amarchinthevines

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


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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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Harvest 2019 – Magical Mystery Tour

En francais

The magical mystery tour which is the vendanges is under way. That’s an invitation to read on for the next few weeks to follow the course of what happens in Puimisson with Jeff Coutelou and the gang. Satisfaction guaranteed, I hope.

Red vineyards or squiggles indicate picking Day 1

Regular readers will be aware that nature has not been kind this year. What promised to be a great vintage in June with bountiful, beautiful fruit has been undermined by drought. It has not rained since then and so the bunches are still bountiful but they are made up of small grapes, quantities will be meagre. The ratio of juice to skins, pips and stalk is nowhere near the average meaning choices about winemaking have to be made, for example removing stalks rather than whole bunch to improve the ratio.

The 8 cases from Flower Power

We began on Friday August 30th with a morning pick to make a new cuvee. Flower Power vineyard (Font D’Oulette) was the starting point. This vineyard was planted with a rich variety of grapes, twenty or more – some rare. Clairette Musquée (originally the Hungarian Org Tokosi), Delizia Di Vaprio, Aramon Gris to name just three. Jeff has invested heavily in this parcel, for example bringing volcanic soils to add life, and the vines have looked healthier than previous years with more fruit. However, as a prime example of the ravaging effects of drought, despite more bunches on the vines, we harvested only eight cases, as opposed to seven last year.

Clairette Musquée and Aramon Gris, amongst the rare Flower Power grapes

To supplement the Flower Power, more Clairette Musquée from Peilhan and some Syrah from Segrairals at the other end of the village. The grapes were taken back to the cellar, and put into stainless steel tank with some dry ice to stop fermentation and allowing the juice to soak up some of the colour and flavours from the skins. (The wine was pressed three days later and will now ferment).

Syrah is sorted then put into the dry ice filled tank

Day two, Monday September 2nd began with the white grapes of La Garrigue; Sauvignon Blanc (low alcohol, bright acidity, very Sauvignon), Muscat d’Alexandrie, Viognier. Straight into the press, sent into stainless steel upstairs in the cellar, a fresh dry white wine in the making.

La Garrigue’s white grapes, Julien loading the press, brown pips show ripeness, the grapes are fleshy rather than juicy

Afterwards time for the Merlot of Le Colombié. Not the grape which Jeff favours particularly but year after year it produces good wine to be blended with others in cuvées such as Sauvé De La Citerne and Vin De Table.

Day 2

This year the grapes were very small, they were destemmed and into one of the original concrete tanks. I had been sorting it for 4 hours or so and the tank was less than half full, such is the paucity of juice. More was added but yields were well down.

Alain and Alan sorting Merlot, one of us has hair

The fruit is clean, dry and disease free so sorting is mainly about removal of leaves, snails and unformed grapes. The quality is excellent, the juice tastes delightful with plenty of fruit profile and acidity – just wish there was more of it. Jeff ‘joked’ feelingly that with the small tank of Merlot he might make 10 euros profit.

Beautiful Syrah from Ste. Suzanne

Day 3 and the Syrah of Sainte Suzanne (Metaierie on the map). This is the parcel which provides much of the fruit for the much loved Coutelou wine, Le Vin Des Amis. More of the same, very healthy fruit, concentrated and tasting sweet and ripe but… small berries.

Day 3

A losing argument with a boiling hot cup of tea put me out of action on Day 3 but I did manage to get some photos (of the grapes not my blisters you will be relieved to know).

There will be twists and turns ahead in the next few weeks, sadly there is no forecast of any rain to help us. Let us see where the mystery tour takes us.

Jeff checking alcohol levels or trying to find a big grape


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Almost there

En francais

Grenache Noir in Rome

Vendanges will begin on September 2nd, hopefully. A tour of the vineyards on August 19th brought me up to speed with their progress. Mostly it is good news with a little bit of not so good news, take your pick. Let’s start with the negatives which are outweighed by the positives I promise.

Look at how dry the vegetation is in the background and in the Carignan to the left

This has been another year of drought in the region. Sceptics of climate change, if they remain, need to meet up with life in southern France. From 45c temperatures to lack of rainfall agriculturalists such as vignerons have had to cope for the present and plan for the future. Bordeaux is permitting new grape varieties into their blends as these grapes will cope better with higher temperatures (incidentally Castets is one of those grapes, one which we know from Jeff Coutelou’s vines). Many producers here in the Languedoc are using irrigation, no longer frowned upon by authorities. Others, like Jeff refuse to do so believing that irrigation is not natural and disguises the true taste of a vintage and the terroir.

Small Syrah grapes in La Garrigue

The consequence for the vines this year is that whilst the berries are healthy they are smaller than usual, lacking in juice. Unless we get some rain before harvest quantities will be much reduced, the wine may be very concentrated. In such drought conditions vines even start to take back water from the berries so as to survive for the future. After several years of problems from frost, hail, mildew and drought it would have been a relief for many producers to have a bountiful yield, it looks unlikely.

Green berries in the Carignan, millerandage

The other main negatives will also mean lower yields this year, millerandage and coulure. The photo above shows a lot of green berries in the Carignan bunches amongst the black grapes. This is the result of problems in Spring when a cooler, windy spell damaged the flowers and fruit set. This means some bunches don’t grow at all or have many berries missing, coulure. Sometimes the berries mature at different rates or not at all, millerandage. There will need to be careful sorting in the vineyard and cellar when harvest is under way.

Millerandage in Piquepoul Gris to the left, coulure in June on the right

However, there are plenty of positives, let’s not get too gloomy. The bunches are healthy and plentiful for one. From Grenache in La Garrigue to Cinsault in Rome I tasted some sweet and flavoursome grapes. They are still acidic and need time but the fruit flavour is developing well, the pips starting to turn brown, a sign of maturity.

Seeing the many varieties of grapes in the Coutelou range was also rewarding, the Riveyrenc Noir, Piquepoul Gris, Muscat Noir in these photos (left to right) being just three of dozens. There’s even a Chasselas in Rome, the variety which is used as a benchmark for ripening. All other varieties are compared to Chasselas’ average ripening time, a clue as to when to pick.

Chasselas

Jeff has rested a few days during the local féria, a lovely party was held with some special bottles. Next up will be the cleaning of machinery and tanks, we are set fair.

PS – just after publishing this I saw a tweet from Louis Roederer in Champagne saying their harvest would be limited by … lack of rain and millerandage. Plus ca change…


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Expert eye

Version francaise

I regularly tour the Coutelou vineyards, looking at the changes and growth, relishing the tranquillity and connection with nature, the vines, flora and fauna. Nonetheless, far more interesting is to tour with Jeff himself. His expert knowledge of his land and the vines adds so much. Jeff was a teacher for many years and I always learn a great deal from him.

Living soils of Rome

We began in my favourite vineyard, Rome. This parcel, surrounded by trees, is a haven for wildlife. The tall Grenache gobelet vines are 40 years old and more and Jeff explained how the soil in Rome is around 30-40cm deep, made up mostly of forest residue, for example rotted leaves. The soil is a rich humous and full of life. Lifting a clump revealed fungal threads, insects (look for the black bodies) and worms.

Syrah with its large leaves and bunches forming

On to Sainte Suzanne and its Syrah and Grenache, so much a part of le Vin Des Amis, a famous part of the Coutelou range. Flowering completed in the main, the Syrah more forward than other varieties as is usual. The bunches resemble peas. Huge leaves such as this Syrah and Muscat in Peilhan show how Mediterranean varieties protect their grapes from the fierce sun because of their size and thick, quilted texture.

Flowering on the right whilst Jeff indicates coulure

Disappointingly there was also evidence of coulure, here and in La Garrigue especially with Grenache, which flowers later. Flowering has lasted longer this year, making them more susceptible to coulure.

This happens when wind or rain damages the flowers and the fruit cannot set on the vine. A shower of unformed grapes fell into Jeff’s hand as he ran it across a bunch. The consequence is that the harvest will be good but not as big as hoped for, especially after last year’s mildew hit year.

Oidium on bunch

That disease was downy mildew, this year the greater threat is powdery mildew or oidium. As we toured the Carignan vineyard, Rec D’Oulette, Jeff immediately spotted the signs, I would likely not have seen it. Oidium usually attacks the leaf and stem, leaving a white, powdery residue. Here the oidium had attacked the bunch directly, leaving a grey tinge to the green pea-like grape. Encouraged by the alternation between hot days and cold nights which we have had recently oidium needs to be treated. Jeff uses sulphur mixed with clay which helps the sulphur to stick to the plant. So far the damage is limited and the weather has heated up which might help to dry out the disease. Certainly there was evidence of that, the black spots on these stems and leaves is evidence of that, see the photo below.

Another pest was seen too. This white, cottony substance on my hand is the cocoon of ver de la grappe, a moth which will lay eggs in the grapes and the larvae pierce the skins causing bacterial spoilage. Insecticides would be the conventional response but not for organic vignerons. Natural predators such as bats are the solution, one reason why Jeff has bat houses in the trees around the vines.

More trees have been planted, Nathan and Julien were tending the border of Peilhan vineyard where fruit trees such as this pear are beginning to grow and become established. In the vines things looked good, such as this Carignan Blanc, Piquepoul Gris and Muscat in Peilhan and the Mourvèdre in Segrairals.

A 3 hour tour revealed so much about the state of the vines this year. Things are set for a good quality harvest, though it is still early days. Coulure means that it will not be a bumper crop, oidium that there is much work to be done to tend the vines which Jeff nurtures so carefully.

Healthy vines

New plantings such as that next to Sainte Suzanne of Clairette and Maccabeu are signs of a healthy future too.

Plantation, Clairette right, Maccabeu left

No matter what some British politicians would tell you it is always good to listen to experts and this was no exception. The strapline of my blog says “learning about wines, vines and vignerons”, this was a morning which certainly helped me to achieve that goal thanks to Jeff and his expert eye.


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Buzzy Bs – Real Wine Fair #2

B

So many good wines at Real Wine Fair, I include a selection of wines worthy of anybody’s attention and money. How to order them for this blog was the difficult choice.

The buzzy, busy Bs? Binner, Bain, Ballorin were amongst more established natural producers whose wines showed up very well.

 

Gilles Ballorin is based in Morey St. Denis in the heart of the Côte De Nuits. I liked the freshness of his wines, plenty of characterful fruit flavours, supported by a cleansing finish of acidity in the Marsannay wines but especially the lovely Fixin “Les Chenevières”. Fixin was the first Burgundy village I visited, it has happy memories and this wine lived up to all hopes.

 

Christian Binner is based in Ammerschwihr in Alsace. Yet another village which was the centre for my early visits to that region. I have been trying Christian’s wines for many years and, to my taste, they get better and better. The whole range was excellent, a lovely rosé (Si Rose) made from Pinot Gris, the beautifully named Amour Schwihr, but above all, the tremendous Rieslings, the 2016 Grand Cru Schlossburg being as fine an example of place and grape as you could ever taste. Lovely guy, and give a listen to his fun interview on the Bring Your Own podcast.

Alexandre Bain from Pouilly in the Loire is another firm favourite. His Pouilly Fumé wines are brilliant proof of how Sauvignon Blanc is a noble grape. It is mad that the authorities there make life difficult for him to get the Pouilly Fumé label because he doesn’t meet strict guidelines. The wines are superior to virtually anything else in the area. 2017 Terre d’Obus from young vines gives a real taste of the region, sharp, flinty (yes I use that word deliberately). The Pierre Précieuse 17 from older vines has more concentration and elegance whilst keeping the freshness, precious indeed. Mademoiselle M 2015 has a hint of sweetness even, very ripe, very fruity and just lovely.

Bain

Sometimes the wine world rushes to the new and more established figures such as Christian and Alexandre can be overlooked. Do not make that mistake. These men are making wines with love and precision based on experience. Buy, buy, buy.

Other Bs were new to me but well worth sharing with you.

Social media and a mutual friend in the Languedoc, Guillaume Deschamps, meant that I have got to ‘know’ Emma Bentley without ever meeting her. It was a pleasure to finally do so along with her partner Alessandro. He now manages La Biancara after the retirement of his father Angiolino Maule, running it with his 3 brothers. The range of wines was excellent including the main Masieri white and red wines. The Garganega grape is to the fore in the whites, showing its quality in the 2017 Sassaia and Pico Bianco, the latter with oak age. Both fresh, fruity and lingering. Star of the show for me though was So San 2016, made from Tocai Rosso grapes, the local name for Grenache. Aged in barrel for 15 months this was a big wine with lovely fruit up front backed by ripe tannins which will surely allow the wine to age for many years. It was perfectly balanced, a terrific wine from one of my favourite grapes.

Gareth Belton (it begins with a B!!) and his wife Rainbo make Gentle Folk wines in the Adelaide Hills and I wrote about them last year after visiting with my friend James Madden of Little Things winery. Indeed, it was exciting to taste some of the wines because they were the very 2018s which I saw being made during my visit as harvest came to an end there. There is a terrific range of juicy, fruity and complex wines from classic Riesling (Clouds) to fresh Sauvignon Blanc (Schist), smashable rosé (Blossoms) and serious reds. Tiersman Syrah 18 from bought in fruit was one of my favourite wines tasted all weekend. Round, characterful, Rhone like rather than typical Aussie Shiraz. Lovely wine. Favourite of all though was the 2018 Village Pinot Noir with classic Pinot flavours, lovely freshness and deceivingly complex for such a joyful wine.

Bencze Birtok wines come from Hungary and left me eager to try more wines from there. Clean, fresh whites such as Riesling 17 (the 18 was even better), Kek 17 made from Bokator grapes. A lovely amphora raised wine called Keknyelu 18 with fresh stone fruit flavours. Round, enjoyable and lingering Pinot Noir 18, even better Pinot Atlas 18 from higher vineyards with more complexity, drier and purer. Best of all 2018 Rozsako (a local grape), an amber or orange wine with full, round apricot and stone fruit flavours. One of the best orange/amber wines I have tasted. This was a real discovery for me, great wines from a lovely couple.

Finally, Serbia (there’s a stressed b in the middle!). I had never tasted wines from there before but I am glad that was rectified at RWF. Oszkar Maurer is a 4th generation winemaker and I really took to his wines, highlighting 3 which was just about the highest number of any range at the Fair. The 2017 Furmint was cracking, balancing generous fruit with clean acidity, one of the best white wines of the tasting. Kadarka is one of the local grapes which Maurer specialises in tending and it provided 3 excellent wines. The oldest vines are 138 years in age, and the Kadorka 1880 was structured, fruity and generous. However, perversely enough the other two Kadarka wines were my favourites on this occasion. the 2017 Kadarka was fresh, fruity, round and just very drinkable, really good. Even better was 2017 Kadarka Nagy Krisztus, giving strawberry aromas and more fruit. There was a hint of medicinal tonic in there, it makes no sense but it’s true, which highlighted the fruit profile and added to a very successful wine.

So many great wines, believe me.

 


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After the 2017s, the Coutelou 2018s

 

IMG_1363

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.

P1040469

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.