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Jefford on Monday: Picpoul on the march

Andrew Jefford looks behind one of Languedoc’s recent success stories.

Languedoc’s had a wet winter, but the late February day I chose to look round the vineyards of Picpoul de Pinet was sunny — and eerily warm: 23˚C, according to the car thermometer.  From a distance, though, the vineyards appeared to be deep in snow.  Strange: you barely get a frost this close to the Mediterranean.

Picpoul de Pinet

Picpoul de Pinet vineyards stretch down towards the Mediterranean sea. Credit: Andrew Jefford.

That distinctive smell of peppery cabbage gave the game away.  The moisture, the light and the warmth had ensured that the wild white rocket (Diplotaxis erucoides) had exploded into flower, though the vine buds hadn’t yet broken.  The tide of white petals seething through the vines mingled with the pink blossom of the wild almond trees.  To the south, the blues of sea and sky beckoned.

Son terroir, c’est la mer” (‘its terroir is the sea’) is one of Picpoul’s marketing slogans.  This is not quite as ridiculous as it sounds.  This 1,400 ha vineyard zone sits on a kind of ramp.  The higher back-country lying between the villages of Montagnac and Castelnau-de-Guers is a broken, rocky zone where the vineyards occupy little valleys between lumps of conglomerate and the guardian garrigue.  They then tumble downslope through richer limey clays almost to the sea’s edge, threading the villages of Florensac, Pomerols, Pinet and Mèze together.  It’s unusually dry here; the vines rely on early-morning dew in the summer for a little liquid refreshment.  Dew forms when atmospheric moisture condenses on a cooling surface at a greater rate than that at which it can evaporate.  The presence of the sea keeps atmospheric moisture high, helping that process on its way.

All the same, for me this appellation is an instance of human factors outweighing physical in the creation of a terroir.  There are around 1,500 ha of Picpoul in France, and 1,460 ha of them are here (it’s one of the permitted grapes in Châteauneuf, for example, but less than 4 ha are planted there).  This is essentially the last stand of what was sometimes considered the finest of the vermouth grape triumvirate (the other two leading vermouth varieties were Clairette and Terret).  What was once an enormous local vermouth and aperitif-wine production has collapsed, with only the refined and delicate Noilly-Prat in nearby Marseillan surviving. (Back in the 1950s, for example, vermouth meant that Terret was the most widely grown variety in Languedoc.)  If the vermouth trade hadn’t existed, nor would today’s Picpoul de Pinet.

guy bascou, picpoul de pinet

Guy Bascou, president of Picpoul de Pinet appellation. Credit: Andrew Jefford.

Thanks to a combination of luck, fashion and some astute tiller-work from Guy Bascou, the long-standing president of the appellation, Picpoul has emerged in a surprisingly strong position: it’s one of the few vineyard zones in Languedoc where the next generation is keen to stay on the land, and where (it’s rumoured) both Paul Mas and Gérard Bertrand would love to buy an estate … if they could find one for sale.  For all that, Picpoul only won its appellation in 2013.  What are its secrets?

First of all, it’s one of the rare appellations in Southern France that can be made from a single variety in a world still thirsty for varietal wine.  Late-ripening, acid-retaining Picpoul, moreover, is well-suited to the climate-change challenge.  Not only that, but Picpoul itself has been cunningly excluded as an approved variety from the Oc IGP, and growers hope to get a similar exclusion from the local Côtes de Thau IGP – so if you want Picpoul, you’d need to go to Picpoul du Pinet.  And Picpoul is almost fully planted: there won’t be much more of it coming on stream.  There’s space for another 300 ha at most, says Guy Bascou, and a new TGV train line is going to gobble up 80 ha of that.

For the time being, at least, Picpoul is a relatively simple wine: a fresh, sappy, lemony white, sometimes with a seemingly saline edge, which goes very well with seafood (just as well, since the vines overlook the Etang de Thau where 13,000 tonnes of oysters are harvested every year – that’s 90 per cent of France’s Mediterranean oyster production).

Technological wine-making advances such as cool, reductive handling, gentle pressing, a blocked malo and lees ageing in steel vats has helped quality enormously.  This is the kind of winemaking at which co-operatives excel — and 82 per cent of Picpoul is produced by its four co-operatives.  Having done two Picpoul tastings recently I can confirm that some of the best wines in the appellation do indeed come from the region’s co-operatives.

That, in turn, makes it the kind of appellation which overseas supermarkets and large-scale importers can easily deal with – another driver of the Picpoul phenomenon, particularly in the UK, which at present gulps down a startling 37 per cent of all Picpoul (the overall export figure for the appellation is 60 per cent).  Viewed from the UK, it’s hard not to see Picpoul as ‘the new Muscadet’ (Picpoul bulk prices are now higher than both Muscadet and Muscadet Sèvre et Maine sur lie): a slightly more generous, softer-contoured, gastronomic seafood white than its Loire alternative, and one with the kind of terroir credentials that elude IGP Sauvignon or Chardonnay.

There is, I’m sure, a fascinating future ahead for Picpoul – but there are challenges, too.  The region’s immediate anxiety is whether the post-Brexit collapse in sterling will erode that 37 per cent share of production enjoyed by the UK.  One of the emblematic wines for this relationship is the Tesco Finest Picpoul de Pinet from the Costières de Pomerols (Beauvignac) co-operative, a former Decanter World Wine Awards Trophy-winning wine (in 2011), on sale at present – I write prior to the UK budget on March 8th — via the Tesco website at £42 per six-bottle case.  That looks a vulnerable price point to me.  My feeling after chatting to the locals, though, was that they’re not inclined to roll over and take a post-Brexit price mugging from UK retailers; they are already thinking about looking elsewhere, notably to the US, and in general raising their qualitative aspirations.

And that, in the end, is the biggest challenge: how high can Picpoul reach?  Guy Bascou told me that he thought there wasn’t much potential for the unearthing of individual crus within the appellation, since its terroir is too homogenous – but it is, at present, a machine-harvested appellation whose yields and winery attentions must necessarily reflect a maximum ex-cellar price of 8 euros.  That obviously leaves space for a little qualitative acceleration if wished.  This, indeed, is something which some of the 25 individual domains in Picpoul are working at – via picking with a little more ripeness than the cooperatives opt for or working with lower yields (most Picpoul is 12.5%, but some domain wines are 13% or 13.5%); via experiments with pressing and fermentation temperatures; and via lees exposure and discreet use of oak.  The success is mixed at present – but the subtlety and gastronomic poise of the best wines show great promise.  Once its neat little niche offers more depth and aromatic nuance, Picpoul de Pinet could become not just a Languedoc classic, but a French one.

Picpoul de Pinet wines: Ten of the Best

Beauvignac, Cuvée Anniversaire 2016

This old-vine cuvée (its members own 450 ha, so Beauvignac has plenty to choose from) is about as sappy and ripely green as Picpoul can get: springtime in liquid form, without much glycerol, majoring on ripe acidity and with a stony, pungent finish. 90

La Croix Gratiot, Cuvée Bréchallune 2016, tank sample

This special cuvée is a parcel selection, picked about a week later than the ‘classic’ cuvée, and given six months on its lees: elegant and lemony, with plenty of substance and depth and a touch of anis to finish.  [90]

Félines-Jourdan 2016

Standards are high at the biggest of Picpoul’s private estates, the 95-ha Félines-Jourdan (with a full 60 ha in Picpoul, sited in three different zones with three different domain origins: Félines close to the sea at Mèze; Les Cadastres in the heart of the appellation; La Coulette up among the pine trees close to Montagnac).  There’s almost a whiff of the Etang de Thau itself in this wine, a seawater-and-sunlight richness, while the palate is rich, full, penetrating, zesty and long: a worthy standard-bearer for the region.  90

(Look out, too, for the prestige version ‘Félines’, from the Mèze parcels where the cooling maritime influence is at its maximum: pure salted lemon freshness.)

Ch Font-Mars 2016

This old-established 55-ha estate owned by Jan-Baptiste de Klock has 10 ha of Picpoul.  This is a true fine-dining style: taut, fresh, clean, elegant, full of lemony pungency, with a finishing impression of understated richness.  92

Domaine des Lauriers 2016

This wine from up in the back hills of the appellation is pithy and yeasty-fresh, with a spicy lemon-orange note which almost reminds me of wheat beer.  There’s dancing acidity and a pungent finish.  89

La Mirande 2016

Apple, pear and lemon, sketched with restraint and grace, from a magnificently sited property and 16 ha of carefully tended vines.  89

Morin Langaran, Black Label 2016

This wine exists in two versions (with a black label indicating a crisper, more pungent style and a white label a softer, gentler style – both are good): clean limey fruit, a salty edge, great freshness and precision in the mouth, with structuring but ripe acidity.  91

Cave de l’Ormarine, Cuvée Prestige 2015

In my opinion, this is one of the most successful of the local ‘prestige’ versions: no oak or excessive weight, but an old-vine selection given a cold soak, gentle pressing, cool (but not icy) fermentation and eight months on lees.  Soft, sea-shore scents and long, vinous yet almost succulently lemony flavours with a saline edge.  92

(Look out, too, for the mouthfilling 2016 Duc de Morny classic from this co-operative based in Pinet, as well as the zesty 2016 ‘Cuvée L’Effet Mer’, which dispenses with the local green bottle in favour of frosted transparency.)

Ch du Pinet, Cuvée des Dames 2015

This historic 50-ha domain, whose wines are also on occasion labelled Vignobles Gaujal de St Bon, produces a range of four Picpoul wines including a oaked and a late-harvest version.  This old-vine cuvée strikes me as most rewarding: scents of lime blossom, with a cascade of seamless flavours given ample lees richness. 90

Tesco, Finest Picpoul de Pinet 2016

According to the back label, this is “a brilliantly tangy hit of apple, pear and lemon zing” which is accurate – Tesco’s buyer seems to have asked for a very fruity incarnation of Picpoul for sipping on its own as well as with food. 89

Les Vignerons Montagnac, Terres Rouges 2016

Montagnac is the zone’s back-country co-op, but this wine proves that you don’t necessarily need the sound of waves lapping on the shore to make good Picpoul: there are leaf, apple and stone scents and flavours, with plenty of mouthwatering sheerness to them.  91

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