amarchinthevines

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


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Vendanges 2016 #7 – Last Pickings

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Cabernet Sauvignon sheltering the Moroccan pickers

En français

Wednesday (September 21st) was officially the last day of summer and, appropriately, the last day of picking at Mas Coutelou. It was, as in 2015, the Cabernet Sauvignon of Segrairals which was the last major parcel gathered in. Lovely, clean bunches of small, healthy berries, classic Cabernet and virtually nothing to sort in the vineyard or in the cellar. 

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Cabernet Sauvignon

The day before had seen the start of the Cabernet in the afternoon following a morning of picking Mourvèdre, also from Segrairals. As I hadn’t ventured into the vineyard much in 2016 I took the opportunity to do so that morning. Our friend Jill had expressed a wish to do some grape picking and Jeff kindly agreed so I accompanied her (so at least there was one less experienced picker than me!). I really enjoyed being out in the fresh air but it was also good to get a grip on how the vineyard topography can have such an impact upon the grapes.

The Mourvèdre grows on an easterly slope with the rows running down the slope. The vines at the bottom of the slope gave lower quality bunches than those at the top, indeed we stopped picking the last few vines at the bottom of each row. The reason was that when it does rain the water runs down the slope taking nutrients etc. The grapes there tend to ripen much sooner with more humidity in the ground, it was a clear example of terroir. Rest assured that only good grapes went into cuve, much was left behind in the vineyard and at the side of the sorting table.

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The slope in the Mourvedre vines, rejected fruit on the ground

On Monday the lovely Carignan Noir of Rec D’Oulette (Chemin De Pailhès) was added to the tanks. The quality was high and signs are promising for yet another good vintage of Flambadou, arguably the domaine’s best wine in recent years.

Since the last article the other major harvest was some bountiful, good quality Grenache from La Garrigue on Saturday 17th.

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Gorgeous Grenache

There remain a few rows here and there with some grapes left and they may or may not be picked in coming days and weeks. However, the Cabernet marked the last of the major picking. Time to say farewell to the Moroccan pickers, part of the Coutelou crew for the last month.

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Stage 1 is therefore over. Stage 2 the cellar work of remontages and pigeage continues apace as most cuves are now full and need looking after. Stage 3, pressing, is also in full swing as grapes from previous weeks have now gone through fermentation on skins and need to be pressed to take the juice away. I shall be writing about this more in the next article.

So, we head into autumn, the vines are fatigued after a very stressful year. The leaves are already changing colour and the Languedoc will be an even more beautiful place in coming weeks. The picking may be over but the vendanges are not. 

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Mourvedre in autumnal glory

 


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Natural terroir

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En français

The choice of my recent wine of the week, Olivier Leflaive’s Burgundy Oncle Vincent 2012, made me think about how wines change. When I used to regularly visit Leflaive and Burgundy in the 1990s the style of wine was very oak influenced, a response to the New World oaked wines and to the influence of Parker / Rolland in Bordeaux. The wines smelled of vanilla and tasted of wood. Subtlety was often lost, especially on the lower ranked wines. Happily those days are in the past (though I still come across some very heavily oaked wines even in the Languedoc) and this bottle was zesty and fresh with a little oak adding creaminess.

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Similarly if I choose to drink a Riesling from Alsace I can find two wines from grapes grown side by side in the same vineyard which will taste very different. One producer might prefer a lean, dry style of wine whilst his/her neighbour makes wine in a rounder style with more residual sugar. The same can be said of wines from any region of course. So where does that leave the notion of terroir?

Terroir is that elusive term which describes soil, micro-climate, slope etc. Effectively it means the location, the ‘in situ’ of the wine. However, some will also add the influence of the local culture upon the winemaking in the concept of terroir, Alsace with its traditional residual sweetness for example. However, different winemakers choose different methods and styles according to not just local tradition but outside influences, wines tasted, travels etc.

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Amongst those influences has been the growth of the natural wine movement. I have read and heard numerous accounts by natural winemakers of how they came to choose this philosophy for their métier. Most include their discovery of a natural wine which made them tear up the rulebook and decide that this was the style of wine which they wanted to make because of their freshness, drinkability and flavours. A typical account can be found here.

Yet those who still find fault with natural wines are wont to declare that natural wines mask the flavour of grape and place because they often taste of natural wine and nothing else. Take this remark by Rosemary George*, English wine journalist and Languedoc resident, “if there is one thing that I reproach natural wines, it is that they all, irrespective of provenance, have a tendency to a similarity of style.  The best have that delicious mouth-watering freshness, but that somehow seems to mask their origins.”

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You will not be surprised to read that I disagree. I do accept that some, less well made natural wines do have aromas and flavours which resemble each other regardless of origin. However, I think in the vast majority of cases that natural winemaking has progressed and reflect their terroir and grape(s) much better than most conventional wines. How can it be otherwise? If a winemaker adds enzymes, artificial yeasts and SO2 how can than not be adding an extraneous element to the flavour of the wine which is nothing to do with the place? If you add oak chips or staves does that make the wine more Burgundy, Bordeaux or Barossa? Or does it simple meet the established concept of what a wine from those areas ought to taste like?

Winemakers will often aim for a flavour, they want their wine to be the same year after year. That is how the big companies retail Yellow Tail, Blossom Hill etc, the customer expects a certain flavour if wine and that is what they will be given. Like Coca Cola. This does not reflect terroir or vintage at all and, to be fair, the big companies would not claim otherwise. However, I do get the impression that many smaller winemakers follow a similar recipe.

A recent visit to a wine fair in Vouvray was a very disheartening experience. I tasted wine after wine which lacked character but did taste very much like the next sec or demi-sec from the next producer. The conformity was alarming. There was a Vouvray style common to most producers but it was bland and dull. There were one or two exceptions where a winemaker had taken deliberate steps to change their winemaking and vineyards, D’Orfeuilles for example.

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Healthy wines come from healthy soils including microbial life as here at Mas Coutelou’s Rome vineyard

So give me a wine of character. Give me a wine with nothing added where the vineyards’ health is reflected in the grape juice which makes the wine. Give me that grape juice with nothing extraneous added,  natural yeasts for example. Let that wine be carefully nurtured and not messed around with, no added flavourings. If it is aged in barrel then I would expect it to reflect that influence but not be dominated by it. I want to drink wines which reflect the vitality of healthy grapes in healthy vineyards. The wines will alter from year to year because nature alters from year to year. That is terroir and why natural wine reflects terroir in as pure a state as possible.

*(To be fair to Rosemary she does like some natural wines and it was her writing that first introduced me to Jeff Coutelou so I have much to thank her for.)


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Terroir

 

 

 

Un contraste absolu entre les vignes de Jeff Coutelou et celles d'un voisin   Version française

I posted this photo recently showing a contrast between the vineyard of Jeff Coutelou on the left, with grass growing between the vines and separating his vineyard from that of his neighbour who uses herbicides and chemicals which an organic producer does not want on his/her land.

I mention it again because as we travelled north last week to celebrate Christmas and New Year in the UK I was reminded of the clichéd but nonetheless relevant French word terroir. There is famously no direct English translation of the term, it means the soil but also the particular climate, aspect, position and subsoils of the vineyard. The French have said for years that terroir was what makes their wines special whereas New World wine producers were more willing to say that great wines come from great grapes and great winemakers, they often would call a wine by its variety, eg Cabernet Sauvignon or Chardonnay, rather than by where it came from. In recent years the argument appears to be won as Australia and other countries have begun to look to terroir to identify their best wines too.

As I travelled through Burgundy last week the terroir issue sprang to mind. The region is made of many vineyards, of which large numbers are tiny and even they are (usually) divided between numerous winemakers. It is the region of terroir par excellence. The following photo shows Les Malconsorts a 1er Cru vineyard in Vosne Romanée. You can see different parcels of land clearly divided. Wines from one parcel will taste different to those from another. Terroir advocates will tell us that this is due to changes in soil, angle of the land facing the sun, drainage etc. Others would say it is more to do with the winemaker, the way s/he tends the soils and vines and how they work in the cellar.

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La Grande Rue is another Vosne Romanée vineyard but this time rated even higher at Grand Cru status. It is owned wholly by one estate and the wines cost well over £100 a bottle. Yet look a few metres to the side the wines are worth half of that as they are not Grande Rue. This is the price of terroir or is it the expertise of the producer Lamarche which merits that premium?

Clos Vougeot is a famous vineyard which has multiple producers working inside its walls. The prices vary from around £55 to £400 depending on the producer.

My take on it is that terroir is hugely important. Vineyards which are well looked after and have good climate, soils etc should produce good wine. However, a good winemaker has a role to play and can make average vineyards produce very good wine and good terroir into a memorable bottle.

Jamie Goode wrote this on the subject and sums it up very well in my opinion. I hope these photos might help to illustrate why.

“I reckon terroir deserves to remain at the heart of fine wine. It’s the soul of wine, and like the soul, it’s very hard to define, but that doesn’t stop it being of utmost importance.”

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Jeff Coutelou works vineyards which are traditionally not in the best of places. The work done by his father and by himself has helped to hugely improve that terroir. Combined with great winemaking this is why his wines take pride of place, like this display I came across in a Troyes restaurant / wine bar last week.