In the next couple of posts I am going to look at some photos taken during vendanges which highlight some oddities and insights into vines and wines which I have not covered in the story of the harvest.
This photo may look like a bunch of red grapes has been placed in amongst bunches of white grapes. The oddity is in fact that they came from the same vines. The grapes are mainly Grenache Blanc, the others are Grenache Gris. Grape varieties are basically variations of one another.
The Grenache family (Noir, Gris and Blanc) are all the same DNA, with the slightest mutation between them. This is also true of the Pinot family for example. In this case one or two of the Grenache Blanc vines has somehow produced one of the mutations in some of the bunches, the result is that a Grenache Blanc vine produced Grenache Gris grapes.
Grape breeding is a very inexact science. The crossing of grape varieties produces new varieties, eg Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Franc produced Cabernet Sauvignon. However, if I was to try to cross Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Franc it is unlikely that I would produce Cabernet Sauvignon vines, the original cross is a unique event.
The vines we see across vineyards worldwide are often cuttings propagated from successful vines which show characteristics favoured by the producer, such as quality or quantity of grapes. These clones are planted but, again, slight variety amongst the billions of cells in the vine means that they could well be different to the original vine, not identical clones at all.
Therefore, this case of grapes was fascinating to me. It is not that unusual for this to happen, but it certainly piques my interest as I learn more about grape varieties and grape growing.
The weather continues to confound here in the Languedoc. A couple of days of sunshine and heat and then back to grey clouds, warmth and wind. And now we have humidity and a few short but heavy showers.
The vines have been in terrific health until now and they still are as I write on June 10th. The new moon was on June 3rd and that is a time when biodynamic producers start to get twitchy as they believe it can bring out disease. The alternation between heat and chilly nights with humidity certainly encourages oidium and there have been a few hints of it emerging, for example in the Maccabeu. Nothing too concerning yet but Jeff used an organic treatment last week to nip any danger in the bud.
A tour of the vines the day after the new moon showed what good condition they are in and how quickly they have grown.
It also showed how mistaken I was when I wrote recently about the end of flowering. In fact everything is a couple of weeks delayed due to the dry winter and spring so there were flowers in profusion. A week later flowering is done, there are a lot of bunches on the vines and it is still very promising but let’s hope this humidity disappears soon.
One point of interest, the new plantings in Rome. The thick material around the base of the vines is to deter weeds from competing with the young plants and also to preserve moisture in the soil for their benefit.
Meanwhile the radio show I mentioned recently was broadcast and the podcast is well worth a listen, not least for The Clash classic.
After a month back in the UK due to bereavement I apologise for not posting for the last two weeks.
Ancient Cinsault in Rome
It was good to return to the Languedoc even in the midst of a midsummer heatwave. After a day’s acclimatisation I was at Jeff’s on Thursday morning, good and early. Well I thought so though he and Julien had been at work in the vines from 6am! Michel and Vincent were busy labelling some bottles of 7, Rue De La Pompe.
Leon Stolarski and his wife Diane arrived to meet up with Jeff, I can reveal that Leon will be the importer of Mas Coutelou wines in the UK along with Noble Rot bar in London. I showed them the updated cellar and Jeff led us on a tasting through the 2016 wines, of which more next time.
Almost as much as the people I missed the vineyards. They offer such variety, calm and beauty. The one advantage of being away for a while is to see the change over a month. The sun has seen off the wildflowers, the greenery of the vines now contrasting sharply with the parched grass. The flowers on the vines have also long gone and the grapes are now well formed and starting to swell, the size of peas. There is no sign yet of the red grapes starting to change colour (véraison).
Grape flowers May
Flower Power May
Flower Power June
The vines look to be in very good health. The 700mm of rain through the winter, the spell of very cold weather too have helped them to rest and be strong, a vibrant green colour. The humidity of recent days brings the threat of mildew and oidium (downy and powdery mildew respectively) and Jeff has sprayed the vines with organic treatments to help them fight against the disease.
The other main risk is from snails. In 2016 they ravaged Flower Power vineyard for example, reducing the harvest there to virtually nil. There is less evidence of them there this year but there are huge numbers in Peilhan and Segrairals. In the former they are covering the trees which Jeff planted around the vines a couple of years ago, feasting on the greenery amidst the parched vegetation.
Nevertheless so far so good, 2017 promises to be a good vintage.
I mentioned recently that the cooler weather had delayed some of the growth in the vines and that flowering was late. Well, recent hotter weather has brought sudden change. Flowering happened around the turn of the month and was over very quickly, perhaps catching up lost time. In particular there was a heavy thunderstorm on Saturday June 4th which brought a torrent of rain. The water and the sunshine has really got the vines going. Tendrils reach for the skies and there is more bushiness to the vines.
The flowers gave way to the little hoods which cover the nascent grapes, capuchons. These quickly fall away too revealing the grapes for 2016. On some vines all of this is happening at the same time such as this Carignan (above) in Rec D’Oulette. The weather has also encouraged the growth of the grafted vines which we did back in March.
This brings work too. The palissage has to be lifted to support the vines, hard physical labour. And, sadly, the heat and rain bring problems of disease. Mildew has been around for a couple of weeks and I mentioned that Jeff was spraying in the very early hours and late at night last week. He worked until 1am Friday/Saturday and started again at 6am. Just as things seemed to be settling a big attack of mildew on the Grenache at Ste. Suzanne meant more treatment on Tuesday morning. This ‘curious’ year is proving to be hard work.
Jeff a Ste Suzanne (photo de La Garrigue)
Peilhan, feuilles pulverisées
Not all negatives though. The storm brought such a downfall that I was fearful for the flowering bunches. damage to them means no grapes. I happened to be in Puimisson during the storm (next article!) and the rain was lashing down, converting streets and roads to waterfalls and lakes. Yet as the rain eased I went to a couple of vineyards and the flowers were coping just fine. A trip round the vines on Monday morning revealed healthy growth and the soils had absorbed the rainfall.
Grenache vines with flowers intact after the storm
This is not true of everyone. Much of the water on the roads was also full of clay from vineyards nearby, hence the yellowy brown colour. Vineyards which are treated with weedkillers, where the soils are ploughed deeply, even irrigated, were unable to cope so well with the heavy rain. Soils were carried away. Compare these photographs of Jeff’s vineyards with the parcel next door belonging to someone else. The difference is marked. Water can help or can damage.
Meanwhile back in the cellar there was more work to be done. Recent changes to the fabric of the cellar, especially the floor, have brought more efficient drains and a smoother surface, easier to clean. Further work will soon be done to the rest of the floor so the bottling of the next wave of wines had to be brought forward to allow the works to be done and dusted before vendanges.
Nouveau plancher en résine
Plancher plus vieux
The spring bottling of wines such as 5SO, PM Rosé, 7 Rue De La Pompe I described earlier. These are wines for early drinking, vins de plaisir. Now it was time for wines with a little more body. On Thursday June 2nd 10,000 bottles of Classe were made, and it is really something special in 2015. It took almost 12 hours and went very smoothly but believe me it is a hard day’s work. On Friday, Flambadou, made from the Carignan vines above, was bottled along with other smaller cuvées.
Vincent, Julien et Benoit
Julien prépare un magnum
Before anyone rushes in with orders Jeff will let these bottles rest for a few months to allow them to be at their peak when released, Flambadou probably in 2017 for example. There remains one or two cuvées still in tank which need a little more time, Flower Power being one.
So, most of the 2015 wine is now in bottle, the vines are revealing the grapes for 2016 and there are wines stored for 2017. Busy times at Mas Coutelou for everyone, well except one.
When you live in the Languedoc you are surrounded by vines. They are everywhere and form the world’s biggest vineyard area, producing one third of all France’s wine. Vines stretch over hill and valley, coastline and plains. As you walk around it is easy to think of vines as all being the same, part of one big plantation, but when we have received visitors and we go on walks through the vineyards they often ask me what sort of vine we are passing. Cue guesswork on my part unless I am in the vineyards of Mas Coutelou. To remedy this ignorance and to meet the brief at the top of this blog that I should be “learning about wine, vines and vignerons” I set myself the challenge of being able to identify the main types of vine in the region.
Ampelography is the study of identifying and classifying grapevines. There are many learned books on the subject, some running to hundreds of pages. However, I wanted a simple guide, to learn the basic varieties before expanding to others. I took some photographs in the parcels of vines of Mas Coutelou and using the internet and Jeff himself I hope I have put together a simple reference piece. As we enter harvest it has proved useful to me so that I know what I am picking or sorting. Hopefully it will be useful to you too, whether you visit vineyards or just take an interest in wine and vines.
Experts use features such as the shape of the grape bunches, size and colour of the grapes. However, for me the most obvious way of distinguishing between vines are the shape of the leaves.
The colour of leaves varies but so too the number of lobes (from just one to seven), the colour of the veins and the shape of the sinus around the stalk (pétiole). The sinus is the gap between the lobes. So here is my simple guide to identifying some Languedoc vines. I have started in this post with the five main red wine varieties.
Red wine vines
Syrah in Segrairals vineyard
Syrah is one of the great varieties of the Languedoc. Famous for its wines in the Rhone Valley and around the world (Shiraz in Australia) Syrah produces great wines here too. The leaves are quite a light green in colour with 5 lobes which are well separated out including a big sinus (V shaped) around the stalk (pétiole). The veins are quite light and stand out. The leaf edge has small, gentle teeth shapes. The grapes tend to be oblong shaped and fairly small in size. Syrah is one of the earlier red varieties to ripen.
Mas Coutelou – La Vigne Haute
Others – Sylvain Bock, Raffut; Plan De L’Homme, Alpha; Haute Lignières, Sur Le Fil; Terre Inconnue, Sylvie
Grenache in La Garrigue
A variety which loves the heat, very much a Spanish and Mediterranean grape. Grenache leaves have a more round appearance than Syrah with big, wide lobes which are not so separated as the Syrah giving the impression of a big, whole leaf. There is a wide sinus around the stalk. The leaf edges have saw teeth which are quite marked. Light veins and round, medium sized grapes. Grenache is a late ripening variety. Often used to blend it is not often used for single variety wines.
Mas Coutelou – Grenache, Mise De Printemps
Others – Engelvin, Même-Si and Vieux Ronsard; Treloar, One Block Grenache;
Mourvedre in Segrairals
Mourvèdre is a late ripening and, sometimes, a difficult grape to ripen. The lobes are broad and form three rather than five as you can see in the photo on the right of the page above. There is a little green colouring in the veins and the sinus around the stalk is a lyre shape. The teeth around the edge are distinct and quite big all around. The grapes come in biggish bunches though the grapes are medium in size.
Mas Coutelou – Sauvé De La Citerne
Others – Clos Fantine, Cuvée Courtiol; La Liquière, Tucade; Treloar, Motus
Carignan in Rec D’Oulette
Carignan has big leaves which are quite hairy underneath and have a more dimply appearance than most in the upper surface. Five lobes usually though in the photo above the lower lobes are small with big upper lobes and a distinct top lobe. The teeth are tapered and distinct. The veins are hardly coloured. This is a late ripening variety and you can see the grapes below which are still turning black, even though this was taken at the same time as the other photos. The grapes and clusters are medium to large in size.
Mas Coutelou – Flambadou
Others – Mas Des Capitelles, Loris; Coume Mayou, La Loute Mas Gabriel, Trois Terrasses Deux Ânes – L’Enclos
Cinsault in Segrairals
I like to think of Cinsault leaves as being very like the grape’s flavours, open, friendly and welcoming. These are big widely spaced lobes and a deep, open sinus around the stalk. The veins are light and clear and the teeth are big, almost rounded which cover all the leaf edge. Often used in rosé wines Cinsault is starting to be used to make some great red wines in the region.
( How the wine will turn out no-one can say, before the end of the month of May)
Hopefully the rest of this post will be better than my rhyming translation. The point is however, that May is the turning point. The preparation of pruning, ploughing and pampering paves the way for the lush growth of May. In the wild vines grow in forests and are climbing plants using trees to help them reach sunlight so that photosynthesis can take place to feed the grapes and their seeds. Cultivated vines still climb relentlessly and the growth is stunning to see. Tendrils reach for the sky pulling the vine higher and the leaves fill out.
Tendrils reach up
The buds have grown showing the development of the bunches and these in turn are now dividing ready for the start of flowering which will bring pollination and then the fruit.
The grappes divide
The division accelerates
As for the vignerons it has become a very busy time. In the vineyards a second ploughing to prepare the soils with organic matter as they need help to sustain their rapid growth. In addition the first treatments of pesticides to protect the new growth. Insects are also growing fast and tender buds, leaves and shoots are welcome nourishment. Conventional vignerons use chemical sprays, those who prefer a lutte raisonnée use synthetic chemicals which do less damage to the soils.
A spraying machine with octopus like arms to reach different rows of vines, this one is used on a conventional vineyard
For organic producers the choice is a little diluted sulphur (some use more than others) but also treatments based on plants such as nettles, horsetail weeds and ferns. I shall be picking up this topic in a later post as it is a controversial issue.
Tractor with tank of organic treatment for spraying
The other risk has been the development of mildew. Powdery mildew (oidium) is a threat as colder nights and hot days encourage humidity which oidium requires. The first signs appeared this week (May 10-17) and this is why sulphur and horsetail are used in the spray.
Oidium, powdery mildew, photographed this week. Happily the only vine affected in Peilhan
The nettles and ferns act as insecticides. I am told that mildiou or downy mildew is also appearing in some vineyards in the area though not so far at Mas Coutelou, fingers crossed it stays away.
The other major job in the vineyard has been ébourgeonnage, the removal of some of the lush growth of the vines, sometimes also known as épamprage. They are so fertile at present that the vines need to be cut back so that their energy is not dissipated on surplus leaves and growth.
Carole ties a young vine to support it
Carole is back in Puimisson and she demonstrated to me how ébourgeonnage works in the video below. She was working on newly grafted vines which won’t necessarily be producing much fruit this year but the process is the same. No prisoners are taken.
In the cellar work continues apace. As more of the 2014 wines are ready further bottling has been taking place. Not helped by the breakdown of one machine but older equipment was brought out to continue. In the picture you will see Jeff and Renaud corking a jereboam of Vin Des Amis. Magnums and even Balthazars were also bottled as well as the regular 75cl bottles. More deliveries were sent to various countries around Europe and the USA.
Jeff at the controls of the bottling machine
Magnums standing after bottling. They stand to allow the large corks to expand and seal the bottle. They will then be laid horizontally
A third part of the work is commercialisation and there have been a number of salons where amateurs and professionals have tasted the wines and placed orders or bought wine. Jeff has been to salons in Paris and in the Languedoc and will shortly be heading to the Loire. All time consuming but a necessary part of the job, sales are after all what keep the vines growing.
Finally the office work. France loves its bureaucracy and there are many hours of paperwork to complete. Daily record keeping of work done, treatments used, employment data etc etc etc.
So whilst May has been a beautiful month to be here in the Languedoc with temperatures now consistently high and sunshine aplenty the vignerons are working hard. Ironically France has numerous bank holidays in May, yet I know at least one vigneron who doesn’t get time off.
My favourite vineyard Rome is a lovely place to be at present, the work with the pioche (pick axe or hoe) and grass cutting has prepared the vines. Flowers, butterflies and birds enjoy the peace and shelter of this parcel, two partridges were there on Friday but sadly flew off before I could get my camera ready. The video shows Rome and its beautiful centurion gobelet vines and you can hear the birdsong in all its glory including a hoopoe.
We are a third of the way through 2015 already and the work of making wine has been hard throughout those 4 months. I have put the links together to show a summary of everything that Jeff, Carole, Michel and Renaud have been up to so far. And occasionally me too.
“Come gather ’round people Wherever you roam And admit that the waters Around you have grown”
Magnificent old vine in Rome vineyard, a centurion
After a couple of months of dry and windy weather in the main April brought some relief for vignerons with some good rainfall. Indeed not so much April showers as steady rain on a couple of weekends. The results were immediate in terms of the vine growth as they have shot away in the last week or so as temperatures rise too.
Beginning of April, La Garrigue
Mid April, ploughing evident
End of April
The work of previous months continued; hard work, unglamorous work but vital work for the vineyards and domaines to prosper. I spoke to a very good producer (Plan de l’Homme) and he told me that the commercial side of winemaking is hard work. He was at a salon in Montpellier to celebrate 30 years of Coteaux du Languedoc, one of many salons throughout the month. He and others attend regularly to find buyers, especially cavistes. Deborah Core of Mas Gabriel assured me that such salons do pay for themselves and are worth the effort but they are hard work, long days of repeating the same information to tasters who all matter of course, though some are more receptive than others. Reminds me of being a teacher! I shall come back to the commercial side another time as it is the third important part of the job after vineyard and cellar work.
With Corine Andrieu of Clos Fantine at a Faugeres tasting
Bottling also continued as well as habillage, getting the bottles ready to send to cavistes across the world. Previous posts have shown this work so please have a look for them if you have not seen them before. More of the 2014 wines are now in bottle including my old favourite Vin Des Amis which in my view is the best of this cuvée since 2010.
Cases sent to Belgium, early April
However, the real change has been in the vineyards and it is there that the work has been centred as they are literally blossoming. Vines are a climbing plant and will grow very quickly in the next few months. It has been a joy for me to watch their early development, seeing in real life what I had only read about before.
The buds emerged towards the end of March and the beginning of April and as I described their emergence varied in time according to the cépage and the position of the vine. Leaf break, flowering and the formation of the grape bunches, grappes, all quickly followed. In the last week or so the small grappes began to divide showing how they will form.
Buds form, the leaves just visible
Leaves and flowers
To encourage and support this growth the vineyards were ploughed twice to provide organic matter from last year’s growth of grass, flowers and other plants. Long hours on a tractor going up and down the rows makes for tough days. Then further weeding using a pioche or intercep, forms of hoe, to get inbetween the vines. In some vineyards the base of the vines were covered a bit more in autumn to protect against frost, cavaillonage. These are now removed and the vines stand ready for the heat to come.
Syrah vine, La Garrigue beginning of April
Syrah vine, La Garrigue, mid April
Same vine, La Garrigue, end of April
I went to Barcelona for a few days last week and the difference in the vines was staggering in that short space of time. Nature and the dedication of the vigneron are at work.
Travelling around the area, or walking as I was when I took the photo above near Magalas, scenes like this are everywhere. It is pruning time for many viticulteurs. This is known as taillage (or prétaillage when the vines are prepared for a later pruning in the new year). Vines are freely growing plants and if left they would grow too fast, produce too many bunches of grapes which would become increasingly small and lacking in flavour. They would also be more susceptible to diseases such as mildew which would kill the vine in a matter of 3 – 5 years.
Pruning therefore is necessary to ensure that the vine produces an optimum number of bunches to enhance flavour. In the case of the viticulteur in the photo who obviously uses a lot of machinery it makes access to the vines for later pruning and treatments easier as the cut vines are trained along the lines of wires which support many vines.
The pack on the man’s back is for battery powered secateurs, making the job easier than manual cutting though it is still back breaking work.
Different viticulteurs will use different systems of pruning. This might depend on the age of the vine, the particular vineyard topography and her/his own traditions.
The classic method is known as Guyot, named after the doctor who studied viticulture in the 19th Century. There are variations but Guyot pruning usually means pruning the vine to 2 branches (sarments). One of these is cut short leaving only 2 buds (bourgeons or yeux), the other is longer with around 6 buds. The longer will be the part of the vine to produce grapes in the next harvest, the shorter branch will grow this year and be the fruit bearing sarment the following year. This allows space along the vines for air to circulate to avoid disease.
Another system which I have seen commonly used in the area is Cordon de Royat. Here the vine is shaped with 2 branches reaching horizontally in opposite directions (but always along the row). Each branch will have 4 to 5 buds for the development of grapes the next harvest. The advantage is that the bunches will grow at a similar height making work and harvesting easier.
Cordon de royat
In the Languedoc Roussillon region the hotter, drier climate, together with frequent winds, means that disease should, in principle, be less of a problem that damper regions such as Burgundy or Bordeaux. Many viticulteurs prefer a less interventionist method than training the vines along trellises. Vines often grow like small bushes, especially varieties such as Grenache and Carignan. Jeff Coutelou prefers to use this method known as gobelet as much as possible.
However, there is one other decision which viticulteurs must make. When to prune?
In principle pruning can be done all the way from the harvest and leaves falling to bud break, around 4 – 5 months in total. Leaving it late has a number of advantages such as avoiding problems with frost or drying out and avoiding problems of wood disease such as esca, which is an increasing threat in France. Many prefer to prune when the sap is starting to rise in the early spring, an old saying goes. “Taille tôt, taille tard, rien ne vaut la taille de mars.” (Pruning early, pruning late, nothing is as good as pruning in March)
As I said I have seen many people out pruning in recent weeks. This could be for simple reasons of habit or because as wines quietly ferment and work their magic in the cellars the winemakers have time now to get into the vines. Smaller producers who must do everything themselves might decide that earlier pruning suits their timetable best. Some also like to burn as soon as possible any pruned wood which might have been affected by disease. Jeff prefers a later pruning and so work will begin from January through to March, I shall report later.
Pruning is seriously hard, repetitive and dull work but it is an essential part of the viticulteur’s year.
On a less serious note, not just the vines have been pruned!!