amarchinthevines

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


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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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Brief return to Mas Coutelou

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Version francaise

After my sojourn in Alsace it was great to return to the Languedoc. Sadly I was already aware that due to a bereavement I would have to leave within a couple of days to return to the UK. However, I was able to spend one of my two days there with Jeff and amongst those vines which I had missed so much.

It was a great time to be there, the vines were in full flower, many already past that stage showing the new grapes, firstly with their brown hoods and then just the green baby berry itself.

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The vines were looking very healthy, plentiful rain in the winter and a sharp frost in early spring had allowed the vines to rest, to gather their strength for the season ahead – a sharp contrast to 2016. Greenery aplenty, wild flowers blooming and, during my visit to Peilhan, I saw a young deer running through the vines and a pheasant. Clearly the Coutelou vines attract wildlife to its oasis amongst the surrounding desert of chemically treated soils.

During the previous weeks the soils of Peilhan had been ploughed, by a horse. Gentler on the soils Jeff asked a local man to till.

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He himself was giving the soil a light rotivation that afternoon, turning the plants and flowers amongst the vines into the soil, a natural composting. Icare, with an injured paw, and I watched on in the sunshine.

 

The only real problem this year has been the return of the snails. Last year they ravaged Font D’Oulette (the Flower Power vineyard) so that only a few cases of grapes could be picked. Fortunately, that vineyard has been spared this year but they are out in force in the largest vineyard, Segrairals. It was there that I also found Michel, Julien and Vincent working, tightening the wires of the palissage and removing side shoots etc from the vines.

In the afternoon we tasted through the 2016 vines and, they are so different even from February when I tasted them last. The whites are splendid, highlight a hugely successful long maceration Muscat. The reds such as the Carignan were very good and the top wine of the year will be the Mourvèdre, a silky, complex wine with huge depth of flavour – a treat for the short and long term. 2016 was a difficult year but Jeff has still produced some great wines.

So, I look forward to getting back to Puimisson as soon as possible, to follow the vintage further and see the latest progress. There is bottling to be done and plenty more besides.

The cellar is transformed, painted with the new office and floor and the stainless steel cuves plumbed in for temperature control. And perhaps, most interesting of all, there is an amphora. This is the trendy method of vinification around the world. However, very few winemakers have an amphora dating from the time of Julius Caesar with which to make wine. Jeff plans to use it this year, connecting his wine to those made 2,000 years ago. Wines with links to the past, present and future, Mas Coutelou has soul!

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Return to the vines of Mas Coutelou

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Looking from La Garrigue towards Sainte Suzanne

Version francaise

After almost three months away it is good to be back in the Languedoc, and especially to be back in Puimisson, the home of Mas Coutelou. Jeff and Icare greeted us warmly and it didn’t take me long to get back into the vines.

Carole and Julien were hard at work pruning in Rome vineyard, my favourite of all, I was happy to see them all. Fortunately, the day I was there (24th January) was a lovely, sunny afternoon and quite warm but recent weeks have seen freezing temperatures overnight and pruning on such mornings is brutal. However, it is vital work.

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Dead vines removed, their place ready for new ones

The vine needs to be trained for the season to come, cutting away dead wood and restricting the growth of the vine so that it is does not overproduce which would reduce the quality of the wine. Pruning also offers the opportunity to check the health of each vine and to identify vines which need to be replaced.

The vine is studied, first cuts remove the growth of last year and then decisions made about which branches to remove and which to leave as spurs, which direction the growth will take and, also, about which spurs might be prepared for the following year too. All with freezing fingers and aching back.

Much work had already been done but much remains ahead. In the photos below the Grenache of Sainte Suzanne has been pruned but the Syrah remains to be done. Similarly, the reds of Peilhan are pruned but the white parcel remains to do.

Work has also begun on preparing a parcel next to Sainte Suzanne which has remained fallow for a few years giving recovery to the soil. Known as Théresette this parcel will be planted with Aramon (Noir and Gris) which is what used to be planted in this parcel many years ago and which was well suited to the soil.

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The ‘new ‘ parcel under preparation. La Garrigue in the background.

The winter also offers the chance to see the bare vineyards and their topography. When people talk about the value of a particular parcel or vineyard it is easy to overlook how even within a small area there are variations of slope and gradient which would alter drainage and exposition to the sun. Vines are all different even within a parcel and the pruning process treats each vine on its own merits to help it to produce the best fruit it can.

The vineyard soils are covered in white this January, not with snow, not here in the Languedoc at least. The white flowers of wild rocket form a spectacular blanket contrasting with the stark wood of the vines themselves. Even in winter there is something special and beautiful about being in this place, a march in the vines is so fulfilling.


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Vendanges 2016 #9 – Days Like This

“When all the parts of the puzzle start to look like they fit
Then I must remember there’ll be days like this”               (Van Morrison, Days Like This)

As we approached the end of vendanges a number of the team were moving on. It was an inspired move to have a farewell day, picking, tasting and celebrating together, though we were already missing some like Charles, Carole and Maylis.

The morning dawned over Peilhan and the vineyard which we planted in March 2015. Rows of Terret Blanc and Noir, Riveyrenc Gris and Noir, Piquepoul Noir and Morastel produced grapes this year. They cannot be used in major cuvées sold to the public as they are too youthful. However, Jeff decided to pick them to make something for himself out of interest. So, on a bright, warm autumnal morning we gathered, picked, chatted and laughed.

Interesting to see how some varieties produce more than others already, more precocious perhaps, the Terret Noir being especially shy. Altogether we picked around six cases only but there was a real mix of colour and some nice looking fruit which went into a small cuve in whole bunches.

 

Later that day we gathered again, this time in the main cellar along with Thierry Toulouse, Jeff’s oenologue. We tasted through the whole range of 2016 wines in cuve before heading to a local restaurant for a meal. The results of the tasting were fascinating. Clearly, they are in a stage of transition, fermentations still progressing. Nonetheless the wines were already showing their character. I won’t go into too much detail here, though I did take notes to help me record how the wines change in coming months.

In summary though I was amazed. I have said many times on here how difficult this year has been. A very warm winter, drought, mildew, delayed summer being just some of the problems. Yet here we tasted some lovely fresh fruit, lively acidity and other promising signs. I would mention the Carignan Blanc, lovely Syrah and Grenache from La Garrigue, juicy Mourvèdre and in particular the wonderful Carignan Noir of Flambadou. All those puzzles which Jeff had to hold in his head about harvesting dates, moving wines, possible assemblages etc, well those puzzles were solved in the glass. I had expected some disappointments but somehow Jeff has conjured some potentially top quality wines.

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2003 Roberta

At the end of the current wines Jeff also shared a 2003 bottle of white wine based on Grenache Blanc, Noir and Gris, called Roberta (it’s a long story!). This was one of three cuvées which were the first that Jeff made sans sulfites. Yet it was complex; fresh, fruity, nutty. A wine which made my heart sing, proof that SO2 is not required for ageing wines as we are often told. Perhaps in 13 years time we shall be tasting the 2016 wines and marveling at them too.

A fitting way to close the vendanges period, a team rightly proud of what it had achieved.

“When all the parts of the puzzle start to look like they fit
Then I must remember there’ll be days like this”

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Mas Coutelou 2015 (Part 2)

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En français

Thursday, August 11th was the last day before Jeff shut up shop for a few days as he does every year to celebrate the Béziers Féria. A few days of rest and recuperation before the preparations really start for the vendanges. As he had received a number of requests for visits Jeff decided to group them all together and have a tour of the vines and tasting with lunch.

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Visitors from Grenoble, Orléans and Nanterre assembled at the cave along with my friend and sommelier Sandra Martinez and we set off around some of the vineyards. Jeff explained his philosophy and vineyard work and it’s worth repeating a couple of points of note. I mentioned the problem of vers de la grappe a few weeks ago which Jeff treated with a spraying of clay to discourage the moth from laying its eggs. We found a bunch in La Garrigue which was affected and Jeff opened it up to reveal the cocoon of the larvae.

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Vers de la grappe cocoon

He also explained how bats are the ideal solution and why he provides shelters, each bat would eat around 2,000 insects a day including the moths responsible for vers de la grappe.

We also looked around at the majority of vineyards and their dark green colour at a time when the vine is putting its resources into the grapes to get them to maturity, as that is how they reproduce. So, in a natural state the leaves start to look pale and tired as the vine is not channelling energy into the leaves. The dark green, attractive vines are so coloured because of the nitrogen feeds and, in some cases, irrigation.

We returned to the domaine where we were joined by a group of wine professionals. In the garden we tasted a range of Mas Coutelou wines as well as some lovely salads and (for the carnivores) some charcuterie.

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Jeff leads the tasting accompanied by his sister and niece

The list of wines shared, all from 2015 except the last, was: Bibonade (rosé and white), Peilhan Blanc, Maccabeu, OW1, 5SO Simple, Sauvé De La Citerne, On Peut Pas Vraiment Dire Que, Classe, La Buvette À Paulette, Flower Power, Flambadou, L’Oublié, Devigne Qui Vient Diner, 5J

I missed the Bibonades and Peilhan as I was getting the Maccabeu from tank. I had a bottle of Peilhan at home recently though and it was lovely, really strong evidence of the quality of 2015. All apples and pears and fresh acidity with a long finish. Even by Coutelou standards it is an exceptional wine.

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Maccabeu

The Maccabeu is, if anything, even better. Cooked apple and cinnamon flavours, fresh acidity, almost smoky. There is so much going on here and, as the jug I collected the wine in was in front of me, I kept being drawn back to it through lunch. The wine changed and opened out with more fruit and spice. This will develop beautifully when it is bottled, a stunner, my new favourite.

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OW1 is Jeff’s first skin contact wine. He was reluctant to join the trend and didn’t want an orange wine but this spent plenty of time on skins, I remember Cameron and I carrying out a manual pigeage. Now bottled the wine has texture and tannins from that skin contact but there is plenty of fruit and remains balanced and fresh. Very good.

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Manual pigeage of OW1

5SO was on good form. The boisterous, chatty group became quiet for the first time, captured by its fruit profile and drinkability on a hot summer’s day, which essentially is what it was designed to do.

Citerne was one I didn’t have last week and it had been some time since I had tasted it. It showed well, the Mourvedre adding a real plummy depth. Another wine which will emerge in coming months, another to look forward to. OPPVDQ was on great form, another to quieten the crowd. It confirmed my opinion that this is a wine which will really benefit from some time in bottle, hang on to some if you have them. La Buvette À Paulette was last week’s big surprise and another bottle confirmed the pleasure, really showing its quality.

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Flower Power not yet properly labelled. What a colour!

Flower Power took some time to come around but now that it has done so I can confirm that this will strengthen the reputation which it earned in its first vintage in 2014. The vineyard is still young and will continue to improve the wine it delivers, if the snails leave it alone. The ten grape varieties give a complex story of light and shade, red and dark fruits, floral and sappy.

Flambadou was once again a star, showing the lightness of touch in this Carignan. Jeff describes it as like a Pinot Noir. There is depth and character packed into quite a light structure. The vineyard has a light layer of limestone beneath the fine clay and it is this limestone which adds the complexity to the wine. A grand cru of Carignan.

L’Oublié and its story once again captured the imagination of everyone, its secondary flavours beguiling the tastebuds. Devigne Qui Vient Diner is the wine which Jeff made in partnership with Christian Venier from the Loire, Gamay added to some Languedoc grapes such as Cinsault. My, this has improved with a few months in bottle (magnum), really delivering a rounder more harmonious blend with zappy fruit and lovely sweet fruit.

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Finally 5J the Grenache Gris from 2012 aged in barrel made to reflect a Spanish fino to accompany the best hams. Oxidised notes, barrique notes and a flash of clean fruit, quince and apple.

A great day, much longer than most were expecting but nobody showed any signs of fatigue or willingness to depart. Many joined us in the cave des soleras to taste some of the old wines there. And poignantly, some wine of Jean-Claude on what would have been his 80th birthday. His legacy will live on.

I enjoyed reading the Facebook post of one of the visitors Benoit who described Jeff as a magician and an artist. The day was a success.

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Perfect Day

En francais

Any excuse to include some Bowie who is producer and piano player on the song which is also one of Jeff’s favourites.

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Michel on top form

March 3rd was the last full day of the Spring bottling period and it was pretty much a perfect day in Jeff’s own words. The day was clear with high(ish) air pressure which is better for bottling and in the biodynamic calendar it was a fruit day with a descending moon, perfect too.

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Checking the weather

The only snag was the late arrival of the magnum bottles despite being ordered some time ago. So, things started over an hour late, bottling magnums and jereboams of Vin Des Amis and a new Syrah cuvée.

I had always assumed that a magnum being simply 150cl as opposed to the single bottle 75cl would be cheaper to produce, a bulk saving. However, the bottles are naturally more expensive, being produced in smaller quantities and they are filled by a slower machine rather than the usual bottling line. This takes more manpower too. So a magnum and other large formats do cost more, jereboams also need a larger cork. I like these large bottles, not just because there is more wine (good for groups of friends) but also the wine ages more slowly.

We had a relaxed lunch in the cellar, cheese, canned fish and charcuterie, the latter for Jeff, Michel and Julien. Naturally a few bottles were opened for quality control!

In the afternoon it was back to the main bottling line, helped by Catherine, for the Syrah cuvée and the new white wine from Peilhan vineyard, made from Carignan Blanc and Grenache Gris. The Syrah is lovely, I remember during the vendanges that the tank caused some of us some concern but Jeff always believed in it and …. he was right. Lovely dark fruits, fresh, mineral and long – almost as good as La Vigne Haute which is praise indeed.

The Blanc was, perhaps, even better for me, bright apple and pear flavours, very mineral, clean and pure. I do believe 2015 will produce some great reds from Mas Coutelou but that the white wines, often in the shadow, will emerge to take their place as stars in their own right. Jeff is confident that the Maccabeu is even better, there’s a long maceration blanc too. I have tasted them both and they are lovely wines in the making.

We didn’t finish until after 8pm, it was a long day but we had great fun, lots of laughs, great teamwork as well as the hard work. The bottling has been a success, the 2015s are proving to be even better than we thought – a perfect day.

Then just as I thought days could hardly get much better, along came Tuesday, March 8th. But you’ll have to wait for that report in a couple of days.


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Coutelou catch-up

It’s been a few weeks since I updated about events at Mas Coutelou, partly due to Millésime Bio and, partly, because it’s a relatively quiet time. That is not to say nothing has been happening, far from it.

Millésime Bio and Le Salon des Vins De Loire are two huge events in France attracting many thousands of trade visitors. As you have seen with Millésime Bio these salons also attract satellite events and Jeff takes part in those. Les Affranchis in Montpellier and La Dive Bouteille in Saumur last two days each and so adequate samples of the wines need to be prepared, transported and poured for guests to taste. Those events alone take about 7 days of the last month. I know from feedback from various people who sampled Mas Coutelou wines at both events that they enjoyed the wines which were samples from cuve (tank) of the 2015 cuvées such as Vin Des Amis, Classe, Syrah, PM Blanc and Flower Power. Hopefully the salons will spread the word about how good they are, the elegance and finesse of the vintage is obvious as you taste it.

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Bottles of the 2015 wines made specially for the salons

Those visitors were also presented with Jeff’s annual Carte Des Voeux, his new year greetings card, together with his summary of the last year’s events, weather, vintage and cuvées. The Carte’s original is printed by hand and this year’s was especially complicated to print because of the different colours used. The message is worth the hard work.

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For the last several weeks pruning (taille) has continued. Julien is leading the work this year and his back must be getting sore by now. It is hard work! The importance of good pruning should not be underestimated. It maintains the health of the vines, removing damaged or sick wood. It reduces the number of canes which will grow grapes so that the vine’s energy will produce quality rather than quantity, probably reducing potential yields by half. It also shapes the vine so that future work such as ploughing and harvesting will be more straightforward. I wrote about pruning last year describing the different methods.

I visited Julien in Peilhan vineyard on Monday, the same day as I saw a pruning machine at work in a nearby vineyard. It certainly does the job quickly and more cheaply but looking at the vines afterwards it was hard not to think that the machine did not reduce the number of canes to limit yields and, of course, cannot check the health of the vines. Julien and his fellow tailleurs are more costly but, to my mind, essential for good vineyard management and, ultimately, good wines.

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Michel was also in Peilhan, making sure that the pruned vines were tied to their trellis. If the vine is not straight he might stake itfor support and then tie the vine to the stake using a fastener called a ‘queue de cochon’ as it resembles a pig’s curly tail. This will help to avoid the vine being knocked during ploughing or other work.

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Michel and Julien hard at work

Meanwhile, in the cellar it has been a hive of activity. One of the features of the cellar has been a large basket press which has been used by the Coutelou family for generations.

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Sadly, it has been out of use for many years and became something of an obstacle as work was done, especially during the vendanges. Jeff reluctantly decided to remove it, I know this was a difficult choice for him. It proved to be a much more difficult task than anticipated as the press screw went deep into the ground and a massive hole still didn’t get to the bottom of it so, eventually, it was sawn through to enable the whole press to be moved.

The story does have a happy ending though as the press is on its way to Jeff’s friend Didier Barral where it will be put to good use. The result is certainly more space in the cellar, even if a part of the domaine’s history has disappeared.

Another big tank (cuve) has also been split into two. Jeff will be able to vinify smaller quantities of wine and have more choices about the most suitable cuve for grapes as they come in at harvest time.

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Finally, for those of you who want to find out more about Mas Coutelou a new website is available. I have included a link at the top of my page and invite you to have a look at the site.

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Jeff wrote the text for it (I did the English translation) and it will inform you about the philosophy, methods and wines of the domaine. And it is those wines, the different cuvées, that I shall be writing about next time.

Pour les lecteurs français je m’excuse, j’ai des grandes difficultés de mettre à jour la page en français. J’ai demandé à WordPress pour résoudre le problème.