Today we make history as we plant 1000 vines of Picardan in a rugged block we've reserved for new grape varieties at the extreme western edge of our property.
This is the culmination of a nearly decade-long process. We decided in late 2003 that we wanted to have all thirteen of the traditional Chateauneuf-du-Pape grapes and imported Beaucastel field cuttings of the remaining seven obscure grapes we hadn't yet procured [see the press release dated 2/2/04 when the vines arrived at U.C. Davis for quarantine]. These included Cinsaut, Clairette, Terret Noir, Muscardin, Vaccarèse, Bourboulenc, and Picardan.
In our press release we were optimistic about their prospects for rapid release to us; because of California's favorable climate, it only takes two years to do the mandated virus testing instead of the three years our earliest imports required in Geneva, New York. But the U.C. Davis scientists found viruses in the plants, and the vines had to go through maristem cultivation: a high-tech program where they grow the vines in a hyper-rich growing medium and take a tiny slice of the newest growth from the tip of a shoot. This new growth can have outgrown any viruses that the plant came with, and can then be grown into full-size plants and be retested. Unfortunately, the first round only cleared up some of the viruses, and they had to undergo a second round and were only declared virus-free and released to us in late 2010. At that point, we sent the vines to NovaVine for propagation. They produced our first grafted vines last year, and we received them last week:
We estimate that the 1000 vines we received, enough to plant a little more than a half-acre, will increase the total world-wide acreage of Picardan by about 50%. According to Jancis Robinson's authoritative guide Wine Grapes, there is just over an acre planted in all of France, and it has never before been used in America. She specifically mentions Beaucastel's use of "small amounts of Picardan in their red Chateauneuf" as one of two documented estates using the grape.
What do we expect from Picardan? We're not sure. It's reputed to have good acidity, supported by the fact that like Picpoul its name is purportedly derived from piquer ("to sting" in French). It is supposed to be mid-ripening, and well suited to "hot, dry, low-fertility sites". That sounds like us. If it's as successful as Picpoul has been in showing California's lush fruit while maintaining terrific acidity, we'll be thrilled.
The site we chose for our new varieties is a steep, hilly one, and exceptionally calcareous even by our standards, with bits of limestone everywhere and a predictable challenge even making the holes into which we're putting the baby vines. This photo will give you a sense:
Once we've dug the holes (using a post-hole digger, below left) we place a vine in each hole (below, right):
We'll give the new plantings eight or so hours of irrigation this evening, and then monitor them to make sure they stay healthy through the heat of the summer. They'll go into dormancy with the rest of the vineyard this winter, and hopefully come out with the vineyard in the spring. Some vigorous vines might try to set a crop, but we'll prune this off. The next summer, if the vines seem healthy, we might allow them to hang a small crop. Then, we'll start to have a sense of what Picardan will bring.