amarchinthevines

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


6 Comments

Nature can be harsh: Part 2 – Disease

The mild weather over winter was followed in the Languedoc by a slow start to summer heat. The resulting warm, humid weather brought disease as it did in many regions of France. Mildew, oidium and couloure are all vine diseases which occur regularly and 2016 was no different but with a bigger hit than usual.

Mildew (downy mildew)

 

Sadly, humid days in the mid 20s and cool nights are exactly the conditions favoured by downy mildew, and it prospered. The humidity in the soils created ever more favourable conditions for mildew. Downy mildew lives as spores in the soils and any rain splashes them onto the vines. Mildiou is not a fungus as commonly believed, it is a one celled spore which germinates in warm, humid conditions especially between 16 and 24 Centigrade – exactly the conditions we saw in April and May of this year.

Jeff Coutelou spent many nights out on his tractor spraying the vines to try to protect them. As an organic producer (and much more) he cannot (and does not want to) use manufactured, chemical sprays. Instead he used sprays based on rainwater with seaweed, nettles, horsetail and essential oils of sweet orange and rosemary. These are better absorbed by the vines in the cool of the night.

Mildew appears as small yellow / green spots on the upper surface of the leaf which gradually turn brown and spread to leave an unsightly vine. Underneath downy white /grey spots appear, the mildew is well established by this point. It affects the grape bunches and leaves them dried out and shrivelled.

car-mildew-grappe

Mildew on a Carignan bunch, organic spray residue on the leaves

By the time harvest arrives the bunches contain a mix of healthy and diseased grapes. Severe triage is required. Bunches such as the one in the photo above will be discarded immediately. Where there are health sections though the bunches will arrive at the triage table and be sorted rigorously. Jeff reckoned that in some vineyards, especially the white vines of Peilhan, losses were up to 60% from mildew. Seriously damaging.

Here is a clear demonstration of the advantage of hand harvest (vendange manuelle), machines would simply swallow the lot and in less thorough domaines or caves the bunches will all go into the wine.

Oidium (powdery mildew)

IMG_1552

Oidium on buds and leaf

Oidium is a related problem to mildew but slightly different. It too thrives in warm days and cold nights (so springtime is its peak period) , it too loves humidity. So, spring 2016 was ideal though oidium was less rampant than mildew. Unlike mildew it is a fungal based spore.

Conventional treatments would be chemical and even organic producers will use sulphur, a naturally occurring element. Organic producers are limited to the amounts they can use as sulphur does damage the fauna of the soils. Jeff Coutelou uses less than a quarter of the permitted amounts because he sees it as  a last resort. Instead he prefers treatments based on horsetail weed, nettles and other beneficial plants made into a tisane which can be sprayed. It may not be as all-destroying as synthetic chemicals but Jeff prefers the soils to be healthy in the long term by using these natural plant based treatments.

These photos show grape bunches hit by oidium in 2016, the powdery residue is clear though the bunches are less damaged than mildew affected ones. Nevertheless oidium is destructive and spoils wine so, again, careful work in the vineyard and cellar is needed to keep oidium out of the grape juice.

Coulure

Like most fruit plants vines grow flowers which then develop into the fruit. Vine flowers are very beautiful but also very delicate and don’t live long on the plants, a matter of a few days.

If heavy rain and wind hits the vines at this stage of their development then the flowers can be easily damaged or broken off the plant.

The result is that fruit cannot develop where there is no flower, coulure. Where flowers are damaged then berries might grow very small and seedless, this is called millerandage. Similarly berries might ripen unevenly within a bunch, green berries alongside healthy, ripe grapes.

There is nothing that the vigneron can do of course, the damage is done by the weather and no producer can successfully combat weather. Nature wins in the end. So, once again, the vendangeur and those sorting in the cellar are crucial in ensuring that only healthy fruit goes into the wine.

I cannot emphasise enough the importance of all stages of wine growing and production. From their budding through to vendanges the vines must be tended, and in the cellar observation, determination and care are needed too. To make good wine requires hard work, healthy grapes and love as Jeff has said many times.

And have a look at one of those last photos again.

snail-and-uneven

In the top right corner you will see another of 2016’s natural problems, one subject of the final part of this series.


4 Comments

Vendanges 2016 #6 – Sort It Out

 

En français

What do you look for when hundreds of bunches of Grenache grapes come towards you? What is your job on the sorting table?

Every winemaker wants the healthiest grapes to go into their vats to make the best possible wine. In some of the smartest chateaux and domains in Bordeaux and Burgundy each grape is sorted, even scanned. However, those are wineries which charge hundreds of pounds for a bottle of wine. For a natural Languedoc wine producer such expense is not feasible, so no scanners at Mas Coutelou. However, the need for only healthy fruit to go into tank is even more important for those who will not use additives such as SO2.

p1010664

The sorting table is new this year, previously we sorted direct from the case. The table means that you can see more of the grapes, move them around and search for any problems with greater ease. Undoubtedly it has led to better triage of the grapes which should help the wines. In a very difficult vintage such as 2016 the table has easily repaid its cost.

 

So, what are you looking for?

p1010660

Michel brings in the cases and information about the grapes

Well, first of all you get information from Michel as he brings the cases direct from the vines. He talks to the pickers and they will tell him if they have been in a good part of the vineyard with few problems or, conversely, if they have had to do a lot of sorting and cutting themselves. Michel relays this information to us on the sorting table with warnings to look out for snails or rot for example. Forewarned is forearmed.

In the video you see Vincent empty the case onto the table. He immediately looks for leaves, snails, spiders etc and removes them. Priscilla starts to sort. I or someone else would be on the other side so that we can see the bunches from different angles and turn them over to inspect.

vdlgrappe

Some squishy grapes

When I first joined the Coutelou team in millésime 2014 it was Carole who taught me what to look for. There are the obvious things, more snails and leaves but then look at the bunches. Or rather, not so much look, but touch and smell. Feel the bunch, are the grapes firm and springy or squishy? In the latter case warning bells ring. Is the squishiness due to juice or to rot? Smell the bunch. Does it have aromas of clean fruit or vinegary, rotten odours? Obviously if that is the case you cut into the bunch and seek out the rot and remove any affected grapes. Usually cut some of the ones around too as they might have been tainted by the rot.

mildew

Mildewed grapes

Look out too for mildewed grapes which have dried and become unpleasant. There are grapes which have naturally dried out and their raisiny sweetness is actually good in the wine, so you have to learn what you are looking for. Are there hail damages grapes? Grapes with holes from vers de la grappe (grape worms)? Black rot? Oidium? In a future article I shall be looking at how these problems show themselves on the final grapes.

lovely-grenache

Lovely Grenache bunch but check the interior

Of course, the vast majority of bunches are great, no problems at all, just lovely fruit. But, beware, those big closed up bunches are the very ones where problems might lurk inside. Don’t be deceived by something which looks good, you must still check it over.

p1010847

Nice, loose bunches – air can circulate to keep the grapes healthy

And meanwhile, whilst you look at that bunch another one is passing you on the table. Work fast, eyes, fingers, nose on the alert. Secateurs cutting whilst your fingers are already touching the next bunch. Be careful, no blood on those grapes please.

p1010794

Sorted!!

For Martin, hope you enjoyed it!


4 Comments

Vendanges diaries (1)

IMG_2201

                       Syrah so good you have to taste it now

Version française

The harvest (vendange) began on Friday August 21st with a small parcel of Muscat grapes as described here.  The next few days saw further preparations for the main harvest, for example clearing space in the barrels of the solera system for this year’s grapes. I shall write more about the solera later in the year.

IMG_2173

                                     Solera system

So, it was Thursday 27th which was the start of the real vendanges with parcels of white and Syrah grapes collected from La Garrigue. This day was described here.

Friday 28th saw more Syrah being harvested, this time the Syrah of Metaierie usually referred to as Sainte Suzanne by Jeff. This is the vineyard of Vin Des Amis though options are always open. The pickers, led by Carole and Julien, worked through a cloudy morning to collect some high quality bunches.

IMG_2200

Michel transported the cagettes  back to the cellar as quickly as possible. The cagettes are about two thirds filled so as not to overload the grapes in there which might damage them.

IMG_2199

                  No, these cagettes are not full!

Upon arrival at the cave the cagettes are quickly taken for triage, sorting through the grapes to select only the best quality. Foreign objects such as snails and spiders are removed as are unripe grapes, any damaged or rotten grapes. It is important that only the best goes into the wines to keep them fresh and at the high quality we expect from Mas Coutelou. Two people sift through the cagette, removing any inferior grapes for further sorting by a third person. Jeff, Cameron and I took these roles on Friday. It is hard work, on your feet all day and lifting, carrying and sorting requires physical effort and also full concentration. There is, happily, also time to chat and laugh.

IMG_2203

IMG_2205

Cameron is from Melbourne, Australia and has been living and working in London as a sommelier for four years. He decided to learn more about the winemaking process and to “get his hands dirty”. He is already proving his worth and is a great addition to the team.

IMG_2202

Meanwhile, the grapes which had gone to vat (cuve) have to be taken care of. Fermentation has started and the wine is already producing material which needs to be removed to keep the wines clean. They are, therefore, pumped out of their original cuve into another to allow the waste to be cleaned away and the fresh, juice ready to settle for its longer journey of fermentation.

IMG_2210

Fermentation beginning in the Sauvignon Blanc grapes collected yesterday (Thursday)

And at the end of the day the cleaning work is intense. Everything is cleaned throughout the day but at its end another full clean takes place. This removes the risk of contamination from dirt or damaged fruit which would ruin the wine. It is laborious but necessary.

IMG_2213

                                Julien cleaning the cagettes

IMG_2212

                                         Ready for tomorrow

IMG_2215

    The égrappoir (destemmer) ready for tomorrow too

IMG_2216

   What else needs cleaning? Proof that I did work!

Analysis of the Syrah showed that the alcohol level was around 12.7% with medium levels of acidity. Later picking would have added more sugar and more potential alcohol but would have lowered levels of acidity. The skins are essential to the quality of the wine as they contain the colour, tannin and much of the flavour of the wine. These were in excellent condition according to the analysis, good news.

IMG_2214

Jeff’s own calculations from cellar tests. Samples go to the oenologue for full analysis

IMG_2208

   Classic shape for a bunch of Syrah grapes

There have already been some concerns expressed by winemakers and analysts that the heat of 2015 might affect the quality of wines around France especially regarding acidity. The decision to harvest the Syrah was therefore the right one, fresh, cleansing acidity is a hallmark of Jeff’s wines. Many winemakers have been waiting to start harvest as, on August 30th, the moon is at a perigee, the time when it is closest to Earth in its orbit. As it begins to wane and move away from Earth many winemakers will start their harvest. Jeff has chosen to put the quality of the grapes first rather than principles about biodynamics.

IMG_2224

   Moon over Margon at its perigee on August 30th

Saturday 29th was a work day for the cellar and the pickers and saw the harvesting of Cinsault grapes from my favourite vineyard, Rome. The grapes were big and juicy though some were uneven and needed more careful sorting. Clearly these were precious grapes as Icare was guarding and watching over them assiduously. The harvest was not as big as many years and so the pickers moved onto Sainte Suzanne again for more Syrah grapes whilst yesterday’s grapes have begun to ferment already.

IMG_2222

                      Carole picking in Ste Suzanne

Cinsault from Rome

   Cinsault from Rome, big and juicy

IMG_2221

        Friday’s Syrah ferments in cuve

             IMG_2219        IMG_2220

                                                                   Icare, connoisseur and guard dog


Leave a comment

Iceberg Theory

Ernest Hemingway had a theory that writing the simple story whilst not explaining deeper themes would help the reader understand the story . Instead they would implicitly see the bigger picture and work things out for themselves. This was the Iceberg Theory (or my interpretation of it!).

Making wine has some parallels. The wine that is drunk is the final product but not the whole story. And what makes the wine great is what is missing. You might remember that in the vineyard Jeff insisted that pickers should eliminate any grapes of poor quality, they were left behind on the ground and even cut out of bunches. Remember that Jeff and Michel have already spent many hours in the vineyard making sure that the vines produce top quality grapes. This involves, for example, pruning and cutting off bunches of grapes if the vines are too productive, as this would produce more dilute wines.

Grapes left behind

Grapes left behind

 

 

Cutting poor quality grapes out of bunches

Cutting poor quality grapes out of bunches

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Then in the cellar the grapes were sorted carefully to make sure that any inferior quality grapes that were missed by the pickers were removed before they were put into vats. This is called triage.

Triage

Triage

Therefore, Jeff can be confident that only healthy, top quality grapes are used to make his wines. This allows him to avoid chemical interference in his winemaking and to fulfill the grapes’ natural potential.

The last few weeks have seen a further stage of taking things out. After the vineyard management, after the careful harvesting, after the triage.

Bottles that are good but not good enough

Bottles that are good but not good enough

As the wines settle in their cuves, fermenting and working their magic the cellars have been busy with packing pallets of wine to send to merchants around France, the UK, USA and many parts of Europe and the Far East. Today I took the photo above. As every bottle is dressed (habillée) with capsule and labels it is checked for any sign of damage, eg small holes in the cork or slight leakage. These bottles are removed and can be used for wine tasting for visitors to the cellar in the next few weeks. Therefore, what reaches the buyer and the drinker should be of top quality and wines which they can trust to be of the high standard expected from Mas Coutelou. They do not have to worry about all the work that has gone on to ensure their satisfaction and delight, though maybe now they know a little more about it.

The iceberg theory in practice. Cheers Papa Hemingway!


4 Comments

“Wine is the most healthful and most hygienic of beverages.” (Pasteur)

Louis Pasteur is one of my historical heroes. As well as showing the links between germs and disease (by investigating alcohol) he discovered how vaccines work (partly by working to prevent the vine disease phylloxera). The quote above is also very topical after working in Jeff’s cellar. Let me explain.

???????????????????????????????

The Mas Coutelou team (left to right) – Annie, Michael, Carole, Jeff and Tina (sadly Michel was not in this photo)

The year has been a trying one for Jeff. The very dry weather through spring and summer has caused a major drop in production, Jeff reckons most parcels are 30-50% down on quantity even if the quality is very good. That is a big burden to bear and must be a financial blow.

The team which Jeff assembled for the harvest were cheerful, helpful and hard working. Carole has been working periodically with Jeff for 8 years and her experience allied to his leadership meant that work was done according to his wishes but with plenty of smiles and respect. Michel who works for Jeff was also a steady and reassuring presence. Harvest took place this week in hot, sunny weather. The team in the vineyard picked mainly under the stewardship of Carole and the grapes were ferried back to the cellar within half an hour or so of being picked.

Cabernet Sauvignon grapes, freshly picked

Cabernet Sauvignon grapes, freshly picked

The ‘caisses’ of grapes are then placed on the sorting line. I worked on triage on Wednesday. The grapes are taken out of the caisse and inspected for any signs of disease, under ripeness or foreign bodies such as leaves or snails. Ripe grapes are placed in the égrappeur which destems the grapes.

IMG_0148

The destemmer at work

The grapes are then pumped into tank ready to await pressing and to allow the first stages of fermentation. The bunches which were taken out are then checked, and healthy grapes added to the tank. This is slow and careful work, after all Jeff wants only the best quality grapes to go into his wines. The grapes are given as light a pressing as possible.

IMG_0149

Healthy, ripe Grenache grapes being pumped to tank

Jeff uses a range of containers for the wines, cement, stainless steel and wood. He is seeking neutral influence in the main as he wants the grapes to tell their own story rather than, for example, new wood. After the grapes have settled and begun to ferment they are pumped into another tank and some of the skins, pips etc are removed as they pass through very broad sieve like stainless steel. Jeff checks the wines at every stage to measure the stage which they are at, alcohol levels, sugar levels etc

Jeff testing the first stages

Jeff testing the first stages

After that initial pumping the wine is allowed to settle and the solids which are left in the wine begin to rise to the top of the tank as they are lighter than the grape juice. This produces a thick layer or ‘cap’ (chapeau in French). The skins in the cap though contain flavouring and colour for the wine and so it needs to be mixed with the juice. The cap has to be physically pushed down into the juice.

The wines are also ‘pumped over’ (remontage) every day. This means the red wine in the bottom of the tank is pumped over the top of the cap to moisten it and to extract the required amount of colour, flavour etc. This requires the working of an expensive but vital pump to caress the wine rather than force it. This pump works non stop all day (there are back ups!).

IMG_0119

The (very) expensive pump

As the harvest progresses more tanks are filled so more and more pumping over takes place. The cellar begins to resemble a plate of spaghetti as hoses run from one tank to another. Yet another machine also chills the wine slightly or heats it up if fermentation needs to be encouraged. This machine is in the top right of the photo underneath.

IMG_0123

How does Jeff keep all these sorted in his head?

All the while Jeff tastes the juice which is gently turning into wine and testing its progress using equipment such as a refractometer and other scientific equipment. A real mix of personal judgement and science mixing to best advantage.

IMG_0120

This continues until Jeff is happy that the wine is right. Several weeks of pumping, testing, tasting – an enormous task. There are so many pieces of information for him to keep in his head about the development of each cuve, an amazing effort which leaves him with a definite air of fatigue during the very enjoyable lunches and the post work drink.

So what of the Pasteur quotation? Well as I was working (oh yes I was) two things really struck me apart from the sheer physicality of lugging cases of grapes, hoses, pumps and various items of equipment.

Firstly, patience. Jeff waits patiently for the grapes to be just right before picking, he wants the best and is prepared to give nature the time it requires to deliver its best. In the cellar he nurtures each cuve and each drop of wine, each stage of the process takes place when the wine dictates to him. The temptation to rush or to do things because it suits the winemaker is resisted with determination and confidence. He knows because he produces great wines that if he waits he will produce more great wine.

Secondly, cleanliness.

Jeff makes natural wines and for the last couple of years without the use of sulphur to stabilise the wine and help it to fight dangers such as oxidation. To do so everything has to be clean. At every step equipment is washed down and cleaned. Again and again and again. This is drilled into all of us. The risk of harmful bacteria is reduced by hyper vigilance and cleanliness. Jeff told me that for each litre of wine produced he estimates that he uses a litre of water for washing and cleaning. I can believe it and in fact it must be much more. Now before I upset other winemakers who clean rigorously and take every care with hygiene I am not claiming that Jeff is unique in this. I was just amazed at how much washing and cleaning takes place. Hence my Pasteur quotation.

IMG_0146

Cleaning

IMG_0138

More cleaning

IMG_0130

And, yes, more cleaning

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My other job this week was pressing some grapes for some very special wines. More of that in the next post.

Happy in my work

Happy in my work