Picpoul Blanc (also spelled Piquepoul Blanc) is one of the lesser-known Rhône varietals, but one that we think has a tremendous future in California. It is one of the thirteen permitted varietals in Châteauneuf-du-Pape, where it is used primarily as a blending component to take advantage of its acidity. Like the better known Grenache and Pinot, Picpoul has red, white and pink variants, though Picpoul Noir and Picpoul Gris are very rare. Literally translating to “lip stinger”, Picpoul Blanc produces wines known in France for their bright acidity, minerality, and clean lemony flavor.
Picpoul in France
Most scholars believe Picpoul is native to the Languedoc region of Southern France, where it is still found today. Records from the early 17th century indicate that it was blended with Clairette (another white Rhône varietal) to form the popular Picardan wine, which was then exported throughout Northern Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries. After the phylloxera invasion at the end of the 19th century, Picpoul was not widely replanted. Today it is best known from Picpoul de Pinet, the crisp light green wine of the Pinet Region in the Côteaux de Languedoc.
Picpoul at Tablas Creek
We did not import Picpoul with our initial eight varieties in 1989. After the original eight were established in the vineyard, we decided that the consistent sun and long growing season at Tablas Creek might prove to be well-suited to varietals that in France are lean and high in acidity. Picpoul, with its reputation for sharp acidity, was the first of these high-acid whites that we brought into quarantine, and was in fact the first supplemental varietal we brought in of any sort. It was released from quarantine in 1998, and we spent the next two years propagating and grafting it. We planted approximately one acre of Picpoul in 2000, and received our first significant harvest in 2003. It has been such a success that we grafted over two acres of Roussanne to Picpoul in the winter of 2005, and got our first harvest from that new acreage in the fall of 2008. We plan to plant two additional acres of Picpoul in the next few years.
In the vineyard, Picpoul is not a difficult varietal to grow. It pushes early, making it somewhat susceptible to frost, but ripens relatively late. Along with Roussanne, Picpoul is usually the last white varietal to be brought in, just before Mourvèdre (the last red of the season) at the end of October. In the winery, we ferment it in neutral barrels to complement the grape’s brightness with a bit of roundness.
When we first bottled Picpoul, it was necessary to petition the Tax and Trade Bureau to recognize the varietal, a process we had undergone with several other varietals, including Grenache Blanc, Counoise and Tannat. In February of 2004, our petition was formally approved.
Although we have sold Picpoul vines to a handful of other vineyards around California, virtually none of it is in production yet. But based on the recent interest that we have seen for our nursery vines, it has a bright future here.
Aromas and Flavors
We have found that, in California, Picpoul maintains its bright acidity, but also develops an appealing tropical lushness. It is quite rich in the mouth, with an exceptionally long finish. We have bottled three vintages of Picpoul Blanc as a single varietal: in 2003, 2005 and 2008. As a varietal wine, Picpoul shows a rich, somewhat tropical nose of pear, pineapple and spice. In the mouth, flavors of pineapple and citrus are buoyed by crisp acids, and the wine finishes long and minerally, with a distinctive piña colada note.
Although French Picpouls are not typically thought to age, the richer California versions seem to be better able to handle some time in bottle. We recently opened a 2005 Picpoul to complement a delicious recipe from Thomas Keller's new Ad Hoc at Home cookbook. The recipe (Crispy braised chicken thighs with olives, lemon and fennel; page 30 for those of you with the book) had classic Provencal flavors that made a wonderful pairing, and the wine was was lush and bright, youthful and pretty. Highly recommended.
More important than its occasional starring role in a varietal wine, Picpoul has proven to be a wonderful complement for Roussanne and Grenache Blanc in our Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc. Prior to 2004, we had used Viognier in small quantities in our Esprit Blanc to give it a slight aromatic lift. When we blended the 2004 vintage, we experimented with replacing the Viognier with Picpoul, and found that its addition lifted the aromatics of the wine similarly to the way Viognier did, but that its bright acids better highlighted the richness of the Roussanne and Grenache Blanc and brought out a savory saline note that is present in Roussanne but not always evident. Including Picpoul in the Esprit Blanc also meant that the wine includes only grapes approved for Châteauneuf-du- Pape (Viognier, while a Rhône varietal, is not permitted in Châteauneuf-du-Pape). This appealed to our sense of order.
Happily, with our additional producing acreage of Picpoul, we hope to more often be able to both include it in the Esprit Blanc and make a single varietal bottling, as we did in 2008.