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

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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.


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.


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.


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.


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.






Mas Coutelou 2015 (Part 2)


En français

Thursday, August 11th was the last day before Jeff shut up shop for a few days as he does every year to celebrate the Béziers Féria. A few days of rest and recuperation before the preparations really start for the vendanges. As he had received a number of requests for visits Jeff decided to group them all together and have a tour of the vines and tasting with lunch.


Visitors from Grenoble, Orléans and Nanterre assembled at the cave along with my friend and sommelier Sandra Martinez and we set off around some of the vineyards. Jeff explained his philosophy and vineyard work and it’s worth repeating a couple of points of note. I mentioned the problem of vers de la grappe a few weeks ago which Jeff treated with a spraying of clay to discourage the moth from laying its eggs. We found a bunch in La Garrigue which was affected and Jeff opened it up to reveal the cocoon of the larvae.


Vers de la grappe cocoon

He also explained how bats are the ideal solution and why he provides shelters, each bat would eat around 2,000 insects a day including the moths responsible for vers de la grappe.

We also looked around at the majority of vineyards and their dark green colour at a time when the vine is putting its resources into the grapes to get them to maturity, as that is how they reproduce. So, in a natural state the leaves start to look pale and tired as the vine is not channelling energy into the leaves. The dark green, attractive vines are so coloured because of the nitrogen feeds and, in some cases, irrigation.

We returned to the domaine where we were joined by a group of wine professionals. In the garden we tasted a range of Mas Coutelou wines as well as some lovely salads and (for the carnivores) some charcuterie.


Jeff leads the tasting accompanied by his sister and niece

The list of wines shared, all from 2015 except the last, was: Bibonade (rosé and white), Peilhan Blanc, Maccabeu, OW1, 5SO Simple, Sauvé De La Citerne, On Peut Pas Vraiment Dire Que, Classe, La Buvette À Paulette, Flower Power, Flambadou, L’Oublié, Devigne Qui Vient Diner, 5J

I missed the Bibonades and Peilhan as I was getting the Maccabeu from tank. I had a bottle of Peilhan at home recently though and it was lovely, really strong evidence of the quality of 2015. All apples and pears and fresh acidity with a long finish. Even by Coutelou standards it is an exceptional wine.



The Maccabeu is, if anything, even better. Cooked apple and cinnamon flavours, fresh acidity, almost smoky. There is so much going on here and, as the jug I collected the wine in was in front of me, I kept being drawn back to it through lunch. The wine changed and opened out with more fruit and spice. This will develop beautifully when it is bottled, a stunner, my new favourite.


OW1 is Jeff’s first skin contact wine. He was reluctant to join the trend and didn’t want an orange wine but this spent plenty of time on skins, I remember Cameron and I carrying out a manual pigeage. Now bottled the wine has texture and tannins from that skin contact but there is plenty of fruit and remains balanced and fresh. Very good.


Manual pigeage of OW1

5SO was on good form. The boisterous, chatty group became quiet for the first time, captured by its fruit profile and drinkability on a hot summer’s day, which essentially is what it was designed to do.

Citerne was one I didn’t have last week and it had been some time since I had tasted it. It showed well, the Mourvedre adding a real plummy depth. Another wine which will emerge in coming months, another to look forward to. OPPVDQ was on great form, another to quieten the crowd. It confirmed my opinion that this is a wine which will really benefit from some time in bottle, hang on to some if you have them. La Buvette À Paulette was last week’s big surprise and another bottle confirmed the pleasure, really showing its quality.


Flower Power not yet properly labelled. What a colour!

Flower Power took some time to come around but now that it has done so I can confirm that this will strengthen the reputation which it earned in its first vintage in 2014. The vineyard is still young and will continue to improve the wine it delivers, if the snails leave it alone. The ten grape varieties give a complex story of light and shade, red and dark fruits, floral and sappy.

Flambadou was once again a star, showing the lightness of touch in this Carignan. Jeff describes it as like a Pinot Noir. There is depth and character packed into quite a light structure. The vineyard has a light layer of limestone beneath the fine clay and it is this limestone which adds the complexity to the wine. A grand cru of Carignan.

L’Oublié and its story once again captured the imagination of everyone, its secondary flavours beguiling the tastebuds. Devigne Qui Vient Diner is the wine which Jeff made in partnership with Christian Venier from the Loire, Gamay added to some Languedoc grapes such as Cinsault. My, this has improved with a few months in bottle (magnum), really delivering a rounder more harmonious blend with zappy fruit and lovely sweet fruit.


Finally 5J the Grenache Gris from 2012 aged in barrel made to reflect a Spanish fino to accompany the best hams. Oxidised notes, barrique notes and a flash of clean fruit, quince and apple.

A great day, much longer than most were expecting but nobody showed any signs of fatigue or willingness to depart. Many joined us in the cave des soleras to taste some of the old wines there. And poignantly, some wine of Jean-Claude on what would have been his 80th birthday. His legacy will live on.

I enjoyed reading the Facebook post of one of the visitors Benoit who described Jeff as a magician and an artist. The day was a success.



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.


Stressed vines


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.


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.


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.


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.




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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