amarchinthevines

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


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Expert eye

Version francaise

I regularly tour the Coutelou vineyards, looking at the changes and growth, relishing the tranquillity and connection with nature, the vines, flora and fauna. Nonetheless, far more interesting is to tour with Jeff himself. His expert knowledge of his land and the vines adds so much. Jeff was a teacher for many years and I always learn a great deal from him.

Living soils of Rome

We began in my favourite vineyard, Rome. This parcel, surrounded by trees, is a haven for wildlife. The tall Grenache gobelet vines are 40 years old and more and Jeff explained how the soil in Rome is around 30-40cm deep, made up mostly of forest residue, for example rotted leaves. The soil is a rich humous and full of life. Lifting a clump revealed fungal threads, insects (look for the black bodies) and worms.

Syrah with its large leaves and bunches forming

On to Sainte Suzanne and its Syrah and Grenache, so much a part of le Vin Des Amis, a famous part of the Coutelou range. Flowering completed in the main, the Syrah more forward than other varieties as is usual. The bunches resemble peas. Huge leaves such as this Syrah and Muscat in Peilhan show how Mediterranean varieties protect their grapes from the fierce sun because of their size and thick, quilted texture.

Flowering on the right whilst Jeff indicates coulure

Disappointingly there was also evidence of coulure, here and in La Garrigue especially with Grenache, which flowers later. Flowering has lasted longer this year, making them more susceptible to coulure.

This happens when wind or rain damages the flowers and the fruit cannot set on the vine. A shower of unformed grapes fell into Jeff’s hand as he ran it across a bunch. The consequence is that the harvest will be good but not as big as hoped for, especially after last year’s mildew hit year.

Oidium on bunch

That disease was downy mildew, this year the greater threat is powdery mildew or oidium. As we toured the Carignan vineyard, Rec D’Oulette, Jeff immediately spotted the signs, I would likely not have seen it. Oidium usually attacks the leaf and stem, leaving a white, powdery residue. Here the oidium had attacked the bunch directly, leaving a grey tinge to the green pea-like grape. Encouraged by the alternation between hot days and cold nights which we have had recently oidium needs to be treated. Jeff uses sulphur mixed with clay which helps the sulphur to stick to the plant. So far the damage is limited and the weather has heated up which might help to dry out the disease. Certainly there was evidence of that, the black spots on these stems and leaves is evidence of that, see the photo below.

Another pest was seen too. This white, cottony substance on my hand is the cocoon of ver de la grappe, a moth which will lay eggs in the grapes and the larvae pierce the skins causing bacterial spoilage. Insecticides would be the conventional response but not for organic vignerons. Natural predators such as bats are the solution, one reason why Jeff has bat houses in the trees around the vines.

More trees have been planted, Nathan and Julien were tending the border of Peilhan vineyard where fruit trees such as this pear are beginning to grow and become established. In the vines things looked good, such as this Carignan Blanc, Piquepoul Gris and Muscat in Peilhan and the Mourvèdre in Segrairals.

A 3 hour tour revealed so much about the state of the vines this year. Things are set for a good quality harvest, though it is still early days. Coulure means that it will not be a bumper crop, oidium that there is much work to be done to tend the vines which Jeff nurtures so carefully.

Healthy vines

New plantings such as that next to Sainte Suzanne of Clairette and Maccabeu are signs of a healthy future too.

Plantation, Clairette right, Maccabeu left

No matter what some British politicians would tell you it is always good to listen to experts and this was no exception. The strapline of my blog says “learning about wines, vines and vignerons”, this was a morning which certainly helped me to achieve that goal thanks to Jeff and his expert eye.


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New moon

En francais

Delicate flowers, brown hoods which fall off the bunches

The weather continues to confound here in the Languedoc. A couple of days of sunshine and heat and then back to grey clouds, warmth and wind. And now we have humidity and a few short but heavy showers.

The vines have been in terrific health until now and they still are as I write on June 10th. The new moon was on June 3rd and that is a time when biodynamic producers start to get twitchy as they believe it can bring out disease. The alternation between heat and chilly nights with humidity certainly encourages oidium and there have been a few hints of it emerging, for example in the Maccabeu. Nothing too concerning yet but Jeff used an organic treatment last week to nip any danger in the bud.

A tour of the vines the day after the new moon showed what good condition they are in and how quickly they have grown.

Sainte Suzanne Grenache, growth in one week

It also showed how mistaken I was when I wrote recently about the end of flowering. In fact everything is a couple of weeks delayed due to the dry winter and spring so there were flowers in profusion. A week later flowering is done, there are a lot of bunches on the vines and it is still very promising but let’s hope this humidity disappears soon.

One point of interest, the new plantings in Rome. The thick material around the base of the vines is to deter weeds from competing with the young plants and also to preserve moisture in the soil for their benefit.

Meanwhile the radio show I mentioned recently was broadcast and the podcast is well worth a listen, not least for The Clash classic.


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Midsummer at Mas Coutelou

After a month back in the UK due to bereavement I apologise for not posting for the last two weeks.

It was good to return to the Languedoc even in the midst of a midsummer heatwave. After a day’s acclimatisation I was at Jeff’s on Thursday morning, good and early. Well I thought so though he and Julien had been at work in the vines from 6am! Michel and Vincent were busy labelling some bottles of 7, Rue De La Pompe.

Leon Stolarski and his wife Diane arrived to meet up with Jeff, I can reveal that Leon will be the importer of Mas Coutelou wines in the UK along with Noble Rot bar in London. I showed them the updated cellar and Jeff led us on a tasting through the 2016 wines, of which more next time.

Almost as much as the people I missed the vineyards. They offer such variety, calm and beauty. The one advantage of being away for a while is to see the change over a month. The sun has seen off the wildflowers, the greenery of the vines now contrasting sharply with the parched grass. The flowers on the vines have also long gone and the grapes are now well formed and starting to swell, the size of peas. There is no sign yet of the red grapes starting to change colour (véraison).

The vines look to be in very good health. The 700mm of rain through the winter, the spell of very cold weather too have helped them to rest and be strong, a vibrant green colour. The humidity of recent days brings the threat of mildew and oidium (downy and powdery mildew respectively) and Jeff has sprayed the vines with organic treatments to help them fight against the disease.

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Mildew spots

The other main risk is from snails. In 2016 they ravaged Flower Power vineyard for example, reducing the harvest there to virtually nil. There is less evidence of them there this year but there are huge numbers in Peilhan and Segrairals. In the former they are covering the trees which Jeff planted around the vines a couple of years ago, feasting on the greenery amidst the parched vegetation.

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Nevertheless so far so good, 2017 promises to be a good vintage.

 


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Nature can be harsh: Part 2 – Disease

The mild weather over winter was followed in the Languedoc by a slow start to summer heat. The resulting warm, humid weather brought disease as it did in many regions of France. Mildew, oidium and couloure are all vine diseases which occur regularly and 2016 was no different but with a bigger hit than usual.

Mildew (downy mildew)

 

Sadly, humid days in the mid 20s and cool nights are exactly the conditions favoured by downy mildew, and it prospered. The humidity in the soils created ever more favourable conditions for mildew. Downy mildew lives as spores in the soils and any rain splashes them onto the vines. Mildiou is not a fungus as commonly believed, it is a one celled spore which germinates in warm, humid conditions especially between 16 and 24 Centigrade – exactly the conditions we saw in April and May of this year.

Jeff Coutelou spent many nights out on his tractor spraying the vines to try to protect them. As an organic producer (and much more) he cannot (and does not want to) use manufactured, chemical sprays. Instead he used sprays based on rainwater with seaweed, nettles, horsetail and essential oils of sweet orange and rosemary. These are better absorbed by the vines in the cool of the night.

Mildew appears as small yellow / green spots on the upper surface of the leaf which gradually turn brown and spread to leave an unsightly vine. Underneath downy white /grey spots appear, the mildew is well established by this point. It affects the grape bunches and leaves them dried out and shrivelled.

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Mildew on a Carignan bunch, organic spray residue on the leaves

By the time harvest arrives the bunches contain a mix of healthy and diseased grapes. Severe triage is required. Bunches such as the one in the photo above will be discarded immediately. Where there are health sections though the bunches will arrive at the triage table and be sorted rigorously. Jeff reckoned that in some vineyards, especially the white vines of Peilhan, losses were up to 60% from mildew. Seriously damaging.

Here is a clear demonstration of the advantage of hand harvest (vendange manuelle), machines would simply swallow the lot and in less thorough domaines or caves the bunches will all go into the wine.

Oidium (powdery mildew)

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Oidium on buds and leaf

Oidium is a related problem to mildew but slightly different. It too thrives in warm days and cold nights (so springtime is its peak period) , it too loves humidity. So, spring 2016 was ideal though oidium was less rampant than mildew. Unlike mildew it is a fungal based spore.

Conventional treatments would be chemical and even organic producers will use sulphur, a naturally occurring element. Organic producers are limited to the amounts they can use as sulphur does damage the fauna of the soils. Jeff Coutelou uses less than a quarter of the permitted amounts because he sees it as  a last resort. Instead he prefers treatments based on horsetail weed, nettles and other beneficial plants made into a tisane which can be sprayed. It may not be as all-destroying as synthetic chemicals but Jeff prefers the soils to be healthy in the long term by using these natural plant based treatments.

These photos show grape bunches hit by oidium in 2016, the powdery residue is clear though the bunches are less damaged than mildew affected ones. Nevertheless oidium is destructive and spoils wine so, again, careful work in the vineyard and cellar is needed to keep oidium out of the grape juice.

Coulure

Like most fruit plants vines grow flowers which then develop into the fruit. Vine flowers are very beautiful but also very delicate and don’t live long on the plants, a matter of a few days.

If heavy rain and wind hits the vines at this stage of their development then the flowers can be easily damaged or broken off the plant.

The result is that fruit cannot develop where there is no flower, coulure. Where flowers are damaged then berries might grow very small and seedless, this is called millerandage. Similarly berries might ripen unevenly within a bunch, green berries alongside healthy, ripe grapes.

There is nothing that the vigneron can do of course, the damage is done by the weather and no producer can successfully combat weather. Nature wins in the end. So, once again, the vendangeur and those sorting in the cellar are crucial in ensuring that only healthy fruit goes into the wine.

I cannot emphasise enough the importance of all stages of wine growing and production. From their budding through to vendanges the vines must be tended, and in the cellar observation, determination and care are needed too. To make good wine requires hard work, healthy grapes and love as Jeff has said many times.

And have a look at one of those last photos again.

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In the top right corner you will see another of 2016’s natural problems, one subject of the final part of this series.


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Last of the summer wine

 

Flower Power

Flower Power 2015

En français

As work on the cellar ratchets up a notch in the next few weeks it was time to bottle the last of the 2015 wines which will be made for the moment.

The framework for the new mezzanine floor is in place and actually looks quite beautiful. It will be reinforced with concrete however, and the metal cross bars will disappear (which might stop us knocking our heads). Plumbing has also been tidied up and improved. Cuves will be placed below and on top of the structure. More work on stairs, flooring and around the cellar will happen soon. As I am heading back to the UK for a couple of weeks or so, it will be exciting to see the changes upon my return.

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Peilhan June 30

The vines continue their growth in the sunshine and heat. Mildew problems are largely contained though some humidity leads to sporadic outbreaks (apologies for the pun). Sadly, there is a new threat of oïdium (powdery mildew) which likes that humidity and the warm days with cool nights we have been having. Powdery mildew shows as grey, white spots on the leaves and the grappe. Certain cépages are more vulnerable, including some of the traditional Languedoc varieties such as Carignan. The treatment is to spray sulphur powder and Jeff Coutelou made the first treatment this week in an effort to contain the problem, a job completed on Saturday morning. 2016 certainly has been a struggle.

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Meanwhile 2015 wines such as Flower Power and L’Oublié went into bottle on Wednesday June 29th. You might recall that the L’Oublié assemblage was made a few weeks ago and after spending time in tank, marrying together, it is now in bottle. Both of these wines are extremely good, well worth waiting for when they are finally released which won’t be for a while.

Jeff also put together a new cuvée exclusively for the French market, it will come in litre sized, Bordeaux style bottles as a «vin de table». An assemblage of various cépages it will be cheap, very drinkable and very desirable. The size of the bottles meant that they had to be filled by hand rather than the machine so Thursday was fully occupied with this cuvée. Jeff refers to it as a vin de gauche, after wine writer Vincent Pousson referred to Jeff as one of the last vignerons de gauche (left wing winemakers) because of his low prices making his wines accessible to all. It will be a wine to share and it will disappear down that litre bottle very quickly.

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The new litre bottle of the vin de gauche

2015 seems increasingly like a golden year, its wines are certainly glittering. 2016, well despite all it has thrown at us, there is hope. Meanwhile the summer wine is bottled and the heat is getting to some of us, even after his haircut.

 


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Snails, sprays and screen star

En français

April 27th saw a number of visitors to Font D’Oulette (Chemin De Pailhès), home of Flower Power where we grafted vines recently.

France 3 television were here to record some footage for a report on biodiversity, so who better than Jeff to describe and demonstrate how he has worked to bring life to the vineyards around Puimisson.

Rather less welcome was the invasion of snails, I spent all morning removing thousands of them from the vines. They clearly enjoy the organic greenery and, in particular, the young buds. It was noticeable that where the vine had grown more fully the snails were few in number, instead they were grouped on the slower growing vines where the buds were small and fresh. Bullies.

As the days warm up the risk of diseases such as oïdium and mildew increases. Therefore, it was time to spray the vines to help them resist these damaging diseases. However, being organic, there is no question of synthetic chemicals. This was a spray of nettles, comfrey, ferns and seaweed mixed with rain water; organic, natural products. Julien sprayed on foot and then Jeff and he rode on the tractor to spray two rows at once in Rec D’Oulette, home of Flambadou.

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Oy watch where you’re spraying!

Across the vineyards the vines are maturing rapidly. The buds are separating showing the future grapes and bunches. Tendrils are pushing skywards, remember that vines are climbing plants. The leaves are now of good size, soaking up the sunlight to help photosynthesis and provide energy to encourage the growth of the vine.

The soils remain dry and the leaves are a little brittle in places, this has been a very dry winter. More rain would be welcome. However, that night and the next there were reminders that the situation elsewhere can be much worse. The Loire valley and parts of Burgundy were hit by sudden, severe frosts which have devastated vines and mean that some vignerons face a bleak year with little or no wine to be made. The photograph below Credit: Sabrina Cyprien Caslot-Bourdin via Jim Budd / Facebook

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The sunshine and drying winds may not be perfect but the vineyards of Mas Coutelou remain small havens of flora and fauna.

 


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July’s parting gift

Colourful Cinsault

Colourful Cinsault

Version française

All photos taken on August 2nd unless otherwise stated

It was June 12th when rain last fell on Margon and the vines in the region, although generally doing well, were starting to show signs of fatigue and heat stress; leaves curled in upon themselves, some yellowing, a slight shrivelling.

Vines near Pézenas showing some stress

Vines near Pézenas showing some stress

Vines in Margon which were not pruned in spring and are really suffering

Vines in Margon which were not pruned in spring and are really suffe

A few drops fell on July 25th but the skies had been very dark and had promised much more, it was almost cruel to have that rain, a tease of what might have been. However, July 31st brought around 10mm to Puimisson. A decent rainfall, enough to give the vines a drink and to stop the drying out process. Not enough of course after weeks of lack of moisture and some more rain in the next few weeks would be very much welcome to swell the grapes and the harvest. The vines are now pouring their energy into their fruit rather than their vegetation, but they need the nutrients to do so.

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So, how had the vines responded to the rain which fell? Well a tour on Sunday (August 2nd) showed the vineyards of Mas Coutelou to be in rude health, a decent harvest is now predicted though that extra rain would be most welcome.

Segrairals in full bloom, healthy, happy vines

Segrairals in full bloom, healthy, happy vines

Segrairals, biggest of the vineyards, showed some healthy Cinsault, Syrah and Grenache with no signs of stress or disease. As the home of Classe, 7,Rue De La Pompe and 5SO this is especially welcome, as they are some of the big sellers.

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Cinsault in Segrairals

To Rome, my favourite vineyard. The gobelets were looking well, plenty of grapes both the white varieties and the Cinsault. There was a little mildew around the entrance but minimal, no cause for concern. Could there be a cuvée of Copains in 2015? Jeff tells me that no decisions are made as yet, caution prevails and he will wait to see what the harvest gives him before he makes final choices about how to use the grapes and the wines which result.

Rome's centurion vines in good health

Rome’s centurion vines in good health

Muscat Noir grapes, a tiny bit of mildew top left

Muscat Noir grapes, a tiny bit of mildew top left

Sainte Suzanne (Metaierie) suffered from coulure in May with the strong winds blowing off some of the flowers on the vines, which will reduce yields a bit. However, the grapes there are growing well, what might have been a problem looks now a much brighter picture, good news for fans of Vin Des Amis.

Peilhan, just a little more tired and suffering

Peilhan, just a little more tired and suffering

The only vineyard parcel which has shown stress is Peilhan, There was a lot of regrafting and replanting in the spring and the dryness has caused problems for these new vines. There was also oidium in this parcel, the only vineyard to be attacked by this powdery mildew. Yet amongst those problems there are plenty of healthy grapes, some careful picking and sorting will be needed but it will produce good wine.

The famous Castets grapes of Peilhan

The famous Castets grapes of Peilhan

La Garrigue was blooming, the white varieties such as the Muscats are swollen and changing hue to lovely golden shades.

Muscat a Petits Grains in La Garrigue

Muscat a Petits Grains in La Garrigue

The Syrah is well advanced, a dark purple colour across virtually the whole bunches, the pips though betray a little immaturity as they taste and look green and sappy. A little more time and patience will pay dividends. As the world’s biggest fan of La Vigne Haute, I have my fingers crossed.

Syrah in La Garrigue, ripening beautifully in the shade of the vine

Syrah in La Garrigue, ripening beautifully in the shade of the vine

The Grenache in La Garrigue, despite facing south, is a little more delayed in colour but getting there and very healthy.

Grenache in La Garrigue

Grenache in La Garrigue

In fact despite risks of disease earlier in the year (see here) Jeff has been able to use minimal treatments in 2015. Oidium and mildew (powdery and downy mildew) can be controlled by copper sulphate, sometimes called the Bordeaux mix when added to slaked lime. This is a bluish colour when sprayed by conventional and organic vignerons and is often seen on the leaves of vines. Vignerons might also use chemical fungicides if they are not organic producers.

Neighbouring vineyard which was given herbicide shortly after harvest last year and whose new vines have been treated regularly

Neighbouring vineyard which was given herbicide shortly after harvest last year and whose new vines have been treated regularly

Some neighbours have also irrigated their vines and one alarming consequence is the changing of the soil and its pH as the calcium carbonate in the water shows through, you can see it in the white parts of the soil in this photo taken on July 22nd.

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The irrigation is also causing the vines to grow quickly and tall with thin trunks as seen below. It should be acknowledged that there are many conventional producers who take great pride in the health of their soils and vines and would be horrified by some practices described here.

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As a proud holder of Ecocert organic status and as a natural wine maker Jeff must use natural products only. Tisanes of plants which fight mildew such as horse tail, fern and nettles can be sprayed and this is the basis of many biodynamic treatments. However, the two main weapons in the armoury of organic producers are copper and sulphate, both natural products.

Copper is used against mildew, but is harmful to the soils and kills life in them if used in significant quantities. Organic producers are limited to 30kg per hectare over a 5 year period, allowing more to be used in years with more downy mildew for example but only if less is used in the other years. In fact Jeff has used just 200g per hectare in 2015 and this after years of well below average use, his use of copper is on a major downward trend. He is reluctant and very careful in using copper as he is aware of its danger to the soils, yet mildew has not been a major threat this year.

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Oidium seen in May

Similarly Jeff has used sulphur in soluble form at doses much lower than the permitted level, three treatments over the course of the growing season. In addition one dose of sulphur powder was sprayed when the risk of oidium was high (May) and a second spraying for Peilhan only as it is the vineyard which was attacked by oidium. In contrast to neighbouring vignerons who have sprayed every 10 days including after the bunches closed up (so more than a dozen treatments) this really is minimal intervention.

So July’s parting gift of 10mm of rain was welcome, August might like to follow by offering some rain soon. Too near the harvest is bad as it would dilute the juice rather than help the grapes to reach a good size. Things look promising, let us hope that nature completes its bounty. There is an old saying that June makes the wine and August makes the must, ie the character of the wine with its colour, yeast and flavour. With 3 weeks or so until picking begins it is an exciting, and nervous, time, waiting to see what that character will be.

No Icare this time but look what we found amongst the vines, he's been here!

No Icare this time but look what we found amongst the vines, he’s been here!

NB there are lots of reports about recent wine tastings here.