amarchinthevines

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


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Sorry Pasteur, you were wrong

Version française 

Two years ago I wrote an article whose title was a quote by my historical hero Louis Pasteur, “Wine is the most healthful and most hygienic of beverages.” Well my recent visit to the Languedoc gave me cause to doubt that Pasteur was wrong, in at least half of his statement.

A friend (Chris) drew my attention to a website showing the quality of water in every commune throughout France. The results for the area of the Hérault centred around Puimisson, Puissalicon, Espondeilhan and Thézan-lès-Béziers showed that they along with other communes in the area have poor quality drinking water.

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So why is that? Simply put it is agricultural pollutants and in this area what that means is pollutants from vineyards. In particular it means pesticides getting into the drinking water.

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The area is full of vineyards, mostly managed under a régime of chemical intervention. Weedkillers, herbicides, fertilisers are all used to ensure maximum yields as vignerons are paid by the quantity of grapes they produce, though they do have to respect the maximum yields permitted by, for example, AOP regulations. Unfortunately when it rains, and it often rains very hard in the Hérault, the chemicals are often washed from the vineyards onto the surrounding roads and into the drains and sewers.

I was talking to an Italian vigneron in January and he was telling me that, as an organic producer, he was shocked at the last vendanges. His lovely grapes were growing on vines which had already begun to shed their leaves or were changing colour as the energy of the plant had been channelled into the fruit rather than the leaves. He felt somewhat embarrassed as his neighbours’ vines were pristine, bright green and laden with grapes. That was the result of the chemicals and nitrates sprayed on to those vines, whereas his were treated only with organic tisanes.

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That is the same experience which I have observed in the area around Mas Coutelou. Jeff’s vineyards are surrounded in the main by conventionally tended vines. I remember him telling me as we stood in Rec D’Oulette (the Carignan vineyard) to look around at the bright green sea of vines with his own vines looking rather tired in comparison.

Well, the chemicals which make the greenery and heavy crops are polluting the water. The drinking water of the very place where the vignerons and their families live. When Pasteur spoke about wine being healthy and hygienic he was speaking at a time when most drinking water was polluted, even untreated. He was right, wine was healthier and cleaner than the water. And now, ironically, it is wine production which is making the water of ‘very bad quality’. Nevermind the 100+ additives which are legally allowed into wine, the wine is also a pollutant. That is why I challenge Pasteur’s claim.

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I am amazed that this report created so little reaction, surely the very water which nourishes the vines and slakes the thirst of wine producers should be be safe to drink? At what cost are we producing wine unless producers take more seriously the effects of their farming methods. And you wonder why I prefer to drink mainly organic and natural wines?


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“Wine is the most healthful and most hygienic of beverages.” (Pasteur)

Louis Pasteur is one of my historical heroes. As well as showing the links between germs and disease (by investigating alcohol) he discovered how vaccines work (partly by working to prevent the vine disease phylloxera). The quote above is also very topical after working in Jeff’s cellar. Let me explain.

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The Mas Coutelou team (left to right) – Annie, Michael, Carole, Jeff and Tina (sadly Michel was not in this photo)

The year has been a trying one for Jeff. The very dry weather through spring and summer has caused a major drop in production, Jeff reckons most parcels are 30-50% down on quantity even if the quality is very good. That is a big burden to bear and must be a financial blow.

The team which Jeff assembled for the harvest were cheerful, helpful and hard working. Carole has been working periodically with Jeff for 8 years and her experience allied to his leadership meant that work was done according to his wishes but with plenty of smiles and respect. Michel who works for Jeff was also a steady and reassuring presence. Harvest took place this week in hot, sunny weather. The team in the vineyard picked mainly under the stewardship of Carole and the grapes were ferried back to the cellar within half an hour or so of being picked.

Cabernet Sauvignon grapes, freshly picked

Cabernet Sauvignon grapes, freshly picked

The ‘caisses’ of grapes are then placed on the sorting line. I worked on triage on Wednesday. The grapes are taken out of the caisse and inspected for any signs of disease, under ripeness or foreign bodies such as leaves or snails. Ripe grapes are placed in the égrappeur which destems the grapes.

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The destemmer at work

The grapes are then pumped into tank ready to await pressing and to allow the first stages of fermentation. The bunches which were taken out are then checked, and healthy grapes added to the tank. This is slow and careful work, after all Jeff wants only the best quality grapes to go into his wines. The grapes are given as light a pressing as possible.

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Healthy, ripe Grenache grapes being pumped to tank

Jeff uses a range of containers for the wines, cement, stainless steel and wood. He is seeking neutral influence in the main as he wants the grapes to tell their own story rather than, for example, new wood. After the grapes have settled and begun to ferment they are pumped into another tank and some of the skins, pips etc are removed as they pass through very broad sieve like stainless steel. Jeff checks the wines at every stage to measure the stage which they are at, alcohol levels, sugar levels etc

Jeff testing the first stages

Jeff testing the first stages

After that initial pumping the wine is allowed to settle and the solids which are left in the wine begin to rise to the top of the tank as they are lighter than the grape juice. This produces a thick layer or ‘cap’ (chapeau in French). The skins in the cap though contain flavouring and colour for the wine and so it needs to be mixed with the juice. The cap has to be physically pushed down into the juice.

The wines are also ‘pumped over’ (remontage) every day. This means the red wine in the bottom of the tank is pumped over the top of the cap to moisten it and to extract the required amount of colour, flavour etc. This requires the working of an expensive but vital pump to caress the wine rather than force it. This pump works non stop all day (there are back ups!).

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The (very) expensive pump

As the harvest progresses more tanks are filled so more and more pumping over takes place. The cellar begins to resemble a plate of spaghetti as hoses run from one tank to another. Yet another machine also chills the wine slightly or heats it up if fermentation needs to be encouraged. This machine is in the top right of the photo underneath.

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How does Jeff keep all these sorted in his head?

All the while Jeff tastes the juice which is gently turning into wine and testing its progress using equipment such as a refractometer and other scientific equipment. A real mix of personal judgement and science mixing to best advantage.

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This continues until Jeff is happy that the wine is right. Several weeks of pumping, testing, tasting – an enormous task. There are so many pieces of information for him to keep in his head about the development of each cuve, an amazing effort which leaves him with a definite air of fatigue during the very enjoyable lunches and the post work drink.

So what of the Pasteur quotation? Well as I was working (oh yes I was) two things really struck me apart from the sheer physicality of lugging cases of grapes, hoses, pumps and various items of equipment.

Firstly, patience. Jeff waits patiently for the grapes to be just right before picking, he wants the best and is prepared to give nature the time it requires to deliver its best. In the cellar he nurtures each cuve and each drop of wine, each stage of the process takes place when the wine dictates to him. The temptation to rush or to do things because it suits the winemaker is resisted with determination and confidence. He knows because he produces great wines that if he waits he will produce more great wine.

Secondly, cleanliness.

Jeff makes natural wines and for the last couple of years without the use of sulphur to stabilise the wine and help it to fight dangers such as oxidation. To do so everything has to be clean. At every step equipment is washed down and cleaned. Again and again and again. This is drilled into all of us. The risk of harmful bacteria is reduced by hyper vigilance and cleanliness. Jeff told me that for each litre of wine produced he estimates that he uses a litre of water for washing and cleaning. I can believe it and in fact it must be much more. Now before I upset other winemakers who clean rigorously and take every care with hygiene I am not claiming that Jeff is unique in this. I was just amazed at how much washing and cleaning takes place. Hence my Pasteur quotation.

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Cleaning

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More cleaning

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And, yes, more cleaning

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My other job this week was pressing some grapes for some very special wines. More of that in the next post.

Happy in my work

Happy in my work