more expensive.

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Flower Power

Thursday saw the Flower Power vineyard picked (Rec D’Oulette to give it the proper name) and just 7 cases of grapes were returned from the 0,4ha of vines. They are young still and will have found it hard to cope with the arid conditions.

Julien and Max in Rome

Rome, too, was picked and I went along as this is my favourite vineyard. Cinsault, Muscat and all three types of Grenache were harvested. From Peilhan came Grenache Gris and a few rows of the Maccabeu which will go into the PM rosé wine.

Muscat, Grenache Blanc and Cinsault (left from Rome), Grenache Gris and Maccabeu from Peilhan on the right

By now we are into the second stage of the vendanges. The grapes picked previously have been sitting on skins for varying lengths of time to extract colour and flavour but they will be separated when Jeff decides that further contact will not enhance the wine further. The juice is pumped to a new tank leaving the skins and pips behind to be used as marc for distilling.

 

This process of remontage is carried out increasingly as more tanks fill up. Tracking which wines are where is a skill in itself, each time the wine will be tasted and sent for analysis to ensure that acidity, sugars, potential alcohol are all correct and no nasty surprises await.

Jeff took me round a few of the vineyards to check on their progress for picking. We started with the Carignan, then on to the Mourvèdre and Cinsault of Segrairals. In all cases the pips and stalks showed us that more time was needed, they are still a little too green. Tasting the grapes showed plenty of sweet fruit but that greenness would not be good in the finished wine.

Cinsault after pressing

Cinsault after pressing, like modern art

 

Friday was based in the biggest parcel, Segrairals. Cinsault grapes first, to be pressed immediately so that a light pink juice emerges ready to be blended with the other rosé grapes. This happened on Saturday so that all the rosé grapes will ferment together to blend fully. Jeff explained to me that Cinsault is harder to press than most, the large berries contain a lot of pulp which breaks down less easily.

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Syrah, Segrairals

 

Afterwards the remaining Syrah was tackled, again I went along to help with a bit of picking as well as doing the sorting with Jeff back in the cellar. The tri was not too difficult as good, firm bunches of healthy grapes came in case after case. Never mind the width feel the quality seems to be the motto, for Jeff’s sake greater quantity would be welcome.

More remontage, more testing in the cellar. It was good to see the white wines in good condition with fermentation already lively; bready, yeasty smells began to fill the cellar. More Syrah would be picked on Saturday morning but, readers, I admit that I took a break. The hard work, rich variety of grapes and early mornings meant that this time AMarch was not in the vines.

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And they’re off – Vendanges 17

 

No more racing metaphors I promise but today, Thursday August 24th, the Mas Coutelou 2017 harvest began. Just a gentle canter rather than a full gallop start to events with several rows of Sauvignon Blanc and Muscat vines picked. They will be vinified separately, the Sauvignon went into the large press immediately, the Muscat is lying on skins for a few hours. Julien made the first cut just after 7.30 this morning (photos above).

There was a good team of helpers available coming from Italy, Spain, France and, of course, the UK. Carole was back too which always brightens the day. The day was rather overcast and humid, which made the back breaking job of picking all the more tiring but we pressed on until the vines were finished at around 1pm, so five and a half hours of work.

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My own first bucket with leaf to identify the Sauvignon Blanc

In the cellar Jeff was anxious about how ripe the grapes were in La Garrigue so was a little relieved when the first readings came in around the 14° potential alcohol mark. There was a generous aroma of green apples coming from the press which augurs well. The Muscat was certainly riper, the grapes full of that hallmark Muscatty taste – they are the wine grapes which taste of grapes!

Caisses unloaded, grapes put into the press and the first juice flows

So, a good start, the team found its rhythm, gelled through conversation and over lunch and we attack the Muscat of Peilhan tomorrow. The bit is between the teeth, the finishing line is still far in the distance but on we go.

And for fans of Icare! Well, he’s still firmly in charge.

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Under starter’s orders

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Le patron earlier tending his vines

Version francaise

Other than wine my main interest is horse racing and I couldn’t help feeling a similarity as I toured the vineyards at Mas Coutelou this morning. The trainer has prepared his charges to the best of his ability throughout the year, faced up to problems of weather and disease, been up all night tending them and must now carefully select when they are at their peak for the big challenge ahead. Meanwhile his assistants and stable hands gather together, friends old and new to lend a hand to the master and to learn from him.

Old Cinsault vines of Rome

OK, maybe I am getting carried away. However, there is a feeling on the eve of my 4th vendanges of excitement that the race is on to bring in the best possible harvest from the grapes. Through winter, spring and early summer all went well, the rain came, the sun shone, the vines grew well. Latterly there have been setbacks it must be said. There has been next to no rain since June and the ground is once more parched. Some of the vines are stressed and their sap has lowered. This means that instead of concentrating energy into the grapes and ripening them fully the vines are protecting themselves. That is a real shame as everything was set for a top class vintage, now we have to wait and see what the next few weeks bring along. Rain is currently absent from the weather forecast, let’s hope that the meteorologists are mistaken.

Flower Power and ‘friends’

That said as I toured the vines I was impressed by the quality of the grapes. Yes the vines look tired, they should at this time of year as they ought to be giving everything to the fruit rather than the plant.

The grapes though look healthy, big bunches in the Carignan vineyard (above) for example though there is still some greenness in the juice and the pips. The Muscat is yellow, orange and flecked with gold and tastes very characteristic with its floral, sweet notes. They will be harvested on Friday, the Carignan in weeks to come.

Ones to follow? Well, in Peilhan the Castets looked lovely and tasted even better. Flower Power has so much more fruit this year though the snails are still present. The Grenache of La Garrigue, Syrah of Sainte Suzanne and the splendid old Cinsault vines of Rome would be my tips for future winners. There will be others which will surprise and delight, and hopefully few will prove lame and disappointing. (That racing metaphor just won’t go away!)

 

Meanwhile back at the cellar; cleaning, checking the equipment (the large press being serviced above) and even bottling the skin contact Carignan Blanc which James took charge of last year.

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James served his time here in Puimisson, learned and has just completed his first vendanges with his own wines in the Adelaide hills in Australia. Vincent’s vines in the Béarn are easing towards maturity, Julien has his vines here in the Languedoc. The team are back in Puimisson though, together with Michel and myself. And joining us this year is Ambroise from the Loire, come to learn too (in the photo with Vincent).

And even Jeff will be learning as two new arrivals from Spain will mean a new form of vinification this year. They will take their place alongside the (much) smaller amphora dating back to Julius Caesar which was donated to Jeff during the winter.

So we are under starter’s orders, Jeff will press the button on Thursday morning and we’ll be off. Let’s hope for a classic year.


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Brief return to Mas Coutelou

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Version francaise

After my sojourn in Alsace it was great to return to the Languedoc. Sadly I was already aware that due to a bereavement I would have to leave within a couple of days to return to the UK. However, I was able to spend one of my two days there with Jeff and amongst those vines which I had missed so much.

It was a great time to be there, the vines were in full flower, many already past that stage showing the new grapes, firstly with their brown hoods and then just the green baby berry itself.

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The vines were looking very healthy, plentiful rain in the winter and a sharp frost in early spring had allowed the vines to rest, to gather their strength for the season ahead – a sharp contrast to 2016. Greenery aplenty, wild flowers blooming and, during my visit to Peilhan, I saw a young deer running through the vines and a pheasant. Clearly the Coutelou vines attract wildlife to its oasis amongst the surrounding desert of chemically treated soils.

During the previous weeks the soils of Peilhan had been ploughed, by a horse. Gentler on the soils Jeff asked a local man to till.

Peilhan horse

He himself was giving the soil a light rotivation that afternoon, turning the plants and flowers amongst the vines into the soil, a natural composting. Icare, with an injured paw, and I watched on in the sunshine.

 

The only real problem this year has been the return of the snails. Last year they ravaged Font D’Oulette (the Flower Power vineyard) so that only a few cases of grapes could be picked. Fortunately, that vineyard has been spared this year but they are out in force in the largest vineyard, Segrairals. It was there that I also found Michel, Julien and Vincent working, tightening the wires of the palissage and removing side shoots etc from the vines.

In the afternoon we tasted through the 2016 vines and, they are so different even from February when I tasted them last. The whites are splendid, highlight a hugely successful long maceration Muscat. The reds such as the Carignan were very good and the top wine of the year will be the Mourvèdre, a silky, complex wine with huge depth of flavour – a treat for the short and long term. 2016 was a difficult year but Jeff has still produced some great wines.

So, I look forward to getting back to Puimisson as soon as possible, to follow the vintage further and see the latest progress. There is bottling to be done and plenty more besides.

The cellar is transformed, painted with the new office and floor and the stainless steel cuves plumbed in for temperature control. And perhaps, most interesting of all, there is an amphora. This is the trendy method of vinification around the world. However, very few winemakers have an amphora dating from the time of Julius Caesar with which to make wine. Jeff plans to use it this year, connecting his wine to those made 2,000 years ago. Wines with links to the past, present and future, Mas Coutelou has soul!

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Mas Coutelou 2016

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Tasting September 27th

It was a year of difficulties as I have reported on here many times. From a virtually arid winter and spring to a chilly early summer and then a very hot summer the vines had a struggle to cope with the bizarre climate. Add in a hail storm, snails eating away large numbers of grapes and mildew. No surprise then that the quantity of wine produced was much reduced, bottles will be much scarcer than previous years – so when you get the chance buy them. If quantity is down then what about quality?

I have had the good fortune to taste through the range of wines on two occasions. On September 27th the wines were in their infancy settling in tank, the team got together to gain first impressions. In late January and in February this year I tasted them again with a number of visitors. What I tasted was the wine from the different vineyards before it was then assembled into the various cuvées which Jeff will eventually put out. Therefore, my notes are about the ingredients rather than the finished dish.

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Tasting January 28th

I decided to simply publish my notes as I wrote them on the two occasions – no editing, just my personal impression at the time. Already these wines had changed a great deal after 4-5 months and they will have changed again even before being assembled into Le Vin Des Amis etc.  I have chosen only the main wines, there are several other cuves with other wines but these are the main wines of Mas Coutelou.

September 2016

January / February 17

  1. Muscat Petits Grains – 2 weeks maceration, fairly neutral nose but fresh Muscatty flavour with tannins / texture. Orange flavour in there – G

Nose is Muscatty and orange blossom. No real grapey Muscat flavours but a dry                   wine, fresh,  direct and clean. Little drying on finish but coming together well. – G

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  1. Carignan Blanc – little reduced on nose, nice fresh acidity and appley fruit. Still cloudy – G

This has improved, white flower aromas, fresh, white fruits, very long – VG

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  1. Maccabeu/Grenache Gris/ Muscat – Lovely pears and red apples. Fresh acidity, lovely. Full, nice texture – VG

Some residual sugar still but direct fresh fruit – pears and apples – G

  1. Cinsault (Segrairals) – assembled with marc from Syrah. Nice fresh acidity – OK

Not tasted 

5. Grenache Ste Suzanne – Little green, quite acid, some spicy after notes. A bit tart –             OK

 11.5%, light but fruity and grapey, lost its tartness, more round – QG

Lovely grenache

Grenache just picked

6. Syrah Ste Suzanne – Nice, perfumed, red fruits, good acidity and soft tannins – G

Very attractive red fruit nose, has some heft yet only 12%, rich and easy to drink – G

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Syrah from Ste Suzanne

 7. Flower Power (plus others) – Round red fruits, lively, red fruit flavours – QG

Syrah and Cinsault in there too, nose is lovely, really attractive with red fruits and              floral. Nice round easy fruits – G

8. Syrah Segrairals – Still fermenting, quite a lot of residual sugar. Nice, fresh acidity,              red fruits – G

Not tasted

9. Syrah La Garrigue – Slight acetate nose, Round dark fruits. Nice texture and mouth             filling – G

Dark, ripe round fruits on nose and flavour, plummy, a little closed, good tannins –             G

10. Grenache La Garrigue – Nice ripe cherry aromas, good acidity and texture. Ripe –                G+

Very fresh and open, round ripe fruits. A little residual sugar still – G+

11. Mourvedre – Very attractive floral aromas, some sugar still, raspberry fruit – G

Improved a lot, a little reduced but liquorice flavours, dark and how it builds in                  the mouth, could be a surprise star – VG

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Mourvedre I picked

12. Carignan – lovely dark fruit, very fruity and fresh flavours. Very clean finish,                      almost slatey minerality – VG

Still working, a little spritz. Quite acidic as yet but there are dark ripe fruits and                  these are playing together on the palate, will develop well – G

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Still fermenting

Overall, the general impression is of good quality with plenty of freshness and fruit to balance. Mourvedre could provide the star wine of the year which would be a surprise, though the Carignan will no doubt improve and be a star once again. The whites, in various styles, are again showing how good white wines can be in this region.  After a very problematic year it is surprising that the wines emerged so well, testament to healthy vines and a skilled winemaker.

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Celebrating 2016 with a lovely Bibonade rosé

 


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Little fish are sweet

En francais

How do you follow the Perfect Day? Apparently you just wait and, like the proverbial London bus, two come along together.

March 8th dawned chilly, just 2°C when I left Margon at 8am, bright and clear, a perfect day for the last Spring bottling. The biodynamic calendar was favourable too, last day of the descending moon and a flower day.

In fact we started with a morning of habillage (labelling and packaging). The start of a longer process of habillage to prepare wines to send to cavistes around the world, it’s time to earn some money! This morning palettes of ‘5SO Simple’ and ‘7, Rue De La Pompe’ were put together, a smooth enough process as Jeff, Michel, Vincent and I have all done this many times now (I’m getting to be an old hand!). One interesting feature is how different regions require different labels, customs stamps and even palettes, the USA different to Europe for example. So making sure you have the right matériel demands some time and attention.

So far, so good. The banter was enjoyable as ever, Icare provided some amusement when, hiding under the rollers, he gave himself a shock when a case of bottles passed over his head. The day improved with the arrival of Thomas, a sommelier who spent time with us at vendanges, excellent company.  However, the day then took an unexpected turn for the better with a phone call from Sylvain, one of Jeff’s myriad friends. He is a scientist, intellectual and fisherman and phoned to say he was on his way. With him was a cool-box full of sea urchins, sea bass and black mullet – all freshly caught.

So, just after noon, we repaired to 7, Rue De La Pompe, the house rather than the bottle. There Sylvain prepared a feast. The oursins, fresh with their delicate tongues of iodine, concentrated flavours of the ocean; a sea urchin butter spread on fresh bread; sashimi of bass and mullet; sea bass marinated in olive oil and Jeff’s white wine vinegar; sea bass chips (little fried nuggets of flesh and skin); chunks of bass and mullet fried lightly in a tempura beer batter; fish egg omelette; barbecued sea bass; black mullet grilled with broccoli, then coated in a Japanese sauce. Totally delicious, everything was a delight, every morsel.

The freshness of the fish and Sylvain’s imagination and skill provided us with a 3 hour banquet, conversation around the role of fish and wine in religions, lighter topics too. Sometimes I have to pinch myself.

 

And, of course, wines.

Snow Balls 14, that curious cuvée of Sauvignon Blanc, Grenache Gris, Muscat and others, it shouldn’t work but it always does – so fresh, clean, dry and fruity, a perfect match with the sashimi for example.

5SO Simple 15, ( the best 5SO ever?), perfumed cherry Cinsault, dangerously fruity and moreish but with a little more texture this year. A good match for the cooked fish with its cleansing acidity.

La Vigne Haute 2010. Oh my word. This is my favourite Coutelou cuvée and the 2010 is stunning. Pure, pure Syrah, bottled joy. Deep brambly red fruit scents, as you sniff the wine you are drawn in to the luscious aromas. Rich, smooth texture with the softest of tannins supporting it, cassis and red fruit flavours and soooo long with flavours of chocolate and coffee emerging. OK I’m sounding poncey but seriously, this is fantastic wine. It will improve for a few years yet and I have some in my ‘cellar’, happy man.

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2010 La Vigne Haute and its maker

An indulgence, the whole meal. The kind of life affirming meal which everyone should enjoy from time to time.

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And yet, back to bottling on this clear, fresh day. A special cuvee, one of the little cuvées. A barrel of Maccabeu and Grenache Gris from 2012 which will be named after the top Spanish ham, 5J. The aim was to produce a wine like a light Fino, slightly oxidised but concentrated and fresh to match those hams. The barrel was formerly used for making cognac (adding more flavour) and the wine succeeds in its ambition.

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Vincent, Sylvain (standing centre), Thomas (kneeling) and Jeff

It resembles a light fino, it is dry and the slight oxidation adds complexity but it is the clear fruit which lingers, lifted by that barrel influence. I was reminded of the Jura white wines I love, a Ganévat for example, but the fino / light amontillado sherry reference rings true. It is utterly delicious. A special cuvée demands a special bottle, so 50cl flute bottles were used with a glass stopper rather than a cork. Just a few hundred bottles of something very special.

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The Maccabeu / Grenache Gris pressed in 2012 (photo by Jeff)

The barrel was then refilled with some of the top quality Maccabeu of 2015, ready for another delight in a few years. The treats continued though. Little fish are sweet. These were the words used by one of my heroes, WA (Arthur) Stephenson. He was a hugely successful horse racing trainer from my home area in County Durham and when his horse won the Cheltenham Gold Cup (jump racing’s top race) in 1987 he explained why he was at his local track instead of at the big meeting, “little fish are sweet”. As I had referenced Bowie last time I thought it was an apt and indulgent reference to the great man, who shared his time and thoughts generously whenever I spoke with him.

 

There was time to taste the Grenache wine which I made for my 100th blog post with the help of my friends. I intend to write a little more about this, suffice to say that the wine is developing very well in two different sized barrels and one super-sized glass bottle.

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Tasting the grenache

A tasting too of the 2015 Grenache Sélection De Grains Nobles, quietly maturing. Dark plummy colour, rich and round but it was black grapes that I could taste believe it or not with a sweet, raisin edge. A wine to wait for, and it will repay the patience I am sure.

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SGN Grenache

Finally, a 40 year old Muscat. Figgy aromas, black olive and molasses. No sign at all of tiredness just intense, thick, sweet nectar yet still an acidity to keep it in balance. Liquid sunshine, a long past summer captured in a bottle, revived in the glass for us. A perfect end to (another) perfect day.

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40 year old Muscat (and bottle)


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Living wine history

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Version française

As a History graduate and teacher I have always believed that to understand the present we must understand our history. Whether it be politics, culture, sport or, indeed, wine the route to the present gives us the fuller picture. In wine terms I relish the stories of the winemakers and how they came to their place in producing the wines we appreciate, that route often explains their philosophy and their hopes for the wines. I often hear from them, as in Clos Fantine or Domaine Montesquiou, how the family history and its relationship with the land influences how they nurture their soils, vines and wines.

Naturally, spending so much time at Mas Coutelou I have come to appreciate the story of the domaine and its roots and traditions through to its present. Nowhere is that history more alive than in one of its most unusual features, the solera system.

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I was talking to Rosemary George at the Mas Gabriel 10th anniversary dinner and I told her how a blog post she wrote first led me to Jeff’s door and, consequently, changed my story and journey to the Languedoc. Rosemary’s greatest memory of Mas Coutelou she said was of the solera system. It is certainly virtually unique in the region. After my initial tour of the vineyards and tasting with Jeff I was amazed by the discovery of a solera. Clearly it left an impact upon Rosemary too.

So, what is it? What is its own history?

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Soleras are usually associated with sherry. The word means ‘on the ground’ in Spanish. Barrels are filled with wine and the oldest wine is used to fill bottles though some of the wine is left. It is refilled from the next oldest barrel and that in turn by the third oldest. As each is only partly emptied the barrel’s contents become a mix of vintages. Traditionally, the oldest barrel is in on the ground and filled from above, hence the name solera. That ground barrel in Mas Coutelou’s solera is over 200 years old! The barrels also lose some of their contents through evaporation. The larger barrels (around 225 litres) lose around 6% of their wine per year, smaller barrels can lose up to 15%! Hence the need to replenish the barrels for natural reasons not just because they have been emptied.

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Michel removing must from muscat ready for the solera

The Coutelou system was started by Jeff’s great grandfather and has become a family tradition. Muscat and Grenache grapes are used to feed the solera each year. They can follow a route of being used for sweet or dry wines, they might be blended together or kept separately. Altogether there are 16 possible paths for the wines to take and Jeff must choose the most appropriate one based on his tasting experience.

The wines vary from the very dry to the very sweet and luscious. Some of the old Grenaches can be very like old amontillado sherries, lightly structured but packing power with long nutty, prune and raisin flavours which linger and fill your mouth. Others, especially the sweeter Muscats, are caramel, toffee and raisin in aroma and flavour and the wine clings to the glass with its viscosity. They are an utter delight and a special treat to savour slowly. Going from barrel to barrel in the two rooms where they lie there is an enormous range of wines, somehow Jeff keeps a record of them all in his head. As you taste them you are enjoying the results of decades of grapes from the lovingly tended vineyards, the work of generations of the family. This is tasting history.

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I love these wines, their complexity, aromas and flavours are captivating, making you smile, savour, sniff, speculate and sigh with pleasure. It is impossible to taste and to drink them without reflecting on the story of the wine and the people who made them. A sense of the past reinforced by the surroundings. The solera cellar contains all sorts of artefacts, equipment used in the vines and the cellars over the years as you can see above. It is a museum to great wines and to great people representing the history of the village and region too. The wines are that history in the glass, rich and rewarding.