amarchinthevines

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


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Vendanges 2018 – Part 3

Friday 7th and Saturday 8th

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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!

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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.

 

 


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Nature can be harsh: Part 3 -pests

In Parts 1 & 2 I have tried to explain some of the difficulties encountered at Mas Coutelou during 2016 due to natural influences such as climate and disease. In this final part of the series I look at pests which have added to those woes.

Vers de la grappe

These are literally grape worms, more specifically caterpillars, which form and grow on bunches of grapes. The caterpillars are the larvae of Eudémis moths which prefer to lay their eggs on shiny surfaces, so grapes are the target more than the rest of the vine. The larvae obviously damage the grapes themselves but that damage is worsened because of juice running on the bunches attracting infection and disease.

The warm weather and humidity of 2016 definitely encouraged vers de la grappe though it is an ongoing problem. It can be treated chemically of course though that is not an option for organic producers. Substances such as clay can be sprayed in spring to add a chalkier, duller surface to new grapes so that moths are not attracted to them. However, the solution favoured by Jeff Coutelou is to plant hedges and trees. These not only act as barriers to less environmentally aware neighbours, add polyculture to a region which can appear solely planted by vines but also they can shelter bats.

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Bat shelter in Sainte Suzanne

Bats feed on Eudémis larvae and moths and can eat thousands every day. Bat shelters are to be found around Mas Coutelou, eg in Sainte Suzanne and Rome vineyards.

The photographs above show a vers de la grappe cocoon and, on the right distinctive holes showing where the moth laid its eggs. When the vendanges begin the pickers and sorters must look out for signs such as these but also damaged, shrivelled grapes in bunches where the larvae have been.

Snails

If I could have named 2016 in the Chinese form  I would have called it the year of the snail. They were everywhere. The two photos below show an olive tree in Segrairals. This was  one of many which were completely covered by snails, blanched by the sun and feeding on the greenery and moisture in the tree.

However, vines were equally attractive to them. I spent whole mornings picking snails from vines during the Spring only to find them covered again a day or two later. Flower Power (Font D’Oulette) was particularly badly affected with the snails heading straight for the new growth and buds in April and May.

The virtual drought in the first six months of 2016 meant that the snails were desperate for moisture and food and so the healthy, young vines were too good to miss. The consequence was obvious, production of this much lauded new wine was reduced drastically, partly by the weather but equally the work of the snails. Birds and other predators would help solve the problem but the monoculture of the area (outside of Mas Coutelou) means there are, sadly, no great numbers of them.

Vendangeurs and sorters must try to pick off snails as they hide in the bunches. Dozens get through to the cellar especially in the early morning when there is moisture around. The photo on the right shows a lot of rejected material, leaves, poor grapes but lots of snails as you will see if you enlarge it. Just imagine how many get through into the wine with machine picking and limited triage.

Neighbours

Yes they can be included under the title of pests. Well, one of them can be. As regular readers will know 2016 has been punctuated by two occasions of vandalism by one particular neighbour, both upon the Carignan Noir vineyard of Rec D’Oulette. First he mowed a patch of wildflowers which Jeff had sown to encourage insects and birds (for reasons identified above). Then he took a machine to some of the young trees Jeff planted around the vines, destroying four year old trees such as hazelnut.

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Vandalised trees with tyre tracks revealing the culprit

Jeff was justifiably upset by these attacks. He was simply trying to enrich the area, bring diversity to it but that was clearly too much for a traditionalist, more used to destroying wildlife for his own short term gain and dreadful wine. However, he was encouraged and revitalised by the massive support of friends and colleagues around the world. The flowers grew back and more densely, the trees replanted in greater numbers and Jeff Coutelou stands tall as the man trying hard to improve the reputation of Puimisson and its wines.

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Between a rock and a hard place

En français

Back in the Languedoc and, the first morning, I went over to see the vines. Jeff had sent me a message that they were in real stress because of the lack of rainfall. Ironically we had driven south through France under leaden skies and through fairly steady rain, until we reached the Languedoc where the skies turned blue and the temperatures rose. It has been very hot here throughout the three weeks I was away and, following a very dry autumn last year and not much rainfall in 2016, the vines are definitely in need of a good drink.

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Stressed vines

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Clear signs of drought

I have written many times this year about the vine stress due to very unusual seasons, the warm winter, cool spring. Sadly, summer has also added to their difficulties. Sure enough the vines look dry. The apex of the vine is often a good way to tell their health and they look tired and bare, almost burned.

To safeguard the health of the young, newly planted or grafted vines Jeff and Julien were busy watering them in the Flower Power vineyard, Font D’Oulette. This is allowed as they are not grape producing this year. Straw was then placed around them to keep the moisture inside. Julien showed his dedication by doing more of this work at night time.

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Even Icare was feeling the heat despite his haircut, he kept hold of the stick when it was thrown as if to say I’m not chasing after this anymore.

Jeff also informed me of yet another problem, ver de la grappe. This is the larvae of a moth which feeds on the grape. I took a photo of an affected grape last year.

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There are chemical treatments available to prevent and to treat the problem, no use to an organic producer of course and these chemicals are especially harmful, you can’t use the grapes until 21 days after spraying.

So, for Jeff the treatment involved spraying clay onto the vines to try to make the grape skins less attractive to the moth so it will lay the eggs elsewhere. This was only the second time in twenty years that he had sprayed against ver de la grappe. Also in the spray was fern and seaweed, the fern is a natural insecticide and the seaweed gives a health boost to the vine. However, having sprayed this morning (July 31st) Jeff was hoping that the much needed rain would hold off for a couple of days to allow the spray to work.

You can guess what happened next. A storm, heavy rain, much of the spray washed off the grapes. It is that sort of year, nothing seems to be going right. The rain which did fall was minimal and only undid the good work. The worst of all worlds. To spray or not to spray? To rain or not to rain? Caught between a rock and a hard place.

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Colour and life remains

 

As I made my way around the vineyards there were plenty of good grapes to see, véraison (the changing colour of red grapes) has begun especially amongst the Syrah and Grenache of La Garrigue.

And I spent some time in Rome, a very parched looking vineyard but the ideal place to reflect upon its creator, Jean-Claude. There are some things to be thankful for even in this difficult year.

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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!