Tuesday September 13th, the return of picking, with a little urgency in light of the weather forecast for heavy storms that night. The objective was to collect the Syrah from La Garrigue, the grapes which go into La Vigne Haute, my personal «cuvée mythique» of Mas Coutelou.
The grapes started a little messy requiring some careful triage both in the vineyard and cellar.
Syrah moving fast, the juice is in the glass
However, the quality improved after the first few cases which had been picked in a lower part of the vineyard. Certainly by the end of the day we had sorted a good quantity and quality of fruit, my shirt can certainly testify to their juiciness.
That night came the predicted thunderstorm, violent though not as long lasting as perhaps expected. I saw that some parts of the region saw over 200mm of rain, fortunately Puimisson did not reach those levels. However, there was enough to stop picking for the next few days. As I said last time wet grapes are not ideal. In addition the soft ground in the vineyards would be churned up by feet and wheels.
James working hard as usual
In a way the storm came at a good time on a personal level. I developed a mild case of bronchitis out of the blue on Tuesday which would have prevented me from working on Wednesday and Thursday. So, I have left cellar work to the experts whilst I recharge my batteries for Saturday when we may get to the Grenache in La Garrigue which looks bountiful and ripe.
Grenache in La Garrigue Sept. 10th
Meanwhile analysis of the grapes continues. There was the result of Ecocert’s evaluation showing that Mas Coutelou successfully retains its organic certification and also their analysis proving that no sulphites were or are added in the wines. And then there is the daily analysis from the oenologue which shows information such as alcohol levels, total acidity, pH levels, residual sugar etc. These help Jeff to think about how to look after the wines and which ones might blend together successfully in future.
The weather is now set fair until we finish; Grenache, Carignan, Mourvèdre, Cabernet Sauvignon should arrive in good conditions with a light north wind and under blue skies.
The Languedoc Roussillon region was struck by huge storms on November 28th. Lightning and thunder which lasted almost a whole day, torrential rain all day (over 210mm at Bédarieux), hail for half an hour, winds well over 100kph. Even local people were surprised by the storm. There are some scary pictures on Midi Libre.
Outside our door in Margon
Puimisson, the stream in the background reached the height of the tree branches
Jeff pointing to debris from the stream in the tree branches
A walk around Margon, our home village, 3 days later showed that many vineyards had been damaged. At this time of the year the vines themselves are not so vulnerable of course, there are no grapes left on there. However, the soils themselves were damaged in many places by erosion.
2. Water standing in the vines
1. Clay (argile) run off on the road
Much of our area has clay soils which are not the easiest to drain. However, many modern agricultural practices exacerbate this problem. Using heavy machinery such as tractors, harvesting machines and large sprayers means that the soils become compacted and, therefore, even more impermeable (photo 2). Inappropriate use of herbicides and weed killers to get rid of grass and other plants means that the soil has nothing to bind it together and, consequently, heavy rain will cause erosion as we see in photo 1. Overploughing will combine both problems.
I remember when I first visited French vineyards 30 years ago that most were like this. Times have changed though and more artisanal, more environmentally aware viticulturists have realised that the soil has to be treated with respect. In a previous post I mentioned that the soil experts Claude and Anne Bourguignon gave a talk recently which I attended. They explained that the soil is what gives a crucial 6% of the vine’s needs which can make all the difference in terms of flavour and quality. Vine roots need to reach down into the soil to extract the water and minerals which they require to grow and to fruit. They confirmed that the best practice is what many winemakers have been doing in recent years. Allowing grass and other plants to grow amongst the vines brings many benefits:
binding the soil, making it stronger and less prone to erosion
stronger soil makes it easier to withstand machinery
competition for nutrients drives the vine roots deeper where more of the species which benefit the plants live
retaining moisture in summer which can also be used by the vines
providing shelter to other wildlife which eat the insects that damage vines and grapes
Covered vineyard with no sign of erosion
Ruts developing between vines
The photos above show how two parcels of vines just metres apart responded to the storms. The difference is obvious.
Vines with shallow roots do not access the deeper minerals and ecosystem. The roots also overheat being nearer to the surface and this can mean that they shut down some of their work and grapes will not ripen so well or evenly.
Yet there are vignerons in the area who have installed or are installing irrigation. This can only compound the problem in a region where there are occasional droughts but not on the scale of Australia for example.
Jeff Coutelou reported to me that there had been no erosion in his vines unlike those of some of his neighbours, the reason may be seen in the photos below.
A stark contrast between the Mas Coutelou vineyard and that of his neighbour
Irrigation pipes run along the vines. Look closely at the channel which has been cut into the soil by the rain.
Water flowing off vineyards which have had the grass removed
The run off from the vines has caused a new stream and channels
Meanwhile Jeff’s vines have drained and there is no damage to soil below
Vine roots washed into the new stream next to the neighbours’ land
Biodiversity – analysis showed over 30 types of grass in one square metre of Jeff’s vineyard.
One sad casualty of the storms was the tree with a bat shelter installed by Jeff. Bats are good friend to vines as they eat many insects which might damage them or their grapes. Encouraging them and other friendly wildife, such as wagtails and hoopoes, helps to keep the grapes in good health. Unfortunately the tree, which was dead, was uprooted and so a new bat home will be established soon.
And finally how to control that grass and plant life? Ploughing or working the soil is needed at times but there are some novel alternatives. At Mas Gabriel a local farmer brings his sheep into the vineyard at this time of year. And then, as I was driving to Cabrieres the other day I came across this.