amarchinthevines

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


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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.

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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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Wine with friends, the 2017 Coutelou wines

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One of the highlights of the last few weeks of the 2018 vendanges was tasting the wines from 2017. A group of our friends gathered to enjoy bottles kindly given by Jeff and we tasted through them, scoring them as went. I am not a great fan of wine scores but it was a simple way of tracking our preferences, we revisited scores regularly to ensure there was some context for the earlier marks.

We started with the OW of 2016, so a different vintage but yet to be released. I have tasted it regularly in recent weeks at vendanges lunches and I really like it. Many orange wines are being made but often they are based on grapes which have fairly neutral skins. OW is made from Muscat D’Alexandrie and the skins have a lot of flavour which the long maceration brings out together with the tannins. This has real character, one of my wines of the night. It must be said that for some of my friends it was too much of a shock, unused to skin contact wines they found it too different. If you like orange wines though, believe me, this is excellent.

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On to the reds. 2017 was a vintage of low yields due to the long, dry summer. However, it must be said one of the consequences is a concentration of flavour and high quality. The six wines we shared were all very good and consistent in their length and full flavour. Perhaps the most consistent of any vintage I have been involved with since I started in 2014.

Vin De Table is a supposedly simple wine. Don’t be fooled, it is very good. Assembled from wines left over from the main cuvées with quite a large portion of Merlot for good measure. It received consistently good scores from everyone, it was simply enjoyable and very drinkable, belying its simple status with good fruit, freshness and length. A bargain at the price of well under 10€ seen in many caves.

Tête À Claques was a wine originally made for London restaurants but now sold from the cellars. It is based on Le Vin Des Amis (what was left) to which was added Mourvèdre and other remaining wine. The Mourvèdre boosts the wine with some crunchy, dark fruit flavours and this was one person’s favourite wine of the night.

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The natural successor was Le Vin Des Amis. For two of the group this was their favourite wine of the evening. The 2017 version is based on Cinsault, not the norm. Blended with Syrah and Grenache the Cinsault gives a real lift of red fruit and the result is a classic VDA, a bottle which will please anyone and disappear quickly.

On to the other headlining wine of the Coutelou range, Classe. Syrah, Grenache and more Mourvèdre (there was also a pure Mourvèdre released in 2017 under the name of On Peut Pas Vraiment Dire Que). Classe usually adds a depth and silkiness compared to VDA, it lives up to its name and label. This was no exception, it really is a very good wine and one I would love to age for a year or two even though it would be hard to resist now. One person chose it as their highlight.

Flambadou has been one of the best wines of the domaine for the last few years. Pure Carignan from a vineyard with complex geology the 2017 version is up to those high standards with dark fruits, freshness and ripe tannins. It needs time to mature before it reaches its peak but this is one of my favourite wines and, from experience of this wine, I can tell this will develop into a top class wine.

My absolute favourite Coutelou wine is La Vigne Haute, the pure Syrah from La Garrigue. North facing, villefranchien rock the wine is only released as La Vigne Haute when Jeff decides it is of the required quality, just seven of the last nineteen years. This is the first time I have been involved with making LVH and I am thrilled with it. The fruit is already evident, it is complex, has dark edges as well as the fruit. The flavours are long and fresh with more ripe tannins. It is a beauty, it could be mistaken for a wine from the Rhone or Ardèche. Previous examples of this wine have shown me that it needs 5 years or more to be at it best, 2009 is excellent at present. This will be a wine to treasure for years to come. Three of us chose it as wine of the night.

Overall, my friends showed great taste in selecting La Vigne Haute as the clear leader in scoring (I hope my influence wasn’t too strong!). Classe and Le Vin Des Amis followed on a few points behind. However, all agreed as we enjoyed a wonderful half bottle of Vieux Grenache that the wines were excellent, consistently so.

Thanks to May and Martin for being such great hosts and providing lovely food to accompany the wines. And to Pat, Afshin, Denise, Matt and Jonathan for joining in and making it so enjoyable.

A special night. Jeff told me from the beginning that he makes his wines to be shared with friends and loved ones. This was a night to prove the wisdom of those words as well as the immense talent and passion of Jeff Coutelou.

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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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Vendanges 2018 – Part 3

Friday 7th and Saturday 8th

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Some serious hard work. A lot of grapes came through the cellars in these two days and we worked longer hours than usual. I can almost hear regular readers thinking, “Hang on, you said there were fewer grapes this year!” That is, sadly, still the case. Whereas in previous years all the grapes that came through in similar quantities might have been from one or two parcels this time it was grapes from several different parcels. All the grapes from those parcels. What might have taken three or four days was done in two.

White grapes from Peilhan, Cinsault from Segrairals came in thick and fast on Friday. Cinsault is a generous grape with big, floppy leaves and big, juicy grapes to match. Problematically the size of those grapes means that bunches can grow to quite a size but with large gaps between the round berries. Into those gaps rot, leaves, insects and moths find their way. Therefore it needs careful sorting, the rolling sorting table was needed. Amongst the usual leaves, grass, snails, earwigs and spiders I spotted an unwelcome visitor.

Lobesia botrana or European grape moth (ver de la grappe in French) lays its eggs inside bunches of grapes and the cocoon resembles cotton wool. They emerge as worms which eat into the grapes for nourishment, leaving a trail of juice which can attract rot. The moth’s main predators are birds and bats which is why Jeff Coutelou and others try to attract these species into their vineyards. As you can see I found one worm clinging to its Cinsault grape.  I need to add this is rare, you will not be drinking worm juice in your wine!

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So keen to bring home the Syrah and part of the van!

Saturday and more parcels. My favourite wine of Jeff’s is La Vigne Haute, the pure Syrah from La Garrigue vineyard with its north facing vines with some villefranchien soils. Jeff only makes this when the grapes are very good, seven times in the last seventeen years, this decade there are only three. I love LVH and always hoped to help to make it and last year was the first time, having tasted it in bottle (not yet released) I can promise that the wait was worth it. Surprisingly, despite the problems of 2018, the Syrah from this vineyard is in very good shape and might just make it as La Vigne Haute. A lot less sorting, healthy bunches, fingers crossed for the first star wine of this troublesome vintage.

Syrah from La Garrigue

The afternoon brought in the Grenache from La Garrigue. Sadly, this is not of the same quality as Grenache was most susceptible to and damaged by the mildew epidemic. The juice will receive a short maceration before being separated from its skins and then used for a project as yet undecided. There were some lovely bunches harvested, you can only think of what might have been. That the Grenache and Syrah from this vineyard was picked in one day tells its own story.

Lovely bunch of Grenache which Julien and Élise help to sort

Meanwhile soutirages, débourbages and pressings all take place, the cellar is a hive of activity. And of course there is the endless cleaning of everything. Analyses of the wines so far are positive and the juices taste very good, I particularly liked the Flower Power / Rome assemblage.

As I said long hours, hard work, aching back, stained hands and dirty fingernails. In between there were the usual laughs and camaraderie, bottles shared at lunchtime and after work. Despite everything the year has thrown at the Languedoc and Coutelou we know that there will be some good wines.

 

 


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Vendanges 2018 – Part 2

 

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Tuesday 4th to Thursday 6th September

After the break harvest really kicked into gear this week. One of the effects of mildew (and compounded by the hail storm later) was damage to foliage. The vine uses the foliage to ripen the grapes but also to nourish itself via photosynthesis. Damaged and desiccated leaves mean that there comes a point where the vine struggles to ripen the grapes any more and, even worse for the winemaker, things go into reverse; the vine begins to take back nutrients from the grapes in order to feed itself. This will have consequences not just this year but into the future, as the vine has struggles so much and is weak, it will not be at its best next year and further ahead.

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Riveyrenc Gris grapes in good health but note the mildewed leaves 

Therefore, Jeff Coutelou has had to spend a lot of time in the vines ensuring that he knows exactly the health and condition of the vines to get the best possible grapes for this year whilst being mindful about the health of the vines. A balancing act to cause him more stress in a difficult year.

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Tuesday saw some lovely Muscat being harvested from Peilhan, the grape which smells of grapes. The video below shows them being pressed and I wish I could convey the lovely fresh, grapey aromas which emerged from the press.

 

This is Muscat being made for dry wine, in 2016 for example the Muscat D’Alexandrie made a lovely orange wine which we have shared at lunch. Afterwards the pickers moved into the 2015 plantation at the top of Peilhan, the 12 rows of Morastel, Terret Noir and Riveyrenc Noir picked to blend with Syrah from Sainte Suzanne where the pickers headed next.

On a beautiful Wednesday morning the remaining Syrah was picked. Jeff decided to make a grappe entière wine so Julien and I headed into the top of the cellar to sort the grapes and send them through the chute into the tank. This had been given a dose of CO2 to encourage the fermentation of the grapes inside their skins. After a short period the skins will burst and the resulting juice will have a light, fruitiness. This process is called carbonic maceration. Sorting meant removing any leaves and other vineyard products such as spiders and snails. Mainly though we were looking for the dried grains of berries damaged by mildew and the green, unformed berries caused by millerandage.

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Onto Thursday and the deployment of two teams of pickers. The Moroccan crew picked some lovely bunches of Macabeu from Peilhan before moving on to Syrah from Segrairals.

 

Macabeu and Syrah (note the green unformed berries needing to be sorted

We were also joined by a number of pickers who would tackle some of the more interesting vineyards. As a result of mildew damage in Faugères some growers have little or nothing to harvest and some of their pickers came to join the Coutelou team. And we were joined by Louis who, having completed his professional baccalauréat has begun a course to help him achieve his ambition of becoming a sommelier. His stage will certainly teach him a lot about vines and wines, the numerous cépages he picked will certainly have opened his eyes to the wide world of wine.

This team picked my favourite vineyard, Rome, with its old Cinsault vines, Muscats of various kinds and all three versions of Grenache. In the afternoon the moved on to Font D’Oulette now simply referred to as Flower Power after the wine made from the numerous cépages in there. Using two teams meant that cases were returned thick and fast by Michel and Julien and I had a long, back breaking day sorting these grapes.

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Julien and Nathan sort the last case on Thursday from Flower Power

I have to say the juice tastes great, fruity with good acidity. Now all we need is for the yeasts to play their part and ferment that juice into good wines. The picture below shows yeasts at work in a tank where some of the skins from the pressing of last week’s Grenache. As with the grapey Muscat these bready aromas deserve to be more widely shared. Vendanges is all about the senses.

And, for Icare lovers around the world, he is taking a very keen interest in this year’s harvest.

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The Boys Are Back In Town

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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.

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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!

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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.

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On higher ground

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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.

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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.

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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.

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