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.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

My OH’s highlights from the Real Wine Fair and RAW fair

My husband, Trevor Vibert, as I’ve mentioned before, is the one who got me into natural wine so it seemed only right that he should come to the Real and RAW fairs with me the other week. (Needless to say he didn’t need a lot of persuading). These were the wines that stood out for him, in no particular order, he says.

“This is, of course, not an exhaustive listing. There were far too many wines on show for anyone to claim to be able to offer that. The other caveat is that, by and large i haven’t included wines from producers I already knew well - just wines from producers I know that I hadn’t already tasted - as I wanted to concentrate on breaking new ground as far as possible.

Domaine des Roches Neuves: Thierry Germain’s extraordinary Saumur-Champigny "Franc de Pied" 2008 (Les Caves de Pyrène)
A totally convincing demonstration of just how wines must have tasted pre-phylloxera, with all the zing of ripe Cabernet Franc, enveloped in luscious fruit (almost sweet - but definitely not). This was, in some way that I haven't quite yet managed to articulate, unlike anything else I have ever tasted. But in a good way, not in a scary, off-the-wall way. It was like the best Loire Cab Franc and then somehow even more than that.

Domaine Alexandre Bain Pouilly Fumé 2010 (CdP)
As classy as the classiest Sauvignon you have ever tasted, but combining that with all the complexity and aromatic weight that the wild men of Europe have taught us to see as equally essential to getting the most out of Sauvignon. As big as a great Chardonnay but with a whole other spectrum of delicacy and exotic fruit. A mailed fist in a velvet glove . . .

Domaine Cousin-Leduc (CdP)
Two wines here: Olivier Cousin's wildly, maniacally exuberant 2010 Gamay - which almost leaps out of the glass and grabs you by the throat. One sip (gulp in my case - tch, tch, I told you to spit! FB) and you can't stop grinning. A real vin des copains. The other is the 2007 Cabernet Franc Vieilles Vignes. Equally exuberant but with a big, big structure that makes the most out of the minerality of Cabernet Franc. This one lingers on and on in the mouth. Again it shouts rustic values and real unconfined joyousness.

Domaine du Corps de Garde 'Gueules de Loup' Bourgogne Côtes d'Auxerre 2010 (CdP)
This is doubly an exception to the rules I set myself, as it is a wine I’ve tasted before - several years ago following a wine trip to Chablis and that I didn't taste it at the stand. At the Monday night Real Wine Fair dinner there were armies of bottles all around the room and we were invited to just pitch into what we liked (many times!)

Out of curiosity to see how they had progressed I picked this bottle (hence the soggy label). We had been convinced by that first visit that this young winemaker would go places (he was so youthful in appearance that we have always referred to him as the ‘boy wonder’!). From the very first taste it was astounding - fully the equal of a great Chablis, with all the power and concentration but an overall impression of sweet and lingering delicacy. My great-uncle - a winemaker - would always describe Chablis as tasting of cream with sweetness, roundness and acidity. This had the lot. And it was wonderful with food.

There were two domaines I found exceptional in that all their wines were outstanding:

The first was Domaine Belluard from Savoie (CdP). All three wines showed  (all 2010s) were whites made from the very rare Gringet grape. All possessed a wonderful minerality with a great aromatic signature to the finish.

Monsieur Belluard came over as a kind of philosopher king. He made his wines like a warrior in the vineyard but with the thoughtfulness of a real thinker in his vinifications. The sort of innovator who extends and expands traditional values and techniques.

His first two wines, Les Alpes, and Le Feu - a single parcel - were both fermented in ovoid concrete tanks. The third was fermented on the skins for 12 months in clay amphorae. And did they taste nutty and off the wall? Not in the slightest*. They had the profile - though with the taste of a very different grape - of a great Condrieu. Particularly the last called Amphore. (*Beg to differ here. The Amphore was quite far out for me. Definitely a red! FB)

I came away from his stand wondering if I'd gone a bit mad. It was after all towards the end of two solid days of tasting but then I bumped into Arnaud Combier, a winemaker we'd met a couple of years ago in the Maconnais, and asked him if he had come across anything I should taste. He turned round and pointed to the table I had just left, saying in his view Dominique Belluard "was the man" which made me feel less out on a limb than usual.

Finally there is Testalonga and Lammershoek from South Africa (CdP, Indigo, Richards Walford).
I'd tasted one of Craig Hawkins wines before but here got the chance to taste the whole range and found them just as exciting and individual as the first Chenin I encountered - the El Bandito Cortez.

I tasted one other Chenin, the El Bandito, a Syrah grown on granitic soil and a Mourvèdre (all 2010s except the El Bandito which was from the 2009 vintage). Hawkins is a relentless experimenter, often using unstemmed bunches with carbonic maceration, and he believes (a belief shared by Combier) that the  lees are the soul of the wine.

However he does it the results are wonderful. The two Chenins are probably unlike any other South African Chenin that you have ever tasted with none of those overripe, slightly flabby, confected flavours. He produces Chenins of great length and minerality combined with a huge depth of aromatic flavour, They are not like the great Loire Chenins - they have the stamp of a hot climate southern wine about them, but they somehow combine that with a rare grace and elegance.

The LAM syrah (above) just knocked me out. It had all the finesse of a great Northern Rhone example - singingly pure - but with a depth and weight (and again length) that was never excessive, A world away from the over extracted "Parkerized" wines we have become used to. As to the Mourvèdre I reserve judgement. Still a little young and maybe not the ideal grape for granite.

Finally honourable mentions for two brilliant, exciting Italian Dolcettos - vivid and intense at one and the same time. One from Valli Unite:  the Diogene Colli Tortonesi, the other fron Cascina Corte, the Pirochetta Vecchie Vigne. Plus everything from Essencia Rural and, of course, Frank Cornelissen. Oh, and Castagna's wonderful silky Genesis . . .