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


Routine and variety – Vendanges 17

Ambroise, Selene and Vincent in the Syrah

A week into picking and the team is in a routine, working smoothly to steadily bring in the grapes. The quality remains high but there can now be no doubt that the ongoing dry spell has taken its toll. Quantities are down by up to 50%, bottles of the 2017 Mas Coutelou wines will be more difficult to seek out I’m afraid and, inevitably, more expensive.


Flower Power

Thursday saw the Flower Power vineyard picked (Rec D’Oulette to give it the proper name) and just 7 cases of grapes were returned from the 0,4ha of vines. They are young still and will have found it hard to cope with the arid conditions.

Julien and Max in Rome

Rome, too, was picked and I went along as this is my favourite vineyard. Cinsault, Muscat and all three types of Grenache were harvested. From Peilhan came Grenache Gris and a few rows of the Maccabeu which will go into the PM rosé wine.

Muscat, Grenache Blanc and Cinsault (left from Rome), Grenache Gris and Maccabeu from Peilhan on the right

By now we are into the second stage of the vendanges. The grapes picked previously have been sitting on skins for varying lengths of time to extract colour and flavour but they will be separated when Jeff decides that further contact will not enhance the wine further. The juice is pumped to a new tank leaving the skins and pips behind to be used as marc for distilling.


This process of remontage is carried out increasingly as more tanks fill up. Tracking which wines are where is a skill in itself, each time the wine will be tasted and sent for analysis to ensure that acidity, sugars, potential alcohol are all correct and no nasty surprises await.

Jeff took me round a few of the vineyards to check on their progress for picking. We started with the Carignan, then on to the Mourvèdre and Cinsault of Segrairals. In all cases the pips and stalks showed us that more time was needed, they are still a little too green. Tasting the grapes showed plenty of sweet fruit but that greenness would not be good in the finished wine.

Cinsault after pressing

Cinsault after pressing, like modern art


Friday was based in the biggest parcel, Segrairals. Cinsault grapes first, to be pressed immediately so that a light pink juice emerges ready to be blended with the other rosé grapes. This happened on Saturday so that all the rosé grapes will ferment together to blend fully. Jeff explained to me that Cinsault is harder to press than most, the large berries contain a lot of pulp which breaks down less easily.

Syrah Segr

Syrah, Segrairals


Afterwards the remaining Syrah was tackled, again I went along to help with a bit of picking as well as doing the sorting with Jeff back in the cellar. The tri was not too difficult as good, firm bunches of healthy grapes came in case after case. Never mind the width feel the quality seems to be the motto, for Jeff’s sake greater quantity would be welcome.

More remontage, more testing in the cellar. It was good to see the white wines in good condition with fermentation already lively; bready, yeasty smells began to fill the cellar. More Syrah would be picked on Saturday morning but, readers, I admit that I took a break. The hard work, rich variety of grapes and early mornings meant that this time AMarch was not in the vines.



Into the red – Vendanges 17

After the white grapes picked last week it was time to tackle the red, which form the main part (just under 90%) of Mas Coutelou’s production.

Monday was hot, very hot – Jeff’s car measured 42°C at one point in the vineyard of Le Colombié where we were picking Merlot grapes. This small (0.5 ha) parcel was planted with Merlot back in 1999 and, though not Jeff’s favourite cépage, the grapes provide a useful backup and the vines are in particularly good health. I spent a couple of hours picking and the heat made it very hard work, believe me. The quality was very good though the grapes lacked juice due to the lack of any rain in two months. Jeff said that they provided around 50% of last year’s juice which in turn was 20% below average.

Back in the cellar after lunch I sorted the remaining Merlot and some Syrah from Segrairals, the biggest of the Coutelou vineyards with 4ha under vine. These were juicier and were added to the Merlot in tank in order to bolster the quantity. The alcohol level was good at around 14% for both.

Today, Tuesday, it was off to Sainte Suzanne where Jeff thinks some of the best grapes of the year are to be found. The vineyard is planted with Syrah and Grenache and these are usually the grapes which make up Le Vin Des Amis, one of the more famous wines of the domaine. Jeff was proved correct, not that I would have doubted him of course! The bunches which came in were full, firm and in excellent condition. There was hardly any sorting to do other than removing leaves and snails. This will certainly make good wine. By the end of the day a few rows of Grenache from the parcel were added to the mix.

The grapes were all put into tank in whole bunches, grappes entières, rather than being separated from the stalks as the bunches were so healthy Jeff wanted to let them express themselves. In tank the grapes will begin to ferment within their skins under the weight and heat, though some will ferment as they burst. It was good to see Jeff happy with the results of the day’s harvest, long may it continue.

In the photos above Vincent is preparing the cuve for the whole bunches which will enter through the trapdoor at the top. In the second he adds CO2 to the tank which is part of the carbonic maceration process to help the berries ferment inside their skin.


Véraison, drought and other issues

Version française

The weather in the Languedoc has been a talking point, apparently it is not just a topic for us British people. No rain since June 12th, very high temperatures, 39C one day last week. Fires in the garrigue, vineyards and even towns, including our neighbouring village of Roujan. The result of this has been fissures in the ground, e.g. the photograph below in one of Jeff’s vineyards.


This crack in the soil is over 30cm deep, a sign of the drought conditions

Some of the vignerons in the area have been irrigating their vines and a sign of this has been evident too. If you look at the photos below you will see white traces in the soil. This is calcium carbonate which is a product of the water imported to irrigate the vines. In other words the irrigation is changing the nature of the soil itself.



The vines themselves are remarkably resistant and strong even in the face of the lack of water. This summer is nothing unusual for the Languedoc but it builds on a fairly dry year in 2014 too. The leaves of the vines are curling in on themselves, a sign of some stress.

Other problems are showing too. Esca is a virulent wood disease which is a major threat to the vineyards of France, working like a cancer inside the wood. It suddenly emerges and affects the leaves and causes the grapes to shrivel and drop off.


Esca showing on vine leaves in the Languedoc, July 21st

Some have linked its spread with rainy springs and higher summer temperatures, such as 2015. There is no cure, it was formerly treated with arsenic but that has, understandably, been banned. It is thought that 10 – 20% of French vines may be infected by the fungus, they have to be replaced and, of course, they take time to grow and don’t produce the same quality as older vines would have produced.


Vine stock showing the signs of esca after being cut

One perennial problem is vers de la grappe. These are the larvae of butterflies and they grow in coccoons amongst the grape bunches, leaving a white filament as proof of their residence. They pierce the skins of some grapes causing them to be ruined.


Characteristic puncture marks of vers de la grappe, July 21st

Careful pruning must follow.


July 21st

Bats and other predators eat these pests which is why Jeff, amongst others, encourages bats to live near his vines by putting up bat houses and encouraging the growth of plants, trees etc around and amongst their vineyards.


Bat house at Ste. Suzanne, (Metaierie)

The main concern is that the lack of water will reduce yields, rain would help to swell the grapes and produce more wine. Some rain was forecast on July 22nd but in Puimisson and many other areas, none arrived.

Not all bad news however. The vines are resistant and the careful management of soils, unlike the irrigated vines above, means that their roots go deep into the soil searching for water. Struggling vines produce the most interesting wines. Let us hope that this is the case in 2015.

Diversity amongst the vines at Mas Coutelou continues, less than 10 metres from the fissure in the ground above were these partridge eggs which had hatched recently.


And in the cellars work has begun to replace the leaky roof, which is built on timbers hundreds of years in age. It is a beautiful roof and happily the timbers have been saved, most tiles will be recycled. I will write more about the changes in the cellar as preparations for the vendange begin.


And finally véraison is in full swing. The change of colour of the red grapes is one of the key events in their development as they approach maturity. This marks the change in growth of the berries, they are now producing sugars within the grape rather than concentrating on simply growing and producing acidity. It is certainly one of the most noticeable and landmark changes in the grapes.



Note the curling leaves, the vines are feeling the lack of water.

Véraison and the increase in sugar levels also attracts more animals to eat them, birds, insects etc. Problems, problems everywhere. Who would be a vigneron?

Two creatures love being in the vines for sure, me to watch their growth and, more importantly, Icare who loves to be in amongst the dirt and, in this heat, he loves the shade of the vines.

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Fin de Vendanges a Mas Coutelou, One Day Like This

Vendange under a perfect sky

Vendange under a perfect sky

As my favourite band Elbow sang in their biggest hit, one day like this a year would see me right!

Saturday September 27th was the last day of vendanges chez Coutelou and, apparently, many other domaines in the region. After some iffy weather in the previous 10 days the sun had been out for the last 2 or 3 and today was no different. There was an autumnal, morning chill as Pat and I arrived in the vineyard to help collect the last of the Grenache Noir.

Grenache Noir

Grenache Noir


Pat picking









However, the sun soon became hot and the panama was soon donned to protect my head since hair no longer bothers to do so. The usual pickers had departed and Jeff called in his friends from the Béziers rugby club to help out. The ‘rugbymen’ proved to be hard working, fun and very welcoming towards novices such as ourselves even when I declared my lack of interest in their sport.

As ever harvesting grapes is only the first part of the job in the vineyard as it is the first step in the process of triage (sorting), any underripe, mildewy or poor quality grapes being cut out before being placed in buckets, then cases. The best way to check the health of a bunch that has been cut is to smell it. There should be the clean, fruity smell of grapes. If not, then search for the problem and eliminate it. Any grape left should be one that you would be happy to eat, and that we did too!

A grape with a hole created by a ver de la grappe (worm)

A grape with a hole created by a ver de la grappe (worm). The grape would soon be cut away

Healthy and delicious Grenache grapes











As the morning heated up it was time to casse croute. A drink of water I thought, wrong! Out came the picnic table, a collection of charcuterie (my pescatarian ways raising more rugbymen mirth!) and then some cheeses from La Fromagerie, a shop in Béziers. These were some of the best cheeses I have ever tasted, including a runny and perfect St Marcellin. Naturally, in every sense of the word, to accompany these treats were a couple of magnums of Vin Des Amis, the most appropriate of wines for today.

Tina, the 'rugbymen', Jeff, Michel and myself

Tina, the ‘rugbymen’, Jeff, Michel and myself

Welcome shade










Michel does the honours

Michel does the honours


Icare checks that everything is up to scratch

Icare checks that everything is up to scratch












12.30pm, grapes picked it was time to return to the cellars. The Grenache was put into tank to be fermented by carbonic maceration. This is where whole bunches of grapes are put in tank and the weight of the grapes gradually bursts the skins and starts fermenting the grapes at the bottom of the tank. Most of the grapes begin to ferment inside their skins. The result is usually more fruit and less tannin and adds a different layer of complexity when blended with other grapes fermented traditionally after being pressed

We came, we picked, we sorted

We came, we picked, we sorted

La force des rugbymen











Jeff shared some of the juice / wines from various tanks from the harvests of the last few weeks. These are, obviously, at different stages of development according to date of picking, speed of fermentation etc. There were  a multitude of flavours, richness and acidity and so much promise for another excellent vintage despite the dry spring and summer. Low in quantity but high in quality.

The Mourvedre being checked for density

The Mourvedre being checked for density, it was a delicious fruitbomb to taste

At work at the sorting table checking Mourvedre grapes which have a beautiful blood coloured juice

At work, the previous Tuesday, at the sorting table checking Mourvedre grapes which have a beautiful blood coloured juice












And that I thought was that. Wrong again! Back to Jeff’s house,

the celebrated 7, Rue De La Pompe (name of one of Jeff’s cuvées) and into the garden where, joined by families of the rugbymen, children and 17 adults sat down to a delicious meal of salads, a giant seafood pasta, more La Fromagerie cheeses, and several huge fruit tarts. Just fantastic, many thanks to the cooks, Michel for cooking the pasta through, and to Jeff for his generosity. Why so few pictures of the meal? Well I’d like to claim a technical hitch but it was probably more due to this…

Jeff and Balthazar

Jeff and Balthazar

I don’t think I have ever seen a Balthazar bottle actually filled with wine. This was Vin Des Amis 2013, all 12 litres of it. As the afternoon wore on it was amazing to taste how the wine developed and opened up allowing the Grenache fruit to really express itself. And, to make a comparison, a magnum of 2010 Vin Des Amis which was beautiful. Fresh yet complex and long lasting. Thus it was after 6pm when we finally stood up from the table. Pat had been very abstemious as we had to get back to Margon and then to the theatre in Pézenas. I admit to being a little merry.

It had been a fantastic day, one I shall always cherish and remember. I have always wanted to pick grapes and take part in a wine harvest. Dream fulfilled in the company of some terrific people who were welcoming, friendly and tolerant of the two English incomers. What a treat to spend the day in the company of French people at work and at play, even if the speed of their French became way too fast for me at times. Work to do there. And, work aplenty still to do in the year ahead – the wines have still to be made, bottling to do, pruning and taillage in the vineyards. I can’t wait!

I must say a huge thank you to Jeff whose patience, friendship and generosity are the stuff of legend. I posted recently about the story of the Chaud Doudou and its moral of sharing everything good. The gathering of friends and colleagues in his vineyard, cellars and garden was living proof that he carries on that tradition of chaud doudou. He wants to share his work and his passion for nature and the wines he creates. This he achieved magnificently today.

Surrounded and sharing

Surrounded and sharing


The scenes of trees in the video show some bat houses erected for them to shelter, part of the diversity encouraged at Mas Coutelou. The music is, of course, Elbow. And, for those who can’t get enough of him, Icare makes an appearance!

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Be warned the next post means harvest is back!!   IMG_0150   IMG_0129

Vendange is in full swing across the region. If, like me, you thought winemaking is a glamorous and romantic calling then believe me it is also very, very hard work. I have spent two and a half days working in the cellars with my friend Jeff Coutelou (Mas Coutelou). They were great days, fascinating and enjoyable and, however hard the work, it was good to look at my surroundings and the blue skies and think that this is why I wanted to come to France and how different to being in a classroom or a meeting.

I intend to go through the winemaking process that I witnessed and I shall keep it simple as I am a novice, don’t understand the full science and most people looking at this would not want all the technical details I suspect. Please let me know if I am wrong.