amarchinthevines

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


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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.

Peilhan horse

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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Coutelou crew

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l-r Me, Vincent, (Icare in front), Julien, Carole (with Maya) and Fabrice

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One of the greatest pleasures of being involved at Mas Coutelou is the friendships which are formed with people from all around France and the rest of the world. There is a core group of local people who work most of the time with Jeff at Puimisson, notably Michel and Julien. However, many others come along from week to week to spend time with Jeff because they love his wines and, of course, Jeff himself.

My recent visit was typical. Carole who has worked for many years on the domaine was there to prune the vines alongside Julien. Vincent, a former teaching colleague of Jeff’s was also there, learning the job of vigneron and winemaker as he has planted his own vines in his native Béarn. Fabrice arrived, who harvested Cabernet Sauvignon in Segrairals one day with me in 2015 was back to help plan an event later in the year. Céline (who helped to pick the Grenaches I am making) and her husband Brice were around for a few days too. And Jérom arrived.

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Jérom(e) is a fascinating guy, a skilled metalworker who has made racks for the large format bottles in Jeff’s own cellar (what he calls ‘the library’) and was here to add finishing  touches to the new rooms in the cellar, the office and tasting room. He explained to me how he loves working with iron as it comes from the earth and, like a vigneron, he is working with natural things. I look forward to seeing his finished work when I go back, it will certainly add a touch of class.

Julien and Vincent also shared their own wines, Puimisson is a training ground for future star producers. Julien showed a white and red, I was really taken with his Chateau Des Gueux white last year (Julien’s first vintage) from Terret and Clairette grapes. The 2016s promise to be even better. Vincent had taken the juice from the grapillons of his new vines and though high in acid there was plenty of Manseng character already present.

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James

Whilst there I also heard from James who worked the vendanges last year. He is back in Australia and a proud new father but also about to produce his first wines. As I said Puimisson is a crucible of winemaking talent.

I am very fortunate as yet another incomer from outside the area to have made such great friends who share a passion for wine and, especially, the wines of Mas Coutelou. There is a truth in the belief that wines reflect their producer and the open, warm friendships surrounding Jeff are a parallel of his wines.

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Jeff surrounded by friends


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200

 

 

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Version française

This is the 200th blog post of amarchinthevines.org. For the 100th post I wrote about the making of a wine which Jeff Coutelou encouraged me to make in celebration. It was based on the three types of Grenache (Noir, Blanc et Gris) which grow in Rome vineyard. The wine was then put into three separate containers; a younger barrel (60l), an older barrel (30l) and a 27l glass bottle.

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I have reported on their development in previous posts and, in particular, about the influence of the three containers. The older barrel has been used many times before and is almost  airtight, so, the fruit in the barrel is still youthful. The younger barrel shows more wood influence as the staves are less sealed and, therefore, there is more contact with the air. The wine tasted slightly less fruity and has a drier flavour. The glass bottle took much longer to finish fermentation and the wine tasted much more like new grape juice, full of fresh red fruits and still sweet as the sugars remained in the wine awaiting the completion of fermentation.

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Old and new barriques showing clear difference in October 2016

Well, on February 8th it was the day before my birthday and Jeff, as so often, was very generous in making  a bouillabaisse for our dinner and a lovely bottle of Boulard Champagne ‘Les Murgiers’ (the very cuvée I wrote about in my review of Les Affranchis in blog post 199!)

He suggested that we should re-taste the wine so that I could report on its development and make each century an update. So, as the hour approached midnight we were in the solera cellar and the tasting began. The wines tasted much rounder and more complete than the last time I tasted them in October, we discussed the possibility of bottling in early summer when I return to Puimisson. The two barrels showed the same influences, more fruit from the older barrel, more complex, secondary flavours from the newer barrel. The biggest change was from the glass bottle, still very fruity but much less residual sugar as fermentation has completed. This wine is now rounder, it is real wine rather than fermenting juice.

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The glass bottle

Then, in yet another act of incredible kindness, Jeff went into the family cellar and found a bottle of wine from birth year. The 1959 was a Muscat De Frontignan which Jeff thinks was gathered by his grandfather when he worked for an agricultural company, possibly the domaine of the owners of that company.

I have never tasted a 1959 wine before and when it was opened it delivered a delicious depth of old Muscat, deep brown in colour and deep, raisiny fruits which lingered long on the tongue. Just as the memories of a special night will linger long in my memory.

 


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Return to the vines of Mas Coutelou

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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.

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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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Nature can be harsh: Part 3 -pests

In Parts 1 & 2 I have tried to explain some of the difficulties encountered at Mas Coutelou during 2016 due to natural influences such as climate and disease. In this final part of the series I look at pests which have added to those woes.

Vers de la grappe

These are literally grape worms, more specifically caterpillars, which form and grow on bunches of grapes. The caterpillars are the larvae of Eudémis moths which prefer to lay their eggs on shiny surfaces, so grapes are the target more than the rest of the vine. The larvae obviously damage the grapes themselves but that damage is worsened because of juice running on the bunches attracting infection and disease.

The warm weather and humidity of 2016 definitely encouraged vers de la grappe though it is an ongoing problem. It can be treated chemically of course though that is not an option for organic producers. Substances such as clay can be sprayed in spring to add a chalkier, duller surface to new grapes so that moths are not attracted to them. However, the solution favoured by Jeff Coutelou is to plant hedges and trees. These not only act as barriers to less environmentally aware neighbours, add polyculture to a region which can appear solely planted by vines but also they can shelter bats.

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Bat shelter in Sainte Suzanne

Bats feed on Eudémis larvae and moths and can eat thousands every day. Bat shelters are to be found around Mas Coutelou, eg in Sainte Suzanne and Rome vineyards.

The photographs above show a vers de la grappe cocoon and, on the right distinctive holes showing where the moth laid its eggs. When the vendanges begin the pickers and sorters must look out for signs such as these but also damaged, shrivelled grapes in bunches where the larvae have been.

Snails

If I could have named 2016 in the Chinese form  I would have called it the year of the snail. They were everywhere. The two photos below show an olive tree in Segrairals. This was  one of many which were completely covered by snails, blanched by the sun and feeding on the greenery and moisture in the tree.

However, vines were equally attractive to them. I spent whole mornings picking snails from vines during the Spring only to find them covered again a day or two later. Flower Power (Font D’Oulette) was particularly badly affected with the snails heading straight for the new growth and buds in April and May.

The virtual drought in the first six months of 2016 meant that the snails were desperate for moisture and food and so the healthy, young vines were too good to miss. The consequence was obvious, production of this much lauded new wine was reduced drastically, partly by the weather but equally the work of the snails. Birds and other predators would help solve the problem but the monoculture of the area (outside of Mas Coutelou) means there are, sadly, no great numbers of them.

Vendangeurs and sorters must try to pick off snails as they hide in the bunches. Dozens get through to the cellar especially in the early morning when there is moisture around. The photo on the right shows a lot of rejected material, leaves, poor grapes but lots of snails as you will see if you enlarge it. Just imagine how many get through into the wine with machine picking and limited triage.

Neighbours

Yes they can be included under the title of pests. Well, one of them can be. As regular readers will know 2016 has been punctuated by two occasions of vandalism by one particular neighbour, both upon the Carignan Noir vineyard of Rec D’Oulette. First he mowed a patch of wildflowers which Jeff had sown to encourage insects and birds (for reasons identified above). Then he took a machine to some of the young trees Jeff planted around the vines, destroying four year old trees such as hazelnut.

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Vandalised trees with tyre tracks revealing the culprit

Jeff was justifiably upset by these attacks. He was simply trying to enrich the area, bring diversity to it but that was clearly too much for a traditionalist, more used to destroying wildlife for his own short term gain and dreadful wine. However, he was encouraged and revitalised by the massive support of friends and colleagues around the world. The flowers grew back and more densely, the trees replanted in greater numbers and Jeff Coutelou stands tall as the man trying hard to improve the reputation of Puimisson and its wines.

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It’s A Kind Of Magic

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En français

Saturday June 4th was supposed to be the Festival De Magie in Puimisson, a family magic show. Sadly it had to be postponed until September as, around 5.30pm, a huge thunderstorm broke over the area. Booming thunder and heavy rain were the main features as Puimisson and the wider region were treated to an alternative fireworks display to that scheduled in the Festival. Yet 2 hours later the skies were clear, the streets were dry again.

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Flooded roads

Four of us though were treated to a magical evening. Jeff welcomed Cedric who runs the best website on French natural wines at vinsnaturels.fr (and I don’t say that because he chose one of my photographs on the opening page!) It gives great detail about vignerons, technical details about their wines and where they can be bought. His friend Ghislain was with him, another natural wine expert and promoter in the Grenoble area. Pat and I were invited along too and it was a real pleasure to meet up with them, they proved to be excellent company.

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We were treated to 7 hours of tasting with Jeff in the cellars and at his home. And there was no question that Jeff is a true magician, conjuring up an amazing range of wines and of such a consistently high standard. I may be biased as he is my friend but the demand for his wines proves I am not alone in thinking so.

We tasted all of the 2015 wines, those in bottle and already sold, those just bottled and those in tank and barrel. Whites, rosé, reds, sparkling and selection de grains nobles. Plus many wines from previous years in barrel and bottle. Before moving to the solera cave to taste, amongst others, the Grenaches wine I made. Hand on heart there was not one dud wine and there were many special wines.

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Amongst white wines the Maccabeu and the macerated wine we bottled the previous day were showing well. So too the Bibonade sparkling wines, white and rosé. 5SO Simple was on form from the early wines alongside Vin Des Amis.

Of the next wave of wines, Classe was outstanding, Jeff thinks maybe the star of 2015. Tête À Claques was good, a blend of VdA and Syrah; Buvette À Paulette too, a blend of Mourvèdre and Cabernet Sauvignon. Flambadou will be excellent, it needs time but has all the ingredients to be especially good, just as it has been the last few years.

One wine which was noteworthy was Flower Power. This is the red produced from the complanted Font D’Oulette vineyard with its Aramon, Clairette Musquée, Cinsault, Oeillade and six other cépages. Its first vintage in 2014 won plaudits even from the conventional press. The 2015 I had tasted on Thursday and it was in a dumb moment, Jeff actually carried out a soutirage on Friday and by this Saturday evening it was singing. For me, this could be the star of 2015.

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Flower Power’s complanted vineyard

Ghislain had brought some cheeses from Meilleur  Ouvrier De France Bernard Ravaud. They were superb cheeses including a truffled comté which shall live long in the memory. Jeff opened one of the 2012 barrel aged 5J which I wrote about recently, and it is a great marriage with cheeses.

We moved to the solera cellar where we tasted some of the old Muscats and Grenaches. However, it was also good to taste my Grenaches wine from all three of its containers, the new 60l barrel, the old 30l barrel and the 27l glass bottle. As before the older barrel has a sweeter, fruitier profile whilst the new barrel gives a slightly leaner, more complex wine. The glass bottle is all sweet fruit and still fermenting! It was good to hear Cedric, Ghislain and Pat all give their approval.

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My Grenaches from new barrel

The hours flew by, always the sign of a good night. Thirty wines or so, Jeff just keeps bringing them out from up his sleeve. Or have I just given away a magic secret?

On Wednesday June 8th more visitors to the cellar. Paco Mora of La Cave D’Ivry and a friend of his Charlotte, a caviste in Montpellier, visited. I have mentioned Paco before on here and I would love to visit his Cave. He takes time and trouble to visit the winemakers whose wines he stocks and to offer his support. He’s passionate about wine and good fun as well as having a keen social conscience. We shared wines, laughs and lunch and two more great wines.

La Vigne Haute 2010 was lovely, showing maturity, the Syrah fruit now brooding and dark with great length and depth. LVH has always been my favourite cuvée but even this had to bow down before Flambadou 2007. Pure Carignan, more leathery and plummy notes with a smooth as silk chocolate finish. If anyone tells you natural wines cannot age then I would ask you to quote this bottle as proof that not only can they age but they can become truly great! Spellbinding.

And even time for a little levitation. Told you it was magic.

 

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Busy times

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En français

Busy times. In the vines and in the cellar.

I mentioned recently that the cooler weather had delayed some of the growth in the vines and that flowering was late. Well, recent hotter weather has brought sudden change. Flowering happened around the turn of the month and was over very quickly, perhaps catching up lost time. In particular there was a heavy thunderstorm on Saturday June 4th which brought a torrent of rain. The water and the sunshine has really got the vines going. Tendrils reach for the skies and there is more bushiness to the vines.

The flowers gave way to the little hoods which cover the nascent grapes, capuchons. These quickly fall away too revealing the grapes for 2016. On some vines all of this is happening at the same time such as this Carignan (above) in Rec D’Oulette. The weather has also encouraged the growth of the grafted vines which we did back in March.

This brings work too. The palissage has to be lifted to support the vines, hard physical labour. And, sadly, the heat and rain bring problems of disease. Mildew has been around for a couple of weeks and I mentioned that Jeff was spraying in the very early hours and late at night last week. He worked until 1am Friday/Saturday and started again at 6am. Just as things seemed to be settling a big attack of mildew on the Grenache at Ste. Suzanne meant more treatment on Tuesday morning. This ‘curious’ year is proving to be hard work.

Not all negatives though. The storm brought such a downfall that I was fearful for the flowering bunches. damage to them means no grapes. I happened to be in Puimisson during the storm (next article!) and the rain was lashing down, converting streets and roads to waterfalls and lakes. Yet as the rain eased I went to a couple of vineyards and the flowers were coping just fine. A trip round the vines on Monday morning revealed healthy growth and the soils had absorbed the rainfall.

This is not true of everyone. Much of the water on the roads was also full of clay from vineyards nearby, hence the yellowy brown colour. Vineyards which are treated with weedkillers, where the soils are ploughed deeply, even irrigated, were unable to cope so well with the heavy rain. Soils were carried away. Compare these photographs of Jeff’s vineyards with the parcel next door belonging to someone else. The difference is marked. Water can help or can damage.

Meanwhile back in the cellar there was more work to be done. Recent changes to the fabric of the cellar, especially the floor, have brought more efficient drains and a smoother surface, easier to clean. Further work will soon be done to the rest of the floor so the bottling of the next wave of wines had to be brought forward to allow the works to be done and dusted before vendanges.

The spring bottling of wines such as 5SO, PM Rosé, 7 Rue De La Pompe I described earlier. These are wines for early drinking, vins de plaisir. Now it was time for wines with a little more body. On Thursday June 2nd 10,000 bottles of Classe were made, and it is really something special in 2015. It took almost 12 hours and went very smoothly but believe me it is a hard day’s work. On Friday, Flambadou, made from the Carignan vines above, was bottled along with other smaller cuvées.

Before anyone rushes in with orders Jeff will let these bottles rest for a few months to allow them to be at their peak when released, Flambadou probably in 2017 for example. There remains one or two cuvées still in tank which need a little more time, Flower Power being one.

So, most of the 2015  wine is now in bottle, the vines are revealing the grapes for 2016 and there are wines stored for 2017. Busy times at Mas Coutelou for everyone, well except one.