Humble Picpoul de Pinet steals the show

Humble Picpoul de Pinet steals the show
It fits its landscape and the local cuisine so perfectly that you’d think it had been there forever. But, as Henry Jeffreys reports, we’ve only recently come to love the ‘squeeze of grapefruit and saline tang’ of the humble Picpoul

The area around the Étang de Thau basin does not look like a classic wine country. It’s completely flat for a start, with none of the dramatic schist hills that you find higher up in the Languedoc. There are beaches, some rather seedy resorts mingled with attractive old fishing towns. Everywhere you go there are signs for huîtres à vendre’ - this part of France produces about 10 percent of the country’s oysters. But these unpromising plains are also home to one of France's great wine success stories of recent years, Picpoul de Pinet. A wine that fits so perfectly into its landscape and the local cuisine, it seems it’s been there forever. I’m just back from a visit to the region as a guest of Gérard Bertrand, the man who has done so much to raise the profile and price of wines from the Languedoc. We tasted dozens of bottles in the searing heat of the Midi summer, many of them extremely expensive, like the £200 Clos du Temple rosé, but it was his humble Picpoul de Pinet, drunk not far from the sea with local oysters, that stole the show.

Andrew Jefford in his recent collected writings, Drinking with the Valkyries, describes Picpoul as a ‘quiet wine’ and contrasts it with flashy attention-seeking ‘noisy wines’: ‘A quiet wine… will have an inner shapeliness, grace, logic, and purity of its own, and it will compel and reward attention via its drinking qualities.’ That’s Picpoul. Jefford and I are not alone in our love for Picpoul de Pinet - the British drink around half the annual production. And yet this wine was completely unknown over here 20 years ago. My late aunt used to have a house in Pomerols in the heart of Picpoul country, and she’d load up her car and bring cases of the stuff back to England. Wine merchant Jason Yapp remembers first trying the wines of Domaine Gaujal in 2004 and immediately securing an allocation to import to the UK. He told me: ‘It’s a pity one can’t get a commission on helping an appéllation gain popularity.’ Originally the vineyards around Pinet would have been planted with grapes to go into Noilly Prat vermouth. Not just Piquepoul (for some reason the grape on its own is spelt differently to the appellation) but also Terret and Clairette. When the Cave d L’Ormaine co-op was set up in the 1920s, its entire production went into Noilly Prat. Then, as Rosemary George, author of The Wines of the Languedoc, puts it: ‘the bottom fell out of the vermouth market’ in the 1970s and ’80s. Something had been done and the answer was investment in modern winemaking by the co-ops and some private producers like Domaine Gaujal. It was a very New World formula of temperature-controlled fermentation, mechanical harvesting, selected yeasts and reductive winemaking that brought out the hitherto hidden majesty of the Piquepoul grape. George dates the big change to when Picpoul de Pinet, previously a VDQS (Vin Délimité de Qualité Supérieure, one level below AOC) became an AOC under Coteaux du Languedoc in 1985. It wasn’t an overnight success but between 2005 and 2010, Picpoul de Pinet became a fixture in the UK, first on wine merchants’ lists and then in supermarkets (Tesco has listed a wine from Cave de Pomerols since 2009); Picpoul was awarded its own appellation in 2013. The key to this success is consistency: you know what you’re getting and quality levels are high, with a strong image – that distinctive ‘Neptune’ bottle and the wine’s uncanny affinity with oysters are additional benefits. As you can imagine, local producers are wary of tinkering with such a winning formula. There’s no move towards single vineyard bottlings or special parcels. But there is now a premium category called ‘Patience’, the wines left longer on the lees and designed to have ageing potential and appeal to Michelin-starred restaurants. They come in special brown bottles and can only gain the designation by passing a blind tasting by peers. This category was introduced in 2018 and seems yet to have fully taken off. While a little lees ageing definitely suits Picpoul, I have tasted oaked and even sparkling versions which were not so successful. What surely has a future is Piquepoul’s red cousin Piquepoul Noir which Domaine de la Grangette makes into a very light red wine and a delicious rosé. At the moment plantings are very small but as the rosé boom shows no sign of abating this is definitely one to watch. But I still find ordinary Picpoul de Pinet impossible to resist, that squeeze of grapefruit, the saline tang like licking an oyster shell and just a little weight on the end. As Jefford writes: ‘After that it’s the place that comes tumbling out: sunlight, fresh white, quiet music, a sea interlude.’
Henry Jeffreys worked in the wine trade and publishing before becoming a writer. He is features editor for the Master of Malt blog, contributor to BBC Good Food, wine columnist for The Critic magazine, and has appeared on radio and TV. He won Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year in 2022 and is the author of three books including Empire of Booze and Vines in a Cold Climate.
Read more about the humble Picpoul in Andrew Jefford's award-winning book Drinking with the Valkyries.
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