Picpoul or Piquepoul is a grape of the South of France. While it is used as a blending grape in the Rhône, when you travel to Occitanie on the Mediterranean Sea you find it made as a single varietal wine. It is a wine of place, pairing perfectly with the briny oysters and other seafood of the coast. Picpoul translates to “lip stinger”, is named for it’s bright and tingly acid. It is one of the oldest grape varieties in the Occitanie Region of France.
Languedoc-Rousillon in Occitanie
While we have been diving into Rhone grapes lately, and picpoul is a grape of the Southern Rhone, it is more well know in Languedoc-Roussillon, a wine region in the south of France that is west of the French Riviera and runs around the Mediterranean Sea to the border with Spain.
Until 2016 the Occitanie region was referred to as Languedoc-Roussillon, and Midi-Pyrénées. The new name for the region comes from the Occitan cross which was the coat of arms used by the Counts of Toulouse and used in the 12th and 13th centuries. This new larger region encompasses the area they ruled.
Within this region you find Picpoul-de-Pinet. This area around the Étang de Thau has moderate daytime temperatures due to the sea breezes and being close to the lagoon keeps the night time temps from dropping too much.
Étang de Thau
The lagoon (étang) itself is 7,500 hectares and spans an area along the Mediterranean that runs 21 km along the coast and is 8 km wide. It is one of the largest lagoons off of the Mediterranean Sea. It is also a spectacular place to see flamingos, who stop in to eat in the lagoon around the village of Frontignan. You will also find many oyster and mussel farms in the region.
Pinet is a commune in the Héralt department in the Occitanie region of Southern France. The small community gives it’s name to Picpoul-de-Pinet. The vineyards here are among the oldest on the Mediterranean and grow on the edge of the Thau Lagoon.
Picpoul vines grow well and are early to bud out in the spring, which does make it a little susceptible to frost. It also ripens late and it has a tendency toward mildew. The grapes themselves are oval and tend to drop off easily. I have heard that vineyards used to lay pans out under the vines to catch the grapes as they fell.
Picpoul comes to America
I first discovered this variety at Tablas Creek in Paso Robles, the winery noted for bringing this variety to the US. This is one of the 13 varieties of grape allowed in Châteauneuf-du-Pape.
Tablas Creek did not bring this grape in initially with the first 8 varieties that they brought from the Rhône, but after seeing how well suited the land and climate were to this grape imported it and planted an acre in 2000. Since then they have added another acre, grafting some roussanne vines over to picpoul blanc.
As in the Southern Rhone, they use picpoul as a blending grape in their Esprit de Tablas Blanc. About every other year they do a varietal bottling. Sadly, I did not have a bottle for this tasting.
Bonny Doon’s Picpoul
When we were traveling and tasting last year and stopped by Bonny Doon, we found that they also had a picpoul. Randall Grahm, the winemaker, sources the grapes from Beeswax Vineyard in Arroyo Seco. We shared a little about this area and vineyard last year in our “Pairing food with Picpoul Blanc – (Speed Dating for Food and Wine)”
Arroyo Seco is an AVA in Monterey County. The AVA covers two towns, Soledad and Greenfield. The area sits in the Salinas Valley 40 miles from Monterey Bay, which brings dense fog and howling winds during the growing season in the Eastern and Central Portions of the AVA. Named for the “Arroyo Seco” a seasonal waterway that brings in water from the Santa Lucia Mountains and the Los Padres National Forest. The Western portion of the AVA runs east to west in a narrow gorge that is sheltered from the Monterey Bay fog and winds and has higher daytime temperatures. The AVA covers over 18,000 acres and is one of the smallest AVAs in California and has about 7,000 planted acres. Find out more about this region at http://www.arroyosecowinegrowers.com/
Beeswax Vineyard was established in 2000 and has 24 acres of organically farmed wine grapes with blocks of pinot noir, grenache blanc, roussanne and picpoul blanc. This tiny vineyard is in the Salinas Valley toward the southern end of the AVA and is nestled into the Santa Lucia foothills.
A conversation with Randall Grahm on picpoul blanc
I had an opportunity to speak with Randall Grahm the infamous winemaker at Bonny Doon Vineyards about picpoul. He was gracious enough to take a few moments out of his busy morning for a chat on the phone.
Randall told me they originally brought picpoul in to add to their Cigare Blanc which is a white Rhône blend. The blend for the Cigare Blanc with the roussanne and grenache blanc was becoming more alcoholic and the acid was dropping. They grafted over some of the roussanne to picpoul hoping to add some of the acid that picpoul is known for, to the blend. “It seemed like a good idea, and we used it for one vintage, but found it did not play well with the roussanne and grenache blanc”, Randall said. It did, however make a great wine on it’s own, and has been well received. 2017 makes their 6th bottling of this variety.
We spoke about Beeswax Vineyard, the vineyard in Arroyo Seco where they source the grapes for this wine. They have had a good relationship with this grower and were involved in the layout and planning for the vineyard 14 years ago.
As I mentioned, they grafted over some of the original roussanne in this vineyard to picpoul which is where we get this wine. Randall also mentioned to me when we spoke that they have recently grafted some of the Beeswax vineyard roussanne over to clairette blanche, so watch for that from Bonny Doon in the future.
As to the wine making behind the Bonny Doon Picpoul, “It’s a pretty low tech wine, whole cluster pressed with no skin contact and batonnage post fermentation for texture”. Randall says the 2017 Vintage is a bit of an anomaly, in that it has riper aromatics and is more articulated. In this vintage you get floral notes where you normally find only flinty minerality. Randall only made 1500 cases of the 2017 Picpoul, so you should hurry and get some.
Picpoul in California
It is estimated (and only estimated because there is so little of it) that as of 2016 there were only 30 acres of picpoul in California. In addition to Tablas Creek and Bonny Doon, I found a few other California wineries that have produced picpoul blanc including Forlorn Hope (Napa), Broc Cellars (Berkley), TH Estates, Adelaida (Paso Robles), and Acquiesce (Lodi). If you are aware of other US wineries producing picpoul, let us know in the comments!
Mouline de Gassac Picpoul de Pinet
The Mouline de Gassac Picpoul-de-Pinet we chose, grows in limestone soils on a 5 hectare vineyard that is organically farmed. The soil here is clay and limestone close to the Thau Lagoon. This is an unoaked picpoul. 40,000 bottles were made and the alcohol sits at 12.5%.
Bonny Doon 2016 Picpoul
We had two bottles of this wine. The first we indulged in last September when we did our “Pairing food with Picpoul Blanc – (Speed Dating for Food and Wine)” post. As I posted then..
“This wine was mouthwatering and bright, with a light straw yellow color. You get minerals, ocean and a floral note when you stick your nose in the glass and then tart green apple and stone fruit pits in your mouth. There is in the background this little bit of beeswax. It is a lovely and subtle wine.”
This wine comes in at 12.7% alcohol
It is worth mentioning the beautiful art on the label of the Bonny Doon Picpoul. The artist is by Wendy Cook a calligrapher in San Francisco. She has also done the labels for the Bonny Doon Viognier and roussanne and you can see more of her work at www.bellocchio.com
Bonny Doon 2017 Picpoul
We did our initial tasting with the 2016 Bonny Doon Picpoul and had a bottle of the 2017 in route. While it didn’t arrive in time for our pairing. We did taste it after to see if we could pick up on the differences in the vintage that Randall mentioned.
This wine opened with sweet honeysuckle on the nose with lighter minerals in the back that grew to slate as it opened. The nose was enchanting. As with the other picpoul we found notes of beeswax also, but the sweet floral notes were the star. We ended up pairing this will some linguine and clam sauce for dinner which was a great pairing.
This 6th vintage of Picpoul has an alcohol level a little lower than it’s predecessor, coming in at 12%
We have to thank Bonny Doon for including us in their food pairing notes for this wine! I went to check suggested pairings on their site and this is what I found.
“This wine is utterly brilliant with the briniest oysters you can find or Dungeness crab. Other ideas include Grilled Octopus with Lemon, Moussaka, Sardines a la Plancha, Grilled Sardines with Frisée & Whole-Grain Mustard Dressing. We also love these more doon-to-earth ideas from our friends over at CrushedGrapeChronicles.com: Iberico or Manchego cheese, herbed goat cheese, smoked oysters, anchovies, capers, olive tapenade, calamari.”
The last time we tried a pairing, we didn’t prepare very well, although it did lead to some amazing discoveries that were noted in the pairing notes above. This time, I planned ahead. We found briney oysters and Dungeness crab as Randall suggested and made Croquettes de brandade, which is a popular pairing in Provence and Languedoc. The croquettes are made with potatoes and salt cod. We rounded things out with a salad of frisee with a whole grain mustard vinaigrette.
Michael poured a glass of each of the wines and the first thing you noticed was the difference in color. The Picpoul-de-Pinet was a deeper golden color and on pouring, produced tiny bubbles on the bottom of the glass. The effervescence dissipated when you swirled the glass. The Bonny Doon Picpoul was much lighter in color, just tinted with a bit of light straw that had a touch of green.
On the nose the Picpoul-de-Pinet smelled instantly of the sea, followed by citrus and lemon. The Bonny Doon opened with slate and was a bit more mouth filling, and I never know if it is just my brain playing tricks on me, since I know that this wine comes from Beeswax vineyard, but I get beeswax on the nose.
Picpoul is a wine of place. Sip it on it’s own and it’s fine, but it is truly meant to pair with food. With the oysters, Dungeness crab and the croquettes, it paired perfectly. Close your eyes and picture the Etang de Thau, or the California coast in Davenport, across the street from the Bonny Doon tasting room. Smell the sea, taste the oysters, sip the wine. That is the experience.
On the third Saturday of each month, The French #Winophiles convene and share posts about a particular grape or region. Today we are focusing on the Picpoul varietal hosted by Camilla of Culinary Adventures.
If you’re reading this soon enough, hop on the Twitter chat on Saturday, April 21st at 8am Pacific time. Search for the hashtag #Winophiles to follow along or peruse the tweets later. And be sure to check out the following articles prepared by these amazing writers on their take on picpoul!
The Picpoul Posts
- Michelle of Rockin Red Blog says, “Picpoul…Take Me Away.”
- Wendy of A Day in the Life on the Farm encourages us to Pick a Picpoul to Enjoy al Fresco This Summer.
- Susannah of Avvinare features Picpoul de Pinet – A Refreshing White from the Languedoc.
- Jill of L’Occasion shares Mediterranean Bliss: Picpoul de Pinet.
- Jeff of FoodWineClick! pairs Picpoul de Pinet and Steak Tartare Redemption.
- Nicole of Somm’s Table writes Cooking to the Wines: Font-Mars Picpoul de Pinet with Crab Cakes and Fennel-Apple Salad.
- Payal of Keep the Peas posts A Lip-Smacking Lip-Stinger: Picpoul de Pinet.
- David of Cooking Chat makes a case for Picpoul Wine with Pesto and Other Pairings.
- Lauren of The Swirling Dervish says Picpoul de Pinet: Your Go-To Wine for Spring.
- Lynn of Savor the Harvest asserts The Single Variety Wine For Summer- Picpoul de Pinet
- Gwendolyn of Wine Predator has Picpoul Goes Southern Style with Shrimp and Grits.
- Jane of Always Ravenous pairs Halibut with Spring Vegetables and Picpoul Wine.
- Robin of Crushed Grape Chronicles shares Picpouls from Pinet and California and a Seaside Pairing.
- At Culinary Adventures with Camilla, she’s Pairing Bourride à la Sétoise with Picpouls From France to California’s Central Coast.
- Rupal of Syrah Queen will be posting The Rise of Picpoul de Pinet soon.