White wine does not usually spring to mind when thinking of the French Mediterranean. But Picpoul de Pinet has carved a niche as the largest white wine producing area, making 61% of Languedoc’s white wine, and grown fivefold from 1992 to produce 80,000hl (10m bottles) in 2018.
“In the decade that we’ve been shipping Picpoul de Pinet [Domaine Gaujal], we’ve seen it move from a ‘How do you spell that?’ to a must-have on the wine lists of most bistros and brasseries,” says Tom Ashworth, CEO of merchant Yapp Brothers. “These days, it’s a question of keeping our supply lines up to the demand.”
One reason, surely, for its success is the use of the ancient variety, Picpoul, a white grape which has adapted to the climate and is grown almost nowhere else. By the 1600s, ‘Piquepoul’ was regarded as one of the six great varieties of Languedoc. Creation in 1922 of the Association of White Wine Producers of Pinet led, in 1954, to VDQS status for white Picpoul wines. Appellation status came in 1985 within Coteaux du Languedoc AOC (Languedoc AOC from 2007), which from 1992 allowed for the geographic denomination Coteaux du Languedoc Picpoul de Pinet. Finally, from the 2017 vintage, Picpoul de Pinet achieved its own appellation.
Though its hot climate is not optimal for retaining freshness and acidity, Picpoul de Pinet (along with Cassis in Provence) has been known for white wines since medieval times. Its taste as a semi-aromatic, dry white wine, and its proximity to the sea – makes it ideal to suggest with shellfish. France’s main Mediterranean producer of oysters, the salt water Étang de Thau, Languedoc’s largest lagoon, adjoins the appellation area.
The east-west Roman road, the Via Domitia, divides the region into two zones. The northern half, further from the coast, has less cooling maritime influence, with vineyards interspersed with garrigue (scrub) and pine trees, producing wines with more overt fruit character and weight. The southern half, closer to the sea, has poor soils over limestone and gravel; its climate is tempered by breezes and mists and the wines reflect their maritime proximity with a fresh citrus tang, and a salty mineral bitterness on the finish. Summers are hot, the winters mild with light rain and humidity from sea breezes.
Fine taste and limited production
Picpoul de Pinet has a pale green-tinged colour, tending to gold when made from old vines. Retaining its acidity until full maturity allows for a fine balance of a ripe, round mouthfeel. Growth in the area came by replacing vines of other varieties with Picpoul. With no more land available, further expansion is not possible without extending the appellation.
Producers are reducing the use of insecticides, especially as vineyards drain into the Étang de Thau with its oyster beds. A long-term project with INRA, the French national agricultural institute, is to develop clones which are mildew- and oidium-resistant.
Four cooperatives play a major role, producing 82% of the wine’s volume. Domaine Félines Jourdan is the largest private estate, with 60ha of Picpoul.
Picpoul de Pinet’s success was based on its easy drinking style and good value. Though at first poorly known, its unusual feature of coming from a single grape, not grown elsewhere, became a selling feature. Ray O’Connor, director of Naked Wines, an early supporter of Picpoul, agrees: “Picpoul offers exceptional quality when looking to differentiate from more mainstream grape varieties.” Iain Munson MW, whose dissertation was titled The Rise of Picpoul de Pinet in the UK, says that success lay in its consistent style, the advantage of a mono-varietal wine, and quality: “Consumers have learnt to rely on this consistency and recognise the brand, often asking for Picpoul rather than by domaine.”
Quality has been improved by night harvesting, cool pre-fermentation maceration, gentle pressing, cool fermentation in tank and early bottling to retain maximum freshness and fruit. As Guy Bascou, ex-president of the Picpoul producers’ association, says, Picpoul evolved “from an industrial wine to a fine wine”.
As quality improved, sales grew. Picpoul often replaced other, better-known easy-drinking whites. Robin Kick MW, buyer for Goedhuis & Co in 2011 and now for Vino Beano, described Félines Jourdan as their ‘Mediterranean Muscadet’. Morrisons famously replaced their Mâcon-Villages with a Picpoul in 2014 to fill a price point for an easy white wine.
In 1994 the producers’ association took the then bold step – the first in Languedoc – of adopting a specially designed bottle for local producers, with the Languedoc cross, to help brand recognition. This was very successful, now making up nine out of 10 Picpoul bottles; most sales are in bottle. Producers commissioned a design reflecting the region’s links: the Via Domitia is suggested in the base with a Doric column pedestal; the sea by a wave around the neck, and roots by the cross of Languedoc and the name Picpoul de Pinet.
The overseas market
Success has largely been due to exports, which comprise a massive 63% of sales. “The British brought this boom, taking 33% of our production,” says Bascou. Britain takes more than half the exports, almost as much as France itself. Tesco is a key British customer, buying more than 1m bottles a year, a tenth of the appellation’s production. O’Connor says that “once Naked Wine customers have tasted [Picpoul], those new customers kept coming back for more of this new discovery and our orders remain stable”. Waitrose has its own label, sourced by Liam Steevenson MW, with the name Hen Pecked playing on the appellation’s name.
The US and the Netherlands are other important markets. Joël Julien, director of the Costières de Pomérols cooperative, ascribes success to recognising the needs of different markets: “The British market seeks fresh, taut wines; the French market, fuller and rounder wines; it is not used to as much acidity as the British. The US market is a bit between the two. The Americans and British are looking for an aromatic product.”
Producers want to extend their market reach, from just a ‘simple’ wine, drunk within a year of production, to reach top restaurant wine lists. Bascou, who led the producers’ association for 20 years until last year, has been instrumental in planning a higher level premium wine, to be launched later in 2018 for the 2017 vintage. He describes producers forming a club whose members commit to making limited quantities of a higher specification wine – still a Picpoul – but bigger, more expressive and capable of ageing. A sequence of juries will decide which wines make the grade. These Picpoul premium wines will have a special bottle, with numbered labels. Several methods are being used to increase complexity, without losing the essential style, including longer lees ageing; identifying characters of different parcels for different cuvées; and ageing in cement and earthenware jars. Some are trying out barrique wine barrels, but evident oak character will not be allowed in premium wines. Both Munson and Steevenson are wary of assuming that these premium wines will be able to command significantly higher prices.
Challenges for the future include the effect of Brexit, with Britain being such a major market. The proposed TGV route will cross the appellation, reducing the size of some vineyards. For now, developing a higher quality segment and a secure market are the main aims.
Picpoul de Pinet may be regarded as a popular, classic white, but the appellation shows dynamic creativity with a vision of how to develop without losing its essential character.
Elizabeth Gabay MW
This article first appeared in Issue 6, 2018 of Meininger's Wine Business International magazine.