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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Tuesday September 13th, the return of picking, with a little urgency in light of the weather forecast for heavy storms that night. The objective was to collect the Syrah from La Garrigue, the grapes which go into La Vigne Haute, my personal «cuvée mythique» of Mas Coutelou.
The grapes started a little messy requiring some careful triage both in the vineyard and cellar.
Syrah moving fast, the juice is in the glass
However, the quality improved after the first few cases which had been picked in a lower part of the vineyard. Certainly by the end of the day we had sorted a good quantity and quality of fruit, my shirt can certainly testify to their juiciness.
That night came the predicted thunderstorm, violent though not as long lasting as perhaps expected. I saw that some parts of the region saw over 200mm of rain, fortunately Puimisson did not reach those levels. However, there was enough to stop picking for the next few days. As I said last time wet grapes are not ideal. In addition the soft ground in the vineyards would be churned up by feet and wheels.
James working hard as usual
In a way the storm came at a good time on a personal level. I developed a mild case of bronchitis out of the blue on Tuesday which would have prevented me from working on Wednesday and Thursday. So, I have left cellar work to the experts whilst I recharge my batteries for Saturday when we may get to the Grenache in La Garrigue which looks bountiful and ripe.
Grenache in La Garrigue Sept. 10th
Meanwhile analysis of the grapes continues. There was the result of Ecocert’s evaluation showing that Mas Coutelou successfully retains its organic certification and also their analysis proving that no sulphites were or are added in the wines. And then there is the daily analysis from the oenologue which shows information such as alcohol levels, total acidity, pH levels, residual sugar etc. These help Jeff to think about how to look after the wines and which ones might blend together successfully in future.
The weather is now set fair until we finish; Grenache, Carignan, Mourvèdre, Cabernet Sauvignon should arrive in good conditions with a light north wind and under blue skies.
The immediate period after harvest could easily be perceived as a time to relax a little. The hard work of picking, transporting, sorting, crushing and pressing grapes is done. The remontages, délestages, pigeages are memories. The wines quietly ferment in cuve, gently moving to their magical transformation into wine.
Cuves now containing wines such as Syrah and Flambadou
Sadly, that is not the case. The work continues apace, there is no time to relax just yet. The wines are in a delicate stage, fermentation is a violent chemical reaction and lots could go wrong. Therefore, they are checked frequently and analyses are sent away to ensure that everything is proceeding as it should. This is the top of the sheet which comes back from the analysis laboratory.
For each sample you receive information about the amount of residual sugar, alcohol, volatile acidity, the pH of the wine and the amount of Sulphur Dioxide (SO2) in total and free in the wine. SO2 is the controversial additive which most winemakers add to their wines to stabilise it and to provide elements of prevention against oxidation. Natural winemakers, such as Jeff Coutelou, are against using SO2 as they want wines as natural as they can be without additions.
SO2 is a natural product of grapes and winemaking so there will always be a small amount of SO2 in any wine. It combines with the chemicals of wine and so most is absorbed (bound). The rest which is free is what conventional producers use as an anti-oxidative and anti-bacterial agent in the wine. They might add sulphur at various points of the winemaking process but most likely at crushing, fermentation and bottling.
EU regulations limit the amount of sulphur as you can see in the table below. Red wines produce their own natural anti-oxidants so less SO2 is allowed. Sweet wines contain more sugar which binds SO2 so more is added so that free SO2 can work. Levels of permitted SO2 rise according to the type of sweet wine. The figures are all mg per litre.
Organic regulators allow less SO2 to be used as you can see, indeed some organic bodies such as Demeter have even more strict limits than those below.
Natural wine guidelines are exactly that, guidelines. There are no official rules for natural producers as there are no rules for any aspect of natural wines. The figures in the table are those suggested by AVN one of the groups which some producers have established.
Type of wine
Organic rules (Demeter)
Some natural wine makers have gone further and eschew any use of added SO2. Jeff is one of those producers.
I have chosen not to identify the figures for the analyses of particular wines he received on October 15th from which the heading is shown above, as they are not mine to share. I can say that the highest SO2 figure is 10mg/l and that is for one cuve only. Fifteen of the nineteen wines analysed contained 3 mg/l or less. In other words every cuve has negligible levels of free SO2, humans cannot taste it at less than 11mg/l in water let alone wine. No sulphites are added. Mas Coutelou wines are natural wines but also very healthy wines. The analyses showed they are all 13.5% to 15% in alcohol and volatile acidity is well under the guidelines, one or two cuves were a little elevated but that is normal during fermentation.
Cement tanks including one which contains Flower Power
So the wines are progressing well, it looks like a very good vintage. They have been put into the cuves appropriate for them to spend the winter. Jeff produces a plan to show where they all are.
On the left is a spreadsheet showing each cuve, how much wine is in it, when it was harvested, when it was moved, when assembled with other wines, date of sous-tirage, the wine and grapes, and quantities for red, rosé and white. I have made it a little hazy so as not to spoil the surprises which the patron will unleash in the next few months.
To the right is a map of the cellar showing where the wines are.
Jeff has also been receiving plenty of phone calls. It is now several months since wines left Puimisson to head to cavistes and merchants in France, Europe, the USA, Asia and Australia. Now stocks are low there is a demand for wines to be sent to them. Therefore, the 2014s which were bottles earlier this year are now being furnished with their labels and capsules and then packaged into boxes. Different regions, eg the EU, UK and USA, all have different requirements even for this packaging so even this job is not as simple as it may seem. For more on the process and a video I took last year see here.
Thursday October 22nd was a day for preparing magnums and for some markets these are sealed with wax. Appropriately Flambadou, named after a barbecue implement, was therefore held over the flames of the gas burner which heated the wax.
Jeff and Michel, waxing lyrical
On Friday Jeff was due to head north on the long drive to Nancy and a wine salon. We are entering the season for these events and that means more journeys, more selling and more work. The vendanges may be over, the work certainly is not.
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 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.
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, 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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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!
NB there are lots of reports about recent wine tastings here.
May was a drying month. Lots of sunshine with temperatures comfortably in the high 20s almost every day. However, this year was also marked by high winds. The Tramontane / Mistral blew for over a week and was truly maddening. Other winds meant the vines spent almost three weeks blowin’ in them.
With the rise in temperatures during the day and cool nights natural problems emerged. Oidium or powdery mildew showed itself first encouraged by the humidity resulting from daytime heat and cold nights.
Oidium on buds and leaves
This was followed by mildiou or downy mildew and vignerons all around the region were talking about its appearance by mid May. And in fact the high winds were helpful here, drying the vines and lessening the impact of mildew. At this stage if the vigneron can get on top of the disease then it is not a huge problem unlike if it were to get amongst the grapes later in the season as this could influence the taste of the wine.
Mildiou on a leaf near Margon
Mildiou scars and chemical treatment used to treat it (Margon)
Oidium can be treated by pesticides. Pesticides refers to any treatment which will get rid of problems, animal or fungal. Conventional vignerons will use chemicals or synthetic products to spray onto the vines. Organic producers also use a chemical, sulphur (I shall use the UK spelling of sulfur). Many non organic producers point out that sulphur is chemical and does damage life in the vineyard such as yeasts. Organic producers would counter that sulphur has little lasting effect especially on the soils and that sulphur is natural. The amount used will vary depending on the year, in 2014 Jeff used less than a quarter of the amount he had to use in 2013 when there was more oidium around. Other organic / natural producers will no doubt have used more as Jeff uses the least possible. Indeed on Saturday morning he was spraying between 2 and 5 in the morning as he feels that during the night the vines are more relaxed and take the sulphur better, so needing less of it. Not all vignerons would be doing that! In addition he uses horsetail weed and nettles in a tisane to treat the vines so as to use less sulphur. This practice is common amongst organic and biodynamic producers. Conventional producers can use various chemicals instead.
A conventional spray
Organic producers would say that these are absorbed by the plant rather than just being in contact with it and so the vine becomes resistant and needs more of the treatment. Many conventional vignerons would deny this and say that synthetic chemicals are longer lasting and reduce quantities.
This monstrous looking machine directs spray onto the vines more directly (Alignan du Vent)
Mildew is more complex. The traditonal treatment is copper, again a natural product but one which does leave its impact upon the soils and their ecosystem, for example killing worms and some mushrooms/fungae which support the soil. This inevitably draws criticism from conventional producers. Organic producers in one of the licensing bodies, Ecocert, are allowed to use up to 30kg per hectare over a 5 year period, averaging 6kg per year but amounts can vary annually according to the risk of mildew within the 5 year limit. Jeff used 2.9kg in 2013 but only 0.9kg in 2014 so well under the limits allowed.
So as a wine buyer you have choices to make. As ever much depends on the producer. There are some who spray chemicals in large quantities, usually for cheaper, bulk wines. Select wines by the producer if you know them, knowing that their practices aim to support the health of their soils and their vines.
However, May brought one final twist in its tail. Just as the winds helped relieve the problem of mildew they created a new problem. Jeff contacted me on Friday to say that coulure was showing in the Syrah vines of one vineyard. Coulure is the uneven development of grapes. Flowering is a highly delicate time for the vigneron as they are very fragile. The wind damaged some of them and the Syrah vines especially. Without a flower the grape can’t develop. So the bunch will have some but not all grapes, leading to reduced yields.
Coulure, missing flowers means missing grapes
Not a clear picture but you can see the uneven development
The remaining grapes will grow a little larger to compensate but not enough to make up the losses. Not good news, especially for lovers of Vin Des Amis like me. All the vigneron can do is wait and see how things develop, patience is required. As ever nature rules the day.
The traditional image of a vineyard is that of one big parcel of vines surrounding a chateau as in Bordeaux, with its smart house and cellar buildings for making and storing wine. However, that is not the reality for most vineyard owners. Jeff Coutelou has his home and his cellars in the centre of Puimisson in the Hérault, surrounded by a childrens’ nursery, houses and work buildings. The vineyard itself surrounds the village but comes in a number of small parcels rather than one big vineyard. Each brings its own characteristics in terms of soil, surroundings and exposure to the elements, ie its own terroir. The parcels have been accumulated over the years by Jeff’s grandfather, father and himself. In the satellite photograph below you will see the parcels and how they relate to the village. Vineyards are shown in green, olive groves in red.
(Photo taken from Rapport Biodiversité d’Exploitation Mas Coutelou produced by Agrifaune)
There are about 17.5 hectares (43 acres) of land though olive trees occupy about 2.5ha (6.7 acres) and well over 1 ha (3 acres) is fallow land or has other trees, hedges and plants. The soil is virtually all clay and limestone. As you may be able to see in the satellite photograph much of the land to the south of Puimisson is vineyard, to the point of monoculture. Jeff wants to use his land to produce biodiversity so olives, figs, roses and hedges help to create little oases of wildlife. More details are outlined at the end of this post.
Segrairals and Caraillet (6.8ha, 5.7 under vines)
This is the biggest of the parcels and the only one situated to the north of the village and closest to it. Surrounded by the village and a couple of roads it is well protected by trees and hedges, including figs and olives. A variety of grapes are planted with the oldest being some Syrah planted in 1993, Cabernet Sauvignon planted 1998 and younger plantings of Mourvedre, Syrah and especially Cinsault. The Syrah goes into bottles such as Classe and 7, Rue De La Pompe. Mourvedre goes into Sauvé De La Citerne and the Cinsault into 5SO. The Cabernet grapes will be used for blending in various cuvées or sold to the UK to make the new London Cru Cabernet Sauvignon, a project run by Roberson in London.
Main body of Syrah and Cabernet grapes
Planted olive trees in the foreground with some younger Cinsault and Syrah vines in the background
La Prairie (0.5ha)
To the west of Puimisson La Prairie is an olive grove in a very pleasant area with an official ecology walk going past it. No vineyard planted.
Mountains seen from La Prairie
Prairie olive plantation
Le Colombié (0.6ha)
Just at the southern tip of the village Le Colombié is planted entirely with Merlot vines. These will produce grapes used to blend for cuvées prepared for restaurants, bag in box etc. Merlot is not a typical Languedoc variety, these were planted in 1999.
Le Colombié – Merlot vines
Possibly my personal favourite vineyard of them all. It is quite isolated even though there are other vineyards around. Isolated, because there is a wood which shelters it. The gobelet Cinsault vines date back to 1966 and 1975 and go into the Copains or,in some years, Vin Des Amis or Classe. These old vines are also surrounded with young olive trees and the parcel is an attractive and quiet haven. There is also a planting of some 20 different varieties of grapes including various types of Muscat which are used in a solera system. This was started many years ago by Jeff’s grandfather and ever since wines have been used to top up the old barrels to make Vieux Grenache and Vieux Muscat. Sensational wines. The added benefit is that because there are so many different types of vine they cross pollinate and this adds an extra layer of complexity to the Cinsault in the Rome vineyard.
All vines lead to Rome
Gobelet Cinsault vines, olive trees and the surrounding woods
The parcel which was the basis of my post One Day Like This when we harvested the last grapes of 2014, some Grenache. There are a few older Merlot vines (to be replaced in 2015) but the parcel is mainly the home of Grenache and Syrah grapes which are used to make the ever popular Vin Des Amis.
Smaller Metaierie parcel
Main Metaierie vineyard, home of Vin Des Amis
La Garrigue (1.8ha)
Described in some detail in the post Working In The Vineyards (January). Made up of three sections: some younger Syrah facing north for freshness, a section of Grenache facing south, as it likes the heat and some 20 year old Sauvignon Blanc vines too. The Sauvignon is used to make the white blend PM or other white cuvées, the Syrah goes into my favourite La Vigne Haute and the Grenache is used to make Classe along with the Syrah from Segrairals.
La Grangette (0.5ha)
A parcel of half a hectare (just over an acre) surrounded by vines, Jeff decided that it is compromised in terms of quality grapes so he planted 112 olive trees in 2011 to provide contrast to the fairly barren land and vines surrounding Grangette.
Rec D’Oulette (1ha plus a smaller, separate parcel of 0.3ha)
Actually made up of two parcels of land. This has seen a lot of work in recent years as Jeff has tried to diversify it. The central block is half a hectare of 30 year old Carignan, used in making Flambadou, a wine which is really improving and was one of the stars of 2013. Surrounding these vines Jeff has planted half a hectare of olive trees to keep them away from the chemicals of neighbouring vineyards. The second part of Rec resembles Grangette as an isolated small parcel and again Jeff has planted olive trees to diversify as it is too small and isolated in its organic nature for grapes.
Carignan vines for Flambadou
Font D’Oulette (0.65ha)
A parcel where Jeff has worked hard in recent years. More olive trees planted in 2011 as were those in the small section of Rec. In addition he has grafted an older variety Aramon into the vineyard covering over half a hectare. These grapes will be used to create new cuvées and the first blend of grapes produced in 2014 is highly promising tasted from tank.
Olive trees to protect the new Aramon vines
Les Roques (1ha, not on satellite photo)
One hectare of land to the south east of the village heading into Lieuran-les-Béziers, this was the vineyard I showed after the storms of November 28th 2014 when it was flooded. In fact the vines have been grubbed up and there is a programme in place to plant trees and to provide a barrier to the Libron river in case it should flood gain.
Les Roques shortly after the November storms
An attractive vineyard nicely protected. About a hectare is planted with white grape varieties, including a section of Carignan Blanc which has been used to make a cuvée all on its own. Maccabeu, Grenache Gris and different types of Muscat make up the other white varieties and these are usually picked, assembled and vinified together as part of the PM white blend. This also the home of the Castets vines I have written about a lot, one of only two Castets vineyards in France. More Carignan vines are joined by another interesting grape variety, Clairette Musquée which was blended with the Aramon from Font D’Oulette last year. This is the vineyard where a recent plantation took place to bring back older varieties to the area. Terret Blanc, Riveyrenc Gris and Piquepoul Gris were planted along with Terret Noir, Morastel and Riveyrenc Noir. picked, assembled and vinified together as part of the PM white blend. This also the home of the Castets vines I have written about a lot, one of only two Castets vineyards in France. More Carignan vines are joined by another interesting grape variety, Clairette Musquée which was blended with the Aramon from Font D’Oulette last year. This is the vineyard where a recent plantation took place to bring back older varieties to the area. Terret Blanc, Riveyrenc Gris and Piquepoul Gris were planted along with Terret Noir, Morastel and Riveyrenc Noir.
Main parcel with white vines, Castets, Carignan and Clairette Musquée
Planting the new parcel of Peilhan
Overall Syrah is the predominant grape variety making up around one third of production, although 2014 saw a big reduction in the harvest due to the dry spring and early summer. Red grapes dominate with well over 90% of production.
Jeff and his Castets
(L-R) Vin Des Amis, 7 Rue De La Pompe, Paf
Organic since 1987, no synthetic chemical products have been used on the soils for over 25 years now. No artificial yeasts are added in the winemaking process, the grapes produce healthy yeasts themselves to stimulate fermentation. Grapes also naturally produce tiny quantities of sulphites but Jeff has been experimenting with using no added sulphur since 2003 and has successfully completed the last three harvests without adding any sulphur to the wines. This dedication to producing wines which are as natural as possible, made with as little intervention as possible means that Jeff is restless in seeking to improve the quality of his soils and in protecting them from the non-organic practices of neighbouring vineyards. He has also brought in Agrifaune to put together a project to plant over I kilometre of hedges. These will help to prevent soil erosion, protect Coutelou vines from surrounding vineyards and also provide shelter to wildlife which in turn will help to protect the vines, for example by eating damaging insects. Trees such as oak, laurel and elder are being planted along with plants such as agrypis and wild rose. Around the vineyards wider borders of grasses and wild plants are being allowed to grow even if that means that vines have to be scrubbed up. Similarly ditches and fallow land will be used to encourage biodiversity. So in an area of monoculture these oases of biodiversity and wildlife will help to enrich nature, the vineyards and, ultimately, the wines.
My last post about the organic control stirred up a few reactions from a number of people. I don’t set out to upset people but I recognise the debate about organic status. This website from Domaine du Garinet in the Lot summarises the debate quite well, have a look at what it says about viticulture. Organic viticulture allows the use of some chemicals which many feel are damaging to soils and their ecosystem, eg the use of copper is allowed yet remains in the soil for many years and is damaging to potentially beneficial animals such as earthworms. Other winemakers feel that there are now alternative treatments which they can use which do less damage to the biodiversity of their vineyard but are not allowed by official organic certification.
Instead these winemakers use a system called lutte raisonnée or agriculture raisonnée.Jonathan Hesford runs Domaine Treloar in Trouillas, Roussillon with his wife Rachel using this approach. They make excellent wines across a wide range, white, red, rosé and different wines such as a Rivesaltes Muscat and a Rancio. I have visited the domaine several times and bought more in the UK and will continue to do so. Jonathan is one of a number of winemakers who have moved into the Languedoc Roussillon from outside the region and have brought new ideas and a fresh approach. Jonathan and Rachel lived within a few hundred metres of the World Trade Centre in September 2001 and witnessed 9/11. That shocking event influenced them to live differently. Wine study and time working in wineries in New Zealand (Rachel’s native country) gave them the confidence to establish their own domaine in Trouillas.
Jonathan and Rachel put as much dedication, thought and passion into their wines as any winemaker. Jonathan was quick to point out to me after my last post that many, if not most, artisanal winemakers nowadays care about their terroir and minimise chemical use, whether organic or not. Jonathan says, “My decisions are based on on what, scientifically, are best for the vines, the soils, the environment and me, the guy spraying. In many cases the organic product is more dangerous or more environmentally damaging that the synthetic product I have chosen.” He does not seek organic certification as he does not welcome the bureaucracy and feels it is often a marketing tool. I have spoken to other French winemakers recently who have said exactly the same thing. For further information on Jonathan’s approach look at his own website page.
The wines are testament to his skills and beliefs. They shine with the freshness which I love in wine and reflect the healthy fruit which he produces. Particular favourites from my visit in early November were the white La Terre Promise (Grenache Gris dominant) and the red Three Peaks (Grenache, Syrah, Mourvedre) but I can honestly recommend all the wines.
Mas Gabriel is run by Deborah and Peter Core an English couple. The domaine is based in Caux, not far from us and is run along organic and biodynamic practices. Their reasons for doing so are explained far better by themselves on their website than I could do so please have a look. There are many parallels with Jonathan and Rachel in that the Cores left successful jobs in a big city to follow a dream to be winemakers. Both Peter and Deborah studied winemaking in New Zealand and worked in wineries there and then in Bordeaux before settling in Caux.
It is interesting that despite similarities they took a different view about winemaking to Domaine Treloar by pursuing organic and biodynamic practices. Deborah and Peter spend many hours in their vines debudding them when necessary to allow more aeration and therefore less risk of humidity leading to mildew. They, like Jeff Coutelou, are allowed to use copper and sulphur but in fact use less than one third of the permitted level of copper, treating only when necessary. A recent survey by a botanist found over 40 plant varieties in their vineyards, a sign of health and diversity.
With Peter in the vines
Again the proof of their hard work and passion is in the bottle. Mas Gabriel produce 4 wines, a white (Carignan Blanc dominated), rosé, and two reds. The white, Clos Des Papillons, is one of my favourite white wines from Languedoc Roussillon, dry with fruit and body it is a wine which makes you contemplate and smile as you drink it. The reds from 2012 and 2013 which I tasted during a visit at the end of October were also fresh and fruity yet contain complexity and depth. No doubt in my mind that the range of wines is all getting better and better, a testament to their growing skills and experience both in the cellar and in the vineyard.
So there we are, two excellent domaines. They all work incredibly hard and give everything they have to produce the best, most healthy fruit from their soils. Yet in different ways. Both produce superb wines which I would strongly recommend without hesitation. Both have different views about the way to look after their terroir and I have compared them here for the sake of my debate about organic winemaking not in terms of quality. That would be unfair and impossible as they are two of my favourite domaines in France as my own wine collection would attest. Incidentally I say that not because of their English & New Zealand origins but because of the quality of their wines. I will be posting soon about some of the diversity of winemakers in the Languedoc Roussillon.
I attended a conference last Thursday where the famous vineyard analysts the Bourgignons (advisers to Romanée Conti amongst others) set out the chemical, geological and agricultural make up of healthy soil. Amongst the interesting points to emerge was that the vine takes over 90% of its needs from the air and about 6% from the soil but that 6% is what can make the difference in quality of a wine. It is certainly produced by passionate, artisanal producers. But is it best achieved through agriculture which is organic, biodynamic, natural or raisonnée? I have a lot still to learn.
Mas Coutelou has been organic since 1987, recognised as number 670 in the whole of France, i.e. the 670th of any type of organic production not just wines. Therefore, Jeff’s father, Jean-Claude, was one of the pioneers of the need to practise more sustainable agriculture and winemaking. Carrying the label ‘agriculture biologique’ is important to many customers who now choose to buy organic products, it is also important to a domaine which has such a rich history of organic viticulture and has now gone further by producing natural wines.
On Thursday Jeff was visited by the inspector for organic winemakers in the Hérault. Despite the long history of organic Mas Coutelou the domaine is checked each year by ecocert to ensure that it is sticking to organic practice. The inspection lasted 3 hours with 2 hours in the office going through paperwork to ensure that all activities are compatible with organics. It was gruelling and Jeff had to have proof and paperwork to support his claims. New parcels of vines, treatments in established vineyards, what grapes went into which cuves and which bottles – all were checked. Calendars of treatments (using organic materials such as nettle manure) for each of the last 3 vintages, analyses of the wines to ensure there are no outlawed chemicals, quantity of production – all were checked. Jeff produced spreadsheets to show how a wine was pressed, put in tank, vinified and then bottled. Satellite maps and images were used to identify vineyards and verify the production matched the origin.
A visit to the cellars to check that bottles matched the production and that tanks were in order and that labels gave accurate information was followed to one of the vineyards which was checked against the satellite photo to ensure that it matched production figures and was in good health. This really was a thorough test.
Happily Jeff emerged with flying colours and because he does not filter his wines and since he has not added sulphur to the wines he is actually entitled to higher than the normal award of organic status. So the story of Mas Coutelou from father to son continues.
The amount of paperwork and IT work in producing spreadsheets etc was stunning. This adds many, many hours to what we wine drinkers imagine is the workload of the vine grower and wine maker. So when you see this label on a bottle (or indeed any food or drink) please spare a moment to think of all the hard work which has gone into your glass (or plate) to ensure that it is of the highest quality.
The Grenache you harvested and pressed has been added to large 26 litre bottles and is beginning its journey towards maturity and drinking.
Moving from bonbonnes to bottles
Yesterday was a superb day to be at Mas Coutelou.
It started fairly routinely by continuing habillage, preparing bottles for sending to merchants around the world. But then Jeff took me out into the vineyards to meet up with Michel who was already out there. He was in a vineyard of young vines, including some of the almost forgotten variety Aramon Noir as well as other cépages. There is a mix of ages too with vines from this year and the last two or three years. Michel, and then Jeff, were checking each vine to check on their health and progress since they were grafted. If the graft had not taken then they will be replaced later. If everything was looking good then stakes were added to support the young vines in their growth. As it was a lovely, warm and sunny day it was good to be out in the open air.
Michel has checked that this vine is healthy and will add a wooden stake
Jeff and Icare get to work
The weather has been remarkably mild and the vineyards were full of unusual sights for mid November such as flowering roses, wild leeks and wild rocket.
It was interesting to note the differences between two neighbouring vineyards. Jeff’s has vines living in soil which supports wildlife and olive trees for diversity. A neighbour’s vineyards show clean soils with neat rows of vines. How are they so clean? Fertilisers and chemicals. Here are obvious differences in ideas about wine and agriculture in general. Personally I am becoming ever more convinced that organic, minimal intervention is the way to healthy and tasty wines but others will disagree.
A regiment of vines
After lunch Jeff decided it was time to put into bottles the Grenache harvested in late September by the Rugbymen and ourselves. The wine had been placed in a series of bonbonnes after pressing and we tasted each one to look for the best assemblages, eg bonbonnes B and E had a sweeter edge so were mixed together in a large 26 litre bottle. The bottles were enormous and 8 were filled with the Grenache.
Michel tasting the Grenache as we agree on best assemblages
Bottles, sample bottles and emptied bonbonnes
As the work finished for the afternoon we were joined by Jeff’s niece Flora, a talented photographer. Jeff opened some Vieux Grenache as he checked on the progress of some new small barrels used in a new solera system to supplement the older more established one. Some bottles from 20, 30 and even 40 years ago were sampled and were truly delicious, rich with layers and layers of different flavours and varying from dry to sweet. Finally he took a sample of a very special bottle, Sélection Des Grains Nobles 2012 made with Grenache Noir. Apparently some of the Grenache was affected by noble rot that year and Jeff and Michel spent a whole day doing triage to ensure only the right grapes were selected. The result even after two years is astonishing. My mind was truly blown. How to describe something so stunning, ethereal and rewarding? One of the very best wines I have tasted and a fitting climax to a truly memorable day which was full of sunshine, teamwork and friendship.
When Jeff suggested that I should attend Latour De France I was rather surprised as I was unaware of his love of cycling. A quick correction of gender and I was patiently told that it was a village in the Pyrenées Orientales where 12 of 13 winemakers are organic producers and several make natural wines. An opportunity not to be missed. Combined with visits to one of my favourite French villages, Banyuls, and also to Collioure this made for a great weekend.
Saturday by the coast proved to be a lovely, sunny day – unbelievably warm for November.
Vineyards in Banyuls stretching down to the Mediterranean Sea
Sunday was cooler and grey but a great day for wine tasting. We arrived before the start of the event and the car park was already pretty full. Despite this the crowds were never too large and there was every opportunity to get round the various caves without much hassle. Each of the village organic producers had their cellar open and each also contained invitees from Roussillon but also from Fitou and Burgundy. This spread out the crowds as we walked through the streets between caves. In addition to the wines there were street entertainers and various food outlets including, to my delight, a vegetarian outlet. So, all in all, a very well organised event catering for everyone (sorry about the pun).
I am not a professional wine journalist and I am not great at writing tasting notes so I won’t! Instead I offer overall impressions and suggest some of my favourites from the 120 or so wines which I tasted (it was hard but someone has to do it on your behalf dear reader).
What struck me most was how much I enjoyed the white wines, I had expected the reds to be the outstanding wines, and some were, but the whites were much more consistent and interesting overall. One Carignan Blanc stood out (Clos Du Rouge Gorge, Cyril Fahl of whom more later) but what emerged was the splendour of Grenache Gris. Often combined with Maccabeu it was Grenache Gris which provided a series of fresh, deep, long lasting and flavourful wines with hints of minerality, sweetness and fruits of all kinds depending on the producer. Excellent examples from Padié (very expensive though), Calimas, Tribouley, Rivaton and Deux Chateau. There was also a very nice Maccabeu based white from Troullier. I would happily seek out and drink any of these and would advise anyone to do so.
There were also a few strange white wines ranging from cloudy and sulphury to the downright sharp and tooth decaying.
Talking with Nikolaus Bantlin of Les Enfants Sauvages
There were some excellent red wines on offer.
Cyril Fahl (Clos Du Rouge Gorge) produces a high class range of (quite expensive) wines based mainly on Carignan and Grenache. Tasting Cyril’s wines proved that his reputation and garnered praise were well merited, his Carignan based wines were delicious, nothing more to add to that. Top winemaker.
As with Grenache Gris in the white wines there was an outstanding red grape which stood out in many of the top wines and it was, as with Cyril, the Carignan. Time and again the wines with fruit, flavour and long finish were based around Carignan or had a large proportion of it in the assemblage. Not long ago Carignan was being grubbed up around the region and dismissed as a variety of little potential. La Bande de Latour showed how nonsensical that was. Carignan is a great and noble variety, again seek it out from good producers.
Other favourite reds which I tasted came from Domaine du Possible (C’est Pas La Mer A Boire), Opi D’Aqui (from Clermont L’Hérault) and Maramuta.
The problem with a number of red wines, in my view, was the use of oak. This may be a personal thing as I really do not like obvious oaky flavours. It can add complexity and structure to wines when used carefully but a lot of winemakers seem to rush to use barrels so that they can be seen as ‘serious’ winemakers. And add many euros to the price of their ‘special’ cuvées. Sadly I felt a number of wines were spoiled by injudicious use of oak. The wines appeared thin and dry with their fruit stripped out.
I would like to mention 3 other winemakers whose bottles I enjoyed.
Les Enfants Sauvages is the wine domaine of Nikolaus and Carolin Bantlin, a German couple based in Fitou. I enjoyed talking to Nikolaus and warmed to his passion for his wines and I could understand that passion when I tasted them. I liked all of the wines, white and red, but especially Roi Des Lézards, which is, you guessed it, 100% Carignan. I would definitely like to visit the Domaine in future.
The range of Les Enfants Sauvages
Domaine De La Chappe is a Burgundy domaine run by Vincent Thomas a young winemaker who has built on the work of his father and used natural methods as well as biodynamic practices. He is based in Tonnerre and offered Bourgogne Pinot Noir and Petit Chablis amongst other wines. The prices were very reasonable for Burgundy, around the 10-12€ mark. The wines were far more rewarding than many Burgundies I have tasted at much higher prices. I would love to try these wines again when I have more time to devote to them. You can read more about Vincent from an article on the very good louisdressner website.
Listening to Vincent Thomas of Domaine De La Chappe
Saskia van der Horst runs Les Arabesques in Montner not far from Latour. She was a sommelier in London at Gordon Ramsay’s restaurant at Claridge’s and also ran a wine bar there. She returned to France to make wine rather than just sell it and drink it. These were amongst my favourite wines of the day, all 3 were rich, full and refreshing. What amazed me was that these were Saskia’s first wines, the 2013 vintage was her first. Saskia can certainly be proud as her wines were as high in quality as most of those I tasted at Latour.
It was a great day. I liked the way the event was run, I loved the focus of organic and natural wines and the enthusiasm of the winemakers for their work and their wines. I tasted some excellent wines and discovered plenty of new winemakers whose work I look forward to sampling in future.