amarchinthevines

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


Leave a comment

The Boys Are Back In Town

36246566_10156443916303194_4661193784325832704_n

En francais

A morning in the cellars, a good chance to catch up with not just Jeff but Michel and Julien who I hadn’t seen since last October. The gathering was to do the assemblage of L’Oublié the cuvée made up not just of different grape varieties but different vintages of those grapes. Old Carignan and Grenache from ‘forgotten’ barrels includes years such as 2001, 2007 and 2010. Added to these are younger wines such as Syrah from 2014 and 2015, Copains 2013 and some 2017 Grenache amongst others. There is even some of the grapes often used to make La Vigne Haute, my favourite wine of all.

img_0022

As always with work in the Coutelou cellar the priority is cleanliness, the safeguard which ensures that no added sulphites are added to the wines. Everything is cleaned thoroughly before use and after use, every time a piece of equipment is needed. It adds to the work load but it is vital for the wines to be pure.

The wines were then taken from the various barrels and tanks to one of the large fibre glass tanks to spend time blending and harmonising before it will be bottled at some point in the future. The resultant blend was excellent. I had coincidentally opened a bottle of the last blend of this cuvée just two days before and it was on fine form so this one has a lot to live up to. First impressions are that it will do just that, a new star is born!

P1040042

Component wines to make L’Oublié

Then more moving around of different wines to free up some of the tanks which will be needed for the 2018 vintage. Checks were made on all the wines in the cellar including the new amphorae. This is the second wine to be matured in them, the first having been bottled already. I tasted some of that first amphora wine and it was very impressive, a real stand out. Jeff kindly gave the three of us a jereboam of that first wine and it will be a very special occasion when it is opened. Offers for an invitation are welcome!

After the final clean up and a couple more tastings the morning’s work was completed, yes work – honestly. The team was back together, the wines are together. All is well.

P1040021


4 Comments

On higher ground

20180623_142310

En francais

The last article described the ongoing problems in the Languedoc with mildew spoiling vines and grapes. Last Saturday Jeff  invited me over to try and beat the blues a little. Steve from Besançon was staying with Jeff for a week to learn a bit more about being a vigneron. They had opened a bottle of La Vigne Haute 2013 on the previous evening and Jeff invited me over to try the last glass from the bottle.

When I arrived on the Saturday morning Jeff was spraying the Flower Power vineyard, Font D’Oulette. When he had finished we returned to his house and I had the remaining 2013, delicious it was too, still youthful but starting to add tertiary notes to the fruit. Jeff decided to open the 2010 to show how age helps La Vigne Haute to reveal its quality and depth; fruit, spice and leathery complexity. A bottle demonstrating perfectly why La Vigne Haute is my favourite wine of all. However, that was not the end. From his personal cellar emerged a 2001 LVH with no label. Still vibrant with fruit singing and yet more complexity of spice, classic black pepper notes. Simply excellent.

20180623_144031

So, was that the end? Not at all.  More Syrah from older vintages, 1998, 1997 and 1993. Each was still alive with black fruit and those spicy notes. The 91 was Jeff’s first solo bottling, a real privilege to taste it. He had added, all those years ago, a total of 5mg of SO2, pretty much absorbed now, and would certainly qualify as natural wine from a time when it was virtually unknown. A treasure trove of history as well as further proof of how well these wines do mature, there were no off notes at all.  Indeed, they were delicious.

A 1999 Cabernet Sauvignon showed the quality of that grape from the region and how well it aged. There were still currant flavours, violets and more spice. A fresh acidity cleansed the palate. I hadn’t known what to expect, I was bowled over.

20180623_164742

Legendary Roberta

And to finish the 5 hour lunch a bottle of Roberta, the 2003 white wine made from all three Grenache grapes, one of Jeff’s first no added sulphite wines, aged in a special barrel which gives the wine its name. It is a treat I have tasted on a handful of special occasions, its nutty, round fruit was a perfect ending to a special day. Whatever 2018 brings this was a reminder of the special Coutelou wines.

20180623_144014


6 Comments

The RAW and the cooked

7F92AC5B-92F8-4B77-8B2E-670AB323011E

Version française

French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss proposed that cultural commonalities and differences and similarities are based on everyday opposites such as raw and cooked. I was reminded of that in attending the annual RAW Fair in London March 12th and 13th. It too served up some opposite emotions, to mix my metaphors a game of two halves.

RAW was formed by Isabelle Legeron whose book “Natural Wine” would be the best starting point for anyone who wants to find out about low intervention wines. On its website it describes itself thus: “RAW WINE (rɔː) – adj in a natural state; not treated by manufacturing or other processes.”

There begins my reflection of opposites after attending. Yes there were many wines there which were not treated by manufacturing or other processes but there were also many which, to my mind, are about wines being manipulated by various techniques and by additives, as up to 70 mg per litre of added sulfites are allowed for RAW. Are these natural wines? As there is no actual binding definition then I suppose they are but I doubt that some of the wines at the Fair are truly in the spirit of natural wine. During the posts which I will write about the event, the most important Fair in the UK based on natural wines, I shall be writing about different categories based on the amount of SO2 used.

20170313_115805

No added sulfites for Italian producer Azienda Vitivinicola Selve

The game of two halves? Well, that refers to the two days. Sunday was open to the public as well as press and trade and it was very, very busy. Crowds around the tasting tables, wines running out, no seats for eating, very warm conditions do not make sense of for an optimal tasting experience. Plans for the day (to taste everything bar France, Italy and Spain) were put aside as it was more a case of find a table where it was not necessary to barge through to the wine. The effect was that I was probably too harsh in judging the wines that day, my mood was affected. Monday was much more like it, more opportunity to access the tables, talk to the producers and, it was when I tasted my favourite wines of the weekend.

Other opposites?

  • Amphorae. It is THE most trendy winemaking technique, ferment and age your grapes in clay amphorae, usually 800l or bigger. I have tasted and enjoyed quite a few amphorae wines but generally I am not partial to the drying effect they have on wines (in my opinion). They do seem to give a sense of licking the clay container before drinking the wine ( a description given to me by my friend David Crossley). Winemakers do add a manufacturing process to their wine and quite rightly experiment to make the wines they want, but I don’t necessarily always enjoy the results. I prefer my wine truly raw rather than cooked earth.
  • Young and old. The natural wine movement is growing. Producers from all around the world, traditional producers experimenting with lesser amounts of sulfites (it was interesting to see a big name from Burgundy  at RAW) and most of all amongst younger wine drinkers. It seems to be true that younger wine drinkers, perhaps less weighed down by conventional expectations of what makes good wine, are attracted to natural wines. Those who predicted its demise are being defied by this growing band of supporters. I heard accents and languages from all around the world, long may it continue. And, meanwhile, older wine enthusiasts like myself can appreciate the energy and life in the wines and the people linked to them.
B1B8BD1D-14D2-4C67-8785-D9EDDD7700AE

One older drinker enjoying his wine

  • Faults. Critics of natural wines most often levy accusations of faulty winemaking. I tasted several hundred wines during RAW and I found faults in less than a dozen, mainly mousiness and two corked wines. Some are a little volatile and acidic but personally I enjoy such wines if the volatility is not completely out of control. The winemakers should be praised for their skill, the % of faulty wines was certainly a lot less than the % of dull wines I taste at many conventional wine tastings.

The two days were very enjoyable overall despite the crowding on day one. I was able to get round most tables and to taste some excellent wine. The next posts will describe some of those and some conclusions I drew from the event. The RAW website has excellent profiles of the producers and the wines on show, I will provide links to this site whenever I can. Let me start with my favourite range of the weekend which epitomises the feeling of opposites I had after RAW.

The Scholium Project (California) RAW link

Abe Schoener is a winemaker who pushes the boundaries, restless in trying to improve his wines. The wines are superb, very drinkable yet with great complexity. They made me smile, gave me great pleasure but also made me think. By accident as much as design it was found that by not topping up the barrels and not using pigeage the juice protected itself, the cap of skins helping rather than hindering. Indeed the Chardonnay, Michael Faraday 2014, developed a flor like sherry does. The result was pure juice, no hint of off notes either in aroma or taste. I liked all four wines on show, but especially the 26 day skin contact, no SO2 added Sauvignon Blanc, The Prince In His Caves 2015, and the Petite Sirah, Babylon 2013, which spent 3 years in barrels, again not topped up. I would normally be put off wines aged for so long in wood, I am not a great fan of too much skin contact yet here the wines were full of life and energy. Truly outstanding wines.

See what I mean about contradictions and opposites! RAW played with my expectations and prejudices.

Next time: the sulfite free wines which pleased me.

 

 


8 Comments

Is it natural?

facebook_1477124843243

Autumn is the time of  the Foire Aux Vins in France, supermarkets and other large stores discounting their wines. One advert stood out and that was Carrefour’s, offering 10 wines which they called «Nature». Interesting to see that they feel there is a demand for such wines (something UK supermarkets clearly don’t see) and that natural wines have a market. However, on closer examination it turned out that the ten wines on offer were «Nature» only in the sense that they were «sans sulfites ajoutés» (no added SO2). Only three of the ten were produced organically, so are they truly natural wines?

There are, of course, some pedantics (including one well known British wine writer on Twitter on Nov 7th) who would argue that no wine is natural, that it does not make itself. The word natural has indeed become something of a millstone around the bottle neck. So, what do we understand by the term?

rage

One definition which carries some weight is that of Doug Wregg, a director of the UK’s biggest natural wine importer Les Caves De Pyrene:
1. Vineyards farmed organically or biodynamically (with or without certification)
2. Hand-harvested fruit
3. Fermentation with indigenous yeasts
4. No enzymes
5. No additives (like acid, tannin, colouring) other than SO2, used in moderation if at all
6. Light or no filtration
7. Preferably no fining
8. Preferably no new oak

The RAW Wine Fair of Isabelle Legeron adds two other qualifications, a limit of 70mg/l of added sulphites and “no heavy manipulation” such as micro oxygenation or flash pasteurisation.                                                                                                                  (see more here)

I think those definitions hit the main points though perhaps are a little too broad themselves, points 6-8 are especially vague and Legeron’s 70mg/l seems very high. They would, however, exclude the Carrefour wines which have seen flash pasteurisation.

At Mas Coutelou Jeff adds nothing to the wines, does not filter or fine and the only oak used is from old barrels. There are NO added sulphites. Is he an extremist? Are his wines unclean or unstable? The answer to both is no.  They are sent in bottle around the world, to Japan, Australia and all parts of Europe. And then there is the USA.

The Americans have much tighter rules and restrictions for their certification. Wines which are classed as organic have to be recognised as such by regulating bodies such as Ecocert. In addition, in the USA, organic wines must be sulphite free. Wines which have sulphites added can be described as grown with organic grapes but not organic. (see more here)

Jeff’s wines can be classified as organic in the USA, the back labels from two cuvées are shown here. In effect they are being identified as natural wines by the USA. This is not a costly process, Jeff’s importer, Camille Riviėre, pays a fee of around $250 to be able to use the title “organic wine”.

Other people have started to campaign for certification of natural wines to help consumers make informed choices of just how “natural” are the wines they drink. Writers such as Antonin Iommi-Amunategui have set out the arguments for such certification however many are still reluctant to head down that route. Some, for example, fear that rules and regulations fly in the face of the outsider role and rebellious reputation of natural producers.

antonin

Antonin with his manifesto for natural wine including regulation

In my opinion perhaps the time has come for certification. Consumers should be able to buy with confidence. Look at this article from the newspaper “Liberation” describing some of the many processes and additives which can legitimately be put into wines.

vins-chimiques

Should the consumer not be more protected? I do understand the desire of winemakers to be left free to make wine in the manner they choose but standards need to be established.

100-organic-wine-usa

The US Department of Agriculture shows the way, natural wine must be organic and then interfered with as little as possible. The SO2 regulation there deters some producers from organics as they feel it is not worth their while to be organic at all if they intend to add sulphites thus preventing their wines from being classed as organic. Some, like Jeff, might insist upon that restriction, others would be more liberal. In addition, Wregg’s list forms the basis for rules, if tightened up a little.

Natural wine is often completely dismissed by some on the experience of one or two bottles not being correct, a level of criticism not applied to more conventional wines. Not all natural wines are good, I personally like some more than others. In my view, it does need to be clear about what it is and that certain standards are being met, otherwise it risks being an easy target for many, however unfairly. And wines which are not natural (as most would understand the term) will continue to be sold as the same as those of Jeff, Barral, Texier, Foillard and many others.

Further reading

Le Figaro

Vincent Pousson

 

 


3 Comments

What happens after harvest?

IMG_2956

The immediate period after harvest could easily be perceived as a time to relax a little. The hard work of picking, transporting, sorting, crushing and pressing grapes is done. The remontages, délestages, pigeages are memories. The wines quietly ferment in cuve, gently moving to their magical transformation into wine.

IMG_2582

Cuves now containing wines such as Syrah and Flambadou

Sadly, that is not the case. The work continues apace, there is no time to relax just yet. The wines are in a delicate stage, fermentation is a violent chemical reaction and lots could go wrong. Therefore, they are checked frequently and analyses are sent away to ensure that everything is proceeding as it should. This is the top of the sheet which comes back from the analysis laboratory.

analyses 2

For each sample you receive information about the amount of residual sugar, alcohol, volatile acidity, the pH of the wine and the amount of Sulphur Dioxide (SO2) in total and free in the wine. SO2 is the controversial additive which most winemakers add to their wines to stabilise it and to provide elements of prevention against oxidation. Natural winemakers, such as Jeff Coutelou, are against using SO2 as they want wines as natural as they can be without additions.

SO2 is a natural product of grapes and winemaking so there will always be a small amount of SO2 in any wine. It combines with the chemicals of wine and so most is absorbed (bound). The rest which is free is what conventional producers use as an anti-oxidative and anti-bacterial agent in the wine. They might add sulphur at various points of the winemaking process but most likely at crushing, fermentation and bottling.

EU regulations limit the amount of sulphur as you can see in the table below. Red wines produce their own natural anti-oxidants so less SO2 is allowed. Sweet wines contain more sugar which binds SO2 so more is added so that free SO2 can work. Levels of permitted SO2 rise according to the type of sweet wine. The figures are all mg per litre.

Organic regulators allow less SO2 to be used as you can see, indeed some organic bodies such as Demeter have even more strict limits than those below.

Natural wine guidelines are exactly that, guidelines. There are no official rules for natural producers as there are no rules for any aspect of natural wines. The figures in the table are those suggested by AVN one of the groups which some producers have established.

Type of wine

EU

Organic rules (Demeter)

Natural guidelines

Red

160

100 (70)

30

White, rosé

210

150 (90)

40

Sweet

200+

170+ (80+)

40

Some natural wine makers have gone further and eschew any use of added SO2. Jeff is one of those producers.

analyses3

I have chosen not to identify the figures for the analyses of particular wines he received on October 15th from which the heading is shown above, as they are not mine to share. I can say that the highest SO2 figure is 10mg/l and that is for one cuve only. Fifteen of the nineteen wines analysed contained 3 mg/l or less. In other words every cuve has negligible levels of free SO2, humans cannot taste it at less than 11mg/l in water let alone wine. No sulphites are added. Mas Coutelou wines are natural wines but also very healthy wines. The analyses showed they are all 13.5% to 15% in alcohol and volatile acidity is well under the guidelines, one or two cuves were a little elevated but that is normal during fermentation.

IMG_2132

Cement tanks including one which contains Flower Power

So the wines are progressing well, it looks like a very good vintage. They have been put into the cuves appropriate for them to spend the winter. Jeff produces a plan to show where they all are.

illegible cave plan

On the left is a spreadsheet showing each cuve, how much wine is in it, when it was harvested, when it was moved, when assembled with other wines, date of sous-tirage, the wine and grapes, and quantities for red, rosé and white. I have made it a little hazy so as not to spoil the surprises which the patron will unleash in the next few months.

headings2

To the right is a map of the cellar showing where the wines are.

Jeff has also been receiving plenty of phone calls. It is now several months since wines left Puimisson to head to cavistes and merchants in France, Europe, the USA, Asia and Australia. Now stocks are low there is a demand for wines to be sent to them. Therefore, the 2014s which were bottles earlier this year are now being furnished with their labels and capsules and then packaged into boxes. Different regions, eg the EU, UK and USA, all have different requirements even for this packaging so even this job is not as simple as it may seem. For more on the process and a video I took last year see here.

IMG_2957

IMG_2958

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

IMG_2960

Thursday October 22nd was a day for preparing magnums and for some markets these are sealed with wax. Appropriately Flambadou, named after a barbecue implement, was therefore held over the flames of the gas burner which heated the wax.

IMG_2961

IMG_2964

                Jeff and Michel, waxing lyrical

On Friday Jeff was due to head north on the long drive to Nancy and a wine salon. We are entering the season for these events and that means more journeys, more selling and more work. The vendanges may be over, the work certainly is not.

Well for almost everyone.

IMG_2966


13 Comments

Clos Fantine – I Dreamed A Dream

IMG_1587

Version française

I have visited hundreds of vineyards over the years but very few have stirred the same excitement and admiration as those of Clos Fantine, run by the Andrieu family of Corine, Carole and Olivier. With a helping hand from their New York importer Camille Rivière, who also imports Mas Coutelou wines, Corine asked me to visit on May 21st and I returned on June 11th.

There are around 30ha of vines around their base in La Liquière high in the Faugères hills. The soil is schist, Corine told me of 3 types, grey, blue and pink. This slaty soil makes it difficult for vines to send their roots down into the bedrock as it ends to lie horizontally, so they must seek fissures and faults for their roots to penetrate as the topsoil is meagre. This undoubtedly adds to the qualities of freshness and energy which mark so many of the best Faugères wines and certainly those of Clos Fantine. Corine explained that they do not try to fight this natural acidity but rather they work with nature, a philosophy which is fundamental to every aspect of the domaine. Nature rules, the Andrieus guide it perhaps.

IMG_1577

Schist soils

The three siblings took over the running of Clos Fantine from their father in 1997 and continued to work conventionally until 2000 when they began to use the natural yeasts of their terroir and then, in 2004, more confident of their vineyards and of themselves and of their ideas and beliefs, they stopped adding sulphites. This was no trendy whim on their part, they were certainly not riding a natural wine bandwagon. Corine is a qualified oenologue who reads widely around viticulture and agronomy. She used, and still uses, her scientific background to guide her winemaking as well as the philosophy about nature which she shares with her family. As she said to me, “You have 3 core tenets; the use of science, faith in what you are doing and the art in creating the wine.”

As we drove around the vineyards with their stunning setting there was a true feeling of well being. We met Olivier who was hard at work in one parcel strimming grass between the vines. The Andrieus do not plough the soil as they feel that this upsets the balance of it, and that the hot Languedoc sunshine and strong winds would dry the soil out too much if ploughed, leading to erosion of the already thin topsoils. Sunshine is not a problem in the region, water is and by not ploughing the family also help to preserve the water in the soil. Grass, flowers and other plants grow naturally and when the grass is fully grown and starts to seed they strim it to add organic matter to the soils and seed for the following year.

IMG_1579

Olivier strimming the grass

The grass also provides shelter for insects and spiders which in turn will help the vines by attacking grape parasites such as ver de la grappe. These are real living vineyards, illustrated by the discovery of two separate partridge nests, both filled with eggs, at the base of vines in that one parcel.

wpid-20150521094234_20150525233550198.jpg

Partridge eggs in their nest below one of the vines

Corine talked about how they see the land as between 3 stages, farm/grassland, garrigue and forest. They are seeking to keep their vines on the edge between the first two stages so that the vines are having to work a little to compete with flora and fauna without being overstressed. Meanwhile, Olivier also spoke about keeping good quality air around the vines, eg allowing the air to circulate freely around the vines to keep disease at bay and also about using the flowers and grass.

IMG_1578

The fresh air of La Liquiere

 

Disease, of course, is an issue at the domaine despite their hard work to minimise it. This is true of all vineyards. Mildew had hit when I was there in May, nothing too serious but a reminder that nature can also be cruel. Natural treatments available to them include the use of sulphur and copper which had been used for the first time in a few years. However, the vines were not in any danger, the mildew had been contained.

IMG_1588

Marcottage vine training, in fact this mother vine was attached to two offshoot vines

All the vines are gobelet, low to the ground. Corine described how they had recently bought a parcel of vines and their first action was to remove the palissage, the stakes and wires used to train the vines. The vines flopped and spread out as if relaxing, in Corine’s words, like a woman released from her corsets in Victorian times. Gobelet is the traditional method of growing vines in the Languedoc. The bushy vines have plenty of foliage to shelter the grapes from the sun but also have space to fan out allowing the air inside to stop humidity and defend against disease. The gobelets did give the impression of a vineyard which could have been from any period of the last few centuries, ageless.

IMG_1584

Gobelet vines

Corine used the word ‘energy’ a lot whilst I was there. She was referring to the soils and the vineyards. The nurturing of the soil and the vines is about channelling the energy of nature into those vines and ultimately the grapes and the wines through their management of soil and air. However, energy also describes the work of Corine, Olivier and Carole. They are relentless in their quest to improve the vineyards and the wines.

IMG_1585

Energy!

They read widely, for example Corine is an admirer of Jean Marie Pelt and his writings on plants and nature. She quotes science, history and nature readily and compares her wines to others in the region but also to wines and vineyard practices from the rest of France and internationally. Corine seeks to learn from these and we talked about viticulture in Australia and Chile, as there are little things done there which might help to improve wines, “we may never be perfect but we can try to be the best we can be.” This awareness of learning and the outside world is more widespread than it used to be in France but I have not come across that many vignerons who are so keen to learn from various sources.

IMG_1581

Corine, happy in her vines

At the start of this blog article I mentioned how happy and at ease I felt in the vineyards of Clos Fantine. The location, its touch of wildness and nature together with the philosophy of the Andrieus all rubbed off on me too.

At that point a wagon arrived to collect some palletts of wine to take to Belgium. As the domaine is up a narrow road Corine was going to have to transport the wines using the forklift down to the wagon in the village. I was actually quite pleased as it gave me the opportunity to return a few weeks later to visit the cellars and to taste the wines.

As a storm broke over La Liquière on June 11th it was a dramatic backdrop in which to return. The cellar has been designed to allow the grapes to be moved by gravity rather than pumping after being harvested by hand and gathered in small cagettes. The cement vats we tasted from were full of single variety wines busy fermenting. Corine uses no pigeage or remontage in the vats, something which was new to me, and as the weather cools down in autumn and winter the cellar doors are opened to allow the temperatures to drop and halt the fermentations naturally. These resume in spring as temperatures rise again. The result is a gentle, long and cool maceration with as little intervention as possible.

wpid-20150612111053.jpg

Doors lead over the vats meaning the grapes can be moved by gravity

And the results… Well we tasted Carignan, Syrah, Grenache, Mourvèdre from the vats and each was clear, direct, mineral and oh so fresh with fruit singing out. They were also classic in their cépage typicity, it was relatively straightforward even for me to identify each one. They were excellent as was a Terret from a barrel which contained wines from a number of vintages, in other words in a solera type system. Complex, long, mineral and the slight oxidative notes were refreshing and interesting.

We then retired to the kitchen and tasted from bottle. The Terret, Valcabrières, was a delight. Great depth of flavour with zesty refreshment and white fruits such as notes of pear. Long in the mouth it was delicious. Recently bottled it was already very good but will improve as it settles in bottle. Lanterne Rouge is Aramon and Cinsault, very much Languedoc varieties and a wine I have described on here a few times as it is a favourite with lively fruit aromas and a deceptively light first taste which grows more complex in the mouth. The Clos Fantine Tradition is mainly Carignan and Grenache and has real depth of dark fruit flavours and great complexity and a refreshing, clean finish. It is classic Languedoc red wine but with added zest and liveliness. Finally Cuvée Courtiol is made from the best grapes of the millésime. Ripe, full and delicious with length and soft tannins that will marry into the wine with age. I really love these wines and when Corine said there was no obligation for me to buy any wines when I asked if I could, I hastened to reassure her that I felt no obligation, I wanted to buy some and will certainly want to do so again!

wpid-p_20150619_102001_hdr.jpg

I learned so much in my time at Clos Fantine with the Andrieu family and I admire and respect their work, their philosophy, their passion for learning and nature and, of course, their wines. I implore you to seek out their wines and drink them.