“When all the parts of the puzzle start to look like they fit
Then I must remember there’ll be days like this” (Van Morrison, Days Like This)
As we approached the end of vendanges a number of the team were moving on. It was an inspired move to have a farewell day, picking, tasting and celebrating together, though we were already missing some like Charles, Carole and Maylis.
The morning dawned over Peilhan and the vineyard which we planted in March 2015. Rows of Terret Blanc and Noir, Riveyrenc Gris and Noir, Piquepoul Noir and Morastel produced grapes this year. They cannot be used in major cuvées sold to the public as they are too youthful. However, Jeff decided to pick them to make something for himself out of interest. So, on a bright, warm autumnal morning we gathered, picked, chatted and laughed.
Interesting to see how some varieties produce more than others already, more precocious perhaps, the Terret Noir being especially shy. Altogether we picked around six cases only but there was a real mix of colour and some nice looking fruit which went into a small cuve in whole bunches.
Later that day we gathered again, this time in the main cellar along with Thierry Toulouse, Jeff’s oenologue. We tasted through the whole range of 2016 wines in cuve before heading to a local restaurant for a meal. The results of the tasting were fascinating. Clearly, they are in a stage of transition, fermentations still progressing. Nonetheless the wines were already showing their character. I won’t go into too much detail here, though I did take notes to help me record how the wines change in coming months.
In summary though I was amazed. I have said many times on here how difficult this year has been. A very warm winter, drought, mildew, delayed summer being just some of the problems. Yet here we tasted some lovely fresh fruit, lively acidity and other promising signs. I would mention the Carignan Blanc, lovely Syrah and Grenache from La Garrigue, juicy Mourvèdre and in particular the wonderful Carignan Noir of Flambadou. All those puzzles which Jeff had to hold in his head about harvesting dates, moving wines, possible assemblages etc, well those puzzles were solved in the glass. I had expected some disappointments but somehow Jeff has conjured some potentially top quality wines.
At the end of the current wines Jeff also shared a 2003 bottle of white wine based on Grenache Blanc, Noir and Gris, called Roberta (it’s a long story!). This was one of three cuvées which were the first that Jeff made sans sulfites. Yet it was complex; fresh, fruity, nutty. A wine which made my heart sing, proof that SO2 is not required for ageing wines as we are often told. Perhaps in 13 years time we shall be tasting the 2016 wines and marveling at them too.
A fitting way to close the vendanges period, a team rightly proud of what it had achieved.
“When all the parts of the puzzle start to look like they fit
Then I must remember there’ll be days like this”
The weather has had its say and threatens to shout out loud in the next few days. Should we expect anything different in this most problematic of years? Saturday (Sept. 10th) was supposed to be a day for picking but a heavy shower fell in the morning and that was enough to stop the day in the vineyards. Grapes covered in rainwater would provide diluted juice, no good for quality producers though that did not stop some in the area.
However, there was still work to do in the cellar, remontages and pressing. The previous day some of the team had been clearing space in the solera cave so that the Muscat and Grenache picked from Rome vineyard would have room.
Sunday was a day off though more remontage and cellar work was done. There is no rest. Today (Monday 12th) was a normal day for many vignerons but at Mas Coutelou a big part of the team are the Moroccan pickers and it is Eid Mubarak. Therefore Jeff decided that they deserved the opportunity to celebrate their holy day and so no major picking. An act of respect which deserves mention.
Sadly, that act seems unlikely to be rewarded by the weather. There is a major threat of a large storm on Wednesday which would halt work again and require a few days for the grapes to recover before they could be harvested. More careful triage will also be required. Let us hope that the storm weakens or diverts.
Meanwhile Carole, James, Vincent and Charles were out picking Carignan Blanc this morning in Peilhan and the Grenache from Sainte Suzanne was pressed. Work continues despite everything this year throws at us. Tomorrow will see the harvest of Syrah from La Garrigue, the grapes which usually make La Vigne Haute.
In the last vendanges update I wrote about stages 1-3 of harvest; picking, care in the cuve and pressing. Well, all three are moving on apace.
Today (Sept. 9th) was the first pressing of the year. In the small basket press was the Grenaches from Rome vineyard picked earlier this morning. These were the same vines as the ones I picked last year for my special cuvée. By chance, or design, the younger barrel of that cuvée was given a soutirage this morning. It tasted very well just showing the influence of the barrel. As the other barrel and 27 litre glass bottle are much more fruity the eventual assemblage should be nicely balanced. Here is last year’s Grenache saying hello to its younger brother.
In the big press was the white picked last week, Maccabeu, Muscat (Alexandrie and Petits Grains) and Grenache Gris. The press is big but the bladder inside lightly squeezes the grapes to release the juice, a gentle giant. The juice now goes into cuve and will ferment into the finished wine.
Meanwhile stage 2 continues apace with remontage and pigeage of the growing number of wines now in cuve. Stages 2&3 require increasing effort, there was very little picking today though tomorrow will be busy again.
Wednesday saw a full day of Syrah from Segrairals. The grapes were good and often very juicy. There are sections of the parcel which seem to retain moisture and help the grapes even in such a dry year as 2016.
Thursday was the busiest day so far. A morning of picking Peilhan white grapes, mostly Maccabeu, Grenache Gris and Muscat. These had suffered through the attack of mildew in spring time and some careful triage was necessary. Nevertheless, small in quantity but good quality.
In the afternoon arrived the Cinsault from Segrairals which makes 5SO Simple. Cinsault gives bigger berries with lots of juice. The juice came in at around 10.5%, Jeff said that it would be a ‘vin dangereux’ as it would be very easy to just keep drinking it.
When I mention vendanges to most people they think of grape picking and, maybe, putting the grapes into a tank (cuve). However, vendanges means much more than that and we are now entering stage two of the process.
When the grapes have been picked and sorted they are stored in a cuve where the juice interacts with the skins extracting flavour, colour and also coming into contact with the yeasts which grow naturally on the skins. These yeasts then begin the process of fermentation which turns the sugars in the juice into an alcoholic wine. This mix of juice, skins, pips and flesh is known as must.
So, whilst picking continues at Mas Coutelou Jeff must already plan what is happening to those cuves of grapes which were picked a few days ago, You will remember from #1 that we picked Grenache and Syrah on days 1 and 2 and that they were in cuves 2A and 2B. They are picking up colour and the fermentation means that the sweet grape juice of last Wednesday is already very different. Still plenty of raspberry and red fruit flavours but the sugar levels have fallen and the liquid is now more austere, a little acidic and with a weight of alcohol. It has turned from child into young adult.
To ensure that the grape skins do not give unpleasant flavours, volatility etc., Jeff must ensure they do not dry out as they float on the juice, forming what is known as the cap (chapeau). Therefore, wine is pumped from the bottom of the cuve over the top of the chapeau to push it down a little and to moisten it. This is known as remontage.
Alternatively, an instrument or hand can be used to push the chapeau down into the juice, a process called pigeage.
When Jeff is satisfied that the juice is ready and has had optimal skin contact he will begin pressing the must to leave the final juice. We await the first press as yet but it will be in the next couple of days as the Grenache and Syrah are already showing their adolescence.
Meanwhile picking continues. Friday saw Sauvignon Blanc and Muscat À Petits Grains as the first white grapes of 2016 at the domaine. Monday saw the picking of the Merlot from Colombié which will, unusually, find its place in the Coutelou cuvées. I am no great fan of Merlot but the grapes were lovely and the juice tastes especially rich and full.
Today (Tuesday) was Flower Power day, sadly the snails won the battle this year. They ate so many of the buds in Spring that the vines struggled to produce much. The dryness merely confirmed Font D’Oulette would be low yielding in 2016. Around twenty cases is not much return for such a lovely parcel of vines. High quality grapes from the various cépages but very low quantity.
Clairette and Oeillade from Peilhan with some Grenache Gris and Muscat Noir was added to the mix. Also picked was the Cinsault from Rome which was in good condition with nice big berries. So my two favourite vineyards are already harvested.
Finally, some lovely Syrah from Segrairals was picked and there will be much more of this tomorrow. This Syrah is such good quality that Jeff is already excited about what he can do with it. Segrairals is the biggest vineyard of the domaine and is also serving up some of its best fruit.
A new sorting table was brought into play this week and it is certainly much more efficient than the previous method of sorting from the cases themselves. Triage of better quality but also much speedier too. The table is already paying for itself.
So, stage 1 (picking) is well under way, stage 2 (the must in cuve) is under way for some and stage 3 (pressing) will shortly begin. The jigsaw is already becoming more complicated for Jeff Coutelou.
In 2015 vendanges began on August 21st, in 2016 things kicked off on August 30th. The protracted cool spring and the drought contributed to a later harvest though not so late as predicted because of the hail on 17th August. This damaged some grapes especially in Sainte Suzanne (Metaierie) and Jeff decided that the grapes needed to be picked as they would lose acidity if left on the vine.
On the 30th it was the Syrah which was picked, unusual for a vendanges not to start with white grapes. Syrah normally produces small berries but these were especially small. The cagettes in which the grapes are transported back to the cave are usually running with grape juice, requiring regular cleaning. Today they were virtually dry. Jeff calculated that the volume of juice produced was around half of the normal harvest which is not good news. Hopefully other grapes in other vineyards have fared better but we shall see. This is all the result of the protracted dry spell in the region. Rainfall, other than the occasional storm where the rain comes too heavily. has been pitiful. The vines have found it hard to cope and give water to swell the grapes. The hail confounded the problem by shredding leaves which would help to nourish the grapes.
The good news was that the grapes gave lovely juice; fresh, very raspberry fruit and they smelled of beautiful warm spices. The measure showed potential alcohol of 12% so it will make a light, fresh Syrah wine or blend.
There was a full house to help out. Michel, Julien and Vincent as usual. We were joined by James, an Australian who is staying for the harvest to help his learning for making wine in the future. Charles who spent a few days with us last year is also here for a longer spell, he adds humour and energy. Jeff’s primary school classmate Maylis was also present spending the day in the vineyards. And Céline, Brice and their two girls were here on the way back from their holidays, it is always fun to see them.
One or two bits of machinery creaked under the strain of a new harvest but the changed cellar made cleaning so much easier. The team is taking shape for the challenges ahead. The Syrah sits in cuve 2A, I shall keep you up to date with its progress and path to the bottle.
Day 2, August 31st
The last of the Syrah was picked first. If you look at the photo of the vines with James picking you will notice the lack of foliage and therefore why Jeff felt the need to harvest now. First official analysis of the Syrah from yesterday showed healthier than expected acidity and potential alcohol, a welcome fillip.
Then came the Grenache from Ste. Suzanne, in many ways more problematic than the Syrah due to mildew earlier in the year. However, when it came in there were many good firm bunches of healthy fruit with possibly a little more juice than the Syrah. It was a very hot day so Jeff worked some magic by using frozen pellets of CO2 to stop the juice from starting to ferment too soon so that it doesn’t extract too much of the flavours of the dryer grapes before it is moved for the first time. This was the first time that Jeff has tried this method due to the nature of the vintage and its drought. Difficult to take a photo as all you could see was the mist of the frozen gas.
The juice tasted healthy and fresh with red fruits, a little vegetation still present. Yesterday’s Syrah was already darker, more weighty and very different to yesterday. Wine alchemy. It now sits in cuve 2B next door to the Syrah.
Tomorrow (September 1st) is a new moon and so no picking or work. It is also the 2nd anniversary of my arrival in France, days like this remind me why that decision was a good one.
Salut to Jean-Claude, tu nous manques
There was something of the nautical in these two photographs hence the title.
The preparations for the vendanges are in full swing, the hail has speeded up the start date as damaged grapes, especially, the Grenache in Sainte Suzanne, need to be picked earlier than foreseen. A tour of the vineyards on Wednesday morning with Jeff was an opportunity for him to taste the grapes and use the refractometer to measure the sugar and potential alcohol in them.
Picking will require even more care than usual in some parcels as the bunches will need to be checked thoroughly for any damage due to mildew, hail, vers de la grappe or any other issue. Many grapes will be left on the ground. The rest will be sorted back in the cave and Jeff has invested in a new sorting table to ensure scrutiny can be absolute. No chances will be taken as always, only healthy fruit will go into the wine. That is the how natural wines have to be, made from the healthiest fruit as nothing will be added to it to disguise faults, unripe grapes or unhealthy grapes.
In similar vein everything has been cleaned down, washing equipment is a time consuming but vital part of ensuring healthy grapes. Harmful bacteria are the enemy, with no SO2 antiseptics we have to make sure that everything is spotless.
And there have been plenty of other changes in the cellar to ensure that the winemaking will be top quality. Out has gone the old press and some big tanks (cuves) as I have mentioned before. In has arrived new stainless steel cuves, temperature controlled. There is more room, a new resin covered floor to make cleaning easier.
Steel gantries have been erected to make it easier to access the cuves from above. This will make it easier for any whole bunch winemaking as the grapes can be put in tank much more simply and with more checks on quality. It will also be easier to carry out pigeage (punching the grape skins, pips etc down into the juice) and remontage (where the juice is pumped over the top of the cap of grape skins etc). A new staircase to the gantry makes life a lot easier and safer too.
Some of the big cement cuves have been divided to enable Jeff to make smaller quantity wines which will offer more options at the time of assemblage.
So, Monday. We are ready. The grapes will be ready. Let the vendanges begin.