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


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Solera, oh oh

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Version francaise

Many visitors to Mas Coutelou would cite their time in the cave des soleras as the most memorable of all. This, for new readers, is the cellar where barrels are stored containing Muscat and Grenache from many vintages. There it ages gently to make Vieux Grenache or Muscat, or a blend of course.

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The system works with new wine being put into barrique as normal but the older wines are blended with wines from previous years. Evaporation and bottling means that some of the wine in the barrels disappears each year so they need to be topped up with younger wines. Gradually, as the years pass, the wines become older and more concentrated and are passed on to older barrels. Some of the wine in the oldest barrels is 100 years old blended in with slightly younger wines.

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Archimedes principle to move wine from cuve to barrel by gravity

On September 20th it was time to clear space in the cellar; barrels topped up, new wine added to the system. Some of the barrels were given a soutirage, emptied of their wine leaving behind the sediment in the bottom. The barrel is then cleaned, the wine returned and topped up.

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Matthieu fills the barrel with water to clean it ready for refilling with wine

Two days later we were back and amongst the barrels being refreshed was one containing the Grenaches (all three varieties) wine I made in 2015. Time to taste. This was the new barrel which permits more oxygen into the wine than the more seasoned barrel. There was definitely a sherry influence to the wine, the effect of the oak and air but still there was good fruit and length. It will soon be topped up with wine from the older barrel which should add more fruit to the profile. The wine in the 27l bottle will be even more fruity and fresh, the blending should be an interesting time.

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Refilling the Grenaches newer barrel

The cellar is a true treasure trove of great wines, and I don’t mean mine. Time spent there is always time well spent. And the guard dog of all guard dogs ensures it is well protected.

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Vendanges 2016 #4 -cellar and weather

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En français

The weather has had its say and threatens to shout out loud in the next few days. Should we expect anything different in this most problematic of years? Saturday (Sept. 10th) was supposed to be a day for picking but a heavy shower fell in the morning and that was enough to stop the day in the vineyards. Grapes covered in rainwater would provide diluted juice, no good for quality producers though that did not stop some in the area.

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Some picked on Saturday

However, there was still work to do in the cellar, remontages and pressing. The previous day some of the team had been clearing space in the solera cave so that the Muscat and Grenache picked from Rome vineyard would have room.

Sunday was a day off though more remontage and cellar work was done. There is no rest. Today (Monday 12th) was a normal day for many vignerons but at Mas Coutelou a big part of the team are the Moroccan pickers and it is Eid Mubarak. Therefore Jeff decided that they deserved the opportunity to celebrate their holy day and so no major picking. An act of respect which deserves mention.

Sadly, that act seems unlikely to be rewarded by the weather. There is a major threat of a large storm on Wednesday which would halt work again and require a few days for the grapes to recover before they could be harvested. More careful triage will also be required. Let us hope that the storm weakens or diverts.

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Carignan Noir Saturday

Meanwhile Carole, James, Vincent and Charles were out picking Carignan Blanc this morning in Peilhan and the Grenache from Sainte Suzanne was pressed. Work continues despite everything this year throws at us. Tomorrow will see the harvest of Syrah from La Garrigue, the grapes which usually make La Vigne Haute.

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La Garrigue, Syrah on the left

 


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Living wine history

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Version française

As a History graduate and teacher I have always believed that to understand the present we must understand our history. Whether it be politics, culture, sport or, indeed, wine the route to the present gives us the fuller picture. In wine terms I relish the stories of the winemakers and how they came to their place in producing the wines we appreciate, that route often explains their philosophy and their hopes for the wines. I often hear from them, as in Clos Fantine or Domaine Montesquiou, how the family history and its relationship with the land influences how they nurture their soils, vines and wines.

Naturally, spending so much time at Mas Coutelou I have come to appreciate the story of the domaine and its roots and traditions through to its present. Nowhere is that history more alive than in one of its most unusual features, the solera system.

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I was talking to Rosemary George at the Mas Gabriel 10th anniversary dinner and I told her how a blog post she wrote first led me to Jeff’s door and, consequently, changed my story and journey to the Languedoc. Rosemary’s greatest memory of Mas Coutelou she said was of the solera system. It is certainly virtually unique in the region. After my initial tour of the vineyards and tasting with Jeff I was amazed by the discovery of a solera. Clearly it left an impact upon Rosemary too.

So, what is it? What is its own history?

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Soleras are usually associated with sherry. The word means ‘on the ground’ in Spanish. Barrels are filled with wine and the oldest wine is used to fill bottles though some of the wine is left. It is refilled from the next oldest barrel and that in turn by the third oldest. As each is only partly emptied the barrel’s contents become a mix of vintages. Traditionally, the oldest barrel is in on the ground and filled from above, hence the name solera. That ground barrel in Mas Coutelou’s solera is over 200 years old! The barrels also lose some of their contents through evaporation. The larger barrels (around 225 litres) lose around 6% of their wine per year, smaller barrels can lose up to 15%! Hence the need to replenish the barrels for natural reasons not just because they have been emptied.

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Michel removing must from muscat ready for the solera

The Coutelou system was started by Jeff’s great grandfather and has become a family tradition. Muscat and Grenache grapes are used to feed the solera each year. They can follow a route of being used for sweet or dry wines, they might be blended together or kept separately. Altogether there are 16 possible paths for the wines to take and Jeff must choose the most appropriate one based on his tasting experience.

The wines vary from the very dry to the very sweet and luscious. Some of the old Grenaches can be very like old amontillado sherries, lightly structured but packing power with long nutty, prune and raisin flavours which linger and fill your mouth. Others, especially the sweeter Muscats, are caramel, toffee and raisin in aroma and flavour and the wine clings to the glass with its viscosity. They are an utter delight and a special treat to savour slowly. Going from barrel to barrel in the two rooms where they lie there is an enormous range of wines, somehow Jeff keeps a record of them all in his head. As you taste them you are enjoying the results of decades of grapes from the lovingly tended vineyards, the work of generations of the family. This is tasting history.

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I love these wines, their complexity, aromas and flavours are captivating, making you smile, savour, sniff, speculate and sigh with pleasure. It is impossible to taste and to drink them without reflecting on the story of the wine and the people who made them. A sense of the past reinforced by the surroundings. The solera cellar contains all sorts of artefacts, equipment used in the vines and the cellars over the years as you can see above. It is a museum to great wines and to great people representing the history of the village and region too. The wines are that history in the glass, rich and rewarding.

 


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Vendanges Diary #7 – London Cab

Version française

This was the final big week of harvest and it centred around Cabernet Sauvignon. There is a big parcel (around 1.5ha) of the grape in Segrairals and it is not a variety which really excites Jeff for a Mas Coutelou wine. It has done especially well in 2015 though the small berries have swollen with the rains and the alcohol levels had therefore fallen a little to around 14%. They taste sweet and juicy and came in fantastic bunches, not the same size as the Cinsault and Mourvèdre from this vineyard, but small and healthy nonetheless.

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Cabernet Sauvignon on the vine in Segrairals

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                              Cabernet Sauvignon

Part of it was picked on Monday 21st September which will be used by Jeff, purpose as yet unknown though Cameron may be flexing his winemaking muscles with some. The other major work on Monday was to use the Muscat d’Alexandrie grapes from Peilhan which were also in good health.

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         Muscat d’Alexandrie

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They have very thick skins so the pressing took longer than usual to extract the juice. They were mixed with some Muscat À Petits Grains grapes. I will come back to these grapes and the juice later in this article.

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      Michel loads the Muscat into the press

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               Muscat juice after pressing

Tuesday 22nd was the big day for the Cabernet Sauvignon. I have explained before that Jeff sells most of these grapes to London Cru, an English winery as the name suggests. London Cru buy grapes from around Europe, eg Chardonnay from Limoux, Albarino from Rias Baxas, Grenache from Spain. This is the third vintage of the project and the grapes were ready at last. In 2014 they had been ready on September 4th, my first day at Mas Coutelou after our move to the Languedoc. This year the rain had delayed them so Gavin and Alex flew into Béziers on Monday evening. They had been in Italy on Saturday and only just got back to London before flying here. The refrigerated wagon was in situ as I arrived on Tuesday morning, waiting to be loaded with the grapes.

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Confidence was high amongst the London Cru team after some very good reviews including one last week by Dr. Jamie Goode who gave the top mark (94/100) to the Cabernet Sauvignon using Jeff’s grapes. The fruit for 2015 should bring more high marks and good wine. We tasted the 2014 over lunch and it was very good, clear, direct fruit with ripe tannins which mean that the wine will be at its best in 2 to 3 years.

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                Alex and Gavin loading the grapes

Gavin, Alex and Jeff directed and led the picking carried out by the Moroccan team as usual but also by Cameron and myself together with two excellent new additions to the team in Fabrice and Romain. Fabrice puts on shows (spectacles) around France whilst Romain is an artist. They have picked here before and were good fun and hard working, more new friends. (Fabrice on the left, Romain to the right.

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After picking the 6 tonnes or so of grapes they were driven straight off to London under refrigerated conditions to keep them fresh. Gavin and Alex flew back to London that evening ready to receive them at their base. London Cab, fine fare.

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                  Fine bunch of Cab I picked

Lunch was excellent with the London Cru wine and a magnum of Flambadou 2014 which was excellent, still in its infancy but already drinking well. Afterwards Cameron and I did some pigeage of the Carignan grapes amongst others. It was also Cameron’s birthday, hopefully it was one he will remember with affection.

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Birthday boy Cameron looking for his present

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        Pigeage of the Carignan

Wednesday 23rd was a day for working the cellar. Jeff was keen to aerate the Syrah a little and to start to maximise the cuves by assembling some of the tanks and filling the new ones. Thursday saw similar work whilst Jeff also did some admin work.

On Friday 25th I returned to the cellar. Cameron was enjoying a well earned break and so I joined Jeff and Michel. They were continuing to fill the tanks, aerate some wine and then we moved to the muscats from Monday.

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                       Aerating some Syrah

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Muscats macerating with a little older Muscat wine

The Muscats are destined for the solera system and after a few days maceration they were showing lovely aromas, already slightly sherry-like due to being mixed with some older wine. The juice went straight into barrel whilst the marc was pressed again to extract more juice and flavour. Tasted straight from the press these included lovely apricot, plum fruits along with the slight oxidised note which adds complexity. Truly delicious, I’m afraid my description fails to do it justice.The barrel will allow the wine to age and gain contact with oxygen and the wine will develop into a luscious sweet wine. As stated previously I shall write more about the solera in the near future.

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Michel removes the skins for pressing

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     Michel then loads the press

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               Gateau de Muscat

There are one or two small parcels still to pick but the main harvest is now over. It began back on August 21st so lasted just over a month. I shall be reflecting upon it and the lessons I have learned from it in the next article. Meanwhile I look forward to picking the Muscat from Rome and went to the vineyard on Friday lunchtime to take some photos. I was met by a family of partridges, butterflies and birdsong – Rome really is a magical place. In La Garrigue the vines are starting to show their autumnal colours, their work is done for 2015. The vines have given everything to their fruit in the last month and the leaves which remain after harvest are looking tired after a long, hot summer. All, or nearly all, is safely gathered in. 

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La Garrigue, Friday. The grass across the centre marks the ridge with Grenache near side and Syrah far side.

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Grenache leaves showing that autumn approaches, harvest is over

Rome on a beautiful autumn day

                   Rome on a beautiful autumn day

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Luscious Muscat bunch

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Berries shriveling and concentrating the sugars

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    Jeff seems to approve of the London Cab


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Attention les Rugbymen!!

(Version française)

The Grenache you harvested and pressed has been added to large 26 litre bottles and is beginning its journey towards maturity and drinking.

Moving from bonbonnes to bottles

Moving from bonbonnes to bottles

Yesterday was a superb day to be at Mas Coutelou.

It started fairly routinely by continuing habillage, preparing bottles for sending to merchants around the world. But then Jeff took me out into the vineyards to meet up with Michel who was already out there. He was in a vineyard of young vines, including some of the almost forgotten variety Aramon Noir as well as other cépages. There is a mix of ages too with vines from this year and the last two or three years. Michel, and then Jeff, were checking each vine to check on their health and progress since they were grafted. If the graft had not taken then they will be replaced later. If everything was looking good then stakes were added to support the young vines in their growth. As it was a lovely, warm and sunny day it was good to be out in the open air.

Michel has checked that this vine is healthy and will add a wooden stake

Michel has checked that this vine is healthy and will add a wooden stake

Jeff and Icare get to work

Jeff and Icare get to work

The weather has been remarkably mild and the vineyards were full of unusual sights for mid November such as flowering roses, wild leeks and wild rocket.

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It was interesting to note the differences between two neighbouring vineyards. Jeff’s has vines living in soil which supports wildlife and olive trees for diversity. A neighbour’s vineyards show clean soils with neat rows of vines. How are they so clean? Fertilisers and chemicals. Here are obvious differences in ideas about wine and agriculture in general. Personally I am becoming ever more convinced that organic, minimal intervention is the way to healthy and tasty wines but others will disagree.

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Biodiversity

 

A regiment of vines

A regiment of vines

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

After lunch Jeff decided it was time to put into bottles the Grenache harvested in late September by the Rugbymen and ourselves. The wine had been placed in a series of bonbonnes after pressing and we tasted each one to look for the best assemblages, eg bonbonnes B and E had a sweeter edge so were mixed together in a large 26 litre bottle. The bottles were enormous and 8 were filled with the Grenache.

Michel tasting the Grenache as we agree on best assemblages

Michel tasting the Grenache as we agree on best assemblages

 

Bottles, sample bottles and emptied bonbonnes

Bottles, sample bottles and emptied bonbonnes

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As the work finished for the afternoon we were joined by Jeff’s niece Flora, a talented photographer. Jeff opened some Vieux Grenache as he checked on the progress of some new small barrels used in a new solera system to supplement the older more established one. Some bottles from 20, 30 and even 40 years ago were sampled and were truly delicious, rich with layers and layers of different flavours and varying from dry to sweet. Finally he took a sample of a very special bottle, Sélection Des Grains Nobles 2012 made with Grenache Noir. Apparently some of the Grenache was affected by noble rot that year and Jeff and Michel spent a whole day doing triage to ensure only the right grapes were selected. The result even after two years is astonishing. My mind was truly blown. How to describe something so stunning, ethereal and rewarding? One of the very best wines I have tasted and a fitting climax to a truly memorable day which was full of sunshine, teamwork and friendship.

Icare in control again

Icare in control again


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Hold the presses!

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Both of these objects are wine presses, one more modern than the other. Whilst the large press has taken the bulk of the work in recent weeks the small press has its role too. It is also an olive press incidentally. It is used mainly for small production wines and I was lucky enough to be trusted to supervise its use for the pressing of muscat and grenache grapes which will make into the fortified wines which Jeff Coutelou produces in addition to his table wines. The ‘vieux grenache’ wines are made in different methods as I shall describe in future posts including a fantastic solera type system with wines dating back many, many years to previous generations of the Coutelou family. They are, of course, delicious.

Michel unloads the grapes, he is in Jeff's words his 'main gauche' (left hand)

Michel unloads the grapes, he is in Jeff’s words his ‘main gauche’ (left hand)

 

Grenache and muscat grapes ready for pressing

Grenache and muscat grapes ready for pressing

 

 

 

 

The grapes are sorted and then loaded into the cage and wheeled into place. The press is lowered and the juice begins to flow.

Pressing

Pressing

The major lesson is to be careful about how much pressure is used as if you press too hard the mass of grapes, stalks and pips becomes too hard and the juice will not flow freely. I confess to pressing a little too hard at first but fortunately rectified it before any damage was done. The juice is taken to container for fermentation and the pressed grapes, the gateau, is disassembled and returned to press for a second and third time. The gateau becomes almost a work of art.

Gateau in the sunshine

Gateau in the sunshine

The wine begins its fermentation in the tank and after this has finished the wine is put into barrel for the first time. Depending on its development Jeff will blend this wine with previous vintages or allow it to develop in barrel for a number of years.

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Tina transfers the fermented wine into barrel

The other pressing I supervised was the Carignan Blanc. Jeff was pleased with this crop and decided that he would make a new white wine using only these grapes. The procedure was identical though I thought I’d highlight one extra feature. Many people commented after a previous post that they were disappointed I did not get my socks and shoes off and start to tread the grapes. Well I was rather shocked to see that treading does still happen! Instead of bare feet though new, perfectly clean wellington boots do the job, a light pressing (so that ruled me out!) to start the process moving even before the press gets to work.

Treading

Treading

Yours truly at the press

Yours truly at the press

The gateau was just as spectacular and you can see in the photo below the layers created by the 3 pressings.

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A serious point. Jeff was keen to point out that the Carignan Blanc grapes took 10 people 2 hours to pick. We took a whole day to press the grapes, myself and supervision from the patron with others helping to take the gateau apart and then reassemble it for the various pressings. The grapes will be fermented, pumped over, stored in barrel. So when we think twice about the price of wine think about the amount of work which has gone into it, especially for crafted, artisanal wines such as these. And after all that only 420 litres were produced, around 500 bottles or so.

On a less serious note, we now know who is the patron, let me introduce Icare, the real driving force behind Mas Coutelou.

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Icare takes the wheel