Last year’s harvest in Picpoul de Pinet was the biggest in the region’s history (90,000 hectolitres or 11.7m bottles). For publication in the week starting 25 February 2019.
The Picpoul region sits in the deep south of France, near the border with Spain, along the coast of the Mediterranean Sea. It is the largest white wine region in the south of France and accounts for 57 per cent of still white wines produced in the Languedoc. Previous columns about the Languedoc can be found here and here and here.
The Picpoul region specialises in full-bodied, citrus-scented white wines exclusively from the Picpoul grape, also spelled as Piquepoul. The phrase “Pique poul” translates as “stings the lip” and refers to the grape’s high acidity. It matures late and is drought resistant. Grapes become golden when ripe.
Picpoul keeps its acidity even in hot climates (many white grapes produce low acidity in the heat, forcing winemakers to pick early to retain acidity). This makes it ideal for the Languedoc region, with its long, hot summers and relatively mild winters.
Wines finish with a delicate balance between acidity and structure. They partner beautifully with shellfish and crustacea, as well as cheeses and sausages. Picpoul produces wines with aromas of acacia flower, citrus, hawthorn and a range of herbs.
The elegant long green bottle used for Picpoul is linked to the sea. Since 1995 it has been known as a Neptune. About four in five bottles of AOC production come in a bottle with an embossed Languedoc cross and a ring of gentle waves around the neck, and a base shaped like a Doric column.
Picpoul vines thrive in sandy soils, which meant they managed to avoid the devastation of the phylloxera epidemic in the late nineteenth century. The phylloxera louse, which destroys vine roots, does not like sand.
The Wine Searcher site tells us that the appellation runs along the French coast, separated from the Mediterranean Sea by the Bassin de Thau, a lagoon 11 miles (18km) long and three miles (5km) wide. On the horizon are two hills, Saint Claire in Sète and Sant-Loup, an extinct volcano in Agde.
More information and a map can be found here. The Picpoul region covers about 1,500 hectares around the Bassin de Thau. It is a limestone plateau covered by scrubland and vineyards and dotted with pine forests. In the north of the region the scrubland and forests produce a distinct fragrance known as “garrigue” discussed in earlier columns.
In the south the landscape is less rocky with more rolling hills and the vines are closer to the sea. This area is almost exclusively planted with vines, and benefits from the influence of morning and evening maritime breezes that lower temperatures.
A few Picpoul vineyards can be found in Portugal and Spain, where it is known respectively as Picapoll and Avello. The grape has been planted in Australia and California.
The United Kingdom is Picpoul’s biggest export market by both volume and value. About 1.57 million bottles of Picpoul were sold in the UK last year, a 46 per cent increase compared with the 1.08 million bottles in 2017. Indeed, Picpoul accounted for 80 per cent of the Languedoc’s white wine exports last year.
It was appropriate that Marc Médevielle launched a new book Picpoul de Pinet: The White Mediterranean Vineyards of the Languedoc in London earlier this month, with photographs by Emmanuel Perrin. Médevielle founded the magazine Terre de Vins, named the world’s best wine magazine in 2012. More about the book here.
The book says the “picquepoul” grape (note the original spelling) was originally a black variety first mentioned in the mid 1300s in a land lease agreement for a plot of vines in Toulouse. The popularity of Iberian varietals and Bordeaux claret in the early 1800s forced winegrowers to propagate Piquepoul Gris – made into a rose or white style – to survive. White wines became very popular in Nordic countries in the eighteenth century and exports from the Languedoc soared. The region became the third largest exporter of French wines and by the time of the French Revolution [1789–1799] the Languedoc accounted for a quarter of all French wine exports.
Within another two generations vermouth production accounted for a large percentage of shipments. This wine, which used the Picpoul grape, was flavoured with chamomile, quinine, hyssop and marjoram.
In 1963 the French government launched a grand project to develop the Languedoc-Roussillon coast as a tourist destination. This was at a time when Picpoul plantings around the village of Pinet had fallen to perhaps 50 hectares.
Etienne Farras, President of the Pinet Wine Cooperative, was elected mayor of Sète in 1971 and celebrated the marriage of Picpoul de Pinet with the wondrous Bouzigues oysters. Since then, this distinctive wine with its lemony acidity has been recognised as having an unrivalled affinity with oysters.
Machine harvesting replaced hand collection in the 1980s and wine production increased threefold from 1975 to 1983. The Coteaux du Languedoc Picpoul de Pinet appellation was given AOC status in 1985. White Piquepoul grapes became the only approved AOC variety, and over the next decade production doubled.
The AOC today includes 24 privately owned wineries. The Picpoul de Pinet AOC covers the communities of Pinet, Meze, Florensac, Castelnau-de-Guers, Montagnac and Pomerols (the last not to be confused with Bordeaux’s Pomerol).
In 1998 Guy Bascou, president of the Syndicat de l’AOC Picpoul de Pinet until 2017, helped cement the region’s international recognition when he called Picpoul a “rare and popular” appellation – rare in production volume but popular in price.
In future some winemakers aim to make more complex wines from riper grapes with maturation on fine lees. La Revue du Vin de France says that the grape’s feature is its litheness: “The unique character shows lightly smoky, iodized notes and generous fruit, sometimes with overlaying hints of musk and honey that counter-balance the wine’s signature lemony acidity … an extra year’s ageing after bottling helps the wine to open up and show its true colours ….”
A highlight of the region is the summer jazz Festival de Thau in Sète established in 1991, where we can be assured that Picpoul is consumed in large quantities.