amarchinthevines

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


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After the 2017s, the Coutelou 2018s

 

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Just before leaving the Languedoc for hibernation in the UK I was invited by Jeff Coutelou to taste through this year’s wines. Most are now finishing both fermentations and starting to settle for the winter in cuve. They will change and develop over the next few months of course, they are living wines and still in their infancy. Consequently, these observations are preliminary but, after five years of similar tastings, I feel more confident about predicting which way the wines will go.

2018 has undoubtedly been a troubled year for Jeff and fellow Languedoc producers, in particular those who follow organic and biodynamic principles. The damage began with the long period of rain in Spring and the mildew outbreak which ensued. Mildew damaged the flowers, buds and young grapes. It damaged the leaves making it more difficult for the vines to produce the energy to feed those grapes. Jeff cannot recall a year of such blight. This was followed by a very hot, very dry summer making the vines suffer still further, compounding their difficulty in producing good sized fruit. Yields are down some 50-60% following on from 2017 when they were down 20%.

With all those problems could good wines be made?

We started with white wines. The white grapes from the 2015 Peilhan plantation have been blended with others from older vines in Peilhan such as Carignan Blanc, Maccabeu and Grenache Gris. The small quantity means this will be used for a barrel aged wine. It had finished fermentation and had good fruit with a liquorice streak and depth of flavour. Another batch of the Grenache Gris and Maccabeu was still in malolactic fermentation and cloudy with apples and a directness. Similarly the whites from La Garrigue were still fermenting but with great depth of flavour. There will only be small quantities of any Coutelou white wine, the last couple of years have not been kind to them.

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Onto the reds.

Grenache was the variety which was most affected by mildew, the vines were not pretty and yields were very small. Many of the bunches did not form, many which did suffered from coulure (where only a few berries form) or produced dried, dessicated fruit. The vendangeurs had to be very selective. So was it worth picking? The Grenache from La Garrigue tasted clean with good fruit and a nice acidity. The Grenache from Sainte Suzanne was worst hit of all. Jeff made the wine with only a couple of days on stems as the fruit was delicate. The wine is light as a result, juicy with red fruits, light but tasty.

Cinsault usually provides another light wine and this vintage was no exception. Despite that it was very fruity on the nose and on the finish, a surprising depth of flavour. For rosé, 5SO or both? Jeff will decide as the wine develops.

The tank which will make Flower Power 2018 has a bewildering mix of grapes, from the Flower Power vineyard itself, Rome, some Syrah from Segrairals and the reds from the 2015 Peilhan plantation, eg Morastel and Riveyrenc Noir. There was a lot of mouth feel in the wine, with tannin and substance and a concentration of dark fruits.

Cabernet Sauvignon from the last picking has produced a real glouglou wine, light and juicy. It will bring a fruity freshness to any wine it is used for.

Carignan was one grape which resisted mildew for a long time. This is the parcel producing Flambadou, one of the flagship Coutelou wines. Once again it has produced a high quality wine. Lighter in alcohol than usual yet managing to produce a full, ripe and fresh wine whose flavours lingered long after swallowing it. I look forward to this one a lot.

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Carignan grapes

Perhaps the biggest surprise was the Mourvèdre. It has made good wines before, try the 2015 or 2016 for example. However it could be a real star this year. There was a great depth and freshness with dark fruit flavours made to feel lighter by light acidity leading to an almost saline finish. It would be almost drinkable now but will keep for many years and develop beautifully, I am sure of that.

Syrah from Sainte Suzanne was made using grappe entire or whole bunch. Around 14% abv it has a clean acidity with red fruits and soft tannins (from the stems?) which will support a good wine. The Syrah from Segrairals was quite different, the place and destemming produced a more upfront fruity wine with a clean, dry finish.

And, of course, there was the Syrah from La Garrigue, home of my favourite wine La Vigne Haute. Amazingly, in such a horrible year, the quality of these grapes was excellent. Only made in very good years and yet, hopefully, there will be a 2018 La Vigne Haute. The wine has great character already, freshness, fruit, long flavours supported with lovely tannins which will help the wine to age well. Exciting.

So, out of the ashes rises the phoenix, very good wines despite the vintage. The resilience and quality of the vineyards and vines as well as the winemaking skills of Jeff Coutelou.

 


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Harvest 2018 – Part 1

 

Everything scrubbed and cleaned in readiness

My fifth vendanges with Jeff Coutelou, time has flown and instead of a complete ignoramus helping where I can without getting in the way I now understand the different jobs and skills needed and can tackle most, if not all. This year’s reduced harvest (possibly up to 50% less than average) means we need a reduced team and so I hope I can put those years of experience to use to support Jeff along with Michel, Julien, Nathan and the team of pickers.

This year has been difficult due to the weather as I have tried to explain on here before. The long period of rain during the Spring meant that mildew hit hard across the region. Some friends have lost all their grapes, others significant amounts. Those in organic and biodynamic farming have been hit hardest as synthetic anti-mildew treatments proved more effective than organic ones. A couple of bursts of hail during thunderstorms triggered by the heatwave of July/August also damaged vines and bunches of grapes. One of the effects of both these problems is damage to the foliage, making it more difficult for the vine to have photosynthesis to produce energy to ripen the grapes easily.

Top left – mildew dried bunch on the left, top right – hail damage to grapes and leaves underneath

All of this meant that unlike other regions of France the vendanges began later than usual, the first picking was August 29th a full two weeks after 2015 for example. We began with white grapes, Sauvignon Blanc, Carignan Blanc and Muscat from La Garrigue vineyard. I did a little picking and then moved to the cellar for sorting.

The pickers in action, my bucket and case, back to the cellar and first analysis

With the problems of 2018 sorting might have been very difficult but actually not so much so far. The ripened grapes are healthy, the dry heat of summer means there is no evidence of rot. Instead we are looking for grapes dried by mildew, many bunches have clusters of them, they can be easily separated from the healthy grapes. Another issue is the number of unformed grapes, like little hard, green peas amongst the bunches. This is due a problem called millerandage, where the flower was unable to set the fruit, a product of the rainy, cold Spring and early mildew.

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Cinsault with millerandage left side

The first red grapes soon followed, the Grenache from Sainte Suzanne, often the backbone of Le Vin Des Amis. This was the parcel hardest hit by mildew and the quantities are heartbreakingly reduced. Nonetheless there was enough to take picking on the afternoon of Wednesday and the Thursday morning. The sorted grapes were passed through the new destemmer (mercifully quieter than the previous one) and then sent for a short, cold maceration.

In the video Michel is putting the chapeau into the tank to cover the grapes. Dry CO2 has been added to make the grapes cold so that they do not get too hot and ferment too wildly. The juice was run off the skins on Saturday morning. Jeff has a number of options for using this juice, which was never going to be serious enough for using in a classic red wine.

We restart picking on Tuesday, September 4th. There are lots of healthy parcels ahead and things will perk up. This initial burst was a useful warm up, mechanical problems with the press and pump are now sorted and we head towards the main event. Wish us well.

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There are plenty of healthy, juicy grapes to look forward to like this Carignan for Flambadou

And one member of the team just loves this time of year, with lots of attention.

 


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Visitors – Vendanges 17

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An unusual few days to report upon. Let’s start with some bad news. Twice in the last week people have dumped their rubbish in Jeff’s vineyards. As these were at opposite ends of the village it must be assumed that there are two selfish, anti-social idiots who would prefer to spoil the local environment than drive to the local tip (déchetterie).

Another unwelcome arrival was Hurricane Irma in the Caribbean. Jeff’s sister Catherine and her husband live on Guadeloupe so we were all concerned for their welfare. Happily she reported that the worst of the storm missed the island. Others may not have been so lucky of course.

 

For me there was one more unwelcome visitor. As I entered the cellar on Tuesday morning I mentioned the smell of Carbon Dioxide in the air. This had built up from fermenting grapes and with the cellar being less busy than usual the CO2 had built up. As Tuesday was hot the cellar doors stayed shut as much as possible and with remontages and open vats the CO2 was strong. Alas it seems I am particularly sensitive to it and it made me breathless and nauseous. I can understand better how some people have serious accidents with gas build up when they are working at open cuves. Maybe it’s because I’m getting old but the others were unaffected, and I’m the non – smoker! Happily, I have soon recovered.

Yet another visitor arrived in the form of the inspector who controls organic certification for Ecocert. I wrote about her annual visit in 2014, this was a spot check during vendanges to ensure that everything is done following organic principles. Reassuring for those of us who want to know that Bio wines are truly organic. Obviously, there was no concern as Mas Coutelou goes well beyond the standards required.

Animal visitors too. Buried in a case of Grenache from Sainte Suzanne was this 6cm caterpillar, quite a size. And, amongst the Carignan vines today was this dragonfly who was there with others and many butterflies. Which makes the actions of the fly tippers even more senseless.

And so to grapes. More cépages to keep me happy. Piquepoul Gris and Terret Blanc along with Maccabeu picked from Peilhan on Tuesday morning will form a new white wine. The pink tint of the Piquepoul Gris will not colour the wine as it was pressed directly to remove the juice from the skins.

The aforementioned Grenache was supplemented with more Grenache on Wednesday this time from La Garrigue. So good was this harvest that Jeff is considering making a special cuvée with it. Together with the excellent Syrah from the vineyard La Garrigue has certainly performed well this year. Cinsault from Segrairals followed on.

With smaller yields and dry weather the picking has been quick this year, efficient too with an excellent team working well. You will see in the photo below how they work in pairs across a vine to ensure that all the fruit is picked, hopefully avoiding each others’ fingers.

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So, what remains? Well probably five days of vendanges with Cabernet, Mourvèdre and Carignan still to come, the latter of course being the headline act in recent years. There are also a few rows of vines in Peilhan, eg the reds such as Oeillade and Castets and more Muscat too. All is set fair for a good finish.

 

 


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The grapes, they are a-changin’

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Syrah in Ste. Suzanne, photo by Jeff

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Come gather round people.

The summer heat is settled and the vines are entering their final stage of the year. They have pushed out long stems, tendrils reaching around supporting wires, foliage at its maximum size and fruit has turned from tiny, green, pea-like balls into round, plump grapes. Taste them and they are still highly acidic, sour and sharp. Pips have formed and the red grapes are just beginning to change colour.

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Vines in La Garrigue reaching 2m into the air

This process of véraison is one of the magical turning points of the year, the grapes are now becoming the focus of the vine’s energy. It will spend less time growing and reaching out and more time in creating sugars for the grapes. The bunches are tightening up, the grapes swelling. From now until vendanges they will continue to grow and to store more sugar. The reason, of course, is to attract birds and animals to eat them and scatter the pips to allow the vines to reproduce. It is humans who have learned that this energy from sun and soil can be directed to the creation of wine, we encourage the sugars to change into alcohol and the juice to become wine.

Grapes 2 weeks ago above, and now (below)

Neighbouring vines to Mas Coutelou show dark green foliage, fed by nitrates. the natural evolution on this domaine means that they are a lighter colour but they are vigorous, healthy and all is set fair. Small outbreaks of mildew have been managed by a few organic tisanes. Most of the disease has formed on the new growth which has not been treated, so Jeff has been around affected areas cutting back the foliage to remove the mildew and its spores which could bring back the disease if rain splashed them onto the vines in the next few weeks.

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Some mildew on outer leaves, these will be cut away

2017 has been relatively kind, much more so than the drought affected 2016 vintage. Yet other regions have been hit by frost and hail, Beaujolais recently damaged by the latter for example. Remember it was August last year when a hail storm hit the Languedoc and wiped out much of the production in Pic St. Loup and some vines in Puimisson. So, it is still to early to say that 2017 is set fair but it is promising. The vines are a-changin’, time to start getting excited.

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Grapes and vines battered by hail in Ste Suzanne 2016


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Return to the vines of Mas Coutelou

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Looking from La Garrigue towards Sainte Suzanne

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After almost three months away it is good to be back in the Languedoc, and especially to be back in Puimisson, the home of Mas Coutelou. Jeff and Icare greeted us warmly and it didn’t take me long to get back into the vines.

Carole and Julien were hard at work pruning in Rome vineyard, my favourite of all, I was happy to see them all. Fortunately, the day I was there (24th January) was a lovely, sunny afternoon and quite warm but recent weeks have seen freezing temperatures overnight and pruning on such mornings is brutal. However, it is vital work.

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Dead vines removed, their place ready for new ones

The vine needs to be trained for the season to come, cutting away dead wood and restricting the growth of the vine so that it is does not overproduce which would reduce the quality of the wine. Pruning also offers the opportunity to check the health of each vine and to identify vines which need to be replaced.

The vine is studied, first cuts remove the growth of last year and then decisions made about which branches to remove and which to leave as spurs, which direction the growth will take and, also, about which spurs might be prepared for the following year too. All with freezing fingers and aching back.

Much work had already been done but much remains ahead. In the photos below the Grenache of Sainte Suzanne has been pruned but the Syrah remains to be done. Similarly, the reds of Peilhan are pruned but the white parcel remains to do.

Work has also begun on preparing a parcel next to Sainte Suzanne which has remained fallow for a few years giving recovery to the soil. Known as Théresette this parcel will be planted with Aramon (Noir and Gris) which is what used to be planted in this parcel many years ago and which was well suited to the soil.

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The ‘new ‘ parcel under preparation. La Garrigue in the background.

The winter also offers the chance to see the bare vineyards and their topography. When people talk about the value of a particular parcel or vineyard it is easy to overlook how even within a small area there are variations of slope and gradient which would alter drainage and exposition to the sun. Vines are all different even within a parcel and the pruning process treats each vine on its own merits to help it to produce the best fruit it can.

The vineyard soils are covered in white this January, not with snow, not here in the Languedoc at least. The white flowers of wild rocket form a spectacular blanket contrasting with the stark wood of the vines themselves. Even in winter there is something special and beautiful about being in this place, a march in the vines is so fulfilling.


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Nature can be harsh: Part 3 -pests

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

Vers de la grappe

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

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

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Bat shelter in Sainte Suzanne

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

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

Snails

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

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

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

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

Neighbours

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

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Vandalised trees with tyre tracks revealing the culprit

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

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Vendanges 2016 #1

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First cuts of 2016 at Mas Coutelou

In 2015 vendanges began on August 21st, in 2016 things kicked off on August 30th. The protracted cool spring and the drought contributed to a later harvest though not so late as predicted because of the hail on 17th August. This damaged some grapes especially in Sainte Suzanne (Metaierie) and Jeff decided that the grapes needed to be picked as they would lose acidity if left on the vine.

On the 30th it was the Syrah which was picked, unusual for a vendanges not to start with white grapes. Syrah normally produces small berries but these were especially small. The cagettes in which the grapes are transported back to the cave are usually running with grape juice, requiring regular cleaning. Today they were virtually dry. Jeff calculated that the volume of juice produced was around half of the normal harvest which is not good news. Hopefully other grapes in other vineyards have fared better but we shall see. This is all the result of the protracted dry spell in the region. Rainfall, other than the occasional storm where the rain comes too heavily. has been pitiful. The vines have found it hard to cope and give water to swell the grapes. The hail confounded the problem by shredding leaves which would help to nourish the grapes.

The good news was that the grapes gave lovely juice; fresh, very raspberry fruit and they smelled of beautiful warm spices. The measure showed potential alcohol of 12% so it will make a light, fresh Syrah wine or blend.

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There was a full house to help out. Michel, Julien and Vincent as usual. We were joined by James, an Australian who is staying for the harvest to help his learning for making wine in the future. Charles who spent a few days with us last year is also here for a longer spell, he adds humour and energy. Jeff’s primary school classmate Maylis  was also present spending the day in the vineyards. And Céline, Brice and their two girls were here on the way back from their holidays, it is always fun to see them.

One or two bits of machinery creaked under the strain of a new harvest but the changed cellar made cleaning so much easier. The team is taking shape for the challenges ahead. The Syrah sits in cuve 2A, I shall keep you up to date with its progress and path to the bottle.

 

Day 2, August 31st

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The last of the Syrah was picked first. If you look at the photo of the vines with James picking you will notice the lack of foliage and therefore why Jeff felt the need to harvest now. First official analysis of the Syrah from yesterday showed healthier than expected acidity and potential alcohol, a welcome fillip.

Then came the Grenache from Ste. Suzanne, in many ways more problematic than the Syrah due to mildew earlier in the year. However, when it came in there were many good firm bunches of healthy fruit with possibly a little more juice than the Syrah. It was a very hot day so Jeff worked some magic by using frozen pellets of CO2 to stop the juice from starting to ferment too soon so that it doesn’t extract too much of the flavours of the dryer grapes before it is moved for the first time. This was the first time that Jeff has tried this method due to the nature of the vintage and its drought. Difficult to take a photo as all you could see was the mist of the frozen gas.

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The juice tasted healthy and fresh with red fruits, a little vegetation still present. Yesterday’s Syrah was already darker, more weighty and very different to yesterday. Wine alchemy. It now sits in cuve 2B next door to the Syrah.

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Grenache grapes

Tomorrow (September 1st) is a new moon and so no picking or work. It is also the 2nd anniversary of my arrival in France, days like this remind me why that decision was a good one.

Salut to Jean-Claude, tu nous manques

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