Oyster beds in the Bassin de Thau. Not surprisingly, Picpoul is the perfect shelfish accompaniment.
Picpoul (Piquepoul) is not well known in Australia, but it's one of the oldest domestic varieties in the vast Languedoc region of southwest France. It’s been grown there for several hundred years, but like most of Europe’s vines, was devastated by phylloxera (an aphid-like pest) in the mid-to-late 1800s. As a late ripening and low yielding variety, it was not replanted with any enthusiasm, but its tolerance of sand made it a good choice for coastal vineyards.
The grapes of Picpoul are small, golden and oval shaped and produce super fresh dry wines. In the old Occitan language the term Picpoul translates to ‘pecking hen’ or ‘lip stinger,’ referring to the high acidity of the variety. This colourful description though is long outdated. Appellation rules were put in place many decades ago to prevent the excessive yields that lead to under-ripeness (ie. high acidity) in the variety.
Typical Picpoul descriptors are lemon and lime, floral and mineral characters and clean, zesty acidity. Here’s how Jancis Robinson MW describes it in her book Wine Grapes: “Lemon scented, nervy, and dry, occasionally on the floral side”. Decanter Magazine observes “zingy acidity, often complemented by citrus, green fruit and white blossom characters, and a distinct saline, iodine quality. More complex examples can also display mineral, wet stone, or yeasty notes, too.” To me it’s somewhere between aromatic muscadet and chablis, with a shot of new world riesling.
And, “… like many crisp, high-acid, low-fruit whites, it goes extremely well with food. Whereas fruitier wines tend to dominate food, this kind of wine allows the food to be the hero. It’s happy to play the role of accompanist.” Huon Hooke.
These days the most famous expressions of Picpoul are found in a sub-appellation of Languedoc, known as Picpoul de Pinet AOP, a rare instance of French labelling reflecting the variety in the appellation name.
Centred around the town of Pinet, Picpoul de Pinet is a white only appellation based entirely on Picpoul. At 3,000 acres it’s a large region and one of the biggest producers of white wines in Languedoc. The appellation lies on Languedoc’s eastern edge, southwest of Montpellier. It runs along the Mediterranean coast, separated from the sea by a large lagoon, the Bassin de Thau. To the east is the port of Sète, with its splendid fish market, and to the south, the old Roman town of Agde.
Appellation rules require the use of a tall, slim, green embossed ‘Neptune’ bottle, which a growing number of producers are opting to seal with screwcap (a practice not generally favoured by the French) ensuring the wine’s freshness - an essential part of the Picpoul experience.
Languedoc is famous for its sunbaked vineyards, so how does a wine as fresh and delicate as Picpoul, usually a cool climate style, emanate from here? The answer lies in the appellation’s close proximity to the coast. Here a strong sea breeze moderates high daytime temperatures, while a lagoon prevents steep night-time temperature drops. The locals say that the Picpoul vines aren’t happy unless they can see the Mediterranean. They’re obviously onto something.
The region is dominated by large co-operative ‘tank farms’, but I’ve managed to find a couple of estate grown-and-bottled wines that I know you’ll like. Both are great finds and great value.
This family run domain is located on the Via Domitia, the first road the Romans built in Gaul in 118BC, linking Italy (Alps) with Spain (Pyrenees), a distance of some 600km. The story goes that Via Domitia was locally known as via Reine Juliette, after a queen who once travelled along it. The estate took its name from the same queen.
The estate is located less than 10km from the shores of the Mediterranean, about 50km south of Montpellier. These days it’s sixth generation brother and sister Guillaume and Marion Alliès who are at the helm, assisted by Guillaume’s son, also named Guillaume. At 110ha, the estate is a decent size, although Picpoul only accounts for round 20ha of this. The estate follows organic (non-certified) practices. The bottle carries a ‘Haut Valeur Environmentale’ or HVE (High Environmental Value) label, which is a French agricultural certification recognising a high level of commitment to environmentally-friendly practices by farmers. While the vineyards are tended with a view to traditional methods, in the winery it’s all about embracing technology, with the full array of mod cons needed to make high quality wine. The finished wine is 13% and sealed with a screwcap.
“Brilliant pale yellow colour with green highlights. A nose of fine elegant floral and fruity reminiscent of hawthorn and peach. Well-balanced palate, acidity and roundness give this wine a good framework, with a final note of citrus fruits (grapefruit).” Winemaker’s notes.
I can offer it for $25 a bottle.
This estate, which you may also see referred to as Domaine de Petit Roubié, has been owned by Floriane and Olivier Azan since 1985. The 80ha estate has been certified organic (ECOCERT) for over 30 years, making it the oldest organic producer in the appellation.
This is the estate’s flagship wine and tends to get some sort of award or recognition year in, year out. This vintage won a Gold Medal at the Concours Général Agricole de Paris 2020. It’s 13% alcohol and sealed with a screwcap.
I found this one a little more minerally than the wine above - but just as fresh.
“If you want to see what the fuss is about, … It’s Chateau Petit Roubie Picpoul de Pinet. It’s fresh and lightly fruity on the bouquet with a crisp, racy, high-acid taste: intense, long-lasting and lip-smackingly dry. Just the shot with a dozen tasty little Sydney rocks. And another asset: it’s screwcapped.” Huon Hooke.
“Pale gold, the brilliant color is adorned with green reflections. An intense nose releases rich and complex aromas of pomelo, lemon and ripe pineapple. Floral notes complete this beautiful aromatic palette. The palate is both ample and lively with a subtle balance whose freshness, delicately iodized and peppery finish enhances the fruity flavors.” Winemaker’s notes.
I can offer it for $31 a bottle.