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


The first Coutelou of Spring

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It’s a while since I wrote about the happenings at Mas Coutelou, so time for an update. I am thankful to Jeff, Vincent and Julien for keeping me up to date in my absence.

The first few months of 2017 have been damp in the Languedoc, a contrast to the arid 2016. The photos by Julien above show water standing a week after rain and his feet sinking into the soil as he pruned. Jeff had planned to plant a vineyard of different types of Aramon at Théresette next to La Garrigue which has lain fallow for the last few years. However, the soil remains very damp and planting has not been possible, unless things change quickly the project will be postponed until next year. For the same reason, the first ploughing would have begun by now in most years, but is on hold for drier conditions.

vigour from every bud last year

Pruning the last vines (photo and work by Julien)

Julien completed pruning (taille) around March 10th. He photographed the first budding (débourrement) amongst precocious varieties such as the Muscat. However, Jeff told me this week that, generally, budding is later this year, the damper, cooler weather again responsible. That is not necessarily a bad thing. Remember that frost can cause great damage to vines, especially buds, and the Saints De Glace (date when traditionally frost risk is over) is May 11-13. I recall visiting the Loire last April and seeing frost damage, whole vineyards with no production for the year.


Julien photographed some early buds

The weather conditions are favourable for something, sadly not good news either. Snails, which ravaged large numbers of buds and leaves in Flower Power and Peilhan last year, have found the damp much to their advantage. They are a real pest, a flock of birds would be very welcome or we’ll see more scenes like these from 2016. Of course, one of the reasons why birds and hedgehogs are lacking is the use of pesticides by most vignerons in the region.

In the cellar the new office and tasting room is complete. Our friend Jill completed a montage of Mas Coutelou labels which we gave to Jeff as a gift. Hopefully that may decorate the walls of the new rooms.

The floor which was half covered in resin last year has been finished all over and another new inox (stainless steel) cuve has arrived. (photos by Vincent).

On March 22nd the assemblages of the 2016 wines took place. Or at least most of them. One or two cuves still have active fermentation with residual sugar remaining but otherwise the wines were ready and the conditions were favourable. I won’t reveal what cuvées are now blended, that is for Jeff to unveil. However, I can say that the reduced harvest of 2016 means fewer wines are available and fewer cuvées made. In the next article I shall be giving my thoughts on the 2016 wines from tastings in October and February.

Finally, there was an award for Jeff himself. On March 30th he was made an official ambassador for the Hérault by the Chamber of Commerce of the département. This was an honour for Jeff himself and the generations of the Mas and Coutelou families who made the domaine what it is. Founded in the 1870s at 7, Rue De La Pompe by Joseph Étienne Mas who planted vines and kept cows after he had fought in the Franco – Prussian War of 1870-1. Five generations later Jeff is an ambassador for Puimisson, vignerons and the Hérault and with his wines he is really spoiling us.



Return to the vines of Mas Coutelou


Looking from La Garrigue towards Sainte Suzanne

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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.


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.


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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New year, new start

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If only winemaking was like this! Bottles, however, do not produce themselves. The year round process of winemaking I have previously described on this blog. Readers will be aware of the work, effort and stress involved.

As 2017 began Julien returned from his travels in Iberia to Puimisson to start the long, finger numbing job of pruning (la taille). He will be joined by Carole who also returned to the village and who has pruned for many years at Mas Coutelou.

Jeff tells me that there is plenty of other work going on. I referred in a previous post to January being named after the Roman god, Janus. He was two faced, one looking to the old year, the other looking forward. So too in winemaking.

The pruning, for example, is finishing off the work of the vines of 2016, cutting away the last vestiges if that vintage whilst preparing the vines for the year ahead. Normally the wines of the previous vintage would be approaching readiness for bottle, the first wave. However, Jeff tells me that they have developed more slowly from 2016 and he is likely to wait until they tell him that they are ready. That may happen when I return to the area at the end of this month or maybe later. In which case he will have to prepare wines for the major salons ahead straight from the tank.


Floor renewal

Other work is taking place in the cellars. Half of the floor was replaced in early 2016 and the rest will now be done. Other changes will add more facilities such as an office.

Meanwhile the weather is not playing its part so far. It has been warm again allowing no rest to the vines. However, a forecast I saw today suggests that freezing conditions will arrive this weekend. Perhaps, after two years, the vines will finally shut down and rest. This would certainly help 2017 be a more promising vintage. New year, new hopes.

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A year in the vines, Mas Coutelou in photos (Part 1)


The year begins with a series of wine salons and assembling wines for those tastings from the previous year. Jeff took me through the various cuves to see how the 15s were developing. Meanwhile the serious work of pruning (la taille) dominates the early months of the year and Julien was hard at work, patiently shaping the vines to enable them to produce their best. This was especially important in such a mild winter where the vines were unable to lie dormant.


Bottling of the 2015s began, this time Vin Des Amis, perennial favourite. Jeff has his own bottling line and the full crates of wine now head to storage for a few months to get over the ‘shock’ of bottling (mise en bouteille).


A March in the vines for sure. One of the highlights of 2016 was also the wettest and filthiest I could possibly be. Grafting vines (la greffe) in Flower Power (Font D’Oulette) on a day when it became impossible to lift the pioche because of all the mud stuck on it. I learned a lot and I loved the whole day.


Spring brings the vines truly to life (though the mild winter meant they were restless all winter). Look at the tendril extending from the pink bud on the left, this vine is already growing fast. Small shoots in Rome vineyard and also the ladybirds, sign of  a healthy vineyard. (ébourgeonnage)


The grappes begin to form in clusters and spring flowers are everywhere around the various vineyards of Mas Coutelou. May is perhaps the most beautiful month of all in the vine, warm days, clear light and the colourful natural world – blossom, flowers, butterflies, birds. There is literally no place on earth I would rather be.


In the vines the flowering season (fleuraison) lasts just a few days. They are very delicate and easily damaged by strong winds or heavy rain. Here the Carignan vines of Rec D’Oulette (which make Flambadou) are in full flower.

Meanwhile in the cellar the bottling season restarts and the tanks are emptied and then cleaned with a vivid colouring for the floor. And welcome visitors arrive sometimes bringing delicious gifts of food with which we can accompany the wines. It’s a hard life, believe me.

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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.


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.



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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


Taille, tasting and temperatures



One of the new fruit trees planted at Peilhan


First visit of 2016 to Mas Coutelou this morning. We tasted the 2015 wines, now mostly assembled, and whilst I am sworn to secrecy about what they will be I can confirm that the cuvées are looking excellent. There is a real elegance and refinement to them already, Jeff has compared them to Rhone and Loire wines rather than the typical, fuller Languedoc wines. They are still in their infancy of course, tasted from tank, and in midwinter they are still coming around. However, the structure, aromas and flavours are in place for wines of real quality.


The weather was much discussed as the temperatures in Puimisson and the Languedoc remain above average (see last post). The effect on the wines can be important, the wines restive, troubled in warm conditions, for example they don’t clarify. A few colder days early this week has helped them to settle a little more, Jeff has already noted changes.

The warm temperatures were evident in the vineyard too. I went to see Julien who is carrying out la taille (pruning) this year. He showed me how some of the precocious vines, such as Muscat, are showing signs of the buds swelling already, way too early. This fits in with the wider vegetation, fruit trees showing signs of blossom, even our tomato plants have flowers!


Bud swelling in the vine

Julien was busy in Peilhan vineyard and explained how he was trying to prune the Muscat in a gobelet sur fil style, rather like guyot, pruning to create two main canes for growth in 2016.

This weekend sees a huge wine salon, Millésime Bio, in Montpellier. Nine hundred domaines represented with many more at various ‘off’ events around the city. Jeff will be preparing bottles for Les Affranchis. Then it’s on to the Loire for more salons. So the cuvées will make their first public appearance. I shall be explaining some of the different Coutelou cuvées in my next couple of posts as well as reporting on the Montpellier salons.


Icare playing with his Christmas present from Pat, a toy sheep



Working in the vines (January)

Wintry vineyard

January vineyard

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It was the 30th January and having promised to write about vineyard work in each month of the year, I felt that a deadline was looming! After tasting wines in Montpellier for a few days it was definitely time to get back to the vineyard the key component of those wines. Jeff took me to the vineyard called La Garrigue which is to the south east of Puimisson, home of Mas Coutelou. It is one of around a dozen parcels of land which Jeff owns, though some are home to olive and fig trees as well as hedgerows and other methods of reintroducing biodiversity into a district which has become one large vineyard. I shall be writing soon about the various parcels and Jeff’s work to safeguard and boost the local environment and biodiversity.

La Garrigue is rather like a small pyramid in form with a peak in the middle and vines around the sides.

Facing north is a parcel of Syrah planted in 2006, so the vines are still young. They face north so that the freshness and spiciness of the grape variety are preserved rather than being overcooked. They are also planted in rows facing north to south so that the wind blows down the rows, helping to prevent disease and to dry the grapes after rain. Carole was busy pruning this area and the preferred method is the gobelet style. This is the traditional and most natural way of growing vines in the Languedoc and Jeff has preferred to use this method for his vines for a number of years and so these Syrah vines are grown using gobelet.

Syrah vine pruned in the gobelet style

Syrah vine pruned in the gobelet style

However, as you will see in the video, Carole studies each vine carefully and if she feels it would benefit from a different style she will prune in the more suitable way. This may be because the vine canes are growing too vigorously between the rows of vines and need shaping along the rows. As these are young vines they are being supported by wire trellising. In this case a cordon de royat system might be used.

Syrah vine pruned in cordon rather than the gobelet style which most of the Syrah vines are. It was felt its needs suited cordon better

Syrah vine pruned in cordon rather than the gobelet style which most of the Syrah vines are. It was felt its needs suited cordon better


Facing south is a parcel of Grenache vines. This is a variety which welcomes heat and is grown through Spain and around the Mediterranean. It adds spice and complexity to wines and, facing south, the sunshine brings out these characteristics. In this parcel cordon de royat is used as the pruning method.  This was the system used when the Grenache vines were planted back in 2000 and so they continue to be grown in that style as it is not advisable or even possible to change them to gobelet now. The Grenache is usually used in the popular cuvee Classe.

Grenache vines,cordon pruning

Grenache vines,cordon pruning

A magnum of Classe

A magnum of Classe

To the easterly side of La Garrigue is a block of Sauvignon Blanc. This is not a variety often grown in the Languedoc as it gives green, fresh almost acidic notes in its wines and the region is often too hot for it to show those qualities. Facing east, however, means that the sun hits the grapes in the morning so does not overheat or over ripen them, preserving the freshness of the fruit. In this parcel guyot is the preferred system of pruning. This system allows more air to circulate around the grapes and as the white grapes are more fragile guyot training helps to protect their health. The white grapes are usually used in the white blend, PM.

Sauvignon Blanc vines pruned in guyot style up the wire trellising

Sauvignon Blanc vines pruned in guyot style up the wire trellising

 What struck me most, other than a bitingly cold, northerly wind, was how carefully Carole and Jeff study each vine to ensure that it is given a pruning which suits its needs. Direction, quality of the wood, crowding are all considered before they decide what to cut and at what length the remaining cane should be left. Some canes were cut very short, others had 8 to 10 eyes which will produce bunches of grapes. It depended upon the capability of the vine to bear such fruit. It is this care and attention which characterises the work of the skilled artisanal vineyard worker and winemaker.

Jeff studying a Syrah vine

Jeff studying a Syrah vine

First cuts

First cuts

Getting to the heart of the vine

Getting to the heart of the vine

The finished vine

The finished vine

I would compare this with a machine I watched around Margon which cut the vines to the same shape and size regardless of their health and

needs. The cutting was fast and much easier work but the pruning was brutal and imprecise with no regard for the individual vines. For vignerons producing cheap, bulk wines I can understand their actions.However, it confirmed in my mind that artisanal vignerons are the ones producing the wines I want to drink

Machine pruning vines, the yellow arm contains the blades

Machine pruning vines, the yellow arm contains the blades

Pruning is not glamorous. But is a vital part of the winemaking year, preparing the vines for when they reawaken in spring and enabling them to produce the right quantity of healthy grapes which in turn will produce great wine.



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(Version française)

Back in Margon after a few weeks back in the UK, it was good to see family and friends again over Christmas. It was good to hear of many of them enjoying Mas Coutelou wines with their Christmas meals.


Santa was generous so I have new books to read. Hopefully I shall learn something to help brighten and enlighten this blog.


Jeff assured me that last week the temperature in the Languedoc reached 20C and he was working in the vineyards in shirtsleeves. Sadly, no sign of that this week.

The vines are resting through the winter weather as you can see in these photos taken in Aloxe Corton on Sunday morning. Burgundy, of course, is much further north than Margon.

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As we went for a walk in the vines (as opposed to a march in the vines) the pruning work I described in December showed clearly. Below are examples of all 3 types of pruning I described then.


Guyot trained vines. The long right branch attached to the wire will provide grapes in 2015. The cut branch will provide fruit in 2016.

I came across these cordon trained vines which are clearly older and very sturdy. They will need further pruning!


And finally we saw this really wizzened and elderly vine growing in classic Languedoc gobelet style.


So the vines are resting but I know that work for the vigneron is continuing. More pruning, assembling the wines from last year’s harvest and more vineyard work which I shall report back upon later in the week.



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Janus was the Roman god of the doorway, protecting the householders within by looking out on their behalf. January is the month named after him as the god was looking back to the old year and forward to the new year. 2015 has begun tragically in France and we could do with starting it over again. However, we live two lives the public and the private and life goes on for most of us as it ought to do.

I posted in December about pruning in the vineyards and that is very much the principal activity of January too. Vines need to be cut back and the wood (sarments) removed. Some of this wood may be mulched and used for fertilising and enriching the soil. The rest may well be burned and this would certainly be the case if there had been any disease in the vines. The photograph below shows vineyard workers burning sarments in Burgundy in December.


As I said in December pruning is very repetitive, monotonous and back breaking work. In January vignerons need to wrap up warmly to protect them from the cold. Well, that would normally be the case except at the present time in the Languedoc where Jeff tells me that today saw temperatures over 20C and that he is in shirtsleeves!

Meanwhile, strange weather patterns apart, the vines remain sleeping. From the falling of the leaves in autumn (late autumn in 2014!) until the buds break in spring the vines are resting and can withstand temperatures down to about -15C. Pruning means the vines are better prepared to produce healthy grapes in the year ahead. The photograph below shows how some vignerons (in this case in Burgundy) plough soil up next to the vine to help to protect them from frost, a process called cavaillonage.


January 22nd marks the nominal midway point between the falling of the leaves and bud break. It is also the feast day of St. Vincent, patron saint of vine growers and winemakers. Many wine fairs take place around St. Vincent’s day and indeed, France’s biggest organic wine fair (Millésime Bio) will take place from January 26th to 28th in Montpellier, an event I shall be attending. I am looking forward to it immensely. Wine fairs and feasting around the midway point of winter are no doubt a great way for winemakers and vignerons to relax amidst the cold, cruel days of pruning.

Legend has it that St. Vincent’s donkey showed the benefits of pruning. As the saint was talking to vineyard workers his donkey ate the new shoots from the vines. At first annoyed by this the workers noted later in the year that the vines nibbled by the donkey actually produced more and better grapes. Pruning worked!

I am not sure that the story is much consolation to those with aching backs and freezing fingers but January is a month which prepares the way for better days ahead. Let us hope that is true for the vines and for all of us in these troubled times.


A walk in the vines (2) – Pruning




(En français)

Travelling around the area, or walking as I was when I took the photo above near Magalas, scenes like this are everywhere. It is pruning time for many viticulteurs. This is known as taillage (or prétaillage when the vines are prepared for a later pruning in the new year). Vines are freely growing plants and if left they would grow too fast, produce too many bunches of grapes which would become increasingly small and lacking in flavour. They would also be more susceptible to diseases such as mildew which would kill the vine in a matter of 3 – 5 years.

Pruning therefore is necessary to ensure that the vine produces an optimum number of bunches to enhance flavour. In the case of the viticulteur in the photo who obviously uses a lot of machinery it makes access to the vines for later pruning and treatments easier as the cut vines are trained along the lines of wires which support many vines.

The pack on the man’s back is for battery powered secateurs, making the job easier than manual cutting though it is still back breaking work.


Different viticulteurs will use different systems of pruning. This might depend on the age of the vine, the particular vineyard topography and her/his own traditions.

The classic method is known as Guyot, named after the doctor who studied viticulture in the 19th Century. There are variations but Guyot pruning usually means pruning the vine to 2 branches (sarments). One of these is cut short leaving only 2 buds (bourgeons or yeux), the other is longer with around 6 buds. The longer will be the part of the vine to produce grapes in the next harvest, the shorter branch will grow this year and be the fruit bearing sarment the following year.  This allows space along the vines for air to circulate to avoid disease.




Guyot pruning

Guyot pruning










Another system which I have seen commonly used in the area is Cordon de Royat. Here the vine is shaped with 2 branches reaching horizontally in opposite directions (but always along the row). Each branch will have 4 to 5 buds for the development of grapes the next harvest. The advantage is that the bunches will grow at a similar height making work and harvesting easier.

Cordon de royat

Cordon de royat

In the Languedoc Roussillon region the hotter, drier climate, together with frequent winds, means that disease should, in principle, be less of a problem that damper regions such as Burgundy or Bordeaux. Many viticulteurs prefer a less interventionist method than training the vines along trellises. Vines often grow like small bushes, especially varieties such as Grenache and Carignan. Jeff Coutelou prefers to use this method known as gobelet as much as possible.

Gobelet vines

Gobelet vines




However, there is one other decision which viticulteurs must make. When to prune?

In principle pruning can be done all the way from the harvest and leaves falling to bud break, around 4 – 5 months in total. Leaving it late has a number of advantages such as avoiding problems with frost or drying out and avoiding problems of wood disease such as esca, which is an increasing threat in France. Many prefer to prune when the sap is starting to rise in the early spring, an old saying goes. “Taille tôt, taille tard, rien ne vaut la taille de mars.” (Pruning early, pruning late, nothing is as good as pruning in March) 

As I said I have seen many people out pruning in recent weeks. This could be for simple reasons of habit or because as wines quietly ferment and work their magic in the cellars the winemakers have time now to get into the vines. Smaller producers who must do everything themselves might decide that earlier pruning suits their timetable best. Some also like to burn as soon as possible any pruned wood which might have been affected by disease. Jeff prefers a later pruning and so work will begin from January through to March, I shall report later.

Pruning is seriously hard, repetitive and dull work but it is an essential part of the viticulteur’s year.

On a less serious note, not just the vines have been pruned!!

On a less serious note, not just the vines have been pruned!!