This photo was taken on October 6th in Font D’Oulette, the 0.6ha Flower Power vineyard. It tells a number of stories.
Look at the vineyard itself. Small, youthful vines, only six or seven years old with a rich variety of cépages including some rare ones such as different varieties of Oeillade, Clairette Musquée and one known simply as Inconnue as its origin is unknown. This complantation of cépages was typical of the old ways of growing vines. The use of gobelet training rather than the use of wired trellises (palissage) is another example of traditional viticulture. This vineyard tells a story of how old ways are often better, its wine has already garnered much praise.
Look also at the vineyard behind Font D’Oulette. You will see vines looking very different. The vines are a rich green in colour and their foliage is still lush. This forms a contrast with the autumnal yellow of Flower Power. This is the result of neighbours’ vineyards being treated with large quantities of chemical fertilisers, especially nitrates. These artificially boost the growth and colour of the vine. Flower Power’s vines, on the other hand, are allowed to develop at their natural pace.
The vineyard is surrounded by olive and fruit trees as well as ditches. This is deliberate on Jeff’s part because he wants to create a barrier to the neighbouring vineyards. When it rains in the Languedoc, it often rains hard causing the soils to wash away. Sometimes, the soils are compacted by machinery and the treatments on the vines are washed away with the rain. Since Font D’Oulette is in a bowl this would mean that neighbours soils and chemicals would run onto Jeff’s parcel so he uses the ditches and vegetation to prevent his vines from being affected.
When I mention vendanges to most people they think of grape picking and, maybe, putting the grapes into a tank (cuve). However, vendanges means much more than that and we are now entering stage two of the process.
Flower Power in cuve
Muscat in cuve
When the grapes have been picked and sorted they are stored in a cuve where the juice interacts with the skins extracting flavour, colour and also coming into contact with the yeasts which grow naturally on the skins. These yeasts then begin the process of fermentation which turns the sugars in the juice into an alcoholic wine. This mix of juice, skins, pips and flesh is known as must.
So, whilst picking continues at Mas Coutelou Jeff must already plan what is happening to those cuves of grapes which were picked a few days ago, You will remember from #1 that we picked Grenache and Syrah on days 1 and 2 and that they were in cuves 2A and 2B. They are picking up colour and the fermentation means that the sweet grape juice of last Wednesday is already very different. Still plenty of raspberry and red fruit flavours but the sugar levels have fallen and the liquid is now more austere, a little acidic and with a weight of alcohol. It has turned from child into young adult.
Today – Grenache and Syrah has matured
To ensure that the grape skins do not give unpleasant flavours, volatility etc., Jeff must ensure they do not dry out as they float on the juice, forming what is known as the cap (chapeau). Therefore, wine is pumped from the bottom of the cuve over the top of the chapeau to push it down a little and to moisten it. This is known as remontage.
Carole carries out a remontage
Alternatively, an instrument or hand can be used to push the chapeau down into the juice, a process called pigeage.
James performs a pigeage
When Jeff is satisfied that the juice is ready and has had optimal skin contact he will begin pressing the must to leave the final juice. We await the first press as yet but it will be in the next couple of days as the Grenache and Syrah are already showing their adolescence.
Meanwhile picking continues. Friday saw Sauvignon Blanc and Muscat À Petits Grains as the first white grapes of 2016 at the domaine. Monday saw the picking of the Merlot from Colombié which will, unusually, find its place in the Coutelou cuvées. I am no great fan of Merlot but the grapes were lovely and the juice tastes especially rich and full.
Today (Tuesday) was Flower Power day, sadly the snails won the battle this year. They ate so many of the buds in Spring that the vines struggled to produce much. The dryness merely confirmed Font D’Oulette would be low yielding in 2016. Around twenty cases is not much return for such a lovely parcel of vines. High quality grapes from the various cépages but very low quantity.
Clairette and Oeillade from Peilhan with some Grenache Gris and Muscat Noir was added to the mix. Also picked was the Cinsault from Rome which was in good condition with nice big berries. So my two favourite vineyards are already harvested.
James models the lovely Segrairals Syrah
Finally, some lovely Syrah from Segrairals was picked and there will be much more of this tomorrow. This Syrah is such good quality that Jeff is already excited about what he can do with it. Segrairals is the biggest vineyard of the domaine and is also serving up some of its best fruit.
Charles, Vincent and the new sorting table
A new sorting table was brought into play this week and it is certainly much more efficient than the previous method of sorting from the cases themselves. Triage of better quality but also much speedier too. The table is already paying for itself.
So, stage 1 (picking) is well under way, stage 2 (the must in cuve) is under way for some and stage 3 (pressing) will shortly begin. The jigsaw is already becoming more complicated for Jeff Coutelou.
On March 17th we were in Font D’Oulette vineyard which, at just over 0,6 ha, is a small parcel replanted around 6 years ago with a variety of old Languedoc cépages such as Aramon Noir, Aramon Gris, Oeillade and the very rare Clairette Musquée. The grapes are picked together to make a single cuvée representing the parcel , Flower Power. This first appeared in 2014 and has made an impact already, selected by La Revue Du Vin De France as one of the Languedoc’s top 50 wines. As the vines age we can only anticipate eagerly what they will produce in future.
However, not all young vines thrive and some needed to be replaced. Two alternatives were in place this day as the rain fell steadily.
The second method was to graft onto the root stocks already in situ, something I had not seen before. The American root stock has to be used to protect against phylloxera which destroyed much of France’s vineyards in the 19th century. There are different methods of grafting such as ‘chip and bud’ but Jeff brought in a specialist, Tanguy, who uses a method known as ‘greffe en fente’.
The old vine is cut away to reveal the root stock. A very sharp knife, repeatedly sharpened through the day, cleans the surface and then inserts a cut through the wood revealing its core.
The cut is supported by tying string around it. The vine wood is also cut, as if sharpening it to make a thin wedge which is inserted into the cut root stock. The idea is to get the core of the two pieces as close as possible. This is then fastened tightly with the string. The graft is complete.
It looks simple but isn’t that the mark of a skilful worker, making something complicated look easy? Have a look at the video below to see the process in one go.
The vine is staked for support, always to the side which will help the vine against the prevailing north westerly winds. Jeff had brought some basalt soil from the Auvergne and this was then placed around the grafted vine poured into the body of a plastic bottle placed around the vine .
Basalt is one of the oldest forms of rock, roche mère (mother earth or bedrock) and is packed with nutrients. This will help the vine to grow well and by filling the bottle around the vine it is surrounded with top quality soil. Organic compost is added to the hole and then the earth is hoed back over it all, removing the bottle of course.
There is a risk. Up to 20% of vine grafts do not take in theory and with greffe en fente the whole vine would have to be grubbed up next year and replanted. Other methods can simply replace the graft. However, this method is the best for the vine itself and the most likely to take.
So what were the vines? Cinsault, Aramon Noir and Inconnue No.3. Inconnue means unknown, so why is it called this? The original vine was found in an old vineyard where it had never been catalogued. It was taken by the organic nursery where Jeff buys his vines and it was studied but was discovered to have never been indexed. it is unique, unknown, hence its name. One of its benefits is that it is resistant to oidium and it will also add diversity to this complanted vineyard with about 100 of the Inconnue No.3 vines being added. A hint of mystery to the blend.
The vine canes, only about 7-8 cm will be used
A fascinating day despite the rain which soaked us all to the skin. It was hard graft but a rich, rewarding day celebrated at lunchtime with a magnum of… well it had to be Flower Power.
Four or five years ago I drank a bottle of ‘L’Oeillade’ of Mas Des Chimeres, a domaine near Lac Salagou. Oeillade is a local name for Cinsault (possibly a forerunner of Cinsault) and the wine is a light, dangerously gluggable red which was an excellent wine for the summer when I drank it. That makes the wine sound simple but it has complexity too. Incidentally, I tasted the Chimeres range at Millésime Bio and enjoyed them a great deal. Look out for Domaine La Fontude in the same area which is also making lovely wines including Cinsault.
Mas De Chimeres range including L’Oeillade
That Cinsault wine surprised me as I associated the grape with rosé wines and indeed that is how most winemakers use it in the region. However, since then I have come across more red Cinsault bottles which have excited me. Les Chemins De Traverse is produced by La Baronne in Corbieres (see Day 3) whilst L’Oiselet is a lovely wine made by Yannick Pelletier in the St Chinian area. Incidentally all of Yannick’s wines are absolutely terrific. Truly a viticulteur to look out for and buy if possible, you would not regret it. Just today (March 30th) I also tasted a really good Cinsault from Julien Peyras called ‘Gourmandise’, part of another excellent range of wines, again look out for him.
All of these Cinsaults are deceptively easy to drink but have complexity too.
I must also add two Cinsaults produced by Mas Coutelou. 5SO is a light version ready for drinking and delicious it is too, including the newly bottled 2014 which I can confirm is excellent.
Then there is Copains a Cinsault which is again apparently easy to drink but carries real weight and will be at its best in years to come, and if you think I might be being biased read this review from the excellent blog by David Farge (Abistodenas).
Cinsault is a variety enjoying a renaissance as winemakers realise its potential and vinify it to be something more than just a quaffing wine. There is room for both types of wine so give them a go.
The assemblage for the 2014 wines is well under way, the wines are settling in tank for some of the well known cuvées such as Classe and Vin Des Amis. (Above are glasses of richly coloured Vin Des Amis). Both are delicious already and in the few days since I first tasted them they have shown development as they marry together. The fruit and freshness which characterise Mas Coutelou wines are evident and there is a marked concentration which shows that the wines will mature well.
Jeff has published his vintage report for 2014. Winter, spring and early summer were exceptionally dry (less than 150mm or 6 inches of rain in the 9 months to the end of June) and at that moment Jeff was far from sure that he would be able to harvest any grapes. Some relief came from a summer which was not too hot and peppered by storms. However, the vines had to dig deep into their reserves of energy in order to produce grapes. Troubles continued with some storms towards the end of harvest time and then the Marin wind with their warmth and high pressure meant that through the autumn and into December the wines in tank were not able to truly rest. It was a difficult year in short, a reminder that nature rules the life of the vigneron. Indeed some local producers have seen their crops virtually wiped out by hail and mildew so the wines that Jeff has produced are to be even more cherished.
Nevertheless there are some drawbacks. The harvest was smaller especially for Syrah, (down by 40%), Carignan and Mourvedre. Syrah is a major part of many Coutelou wines so Jeff has had to improvise and make the most of what he has. The lack of Mourvedre may mean that one of his popular wines ‘Sauvé De La Citerne’ will not be made. In addition the effort made by the vines means that they would benefit from a rest and yet this winter (thus far) has been so mild that they are starting to show signs of producing buds even in January (débourrement). Instead of resting they are starting to work hard already.
The wines I tasted from tank are marked by concentration and minerality. The vines had to push deep into the soil for water in the arid early part of 2014 so they have drawn up minerals from the soil’s depths. The mineral flavours are evident when drinking. A difficult vintage has produced some highly promising wines but in smaller quantity, so guard what you already have and appreciate the quality of the new wines.
Two wines to note.
PM, the rosé, is already gorgeous, full of fruit and perfume yet dry and absolutely delicious. At only 11% alcohol it is a wine to drink and enjoy.
A new wine made from old Cinsault, Aramon, Oeillade and Muscate. Tasted from tank this was already sensational, a red wine with grapey, perfumed scents and deep, concentrated red fruits. Can’t wait to see how this develops.
Jeff will be showing some of these new wines at a couple of tastings in the next 10 days, in Montpellier and the Loire. Today Jeff put the bottles together for those tastings, including some corking by hand. Nothing was easy about 2014!!