amarchinthevines

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


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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.

 


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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 #2 – adolescence

En français

When I mention vendanges to most people they think of grape picking and, maybe, putting the grapes into a tank (cuve). However, vendanges means much more than that and we are now entering stage two of the process.

When the grapes have been picked and sorted they are stored in a cuve where the juice interacts with the skins extracting flavour, colour and also coming into contact with the yeasts which grow naturally on the skins. These yeasts then begin the process of fermentation which turns the sugars in the juice into an alcoholic wine. This mix of juice, skins, pips and flesh is known as must.

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Checking progress

So, whilst picking continues at Mas Coutelou Jeff must already plan what is happening to those cuves of grapes which were picked a few days ago, You will remember from #1 that we picked Grenache and Syrah on days 1 and 2 and that they were in cuves 2A and 2B. They are picking up colour and the fermentation means that the sweet grape juice of last Wednesday is already very different. Still plenty of raspberry and red fruit flavours but the sugar levels have fallen and the liquid is now more austere, a little acidic and with a weight of alcohol. It has turned from child into young adult.

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Today – Grenache and Syrah has matured

To ensure that the grape skins do not give unpleasant flavours, volatility etc., Jeff must ensure they do not dry out as they float on the juice, forming what is known as the cap (chapeau). Therefore, wine is pumped from the bottom of the cuve over the top of the chapeau to push it down a little and to moisten it. This is known as remontage.

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Carole carries out a remontage

Alternatively, an instrument or hand can be used to push the chapeau down into the juice, a process called pigeage.

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James performs a pigeage

When Jeff is satisfied that the juice is ready and has had optimal skin contact he will begin pressing the must to leave the final juice. We await the first press as yet but it will be in the next couple of days as the Grenache and Syrah are already showing their adolescence.

Meanwhile picking continues. Friday saw Sauvignon Blanc and Muscat À Petits Grains as the first white grapes of 2016 at the domaine. Monday saw the picking of the Merlot from Colombié which will, unusually, find its place in the Coutelou cuvées. I am no great fan of Merlot but the grapes were lovely and the juice tastes especially rich and full.

Today (Tuesday) was Flower Power day, sadly the snails won the battle this year. They ate so many of the buds in Spring that the vines struggled to produce much. The dryness merely confirmed Font D’Oulette would be low yielding in 2016. Around twenty cases is not much return for such a lovely parcel of vines. High quality grapes from the various cépages but very low quantity.

Clairette and Oeillade from Peilhan with some Grenache Gris and Muscat Noir was added to the mix. Also picked was the Cinsault from Rome which was in good condition with nice big berries. So my two favourite vineyards are already harvested.

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James models the lovely Segrairals Syrah

Finally, some lovely Syrah from Segrairals was picked and there will be much more of this tomorrow. This Syrah is such good quality that Jeff is already excited about what he can do with it. Segrairals is the biggest vineyard of the domaine and is also serving up some of its best fruit.

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Charles, Vincent and the new sorting table

A new sorting table was brought into play this week and it is certainly much more efficient than the previous method of sorting from the cases themselves. Triage of better quality but also much speedier too. The table is already paying for itself.

So, stage 1 (picking) is well under way, stage 2 (the must in cuve) is under way for some and stage 3 (pressing) will shortly begin. The jigsaw is already becoming more complicated for Jeff Coutelou.

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There really is a puzzle under there


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Between a rock and a hard place

En français

Back in the Languedoc and, the first morning, I went over to see the vines. Jeff had sent me a message that they were in real stress because of the lack of rainfall. Ironically we had driven south through France under leaden skies and through fairly steady rain, until we reached the Languedoc where the skies turned blue and the temperatures rose. It has been very hot here throughout the three weeks I was away and, following a very dry autumn last year and not much rainfall in 2016, the vines are definitely in need of a good drink.

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Stressed vines

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Clear signs of drought

I have written many times this year about the vine stress due to very unusual seasons, the warm winter, cool spring. Sadly, summer has also added to their difficulties. Sure enough the vines look dry. The apex of the vine is often a good way to tell their health and they look tired and bare, almost burned.

To safeguard the health of the young, newly planted or grafted vines Jeff and Julien were busy watering them in the Flower Power vineyard, Font D’Oulette. This is allowed as they are not grape producing this year. Straw was then placed around them to keep the moisture inside. Julien showed his dedication by doing more of this work at night time.

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Even Icare was feeling the heat despite his haircut, he kept hold of the stick when it was thrown as if to say I’m not chasing after this anymore.

Jeff also informed me of yet another problem, ver de la grappe. This is the larvae of a moth which feeds on the grape. I took a photo of an affected grape last year.

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There are chemical treatments available to prevent and to treat the problem, no use to an organic producer of course and these chemicals are especially harmful, you can’t use the grapes until 21 days after spraying.

So, for Jeff the treatment involved spraying clay onto the vines to try to make the grape skins less attractive to the moth so it will lay the eggs elsewhere. This was only the second time in twenty years that he had sprayed against ver de la grappe. Also in the spray was fern and seaweed, the fern is a natural insecticide and the seaweed gives a health boost to the vine. However, having sprayed this morning (July 31st) Jeff was hoping that the much needed rain would hold off for a couple of days to allow the spray to work.

You can guess what happened next. A storm, heavy rain, much of the spray washed off the grapes. It is that sort of year, nothing seems to be going right. The rain which did fall was minimal and only undid the good work. The worst of all worlds. To spray or not to spray? To rain or not to rain? Caught between a rock and a hard place.

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Colour and life remains

 

As I made my way around the vineyards there were plenty of good grapes to see, véraison (the changing colour of red grapes) has begun especially amongst the Syrah and Grenache of La Garrigue.

And I spent some time in Rome, a very parched looking vineyard but the ideal place to reflect upon its creator, Jean-Claude. There are some things to be thankful for even in this difficult year.

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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).