The two reports on the 2020 vendanges with Jeff Coutelou featured the photography of Flora Rey, Jeff’s niece. I thought it was worth highlighting some of the other photos Flora took as well as my favourites. Flora is very skilled, I gave her my camera last year and her photos were on a completely different level to mine. It inspired me to go on a course, sadly I haven’t had the opportunity to apply that learning. Anyway, here are the photos
And my favourite photograph, showing the camaraderie and work of vendanges in an ethereal light. What a great photo this is Flora.
All photos by Flora Rey, you can find more of her work on Facebook
I had a chat with Jeff on Saturday to check on progress and plans for this week. Heavy rain (30mm) that day meant that harvesting would be a little more difficult on Monday as the cars and vans would not be able to get into the vineyards. However, that has been the only significant blip in this year’s vendanges (perhaps me not being there has brought good luck!). There has been little disease despite an outbreak of mildew back in June but Jeff was able to get on top of that before it became significant. Happily, he repeated that the grapes are in excellent condition.
The other good news is that quantity is also good, which should mean more wine available for everyone. Remember that many of the 2019 cuvées are not yet released due to slow fermentations delaying the whole process of winemaking. Therefore, I would think it is likely that many of the 2020s will be held back too. Overall, though there will be plenty of Coutelou wines in the next couple of years. The rain of Saturday will also boost quantities a little more in grapes such as Grenache and Carignan which were the later ones to be picked. The Grenache is rich so the rain will help to make it more balanced as well as providing higher yields, it was a well-timed break in the weather.
The only other issue, and one I had heard was an issue in other areas of the Languedoc, was vers de la grappe, the moth larvae which is hatched in the grapes and can spoil bunches as grape juice flows onto the bunch. Fortunately, the problem is not on a large scale though Jeff wanted to get a move on in finishing the harvest as the moths are now adult and will lay eggs if the grapes are still on the vine.
As most grapes are now picked, the hard work shifts to the cellar and the making of the wine, pressing, remontage, pigeage. Decisions about which grapes go into which tank, which might be mixed together and in what type of container, the cement or stainless steel tanks, amphora or barrel. The 3D puzzle in Jeff’s head, and spreadsheet, gets complicated.
Flower Power, the complantation of Font D’Oulette vineyard, continues to provide meagre returns, 8 cases this year after similar yields in the last two vintages. These young vines will take some years to properly mature and produce more fruit. The grapes were mixed with Syrah from Segrairals which was picked early. That combination was pressed on Saturday and will make a good, juicy, light wine.
The Cinsault of Rome was good but the whites (Muscats, Grenaches Blanc and Gris) of the higher part of the vineyard yielded little though that was partly due to some locals having helped themselves to some bunches probably as eating grapes. The few cases brought back were mixed with Macabeu and Grenache Gris from Peilhan and put into one of the amphorae.
The other amphora will be used for the various blanc and gris grapes (Carignan, Grenache etc) also from Peilhan.
Meanwhile the grapes picked have started to ferment well. Jeff is especially pleased with the Syrahs and the good news, for me at least, is that La Vigne Haute could well be made from La Garrigue. So, lots of positive news from Puimisson, the team is clearly working well and we can enjoy these excellent photographs to glimpse what is happening there.
I may not be there in person but I certainly am in Puimisson in spirit. Jeff has kept me up to date however and his niece Flora has taken some lovely photos and allowed me to share them. So what has been happening with the Coutelou harvest.
Before they began Jeff reported to me that the grapes were ‘magnifiques’, high praise indeed from a viticulteur, a group who are infamously pessimistic. The promise of 2020 producing something exceptional would be very in keeping, a year when nothing ordinary happens. The grapes ripened early however, problematically, at much the same rate across varieties. This means that there has been a need to get the grapes in as quickly as possible.
Normally, certain varieties ripen earlier than others and so it is easy to organise picking and plan it across the weeks of harvest. When they ripen simultaneously there is pressure to get them in before they become too mature and over ripe.
Fortunately, all has gone well so far. The white grapes were picked first, as usual, and came in with good acidity and around 13,5% alcohol. There was talk of bubbles being made, not an annual event.
Segrairals and Sainte Suzanne followed with Grenache and Syrah to the fore, the two grapes which provide the foundation of many of the Coutelou cuvées, Ste. Suzanne for example being the traditional home of Le Vin des Amis. A successful harvest with those two grapes means a successful harvest overall and relief for Jeff.
La Garrigue was picked on Wednesday 26th and Flora took some great photos of the picking of its Syrah, home of La Vigne Haute in good years. Regular readers know that this is my favourite wine of all so fingers crossed that this Syrah is up to standard, if not perfect it is used for other cuvées. Rome was harvested on Thursday and that gave me a pang of regret and disappointment, I miss my favourite vineyard.
With a new team working in the vines and in the cellar Jeff along with the regular team of Moroccan pickers things have moved along quickly. The new machine to help to sort the grapes has worked very well and saved time as well as being very accurate and efficient. Flora’s photos suggest at least some whole berry fermentations, the carbonic maceration technique which often makes fresh, fruity wine.
So far so good. Fingers crossed for what remains, some of the later varieties such as Carignan and Mourvedre. Something good may come out of this wretched year after all.
A March is definitely not in the vines this year. Sadly, the UK government’s introduction of quarantines for travel to and from France was the straw which broke the camel’s back. It was unlikely that I would have been joining Jeff Coutelou this year for vendanges but that is now definitive. I have worked the last six vendanges with Jeff but that run has come to an end. It is very sad.
On the positive side Jeff reports that the grapes are ‘magnifiques’, there is every hope that he will be making excellent wines. A silver lining to the cloud which is 2020. He has a novice team this year, my experience might have been useful but it is not to be.
Jeff has been busy and unable to take his usual break in the summer. Last year’s wines were slow to finish their fermentations, he had to wait for Spring for that to happen. He has given the wines time to settle and mature in the large tanks but, as harvest approaches, he needs those tanks for the 2020 wines. Therefore, the team has been busy bottling and the wines will sit and rest for a few months before they go on sale.
Last week he had a visit from Christina Rasmussen, one of the founders of Little Wine, the website I have acclaimed on here before. Christina sent me a lovely photo of them with Icare and I am looking forward to her report on the site.
Really sad news from the Languedoc with the death of Raymond Le Coq, former owner of the Cave St Martin in Roquebrun. He was the most generous and friendly of hosts and I spent many happy times at the restaurant and wine bar, including the harvest evening when local natural producers got together with magnums of their wines.
On a positive note I was chatting with James Madden the other day. James worked the 2016 harvest with us and now has his own winery in the Adelaide Hills. I reported on this when we stayed with James and his family in 2018. At the time his wines were labelled under the name of Little Things but, due to a large company using that name on one of their wines, he had to change the name to Scintilla Wines. The good news is that a couple of his wines are being imported into the UK. Brunch Wine Bar in Liverpool is the wise importer. As James and I are both Liverpool FC supporters that seems very appropriate.
James tells me that last year’s harvest is his best yet, he has been busy pruning and is looking for more vines of his own. Exciting times for him and I hope that at some point not too distant I can return to visit him. Meanwhile I have ordered some of those wines!
Jeff will send me photos of vendanges and keep me in the loop. Hopefully I can still report on what is going on in Puimisson so stay tuned.
Day 3 was all about grapes from one vineyard so Day 4, September 4th, was a contrast. Muscat from Peilhan, the remaining Syrah in Ste. Suzanne (Metaierie) plus a few rows of Grenache from there, a few rows of the Syrah of Segrairals were all picked.
The highlight for me, however, was picking Rome. This is my favourite vineyard, I think most readers will know that by now. The semi seclusion, surrounding trees, wildlife and collection of vines in gobelet (free standing) all make this one of my favourite places on Earth, just look at the photo under the heading.
The variety and nature of the vines make them more interesting to pick, they are individual with bunches spread around them rather than the more uniform growth in most vines trained on wires. This makes it slower work but the rewards of Rome make the work pleasurable. Jeff will blend these grapes with some of the others to make a cuvée as Rome, like most of the parcels, was producing rich, concentrated juice but small quantities due to the drought.
Tony Boris et Alain Alain, Boris Fabrice
Picking there did give me the opportunity to get to know better the 2019 team. Fabrice, a long-time friend of Jeff’s, I have got to know a little over the years but it is good to have more time with him. Alain, Tony, Boris are new friends. One of the benefits and joys of each vendange is getting to know new people. Most of these guys are spending their holidays as volunteers, they are all good company, work hard and are shaping into one of the best teams I have known in my six years here.
Day 5 brought another interesting harvest. Riveyrenc is a traditional, but rare, grape variety in the Languedoc. Thierry Navarre in St. Chinian has done much to maintain its profile and deserves much credit for his very good wine. In March 2015 Jeff planted Riveyrenc Noir and Riveyrenc Gris along with other rare varieties such as Terret Noir and Blanc, Piquepoul Noir and Gris, Morastel. I was there that hot day and four years later these vines are producing really good grapes already.
We picked around 37 cases of Riveyrenc and, I’m happy to report, the grapes were much juicier than anything we had picked so far. It was a joy to see juice in the cases as we sorted them back at the cellar, up to now the cases have been very dry. The Terret Noir and Blanc were rather less generous in quantity but were added to boost the quantity. That these vines are producing such good fruit so young promises well for the future.
Riveyrenc GrisTerret Noir and Blanc
Syrah and Grenache (just a few rows of each) from La Garrigue were also picked in the morning. The afternoon brought the first Cinsault of the year, from Segrairals. Cinsault grapes are commonly big and juicy, the vintage means that is not totally the case this year but the idea was to bring in some low alcohol fruit to blend with other varieties, mission accomplished.
I also helped Jeff carry out a débourbage of the white and rosé, that is separating the juice from the solids which remained to clarify the wine as it begins its fermentation. The colourful residue always looks interesting, but it has no place in a fresh wine.
Rome, juicy grapes, cellar work, rare varieties – it’s getting better all the time.
The magical mystery tour which is the vendanges is under way. That’s an invitation to read on for the next few weeks to follow the course of what happens in Puimisson with Jeff Coutelou and the gang. Satisfaction guaranteed, I hope.
Regular readers will be aware that nature has not been kind this year. What promised to be a great vintage in June with bountiful, beautiful fruit has been undermined by drought. It has not rained since then and so the bunches are still bountiful but they are made up of small grapes, quantities will be meagre. The ratio of juice to skins, pips and stalk is nowhere near the average meaning choices about winemaking have to be made, for example removing stalks rather than whole bunch to improve the ratio.
The 8 cases from Flower Power
We began on Friday August 30th with a morning pick to make a new cuvee. Flower Power vineyard (Font D’Oulette) was the starting point. This vineyard was planted with a rich variety of grapes, twenty or more – some rare. Clairette Musquée (originally the Hungarian Org Tokosi), Delizia Di Vaprio, Aramon Gris to name just three. Jeff has invested heavily in this parcel, for example bringing volcanic soils to add life, and the vines have looked healthier than previous years with more fruit. However, as a prime example of the ravaging effects of drought, despite more bunches on the vines, we harvested only eight cases, as opposed to seven last year.
Clairette Musquée and Aramon Gris, amongst the rare Flower Power grapes
To supplement the Flower Power, more Clairette Musquée from Peilhan and some Syrah from Segrairals at the other end of the village. The grapes were taken back to the cellar, and put into stainless steel tank with some dry ice to stop fermentation and allowing the juice to soak up some of the colour and flavours from the skins. (The wine was pressed three days later and will now ferment).
Syrah is sorted then put into the dry ice filled tank
Day two, Monday September 2nd began with the white grapes of La Garrigue; Sauvignon Blanc (low alcohol, bright acidity, very Sauvignon), Muscat d’Alexandrie, Viognier. Straight into the press, sent into stainless steel upstairs in the cellar, a fresh dry white wine in the making.
La Garrigue’s white grapes, Julien loading the press, brown pips show ripeness, the grapes are fleshy rather than juicy
Afterwards time for the Merlot of Le Colombié. Not the grape which Jeff favours particularly but year after year it produces good wine to be blended with others in cuvées such as Sauvé De La Citerne and Vin De Table.
This year the grapes were very small, they were destemmed and into one of the original concrete tanks. I had been sorting it for 4 hours or so and the tank was less than half full, such is the paucity of juice. More was added but yields were well down.
Alain and Alan sorting Merlot, one of us has hair
The fruit is clean, dry and disease free so sorting is mainly about removal of leaves, snails and unformed grapes. The quality is excellent, the juice tastes delightful with plenty of fruit profile and acidity – just wish there was more of it. Jeff ‘joked’ feelingly that with the small tank of Merlot he might make 10 euros profit.
Day 3 and the Syrah of Sainte Suzanne (Metaierie on the map). This is the parcel which provides much of the fruit for the much loved Coutelou wine, Le Vin Des Amis. More of the same, very healthy fruit, concentrated and tasting sweet and ripe but… small berries.
A losing argument with a boiling hot cup of tea put me out of action on Day 3 but I did manage to get some photos (of the grapes not my blisters you will be relieved to know).
There will be twists and turns ahead in the next few weeks, sadly there is no forecast of any rain to help us. Let us see where the mystery tour takes us.
“They think it’s all over, it is now,” were the famous words of commentator Kenneth Wolstenholme when England scored their fourth goal to win the World Cup of 1966. Well to mix metaphors one more time, Jeff decided it was time to get the band back together after we had thought the vendanges were completed.
Not again! I’m sleeping
There remained a parcel of Cabernet Sauvignon that Jeff thought not to be worth collecting but the last couple of weeks they had ripened a bit more and there was enough to warrant one last pick on Tuesday 2nd October. The pickings were meagre, it took 7 or 8 pickers up to two hours to fill the 16 cases which are brought back to the cellar to be sorted again and then put in tank. Aching muscles and stuttering machinery protested a little at the reprise but the stainless steel tank in the photo was just about half filled by the end of the day. The grapes themselves were very good, Cabernet always gives small berries but they were healthy.
The juice went to Thierry for analysis as usual. A solid 14% potential alcohol, though lacking a little acidity. It tastes juicy and clean and I am sure will be used either for blending or in the spirits made for the Coutelou range.
Analyses old and new taking place
We went on to taste more of the tanks and the results are promising. The Syrah of La Garrigue is undoubtedly the star (even allowing for my bias towards this perennial favourite), the Carignan, Flower Power also very good. Perhaps the biggest surprise was a very long, fruity Grenache – the grape which had suffered most from this year’s dreadful mildew. Grapes are very hardy it would seem, helped by a skilful winemaker of course. That will not make up for the loss in yields this year, 50% would appear to be the figure. Sadly this might well bring price rises. We had another caviste at the cellar wanting to buy wine that day, the latest in a long line through the vendanges. Sadly, there is not enough to satisfy existing customers’ demand let alone new outlets.
A lot more smaller tanks have been needed this year, a sign of low yields
it was good to have a day together again, the financial cost of picking was undoubtedly higher than usual but there is more wine in tank and hopefully that will offset some of this year’s hardships.
Traditional end of vendanges, the boss does some cleaning of the cases
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!
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.
My fifth vendanges with Jeff Coutelou, time has flown and instead of a complete ignoramus helping where I can without getting in the way I now understand the different jobs and skills needed and can tackle most, if not all. This year’s reduced harvest (possibly up to 50% less than average) means we need a reduced team and so I hope I can put those years of experience to use to support Jeff along with Michel, Julien, Nathan and the team of pickers.
This year has been difficult due to the weather as I have tried to explain on here before. The long period of rain during the Spring meant that mildew hit hard across the region. Some friends have lost all their grapes, others significant amounts. Those in organic and biodynamic farming have been hit hardest as synthetic anti-mildew treatments proved more effective than organic ones. A couple of bursts of hail during thunderstorms triggered by the heatwave of July/August also damaged vines and bunches of grapes. One of the effects of both these problems is damage to the foliage, making it more difficult for the vine to have photosynthesis to produce energy to ripen the grapes easily.
Top left – mildew dried bunch on the left, top right – hail damage to grapes and leaves underneath
All of this meant that unlike other regions of France the vendanges began later than usual, the first picking was August 29th a full two weeks after 2015 for example. We began with white grapes, Sauvignon Blanc, Carignan Blanc and Muscat from La Garrigue vineyard. I did a little picking and then moved to the cellar for sorting.
The pickers in action, my bucket and case, back to the cellar and first analysis
With the problems of 2018 sorting might have been very difficult but actually not so much so far. The ripened grapes are healthy, the dry heat of summer means there is no evidence of rot. Instead we are looking for grapes dried by mildew, many bunches have clusters of them, they can be easily separated from the healthy grapes. Another issue is the number of unformed grapes, like little hard, green peas amongst the bunches. This is due a problem called millerandage, where the flower was unable to set the fruit, a product of the rainy, cold Spring and early mildew.
Cinsault with millerandage left side
The first red grapes soon followed, the Grenache from Sainte Suzanne, often the backbone of Le Vin Des Amis. This was the parcel hardest hit by mildew and the quantities are heartbreakingly reduced. Nonetheless there was enough to take picking on the afternoon of Wednesday and the Thursday morning. The sorted grapes were passed through the new destemmer (mercifully quieter than the previous one) and then sent for a short, cold maceration.
In the video Michel is putting the chapeau into the tank to cover the grapes. Dry CO2 has been added to make the grapes cold so that they do not get too hot and ferment too wildly. The juice was run off the skins on Saturday morning. Jeff has a number of options for using this juice, which was never going to be serious enough for using in a classic red wine.
We restart picking on Tuesday, September 4th. There are lots of healthy parcels ahead and things will perk up. This initial burst was a useful warm up, mechanical problems with the press and pump are now sorted and we head towards the main event. Wish us well.
There are plenty of healthy, juicy grapes to look forward to like this Carignan for Flambadou
And one member of the team just loves this time of year, with lots of attention.
On Tuesday I was delighted to be asked to give a presentation on the 2017 vendanges at Mas Coutelou and the problems of the vintage which had been widely reported. Around 60 people were in attendance at The Tuesday Club in Pézenas and I gave a talk about the events of the vendanges, the decisions which must be made by Jeff as well as a report on the problems nationwide and Puimisson. This was followed by a tasting of Bibonade, Flambadou 2015 as well as two samples straight from tank, Cinsault and Cabernet Sauvignon to demonstrate the change in structure and taste after fermentation.
I have uploaded the presentation as a video to Youtube which you can see here.