amarchinthevines

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


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Rare grapes and Vin De France

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This chart was published two weeks ago even though the information refers to 2010. I found it fascinating (I am a sad case I understand). Some of the information would be expected, New Zealand with its Sauvignon Blanc for example, Australia with its Shiraz. I was rather surprised to see Merlot as 13.7% of the French vineyard area however. Admittedly this is partly because it is one of my least favourite grape varieties, though, as always, fine examples are available from good vignerons.

Merlot, like Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and Viognier, were in vogue in the 80s and 90s when I became interested in wine. Languedoc producers reacted to this popularity by planting these cépages, it was commercial sense. One of those producers was Jean-Claude Coutelou and Mas Coutelou still has his Cabernet and Merlot parcels.

However, one of the more recent trends in the region has been the revival of older and rare grape varieties. At Mas Coutelou Jeff has planted grapes such as Riveyrenc Noir, Riveyrenc Gris, Morastel, Piquepoul Noir and Terret Noir in Peilhan (see photos below).

Earlier this year Jeff received a visit from Domaine De Vassal, guardian of the national treasury of grape vines. They record and keep examples all grape varieties as I described after a visit to Vassal. On this occasion they were intrigued by two vines in particular; firstly Clairette Musquée, planted in Peilhan and, secondly, the unknown variety in Segrairals. These are just part of the programme of replanting and grafting which has taken place at Mas Coutelou. The photos below show grafting of other cépages in Flower Power such as Aramon Noir and one unknown variety.

After months of research the experts at Vassal have concluded that Clairette Musquée has its origins in Hungary where it was known as Org Tokosi. It was planted in the Maghreb and after Algerian independence it was probably brought to France by those who repatriated to France.

The unnown variety turns out to be an Italian cépage, quite rare, called Delizia Di Vaprio. This is, according to my copy of Pierre Galet’s “Dictionnaire Encyclopédique des Cépages”, a grape authorised in Italy and Portugal. Under the rules of France’s AOC system it would not be allowed. Jeff, however, chooses to issue his wines under the Vin De France label which means he is free to choose his own methods and grape varieties. Whereas a Languedoc AOC wine must include grapes such as Syrah and Grenache Jeff can choose what to put in his wines including wines from just one grape variety. It also means he can plant these rare grapes and make wines from them which he truly loves and wants to make.

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Interestingly one AOC, Burgundy, is starting to show signs of concern that Vin De France is becoming more popular. They have started a campaign criticising Vin de France. To my mind they should be looking to their own failings and regulations. For example, as climate change bites harder vignerons will have to adapt, investigating different grape varieties will be part of that.

So, yes Merlot has its place (and thrives in the Colombié vineyard in Puimisson) but is it not exciting to see rare, old, traditional grapes being cherished and brought back to prominence? Let us appreciate the range and variety of grapes and the vignerons who bring out their best.

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From vine to wine – Vendanges 17

There are numerous different tasks during the vendanges, I thought I’d expand on a few as I reflect on the last two days. Both Thursday and Friday began with lovely sunrises over the vines as we picked, almost worth the early start to the day.

Picking was done by the half dozen Moroccan workers who work non-stop and chatter away even faster. This year there was a more stable team working with Jeff, on previous vendanges there has been a core of people with lots of others coming to spend a couple of days and then moving on. Many of these did sterling work, such as Thomas and Charles, but with an unchanging team for three weeks progress has been smooth.

In the vineyard Julien and Vincent took charge along with Selene, Max, Roxane, Ambroise and  Jeremy. Michel ferried the grapes to the cellar where Jeff controls the process of turning fruit into wine. The team (including myself) would also help out in the cellar as needed, Jeff aiming to give opportunities to learn about the winemaking process to everyone. Ever the teacher.

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This photo shows Roxane, Selene and Max picking Carignan. Roxane is cutting the bunches whilst Selene and Max carefully sort through their bunches to remove anything untoward such as insects, leaves, rotten or dried berries. On the other side of the vines are other pickers to ensure everything is taken. The bunches go into buckets and when they are filled they are emptied into the cases stored under the vine.

Michel arrives in the vineyard and drives between two rows to collect the cases, often supported by Julien. The grapes are returned to the cellar as quickly as speed limits allow, unloaded and subjected to further sorting.

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In the photo below Ambroise is checking for anything which escaped the pickers or fell into the cases whilst waiting to be collected. This year the grapes have been very healthy and so no need for the sorting table to be used. However, snails often sneak into the bunches and cases seeking some nourishment in the very dry weather.

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The bunches are either pressed immediately, eg for white wine or sent to vat. In the latter case they will be destemmed first or sent as whole bunches depending on the style of wine Jeff decided will be most suited to the grapes. They will spend a day or two there before the process of debourbing or délestage. The juice has now been sitting on the skins, flesh and pips which form a cap on the top of the juice or sink to the bottom of the vat. Délestage involves removing the juice from this mass when it has absorbed as much colour, flavour, tannin as Jeff deems optimal. The juice heads to a new tank to recover. In the video below you will see that it passes through a machine which cools down the juice. Fermentation produces a lot of heat, too much can bring problems which would spoil the wine. That is the main reason why Jeff also invested in new temperature controlled stainless steel tanks this year, especially for white wines.

The fermentation begins promptly, the healthy yeasts produced by the grapes themselves triggers the process of turning grape juice and its sugars into alcoholic wine. Odours of bread making and fresh fruits fill the cellar, hints of the pleasures of Mas Coutelou 2017 wines ahead.

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Skins after pressing

Meanwhile, after pressing the grapes skins are recovered from the press itself and put into a large container. There they will ferment and produce the base for brandy and spirits, nothing is wasted.

More interesting varieties were harvested these two days. Top left above is Muscat D’Alexandrie, large oval grapes tasting of pure grape juice. Carignan Blanc is one of my favourite white grapes from the region, it makes dry, complex wines. The middle row shows Carignan and Cinsault picked these days. Last but certainly not least, Castets is a rare red variety, less than 1 hectare in the world and much of that is in Peilhan. Sadly, it too has been hit by the dry summer, lovely quality but lacking in volume, a summary of this vintage.

And, after a hard day for some of us my T shirt shows the fruit of the day. Whilst Icare takes things at his own pace.


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Visitors – Vendanges 17

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An unusual few days to report upon. Let’s start with some bad news. Twice in the last week people have dumped their rubbish in Jeff’s vineyards. As these were at opposite ends of the village it must be assumed that there are two selfish, anti-social idiots who would prefer to spoil the local environment than drive to the local tip (déchetterie).

Another unwelcome arrival was Hurricane Irma in the Caribbean. Jeff’s sister Catherine and her husband live on Guadeloupe so we were all concerned for their welfare. Happily she reported that the worst of the storm missed the island. Others may not have been so lucky of course.

 

For me there was one more unwelcome visitor. As I entered the cellar on Tuesday morning I mentioned the smell of Carbon Dioxide in the air. This had built up from fermenting grapes and with the cellar being less busy than usual the CO2 had built up. As Tuesday was hot the cellar doors stayed shut as much as possible and with remontages and open vats the CO2 was strong. Alas it seems I am particularly sensitive to it and it made me breathless and nauseous. I can understand better how some people have serious accidents with gas build up when they are working at open cuves. Maybe it’s because I’m getting old but the others were unaffected, and I’m the non – smoker! Happily, I have soon recovered.

Yet another visitor arrived in the form of the inspector who controls organic certification for Ecocert. I wrote about her annual visit in 2014, this was a spot check during vendanges to ensure that everything is done following organic principles. Reassuring for those of us who want to know that Bio wines are truly organic. Obviously, there was no concern as Mas Coutelou goes well beyond the standards required.

Animal visitors too. Buried in a case of Grenache from Sainte Suzanne was this 6cm caterpillar, quite a size. And, amongst the Carignan vines today was this dragonfly who was there with others and many butterflies. Which makes the actions of the fly tippers even more senseless.

And so to grapes. More cépages to keep me happy. Piquepoul Gris and Terret Blanc along with Maccabeu picked from Peilhan on Tuesday morning will form a new white wine. The pink tint of the Piquepoul Gris will not colour the wine as it was pressed directly to remove the juice from the skins.

The aforementioned Grenache was supplemented with more Grenache on Wednesday this time from La Garrigue. So good was this harvest that Jeff is considering making a special cuvée with it. Together with the excellent Syrah from the vineyard La Garrigue has certainly performed well this year. Cinsault from Segrairals followed on.

With smaller yields and dry weather the picking has been quick this year, efficient too with an excellent team working well. You will see in the photo below how they work in pairs across a vine to ensure that all the fruit is picked, hopefully avoiding each others’ fingers.

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So, what remains? Well probably five days of vendanges with Cabernet, Mourvèdre and Carignan still to come, the latter of course being the headline act in recent years. There are also a few rows of vines in Peilhan, eg the reds such as Oeillade and Castets and more Muscat too. All is set fair for a good finish.

 

 


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Routine and variety – Vendanges 17

Ambroise, Selene and Vincent in the Syrah

A week into picking and the team is in a routine, working smoothly to steadily bring in the grapes. The quality remains high but there can now be no doubt that the ongoing dry spell has taken its toll. Quantities are down by up to 50%, bottles of the 2017 Mas Coutelou wines will be more difficult to seek out I’m afraid and, inevitably, more expensive.

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Flower Power

Thursday saw the Flower Power vineyard picked (Rec D’Oulette to give it the proper name) and just 7 cases of grapes were returned from the 0,4ha of vines. They are young still and will have found it hard to cope with the arid conditions.

Julien and Max in Rome

Rome, too, was picked and I went along as this is my favourite vineyard. Cinsault, Muscat and all three types of Grenache were harvested. From Peilhan came Grenache Gris and a few rows of the Maccabeu which will go into the PM rosé wine.

Muscat, Grenache Blanc and Cinsault (left from Rome), Grenache Gris and Maccabeu from Peilhan on the right

By now we are into the second stage of the vendanges. The grapes picked previously have been sitting on skins for varying lengths of time to extract colour and flavour but they will be separated when Jeff decides that further contact will not enhance the wine further. The juice is pumped to a new tank leaving the skins and pips behind to be used as marc for distilling.

 

This process of remontage is carried out increasingly as more tanks fill up. Tracking which wines are where is a skill in itself, each time the wine will be tasted and sent for analysis to ensure that acidity, sugars, potential alcohol are all correct and no nasty surprises await.

Jeff took me round a few of the vineyards to check on their progress for picking. We started with the Carignan, then on to the Mourvèdre and Cinsault of Segrairals. In all cases the pips and stalks showed us that more time was needed, they are still a little too green. Tasting the grapes showed plenty of sweet fruit but that greenness would not be good in the finished wine.

Cinsault after pressing

Cinsault after pressing, like modern art

 

Friday was based in the biggest parcel, Segrairals. Cinsault grapes first, to be pressed immediately so that a light pink juice emerges ready to be blended with the other rosé grapes. This happened on Saturday so that all the rosé grapes will ferment together to blend fully. Jeff explained to me that Cinsault is harder to press than most, the large berries contain a lot of pulp which breaks down less easily.

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Syrah, Segrairals

 

Afterwards the remaining Syrah was tackled, again I went along to help with a bit of picking as well as doing the sorting with Jeff back in the cellar. The tri was not too difficult as good, firm bunches of healthy grapes came in case after case. Never mind the width feel the quality seems to be the motto, for Jeff’s sake greater quantity would be welcome.

More remontage, more testing in the cellar. It was good to see the white wines in good condition with fermentation already lively; bready, yeasty smells began to fill the cellar. More Syrah would be picked on Saturday morning but, readers, I admit that I took a break. The hard work, rich variety of grapes and early mornings meant that this time AMarch was not in the vines.

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Stress and grapes – Vendanges 17

Day two and the weather remained overcast and humid, there were even a few drops of rain. Rain which has been sorely missed in the last two months, there has been no real rain since June 26th, almost two months now. Some vines have found that stressful and virtually shut down therefore not ripening the grapes as well as they ought to do. Others, with underground water supply more available, are more vigorous and channeling their energy into the grapes. Judging what to harvest and when, is therefore even more difficult and stressful for Jeff.

The picking today began in Peilhan where the Muscat À Petits Grains was golden, starting to raisin in places. The berries are a little smaller than usual, another sign of the lack of recent rain. Nonetheless they were sweet, ripe and ready, measuring 15° of potential alcohol. In the press the lack of juice means that even a decent amount of grapes will produce only one barrique this year.

Then on to Clairette Musquée, a couple of rows in Peilhan, next to the red grape vines. This cépage is so rare that an ampelography expert recently failed to identify it on a visit. Into the mix was added Grenache Blanc from La Garrigue, which has fared better than some in that vineyard with the drought. Indeed one berry seemed to have thrived as you can see in the following photo.

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Whilst Roxane, Max and myself picked the Grenache the others moved into the newer plantation of Peilhan and picked Riveyrenc Noir, Riveyrenc Gris, Piquepoul Gris and Morastel. This really was a day for ampelography fans like myself. All of these grapes with the Clairette will help to make the rosé for 2017 and the first glass, hot from the press, tasted very good indeed over lunch.

Friday lunch was leisurely, we were joined by the excellent Paco Mora of La Cave D’Ivry, and some good bottles opened including a fabulous Sauvignon Blanc 002 from Jeff, 15 years old and still in great shape. Julien opened his new cuvée (one of only 50 bottles) from Faugères (Grenache Blanc and Roussanne) which was very good too. Monday will see the start of more full on days, bigger quantities, more work and faster lunches – so allow us this convivial interlude. Meanwhile, Icare continued in his inimitable style.

 


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Under starter’s orders

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Le patron earlier tending his vines

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Other than wine my main interest is horse racing and I couldn’t help feeling a similarity as I toured the vineyards at Mas Coutelou this morning. The trainer has prepared his charges to the best of his ability throughout the year, faced up to problems of weather and disease, been up all night tending them and must now carefully select when they are at their peak for the big challenge ahead. Meanwhile his assistants and stable hands gather together, friends old and new to lend a hand to the master and to learn from him.

Old Cinsault vines of Rome

OK, maybe I am getting carried away. However, there is a feeling on the eve of my 4th vendanges of excitement that the race is on to bring in the best possible harvest from the grapes. Through winter, spring and early summer all went well, the rain came, the sun shone, the vines grew well. Latterly there have been setbacks it must be said. There has been next to no rain since June and the ground is once more parched. Some of the vines are stressed and their sap has lowered. This means that instead of concentrating energy into the grapes and ripening them fully the vines are protecting themselves. That is a real shame as everything was set for a top class vintage, now we have to wait and see what the next few weeks bring along. Rain is currently absent from the weather forecast, let’s hope that the meteorologists are mistaken.

Flower Power and ‘friends’

That said as I toured the vines I was impressed by the quality of the grapes. Yes the vines look tired, they should at this time of year as they ought to be giving everything to the fruit rather than the plant.

The grapes though look healthy, big bunches in the Carignan vineyard (above) for example though there is still some greenness in the juice and the pips. The Muscat is yellow, orange and flecked with gold and tastes very characteristic with its floral, sweet notes. They will be harvested on Friday, the Carignan in weeks to come.

Ones to follow? Well, in Peilhan the Castets looked lovely and tasted even better. Flower Power has so much more fruit this year though the snails are still present. The Grenache of La Garrigue, Syrah of Sainte Suzanne and the splendid old Cinsault vines of Rome would be my tips for future winners. There will be others which will surprise and delight, and hopefully few will prove lame and disappointing. (That racing metaphor just won’t go away!)

 

Meanwhile back at the cellar; cleaning, checking the equipment (the large press being serviced above) and even bottling the skin contact Carignan Blanc which James took charge of last year.

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James served his time here in Puimisson, learned and has just completed his first vendanges with his own wines in the Adelaide hills in Australia. Vincent’s vines in the Béarn are easing towards maturity, Julien has his vines here in the Languedoc. The team are back in Puimisson though, together with Michel and myself. And joining us this year is Ambroise from the Loire, come to learn too (in the photo with Vincent).

And even Jeff will be learning as two new arrivals from Spain will mean a new form of vinification this year. They will take their place alongside the (much) smaller amphora dating back to Julius Caesar which was donated to Jeff during the winter.

So we are under starter’s orders, Jeff will press the button on Thursday morning and we’ll be off. Let’s hope for a classic year.


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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.