amarchinthevines

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


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The grapes, they are a-changin’

Jeffs photo

Syrah in Ste. Suzanne, photo by Jeff

Version francaise

Come gather round people.

The summer heat is settled and the vines are entering their final stage of the year. They have pushed out long stems, tendrils reaching around supporting wires, foliage at its maximum size and fruit has turned from tiny, green, pea-like balls into round, plump grapes. Taste them and they are still highly acidic, sour and sharp. Pips have formed and the red grapes are just beginning to change colour.

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Vines in La Garrigue reaching 2m into the air

This process of véraison is one of the magical turning points of the year, the grapes are now becoming the focus of the vine’s energy. It will spend less time growing and reaching out and more time in creating sugars for the grapes. The bunches are tightening up, the grapes swelling. From now until vendanges they will continue to grow and to store more sugar. The reason, of course, is to attract birds and animals to eat them and scatter the pips to allow the vines to reproduce. It is humans who have learned that this energy from sun and soil can be directed to the creation of wine, we encourage the sugars to change into alcohol and the juice to become wine.

Grapes 2 weeks ago above, and now (below)

Neighbouring vines to Mas Coutelou show dark green foliage, fed by nitrates. the natural evolution on this domaine means that they are a lighter colour but they are vigorous, healthy and all is set fair. Small outbreaks of mildew have been managed by a few organic tisanes. Most of the disease has formed on the new growth which has not been treated, so Jeff has been around affected areas cutting back the foliage to remove the mildew and its spores which could bring back the disease if rain splashed them onto the vines in the next few weeks.

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Some mildew on outer leaves, these will be cut away

2017 has been relatively kind, much more so than the drought affected 2016 vintage. Yet other regions have been hit by frost and hail, Beaujolais recently damaged by the latter for example. Remember it was August last year when a hail storm hit the Languedoc and wiped out much of the production in Pic St. Loup and some vines in Puimisson. So, it is still to early to say that 2017 is set fair but it is promising. The vines are a-changin’, time to start getting excited.

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Grapes and vines battered by hail in Ste Suzanne 2016


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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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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

Careful pruning must follow.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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Changes

Time to head back to the UK for 3 weeks or so. Time to reflect on all that has happened since the dark, cold days of January. It has been wonderful to witness changes in seasons from almond blossom to irises to poppies to full bloom of flowers, fruits and, of course, vines. From the pruned sticks of January to the lush, verdant vines of June. Changes everywhere.

Let’s start in my favourite vineyard, Rome with photos from various months showing the gobelet vines I call the centurions in deference to their stature and location.

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La Garrigue, a vineyard of Syrah and Grenache as well as white varieties is one I have watched closely as it was where I watched Carole and Jeff prune in January. Read this collage left to right on both rows before the full growth in the centre.

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So what has changed in the grapes?

Top row

left – bourgeons / buds with their cottony covering and green specks of leaf

2nd from left – Etaillage and grappes / first leaves with the formation of future bunches

3rd from left – grappes / buds form in bunches

right – the bunches separate

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Bottom row

right – fleuraison with capuchons / the flowering of the grapes with little brown hoods

middle – fleuraison complete flowering bunch

left – boutons / the grapes begin to form

The grapes are starting to form their seeds which will gradually harden (nouaison). When I return here in July the black grapes will start to change colour (véraison). Can’t wait to see it.