amarchinthevines

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


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With A Little Help From My Friends

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Sometimes we all need some support

Like many people I am prone to occasional bouts of depression and last weekend was one of those times. Fortunately it doesn’t hit me as hard as many people but it makes me (even more) difficult to live with. By Tuesday I was starting to feel better and toured the Coutelou vineyards. It proved to be a real tonic.

I started in Rome, where else? Surrounded by trees, birdsong, butterflies and even a hare who was far too speedy for my camera to catch. It is an inspiring place, so relaxing. The vines are hanging on to their leaves despite the long, dry spell, not always the case elsewhere.

Carignan grapes left behind in Rec D’Oulette

As I was to see in other vineyards the soils are starting to dry significantly. In Peilhan, for example, the clay soils were soaked all Spring and they compacted meaning that the recent dry months have caused that upper crust to crack. Some rain is needed. It would also give the vines some relief. They have had a very tough time in the last couple of years. 2017 saw drought which stressed them then this year’s wet Spring and mildew have made them struggle too. One of the reasons for picking some grapes a little early was to give the vines a break so that they can look after themselves. Rain would help that to happen.

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In Flower Power (Font D’Oulette) the vines are much younger and the foliage more meagre. Compare these vines to those in a neighbouring vineyard. The watering and feeding of nitrates etc means that those vines are much greener and fuller with few signs of changing colour. The yields from such vines are much higher too. These are the issues which organic/biodynamic/natural producers face, they often have to accept lower yields and production in order to stick with their principles, and it explains the price premium.

Flower Power vines shining in the sunshine, the vivid green of neighbouring vines 

Mildew meant that Jeff was reluctant to plough his vineyards this year as that would release the spores from the soil. Now that autumn is here, however, they will be turned over to add compost to the earth from all the plant growth. The mildew spores won’t flourish in the cooler conditions. Jeff and Julien were using pickaxe and mattock to clear the ground around the new planting in Segrairals on Tuesday. Weeks of work remain to be done. Meanwhile back in the cellar more cleaning, the sorting table and other harvest equipment taken apart to ensure everything is spotless.

It was Louis’ last full day and he had kindly invited me to share a bottle of Mas Jullien over lunch. Jeff decided to make it a celebratory feast and we shared excellent food from the barbecue and a cake! A magnum of Macon from Valette was excellent and the 2012 La Vigne Haute magnum at least its match. We even went to taste my 2015 wine from barrel, soon to be in bottle!

A day to lift my spirits. Natural beauty, tranquillity and the company of wonderful friends. I am a fortunate man.

With Michel and Julien, man’s best friend


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Vendanges 2018 – Part 2

 

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Tuesday 4th to Thursday 6th September

After the break harvest really kicked into gear this week. One of the effects of mildew (and compounded by the hail storm later) was damage to foliage. The vine uses the foliage to ripen the grapes but also to nourish itself via photosynthesis. Damaged and desiccated leaves mean that there comes a point where the vine struggles to ripen the grapes any more and, even worse for the winemaker, things go into reverse; the vine begins to take back nutrients from the grapes in order to feed itself. This will have consequences not just this year but into the future, as the vine has struggles so much and is weak, it will not be at its best next year and further ahead.

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Riveyrenc Gris grapes in good health but note the mildewed leaves 

Therefore, Jeff Coutelou has had to spend a lot of time in the vines ensuring that he knows exactly the health and condition of the vines to get the best possible grapes for this year whilst being mindful about the health of the vines. A balancing act to cause him more stress in a difficult year.

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Tuesday saw some lovely Muscat being harvested from Peilhan, the grape which smells of grapes. The video below shows them being pressed and I wish I could convey the lovely fresh, grapey aromas which emerged from the press.

 

This is Muscat being made for dry wine, in 2016 for example the Muscat D’Alexandrie made a lovely orange wine which we have shared at lunch. Afterwards the pickers moved into the 2015 plantation at the top of Peilhan, the 12 rows of Morastel, Terret Noir and Riveyrenc Noir picked to blend with Syrah from Sainte Suzanne where the pickers headed next.

On a beautiful Wednesday morning the remaining Syrah was picked. Jeff decided to make a grappe entière wine so Julien and I headed into the top of the cellar to sort the grapes and send them through the chute into the tank. This had been given a dose of CO2 to encourage the fermentation of the grapes inside their skins. After a short period the skins will burst and the resulting juice will have a light, fruitiness. This process is called carbonic maceration. Sorting meant removing any leaves and other vineyard products such as spiders and snails. Mainly though we were looking for the dried grains of berries damaged by mildew and the green, unformed berries caused by millerandage.

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Onto Thursday and the deployment of two teams of pickers. The Moroccan crew picked some lovely bunches of Macabeu from Peilhan before moving on to Syrah from Segrairals.

 

Macabeu and Syrah (note the green unformed berries needing to be sorted

We were also joined by a number of pickers who would tackle some of the more interesting vineyards. As a result of mildew damage in Faugères some growers have little or nothing to harvest and some of their pickers came to join the Coutelou team. And we were joined by Louis who, having completed his professional baccalauréat has begun a course to help him achieve his ambition of becoming a sommelier. His stage will certainly teach him a lot about vines and wines, the numerous cépages he picked will certainly have opened his eyes to the wide world of wine.

This team picked my favourite vineyard, Rome, with its old Cinsault vines, Muscats of various kinds and all three versions of Grenache. In the afternoon the moved on to Font D’Oulette now simply referred to as Flower Power after the wine made from the numerous cépages in there. Using two teams meant that cases were returned thick and fast by Michel and Julien and I had a long, back breaking day sorting these grapes.

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Julien and Nathan sort the last case on Thursday from Flower Power

I have to say the juice tastes great, fruity with good acidity. Now all we need is for the yeasts to play their part and ferment that juice into good wines. The picture below shows yeasts at work in a tank where some of the skins from the pressing of last week’s Grenache. As with the grapey Muscat these bready aromas deserve to be more widely shared. Vendanges is all about the senses.

And, for Icare lovers around the world, he is taking a very keen interest in this year’s harvest.

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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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New Year, old favourites

Happy New Year to all of you who are good to enough to click on to my site, it is much appreciated. May 2018 bring you health and happiness.

The transition from one year to another is another excuse to open a good bottle or two and star of the show this time was, yes you guessed it, a Mas Coutelou wine. This time it was Copains 2013. This wine is based on grapes from my favourite vineyard, Rome, based on Cinsault grapes from those old twisted vines I love so much.

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Rome’s Cinsault vines

It is still youthful, bright fresh cherry fruits to the fore and a nice backbone of tannin. Further proof of how well Jeff’s wines will mature if resisted in their youth. A lovely red, worthy of the occasion.

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photo by amicalementvin

On New Year’s Day itself I opened an orange wine. 2017 had been the year which saw me converted to orange wines and also beginning to understand the value of using amphorae to age wines. The wine in question came from Casa Pardet in the Costers del Segre, Catalonia. This domaine produced one of the most stunning wines I have ever tasted, a Cabernet Sauvignon and is one whose wines I have sought out ever since. This wine was a Chardonnay 2014 and the fruit shone through as well as the characteristic tannins and dusty influence imparted from the amphora. Yet more proof of the skills of Mia and Pep Torres.

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Amazing label of Casa Pardet

So 2017 ended and 2018 began with top class wines. May the standard be maintained!


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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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Under starter’s orders

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Le patron earlier tending his vines

Version francaise

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.