amarchinthevines

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


Leave a comment

Expert eye

Version francaise

I regularly tour the Coutelou vineyards, looking at the changes and growth, relishing the tranquillity and connection with nature, the vines, flora and fauna. Nonetheless, far more interesting is to tour with Jeff himself. His expert knowledge of his land and the vines adds so much. Jeff was a teacher for many years and I always learn a great deal from him.

Living soils of Rome

We began in my favourite vineyard, Rome. This parcel, surrounded by trees, is a haven for wildlife. The tall Grenache gobelet vines are 40 years old and more and Jeff explained how the soil in Rome is around 30-40cm deep, made up mostly of forest residue, for example rotted leaves. The soil is a rich humous and full of life. Lifting a clump revealed fungal threads, insects (look for the black bodies) and worms.

Syrah with its large leaves and bunches forming

On to Sainte Suzanne and its Syrah and Grenache, so much a part of le Vin Des Amis, a famous part of the Coutelou range. Flowering completed in the main, the Syrah more forward than other varieties as is usual. The bunches resemble peas. Huge leaves such as this Syrah and Muscat in Peilhan show how Mediterranean varieties protect their grapes from the fierce sun because of their size and thick, quilted texture.

Flowering on the right whilst Jeff indicates coulure

Disappointingly there was also evidence of coulure, here and in La Garrigue especially with Grenache, which flowers later. Flowering has lasted longer this year, making them more susceptible to coulure.

This happens when wind or rain damages the flowers and the fruit cannot set on the vine. A shower of unformed grapes fell into Jeff’s hand as he ran it across a bunch. The consequence is that the harvest will be good but not as big as hoped for, especially after last year’s mildew hit year.

Oidium on bunch

That disease was downy mildew, this year the greater threat is powdery mildew or oidium. As we toured the Carignan vineyard, Rec D’Oulette, Jeff immediately spotted the signs, I would likely not have seen it. Oidium usually attacks the leaf and stem, leaving a white, powdery residue. Here the oidium had attacked the bunch directly, leaving a grey tinge to the green pea-like grape. Encouraged by the alternation between hot days and cold nights which we have had recently oidium needs to be treated. Jeff uses sulphur mixed with clay which helps the sulphur to stick to the plant. So far the damage is limited and the weather has heated up which might help to dry out the disease. Certainly there was evidence of that, the black spots on these stems and leaves is evidence of that, see the photo below.

Another pest was seen too. This white, cottony substance on my hand is the cocoon of ver de la grappe, a moth which will lay eggs in the grapes and the larvae pierce the skins causing bacterial spoilage. Insecticides would be the conventional response but not for organic vignerons. Natural predators such as bats are the solution, one reason why Jeff has bat houses in the trees around the vines.

More trees have been planted, Nathan and Julien were tending the border of Peilhan vineyard where fruit trees such as this pear are beginning to grow and become established. In the vines things looked good, such as this Carignan Blanc, Piquepoul Gris and Muscat in Peilhan and the Mourvèdre in Segrairals.

A 3 hour tour revealed so much about the state of the vines this year. Things are set for a good quality harvest, though it is still early days. Coulure means that it will not be a bumper crop, oidium that there is much work to be done to tend the vines which Jeff nurtures so carefully.

Healthy vines

New plantings such as that next to Sainte Suzanne of Clairette and Maccabeu are signs of a healthy future too.

Plantation, Clairette right, Maccabeu left

No matter what some British politicians would tell you it is always good to listen to experts and this was no exception. The strapline of my blog says “learning about wines, vines and vignerons”, this was a morning which certainly helped me to achieve that goal thanks to Jeff and his expert eye.


1 Comment

Slipping back into the vines

https://amarchinthevines.org/2019-en-francais/P1040542

Back in the Coutelou vineyards. As I drive into them there’s a sense of never being away but also of anticipation – what’s new? That may sound strange as the vineyards don’t change too much year to year, yet every vintage is different. In 2018 the vines were already suffering from the widespread mildew following a wet Spring. This year the weather has been very different. A dry Winter and Spring  with cool, sunny weather has benefited the vines. They look as healthy as I can remember in the years I have been here.

Healthy Grenache leaves, left and débourrement in Rome

New plantings and grafts mean that there is always change in the vineyards, this year it has been mostly a case of replacing vines which had failed, some Cinsault, Clairette and Macabeu amongst others. It is time to let the rare and old grape variety plantations of 2018 mature and establish themselves.

New Clairette and Macabeu, Ste Suzanne’s vines in the background, right

However, one new plantation of note. A small parcel next to Sainte Suzanne has been too wet to work in for the last 2 years, it is now planted with Macabeu and Clairette so more white wine will be produced in future.

New vine; the plantation can be seen as the brownish patch on the left of the 2nd photo from La Garrigue’s Syrah vines

The dry year has also meant that Jeff has been able to lightly plough vineyards which have been too damp in recent years, Rome was given a light scratching for example. Nothing too serious that would upset the life in the soil, just enough to aerate.

Flower Power, Julien and Christian attching the vines to stakes

They really do look well. Flower Power has been lightly worked too, to allow the young vines there to thrive without so much competition from the grass. If you look at the photos you will see the neighbouring vineyards belonging to others, planted much more densely. Those vines are flourishing with their irrigation and fertilisers, almost uniform, dark green with the nitrogen they are fed. The Flower Power vines are shorter and more delicate for sure, they are growing at a natural pace, finding their own maturity slowly. Here, and in all the other vineyards, flowering is almost complete, the bunches are set (débourrement).

After last year’s much reduced harvest it would be good to have an abundant year, to restock the vats and barrels which have been emptied to make up shortfalls in wine and income. The signs are propitious, let us hope the northerly winds and sunshine continue to maintain the health of the vines and allow them to fulfil such a promising start.

One curiosity over the winter. In late 2018 artist Anthony Duchene wanted to create a display to highlight the effect of healthy soils. In many of the natural vineyards of the region underwear was buried. At Jeff’s a pair of underpants was buried in Rome vineyard. This Spring they were dug up and reveal the activity taking place in the soils by animal and microbial life. An unusual but effective demonstration. Duchene’s work is on display in Liège at the Yoko Uhoda Gallery.

And, of course, regular readers frequently ask how Icare is getting along. Coincidentally it was his summer haircut on Tuesday so you can see that he has been well prepared for the warmer weather. He is a happy dog.

It was a beautiful, sunny day as I toured around on the 21st May. Rome was vibrant with colour from broom and flowers, roses lined the vineyards in Peilhan and Rec D’Oulette. It was good to be back.


Leave a comment

300

 

20170209_000255

Tasting the older barrel in 2017

 

En francais

Back in September 2015 I wrote my 100th blog post about a great day. Jeff had suggested I do something special to celebrate the event and offered me the chance to pick grapes from my favourite vineyard, Rome. The grapes were a mix of all three Grenaches, Blanc, Gris and Noir as well as a few Muscat grapes. To make it even more special our great friends Martin and May came along to help pick the grapes, it was a day when I was truly blessed to be surrounded by friendship, a day when the Coutelou motto of ‘Grapes, work and love’ was evident.

 

I trod the grapes, pressed them and stored the juice in two barrels and two large 27l bottles. I even used airlocks provided by my friend Barry back in the UK. One of the those bottles was used to top up the barrels over the intervening three years before the wines were ready to be bottled. The wine was racked occasionally to separate the juice from the sediment and dead lees. From time to time we tasted from all three containers and it was fascinating to monitor their development and how they matured differently according to the container they were in.

The newer 60l barrel allowed more oxygen into the wine and this added a drier note to the wine which aged quicker than the other two. The smaller, older 30l barrel had been used for more wines and the wood staves had sealed more as a result. The wine was fruitier, tasted younger and fresher. That was the reverse of what I had expected from the barrels at first but it is logical. Meanwhile the large glass bottle produced a wine like imprisoned fruit, almost as grapey and fruity as the day the juice first went in.

After three years it was time to assemble and bottle the wine. That was supposed to happen in the week before I left France in October but climatic conditions were unfriendly for bottling, heavy atmospheric conditions. Jeff, Michel and Julien kindly did the bottling when conditions were more suitable. I can’t wait to see them, and open one in January when I return.

24

 

I am a winemaker! It has been one of the great experiences of my life. That it is the result of the generosity and kinship of my friends made it even more so. In particular Jeff’s kindness and inspiration is something I appreciate more than he can know.

This is the 300th blog article. I have been delighted and amazed that people from 118 countries have turned to these pages over the last four years, often several thousand a day. Thank you for doing so, it means a lot. I started simply to occupy time and keep my own personal record, your readership has helped it become so much more. I hope that my love for wine, the Languedoc, real wines and, especially, the Coutelou team and wines have brought you some pleasure. And who knows, we may get to share a glass of the century wine.

4

A March in the vines (photo by Flora Rey)


2 Comments

With A Little Help From My Friends

P1040397

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.

P1040433

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


Leave a comment

Vendanges 2018 – Part 2

 

P1040186

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.

P1040193

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.

P1040183

 

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.

P1040198

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.

P1040219

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.

P1040188

 


Leave a comment

Mainly Happy Returns?

P1030979

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.


Leave a comment

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.

P1030212

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.

mas-coutelou-vin-les-copains

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.

20180101_212028

Amazing label of Casa Pardet

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