amarchinthevines

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


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Mainly Happy Returns?

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En francais

After eight months away from Puimisson and the Coutelou vines it was definitely a case of being very happy to return. As I stood in Rome vineyard there was the chorus of birdsong, hum of insects, flash of colour from butterflies and flowers. A resounding reminder of why this is one of my favourite places on Earth, capable of making me joyful just by being there.

Rome

In Font D’Oulette (Flower Power), the vines are maturing well, many now sturdy and thriving in their gobelet freedom. The change from when we grafted some of them just two years ago is dramatic, perhaps more to me as I haven’t seen them since last October.

Grafted vine 2016, same vine now

In Peilhan and Rec D’Oulette (Flambadou’s Carignan) the roses were still just in bloom at the end of the rows but starting to wilt under the hot sun.

Carignan left and top right, Peilhan bottom right

And there lies the rub. The hot sun has really only been out in the region for the last week, it has been a catastrophic Spring. Rain has fallen dramatically, almost three times the usual level from March onwards after a wetter winter than usual. The annual rainfall average has been surpassed just halfway through the year. Moreover the rain was not in sudden bursts but steady, regular, in most afternoons. Vineyards all over the region are sodden, tractors and machines unable to fight their way through the mud making vineyard work difficult if not impossible. Even after a week of sun if I press down onto the soil I can feel the dampness on the topsoil.

Mix damp and warmth around plants and there is a sadly inevitable result, mildew.

Look again at the photo of Peilhan, zoom in on the wines at the bottom,

there are the tell tale brown spots.

This downy mildew lives as spores in the soil and the rain splashes them up onto the vines. Jeff had warned me of the damage which I described from afar in my last post. Seeing the tell tale signs of brown spots on the upper leaves on such a scale across vineyards all over the Languedoc is another matter though. All those vines touched will yield nothing (though some will still put them into production, so be confident of your producer). I have heard that some producers have effectively lost most of their vines for this year and similar stories from right across the region. Grenache seems particularly susceptible to mildew and it has been devastated at Jeff’s, the Maccabeu too.

Meanwhile Jeff has been struggling against nature, not a normal situation. He has sprayed all kinds of organic products from seaweed, nettles, essential oils such as orange and lavender, horsetail, clay. He has used the two natural elements permitted under organic rules, copper and sulphur. Jeff is particularly reluctant to use copper but such is the battle this year that it was necessary. Unfortunately like Sisyphus the task is uphill. He sprays, it rains and the effects of the spray are greatly lessened by washing it off the vines, so he has to start again. At least this week that is no longer the case and Jeff has been working all hours to save what he can, to roll that rock uphill once more. He is discouraged, even heartbroken to see the state of some of the vines he tends and cares for so much.

Dare I mention that now is the time when oidium, powdery mildew makes itself known? Please, not this year.

So, production will be down enormously this year, we hold out best hope for Syrah, Mourvèdre, Carignan Noir. Lower production means lower income too, so expect price rises and please do not complain as now you are aware of the reasons.

So happy returns? Well on a personal level yes. To see my great friend again, to have Icare waiting to be tickled, to see the good side of nature. But. This is not a happy time for vignerons across this region and it hurts to see my friends knocked about like this. Let us hope for northerly, drying winds, sunshine and no more disease so that something can be rescued this year, for Sisyphus to reach his summit.

It really is Flower Power now. Jeff sowed wildflowers and plants to help the soils of that vineyard retain moisture, ironic given the Spring.


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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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Vendanges 2016 #7 – Last Pickings

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Cabernet Sauvignon sheltering the Moroccan pickers

En français

Wednesday (September 21st) was officially the last day of summer and, appropriately, the last day of picking at Mas Coutelou. It was, as in 2015, the Cabernet Sauvignon of Segrairals which was the last major parcel gathered in. Lovely, clean bunches of small, healthy berries, classic Cabernet and virtually nothing to sort in the vineyard or in the cellar. 

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Cabernet Sauvignon

The day before had seen the start of the Cabernet in the afternoon following a morning of picking Mourvèdre, also from Segrairals. As I hadn’t ventured into the vineyard much in 2016 I took the opportunity to do so that morning. Our friend Jill had expressed a wish to do some grape picking and Jeff kindly agreed so I accompanied her (so at least there was one less experienced picker than me!). I really enjoyed being out in the fresh air but it was also good to get a grip on how the vineyard topography can have such an impact upon the grapes.

The Mourvèdre grows on an easterly slope with the rows running down the slope. The vines at the bottom of the slope gave lower quality bunches than those at the top, indeed we stopped picking the last few vines at the bottom of each row. The reason was that when it does rain the water runs down the slope taking nutrients etc. The grapes there tend to ripen much sooner with more humidity in the ground, it was a clear example of terroir. Rest assured that only good grapes went into cuve, much was left behind in the vineyard and at the side of the sorting table.

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The slope in the Mourvedre vines, rejected fruit on the ground

On Monday the lovely Carignan Noir of Rec D’Oulette (Chemin De Pailhès) was added to the tanks. The quality was high and signs are promising for yet another good vintage of Flambadou, arguably the domaine’s best wine in recent years.

Since the last article the other major harvest was some bountiful, good quality Grenache from La Garrigue on Saturday 17th.

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Gorgeous Grenache

There remain a few rows here and there with some grapes left and they may or may not be picked in coming days and weeks. However, the Cabernet marked the last of the major picking. Time to say farewell to the Moroccan pickers, part of the Coutelou crew for the last month.

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Stage 1 is therefore over. Stage 2 the cellar work of remontages and pigeage continues apace as most cuves are now full and need looking after. Stage 3, pressing, is also in full swing as grapes from previous weeks have now gone through fermentation on skins and need to be pressed to take the juice away. I shall be writing about this more in the next article.

So, we head into autumn, the vines are fatigued after a very stressful year. The leaves are already changing colour and the Languedoc will be an even more beautiful place in coming weeks. The picking may be over but the vendanges are not. 

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Mourvedre in autumnal glory

 


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Neighbours

En français

“Neighbours, everybody needs good neighbours”. So went the theme tune to a very popular Australian Television show. Well, it seems the message has not reached Puimisson.

Back in the spring I reported that the Carignan vineyard, Rec D’Oulette (also known as Chemin De Pailhès), had been vandalised. Jeff had planted lots of trees and flowers to create biodiversity in an area of grapevine monoculture. A neighbour decided to mow the flower patch one night.  And he has struck again.

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In happier days

On Monday evening Jeff messaged me to say that two trees had been destroyed. He planted the trees (a pomegranate and a hazelnut) five years ago, watered them, looked after them. Now his money, his time and his care lie in crushed and broken wood on the ground. His neighbour had taken a crushing machine to them, a girobroyeur.

What sort of neighbour would do such a thing? Certainly not the co-operative sort which he would claim to be (if you understand what I am saying). Rather, a neighbour driven by jealousy, suspicion, anger. A neighbour whose own vines are pumped high and deeply coloured with chemicals and irrigation. A neighbour who cannot understand that somebody else might think and act differently. A man with no respect for his neighbour, his colleague nor for the land and nature which gives him his living. What sort of vigneron is that? But let us leave that wretched individual and turn to Mas Coutelou and its future.

Jeff was understandably upset, angry and disheartened by his neighbour’s actions. He wondered whether he should just give up, tired of providing the lone oasis of sustainability in a desert of land damaged by chemicals, erosion and overworking.

Happily, the support of many, via Facebook for example, has heartened him and he has a plan in place which will help to fight back with your help. I shall leave him to announce that plan. Meanwhile I urge you to read Jeff’s words, published on August 4th which explains his determination and motivation in fighting for nature.

Ode To Biodiversity

“Thank you all for your messages of support for the testing time I have just come through.

I do not proselytize about my way of working and I do not demand that my colleagues should join me but I feel I have the right to do what I want on my land. When in 1987 my father took the decision to join Nature and Progress, he was considered as some kind of extraterrestrial. The department of Hérault at that time had less than 200 hectares of vines grown organically, there are more than 20,000 today. (500 acres / 50,000 acres)

I do not think that we can correct nature because it is always stronger than man and in the end will  win every time. Just consider the viticulture textbooks from the start of the 20thC which suggested that with two treatments of sulfur and one of copper would see you through to harvest. By trying to produce more, by using increasingly powerful products, we have created such resistance to them in the vines that today some need more than 15 chemical treatments to achieve the same result.

We cannot blame the previous generation, they did not know. Modern agriculture has brought social progress for farmers. The replacement of the horse by the tractor, weed killers to replace the pick and hoe, chemical fertilizers to produce more at a lower cost, modern agriculture has helped to soften drudgery.

But now everyone knows. Groundwater is increasingly polluted and you have to go further and further to find barely drinkable water which must go through ever more costly treatments to just about meet the required safety standards. The land is less and less fertile and requires ever increasing amounts of fertilizer to be able to produce the same quantities.

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Vincent staking the olives in Rec D’Oulette

Since we cannot change nature, we must try to adapt to climate change and seek solutions to continue making wine as naturally as possible. Planting trees, shrubs, flowers, increasing plant life is part of a considered approach for the future.

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Erosion in a neighbouring parcel

It is about recreating areas of biodiversity … By continually removing hedges, fruit trees, paths, streams, to create larger and larger parcels, we create areas of vine monoculture which only make them more vulnerable, requiring more and more interventions and more exposed to erosion. We have removed balanced spaces where everything had its place in order to create spaces shaped by man which certainly made it possible to work more efficiently but, also, where man is obliged to act, to correct. For example, a bat can eat 2,000 insects per night, if we had only maintained their habitat we would not have to spray and to fight against vers de la grappe. (A disease caused by those insects)

It is about fighting against global warming … You have all at some time, when the summer sun is hot, enjoyed taking shelter in the shade of a tree. It is the same for the parcels of vines. By planting trees around the vines, we protect them from the drying summer winds. Moreover, passing through the trees, the wind naturally cools down. This is an alternative, sustainable approach to that of putting in place a system of irrigation, which may well effective in the short term but one day may well be limited or banned, as the water table is polluted by this water which comes from the Rhône.

It is about restoring beauty to the landscape …. Work in vineyards is certainly mechanized but is also done on foot. The person who works in a parcel needs to have something which marks the horizon, which allows them to see the end … As plots have become larger, they are no longer on a human scale and the work becomes mechanical, automatic, without love … To look up and see a bird land on a tree, to cool off under an olive tree at the end of a row of vines, to see butterflies and bees in the spring coming to rest on patches of flowers; these are the small pleasures which allow those who work there to feel better and to give more love to their work.

It is about an investment in the future …. In the digital age where everything is about the immediate, it is almost a militant act to plant trees that we will not see fully grown. There was a saying not so long ago, “the olive tree of your grandfather, the mulberry tree of your father, the grapevine of yourself.” Today we see a fashion for displacing ancient olive trees from where they first grew to decorate city roundabouts. We live so much in the now, demanding quick results, that we want to apply the same to nature … To plant a tree involves work, care, money but, especially, a lot of fun. To watch it grow, to attach it to a stake, to prune it to give it shape, to look after it so that it grows, to imagine it fully mature after we have gone; it’s so many things that may seem trivial for some (certainly for the bastard who this week destroyed the trees I had planted 5 years ago), but which mean so much to me.

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Apple tree in Rec D’Oulette

So, what to do? Give up? Surely not …. I said when they crushed my flowers in spring, that in the next year we would plant kilometres of flower patches … Well , though some might not like to hear it, we will continue in the Autumn (Fall) to plant more trees around the vineyards. We will continue to look after them. We will continue to imagine them when they are fully grown. And it will be with great pleasure that we will share this love of nature with you when you come to visit us.”


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Busy times

busy

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.

 


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Curiouser and curiouser

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A detail from an illustration by Sir John Tenniel depicting Alice with the March Hare, Hatter and Dormouse at the Mad Tea Party. From Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll.

It has been a most curious year and as it goes on it becomes curiouser and curiouser, just as Alice said. *

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To quote another famous character, a certain Jeff Coutelou, during these last few months there was no proper autumn, no real winter, no true springtime. The last few months of 2015 and early 2016 were abnormally warm, not one single day of frost in Puimisson. Plant life started very early, there was blossom on trees in February, mimosa everywhere. People recorded their vines starting to ‘cry’ as the sap rose. And then, it all stopped. As March and April unfolded the weather was chilly with cold northerly winds. The plant life closed down its growth to a minimum. Budding (ébourgeonnage) was late even after the mild winter.

May is usually warm in the Languedoc and we have had some hot, sunny days but interspersed with cooler days and plenty with a lot of cloud cover. The vines pushed quickly some days, 25 – 30 cm the week before last and then… cooler weather slowed the growth again. Flowering (fleuraison) began last year around May 5th but this year Jeff and I spotted the first flowering on May 26th. Appropriately that was in the Flower Power vineyard, Font D’Oulette. Yet in the white grape vines, such as the Muscat in Peilhan, there is no flowering.

It is likely that most of the vines will flower at the beginning of next week, most varieties at the same time which is, again, most unusual. Curiouser and curiouser. As the vendanges are calculated at 100 days after flowering, the likely date for harvest to get under way is now well into September, ie 10 – 14 days behind 2015. After a very precocious start to the year!

So why does this matter? Well, the vines have been unable to rest since last harvest. The lack of frost or cold weather in winter meant that the vines did not shut down fully. The sap has been on the move for months. Those early reports of vines crying in February, then delayed growth. Vines have sent out a lot of growth but the lack of sunshine has not produced much photosynthesis, the vines are often green in lower parts but lighter green higher up. The grafted vines in Font D’Oulette have been slow to send out growth, the sap flows and then cooler weather arrives.

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Peilhan, note the lighter green near the tops

Humidity and grey clouds means a threat of mildew and some spots are evident on leaves in certain parcels. Jeff spent the night of May 20 spraying from 9pm to 1am, starting over again at 6am the next day. Why then? During the night and early morning the vines are more receptive to the influence of the spray as the pores are open in cooler temperatures. Not the usual spray of course. Mas Coutelou has been organic since 1987 and Jeff has gone much further. This spray was of nettles, horsetail, seaweed mixed with a tiny amount of sulphur and copper (allowed in organic farming). And also in that mix were essential oils of sweet orange and rosemary, pampered vines indeed. This prompt action has mastered the problem supported by timely sunshine and northerly winds.

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Spots of mildew on the leaves and on the grappe

Whilst in Rome vineyard the other day we looked at the soils and Jeff pointed out the growth of good mushrooms and fungal life in there. The photos show this life, the white spots. Scientific research shows that it is through fungal life such as this that the vines communicate with each other and support each other. This has taken a lot of soil nurturing and management.

And to further demonstrate the health of the vineyards, remember the vandalism of the Carignan vineyard and the flowers that were planted there? Well they are growing back stronger than ever. Nature wins in the end. We can only choose to support it or fight it, but in the end nature will win.

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Cinsault in Rome

At present despite this most curious of years the vines are in good health. The next three months will decide whether the grapes will be of good quality or not. Jeff reckons that the period from April 15 to July 15 the vigneron must be always present, always monitoring the vines to ensure that any problems can be sorted as soon as possible. That will make or break the vintage.

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Flowers in the Coutelou vineyards

Meanwhile we have been treated to some beautiful flowers in the wild and around the vineyards. As well as birdsong in Rome vineyard. Nature at its best despite the curious year.

That is if the problems can be solved. Just this week Sancerre and Burgundy were hit by massive hail storms causing damage which means that the year is a write off in some vineyards. The third such storm this year in some of these areas. And on Saturday, May 28th Beaujolais was badly hit too. Again nature decides.

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Hail damaged vines in Beaujolais (photo with permission from @duc_lionel)

A curious year, yes. But a disastrous one for some.

*  (No rude comments about mad March please).

 

 

 

 


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Snails, sprays and screen star

En français

April 27th saw a number of visitors to Font D’Oulette (Chemin De Pailhès), home of Flower Power where we grafted vines recently.

France 3 television were here to record some footage for a report on biodiversity, so who better than Jeff to describe and demonstrate how he has worked to bring life to the vineyards around Puimisson.

Rather less welcome was the invasion of snails, I spent all morning removing thousands of them from the vines. They clearly enjoy the organic greenery and, in particular, the young buds. It was noticeable that where the vine had grown more fully the snails were few in number, instead they were grouped on the slower growing vines where the buds were small and fresh. Bullies.

As the days warm up the risk of diseases such as oïdium and mildew increases. Therefore, it was time to spray the vines to help them resist these damaging diseases. However, being organic, there is no question of synthetic chemicals. This was a spray of nettles, comfrey, ferns and seaweed mixed with rain water; organic, natural products. Julien sprayed on foot and then Jeff and he rode on the tractor to spray two rows at once in Rec D’Oulette, home of Flambadou.

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Oy watch where you’re spraying!

Across the vineyards the vines are maturing rapidly. The buds are separating showing the future grapes and bunches. Tendrils are pushing skywards, remember that vines are climbing plants. The leaves are now of good size, soaking up the sunlight to help photosynthesis and provide energy to encourage the growth of the vine.

The soils remain dry and the leaves are a little brittle in places, this has been a very dry winter. More rain would be welcome. However, that night and the next there were reminders that the situation elsewhere can be much worse. The Loire valley and parts of Burgundy were hit by sudden, severe frosts which have devastated vines and mean that some vignerons face a bleak year with little or no wine to be made. The photograph below Credit: Sabrina Cyprien Caslot-Bourdin via Jim Budd / Facebook

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The sunshine and drying winds may not be perfect but the vineyards of Mas Coutelou remain small havens of flora and fauna.