amarchinthevines

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


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Harvest 2019 – The Long And Winding Road

En francais

It’s getting complicated

Into week three of the harvest, tired bodies all round especially my own as the old man of the group. Nicks and cuts on the hands, aching back and joints, bruises and bumps but still loving it all. Jeff meanwhile is faced with his annual puzzle of which wines go where, what needs to be done for each one to get it to its best, what might be assembled with what. It is a 3D jigsaw puzzle in action.

Two remontages at once

The little blackboards might remind us of what wine is in each tank, when it was picked, the story of its fermentation and transformation into wine from grape juice but Jeff needs to keep all this in his head (and spreadsheet) so we move the right wine from one tank to another, give one a remontage, another its pressing. He leads from the front, lifting and carrying heavy loads, driving, fixing creaking machinery. He must be very tired as well as stressed but he carries on regardless and we respond in turn.

Macabeu and Grenache Gris

Monday 16th, Day 13. A small harvest of Grenache Gris and Macabeu from Peilhan, a wine for blending perhaps or a very small cuvee. Principally it was a cellar day, Tuesday another. Pressing the Rome grapes, punching down the future orange wine of Muscat d’Alexandrie, remontages and pigeages on all the tanks. Picking is the traditional image of vendanges but this cellar work is essential to nurture the juice, to supervise its progress into the 2019 vintage. Pressing the red fruit which has been on its skins and pulp also means that the marc which is leftover after the juice has been extracted can be taken away ready to be distilled. This is after all, Vins et Spiritueux Coutelou.

Wednesday 18th, Day 15 time to get back into the vineyard and pick the Mourvedre from Segrairals. Some of this had been picked on the Sunday by Jeff’s ‘Rugbymen’ friends to make their own cuvee and it was lovely fruit.

The slope of the vineyard means that lower parts can be a bit damp at times and the fruit not so good as the rest so careful picking and sorting ensued. The resulting juice was very good, reflecting the year’s story it is concentrated with quite high alcohol. I would predict that it will be blended though it has been a single grape cuvee in the past.

One welcome addition to the team this week was my friend Steeve from near Besancon in the Jura. He has visited many times and worked at Jeff’s last vendanges and to help with pruning in the winter. His enthusiasm and experience were very useful and helped to rejuvenate us all.

One last effort required, the Carignan remained to be picked. Its story this year is a summary of the vintage however, so I shall leave that until next time.

Day 13 Day 15


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Harvest 2019 – We Can Work It Out

En francais

Team work

If Day 10 saw the eight different grape varieties harvested Days 11 and 12 were a contrast. Friday September 13th was all about Grenache and Saturday was all about Cinsault. These two varieties together with Syrah make up the bulk of the Coutelou production, important for the various wines which emerge each year and for the economic well being of the domaine.

The Grenache was from La Garrigue, planted facing south towards the sun. It copes well with heat, Spanish on origin and grown all around the Mediterranean (known variously as Cannonau, Garnacha, Alicante amongst others). Traditionally this parcel gives good quality fruit which is blended with other wine to make Classe for example.

I was feeling under the weather on the Friday but a day sorting good bunches of tasty grapes helps to improve the day. There was plenty of it too, perhaps the recent rain had boosted the yield a little. A quick tour of the remaining unpicked vines to check maturity also boosted the spirits with some attractive Mourvedre in the pipeline.

Mourvedre

Saturday (I must have been feeling better as I took more photos) and the Cinsault of Segrairals. These grapes are used for the 5SO cuvée as well as being blended with other wines, eg for the rosé.

Cinsault grapes tend to be big and the bunches can suffer a little as a result. The large grapes leave gaps in the bunch which leaves it vulnerable to disease and insects getting in, especially ver de la grappe. This moth lays its eggs in the bunch and the grapes are pierced by the resulting larvae. This causes the juice to flow in the bunch and attract rot.

Ver de la grappe cocoon emerging from a Piquepoul Noir grape

Sorting in the vineyard and on the table in the cellar needs to be thorough. That said 2019 has happily been a year of little or no disease.

The day showed how different sections of the vineyard differed in the quality of grapes. There were parts which gave slightly under ripe fruit but others which provided big, black grapes which tasted great to eat. Since 2019 has been so hot and dry much of the wine this year is very concentrated and high in alcohol. The under ripe grapes in the Cinsault actually served a useful purpose in providing lower alcohol and adding more acidity. Nature sometimes finds its own solutions.

Nothing wrong with this Cinsault

Meanwhile in the cellar there is increasing amounts of work to do. More and more of the tanks are full and needing remontage, batonnage or pigeage. The team has to work well together, fortunately this year’s does just that.

The amphorae, filled on Thursday also needed punching down to soak the skins. Fermentation has already started as you may see in this video.

With the Cinsault picked there are now just two main picks left to do in 2019, the Mourvedre and the Carignan. An intensive two weeks has gone by, much work still remains.

Days 11 and 12


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Harvest 2019 – Girl

En francais

One of the idiosyncrasies of the French language is the allocation of nouns as masculine or feminine. Tables are feminine, pencils masculine, word endings which are usually masculine have exceptions and vice versa. It’s a minefield for English speaking people.

Grape varieties are also given a gender, but the vast majority are masculine. Of the major grape varieties only one is feminine, la Syrah. My favourite wine of Jeff Coutelou is 100% Syrah, La Vigne Haute. The grapes come from La Garrigue vineyard on a slope facing north to avoid the hottest direct sunshine.

La Vigne Haute is only made in special years, in other vintages the grapes go into other cuvées. How the 2019 La Garrigue Syrah turns out is yet to be determined but they were harvested on Friday September 6th, Day 6 of the vendanges. The good news is that there was more of the wine than last year, when all the vineyards were hit by mildew. Tasting the juice the following day (pre fermentation) it has an amazing depth of red fruit but also a complexity which might be described as minerality. Of course, the wine will be very different after fermentation but this juice has something special about it.

The following day brought more Syrah into the cellar. This time from Segrairals, the largest of the Coutelou vineyards. Again the bunches came in firm and healthy. Syrah usually has small berries and, in this drought year, that is certainly the case. However the grapes are very healthy, no sign of rot or disease. The Segrairals juice had an overwhelming raspberry fruit flavour, not the more serious notes of La Garrigue but very good in its own right.

The Syrah of Segrairals, after destemming and juice in a glass whilst being sorted by Alain

As one of the five major red grapes of Languedoc Syrah is a crucial part of so many of its best wines. It is an expressive grape, try some of the great Syrahs from the Ardèche for example, to find a huge range of flavours and quality. It makes up around one third of the Coutelou production so the lovely fruit of those two days is a relief and also highly promising that, despite the drought, some great wines will emerge in 2019.

La Vigne Haute grapes and juice!

Day 6 Day 7


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Harvest 2019 – Getting Better

En francais

Rome, ready to harvest

Day 3 was all about grapes from one vineyard so Day 4, September 4th, was a contrast. Muscat from Peilhan, the remaining Syrah in Ste. Suzanne (Metaierie) plus a few rows of Grenache from there, a few rows of the Syrah of Segrairals were all picked.

The highlight for me, however, was picking Rome. This is my favourite vineyard, I think most readers will know that by now. The semi seclusion, surrounding trees, wildlife and collection of vines in gobelet (free standing) all make this one of my favourite places on Earth, just look at the photo under the heading.

The variety and nature of the vines make them more interesting to pick, they are individual with bunches spread around them rather than the more uniform growth in most vines trained on wires. This makes it slower work but the rewards of Rome make the work pleasurable. Jeff will blend these grapes with some of the others to make a cuvée as Rome, like most of the parcels, was producing rich, concentrated juice but small quantities due to the drought.

Tony Boris et Alain Alain, Boris Fabrice

Picking there did give me the opportunity to get to know better the 2019 team. Fabrice, a long-time friend of Jeff’s, I have got to know a little over the years but it is good to have more time with him. Alain, Tony, Boris are new friends. One of the benefits and joys of each vendange is getting to know new people. Most of these guys are spending their holidays as volunteers, they are all good company, work hard and are shaping into one of the best teams I have known in my six years here.

Jeff et Julien

Day 5 brought another interesting harvest. Riveyrenc is a traditional, but rare, grape variety in the Languedoc. Thierry Navarre in St. Chinian has done much to maintain its profile and deserves much credit for his very good wine. In March 2015 Jeff planted Riveyrenc Noir and Riveyrenc Gris along with other rare varieties such as Terret Noir and Blanc, Piquepoul Noir and Gris, Morastel. I was there that hot day and four years later these vines are producing really good grapes already.

March, 2015

We picked around 37 cases of Riveyrenc and, I’m happy to report, the grapes were much juicier than anything we had picked so far. It was a joy to see juice in the cases as we sorted them back at the cellar, up to now the cases have been very dry. The Terret Noir and Blanc were rather less generous in quantity but were added to boost the quantity. That these vines are producing such good fruit so young promises well for the future.

Riveyrenc Gris Terret Noir and Blanc

Syrah and Grenache (just a few rows of each) from La Garrigue were also picked in the morning. The afternoon brought the first Cinsault of the year, from Segrairals. Cinsault grapes are commonly big and juicy, the vintage means that is not totally the case this year but the idea was to bring in some low alcohol fruit to blend with other varieties, mission accomplished.

The boss patrols the Syrah of La Garrigue

I also helped Jeff carry out a débourbage of the white and rosé, that is separating the juice from the solids which remained to clarify the wine as it begins its fermentation. The colourful residue always looks interesting, but it has no place in a fresh wine.

Débourbage

Rome, juicy grapes, cellar work, rare varieties –  it’s getting better all the time.

Jour 4 Jour 5


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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.

Carignan 2

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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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 4

Monday 10th to Friday 14th

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Cuves containing new wine including, potentially, La Vigne Haute. Note how the near one is far from full, this is 2018!

A hectic and busy week, including 12 hour days. The picking team had reduced in number therefore Jeff Coutelou had to make the time work to best advantage. Grenache Gris was amongst grapes picked on Monday to head towards rosé and other cuvées. The main focus though was the Carignan of Flambadou, the flagship of the domaine for the last few years. It may well be joined in cuve by the small, juicy berries of that rare Cépage, Castets.

Cabernet Sauvignon followed on Tuesday and Wednesday with more Syrah and Cinsault from different parts of the vineyards. Mourvèdre was the last big block of vines to be tackled and took a very full day on Thursday to pick. This parcel in Segrairals has varied topography, the lower parts become a little damp and are more prone to rot. It is important for Michel to convey not just the grapes but also the location of the grapes picked so that triage is made more efficient.

Top left – Carignan, top right – Castets, below Grenache Gris

By now Jeff was concerned that some of the vines were becoming so stressed by all the issues this year, mildew above all, that they were struggling to ripen the grapes. In order to ensure the health of the vines for next year it was no longer worth pushing them that little bit further so that next year would be compromised. Vines are fragile, living things which need to be looked after, Jeff nurtures them carefully.

Whilst picking was in full swing and cases were stacked up for sorting there was plenty of activity in the cellar. Wines in cuve or tank need treating carefully too, ensuring the juice ferments into wine with nothing added to it requires the vigneron makes good decisions about, for example, levels of acidity and alcohol, exposure to air and skins. I shall be coming back to this in the next post in a couple of days time.

And, after all that work, it is all too tiring for some of us!

 


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Rare grapes and Vin De France

Version francaise

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This chart was published two weeks ago even though the information refers to 2010. I found it fascinating (I am a sad case I understand). Some of the information would be expected, New Zealand with its Sauvignon Blanc for example, Australia with its Shiraz. I was rather surprised to see Merlot as 13.7% of the French vineyard area however. Admittedly this is partly because it is one of my least favourite grape varieties, though, as always, fine examples are available from good vignerons.

Merlot, like Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and Viognier, were in vogue in the 80s and 90s when I became interested in wine. Languedoc producers reacted to this popularity by planting these cépages, it was commercial sense. One of those producers was Jean-Claude Coutelou and Mas Coutelou still has his Cabernet and Merlot parcels.

However, one of the more recent trends in the region has been the revival of older and rare grape varieties. At Mas Coutelou Jeff has planted grapes such as Riveyrenc Noir, Riveyrenc Gris, Morastel, Piquepoul Noir and Terret Noir in Peilhan (see photos below).

Earlier this year Jeff received a visit from Domaine De Vassal, guardian of the national treasury of grape vines. They record and keep examples all grape varieties as I described after a visit to Vassal. On this occasion they were intrigued by two vines in particular; firstly Clairette Musquée, planted in Peilhan and, secondly, the unknown variety in Segrairals. These are just part of the programme of replanting and grafting which has taken place at Mas Coutelou. The photos below show grafting of other cépages in Flower Power such as Aramon Noir and one unknown variety.

After months of research the experts at Vassal have concluded that Clairette Musquée has its origins in Hungary where it was known as Org Tokosi. It was planted in the Maghreb and after Algerian independence it was probably brought to France by those who repatriated to France.

The unnown variety turns out to be an Italian cépage, quite rare, called Delizia Di Vaprio. This is, according to my copy of Pierre Galet’s “Dictionnaire Encyclopédique des Cépages”, a grape authorised in Italy and Portugal. Under the rules of France’s AOC system it would not be allowed. Jeff, however, chooses to issue his wines under the Vin De France label which means he is free to choose his own methods and grape varieties. Whereas a Languedoc AOC wine must include grapes such as Syrah and Grenache Jeff can choose what to put in his wines including wines from just one grape variety. It also means he can plant these rare grapes and make wines from them which he truly loves and wants to make.

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Interestingly one AOC, Burgundy, is starting to show signs of concern that Vin De France is becoming more popular. They have started a campaign criticising Vin de France. To my mind they should be looking to their own failings and regulations. For example, as climate change bites harder vignerons will have to adapt, investigating different grape varieties will be part of that.

So, yes Merlot has its place (and thrives in the Colombié vineyard in Puimisson) but is it not exciting to see rare, old, traditional grapes being cherished and brought back to prominence? Let us appreciate the range and variety of grapes and the vignerons who bring out their best.

reds


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Every Picture Tells A Story (2) – Terroir

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Version francaise

This is one corner of Segrairals vineyard, found in the North East corner of Puimisson. I took the photo on October 6th and it clearly shows a demarcation in this part of the vineyard. The far side of it still has green vines, further towards me the vines are changing colour as Autumn arrives. Why are the vines at different stages of development? Even a month before on September 7th there was a clear line.

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The reason is that a stream used to run down here many years ago. Its legacy is to have left richer soil behind in the corner where the cannes de Provence now stand. The vines planted on that richer soil find life easier than their peers. They remain greener, feed their grapes more easily. All good?

Well, no. The grapes can be too well fed, ripen earlier than their neighbours, become too sweetened. They will also begin to deteriorate earlier if not picked. So, in one small corner of one vineyard we see how the terroir makes a difference to the vines. We see how a vigneron must know his / her vines to ensure that the highest quality is maintained. The vigneron is part of the whole mystique of terroir and it is a subject to which I shall be turning soon.

 

 


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…XYZ – Vendanges 17

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The last case of 2017, Julien looks happy!

In other words, the finish. Well, the finish of the picking. Tuesday September 12th was so much calmer than the previous day as the Cabernet Sauvignon from Segrairals arrived.

Thoughout the vendanges the grapes have been good, smaller than the norm because of the dryness, but in excellent health. The Cabernet was no exception. Sorting was all about snails and dry leaves rather than any problems with the grapes and the vat filled gradually, problem – free, as the day progressed. The stalks were brown showing the maturity of the bunches as the third érafloir of yesterday completed its job efficiently.

 

As we awaited the first cases Jeff and I went around some of the vats and took samples for analysis as well as tasting the wines. I wish that I could convey the bready aromas filling the cellar of the yeasts at work, they give such a sense of change, optimism, alchemy.

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Amongst the wines we tasted were two from 2016, Syrah and Grenache, which have been sparked back into fermentation by the very presence of this year’s grapes in the cellar. The process is truly amazing. The glass in the photo below shows the top Syrah from La Garrigue harvested two weeks ago, which just may become La Vigne Haute. It is a stunner.

Vigne Haute

Quality across the board is undoubtedly high though Jeff is counting the cost of the quantity, his first estimates are that the overall yield will be around 39 hectolitres per hectare. Average years would give between 50 and 60 hl/ha.

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Joining us on the day was a  former student of Jeff and Vincent restaurateur Régis Lamazère and his wife and baby. Régis runs his autonymous restaurant in Berlin where Charles who was here for vendanges 2016 used to work.

After the grapes were in and the last cases sorted by Julien and Vincent it was time to start serious cleaning of all the equipment which will be put away for 2018. The picking may be over but the work never stops. A full programme of pressing, remontages etc is in place for the next week. Stay tuned.

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Selene and Matthie, remontage