By Celia Strong
The two white wines featured this week stem from the same grape, Picpoul, but from different wineries. Both wines are good, just different, with interesting histories.
We’re off to southeastern France, because that’s the main place that our grape is grown. In fact, even though it may be grown other places, the Coteaux de Languedoc is the only appellation I’ve seen it from. “Languedoc,” outside the world of wine, refers historically to a specific part of France and northern Catalonia in Spain. Most of us know “Languedoc” only through wine, where, in general terms, it refers to the Languedoc-Roussillon area. This area is along the Mediterranean coast from the Spanish-French border east to the region of Provence. The area has 700,000 acres of vines planted and is, truly, the largest producing wine region in the world. One third of all the French wines made every year come from the Languedoc-Roussillon. That’s more than all the wine made in our 50 states.
Historically, wine in the Languedoc dates back before the Romans to the 5th century B.C. and the Greeks. The Languedoc has belonged to France since the 13th century and the Roussillon was acquired from Spain in the mid-17th century. These two parts of the region were joined into one administrative unit in the 1980’s.
For a long time, the 4th century through to the early 19th century, Languedoc-Roussillon was known for making good quality wine. But, during the Industrial Age, producers moved toward mass-producing mediocre, at best, wines.
Thankfully, for us, the second half of the 19th century saw this change. Better grape varieties came into the area, new appellation laws were codified and monetary investments into wineries and vineyards all helped get us and these wines where we are today — learning about the grape of the week, Picpoul, or Piquepoul. (We know it as the former.)
As I mentioned earlier, this variety is grown almost completely in the Rhone Valley and the Lanquedoc regions. Picpoul Blanc is the white grape of the family, by far the best known and most used. It does have, though, a Picpoul Noir version and a Picpoul Gris also. There are about 3,000 acres of the Picpoul Blanc planted in France. It tends to bud late, when growing, and is sensitive to oidium, one of the molds that can be problematic in the vineyard. The name “Picpoul” is believed to come from an Old French word for “lip stinger” of “lip puckerer.” For those of us who have been drinking Picpouls for a while now, this is an obvious reference to the pucker the wine gives you as you sip.
Picpoul has a long history in the Languedoc region. Along with Cinsault (a red variety) and Clairette Blanc (a white), it is one of the oldest domestic varieties there. Like other grapes in the Languedoc-Rousillon, Picpoul rose and fell in popularity. But, in 2004, .15% of the appellation’s plantings were Picpoul. Picpoul de Pinet is a wine designation, white only, for wines made from Picpoul Blanc in the towns of Pinet, Meze, Florenzac, Castelnau-de-Guers, Montagnac and Pomerols. Lucky for us, Picpoul de Pinet is the easiest to say. Picpoul wines received their VDQS status in 1954, and, on December 24, 1985, they got their AC status. (Merry Christmas!) These wines generally are greenish gold in color, medium-bodied with lemon flavors and good acidity.
Our first Picpoul comes from the Cave de Pomerols, a co-op in one of the Picpoul villages we mentioned. Often, co-op wines are pre-judged as indifferent and insignificant. These are groups of grape growers and wine makers who lump themselves together for the purpose of sharing costs and facilities. The erroneous assumption is their grapes aren’t good enough for estate labels to include them in their wines. The Cave de Pomerols is an exception to this assumption. Founded in 1932, this cave has continued to grow, prosper and modernize. Their Picpoul grapes are grown on a limestone plateau with lots of sun exposure. These vineyards are some of the very oldest in Languedoc. This Picpoul wine is crystal clear with green highlights. Its nose is soft and delicate with pleasant notes of acacia and hawthorn blossoms. In our mouth, it is delicate and fresh with excellent acidity and structure.
Our second Picpoul wine is from Gerard Bertrand, one of France’s southern wine heavyweights. His Picpoul de Pinet is made from grapes grown near the village of Pinet. It is pale colored, has a light fragrance of green apple with grassy notes. Its flavors include green apple along with hints of peach and pear. The texture is slightly creamy, slightly buttery and a bit less acidic. It is this texture that is the big difference in our two Picpouls.
For food, Picpouls have some specific but wonderful matches. Overall, shellfish. The salty, briny character in shellfish pairs perfectly with the crisp acidity in Picpoul wines. Oysters especially! That’s probably why Picpoul is called “the Muscadet of southern France.” From shellfish — raw, broiled, fried or steamed — Picpoul moves on. In southern France, there are small fish cakes (“croquettes”), shaped in balls, breaded and pan fried. A white fish, flour, egg and breadcrumbs, some hot oil, and a bottle of each Picpoul, and your wine tasting is complete. And, one of my favorites — a crispy, thin crust pizza smeared with anchovies, or just anchovy paste, some Parmesan cheese and Picpoul. You may not be ale to get your rings off your fingers after this treat, but “treat” is the key word. Just remember to take them off before, not after.
And, now, I must go have my treat. Both Picpouls are waiting for me, well chilled to keep their acids nice and zingy. Both cost $9.99, so I can’t decide which I like better by price. Just like any other grape variety, I can like a couple of wines. Nobody ever said we had to like just one chardonnay or cabernet. Now, as rare as they may be, we can have two Picpouls any time we want, and two different styles to choose between. Enjoy!