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


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Vendanges Coutelou 21, Variety Show

En francais

Picking Cinsault in Segrairals

Having talked about new varieties of grape planted at Jeff Coutelou’s domaine in Puimisson the last few days have been about a variety of different activities, vintages and grapes too. After the rain break on the 9th, we restarted on Friday 10th by spending the morning in the vineyards of Segrairals and Peilhan picking Cinsault and Carignan respectively.

The Cinsault often comes in large berries and bunches and, as a consequence, the open bunches can be prone to disease and ver de la grappe. As we picked, therefore, we took great care to conduct a triage on the spot leaving a lot of the grapes behind as you can see. To paraphrase the old John West advert, ‘It’s the grapes we reject that make Coutelou the best.’ Even in a year with much reduced quantity the emphasis has to be on quality, clean grapes if the wines are to be good.

Carignan loaded straight into press by Matteo as Louis, Boris and Jeff look on

Peilhan was quite badly hit by the April frost and the Carignan was particularly damaged. Some vines had no fruit, others still produced well. Again we sorted the grapes carefully in the vineyard. Both harvests went into the press directly. When grapes are not of the highest quality it is not worth destemming and fermenting separately as any taint will spoil the wine. Without the comfort blanket of SO2 Jeff wanted to get the juice from the grapes quickly, likely to produce rosé rather than red after spending so little time on skins extracting colour.

In the afternoon, the Moroccan pickers moved on to the Mourvèdre back in Segrairals. Meanwhile I and some of the team were given a different direction altogether. Jeff had selected some of the best white Macabeu grapes of 2019 for ageing in barrel, they had recently been moved to stainless steel tank in the white wine section of the cellar. The juice was run off the top of the tank and then the marc (skins, pulp, pips etc) were brought to the basket presses.

Operating these presses was one of the first jobs Jeff gave me in 2014 and so I set about extracting more juice from the marc. The pressing must be light as the marc contains more tannins which might make the overall wine more bitter. It is surprising how much extra comes out of the marc, and even more surprising to see whole grapes still amongst it after 2 years. The final wine tasted great and I can’t wait to open a bottle and see how it develops further.

The following day, Saturday, brought more variety and a new job for me. Macabeu and Grenache Gris from Peilhan was brought to cellar and the first couple of rows of vines were sent to press. Jeff, however, decided that the rest was higher quality and wanted to use these grapes for fermenting and maturing in amphora. There have been 4 of these for a while now and Jeff is convinced they do improve the quality of some wines. However, he did not want anything but the grapes themselves in the amphora. Therefore, we used the égrappoir to destem the bunches but then had to pick through every grape to remove any remaining pieces of stalk or stem. Painstaking, meticulous work.

In the afternoon it was time to bring in the Grenache of La Garrigue. I identified this as the best parcel of the vintage in my first blog of this year’s vendanges, the grapes were of very high quality. You might recall that apparently this was hard hit last year and it was as if nature was offering compensation. The quality brought a smile to Jeff’s face and raised the morale of the whole team. The grapes went through the égraineur (which separates each berry not just the whole bunch like the égrappoir), and the juice already tasted especially good, confirmed by the technical analyses.

Grenache from La Garrigue, best of the bunch

Monday 13th brought the longest and hardest day of the vendanges for me personally. It started in typical fashion with the remaining Grenache being sent to a separate tank for using with other wine. However, we then moved to the Carignan of Rec D’Oulette, the parcel which produces Flambadou in good years. Unfortunately, this is not a good year, unless you’re a fan of Grenache and white wines. Jeff decided that the Carignan should be made in whole bunch, carbonic maceration style. Instead of destemming the bunches, everything goes into tank and is protected by CO2 which also kicks off fermentation in the berries themselves.

That meant we set up sorting above the tank which would hold the grapes. On a hot, sultry day that meant working inside and above the rising heat from the grapes. Matteo and I spent the best part of six hours processing the Carignan, it was back breaking, sweaty work and tested this 62-year-old man but I made it through. Just.

From direct press to basket press, destemming single grapes to whole bunches, whites to reds and orange wine too, even grapes from an older vintage. This was a period of the vendanges which was all about variety.

Sorting Carignan whole bunch, Flora stepped in for me for a few minutes


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ABC – Vendanges 17

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“Quelle journée!” That was how Jeff messaged me on Monday evening. Safe to say things didn’t go exactly to plan, nor did Plan B work so it was Plan C in the end. What am I talking about? Let me explain a day which shows how impromptu thinking is important.

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Mourvedre waiting to be picked

Plan A was straightforward and, maybe, things had gone too smoothly up till then. I wrote recently how the team was in the groove and the grapes were being harvested efficiently. Monday was the day for the Mourvèdre to be picked, a real star of the 2016 crop, hopes were high for a repeat.

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Jeff surveys the Mourvèdre under a gorgeous sky

Everything began well. A silvery dawn revealed grapes in tip top condition though smaller yields in keeping with the vintage. The first cases arrived and I was sorting through them with Matthieu, a trainee sommelier on work placement. And then the destemmer (érafloir) suddenly stopped. On opening the main body Jeff found the fan belt off and one of the wheels sheered away. No easy fix.

These cases were sorted Plan A ; the offending mechanics

We had already destemmed 20 cases or so and the grapes were in stainless steel tank. With no érafloir, however, we could not destem. Jeff declared that we would have to move to whole bunches. We moved upstairs to the new mezzanine floor created in the cellar renovations of the last two years. Trapdoors in the floor are positioned above the tanks and big plastic chutes are connected so that the bunches can fall through into the tank. The cases are brought by Michel to the upper floor via the garden and then sorted just as carefully.

 

The tank was now filled with destemmed bunches and lots of juice but also whole bunches in amongst that. This was Plan B. A neighbour then offered the use of his destemmer which was brought down and put in place whilst Plan B was working. We started this and did a few cases of destemming again but it was a big machine, meant for huge quantities of grapes and was too powerful for the amount we were processing.

Jeremy and Matthieu sort whole bunches

Lunchtime. Reflection. Back to Plan B, whole bunches.

Meanwhile Jeff took the original destemmer to the repairers who declared it unrepairable! However, these were the same people who had renovated the cellar and they kindly offered Jeff the use of a third érafloir. Plan C. This proved just the job, even quieter and more efficient than the original. So, we have an interesting tank of Mourvèdre, a millefeuille of grapes, juice and stems. No doubt it will still produce very good wine as the grapes were healthy and of very good quality. However, it had been a day to try Jeff’s patience whilst other tanks also demanded his attention.

The third érafloir of the day ; Matthieu and Ambroise

He had also damaged one of the large tubes used for pumping the grapes and juice first thing, I think a black cat must have crossed his path on the walk to the cellar that morning! All’s well that ends well however, but it was certainly proof that you need to have contingencies and how experience can help a vigneron to overcome adversity.

Magnificent Mourvèdre ; In tank


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Into the red – Vendanges 17

After the white grapes picked last week it was time to tackle the red, which form the main part (just under 90%) of Mas Coutelou’s production.

Monday was hot, very hot – Jeff’s car measured 42°C at one point in the vineyard of Le Colombié where we were picking Merlot grapes. This small (0.5 ha) parcel was planted with Merlot back in 1999 and, though not Jeff’s favourite cépage, the grapes provide a useful backup and the vines are in particularly good health. I spent a couple of hours picking and the heat made it very hard work, believe me. The quality was very good though the grapes lacked juice due to the lack of any rain in two months. Jeff said that they provided around 50% of last year’s juice which in turn was 20% below average.

Back in the cellar after lunch I sorted the remaining Merlot and some Syrah from Segrairals, the biggest of the Coutelou vineyards with 4ha under vine. These were juicier and were added to the Merlot in tank in order to bolster the quantity. The alcohol level was good at around 14% for both.

Today, Tuesday, it was off to Sainte Suzanne where Jeff thinks some of the best grapes of the year are to be found. The vineyard is planted with Syrah and Grenache and these are usually the grapes which make up Le Vin Des Amis, one of the more famous wines of the domaine. Jeff was proved correct, not that I would have doubted him of course! The bunches which came in were full, firm and in excellent condition. There was hardly any sorting to do other than removing leaves and snails. This will certainly make good wine. By the end of the day a few rows of Grenache from the parcel were added to the mix.

The grapes were all put into tank in whole bunches, grappes entières, rather than being separated from the stalks as the bunches were so healthy Jeff wanted to let them express themselves. In tank the grapes will begin to ferment within their skins under the weight and heat, though some will ferment as they burst. It was good to see Jeff happy with the results of the day’s harvest, long may it continue.

In the photos above Vincent is preparing the cuve for the whole bunches which will enter through the trapdoor at the top. In the second he adds CO2 to the tank which is part of the carbonic maceration process to help the berries ferment inside their skin.


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The story of a wine – we can’t really say

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En francais

On Peut Pas Vraiment Dire Que * is a new cuvée from Mas Coutelou in 2015. So how is a new cuvée born? This is its story.

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My favourite Jeff  wine over the years has been La Vigne Haute, a pure Syrah coming from the vineyard La Garrigue. This vineyard has a small ridge running west to east meaning that part of it faces north and part faces south. Jeff planted Grenache on the southward side as Grenache is a Mediterranean grape and likes the heat. On the north side is Syrah, a grape from the Rhone, which likes heat but not too much if it is to reveal its best.

La Vigne Haute is a wine of subtle Syrah. Perfumed with red fruits and tasting of silky smooth red and black fruits it carries elegance and restraint. However, in 2015 Jeff took the decision at the last minute not to make La Vigne Haute but rather to change the whole vinification of the grapes which were harvested. Here is the story in his own words, as told to Paco Mora a caviste in Ivry sur Seine. Jeff kindly gave me permission to reproduce it here.

“To thank you [for a generous comment on Facebook], I’d like to take a few minutes to tell you the story of “On Peut Pas Vraiment Dire Que.” A story which confirms that to make wine, we must first know, love and pamper both vineyards and grapes.

It comes from the parcel “La Garrigue”, my only parcel on villafranchien soil, which I planted:
 On the north side: Syrah (planted north / south) to be always caressed but never assaulted by the sun.
 On the south side: Grenache as it is not afraid of the heat.

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The buffer zones in Garrigue

This decision made me lose 10 vine stocks per row of vines (300 in total) to leave a buffer zone between the two varieties but it was a decision which seemed most suited to making the Syrah I dreamed of. It normally makes “La Vigne Haute” but also produced “PAF La Syrah” in 2012. This plot has a vein of water running underneath which the presence of horsetail fern confirms. This year, even during the heat wave, it never suffered and continued to push …. It was the most beautiful vineyard at harvest time.

The day of the harvest, we had planned to make Vigne Haute by implementing the classic method; destemmed grapes, putting it into tank, maceration of 2 to 3 weeks with little pumping, to encourage infusion and not to seek extraction.

The vineyard was beautiful, beautiful grapes, everyone at the winery was excited that this would be a great vintage. The first grapes arrived, and as son as I saw them, I thought I had to change everything … ..
The fact that they had not suffered from the July heat wave but instead had profited from it (because of the sun caressing that north facing slope, the heat effect lessened because of that vein of water). It had produced berries more swollen than usual … and I could really see that when they arrived in the cellar.

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After an hour, I said to myself “if you do as usual, you will not get to do what you want.” The fact that the liquid / solid ratio is different, if I had made a classic wine, I would have to extend the maceration time to extract enough material relative to the juice and in that case, there is also the risk of extracting good but also the less good.

So within 10 minutes I decided to change everything.

We continued by putting whole bunches into tank with the idea of making a short vinification. On that day, everyone was down in the mouth in the cellar because I had told them that there would be no Vigne Haute …. But I trusted my grapes and they told me that they would repay my faith in them .

We just left the grapes in vats for 7 days without any intervention and then pressed. So there was almost no exchange between the skins and juice in tank. The tannins and colour were extracted because of pressing the skins, which were ripe, and released them after their short stay in the vat.

In the end, it’s just the juice of the vine and the terroir that you have in the bottle ….
Nothing technical, just grapes that were cared for and nursed from their birth to their maturity ….”

So that is the story of On Peut Pas Vraiment Dire Que. I was one of those who was ‘down in the mouth’ on that day when Jeff changed everything. Yet it was, of course, the right thing to do. The wine is very like the Paf of 2012, fruity but with a lovely vein of soft tannin and bite running through it. It is elegant above all, a Syrah worthy of the great Rhone appelations but with Languedoc warmth and fruit.

And OPPVDQ is a tribute to the talent, intuition and knowledge of Jeff Coutelou. He knows his vines, his grapes and how to help them to express themselves to maximum advantage. I can’t really tell you how he does it… it’s natural.

A phrase which can be translated as ‘we can’t really say’.