Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Mas Coutelou, Puimuisson: the extraordinary natural winemaker on our doorstep

It’s more than a little ironic that having chased round France - and further afield - seeking out natural winemakers I should find an exceptional one in the next door village to ours in the Languedoc: Jean Francois Coutelou of Mas Coutelou. Not least because we discovered him in London at the Real Wine Fair where one of his bottles, Classe, turned up on our table at dinner.

We rang him up and got a fax signal (who uses a fax these days?) for the first few tries but eventually tracked down the man himself and arranged to meet him. The next hurdle was actually finding the chai in the backstreets of Puimuisson. He didn’t, of course have the familiar sign that directs you to local wineries or even any indication outside the door but the locals knew where he was. “You’ll be lucky to find him in” in they said darkly.

He was clearly disappointed (and a little reproving) that we wouldn’t head straight out to the vineyards with him so we stepped into the chai to taste. It would confirm all the worst suspicions of the anti-natural wine brigade - rambling, dusty and chaotic, If Roald Dahl had written a book about a winemaker Jean Francois - or Jeff as he’s known -  would be it.

His father set up the domain in 1972 and it’s been worked organically since 1987 “that is to say before this type of production became fashionable” as he points out on his website. He follows some biodynamic practices though is not religious about it. Yields in the vineyard are kept low. Vinification is adapted to the vintage but he uses no commercial yeasts and very little, if any sulphur “to preserve the authentic character of our wines.”  No filtration, either.

Clearly a restless experimenter, Coutelou started producing bottles and tank samples like rabbits out of a hat. We started conventionally enough with a vivid young syrah, 7 Rue de la Pompe, a classic vin de soif that totally demolishes the idea that all natural wine is expensive - 5.50€ from the cellar and only £8.95 at his importers, Roberson. (Needless to say the winery isn’t in rue de Pompe - I forgot to ask why the name.)

There was an enchanting sparkling elderflower drink which tasted of lychees and a sweetish grenache-based pet nat like freshly made strawberry jam. Other dry reds follow in quick succession: Le Vin des Amis, a vigorous, rustic blend of 60% grenache 40% syrah made without any sulphur, the ripe brambley Classe 2011 (40% Syrah, 40% Grenache, 20% Carignan) - a little reductive - it needed carafing and the terrific Flambadou, a 100% Carignan brimming with bright plum and cherry fruit which he has made only four times in the past 10 years. I thought it was carbonic maceration but he said it was traditionally vinified. One of the most enjoyable Languedoc carignans I’ve had.

Would we like to try a wine from his solera system? Nothing could have stopped us. We moved to the next door cellar which if anything was even crazier, piled with ancient pieces of agricultural equipment and tools. (His grandfather used to be a blacksmith). In a corner of the cellar bottles encrusted with decades of dust piled up, stoppered with decaying corks and what looked, in one case, like a small furry vole..

Another bombardment - a dozen-odd pipettes of the most extraordinary grenache I’ve ever tasted, from dry and nutty to creamy to caressingly sweet, like the finest aged sherries rather than the vin doux naturels of this part of the world. The soleras go back 40-50 years. He is, he says, merely contnuing a tradition in which every household used to make their own.

These he doesn’t sell - or at least not in any quantity. If you come and taste you can buy a single bottle which will cost you anything from 15 to 50 euros depending on the age of the wines and, you suspect, what he feels like on the day. You pick the wines you’ve enjoyed most, he blends them together, you taste and he fine tunes the blend with whatever you feel is missing. Then he labels it just for you - a totally unique wine. It’s a lot of money, he admits, but “once it’s bottled the treasure is gone”.

Oddly when we bought a selection of his other bottles at the end of the tasting we went into a third, comparatively well-organised room which made you wonder if all the chaos is just for effect. I suspect it might be.

When I looked up the Roberson site to see what his prices were in the UK I found his wines plastered all over their home page and that Jancis and - improbably -  Decanter had praised him to the skies. How did we not know about him? Thank God we now do. Remarkable wines.


  1. Thank you for sharing this gem, can't wait to go and visit and stock up our Provence wine cellar. We are big fans of the organic red from Bastide des Olivier at Pierrevert - not so far along the on that side of the Luberon...

  2. Glad you enjoyed it. Remember to ring first!

  3. Fiona, great story, this one.
    I cannot help but feeling amazed at how amazed people are to find a “real” winemaker spending his time ... in the vineyard, i.e. out of home! Most companies (I used this word on purpose) whose owner you’ll find easy to reach at the estate building are wineries where the owner does not make the wine, nor nurse the vineyards. He’s just ... the owner. Don’t call him a winemaker.
    This doesn't mean he has no merits, mind you, but they will be managerial rather than those of a craftsman.

  4. Sorry Luc, have been neglecting the blog recently so missed this. Point well made!