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Saturday, 17 January 2009

Couly-Dutheil: the battle for ripeness

Visit to Couly-Dutheil, Chinon: 6th January 2009
When the snow set in during the afternoon of Monday 5th January, I feared I might have to cancel the appointment at Couly-Dutheil’s offices in Chinon made. Fortunately, once we were off the minor roads, the 75-kilometre drive across from eastern Touraine was fine and the meeting with Jacques and Arnaud Couly and Christophe Surget, their export director, went ahead as planned. I was glad as Christophe had expressed some concerns about the report I wrote about my visit to Pierre and Bertrand Couly in August 2008, so it was good to discuss these.

Baptiste Dutheil founded Couly-Dutheil in 1921. Like a number successful business people in the French wine industry he originally came from the Corrèze as did Jean-Pierre Moueix, the founder of the famous merchant’s business in Libourne and the owner of Château Pétrus. The Coulys are cousins of the Moueix family. Settling in Chinon, Baptiste married his cousin, Marie Couly. In 1925 Baptiste bought part of the Clos de l’Echo, one of the Loire’s most famous vineyards, which was apparently once owned by the Rabelais family. The Clos de l'Echo, now 22 hectares and a Couly-Dutheil monopole, lies on top of the coteau just to the west of the Château de Chinon. Couly-Dutheil was developed and expanded by René Couly, who married Madeleine Dutheil.

Later René’s sons, Pierre and Jacques, took over the running of the business, where in time they were joined by the 4th generation: first Bertrand, Pierre’s son, and then Arnaud, son of Jacques. Having completed his wine studies at Montpellier, Bertrand gained experience in Pomerol, Châteauneuf-du-Pape and Oregon before returning to Chinon taking charge of viticulture and winemaking at Couly-Dutheil. In 1997 Arnaud, Jacques’ son, joined. He has a commercial diploma and, prior to his return, he visited a number of wine regions around the world including California and Long Island.

Couly-Dutheil now has 96 hectares of vines in Chinon. With their growers under contract they vinify from 120ha of Chinon. They also have 8ha in Turquant – 6ha of Cabernet Franc for Saumur-Champigny and two hectares of white.

Jacques and Arnaud Couly

From Jacques and Arnaud's perspective it was soon clear that all was not well with their wines and sales were beginning to fall. The 2000 vintage brought matters to a head and brought a change of approach.

Jacques: “2000 was a good vintage but our wines were too acid, not ripe enough and not saleable.”

Following his experiences in the US Arnaud pushed for picking later, so as to have ripe fruit and avoid the green pepper and vegetal character of unripe Cabernet Franc. Apparently Pierre Couly favoured picking early.

Jacques: “We sought advice from some of the leading producers, like Philippe Alliet and Bernard and they confirmed the need for riper fruit. We hired Anne Blain, as a consultant, and set up a tasting panel consisting of Pierre, Jacques, Bertrand, Arnaud, Anne and our maitre de chai. In 2003 we stopped using wood and got rid of the 400 barriques. We had never probably integrated the barriques with our style of wine. We wanted to express the quality of our terroir, lessen the wood and be more in the esprit de Loire.”

They started to pick later and to reduce yields with 45 hl/ha as the maximum. There were 80,000 bottles of the 2000 Clos de l’Echo, Couly’s most famous vineyard, while in 2007 there were 27,000 produced. Although, of course, 2007 was a difficult vintage.

Jacques: “The time then came to prepare for the succession – who was to take over from me as PDG (managing director). I’m now 67. As Bertrand is the oldest of the two cousins, he was the natural successor. However, Bertrand said “No” – he did not want to take over as PDG. To have a joint PDG is difficult, so there needed to be a role for Bertrand.”

The breaking point for Jacques and Arnaud in relations with Pierre and Bertrand came in the autumn of 2006 with the publication of the 2007 Guide Hachette des Vins, the long established and prestigious annual French wine guide. They discovered that as well as the three Couly-Dutheil wines they had submitted – Clos de l’Echo, René Couly and the Chinon Blanc – the Clos de l’Olive, which at the moment is still part of Couly-Dutheil, had been entered by Pierre and Bertrand in their names. Apparently the Hachette rules only allow a producer to submit a maximum of three wines. As all four wines submitted and selected came from Couly-Dutheil, Jacques and Arnaud believe that Pierre and Bertrand broke the rules and should not have submitted the Clos de l’Olive. The wines for the 2007 Hachette would have been sent in early 2006 after Bertrand says that he was barred from the family winery from 2005.

Whatever the rights and wrongs of this family dispute there is clearly considerable bitterness of both sides with Pierre and Bertrand believing that they have been excluded from the family company, while Jacques and Arnaud believe that Pierre and Bertrand are now trying to destroy Couly-Dutheil.

Regrettably the conflict remains unresolved. The two parties have yet to agree a price for the shares held by Pierre and Bertrand nor has the division of the vineyards been completed. My guess is that Couly-Dutheil’s crown jewels – the Clos de l’Echo and the Clos de l’Olive – will be divided between the two parties with Jacques and Arnaud holding L’Echo, while L’Olive will move from Couly-Dutheil to Pierre and Bertrand. It would be good to see this sad family dispute settled this year – a reconciliation is presumably not on, so both sides need to agree the divorce terms. Otherwise there is a danger that this will become a long running saga like Jarndyce & Jarndyce in Charles Dickens’ Bleak House.

Leading to the cellars of Couly-Dutheil in the centre of Chinon

We moved on to the tasting, starting with the 2007 Blanc de Franc Sec – Cabernet Blanc vinified as white. It is attractively floral, soft ripe fruit with a touch of lemon and is sold as a vin de table. Although only a small amount is made, this gives CD another white to boost the limited amount of Chinon Blanc they have available. Next was the 2007 Chinon Blanc Les Chanteaux – richer and riper in style than in the past with some tropical fruit. The grapes are harvested by selected picking. In 2007 they went through the vines three times. CD has 4.5 ha of Chenin Blanc for this cuvée, which stays on its lees until bottling in late March/early April.

In the past Couly’s rosés used to be made by the saigné method, Now half the grapes are pressed immediately and the other half has a 24-48 hour maceration and 15% undergoes malolactic. The clean and crisp 2008 has grenadine and strawberry fruit. The fruit comes from vines planted on the plain of Cravant-les-Coteaux with a yield of around 50 hl/ha. The Coulys have planted cereals in the vineyards in Cravant providing both competition for the vines and a source of humus for the soil.

Cravant-les-Coteaux: looking down the coteaux
onto the gravel vineyards of the plain

Then the reds starting with the easy drinking 2007 Les Graviers with hints of green pepper and coal tar from vines yielding 40 hl/ha planted on sand and gravel on the plain of Cravant. The 2007 René Couly from clay and flinty soils on the plateau to the west of Chinon around Saint Louard, which is just to the west of Chinon. Spicy fruit with a hint again of green pepper. We concluded with the 2007 Clos de l’Echo, where the yield was 32 hl/ha. Soft fruit with an attractive texture and good for the difficult year of 2007, quite closed and needing time. L’Echo was a marked step up from the other 2007 reds. There will be no Crescendo from the Clos de l’Echo in 2007.

The famous 22-ha Clos de l’Echo has been reassessed. Parts of the Clos face north and parts southwards and it had been assumed that this was the major factor in differences in grape flavour and ripeness. It now appears to be more complicated than that and grapes are now picked parcel by parcel depending on the soil and the age of the vines.

We moved onto a couple 2006s. First 2006 Domaine René Couly that comes from 18 hectares on the plateau at Saint Louans to the west of Chinon. Although the 2006 has quite attractive texture, I didn’t find it convincing – slightly confected, a hint green and quite tannic. In contrast the 2006 Clos de l’Echo was much more impressive with attractively soft texture, rich fruit as well as coffee tones and structure to allow this to age.

Then it was onto the last flight of reds – four from 2005. First Baronnie Madeleine made only in good years. Deep coloured and densely hued, quite rich and full bodied but decidedly tannic, this needs a good couple or more years in bottle. I have some worries that it may be too tannic for its own good but we will have to see.

The Clos de l’Olive is a five-hectare south-facing vineyard on the clay-limestone coteaux to the east side of Chinon. Half the vineyard is enclosed by a wall. Production in 2005 was 13,000 bottles (30 hl/ha). Apparently yields used here used to be around 55 hl/ha. The wine has 14.7/14.8% alcohol. Although 2005 was a very good Loire vintage, the grapes were slow to reach physiological ripeness, while the sugars shot up giving high levels of alcohol. The powerful 2005 Clos de l’Olive has attractive red fruits, although it is currently quite closed up.

Chinon: on the Vienne with the old town and newly restored château

The 2005 Clos de l’Echo was the best red of the tasting with rich black fruits, velvety texture and well-worked tannins. Although 15% alcohol, the wine is well balanced. This powerful wine is still very youthful, although it can be enjoyed now it is likely to improve over the next five years or so.

Finally onto 2005 Crescendo. I have long criticised the decision to make Crescendo – a selection of the best from the Clos de l’Echo. Given the fame of the vineyard, Le Clos de l’Echo ought to be the grand vin with whatever doesn’t make the grade going into a second wine – Petit Echo or similar. I was pleased to discover that Jacques and Arnaud’s view may not be all that different from mine and that Crescendo may be phased out in the not too distant future, although commercially that may be awkward in the short term as Crescendo has established a name and a following. Anyway the 2005 is all big fruit, torrefaction and wood and is currently a lot less interesting than the straight l’Echo.

We finished with two agreeable sparkling wines (Brut de Blanc and Brut de Franc) made from Cabernet Franc, which are recent additions to the range, although Arnaud’s grandfather René made sparkling wine some 40 years ago. Both are vin mousseux de qualité and spend 12 months sur latte, although the Coulys would prefer them to spend 24 months on latte. The Brut de Blanc has notes of fraises des bois, while the rosé is more floral and strawberry flavoured.

The last time I did an extensive tasting of Couly-Dutheil’s reds was a good five or six years ago for an article in Decanter. Then I was disappointed with the wines, in particular their dry, green tannins. Couly-Dutheil’s reds have improved since then, especially at the top end but I think there remains work to be done on the entry-level reds.

Postscript: 15th April 2009
At the tasting in Paris (7th-8th April) to choose the 2009 Ambassadors I was impressed by the 2008 Domaine René Couly. This confirmed the good impression I had of the wine when tasted at the Salon des Vins de Loire at the beginning of February. The tannin management was much improved compared to the 2007 Domaine René Couly.

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