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


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The rise and fall of natural wines?

 

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I read an interesting article by Alice Feiring last week. Ms Feiring is perhaps the most high profile, long term advocate of natural wines but in this article she raised a number of issues which have also been troubling me in recent months.

There is little doubt that natural wines have become fashionable around the world. New producers, cavistes and bar / restaurants spring up weekly. Even the North East of England (my home region) now has a wine bar offering natural wines “for the adventurous”! So, a half hearted effort but a start.

During vendanges we had a number of visits from cavistes seeking wines from Jeff. Alas they would leave disappointed as there are few enough wines to meet the demand of existing customers after low yields in 2017. This year’s mildew attacks mean even more rationing next year. We have reached the stage where even supermarkets and major chains such as Majestic in the UK are wanting to stock natural wines. Supply, not just from Jeff, does not meet the demand.

As ever where there is demand we see some jumping in to meet it. Some so called natural wines are not organically produced for example, to me that means they are not natural wines. There are lots of younger, newer producers who want to make genuine wines but there are also some who are undoubtedly riding the bandwagon to make a profit.

Demand also means that some producers are taking shortcuts to get their wines to market quickly. Feiring refers to this and the ensuing faults which may arise, I have seen other references to mousiness being one flaw caused by premature bottling. Some wine drinkers are complicit in this by accepting flaws as part of the character and style of natural wines. This is a complex area, I am more tolerant of brett (farmyard, band aid aromas caused by harmful bacteria) than some but very intolerant of mousiness which 20% of people can’t detect at all!*

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However, I want to drink wines which taste of clean, healthy fruit not faults. I won’t buy from producers whose wines regularly exhibit such flaws, according to Feiring a lot of drinkers don’t see them as problems at all. To my mind there will be a reaction against natural wines, such is the nature of fashion. The wines which will still be in demand will be those of quality, made for easy drinking or for the long term.

 

Jeff Coutelou is certainly one producer of such wines. My advice is to drink Coutelou of course but also to seek out reliable, quality winemakers from around the world. Reliable merchants or cavistes will surely point you in the right direction much better than chains or supermarkets. For my part I shall also try to recommend wines and winemakers whom I trust. And, I hasten to point out, I have had more problem with conventional wines and faults than natural wines in the last year.

*Looking forward to reading the new book by Jamie Goode about wine flaws


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On higher ground

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En francais

The last article described the ongoing problems in the Languedoc with mildew spoiling vines and grapes. Last Saturday Jeff  invited me over to try and beat the blues a little. Steve from Besançon was staying with Jeff for a week to learn a bit more about being a vigneron. They had opened a bottle of La Vigne Haute 2013 on the previous evening and Jeff invited me over to try the last glass from the bottle.

When I arrived on the Saturday morning Jeff was spraying the Flower Power vineyard, Font D’Oulette. When he had finished we returned to his house and I had the remaining 2013, delicious it was too, still youthful but starting to add tertiary notes to the fruit. Jeff decided to open the 2010 to show how age helps La Vigne Haute to reveal its quality and depth; fruit, spice and leathery complexity. A bottle demonstrating perfectly why La Vigne Haute is my favourite wine of all. However, that was not the end. From his personal cellar emerged a 2001 LVH with no label. Still vibrant with fruit singing and yet more complexity of spice, classic black pepper notes. Simply excellent.

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So, was that the end? Not at all.  More Syrah from older vintages, 1998, 1997 and 1993. Each was still alive with black fruit and those spicy notes. The 91 was Jeff’s first solo bottling, a real privilege to taste it. He had added, all those years ago, a total of 5mg of SO2, pretty much absorbed now, and would certainly qualify as natural wine from a time when it was virtually unknown. A treasure trove of history as well as further proof of how well these wines do mature, there were no off notes at all.  Indeed, they were delicious.

A 1999 Cabernet Sauvignon showed the quality of that grape from the region and how well it aged. There were still currant flavours, violets and more spice. A fresh acidity cleansed the palate. I hadn’t known what to expect, I was bowled over.

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Legendary Roberta

And to finish the 5 hour lunch a bottle of Roberta, the 2003 white wine made from all three Grenache grapes, one of Jeff’s first no added sulphite wines, aged in a special barrel which gives the wine its name. It is a treat I have tasted on a handful of special occasions, its nutty, round fruit was a perfect ending to a special day. Whatever 2018 brings this was a reminder of the special Coutelou wines.

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Why wines appeal, or how Jeff Coutelou has changed my taste!

 

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Pinot Noir in Nelson

 

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Reflecting still on my trip down under, my thoughts turned to the question of taste. It is personal of course, a wine which appeals to me may not be to your palate and vice versa. I was delighted to receive an email from Peter Gorley about his recent trip to New Zealand and specifically his tastings of Pinot Noir. Peter is someone whose wine knowledge and appreciation I have great respect for and trust in. His book on the Languedoc is a must buy based on his experience of living there for many years.

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It was clear that Peter was much more enthusiastic about the Pinots he tasted than I was. There were a few we tasted in common though Peter’s tastings were far more extensive especially in the North Island and Marlborough. I honestly trust Peter’s judgements, so why was I less convinced?

 

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The Surveyor Thomson was one we  both tasted

 

I think it is fair to say that Jeff Coutelou has changed my taste in wine. And I am very happy that he has done so  before anyone thinks that sounds like a complaint. Before I really got to know Jeff 10 years ago my taste in wine was very conventional and I rated most highly the wines which garnered praise and were ‘typical’ of their type, variety and place. After sharing so much with Jeff, his own fabulous wines and wines from many other natural producers, I know that my taste has altered.

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I rate enjoyment and excitement much more highly than other factors these days. Does the wine taste good? Is it fruity, clean? Does it make me want to try another glass? Is there a vibrancy about the wine?

I taste wines, both natural and conventional, that can give me positive answers to those questions and much more besides. I taste wines, both natural and conventional, which unfortunately do not. These days it is natural wines which form the majority of wines which fall into the first category. In New Zealand I found too many Pinot wines trying to be aged Burgundy rather than a genuine expression of their place. There is a convention of how good wine tastes and many producers, not just Kiwis, seem to want to be included in that convention. I get more excitement from those who let the grapes speak and produce wine where they are not manipulated to meet a convention.

 

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Kindeli, one of the NZ producers I enjoyed most. I have bought some since returning to the UK

 

That is not to criticise Peter in any way. He included Jeff in his book, has an open mind about wine and I share many of his favourites. We are different. I have spent so much time with Jeff that my palate is inevitably the one which has changed to prefer the natural style. That doesn’t make me right or wrong. We are different, taste is different. Chacun à son gout.

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An excellent article to read from The Guardian


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Reading

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I may be away from the action of the Coutelou vineyards but my fascination with wine, and particularly natural wine, continues to grow. I have recently read two things which I thought were worth sharing on here.

Firstly from Bibendum came this piece of information about the UK.

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This growth of interest in natural wines is, of course, very pleasing to me, a long time advocate of the style. Not all these wines are natural but the interest in this sector shows a shift in demand and, also, realisation from merchants that the demand is there.

Caveat emptor! Not all wines labelled as ‘natural’ are that, a consequence of the lack of regulation. In particular beware high street retailers with wines from big companies. Artisans who practice natural methods in the vineyard and cellar are what matter to me. To identify such producers you could do worse than look at the website ‘vinsnaturels’ which is in French and English. The app Raisin is another useful way to locate producers and retailers.

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The most interesting article I have read though was from The Wine Enthusiast, written by Anne Krebiehl MW. In it she describes what we are learning about soils and the life which is in there. The rhizosphere is the soil immediately surrounding the vine roots and research is revealing the microbial and fungal life in there. This is something which Jeff has described to me over the years and it is fascinating to look at soils with small white fungal fibres which form a network around the vines, supporting them with nutrition and chemicals whilst benefiting themselves from the vines in a symbiotic relationship. Encouraging life in the soils is, therefore, hugely important; reducing their compaction from tractors etc as much as possible, composting them, avoiding chemicals where possible.

Mycorrhizae in Rome vineyard

There is much research still to be done and we are in the early days of understanding how the soils influence the vine and, consequently, the wine. However, early research supports the careful management of soils and vines by vignerons such as Jeff Coutelou. Respect the environment, encourage life. As he said after the recent damage done to his vineyards the best response is to plant. Trees, bushes, flowers, any plants. Encourage ecosystems and they will repay our guardianship.


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Decanter’s first natural wine tasting

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A sign of acceptance in the mainstream wine world? Decanter magazine held its first tasting of natural wines recently. Simon Woolf, Andrew Jefford and Sarah Jane Evans were charged with the tasting and I think that is a very fair minded trio of experienced tasters.

The first issue they faced was how to classify a selection of natural wines and Simon explained on his very good blog themorningclaret.com how they adopted the rules of RAW, the natural wine fairs organised by Isabelle Legeron. That means organic/biodynamic production (preferably certified), hand harvesting, no modern techniques such as reverse osmosis, no fining or filtration and no cultured yeasts. Of course the issue of sulphites was central to discussion, as it so often is, and RAW’s rules allow up to 70mg/l so this tasting allowed the same. When I attended and reported on RAW this spring I made it clear that I view this as too high but that was the rule laid down here.

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122 wines were tasted mainly based on bottles provided by UK retailers. Interestingly, and inevitably, the three tasters produced very different results. Being a Decanter tasting they were required to give marks (which I increasingly dislike) but the comments and selections are well worth reading. The results and top ten wines for each of the tasters is available on Simon’s blog here along with a link for a pdf of the Decanter article. The full list of wines tasted is here.

I have obviously been drinking too much wine as I know the vast majority of these 122 bottles. Their top wine turned out to be La Stoppa’s Ageno 2011 and I have praised this domaine before as well as that wine, so no argument from me. My own views would differ from all three but that is the nature of tasting (and why marks make little sense to me). Kreydenweiss, COS, Occhipinti, Haywire, Meinklang, Muster, Sainte-Croix and Testalonga are all firm favourites of mine so, in fact, I would agree with many of the selections.

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I highlight this event because I think it is a landmark in that a very conservative magazine (I didn’t renew my subscription many years ago because of its very traditional bias) has brought natural wine on board. I believe natural wine should be willing to accept constructive criticism from such fair minded critics and so this is an important step in the right direction.

Also worth noting is the sheer spread of producers from all corners of the globe, natural wine is not going away it is growing in popularity with consumers and producers. Note too that some big producers are making  versions of natural wine, a trend mentioned on these pages before. Whilst I personally may not regard them too sympathetically at least it is a sign that the philosophy behind natural wine is winning support.

So, well done Decanter, and Simon Woolf in particular, for promoting this tasting.

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Wonderful wines which definitely pass muster with me

 


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Le Vin De Mes Amis – a sparkling event

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Le Vin De Mes Amis is the biggest of the offline events in Montpellier. It takes place at Domaine De Verchant, a luxurious hotel providing a very good lunch as well as the dozens of producers. Labelled a natural wine event, it actually includes many biodynamic and organic producers who do not make natural wines. There were many good wines available to taste, however, I would admit that, overall, I was slightly underwhelmed this year in comparison to the 2016 event.

There were some very good still wines notably:

Maxime Magnon (Corbières) – Magnon is a producer who Jeff recommended to me a few years ago and though I have had one or two of his wines this was the first occasion I had been able to taste a few together. Every single bottle was very good, white and red. The round white fruits of the Grenache Gris, the deeper Rozeta and Campagnès (all 2015) but especially the Métisse 2016 with delicious light, clear red fruit flavours of Grenache, Carignan and Cinsault. The star of the show.

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Christophe Pacalet (Beaujolais) – classic fruity Beaujolais wines but with some complexity especially the Julienas and Moulin À Vent (both 2015), the latter with darker fruit flavours, the former so very drinkable.

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Olivier Cohen (Languedoc) – a young producer whose wines were very drinkable, especially the Rond SNoirS made from Syrah and Grenache with lovely round fruit flavours and some depth.

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Chateau des Rontets (Pouilly Fuissé) – an organic producer with lovely clear wines, classically Pouilly Fuissé especially the minerally, zesty fruits of Una Tantum 2015 an assemblage from all parcels.

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Domaine Vacheron (Sancerre) – one of the first domaines I visited in France many years ago, now a celebrated biodynamic producer of very clean and lovely Sancerre. I liked the range, especially the Guigne Chèvre 2015.

There were a few disappointments along the way I freely admit, including some well-known producers. However, what really made the event fizz was the range of sparkling wines. These are not usually my favourite types of wine at all so to have a number of such bottles amongst my favourites of the week’s tastings was a surprise to me. From Champagne to PetNat and, especially amazing to me, Limoux. Let me explain the latter point first.

I have stayed in Limoux a few times, I have tasted many Blanquettes and Crémants from there. Virtually all have been disappointing, lacking flavour and length. When my friends Benoît and Nicholas told me to try the wines of Monsieur S I was highly sceptical but they were correct and I discovered my favourite wines of the day along with those of Magnon. The white and red still wines were good but it was the sparklers which shone. A vibrant non dosage Blanquette showed lovely white fruit flavours; the Rosé De Saignée with just a little red Pinot Noir fruit and, especially, a delightful green apple Crémant (100% Chardonnay). These were far and away the best Limoux wines I have come across. Well done Étienne Fort, the producer. However, that would not be to give them enough validation, these are top class sparkling wines from any region.

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Champagne Jacquesson – very good champagnes with a clarity of fruit and minerality, I really liked them but Cuvée 735 (based on the classic combination of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier) was my favourite with more evolved flavours from the base of 2007 wines.

Champagne Clandestin – biodynamic since 1998 but this was a new range to me and a lovely discovery. This seems to be a group of producers with Vouette et Sorbée as the principal one. There was a depth of fruit and fine mousse and I really enjoyed them all including the non SO2 Saignée De Sorbée 2012. Stars were the cuvées Fidèle, a 2014 of Pinot Noir with round, ripe Pinot Noir fruit and Blanc D’Argile a pure Chardonnay with an amazing (and delicious) rhubarb flavour, very clean and fresh.

Jousset (Montlouis) – Producers of very good still wines but it was the PetNats which were the stars. Mosquito had a very grapey flavour with a nice clean finish. Then two cuvées called Ėxilé, a rosé and a white, both were lovely. The rosé had lovely ripe Gamay fruit and a very dry yeasty freshness. The blanc was even better with vibrant, clean Chardonnay and Chenin Blanc fruit, a wine to simply enjoy.

It was these sparkling wines, along with Magnon’s, which left a lasting impression and would be top of my list to buy. Le Vin De Mes Amis is a great event in a beautiful setting which caters for its attendees with real style.

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Reflecting on a good day with a glass of .. water

 


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Natural Wine -where to find out more

The growth of interest in natural wine continues unabated and I am often asked where people can find out more about them. Hopefully the answer is partly within the pages of this blog but there are other sources which I would recommend.

Books

My favourite book on matural wines is called, not unreasonably, “Natural Wine” written by Isabelle Legeron. Isabelle is a long term natural wine supporter and organises RAW which runs wine fairs in London (March 12/13 this year) and elsewhere including New York. Her book explains vineyard and cellar practices as well as tackling misconceptions about natural wines. It is a very well written and illustrated book and would be my advice to anyone wanting to learn about the subject.

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Two other books worth buying:

Per and Brit Karlsson’s “Biodynamic, Organic and Natural Winemaking” and Jamie Goode’s “Authentic Wine”. Both look at the technical side of winemaking and how natural wines have to adapt to overcome the lack of a safety net. I am a big fan of Jamie Goode’s writing. His book “Wine Science” is possibly the most used book I own and his website (link below) is also well worth following as he writes well about all wines, including natural wines.

There is also the writing of Alice Feiring, perhaps natural wine’s most famous advocate in the USA.

Websites

There are dozens of websites on natural wine, I could recommend many but these are a handful I read regularly (apologies for overlooking some).

My top website recommendation would be vinsnaturels.fr which includes valuable detail on producers, salons and retailers with lots of detail about vineyard, cellar and bottle. And Cédric has now produced an English version (small declaration of interest in that I helped with the translation).

Jamie Goode’s Wine Anorak is updated most days with articles and wine reviews across many styles of wine. Jamie is open minded and fair and includes regular pieces about natural wine.

Wine terroirs includes visits to many French natural winemakers and has thorough details on the winemaking and different cuvées of each producer. It is often where I turn for detail first.

I include my friend David Crossley’s website without any apology. David has tasted wine around the world and has great insight into quality wine. From Austria to the Jura David was often there long before others and his website includes terrific tasting notes and guides to the regions.

In French the blogs of Vincent Pousson and David Farge are must follows.

Video

The film “Natural Resistance” looks at the Italian natural wine scene and promotes the producers’ ethical and philosophical approaches to winemaking. Jonathan Nossiter portrays natural wine as a form of resistance. It’s worth watching though a little over stated at times.

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This, my own, blog tries to explain natural wines, how they are made and the philosophy behind them. I hope that by searching the blog posts you will find plenty of information. Just this week Jancis Robinson’s site included an extraordinary attack on natural wine by Caroline Gilby MW, repeating many inaccurate clichés on the subject. I do hope that the recommendations above will help to counter the prejudice of so many involved in the wine business who seem threatened by the new wave of wine.